How did gossip about a celebrity couple's marriage hijack China's social media?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 3:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 11:00am

It was an eventful weekend for Chinese social media. While the saga of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has dragged on and drawn anger and boycott threats from the Chinese, comments about a protest by Taiwanese students against a trade pact with the mainland also continued to gain momentum after the demonstration triggered emotional discussions among outspoken Chinese bloggers.

However many expressed their shock that it was the alleged extramarital affair of a Chinese actor, Wen Zhang, that trended above all of the more “serious” news events after the rumours received millions of comments and reposts, and even made headlines in national papers.

Wen Zhang, 29, who is married to actress Ma Yili, is best known for his roles in popular TV shows including Struggle and Naked Marriage. He won a Best Actor award at China's prestigious Golden Rooster/Hundred Flowers film festival in 2012 for his lead role in the film Love is Not Blind.  Partially due to some of the roles he has played, the public's perception of Wen is that of a sweet, bright metropolitan man and above all, a responsible husband and father.

This might explain the immediate public reaction of shock and intrigue after photos of Wen allegedly going on a “secret date” with actress Yao Di in Shenzhen in March, taken by reporters of China’s Southern Metropolis Weekly (SMW), were released on Weibo over the weekend.

Though SMW said it would wait until Monday to publish a complete report of the alleged affair, discussions had already exploded across China’s social media over the weekend. Millions participated either by relaying the rumours or sharing their opinions about the alleged affair. The topic immediately topped Weibo’s trending list and is still currently at the top spot.

Early on Monday morning, the day SMW’s newest edition with its “exclusive” Wen scoop was went on sale, Wen posted a statement on his Weibo confessing to having an affair, and apologised to his wife Ma Yili. Three minutes later, Ma posted a Weibo message which said: “Falling in love is easy, but marriage is hard. Let’s walk on and cherish.”

As of Tuesday morning, Wen’s remorseful message had been reposted more than 1.2 million times and received 1.83 million comments. His wife's Weibo statement also received over one million comments. Meanwhile, puns and jokes mocking the couple's reactions have also flooded Weibo and WeChat, with people enthusiastically describing their own life problems with the same style of language used by the embattled couple. 

Chinese actor Wen Zhang (left), was caught allegedly going on a date with actress Yao Di in this photo. Photo: screenshot

The attention Wen’s alleged affair received has dwarfed major news events including the missing Malaysia Airlines flight and a protest against a petrochemical plant at Guangdong’s Maoming city that resulted in violent clashes and arrests, as noted by media observers.

“China’s youth pay much more attention to the private lives of celebrities compared to topics such as rule-of-law, corruption, environment, and democracy,” wrote Beijing-based media scholar Yang Bo on Weibo. “Meanwhile, the young people in Taiwan were fighting for democracy,” he added, referring to the Taiwanese students’ protest.

Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, said Chinese readers’ passion for gossip was understandable considering the censorship and limits the government places on reports of more sensitive topics such as politics.

People’s attention is naturally diverted to entertainment news, which enjoys much more freedom in terms of reporting and commentary in the heavily-regulated media industry, Zhan told the South China Morning Post.

In order for readers to participate fully in discussing a news event, Zhan said they should have full access to the information and be allowed to voice their opinions freely. Both criteria were apparently met in the media coverage of Wen’s affair, he said.

Zhan said it was due to the same reason that “huangduanzi”, or sex jokes, have gained such popularity in China in recent years.

“But it doesn’t mean Chinese readers don’t care about politics,” Zhan added.

“The general public’s interest in sex is fundamental and has always trumped their concerns for politics and other serious issues,” said Lei Ming, founder and CEO of Beijing-based Amor Entertainment Bigdata.

“People like discussing gossip because it allows them to talk about sexual relations of others,” Lei said. “This means a carnival for many in an oppressed society. “