“Jia Jun Peng, your mother wants you to come home for dinner.” Sounds like a fairly innocuous phrase, doesn’t it? But in fact when it was posted on a Chinese internet forum last Thursday it gave rise to an unprecedented flash flood of public creativity: 300,000 responses within two days. What has transpired is fascinating not only for what it reveals about Chinese youth, but also for its wider sociological implications. It seems to indicate that the ever-quickening pace of cultural development is now moving up a gear, breaking the waters on an entirely new social trend: flash culture.
At 10:59pm last Thursday the message was posted on a forum operated by Baidu, China’s largest search engine. The first responses came within minutes, apparently from random members viewing the forum: “I’m not coming back home for dinner today. I’m eating at the internet café. Tell my mother for me, will you?”; “If you don’t come back home right now I’ll make you kneel on the washboard.” More responses began to pour in by the second, and after six hours there were more than 17,000 posts in the thread. Members had set up accounts as Jia Jun Peng’s mother, sister, grandfather, creating a humorous fictional dialogue between the characters. From Jia Jun Peng’s girlfriend: “Peng Peng, come back. Your mother has accepted we can be together. Let’s not argue.” There were soon entire stories being posted. The artists were also quick to get involved – every moment a new picture was Photoshopped and uploaded to the board, depicting President Obama entreating Jia Jun Peng to return home for dinner, or a government meeting in the Great Hall of the People to discuss “Jia Jun Peng’s dinner problem”. Still no-one is exactly sure who Jan Jun Peng is, or whether he even exists at all. But it doesn’t really seem to matter.
This is by no means the first example of mass creativity to emerge out of cyberculture. America’s infamous 4chan.org website has already spawned several similar viral memes, such as pictures that have become known as ‘lolcatz’, a 2007 internet fad where users posted funny pictures of cats featuring semi-nonsense captions written in chatroom slang. But what is remarkable about the Jia Jun Peng phenomenon is the sheer volume of participation, and the rate of spread. By 1:38 pm on July 20th, four days after the initial post, the thread reached its limit of 315,649 posts. It was 10,421 pages long.
It has been widely observed that since the emergence of mass communication technologies, cultural development has undergone a marked acceleration worldwide. Fashions change now more regularly than ever before, spread so quickly by the vast array of media that consumers are exposed to. The rate of technological development is also increasing, every new must-have product causing slight changes in the habits of the population – the new wave of ‘smartphones’, for example, that began with the Blackberry and led to the iPhone have revolutionised the way we communicate, this being the umpteenth such revolution in the past decade. And Web 2.0, the pride of the new millennium (and now a dictionary term), has brought boundless possibilities for creative communication to the masses. Flash culture was bound to emerge – it was only a matter of time.
However, that this has happened in China may be an eye-opener for the rest of the world. The rapidity of China’s economic development of recent years is undeniable, but there remain question marks about the capacity of the People’s Republic for creative innovation given the tendency of the education system to promote rote learning over individual creativity. The Jia Jun Peng thread, though, sends a strong message into cyberspace: there are fertile imaginations aplenty among China’s 21st century youth, and, given the right conditions, there is huge creative potential.
Whether the government will provide those conditions remains to be seen. They certainly do not seem to be loosening their grip on the internet – the recently adopted ‘Green Dam’ policy decrees that all new computers be manufactured with in-built filtering software. But Chinese netizens don’t take this kind of thing sitting down. When the government tried to clamp down on internet profanity earlier this year, the public responded by inventing ten ‘mythical creatures’ whose names were pronounced in a similar way to the banned expletives they represented (the ‘French-Croatian Squid’, for instance, pronounced in Mandarin fa ke you, actually referenced the pronunciation of a well-known English insult). There developed a whole sub-culture surrounding these mythical creatures, with images, faux-documentaries and songs being produced. Call it protest, call it ridiculous – but you can’t say it’s not creative.
So is there a deeper meaning behind the swathes of apparently nonsensical posts that have sprung up surrounding the now legendary Jia Jun Peng? Professor Hu Jiqing of Nanjing University’s College of Journalism and Communications thinks that perhaps there is: “The words ‘your mother wants you to come home for dinner’ are so full of warmth and initially aroused feelings of empathy in large sections of the youth population, who feel guilty that they spend most of their time playing online games.” Professor Hu believes this is the explanation for the initial public response, and that after a time it became a standard bandwagon effect.
Internet users have offered their own interpretations. The thread appeared on a forum dedicated to the World of Warcraft massive-multiplayer online fantasy game, which has a following of more than 5 million fanatical players in China alone. “The game has been offline for over 40 days due to a business transfer,” writes one blogger, “Our message is loneliness.” For many young players, the game means more than just a hobby – it is their entire social life.
So what of Jan Jun Peng’s future? Well, the Chinese cyberyouth seem more than capable of determining that, given what they have managed so far. However, things might begin to subside once WOW goes back online. Professor Hu predicts that the trademark will soon be registered and the meme thereby apprehended for business interests. Whatever happens, rest assured: this may be the first example of flash culture, but it will not be the last.