Subculture Sellouts: Kuaishou and Bilibili Embrace Normcore

Long known as havens for China’s marginalized, nerdy, and just plain weird, the two video platforms are trading their grassroots cred for a more yuppie-friendly image.

This May 4 — Youth Day in China — the popular streaming site Bilibili celebrated by releasing a grandiloquent paean to the country’s young people. Titled “Next Wave,” the ad features He Bing, a well known 52-year-old television actor, delivering a sermon in praise of China’s younger generation: the eponymous “next wave” set to surpass its predecessors. Popular and controversial, it racked up tens of millions of views even while being widely parodied for its overly romantic depiction of life as a young person in China.

One of the more notable of these parodies came from fellow online video platform Kuaishou. Released earlier this month, “Seen” mimics the impassioned sincerity of “Next Wave” while poking fun at its more overdone elements. Instead of a mainstream TV actor with perfect diction, it features viral video star Huang Chunsheng heatedly, if somewhat stiltedly, beseeching viewers to “broaden their horizons.” Gone are the glossy shots of uniformly attractive young Chinese and their glamorous lives. In their stead are lively clips from the app’s rough-and-tumble users, many of them from the countryside.

For all their stylistic differences, the two ads reflect the apps’ shared ambition: breaking out of their respective niches — Bilibili as a haven for anime, comics, and games (ACG) culture, Kuaishou as an earthier TikTok — and into the commercial mainstream. Of course, as with anything, mainstream acceptance comes at a price.

Take “Next Wave,” for example. Framed as a confession from the older generation, He Bing assumes the role of a tolerant and indulgent father figure willing to defend today’s youth from the grumblings of their elders. He presents a utopian vision of what it means to be young at this moment in time: “The wealth humanity accumulated over thousands of years is spread out before your eyes,” he explains.

As He sees it, the current generation’s greatest advantage is their “right to choose” from all there is to offer. His young audience should be thankful for the right to go on nice vacations and get involved in extreme sports, not bitter about their inability to actually afford them. “It is the weak who are accustomed to satirizing and negating,” he intones. “The strong at heart never stint on praise.”

At a time of extreme economic and social anxiety, Bilibili’s depiction of 2020 as a youthful paradise was ripe for mockery. The parodies typically begin the same way, with a middle-aged man emerging from the shadows into a column of light, but the speech he delivers and the images that accompany it are drastically different from those in “Next Wave.” Some mock inhumane “996” working schedules; others replace the underlying metaphor with a different kind of renewable resource: “chives.” Originally used in reference to hapless individual investors who repeatedly lost their shirts to sharks betting on the stock market, “chives” has emerged as a grassroots in-joke among the country’s economically and socially vulnerable, a self-deprecating shorthand for the way they sprout up quickly, only to be repeatedly harvested by those higher up on the food chain.

On the surface, Kuaishou seems to take a more self-aware tack. By choosing Huang, a self-made middle-aged internet celebrity best known for his relentless positivity and encouraging aoli gei! catchphrase, it strikes a notably different tone from establishment avatar He.

In “Seen,” intergenerational issues are set aside in favor of a focus on the lower rungs and the margins of society, as befits Kuaishou’s primary user base. The advertisement interprets “margins” both figuratively and literally, drawing on clips shot from the Ussuri River along the country’s Russian border to the far reaches of the South China Sea. The featured users, too, include many otherwise disenfranchised by modern society: the disabled, the left-behind rural elderly, the farmers. Huang encourages the audience to take a look at these places and crowds that, like him, don’t fit within the rigid mold of Bilibili’s expensive, cosmopolitan utopia. Continue to read the full article here



– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.