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Gua (瓜), or "melon" is a word associated with a variety of slangs and idioms in Chinese popular culture. While gua to some extent retains its original and literal meaning of “melon” on social media platforms, the most common use of it as slang is the term chi gua (吃瓜), which generally expresses watching a spectacle unfold, commenting or gossiping on the sidelines. In fact, in the Age of Internet, the definitions of gua expand to include gossip and “citizen journalism”  as more people (chi gua qun zhong, 吃瓜群众) use online forums to discuss their perspectives or to indicate their enjoyment or concerns from viewing these spectacles. The diverse definitions of the word gua in popular culture offers valuable insight on the attitudes of contemporary Chinese netizens when faced with different types of online content. The multiple definitions of gua and the reactions of netizens (chi gua) also implied the social, cultural and political problems existing in contemporary People's Republic of China (PRC).

The Genesis of 瓜

The Chinese Character for the Word "Melon" (Gua)

Historically, the term gua (瓜) meant a literal melon. Chinese people called melons tuan yuan gua, xi gua (团圆瓜、喜瓜)[1] as a way to express ideas of fullness, completeness, and happiness. To this day, the shape of a melon reminds people of festivals, and many use melons in games and activities (e.g. melon carving).

Chinese popular culture has combined the word into a variety of new terms and idioms. Rather than focusing on the round part of a melon, slang and idioms derived from the word gua mostly stem from its other features (such as its vines or seeds). The use of the word gua is extremely diverse, as it may also refer to the Guazi clan, which has nothing to do with a melon. Through the propagation of memes and the use of social media in recent years, "gua" has become an increasingly popular word used in slang and idioms with the most common ones including sha gua (傻瓜) and chi gua qun zhong (吃瓜群众).

Traditionally, eating melon seeds was seen as a time-consuming activity that led to no productivity, hence why it was often looked down upon. During the republican era, Feng Zikai (丰子恺)[2], a famous painter and essayist, firmly believed that eating melon seeds was considered a “deep rooted illness”. According to him, melon seeds never made anyone feel full, took lots of time to crack out of their shells, and were seen as something that you could never have enough of.

Over time, melon seeds became an increasingly popular snack shared by Chinese people. It is often brought out as an appetizer in informal social gatherings to set a relaxed atmosphere and often sold as a common snack. With its use as a time passing snack at dinners, trains, and cinemas, many people use chi gua as a shortened form of chi gua qun zhong to demonstrate that they are bystanders observing interesting situations.

Etymology and Dictionary Meanings

Dictionary Meaning of 瓜

The character gua, or written as 瓜 (pronounced as guā) is a commonly used character in Chinese. It can be both a noun and a verb. When used as a noun, gua has six meanings[3]:

  1. Melon: any of diverse plants of the family Cucurbitaceae with "sweet, edible, and fleshy fruit." [4] It refers to "either the plant or specifically to the fruit." [4]
  2. Melon-like things: melon-shaped decorations, weapons, implements and etc,.
  3. Metaphor of fool: sha gua.
  4. Name of a town: Gua town (瓜洲)
  5. Name of an ancient place: Gua prefecture (瓜州)
  6. Snail
Evolution of gua (瓜) from the bronze inscription to regular script.

When used as a verb, gua has two meanings[3]

  1. Ripen
  2. Cut apart

Etymology of 瓜

Gua (瓜) is a pictograph that was first seen in the bronze inscriptions. It is the original form of gua (苽) and luo (蓏). In the bronze inscription (figure A), gua is similar to a gourd shaped fruit that is hanging on the vine, which is the same as its original meaning. In seal script (figure B), the gourd shape is written as “厶”. Some seal script (figure C) would even add “艸” (grass) on top of “the vine” to emphasize the plant nature of gua. In clerical script (figure D), the written style of gua is similar to the modern Chinese character zhua (爪). Later in regular script (figure E), the “gourd shaped” part of gua is written as "厶”, which inherit the outline of the seal script and it becomes different from zhua (爪).[3]

瓜 in Chinese Popular Culture: Multiple Meanings and Usages

Usage in Online Discussion Forums, Media, and the Popular Press

A meme of chiguaqunzhong (吃瓜群众)used in online conversations.

