“What’s the point if I win you, but lose the great banner of socialism?” [Digital image]. [Accessed 5 December, 2015].
Since the first Chinese webisode ‘Guardian’ (“镇魂”) was posted on the video sharing site Youku in June 2018, it was an immediate hit on Chinese social media. ‘Guardian’ fans gave it a lovely name: ‘socialist bromance’ (“社会主义兄弟情”) and it went viral on Sina Weibo, the largest microblogging site in China. Adapted from one of the top gay fictions on the internet, ‘Guardian’ strategically changes gay romance into pure friendship, to be safe under the supervision of the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA). But it calls this re-working of the relationship narrative “brotherhood with Chinese characteristics”, a nod to the political term used in official propaganda: “socialism with Chinese characteristics’, cleverly transforming the phrase “Chinese characteristics” into a rhetorical vehicle which mocks the notoriously tight control of the NRTA, simultaneously commenting on and getting around its intolerance of LGTBQ+ cultural representation.
It is not the first time that meme humour like ‘socialist bromance’ has gone viral in China. Back in December 2015, a group of re-worked socialist propaganda posters became a massive hit. One of the favourites was a “Sino-Soviet bromance” poster, which brought out the homoerotic suggestion of many of these propaganda posters, depicting “Sino-Soviet” friendship via intimate closeness between a Chinese and a Soviet man. The representation was reinterpreted as gay romance and netizens had great fun changing the propaganda discourse into romantic clichés.
While previous studies place more focus on the official field of socialism and its spaces, this hardly explored sub-area of repurposed online material may have significant implications for a nuanced understanding of the transformation of public discourse in an authoritarian country in the digital era.
The emergence and increasing popularity of re-worked ideological propaganda among netizens reminds us that socialist terminology actually exists elsewhere. People would normally expect to see discourse relating to socialism in official propaganda only, and with strict formality. However, as ‘socialist bromance’ suggests, it is prevalent in much more diversified modes of utterance. My work examines what happens as it moves from official narratives to various other unofficial and seemingly mundane contexts. While previous studies place more focus on the official field of socialism and its spaces, this hardly explored sub-area of repurposed online material may have significant implications for a nuanced understanding of the transformation of public discourse in an authoritarian country in the digital era.
In this transition from official- to counter-discourse, as in ‘socialist bromance’, the vehicle is humour. Humour, or what is “amusing” culturally, tells us important things about the public mind. In 1951 David H. Monro distilled three main theories of humour: superiority, incongruity, and relief, all of which could be applied to our case of ‘socialist bromance’.
1) In incongruity theories, humour comes from a structural formation in which two elements are sharply contrasted and at the same time cleverly fused. It is easily understood here, where rigidly political or even hypernormalised official narratives are merged with the mundane and intimately personal. In the poster above the meme “What’s the point if I win you, but lose the great banner of socialism?” was adapted from a pop song What’s the Point If I Win the World but Lose You (“输了你赢了世界又如何”). It combines the hypernormalised term “the great banner of socialism”, only usually seen in official documents of the Communist Party, with romantic words commonly used in pop songs and TV dramas. In the original song you gain the world at the cost of losing your lover; in the reworked version, there’s no point in having a lover if you don’t also have your socialist world – a reversed sentiment that in the 1950s would have been taken seriously, but in 21st century China is funny for that very reason.
2) Superiority theories date back to Hobbes (1968: 5), who understands laughter as ‘a sudden glory arising from some conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly’. Humour, therefore, arises from some sort of degradation – here, the degradation of the official propaganda language of socialism. It is now, in China, generally considered unreasonable or even stupid to overtly promote political doctrines. The meme is able to express peoples’ disapproval and dislike of out-of-date political propaganda not only in its it content, but also in its retro aesthetics, graphic design, and language techniques – thus indicating that things have changed, by precisely repeating a party line.
3) Finally, in relief theories of humour, a more exciting picture of what may be really lying behind these small internet jokes begins to emerge. Relief theories developed from Freud’s psychological discoveries, understanding humour as a means of outwitting our internal inhibitions: “it will get around restrictions and open up resources of pleasure that have become inaccessible…the joke then represents a rebellion against such authority, a liberation from the oppression it opposes” (Freud, 2002: 100-102). Taking the ‘socialist bromance’ memes in Sino-Soviet posters in the context of ‘Ai Qing’, the ‘Guardian’ ‘couple’ is interpreted as rebellion in exactly this Freudian way.
‘Ai Qing’ (Restrained Love): A type of love that cannot come out thanks to NRTA.
Netizens invented this word Ai Qing(“碍情”) to indicate romantic affections that are strictly restricted or prohibited by state censorship (NRTA). The humour of ‘socialist bromance’ in the Guardian case is basically rooted in ‘Restrained Love’: fans hide their love for the ‘gay’ couple under the header ‘socialist’ and ‘with Chinese characteristics’ in order to conform with official discourse while at the same time referring to that need to conform by re-using the ‘socialist’ ‘Chinese characteristics’. To laugh at ‘socialist bromance’, then, is also to get relief from state censors.
Humour itself represents a move from monosemy to polysemy in ideological discourse – in the context of Chinese socialism, even, perhaps, a break of state monopoly on political discourse.
Considering all this, we can say that the humour of ‘socialist bromance’ in Sino-Soviet posters and ‘Guardian’ webisodes stems from a structure of incongruity, and a reversal of values, that can be seen both as a temporal liberation from, and a certain superiority to, the monotony of ideological propaganda in the past decades and onwards. Humour itself represents a move from monosemy to polysemy in ideological discourse – in the context of Chinese socialism, even, perhaps, a break of state monopoly on political discourse.
A preliminary analysis of ‘socialist bromance’ like this can hardly take us far enough to argue that this move contributes to the liberalisation of public discourse in China. But we can say that socialist terminology no longer belongs exclusively in its original official field. For what we see here is that the very iteration of ideology imposed by political authorities through language is starting to cause its own demise, bringing inevitable changes to its politically persuasive power. Will these shifts make any difference to the government’s future propaganda strategies, to grassroots’ digital resistance, and the power dynamic between state and society in a digital age? These are the key questions for the future.
Freud, S. (2002). The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Trans. Crick, J. London: Penguin Books.
Hobbes, T. (1968). Leviathan. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Monro, D.H. (1951). Argument of Laughter. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
This piece was written by Ruichen Zhang
PhD candidate in Sociology, University of Cambridge ’17.
M.A. Sociology, Peking University ’14.
B.A. Sociology, Peking University ’10.