China’s ‘Little Pink’ are not who you think

Society & Culture

Online nationalism and a case of mistaken identity in China

Early last year, following the victory of Taiwan’s pro-independence opposition leader in its general elections, a wave of mainland Chinese internet users flooded Taiwanese social media with nationalistic rhetoric. Unlike the “angry youth” (愤青 fènqīng) of earlier years, who drew attention primarily through delinquent offline behavior, or the paid shills of the 50 Cent Army (五毛党 wǔmáo dǎng) state-backed internet commenters whose lack of basic internet savvy can be truly baffling — these prolific new cyber-nationalists were well versed in the ways of modern-day digital dialectic, and could wield memes as weapons while brushing off attacks with sangfroid and snark.

There was something else: they were supposedly predominantly female. The term given them — “Little Pink” (小粉红 xiǎo fěnhóng) — seemed only too appropriate, and its usage spread through media outlets both domestic and foreign.

But what if the Little Pink aren’t who they appear to be? Fang Kecheng 方可成, a former political journalist at Southern Weekend 南方周末, argues that the origin of this epithet is as problematic as its popular usage. Most importantly, the majority of Little Pink are not female and they rarely discuss politics. Attaching a gendered label onto a group of mostly male cyber-nationalists, then, appears to be more than a case of simple mistaken identity. In a paper co-authored last month with Maria Repnikova that appears in the journal New Media & Society, titled “Demystifying ‘Little Pink’: The creation and evolution of a gendered label for nationalistic activists in China,” Fang writes:

Unlike the widespread notions of Little Pink as a real cyber-movement, our analysis finds that Little Pink is a manufactured, mythologized label that was deployed by other cyber groups to challenge and rebuke nationalistic visions vis-à-vis Taiwan.

Fang, who is currently a doctoral candidate researching Chinese media at the University of Pennsylvania, summarized his arguments in an article in Hong Kong-based digital media outlet Initium 端传媒 that appeared on November 1. We have published a translation of Fang’s essay, with kind permission from Initium and the author.

Our translation begins with Fang’s first subsection, titled “Hard-to-find young women.” His opening five paragraphs, which we have omitted, provide some background, which we’ll summarize here with additional explication.

Highlights and background

“Little Pink” is a reference to the pink-colored discussion forum on a popular literature website called Jinjiang Literature City (晋江文学城), whose staunchly loyal members enjoy reading yaoi, which is a type of fiction primarily aimed at young women featuring romantic or sexual relationships between male characters. Fang writes thusly about the popular (and wrong) perception of this group:

In popular parlance, the bulk of the Little Pink comprise twentysomething “ignorant young girls” (无知少女)…one day, they suddenly became active nationalists, projecting their affection for boys’ love protagonists onto the government, loving Party and country in the same manner as loving the heroes in fiction, brooking no criticism from anyone.

The term went mainstream amid Taiwan’s pro-independence election in January 2016, when members of this group allegedly started what has come to be known as the “cross-strait memes war” (两岸表情包大战 liǎng’àn biǎoqíngbāo dàzhàn), which saw Chinese internet users flood Taiwanese social media, including the Facebook page of new president Tsai Ing-wen 蔡英文. This was also known as the Di Ba Expedition (帝吧出征), “Di Ba” being an online forum — and fascinating subculture, as Ma Tianjie explains on his blog Chublic Opinion — whose members confronted Taiwan’s independence force en masse.

Related incidents include the “Chou Tzu-yu incident,” when Little Pink called out Taiwanese singer Chou Tzu-yu 周子瑜 for appearing on a South Korean TV show with a Taiwanese flag, and the boycott of the film No Other Love (没有别的爱 méiyǒu biéde ài), directed by renowned actress Zhao Wei 赵薇, because starring actor Leon Dai 戴立忍 was allegedly pro-independence.

The second half of Fang’s essay delves into the origin of the term “Little Pink,” how it can be traced back to a popular male liberal blogger, and its sexist implications, particularly since “female nationalists” were always said to have opted for the “soft emotional discourse of seduction and romance,” as Fang puts it in his paper “Demystifying ‘Little Pink.’”

Namely, whereas as noted earlier, we found no evidence of the actual, direct participation of Jinjiang users, we did uncover the prominence of seduction strategy in nationalistic content creation — a softer, emotion-invoking discursive approach that may have become incorrectly associated with female participants.

Read on.

