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    Why China’s Mashup Musical Memes Are Losing Their Punch

    Last month, the country’s irreverent ‘guichu’ artists recaptured the spotlight with satires of a self-styled tai chi master. It felt less like a revival and more like a last hurrah.

    At 69 years old, self-proclaimed tai chi master Ma Baoguo is a bit up there in years to be picking fights, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying. In May, Ma was catapulted to viral infamy after he was knocked out less than 30 seconds into a fight with an amateur mixed martial arts enthusiast. Then, in November, a clip of him claiming to have been unfairly bested in another scuffle — this time against two young men — spread like wildfire on the internet. Picking up on his stilted accent and strange mannerisms as he accused young Chinese of lacking “warrior ethics,” netizens promptly inserted him into their favorite guichu: a type of mashup meme in which clips of people speaking are turned into satirical songs or amusing videos.

    Yet not everyone was amused, and in addition to the usual netizen censure, an op-ed published on the People’s Daily app admonished Ma for his “farcical” behavior. Critics offer two explanations for Ma going viral. The first is that this is all just a cynical publicity ploy. Indeed, Ma has already reportedly received offers from a number of film and television companies. The second writes the entire phenomenon off as yet another example of online cringe culture and popular preferences for trashy and ugly forms of entertainment.

    Both criticisms make a certain amount of sense, but they also treat netizens as passive receptacles of a culture, rather than the driving forces behind it. Over the past decade and a half, grassroots guichu and other digital content creators have emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Chinese entertainment, capable of turning ordinary people like Ma into stars, legendary actors like Jackie Chan into rap icons, and entrepreneurs into laughingstocks. In 2015, Mr. Lemon, a vlogger on streaming site Bilibili, spliced together clips of Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun’s clumsy English into a hit song: “Are You OK?” The melody was so popular that Xiaomi ended up using it in an advertising campaign.

    But the golden age of guichu may be coming to an end. In particular, with online platforms under pressure to clean up their images, guichu creators’ tongue-in-cheek attitudes and willingness to satirize anything and everything could be their undoing.

    Guichu are not uniquely Chinese. Around 2008, users began uploading a number of videos from the Japanese streaming site Niconico to China’s then fledgling streaming sites, including two videos with the term guichu — or “ghost beast” — in the title. Viewers soon embraced the guichu format’s manic audiovisual mashups, which, if often incoherent, were just as often wildly catchy.

    Fittingly, if Bilibili is the home base of guichu on the Chinese internet, its decentralized creative community has never reached a consensus on what the term actually means. Instead, the genre gradually split into two subgenres: “human vocaloid” and “audio MAD.” The latter is closer to its Niconico forebears, with creators mostly just adjusting the frequency of human voices to imitate the sound of musical instruments. “Human vocaloid” guichu, on the other hand, leave the voice intact. Then there are practices like “guichu taming,” in which unrelated audiovisual content is mashed together into distinct rhythms, and “guichu theater,” in which clips are rearranged to create a nonsensical story.

    This last practice may be China’s greatest contribution to the form. Unlike Niconico’s focus on the plasticity of the human voice, Chinese guichu place a greater emphasis on the fusion of a diverse range of preexisting media. This habit actually predates guichu’s arrival on the Chinese mainland by roughly three years. In 2005, freelancer Hu Ge spliced and redubbed the poorly received fantasy film “The Promise” to create a legal drama. The resulting short film, “Murder by Steamed Bun,” opened up the door for more online spoofs.

    Judged by today’s standards, “Murder” can only be described as crude. Young creators have spent the past 15 years perfecting the form, after all. But the story holds up, at least by guichu standards, where incoherence is the norm.

    This is not to say that guichu has no sense of narrative, or that it is completely disconnected from reality. Although some lowbrow guichu content creators are content to make jokes about menstruation, ejaculation, and other forms of excreta, others attempt to express their views on society in their work, just like any other artist. Their videos send up widely reviled public figures, from abusive therapists at internet addiction clinics and controlling bosses to posers like the largely androgynous singer Cai Xukun — whose basketball skills the mostly male creators of guichu were quick to mock.

    Ma Baoguo is a classic guichu subject. His strange accent, black eye, and offbeat vocabulary make him instantly recognizable, and his oblivious pretensions to being a powerful “tai chi master” make him an easy target.

    But if Ma’s meteoric ascent to guichu stardom is proof of his viral appeal, his abrupt disappearance from Bilibili reflects the fragility of the genre. After Chinese state media criticized Ma Baoguo by name, the site immediately stated it would tighten its moderation of related videos. The only search results his name now returns on the site are serious criticisms of Ma’s antics, most of which echo the official line. To an extent, this is just political posturing, but it also suggests that Bilibili, which has profited handsomely from its focus on youth subculture, may no longer consider the potential profits of guichu worth the trouble.

    That’s partly because guichu is no longer the draw it once was. At its peak, roughly between 2010 and 2015, guichu videos routinely topped Bilibili’s most viewed chart. Currently, however, the top videos on Bilibili’s guichu channel rarely get anywhere near those heights. As late as 2018, the platform included a well-known guichu creator in its company prospectus. But as Bilibili has expanded its user base, niche products like guichu have gradually being eclipsed by other forms of content, such as game streaming and reviews, animation, movies, food, fashion, and even study. In this year’s third quarter 2020 financial report, Bilibili emphasized not guichu, but its “technology” and “knowledge” channels. These even had their own slogan: “Learning on Bilibili.”

    One reason guichu has struggled to cement its mainstream appeal is its inherently deconstructive nature. Guichu are not concerned with conveying a clear meaning, but rather with tearing down everything from beloved classics to false advertisements and CEO missteps. That attitude has not won the genre many friends. In 2018, the country’s powerful State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, as it was then known, issued an “emergency document” prohibiting “the illegal capture, reediting and adaptation of audiovisual programs.” The behaviors singled out for censure include reediting, redubbing, replacing subtitles, or altering the meaning of certain works, as well as distorting, spoofing, or vilifying literary classics.

    The rules caused anxiety among guichu creators, for whom spoofing is the whole point. Although in hindsight, the rules were not strictly enforced, they pushed many to become more cautious, including refraining from vulgar references, such as toilet gags or sexual humor, or anything else that might get them in trouble.

    But the male-dominated, occasionally toxic guichu community is still struggling to adapt to the country’s changing cultural politics: Earlier this year, the well-known guichu creator Why Do Girls Wear Short Skirts? — the moniker a reference to a joke about making it easier for them to get pregnant — left a comment under one of his 2015 videos urging his fans to stop using memes about “girls falling pregnant” in order to avoid a “negative influence” on society. He has yet to change his own user name, however.

    In its statement on Ma Baoguo, Bilibili pointed the finger at “hype” and “sensationalization.” In so doing, it sought to contrast supposedly more substantive guichu critiques of Ma from those that reveled in his vulgarity. To a certain extent, the statement could be read as a defense of guichu’s ability to name and shame those deemed “negative influences” on society. But ultimately, if a type of content centered on deconstruction needs to positively affirm certain values to be acceptable, it’s not long for this world. The good news is: Ma may have finally found a sparring partner he can outlast.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Visual elements from Jayesh/DigitalVision Vectors/People Visual and Weibo, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)