The contemporary meanings of gua and chi gua (qun zhong) in Chinese popular Culture were derived from their original meanings. The term gua is mainly associated with “melon” but the origins of its popular usage stem from its second meaning, “sunflower seeds” (gua zi). In China, sunflower seeds are a popular light snack friends can share while watching TV, similar to popcorn. The shell of a sunflower seeds must be peeled off when eaten. Thus, chi gua was originally understood in popular culture as a general term used to describe performing mindless, time-killing activities.[5]

This definition began to shift in reaction to the prevalence of online gossip, which was widely shared and discussed by Chinese netizens. In 2016,[6] this phenomena was coined as chi gua qun zhong, literally translating to “the eating of sunflower seeds by the masses,” but conjures up the imagery of observer who are watching some sort of spectacle from the sidelines and/or engage in gossip about it.[7] Comments by these netizens began to be referred to as qian pai chi gua zi, “eating sunflower seeds in the front row”(前排吃瓜子) and qian pai chi gua, “eating melons in the front row,”(前排吃瓜) as commenters would often post messages such as “I’m just here eating my sunflower seeds and waiting to see what happens next.”[8]

The term is also often used by netizens to emphasize their distance from an issue, such as in the phrase “wo zhi yi shi ge dan chun de chi gua qun zhong,”(我只是一个单纯的吃瓜群众) meaning “I am just an innocent spectator (who is not at all involved with this issue!).”[5] Netizens will often claim such distance after hearing about shocking or controversial online gossip but, out of fear of making a flawed judgment, taking the wrong side, disinterest or apathy refuse to comment directly on the situation sometimes. [8]

From these phrases, the term gua (in the sense of “melons,”) evolved to denote individual topics of online gossip widely consumed and discussed in online forums, with underlying emphasis on the orginally unconfirmed and often controversial nature of such topics.[3]

Comparative Analysis: The Transference, Distortion and Subversion of Contemporary Meanings

Additional usages include the phrase bu ming zhen xiang de chi gua qun zhong, “the melon-eating masses who don’t know the truth,”(不明真相的吃瓜群众) a phrase mocking netizens that mindlessly consume gossip with little care for the validity of its contents.[8] Another usage in conversations about online gossip is seen through chi gua memes netizens send, conveying sentiments such as “I am not going to comment but I am ‘eating the melon’ (taking in the gossip)” or to discretely indicate that they are passing judgements as they are “eating the melon.”[7]

Although gua and chi gua are mostly associated with online spectatorship, the terms are also beginning to be used to refer to the citizen journalism digitally witnessed by netizens. The usage of the term in this sense has challenged stereotypical notions of netizens as passive consumers of online gossip as netizens will often work together as active onlookers to uncover the truth of a gua. In this case, gua will often refer to more serious matters that posted by citizen journalists and collaboratively witnessed and supported by netizens. There are even some instances where citizen journalism supported by netizens has successfully pressured the Chinese government to change its policies.[9]

The combined understanding of all these meanings leads to a more expansive definition of chi gua (qun zhong), which can be translated as the collective digital witnessing (including the observing, commenting, and circulation) of often controversial and originally unconfirmed information including online gossip and citizen journalism (gua).

This definition of chi gua qun (zhong) demonstrates the contradictory and nuanced nature of modern-day usage of the term. When used in statements such as "I’m just a chi gua qun zhong" netizens create distance between themselves and online gossip, but in the sending chi gua memes or chi gua, netizens demonstrate that they are actively passing judgement on a "gua." Online gossip has gradually superseded other popular discourse and the stigmatization around gossiping has gradually faded. This is likely a result of the rapid commercialization and emerging attention economy of China's internet, which utilizes a click-based advertising model, and the heavy censorship of political discourse.[10] However, in recent years, despite mostly lacking political content, gua have become more heavily censored by the Chinese government as it attempts to tighten its control over the online dissemination of popular discourse, claiming that such "vulgar content" is "negatively impacting society."[11]

Associated General Chinese Words and Idioms:

Gua Fen (To Divide) (瓜分)

Fen (分) means to separate or to divide. Therefore, gua fen (瓜分) means to distribute or divide like cutting a melon. The word came from a line in an ancient Chinese history literary work named “Intrigues of the Warring States”. In the work, gua fen is used in the line “不然,天下将因秦之怒,乘赵之敝而瓜分之”, which means “If not, the world will follow Qin’s anger, and divide Zhao’s territory while its weak.” Thus, the word is generally used to refer to dividing territory.[12]

Sha Gua (Fool) (傻瓜)

Sha (傻), means stupid, silly, or a lack of common sense.[13] When used with gua (瓜), it still adopts its own meaning of foolish. Therefore, sha gua (傻瓜) is generally used to describe people who are silly and simple. Nowadays, the word is often used between acquaintances as a joke, or as a nickname for one’s lover. However, the gua (瓜) in this word is not referring to the fruit, melon. In ancient China, there was a region in the Qinling Mountain called Guazho, and the inhabitants there are called the “Guazi clan”. They were described as very loyal and hard-working, never taking a break during work. Due to this, the “Guazi clan” were mistaken by others as foolish, which in turn calling these “foolish people” as gua zi (瓜子). The word sha gua (傻瓜) was evolved from gua zi (瓜子) and is still in use today.[14]

Gun Gua Lan Shu (Fluency) (滚瓜烂熟)

Many idioms with melon adopt the natural phenomenon of how melons grow on vines, such as Gungua lanshu (滚瓜烂熟), Shunteng Mogua (顺藤摸瓜), Qiangniudegua butian (强扭的瓜不甜), and etc,.

