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    Q & A

    The Man Who Accidentally Created TikTok’s Biggest Meme

    Animator Yang Zikuang’s “Chinese beaver” clip became a global viral sensation this year. He’s more surprised than anyone.

    If you have logged into TikTok or Instagram at any point during the past few months, you’ve almost certainly seen the “Chinese beaver” clip.

    A cute cartoon gopher stands on the roof of a Hong Kong skyscraper, delivering an angry, heartfelt monologue. His hair flaps around wildly as he wails his frustration in a deep, guttural bark.

    Most people outside China will have no idea what the beaver is saying — he’s speaking Mandarin, and there are no English subtitles. But that’s become part of the joke, making his righteous fury even funnier.

    Seemingly out of nowhere, this 20-second video has become practically ubiquitous on social media this year. TikTok users have been sharing it in their millions, usually tagged with captions like “this is literally me” or “when I’m about to give up on my task but suddenly I remember the Chinese beaver with his motivational speech.”

    One TikTok featuring the Chinese beaver has received over 2.5 million likes alone. When one user asked why the clip has become so popular, over 10,000 people liked the reply: “What’s real always prospers.”

    No one has been more amazed by the meme’s success than its creator, an animator from the eastern metropolis of Shanghai named Yang Zikuang. When reached by Sixth Tone, the 40-year-old said his character’s popularity overseas was a “total surprise.”

    Yang never really meant for the clip to become a meme. When he created the video in late 2022, he simply intended to use it to demonstrate some animation techniques to his fans — he runs a niche channel called “B Teaches Animation” on the Chinese video platform Bilibili.

    The beaver isn’t delivering a random monologue; it’s a speech by Chow Yun Fat’s character in the classic 1986 Hong Kong gangster movie “A Better Tomorrow.” For Yang, the point of the video was to show how to lip-sync a video accurately, with his chubby beaver perfectly delivering the famous lines: “I have my own principles, and I don’t want to be trampled on all my life. Do you think I’m some lowly street vendor?”

    The original video received around 1.7 million views, but that’s hardly a smash hit on Bilibili, which has over 300 million monthly active users. Most of the comments Yang received at first were technical in nature, with fans asking him how he’d achieved the beaver’s realistic expressions.

    It was another year before people started congratulating Yang for creating an international hit. He still has no idea how the clip migrated from Bilibili to the global internet, or why it became such a phenomenon abroad. The clip has never taken off in the same way at home: China is practically the only country where the Chinese beaver hasn’t gone viral.

    Yang appears generally unfazed by the whole episode. He is already a highly successful member of China’s animation industry, with credits on video games including “Kane and Lynch 2” and “Minininja.” For him, the beaver mania isn’t a career breakthrough but rather a curiosity.

    Speaking with Sixth Tone by phone, Yang discussed how he created the Chinese beaver video, what he’s learned from its runaway success, and the development of China’s animation industry. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Sixth Tone: What was your inspiration for making this clip?

    Yang Zikuang: My team has always been committed to creating high-quality animation. Usually, the characters will be shaped by what animation style we use. We’ve previously tried all kinds of styles: cute cartoons, Western-style animation, Japanese anime, and many others. But the characters were always human. After all that, we decided to try an animal character. We tested many different kinds, and the beaver was one of the ones that resonated with everyone.

    One of our goals is to create pretty things. But putting a character in an emotional situation presents challenges: Their faces will become distorted and wrinkled, which isn’t beautiful. So, using an animal character seemed like a natural solution — no one thinks about whether a frog or a bear looks good. We could have used any animal, but we figured it needed to be a mammal because their facial features and body structures are similar to those of humans. So we chose a beaver.

    The Chinese beaver is just a clip. We never thought about developing a whole story based on the character.

    Sixth Tone: What do you think about the fact that the clip has become a viral meme overseas?

    Yang: I’ve only read a few of the comments about the clip. I haven’t paid any particular attention to its success abroad. Its huge success was completely unexpected for me. I didn’t expect our test clip to be further developed in this way, nor did I expect people to draw inspiration from it.

    However, I can see why the emotion in the clip resonates with people. Great films and TV series are able to convey that kind of emotion. All my team has done is re-interpret these works using original animal animations. The original emotion is retained, but channeled through a different character.

    Many people are going through a tough time these days. This kind of internal struggle is universal, and the clip channels that feeling.

    The character, the beaver, has a low-profile vibe. He’s clearly in a lowly position. He’s unflashy. There’s no makeup. No filter. He’s real. This enabled viewers to feel close to him.

    As a professional animator and social media account operator, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to make audiences fall in love with the things I create. I’ve found that the most impactful characters tend to have one thing in common: They’re always trying to do the right thing. But sometimes the hard part is working out what the right thing to do actually is.

    Sixth Tone: What do you think about China’s animation industry today?

    Yang: Not only our team, but the whole Chinese animation industry is experimenting with many different things. You can see Chinese works in many styles these days, and they satisfy the needs of most animation fans. But natural-seeming characters — ones like the beaver that give off a real vibe — are still too rare.

    China has some big advantages when it comes to animation. We have a rich history and culture, diverse ethnic groups, and a range of folk customs. Creators can take inspiration from different regions, eras, dynasties, and cultures to present works in all kinds of styles.

    The animations themselves often don’t look perfect at the moment, but there really is a huge diversity in them. The Chinese animation industry is a bit like the wholesale markets in the eastern city of Yiwu: rough items are sold at a reasonable price. You can criticize the quality of some products, but you can find everything you could possibly want.

    For the industry to take the next step, we need animators capable of creating delicate animations, and actors who can produce delicate performances. But that’s easier said than done. China’s animation market is very hard-headed — both among the investors and the creators — and that leaves few openings for ambitious young talent. This isn’t a place where you can spend seven years on one movie, like Hayao Miyazaki. The market is constantly demanding the next momentary distraction.

    It’s not that China lacks talented animators. There are some who spend years polishing their works. But they’re too slow for the market, and they often don’t feel comfortable promoting their work in public. If they produce a hit, the audience immediately demands another one, and the creators struggle to deliver. It’s the nature of our market at the moment.

    Sixth Tone: How is the rise of artificial intelligence impacting the animation industry?

    Yang: AI is something we should embrace rather than hate. The rise of AI is similar to the creation of the printing press, which created a crisis for scribes. The printed text may not look as good as the work of talented calligraphers. But think about it: Is that beautiful handwriting really necessary? It’s the same with AI. The point is that it saves time.

    I don’t think AI is a threat to our industry. Instead, it’s becoming a new smart keyboard for creators. The work created by AI today is mostly unnecessary, routine stuff. Take the sample video presented by Sora, OpenAI’s text-to-video tool, which shows a pretty lady walking along a street. It’s a scene that can be seen everywhere, in real life or on social media. This kind of image can be easily copied — and also ignored, because it’s so generic. That’s the kind of thing that AI is currently offering our industry.

    AI is offering the public millions of choices. But what people need isn’t endless choices, but that one, unique thing in which every detail has been carefully crafted. AI can’t do that. It can’t give audiences what they really want: real emotions.

    (Header image: Screenshots from TikTok.)