Photo via Initium (CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)

Fang Kecheng: “Little Pink,” a mistaken identity

In Chinese: 方可成: “小粉红”,一个“张冠李戴”的标签 (Fāng Kěchéng: “Xiǎofěnhóng”, yīgè “zhāngguānlǐdài” de biāoqiān)

[Editor’s note: 张冠李戴 zhāng guān lǐ dài is an idiom that literally means “putting Zhang’s hat on Li’s head,” i.e., misattributing something to the wrong person or confusing one thing with another; I have translated this as “misnomer” in some instances]

We consumed nearly every article and bit of information from social networks and websites to carry out research on the subject of Little Pink. Among the most eye-catching pieces was one titled “The East Is Pink” in The Economist.

The article explained the origin of the term “Little Pink” basically in the same way as other sources we encountered: The background color of the discussion forum on the Jinjiang Literature City’s website is pink, lending itself to the moniker Little Pink. Discussions on the forum weren’t initially political, but some members later became influential online nationalists, so Little Pink became the designation for this group of nationalists.

Jinjiang Literature City is one of the most influential literature websites in China. According to site stats, average daily traffic exceeds 100 million page views. Seventy percent of members are female, 68.64 percent are aged between 18 and 34, and members spend on average 94.19 minutes on the website every day. In short, Jinjiang Literature City has a ton of members, most of whom are young women. They are extremely loyal and spend lots of time every day on the site reading fiction, taking part in discussions. Most of the stories on Jinjiang have a romantic theme and are characterized by stories describing the love and sexual attraction between men, i.e., yaoi (boys’ love) fiction.

From boys’ love-fiction-reading young women to Little Pink meme-using defenders of Party and state, this is the commonly accepted narrative. On the Q&A website Zhihu (知乎), one post with more than 7,000 likes uses the feminine pronoun they (她们 tāmen) to refer to the nationalists who took part in the Di Ba Expedition and boycott of Zhao Wei and Leon Dai. The author described the group of “young girls” as “nearly all having anime or ‘little sister’ (imouto) profile pictures”: “to use a name like ‘Social Darwinist’ or ‘motley crew’ to describe these teenage, twentysomething young women is truly being unkind, it’s best to call them little pink.”

Initium Media published a commentary in which these Little Pink were thusly described: “These women are mostly young, read fiction online, chase celebrities, sloppily express their desires and aspirations…some, because they accidentally liked posts made by Zhao Wei, have been dismissed. Actually, this is exactly how other fan groups separate the wheat from the chaff (鉴粉 jiàn fěn).” Literary scholar Wang Xiaoyu 王晓渔 said in an interview with Sohu that this group “mostly comprise young women” who “can be considered part of the ‘China’s rise’ generation, who consider the global community as demonizing China and that China should take on more of an ‘unhappy’ attitude.”

Following these descriptions, I naturally hoped to learn more about these young ladies’ true identities and their various ways of thinking. Initium Media previously interviewed three women who participated in the Di Ba Expedition, but other than that, it was hard to find any media mentions of “real” Little Pink. I’ve discussed this before with some journalist friends who worked on the Little Pink story; they said it was too hard to find people to interview, and had to throw in the towel.

It didn’t quite sound right  since the Di Ba Expedition saw large numbers of participants, bombarding the Facebook page of Tsai Ing-wen beyond recognition, how come no one could find an actual young female Little Pink in real life? Could it really be so hard?

We then decided to do two things: First, look at posts made during the Di Ba Expedition, find out more about the posters, and look at their Facebook pages. Second, look at the discussion forum on Jinjiang Literature City, i.e., where Little Pink got its name, and look at how this Little Pink “den” discussed the Di Ba Expedition.

Our first discovery was that, from a random sampling of 100 Di Ba Expedition participants, 64 percent were male: This wasn’t a young female-driven campaign. Our second discovery was that Jinjiang Literature City members didn’t discuss the Di Ba Expedition one bit, nor did they display nationalistic tendencies, and in fact practically didn’t talk politics at all. To use a bit of slang from the Chinese internet to describe how Jinjiang users might react to the idea that “Little Pink = new generation of nationalists”: flabbergasted [一脸懵逼 yīliǎn měngbī, which is online slang].

After these two things, we could confirm: The Little Pink label’s source was problematic, and the story of “young women who read boys’ love fiction turned into militant nationalists” didn’t exist.

How the mistaken identity came to be

Subsequently, our research topic changed from “How did Little Pink readers of boys’ love fiction turn into militant nationalists?” to “How exactly did the Little Pink get their name?” Once again, we carried out substantial in-depth investigation, returning to the course of events that resulted in this mistaken identity.

