Memes in China have gained momentum in recent years thanks to the high penetration of the Internet and usage of mobile phones. Previous studies on Chinese Internet memes mainly go into two directions, one is from a political perspective that addresses how memes reflect the tension between the Chinese party-state and civil society. The other direction is quite apolitical, which focuses on the playfulness of the Internet environment and youth culture. However, this paper proposes an “entanglement” between the apolitical and political memes and argues that under certain circumstances, apolitical memes could take on political significance and even strengthen the Chinese ruling power’s hegemony. Referring to theoretical frameworks such as banal nationalism, hegemony, and imagined community, this paper applies a social semiotic analysis to examine the “China-Taiwan memes war” on Facebook in January 2016 to further observe the key contexts and circumstances that foster the entanglement of signs and meanings. The findings demonstrate that: 1) this entanglement should give credit to the blossoming popular culture and entertainment industry which often serve as a safe hub for mild political expression and circumvent the political surveillance; 2) only when the ideas expressed in the memes are not challenging but supporting the authority’s ideology can they participate in the construction of nationalism; 3) when traditional cultural signs are reinforced with the help of popular culture (memes), consent is easily achieved and hails the netizens to re-imagine nationalism, which again, makes the Chinese party-state the ultimate beneficiary of this celebratory online culture.
Xiaomeng Li, Ohio University, United States
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