China’s Literary Giants Have Become Darlings of Online Youth Culture
Videos comparing his messy hair to people’s beloved dogs; memes of him drinking hot water — these are the ways in which celebrated author Yu Hua are frequently appearing on the trending lists of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, from microblogging platform Weibo to Instagram-like Xiaohongshu.
And he is not the only one. Other renowned contemporary authors such as Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan are also frequent subjects of young netizens’ online language of memes and catchphrases.
According to dating app Soul, Yu is the most popular author among Generation Z users, while his classic 1993 novel “To Live,” about the trials and tribulations of life, is the most popular book.
Mo, Yu’s former classmate, is also an online celebrity in his own right. Known for his works depicting the hardships of ordinary people, memes of the “Red Sorghum” author driving a harvester while wearing sunglasses and jokes about his thick Shandong accent are popular online.
Though both Yu and Mo are household names in China, their online celebrity status has only emerged in the past two years after their thoughts on modern living and literature began being widely circulated on social media and appearances on hit reality TV shows such as “I Read Books on an Island.”
Yu has said that people have only begun recognizing him out on the streets in the past two years.
The contrast between the “serious” subject matter of these authors’ works and their “memeability” has prompted influential domestic newspaper Southern Weekly to ask why these authors have become mainstays of China’s internet culture.
At the time of publication, the newspaper’s poll shows that 40% of readers believe the cause is the authors’ personal charisma, while 27% of readers say it is due to young people finding solace in their works.
The two authors’ public speeches about life are widely circulated online, with their observations resonating with many.
In July, a clip of Yu speaking at the Hong Kong Book Fair went viral, in which he encouraged people to “find happiness when facing hardship … but avoid hardships in pursuit of so-called success,” and criticized “chicken soup for the soul-style” inspirational messages.
“Yu won’t come out with platitudes about how young people should strive and fight,” a Weibo influencer with almost 4 million followers commented. “He understands their hardships and confusion about not getting rewarded for their efforts.”
Mo has also expressed sympathy with the younger generation, writing in a February article on WeChat that young people today still “struggle” despite having fewer worries about the basic necessities of life than older generations.
His WeChat bio simply states: “I want to chat with young people.”
Mo now has more than 4 million followers on Weibo, while Yu does not have any social media accounts. Nonetheless, trending topics about Yu have jumped more than 50 times since 2021, according to Yunhe Data.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: Memes of Mo Yan (left) and Yu Hua. From Weibo)