First of all, Little Pink was indeed the nickname given to members of the Jinjiang Literature City discussion forum. From the start of 2008, members of Jinjiang would use phrases like “I didn’t go on Little Pink yesterday (昨天没上小粉红)” to indicate that they had not logged into the Jinjiang Literature City members’ forum. They were called Little Pink indeed because the website’s background was pink. But some Jinjiang members claim the label had another origin, which is that in boys’ love fiction’s passages of man-on-man love, there would from time to time be references to “pink rectums.”

Regardless, Jinjiang members rarely talk about politics, and even more rarely display nationalistic tendencies. In fact, Jinjiang moderator “iceheart” opposes nationalism. So when a small portion of forum members who have nationalistic tendencies came together on a sub-forum called Fengyu Dushu Sheng [风雨读书声, now defunct, but once popular with those advocating right-wing ideology], @iceheart changed the forum’s serial number to “250” (slang for “idiot”) in an attempt to embarrass the members. As a result, around 2011, this bunch of nationalistic users left Jinjiang and created their own forum, Fengyi Meishi Luntan (凤仪美食论坛).

Which is to say, if we were to give a nickname to young female nationalists, Fengyi (凤仪, meaning “phoenix-like”) would actually be most suitable. Little Pink is but a misnomer, as Jinjiang isn’t a forum where many nationalists can be found.

Then how did Little Pink ultimately become a label? According to our research, verified Weibo blogger @Daguguguji (大咕咕咕鸡) played a key role.

Most of Daguguguji’s posts can be described as liberal, and he coined the term “your country” (你国), signaling his distance from the party-state [“your country” is used in contrast with the party-state’s term “my country” (我国)]. This term provoked dissatisfaction among Fengyi users and a war of words with Daguguguji broke out in the summer of 2015, during which time Daguguguji posted some of Fengyi’s photos found on Weibo and ridiculed them for the way they looked, referring to them as “little pink.” As for why Daguguguji used this label, our guess is: He learned from people in the comment section that the women attacking him were from little-pink Jinjiang.

As such, at the start of the summer of 2015, Daguguguji’s incorrect usage of the Little Pink label for young female nationalists first made it into the public sphere, though it circulated only within a small group. Half a year later, during the Di Ba Expedition, the implications of this nickname expanded rapidly, to the point where practically everyone knew this label.

The sexism implicit in the Little Pink label

While we figured out how the mistaken identity came to be, it still didn’t sufficiently explain how the Little Pink label, which formed as the result of a strange confluence of circumstances, came to trend so quickly.

Our research of a variety of articles and forum posts led us to this conclusion: Because “Little Pink” carries properties of gender, it can quickly acquire a derogatory meaning and be a weapon that liberals use to attack nationalists.

In the analyses and articles that followed the Di Ba Expedition and Zhao Wei incident, a recurring theme was: Little Pink are foolish, ignorant, immature, brainwashed, easily manipulated, fanatical, unreasonable. And these traits could very easily be linked to the image of “ignorant young women.” Therefore, even though young women didn’t constitute the bulk of the Di Ba Expedition participants, through describing the Di Ba Expedition as a campaign led by Little Pink young women, some liberal opinion leaders could conveniently attack the expedition participants as ignorant and fanatical.

In terms of the attacks made on the ignorant, foolish Little Pink, a frequently used saying was: Their language skills are poor, their taste unsophisticated, they can only express themselves through memes. Foreign academics who have researched memes may feel taken aback, as they generally believe that people who use memes possess cultural capital, but the opposite holds true in the eyes of critics of nationalism.

The active liberal author Wang Wusi 王五四 wrote in the paper Pink Memories (分红色的回忆): “Analysis shows ‘Little Pink’ mostly come from third- and fourth-tier cities, or have followed their parents to first- and second-tier cities to work, and belong to the lower-middle class.” He also quoted an argument made by the psychologist Tang Yinghong 唐映红, who said that strong feelings of nationalism are “usually seen among people who are of a lower socioeconomic standing (patriotism can increase a person’s sense of self-respect), conservatives who have difficulty understanding complicated social issues (they lack gray matter in the cingulum at the front of the brain’s frontal lobe, and also have a large amygdala, which results in them being unable to process abstract information, while also being full of hostility), and are young (the frontal lobe of the cerebrum being not fully developed).” But based on our research into the Facebook pages of Di Ba Expedition participants, quite a few had studied abroad and very few had family backgrounds that can be described as “lower-middle class.”

