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When hard news gets cute

ZENG XIN | 2021-01-13
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The Yongzheng Emperor (left) and the Kangxi Emperor (right) strike cute modern-day poses for the Palace Museum's marketing campaign Photo: PALACE MUSEUM

Influenced by the present social media audience and internet ecology, mainstream cultural industries in China are trying to create a new discourse space that appeals to more young people. This article seeks to unpack the contemporary trend of cuteness (meng) that is affecting mainstream culture and official media landscapes in China 

As cyberculture develops, the cuteness culture starts to play an important role in many internet associated events. The cuteness culture, which was once a subculture, has expanded its influence from virtual spaces to daily life. It doesn't only thrive in the field of entertainment, but is also accepted and adopted by mainstream media. After being acknowledged by People's Daily and other mainstream media outlets, the cute phenomenon has quickly merged with information released by governments' Weibo accounts and official press. 
For a long period, China's mainstream media has been dominated by a journalism-oriented form of programming featuring major public affairs, serious news and an orthodox approach to building credibility, which is a bit monotonous. Its authoritative persuasion model seems far from entertainment and reaching young audience. At present, over 75% of internet users in China are between 10 and 39 years old. The internet is becoming the primary vehicle for mass communication. The changing group structure of internet users has spurred mainstream media to reposition themselves as the "media of the people." Mainstream culture is the mainstay of the media ecology. Subcultures, however, are created by people who are not involved in mainstream media discourse. With no voice in the mainstream, subculture groups often express their dissatisfaction through innovative ways, which are labeled as "rebellious" or "alternative." 
The culture of cuteness, or meng, is derived from the Japanese slang word萌え, or Moe, which means feelings of strong affection towards cute characters (usually female) in anime, manga, video games, and other media directed at the otaku market. In China, however, the hyper-feminine content of cuteness culture has not carried through. Chinese people generally consider meng an adjective meaning "cute, adorable, and lovable." The cuteness culture provides what mainstream discourse lacks—a playful, warm, relaxed style. Its characteristics are simple and clear to see: cute, innocent, personalized, and easy to disseminate among different groups and cultures. In modern society, humanistic care is being eroded by instrumental rationality, leaving shrinking room for youthful idealism. Therefore, young people are drawn to simpler and warmer emotions. The cuteness culture is a deconstruction of the adult world, and a product of a lower sense of security due to rapid economic growth and fast pace of life. 
In the present cultural context, "playing cute" has gone beyond niche entertainment and commercial marketing, and has become a considerable force in cyberculture. Mainstream culture has started to pay attention to the competitive edge (and huge audience) wielded by the subculture of cuteness. Therefore, they have begun adapting their traditional approach to publicity, and are broadcasting hard news in a more approachable and pleasant way to capture a younger audience. 
One "cute" strategy used by mainstream culture is to use internet slang words and popular characters. Many unconventional subcultural Chinese characters online, are used frequently by the Weibo and WeChat official accounts of the mainstream media, such as the slang 肿么了 (Zhong me le, which is literally translated into "What is swollen?" while it actually means "What's wrong?"), or 奥特曼 (Ao te man, which originally refers to Ultraman, a fictional superhero in a Japanese television series, and now refers to someone who is out of fashion, because it sounds similar to outman). These underground references are called the "Martian language." The official Weibo account of Chongqing Meteorological Service made weather broadcasts much more funny and vivid after they adapted famous poems and popular television quotes in weather broadcasts, such as the poem by Lin Huiyin (1904–1955), an outstanding female poet in 20th-century China: "……You're the blooming flowers over the trees,/ You're a swallow twittering between the beams;/ Full of love, full of warm hope,/ You are the spring of this world!"
Dramatic expression is also commonly used by mainstream media in order to be cute. The Xinhua News started a tweet about the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation with a "Lihua-style" poem: "Yes,/ This is another tweet,/ where you don’t know/ what it talks about/ before you click on it." The Lihua style is created by Zhao Lihua, a contemporary Chinese poet who is often the butt of jokes from netizens for her writings on a wide range of everyday activities. The Xinhua tweet poem ended with a meme which held an ironic catchphrase: "Sincerity [Seriousness] has always been defeated by gimmicks [cuteness]." This type of expression winks at the seriousness of the news outlet, combining hard news with a soft smile, and attracting more readers. 
Mainstream culture strengthening its social influence by using cute expressions is a positive result of the blending of official and non-official discourses. The relationship between these two systems has been transformed from "confrontation" to a playful banter. It represents mainstream culture's acceptance of youth culture and its softer publicity practices. However, in terms of media competition, each mass medium has its unique history, content types, and status. The power of discourse cannot be measured merely by popularity. Cuteness is inherent in the internet's subculture, and is a defining feature of contemporary popular culture. There are cases when mainstream culture goes too far, playing cute to pander to their audiences. This cringeworthy practice is akin to competing with people who are better than you—the result is losing your own dignity. Moreover, blind imitation and homogenization often leaves the audience tired of this type of oversaturated entertainment. 
The reason why cuteness culture is trending within mainstream culture lies in its modernity, openness, and participation-oriented practice. However, being accepted and adopted by mainstream culture doesn't ensure the long-standing popularity of any cultural phenomenon in the fast-changing world of cyberculture. Although the cute expressions of mass media constantly adapt and innovate, most of them remain in the stage of relating information in a simple, cute, and emotional way, which doesn't pair well with in-depth reporting. Meanwhile, the cute expression seems to have done little to promote the audience's cultural competence. 
Therefore, when we maintain a positive attitude towards this change in China's mainstream culture, it is still necessary to think about the future, and the sustainability of cute forms of expression. Attracting a younger audience without looking foolish is an important topic of research in mainstream cultural communication. 
Zeng Xin is an assistant research fellow from the Institute of Journalism & Communication at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.