Tea Leaf Nation

Their Ears Are Burning

Chinese netizens love the new season of House of Cards -- even though it makes their country look terrible.

"Everyone in China who works on this level pays who they need to pay." Mild spoiler alert: These are the words of the fictitious Xander Feng, an influential Chinese billionaire on the Netflix series House of Cards, a show that follows the machinations of U.S. Rep. (and later Vice President) Frank Underwood to agglomerate power and crush whoever stands in his way. The phrase is also now viral on the Chinese Internet, which has proven surprisingly hospitable to the show's second season, which debuted on Feb. 14. Despite having its arguably Sinophobic moments -- in addition to Feng-as-villain, the show depicts a stateside Chinese businessman hiring both male and female sex workers, and a U.S. casino laundering Chinese money to fund a congressional super PAC -- the show has Chinese social media users applauding what they believe is a largely accurate depiction of Chinese palace politics.

The attraction of House of Cards' second season -- which has already received more than 9 million views in the first weekend compared to over 24 million for the first season, released March 2013 in China -- appears two-fold. First and foremost, the show engages Communist Party corruption, elite infighting, and the often-outsized influence of the moneyed class with a directness that few domestic shows dare hazard. The colorful Feng, for example, alludes to scheming with members of the Chinese government to force a more liberal financial policy, not to mention bribing high officials outright. The result is a portrait of Chinese elite skullduggery convincing enough that one user wondered aloud in jest whether the show's writers had planted an undercover agent in party ranks.

None of this means the show's writers have spared U.S. policymakers in the new season. Chinese web users continue to praise House of Cards for providing what they believe is a glimpse into wrongdoing at the highest levels of U.S. government. One user lauded the show's writers, who "really understand China-U.S. relations" and have also managed to "reveal how the U.S. government works." However overwrought that depiction may be, it's convincing enough that Chinese media has reported that Wang Qishan, chief of the party's internal discipline organization and member of the Politburo Standing Committee, has "repeatedly brought up" the first season series in talks with colleagues.

If Chinese netizens have a major concern, it's that the show is a candidate for "harmonization," neo-Orwellian Chinese slang for online speech that offends authorities enough to trigger the censors' invisible axe. On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, one user urged viewers to "hurry up and download it," while a number of others wrote they had watched the show as quickly as they could in the expectation it would soon vanish. That's because Chinese censors continue to come down hard on productions that cross an invisible red line. For example, when a Chinese series with the unfortunate English name Dwelling Narrowness aired in July 2009, it was a rare series set in contemporary China that tackled corruption head-on -- until being pulled from most television stations before its conclusion. Here, House of Cards benefits from a double standard, whereby China's government allows the online streaming of some U.S. content depicting violence or political content that would be intolerable in a domestic series.

For now, Chinese authorities appear willing to forgive the show's edgy moments, perhaps in what they view as a fair trade: occasional pot shots at China allowed, so long as the U.S. political system looks every bit as rancid. In fact, the treatment of China as the key U.S. rival may pay a backhanded compliment to Chinese citizens and apparatchiks alike. On Sohu, one user declared that although House of Cards "doesn't make China look great," much of what the show depicts is accurate. And, he continued, at least the series "takes China seriously."  

Fair use/Sina Weibo

Tea Leaf Nation

Of Roses and Rice Balls

This year, a traditional Chinese family gathering coincided with Western import Valentine's. Which won?

Due to a coincidence of the lunar and solar calendars, Lantern Festival, the last day of China's 15-day-long Lunar New Year celebration, fell on Feb. 14th -- Valentine's Day. One user of Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, joked he would mediate the tension by "selling glutinous rice in the morning, roses at lunch time, and condoms at night."

The clash of the thoroughly traditional, family-focused Lantern Festival with a private, commercial, and increasingly popular Western holiday sparked a conflict of allegiance among many young Chinese this year. The contrast between the two holidays garnered widespread attention on Weibo, where the hashtag #lanternfestivalvalentinesday# generated 69 million posts. One popular comment compared the dilemma to an age-old Chinese rivalry between filial piety and love: "It's the same as asking the question: If your mom and your wife are both drowning, who would you save first?"

The now-concluded Lantern Festival, where families light red lanterns and, traditionally, allow children to carry them to the temple at night, was celebrated as far back as 104 B.C. In its modern day incarnation, relatives gather to eat sweet glutinous rice balls; the roundness of the dough symbolizes the wholeness of the family. By contrast, the Chinese celebrate the imported holiday of Valentine's Day similar to the way the Americans do: with roses, dates, or spite

This year it appears that tradition -- or parental pressure -- won: Many Chinese say they chose piety, or at least claimed to have done so. On a Weibo forum called "Glutinous Rice Balls versus Roses," 94 percent of the more than 5,000 netizens who voted chose rice balls. But not all made the choice willingly. In a similar poll on social networking site Renren, one member wrote that he wanted to choose to celebrate Valentine's Day. "But I've been told I'm not allowed," presumably by his parents, "so there is not much I can do except stay at home having glutinous rice balls with mom and dad."

Historians of Chinese folklore insist that the Lantern Festival is not entirely without romance. Wang Yumin, who works at an observatory in Beijing, told local newspaper Beijing Evening News that in ancient China, when young women did not usually leave the house, the occasion provided a rare chance for young lovers to see each other in public and exchange wishes -- what modern Chinese might recognize as a date. Nor do Valentine's Day celebrations necessarily represent a wholesale abandonment of Chinese culture. In the run-up to the holiday, amorous web users posted shorter, or wei ("micro"), versions of old-fashioned love letters composed in classical Chinese style. Many added digital flare by attaching selfies to the poems -- proving, at the same time, the durability and fragility of Chinese tradition.

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