It’s been repeatedly said that Little Pink have low intellect and low socioeconomic status. What’s interesting is that after we published our research and I posted a link on Weibo, there were people who quickly commented: Too bad it’s in English, these vocational college attendees wouldn’t be able to understand. The implication being, those foolish Little Pink were unable to understand my English-language thesis and thereby unable to come attack me.

An even more interesting point is that it’s not only liberals who employ the connotations in the Little Pink label to criticize nationalists, but also state media. A typical example was this Weibo article by Global Times (环球时报) tinged with male chauvinism: “Women don’t really understand online safety, they show off their food and travel pics on (WeChat) Moments [similar to Facebook’s news feed] and Weibo; they don’t understand online discourse, but they’re still a vital new force in Sanggamryong [上甘岭, famous in China as the scene of a large battle during the Korean War]; they covet Global Times’ iPhone 6, (Huawei Ascend) Mate7, and apparently are recently also paying attention to the Communist Youth League of China’s Huawei Maimang 3 (Editor’s Note: iPhone 6, Mate7, Huawei Maimang 3 are all nicknames for online editors). They are not interested in politics, cannot tell the difference between the left and right, but have a natural sense of righteousness; ‘Little Pink’ are our daughters, our sisters, the girls next door we secretly love. Let us protect them together.” Banyuetan (半月谈, literally “Fortnightly Chats”), a journal of current affairs and theory run by the CPC, recently published an article that also frankly stated that their “skin, looks, and values are all proper, and their patriotism is also adorable.”

Which is to say, it doesn’t matter whether it’s an influential liberal blogger or Global Times, Banyuetan, they all demonstrate a condescending, chauvinistic attitude toward young women. In the eyes of liberals, Little Pink are faithful and true, adorable young girls. Daguguguji mocks them for being ugly, Banyuetan admires their beautiful skin and white complexion. Even though they have polar opposite opinions [of the women], they all make frivolous remarks about their appearance. Miraculously, there’s consensus on both ends of the left-right political spectrum on the attitude as to gender; this could be a significant factor for the rapid growth of the Little Pink label.

Using the label to understand Chinese online discourse

After all this research, our thesis ultimately demonstrated the course of a label’s emergence, its spread, and how it came to be invested with different connotations, though we did not truly investigate the nationalists that came out of the Di Ba Expedition. Two points in particular need to be highlighted:

One, despite “Little Pink” being a misnomer, we aren’t asking people to stop using this label. Actually, this label has already broken away from Jinjiang Literature City, boys’ love fiction, and “ignorant young girls,” and has become a synonym for young nationalists. It’s natural for every label to evolve.

Two, calling the Little Pink label a case of mistaken identity doesn’t necessarily mean these young nationalists don’t exist. Their existence in the real world is a phenomenon (though perhaps they’re not predominantly female), and very much deserves more analysis. Our energy is limited, so presently we could only make clear the Little Pink label first. We also believe this label’s emergence and spread reflects many important issues.

The use of labels is one of the most common strategies for arguing on the Chinese internet. Each label has multiple implicit meanings, with clear overtones (usually belittling). For example, the term “public intellectual” (公共知识分子 gōnggòng zhīshì fēnzǐ) has been shortened to “公知” and now carries a strong derogatory meaning, naturally associated with blindly worshipping the foreign, and fiddling with and distorting the truth. A similar label is 美分 [měifēn, literally, “American cent,” a pejorative for someone who supports the U.S.]. Meanwhile, “fifty-cent” (五毛 wǔmáo) is a typical label mainly used to criticize those who support the government. Recently appeared labels include “white left” [白左 báizuǒ, a naïve left-wing Westerner], “feminist bitch” 女权婊 [nǚquán biǎo, an insult for feminists], etc.

In online debates, tossing out a label is more or less declaring victory. For instance, when criticizing nationalists, liberals who attach the label Little Pink on them do so to humiliate them, eliminating any possibility of discussion as equals. Conversely, nationalists tossing out the “public intellectual” (公知) label effectively close the door on dialogue. During the process of each side continuously inventing labels and using them, debate can very easily devolve into the territory of the simple and crude, lacking rationality.

Although the use of labels in arguments online can have many negative consequences, it is an unavoidable and significant phenomenon of internet debate. Moreover, from the position of a researcher, it can be possible to spot significant trends in society reflected through the emergence of each label. It is in this sense that analysis of Little Pink is critical for the understanding of cyber-nationalism.

Translation by Anthony Tao and Matthew Hall

This article originally appeared in Chinese on Initium, a Hong Kong-based new media website that provides news and commentary for Chinese speakers worldwide. Please support them by signing up to become a member.