TAIWANESE POP STAR Jay Chou Jie-lun took the send-up in good spirit. In Beijing recently to pick up his CCTV-MTV award for outstanding artist in Asia, Chou was generous about the online satirists who remixed a song of his with one by mainland folk singer Song Zuying and circulated the result on the internet. 'I think what they did was very good, I liked it a lot,' he says. 'I'd like to work with [Song] in the future.' Other victims of the mainland's fast-growing satire, or e-gao, community have been less gracious. When Shanghai sound engineer Hu Ge parodied Chen Kaige's big-budget epic The Promise in a 20-minute clip called The Bloody Case of the Steamed Bun, the director threatened legal action. He later dropped the threat. Armed with affordable sound and image editing software, hundreds, if not thousands, of wannabe humourists are unleashing a wave of online spoofs that poke fun at mainland society. Their efforts have boosted the profile of entertainment sites such as mop.com, and turned their photos, videos and songs into household names. But to some, the craze pushes the boundaries of good taste. Qian Zhijun, a 19-year-old Shanghai petrol station attendant, was crushed when he first saw his photo superimposed on such well-known images as the Mona Lisa, and that of actor Russell Crowe in his role as Roman general Maximus in Gladiator. 'When I saw that I was very angry and upset,' he says. No one knows who took the image of 'Xiao Pang', or Little Fatty, as Qian is known in Shanghai, but the 100kg teenager feels ridiculed for his weight and looks. 'I especially didn't like the pornographic ones,' says Qian. Family and friends urged him to sue. But web designer Gao Feng, who runs an internet site for the overweight ( www.xiaopang.cn ), advised him against it. 'I said a lawsuit would be pretty difficult. Sue who? How?' Gao says. He has since signed on to manage Qian, who hopes his newfound fame will propel him towards a new career. It's not just individuals who are riled. The government, fearful of becoming the next target, is drafting a law to control the trend. The craze took off in the spring in the wake of Hu's spoof video, which not only lampooned Chen's multimillion-dollar film but also mocked stiff CCTV news presenters and Communist Party ideology. Authorities' apprehension grew further when the Cultural Revolution-era film Sparkling Red Star was satirised in an online video. In a sign of things to come, officials in Chongqing this week announced fines of up to 5,000 yuan against 'online defamation', a vague term that many say is a smokescreen for asserting control over content circulated online. The fine can be imposed for personal defamation - a move many support - and on works that 'satirise others or social phenomena'. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft) issued regulations two years ago stating that all online video material must pass through regular censorship channels - an impossible task, say practitioners, and one that is widely flouted. 'I don't think they can do it,' says Peng Shan, co-founder of Yishan Studio, the Beijing media and entertainment outfit behind the Jay Chou spoof. 'That's a very backward move,' says his partner, Zhang Yiqiao. Hu agrees. The broadcast authorities 'can't enforce this rule unless they add an awful lot of staff'. Parody is Hu's channel for expressing social criticism: 'Using other methods right now is difficult.' Cultural commentator Zhu Dake says the outburst of satire springs from the people's desire to comment on society. A philosophy professor at Tongji University, Zhu likens the satire movement to Europe's surrealism movement epitomised by Marcel Duchamp, who parodied the Mona Lisa by reproducing her image with a goatee and moustache in 1919. Like Duchamp, mainlanders want to push the boundaries of the permissible. 'There are so many problems in Chinese society today,' says Zhu. 'People want to say something but there are too few outlets as our society is still very tightly controlled.' Peng and Zhang agree, although they say their aim isn't political. While they like Chou's work, they criticise much of pop music on the mainland as 'slobber'. The partners' cultural advocacy appears to be paying off: CCTV 6 has commissioned Yishan Studio to develop music for movies co-produced with the government. Zhu says requiring people to submit home videos or altered digital pictures for censorship would be a giant step backwards. 'This kind of technology has already become a key part of learning, living and having fun. If the right to broadcast it on the internet were taken away, then people's legal rights will face another grim battle,' he says. According to a Sarft spokeswoman, regulations to rein in online send-ups are a matter of time. 'I think in the future we will limit what can go on the internet, but right now it's unclear what [the limit] will look like and when it will come out.' For young people such as Peng and Zhang, satire is also a way let off steam in what they regard as an overly solemn, work-obsessed society. 'We want to have fun,' says 24-year-old Peng, who graduated from Tsinghua University last year with a degree in industrial engineering. 'People are under too much pressure and they are very serious,' says Zhang, 25, a communication studies graduate from Tsinghua. 'They have nothing to laugh about and they don't see anything funny out there. It's like when you say something funny, you have to add 'That was a joke'. Otherwise people don't get it.' Although the partners appreciate Hu's parody, Zhang says that style isn't for them. 'He's really, really critical, he has targets and aims at them. We don't do this.' Others such as Qian, who earns 500 yuan a month at the petrol station, hope that the fame will improve their prospects. Qian says he has got used to his celebrity since his image began circulating three years ago. Each day, about two or three people ask him if he is Xiao Pang. 'I don't mind it if it's well-meant.' He says he even quite likes himself as Maximus. 'I can't sing and dance very well, but maybe there will be something I can do in commercials or in cartoons,' he says.