How the ‘Social Shake’ Became China’s Latest Dance Craze
Throwback time: Who remembers the Harlem Shake? American dance producer Baauer’s debut single was utterly inescapable back in the halcyon days of 2012. The viral video, with its classic “jump cut” transporting a lone dancer into the center of an all-out party, spawned an avalanche of imitations. In fact, 2012 was a somewhat vintage year for outrageously meme-able dance crazes: Just two months later, South Korean pop star Psy dropped “Gangnam Style,” and we all went from recording impromptu raves in college libraries to flailing our arms like cowboys astride a mock horse made of unbridled entertainment.
China, too, has bequeathed humanity with its fair share of absurd dance videos. In 2014, pop singer Xiao Quan subjected us to “The Social Shake.” In his five-minute audiovisual frenzy of ear-bashing EDM, indefensibly awkward dance moves, oddball lyrics, sashaying grandmothers, and an earworm-like catchphrase (Ai you, wo qu, loosely translated as “Oh for goodness’ sake”), Xiao pitched himself as China’s answer to Baauer and Psy.
At the time, the song and its accompanying dance briefly took the Chinese internet by storm, before falling into the less-visited recesses of the internet. But now, the social shake is back. And in a big way, too.
This year, the social shake — shehui yao in Chinese — has become the darling of streaming platforms and investors alike. Li Mengqi, a popular performer of the dance who goes by the name Paipaiqi on streaming platform Kuaishou, has more than 26 million followers. Thanks to a timely injection of cash, Paipaiqi’s videos have lost their erstwhile do-it-yourself flavor and turned into slick, MTV-style presentations — his latest work uses lush aerial photography and visual effects, giving it a highly professional polish.
In China, the “social” aspect of the social shake lies in both its popularity among large groups of young people, and the word’s romanticized associations with street culture and the criminal underworld. The Chinese mafia, for example, is usually called hei shehui, or “black society” — a phrase implying that “social” people do not necessarily oppose flouting established rules if unspoken arrangements work better for them. It suggests that the person in question has the resources, skills, and connections to resolve problems.
Before the social shake regained its popularity, livestreamers engaged in a practice known as hanmai. Literally translated as “yelling into a microphone,” the term refers to a scattergun style of rapping shouted over high-energy dance music. The popularity of both hanmai and the social shake shows how smartphones and livestreaming have made it easier than ever for people to record and share their performances online.
In terms of the sheer number of followers, hanmai is still more popular than the social shake. MC Tianyou, one of Kuaishou’s wildly popular hanmai performers, has more than 38 million subscribers. However, the social shake’s revival is partly due to the fact that it is more accessible: The need for high-quality audio means that hanmai performers usually work in recording studios and employ sound technicians to guarantee the quality of their performances.
In contrast, social shake dancers on Kuaishou simply head outside and record themselves performing on the street. The videos frequently feature a dozen alfresco dancers, some of whom are seen busting moves on buses.
Most social shake performers are in their teens and 20s. As they compete furiously for fans, the social shake has become an inspiration for other cultural content. For instance, dancers have filmed stories about friendship, love, or roadside conflicts with elements of dance interwoven into them, reflecting the youth-fueled celebration of social awkwardness known as “ga culture.”
Like other viral online trends in China, the social shake has, in particular, caught on in the northeast, a region that was gutted by deindustrialization and unemployment in the 1990s. As a response to the lack of conventional job opportunities, young people have enthusiastically taken to livestreaming platforms to entertain viewers and earn money.
As a result, regional divides play a strong role in the content of social shake videos. Northeastern performers commonly doff their caps to American gangsta rap culture, with videos that portray flashy cars, sexy young women, and sharply dressed men, or stories of brotherhood. On the other hand, online representations of street culture in central and southern China skew toward a younger demographic, speaking to the regional trends of mass rural-to-urban migration and left-behind children. Southern social shake videos often highlight the transience of youth and the feelings of ambivalence toward life, love, and friendships.
Social shake videos include elements of the gangster lifestyle, much of which imitates Western music videos. However, performers generally use these tropes in order to subvert gangster values and thereby oppose the blind worship of money, status, and power. They spend a majority of their time preaching the purity of camaraderie and love, while their interactions with people of all ages demonstrate their amity toward the old and the young.
U.S. hip-hop culture was built largely upon the expressions of impoverished African-Americans, encouraging young people to think differently about their country’s social divisions. In light of slowing economic growth and an unpredictable future, more and more young Chinese people are now questioning the ideal of hard work and seeking gratification from low-cost entertainment. The social shake, like hanmai culture, comes at a time when young people, helpless in the face of society’s expanding wealth gap, are rejecting conventional ways of making a living and reveling in their own idiosyncrasies.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image:Chen Liang/Caixin/VCG)