Biologists have found that human language, like bird song, may evolve to accommodate its environment through acoustic adaptation. Humid, hot climates swallow consonants while letting long vowels glide by, smoothing angular English into the drawl of the Southern United States. I believe that on the internet, a similar phenomenon happens to our visual languages: our memes hold something of the digital landscapes they proliferate in.
In China, the digitally-active keep folders of 表情 (biǎo qíng), which literally means "facial expression." In the digital world, biaoqing refers to any image that adds a visual and emotive layer to text-dominant online conversations: at its most expansive, it refers to everything from emoticons to reaction GIFs. What it most often means on the Chinese internet, though, is something like this, appearing as a reply in a group chat conversation or a comment thread:
Though they've borrowed elements of memes from Reddit and 4chan, biaoqing have evolved into a specific form unique to the Chinese internet, complete with its own traditions and conventions. Like other mature internet meme systems, biaoqing are a grassroots, fast-evolving visual vernacular that surfaces and catalogues the shared experiences and emotions of the Chinese interneting public, a Rosetta Stone of sorts for identifying and interpreting shared cultural references. They've even been weaponized, in a sense—marshalled recently in a meme-soaked episode of a long running rivalry between China and Taiwan.
Even as the Chinese internet's reputation abroad is dominated by the shadow of censorship cast by the Great Firewall, biaoqing complicate the narrative of a Chinese internet scared into stillness; the legal scaffolding may be the thing visible from space, but up close you'll always find people being irrepressibly playful and emotional and assertive. Reflected in these tiny images is not only a wealth of pop culture references, but also a practice that reveals as much about Chinese culture as it does about our own in its familiarities and differences.
Consider this an introductory field guide to the Chinese biaoqing.
Almost all biaoqing are made up of an image (or animation) and a caption. The text does most of the semantic heavy lifting; the visual component mostly indicates the overall tone, often in a slapstick way.
Biaoqing feed on the rich substrate of contemporary media popular among internet users in China and distill all of it down into icons thick with meaning. The most literal of the lot are often screencaps from iconic TV shows, like the 1986 TV adaptation of Journey to the West and beloved '90s historical comedy Huan Zhu Ge Ge. Video footage and photographs of Chinese leaders past and present—Chairman Mao, Jiang Zemin, and current premier Xi Jinping—also feature prominently, and often hilariously.
Given China's geographical and cultural proximity to Japan, it's no surprise that otaku culture (referred to in China as "ACG" for Anime, Comics, Games) is massively popular, especially for young Chinese people born in and after the 90s. Many biaoqing feature popular anime and manga characters as a result.
But the majority of biaoqing (and the strain that's the most uniquely Chinese) resemble the panda ones above: distilled, iconic, a Photoshopped blend of photographic sources and crude illustration. The idea of rendering down recognizable figures into minimalist black and white facial expressions seems to have started as a Chinese response to rage faces, but an entirely separate pantheon has emerged. In addition to the American-originated Yao Ming laughing face and ubiquitous doge, some commonly seen characters at time of writing include:
From left to right:
- Korean actor Choi Seong-Guk (in a scene from the movie Three Kims)
- Chinese singer Huang Zitao (AKA Tao), formerly of boy band EXO
- Japanese voice actress and singer Hanazawa Kana
- Former American WWE wrestler D'Angelo Dinero AKA Elijah Burke (in a viral GIF)
- Hong Kong singer/actor Jacky Cheung (in a scene from the Wong Kar-Wai film As Tears Go By)
These standardized faces are sometimes combined with captions as-is, but the real magic happens when they are crafted into a variety of outfits and settings to represent a wide range of emotions and situations.
Biaoqing embody the same Internet Ugly aesthetic as their Rage Comics forebears—their creators and editors tend to use cut-and-paste or low-effort Microsoft Paint-style drawing with little regard for perfectionism. Because they're used in apps that optimize images for mobile display, biaoqing are often heavily compressed over and over again, leaving them glitchy with enlargement and compression artifacts. Like a zine growing fuzzy with repeated photocopying, biaoqing deteriorate with use and modification.
Sidenote: though their heyday is past in the US, rage faces and comics are still massively popular in China. In fact, Baozoumanhua (literally Rage Comic) is a company based in Xi'an that has built a small media empire around the concept, producing everything from videos explaining Chinese history using rage faces to a widely watched Daily Show-esque comedy news web series hosted by a host wearing a rage face mask. The most popular of these videos has 42 million subscribers on Youku, a Chinese video platform.
