Although the 2016 Summer Olympics have ended, images of the Chinese backstroke-swimmer Fu Yuanhui, whose exaggerated reactions during post-event interviews, continue to explode across social media. When it was announced that Fu would be roughing it in the wilderness on survivalist Bear Grylls’ new show, many online users optimistically predicted that “a new wave of ‘biaoqing bao’ would be forthcoming.”
Although the term biaoqing bao has several usages, it typically refers to GIFs that loop short video recordings, short animated clips, or to a still photo. These are often accompanied by text captions and widely disseminated across social media. In most viral biaoqing bao, the visual content is highly exaggerated, such as with the ones depicting Fu’s Olympic interviews.
Biaoqing bao have become an important part of social communication for Chinese net users in recent years, so much so that it is nigh impossible to find a purely textual conversation in chat groups anymore. They are used mostly by the younger generations, while the older generations prefer using static emojis.
Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, is often credited as having invented smiley emoticons. After posting the now-famous sideways happy and unhappy faces in an online bulletin board in 1982, net users quickly began adopting these emojis to convey emotion.
But it wouldn’t be until the late 1990s that the typographical signs would evolve into modern-day emojis. Created by Shigetaka Kurita for the world’s first mobile internet system launched by Japanese mobile phone operator NTT Docomo Inc. in 1999, the platform included 176 emojis inspired by Japanese manga, Chinese characters, and street signs, and quickly ushered in a new era of online communication.
Emojis have evolved since then, but in recent years have begun being overtaken in China by biaoqing bao, since apparently static images can no longer satisfy the demands of the online world. But what accounts for all the hysteria?
Simply put, they are convenient tools to convey emotion, since images are often much easier to be understood than pure text. Although biaoqing bao often include captions, they are typically short and serve as accompaniment to the main image or video. Still, it is the combination of text and image that has brought emojis into a new era, and offered them a level of expression not previously afforded to emoticons of the late 20th century.
China’s baoqing bao shares a cultural logic with kuso, which was originally an interjection in Japanese, but came to be adopted across East Asia. Kuso is a blanket term that now often refers to anything on the internet parodying and criticizing popular culture. This satire appeals to the younger generations, especially in China, since it is simple to understand and can often be used in non-committal political dialogue, like in early 2016 when net users posted thousands of anti-independence memes to Taiwan-registered websites.
The non-committal nature of this protest is important. The digital generation likes to express their ideas, but not always so much as to be involved in a serious social movement. To many young people in modern China — most of whom have not experienced the nastier perils life has to offer — having fun is priority number one.
Interestingly, the political aspect of biaoqing bao goes back much farther than the current generation. Posters with simple visuals and text captions were heavily employed by the Chinese government as propaganda tools throughout the 20th century. Even today, traces of this can be found in the publicity posters issued by the government across the streets of China.
Internet memes and GIFs in China play an important function in society. They alert net users to trending topics in popular culture as well as offer an outlet for guarded political discourse. They are evolved forms of the crude emojis of the late 20th century, and in them we can see traces of propaganda posters of the 20th century. In the future, they will likely further evolve, and continue to expand and shape the way people communicate.
(Header image: A man shows a handful of rocks that have been painted to resemble emoticons, Jan. 17, 2016. Wang Haibin/IC)