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2018-11-02 13:25:20 Commentary

Ma Huixian may be the luckiest person on the Chinese internet — but she's also one of the fishiest.

On Oct. 7, Alipay — one of China’s largest online payment platforms — named 26-year-old Ma its “2018 Alipay Chinese Koi.” Selected at random from a pool of more than 3 million contest entrants, the Beijing-based computer engineer’s victory entitles her to a laundry list of prizes, ranging from luxury brand freebies and new phones to a Japanese cruise and round-trip tickets to both the U.S and Thailand.

Ma’s stroke of luck turned her into an overnight sensation, as netizens recognized her good fortune by pasting her photo into a number of so-called koi memes. Koi — a widely recognized symbol of good fortune in the country — have for years been used on the Chinese internet in a way similar to “lucky” or “blessed” online images in the West. In essence, such posts are prayers for good luck. Netizens will share them ahead of just about anything, from tests and job interviews to big dates — whenever they feel they could use a little divine intervention.

Although the internet has certainly put a modern spin on beliefs about koi, the core idea behind the meme dates back thousands of years. While koi are a relatively recent import from Japan, the fish’s cousin — the common carp — has been associated with good fortune in China since at least the Han Dynasty. According to an ancient myth, there is a magical doorway located at the narrowest point of the Yellow River, and every spring, carp swim against the current in an attempt to leap through. Most fail, but a lucky few succeed and are transformed into dragons. Even today, Chinese use the phrase “a carp that jumped through the dragon’s gate” to describe those fortunate enough to move up in the world.

Fish as a whole have traditionally been seen as highly auspicious in China. The reasons for this are partly linguistic: The Chinese word for “fish” sounds similar to the word for “surplus,” and the word for “fish egg” sounds much like the word for “son.” Carp imagery is a common element of New Year’s commemorative paintings, engravings, and paper cuttings — precursors to today’s koi memes. Depending on how the carp is depicted — sometimes leaping, sometimes being held by a plump baby boy — they might be a prayer for good fortune or for additional heirs.

On occasion, the offerings are more literal. Lu Xun, one of the most influential Chinese authors of the 20th century, once wrote a detailed account of a traditional Chinese practice in which a live, red carp is used as a ritual offering during Chinese New Year. In the areas surrounding Shanghai, such offerings are made on the fifth day of the new lunar year — a day dedicated to the wealth god. Locals refer to the sacrificed carp as an “ingot fish” and hope the offering will bring them prosperity in the coming year.

An animated gif of Yang Chaoyue praying. From Weibo

An animated gif of Yang Chaoyue praying. From Weibo

Koi memes grew out of these beliefs. But when traditional culture and the internet collide, change is inevitable. Despite the name, many modern koi memes don’t feature fish at all. Instead, they frequently center around either a successful figure — Leonardo DiCaprio was a popular choice after his long-awaited Oscar win — or someone viewed as exceptionally lucky, such as Wei Yingluo, the ruthless Mary Sue-type heroine from a popular 2018 TV drama. Once in a while, the images of such individuals are edited to look like fish, but very often they only have a tenuous connection to actual koi.

Some of the most popular meme subjects are those deemed to have stumbled their way into success. Yang Chaoyue was once nothing more than a subpar contestant on a talent-search TV program, but after she miraculously managed to survive to the show’s final round — thereby winning her a much sought-after spot in a girl group — she became the new face of Chinese koi. Netizens will sometimes acknowledge the real reason they use these figures for their memes in snarky “prayers” appended to their posts. In the words of one, “If you forward this Yang Chaoyue image, you can rank in the top 3 without working hard.”

The famous Chinese sociologist C.K. Yang once wrote about the “diffuse” nature of China’s religious traditions and folk beliefs. Unlike organized religions, which are highly regimented and centralized, Chinese folk practices tend to be quite flexible. In the absence of formal rules, it’s not unheard of for people to simply invent new deities whenever the need arises. One viral news story from last year featured a rural temple in the northern province of Hebei that allowed locals to rent rooms and build their own shrines to whichever deity they pleased. One room contained an altar to the “god of studying,” while next door, worshippers could pay their respects to the “car god.”

China’s koi memes are a kind of modern-day pantheon.

In this sense, China’s koi memes are a kind of modern-day pantheon. Netizens pray to different koi for different things: Yang Chaoyue is a popular one to call on the night before a test, while a quick prayer to the ruthless Wei Yingluo might be more appropriate when faced with a romantic rival.

China’s somewhat paradoxical attitude toward faith is a big part of what makes koi memes such an interesting topic of study. Although the images are often sarcastic in tone, the wishes they represent can be quite real. Their popularity is helped along by the fact that in China — a country where any belief in traditional folk superstitions is discouraged — koi memes are a recent enough arrival that they are not generally associated with feudal, backward practices. Thus, the images can be passed off as just a bit of harmless fun.

Yet this goofy subculture is in danger of being co-opted by a far bigger fish: commercialism. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the appropriation of a similar in-joke at the hands of e-commerce platform Taobao, Alipay’s sister company. Single’s Day, which started as a fun holiday among a certain set of unattached young people, is now the biggest shopping event in the world. Once a subculture goes mainstream, it becomes difficult to preserve what made it special in the first place. Currently, koi memes are so ubiquitous that they’ve even spawned a backlash of anti-koi images. One of the most popular of these is just a picture of a pot — perfect for boiling all your friends’ koi.

Netizens didn’t necessarily set out to create a mini-pantheon of good-luck deities, but now that they have, they must be careful. After all, koi are based on real people. Another koi, the Victoria’s Secret model Ming Xi, earned the label after a fall in the middle of a fashion show unexpectedly landed her a promotion. But when netizens posted koi memes with her face on it, poking fun at her improbable route to the top, Xi fired back with a comment on the importance of hard work.

As for Ma Huixian, she may have won the proverbial lottery, but it’s come at the cost of her privacy. In an instant, she went from a relative unknown to having her face plastered all over the internet. Sadly, this is one problem that sharing more koi memes probably can't fix.

Editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell

(Header image: A kite on display at a fair in Beijing, Dec. 21, 2012. VCG)