As a word, biaoqing's closest English relative might be "emoticon." That's partially because they're more or less direct descendants of the custom emoticon sets created by online message board communities, many of which are still thriving on the Chinese internet in 2016.
"The Chinese internet" exists as its own pocket for infrastructural, political, and cultural reasons. For starters: the Great Firewall of China, a set of regulatory and technical restrictions created by the Chinese government, controls online speech and access to certain parts of the web within its borders. At time of writing, the GFW entirely blocks Google, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as all of their child companies like Instagram and YouTube; any platforms that are permitted, whether domestic or foreign, are required to host their Chinese servers within China and comply with local censorship orders.
The Great Firewall may be the most visible barrier, but language and even the time difference may be more entrenched barriers. The GFW can (and is!) bypassed with VPN tools on a regular basis by Chinese internet users, but Twitter just isn't as enticing if you're asleep during peak activity hours and can't read most of the jokes. The side-effect of the GFW—or maybe even the main purpose all along—is the creation of an immense opportunity for domestic tech companies to flourish, building platforms laser-focused on Chinese users.
As these new platforms for talking and joking became popular—QQ (a descendant of instant messaging system ICQ), Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter), WeChat—biaoqing migrated over and adapted to their new environments. They tend to be bigger than their message board dwelling ancestors now in both physical and file size, but they are still constrained by the limitations of these new platforms: lack of consistent GIF support, small mobile displays, and the desire to minimize data usage.
Creation and Reproduction
Like reaction GIFs, biaoqing are spread naturally through the course of online conversation—one person shares one to emphasize their mood, and a recipient or viewer might download it to use themselves in the future. People deeper into online fandoms make it a point to collect newer sets or even make their own variations for their favorite celebrities, TV shows, and movies. At its simplest, this new creation could be nothing more than adding a new caption onto an existing image. More advanced pixelworkers will also create GIFs and screencaps from new video footage, distill new expressions, and create new remixes layered with references.
For an American internet dweller, biaoqing might seem curiously unanimated on the whole. Pheona Chen, a Beijing-based researcher studying Chinese fandoms, told me she thinks it comes down to digital infrastructure and the potential for remixing:
There's limited platform support for GIFs: for example, you can't post GIFs in WeChat Moments at all, and Weibo doesn't allow comments with GIFs [though it is allowed as an original post]. More importantly, biaoqing have to be easily modifiable. The captions on our biaoqing are constantly being updated with the latest sayings and slang, and the pictures have even more variation. Each fandom, whether it's of a celebrity or a show or movie, creates and uses their own set of biaoqing. When a new popular movie comes out, we might switch all of our biaoqing to a new set overnight.
In January of 2016, fueled by increased anxiety around the upcoming Taiwanese election, a massive flame war erupted between Chinese and Taiwanese internauts over the well-tread issue of Taiwanese sovereignty. The catalyst was a Kpop star's comments and subsequent forced apology; the main stage of conflict, a Chinese actor's Facebook page. Both sides unleashed harsh language and insulting memes en masse. On the Chinese internet, it was dubbed 表情包大战: "The Great Biaoqing-Pack War".
As with many conflicts of soft power, both sides declared victory. On the mainland, blog after blog reported that Taiwan's biaoqing packs were outdated and laughably malformed. Meanwhile, Taiwanese social media coverage ignored this completely and focused on the narrow-minded zeal they considered typical of Chinese patriots, and gleefully pointed out the irony in a patriotism that required illegally circumventing the government's own firewall, which prevents access to Facebook.
To a third-party observer, though, this much was clear: the Chinese did win the Biaoqing War, but mostly because they were the only ones really fighting in it. The rules and traditions of the biaoqing, so ingrained in the Chinese internet as to be invisible, simply never made it across the strait. A biaoqing war is as one-sided as an international tournament for American football.
In biological terms: The long-term isolation caused by the Great Firewall has resulted in separate platforms, disconnected online ecosystems and, eventually, a new meme-species. Even if the technical and legislative blocks between the Chinese internet and ours vanished tomorrow, linguistic and cultural barriers might still stand in the way of meaningful dialogue and exchange. Last year, President Obama announced an initiative to get 1 million American school children to learn Mandarin Chinese to ease future collaborations between the US and China—maybe part of their homework should be to make a million biaoqing, too.