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    Young Chinese Are Still Seeking Serenity — Now Through Digital Fish

    The country’s latest viral app is a wooden fish simulator.

    Welcome to WWW: What We're Watching, Sixth Tone's new column looking at the best, the most viral, or just what's obsessing us on the Chinese internet.

    This is not the easiest time to be a university student. Sure, some of us are making do — meeting our needs for social interaction through cloud clubbing, cardboard pets, or coordinated crawling parties — but between the ongoing pandemic controls and the struggling economy, it can be hard to stay positive.

    That goes double when you’re a second-year master’s student. The internships we land this year are crucial to a successful job search, but even if you can get off campus, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to enter your company’s office.

    That’s how I found myself at Wang Bin’s house on a recent Wednesday afternoon. A friend of mine, she invited me over for company while we each interned from home as best we could.

    We chatted as we worked. I told her about a married couple I’d interviewed, and she complained to me about the unreasonable demands of her clients. The more she talked, the angrier she grew. A frown crept over her face, her back tensed, and she swore with an almost religious devotion.

    Then, just as suddenly, she stopped, took out her iPad, and began intently tapping the screen with her stylus. Stealing a peek, all I saw was a wooden fish. Every time she tapped it, the iPad emitted a crisp, almost ethereal sound and the words “Merit +1” popped up on the screen.

    “What are you doing?” I asked.

    “Knocking on a wooden fish,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I knock it 500 times a day.”

    I couldn’t help but feel amused at her latest preoccupation. Wooden fish have a long history in Buddhism and Taoism. Nuns and monks knock on them to chant or ask for alms. Fish, they say, do not close their eyes; the shape is meant to remind believers never to forget their faith. This was the first time I’d seen one inside an iPad, however, much less an iPad belonging to a 24-year-old.

    “It’s not just me, it’s on the phones of thousands of young people,” Wang explained, somewhat defensively. A quick online search suggested she had a point. Maybe I was the weird one. The app, Muyu, or “Wooden Fish,” had briefly surged to second place on the Apple App Store’s free app download list in China. To date, it’s been downloaded almost 5 million times.

    Not everyone is tapping their own fish: Douyin, the version of TikTok accessible on the Chinese mainland, has over 150 million videos related to virtual wooden fish. If you search for “virtual wooden fish” on the popular video streaming site Bilibili, some of the top results have hundreds of thousands or even millions of views.

    This all may feel overly wholesome, but the initial reason for the popularity of virtual wooden fish is anything but. If you’ve never heard of “hell jokes” before, the concept is self-explanatory: A kind of mean-spirited meme, they’re jokes made at the expense of other people’s misfortune. If you laugh, then you’re “going to hell.”

    Wooden fish apps first caught on as a kind of tongue-in-cheek way to wipe your spiritual slate clean. Whatever cosmic debt you accrued in the process of laughing at a hell joke — to say nothing of the guilt — could be worked off by tapping a virtual wooden fish to acquire merit and get back in the Buddha’s good graces.

    “Hell jokes can be wicked, and while everyone knows that knocking on wooden fish and listening to the Great Compassion Mantra to acquire merit is a joke, it does serve as a simple, convenient, and comforting ritual,” explained Hu Wan, a classmate of mine and another ardent virtual wooden fish knocker.

    Indeed, on the subway back from my friend’s house, I began to wonder if I was the only person at my school not knocking fish. Scrolling through my social media feeds, I came across one of Hu’s videos in which she filmed herself simultaneously tapping a virtual wooden fish and fingering prayer beads on her wrist. She’d even superimposed a Buddhist saying calling on her followers to attain enlightenment.

    “At first, I just thought it was funny, but later I found the rhythmic sound to be quite soothing,” she told me. “Some of the sound effects seemed to purify my soul. Especially when I have to get a paper done quickly, I can be really anxious. I need some calming sounds.”

    Hu’s video is typical of a new class of wooden fish power user. The once-simple gag now centers on increasingly elaborate setups, as bored young Chinese think of ever-more complex ways to accumulate virtual merit. Why be satisfied with tapping a wooden fish on your iPad when you can also burn digital incense, play mantras through your phone speakers, and count off prayer beads on your smart watch?

    App developers have responded to the shifting market by rolling out a whole school of virtual wooden fish to knock, from simple programs like Wang’s favorite to more deluxe offerings that let you engage in the not very Buddhist-seeming activity of competing against your friends for the highest merit score.

    Many of these offerings operate in a legal gray area. China strictly controls online religious content, especially where money is concerned. While some developers seem to have taken a devil-may-care approach to regulation, others prefer to downplay the religious themes. In the app Wang uses, you can buy sound effects, and knocking the fish increases your “merit” counter, but there’s no overt religious messaging.

    That stripped-down symbology suits her just fine. Young Chinese may not believe in Buddhism — one study found that less than 7% of Chinese under the age of 30 consider themselves Buddhist — but we associate its iconography with feelings of peace and calm, two things that are in increasingly short supply these days.

    In the weeks since, I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking back to that day at Wang’s house. We wrapped up our work around six, just as her mother called us for dinner. The home-cooked meal was delicious — it’s been a long time since I’ve been back to see my own family — but the table talk quickly turned to the ice-cold job market.

    I’d submitted three résumés that day, and Wang two. Neither one of us has any idea if we’ll be able to land a job after graduation. Her mom tried to be helpful. She knows a recruiter. Maybe he can help find us a job.

    Maybe. And maybe accumulating a bit of extra merit wouldn’t be such a bad idea, after all.

    Editors: Ding Yining and Kilian O’Donnell. 

    (Header image: Visuals from Shijue and Rawpixel/VectorStock/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)