This word obtained its meaning from the natural phenomenon of a melon ripening and falling off from its vine. Gun (滚) means to roll or piss off. The character lan (烂) has multiple meanings and it means "high level" or "great extent" in this context. [15] Lastly, shu (熟) can be used to describe cooked food, ripe plants, and familiarity with a person, event or action. [16] However, in this usage, the definition of "a ripe plant" is adopted as it is referring to the gua (瓜). Therefore, this term is generally used to describe how a person can read or memorize the text fluently, just like a melon would fall off the vine when it is ripe.[17]

Shun Teng Mo Gua (Track Down) (顺藤摸瓜)

Shun teng mo gua is an idiom that describes tracking down somebody or something by following clues. It again uses the growth of a melon similar to the idiom gun gua lan shu (滚瓜烂熟). The character shun (顺) means "to follow", and teng (藤) is referring to a vine. Lastly, the character mo (摸) adopts its definition of "to search" or "to find" in this context, rather than its general meaning, "to touch". Therefore, this idiom has a literal meaning of following the vine to get to the melon, which also correlates to its figurative meaning of how an event or person can be discovered by following clues.[18]

Qiang Niu De Gua Bu Tian (Things that are Forcibly Done are not Going to be Agreeable) (强扭的瓜不甜)

In this idiom, qiang (强) means "by force", while niu (扭) means "to twist". Bu tian (不甜) is used to describe something that is not sweet. When a melon is ripe, the part that connects it with the vine becomes dry, which will eventually make it easier to pick. If the melon is not ripe, the part that connects it with the vine is very firm and the melon vine needs to be twisted with force in order to be picked. Therefore, this idiom is saying how a melon that is picked by force is not sweet. It is also a metaphor to describe how things that are forcibly done are not going to be agreeable. In addition, this idiom is often used as advice to prevent others from making mistakes. [19]

Associated Chinese Popular Culture Words:

A Short Comic on Keyboard Man

Gua Nong (Melon Farmers) (瓜农):

Traditionally, this term suggests farmers who plant and grow melons. In contemporary Chinese popular culture, “melon farmers” refer to people that post “melons” (especially gossip) first on Internet forums. The word likely originated from an account named, “shi jing shan gua nong (shi jing shan melon farmer)” (石景山瓜农), who was famous for his diverse original posts of “melons” and received many replies in a Douban (豆瓣) group named “qing qing cao yuan.”[20]  Therefore, “melon farmers” are contemporarily regarded as people who expose “melons” online first. If these “melons” are eventually proved to be true, more people would follow the “melon farmers.” If not, people would find these “melon farmers” annoying.

Jiao She Gen (Tongues Wagging) (嚼舌根):

This is a dialect in Northern and part of Southern PRC and is pronounced as “jiáo shé gēn.”[21] It means constantly guessing and discussing something, especially the affairs of other people secretly. This dialect also refers to idlers that sometimes conform with netizens.

Ba Gua (Gossip) (八卦):

In Cantonese, Gossip (ba gua) is a noun that aligns with “melons” and a verb that suggests“witnessing”of "melons" (吃瓜). [22] As a verb, it means “dishing”, “tattling” and sowing discord. [23] As a noun, it is the entertainment news or private information, affairs, rumors and scandals of celebrities that are exposed by paparazzi.

Jian Pan Xia (Keyboard Man) (键盘侠):

A Chinese internet slang that describes netizens who occupy moral high ground and post self-righteous comments. [24] It also refers to people who are socially awkward, but post comments on everything online fearlessly, actively, cheerfully and casually using their computers and phones. These “keyboard men” are manipulated by others easily, because they often follow the dominant opinions blindly. Many netizens that engage in the digital witnessing of “melons” often possess or show the traits of “keyboard man”. This phrase originated from The People's Daily's review, “Bravely Stands for the Truth Cannot be Relied on Keyboard Man” on June 6, 2014 and it immediately became a slang online after many journalists retweeted this review. [24]

Wang Feng Ding Lv (The Law of Wang Feng) (汪峰定律):

Another Chinese internet slang, also known as "Whenever Wang Feng releases songs, there are authentic "melons" (汪峰发歌必有大瓜)." [25] Wang Feng is a well-known singer in PRC. Historical records show that whenever he released new songs or held concerts, there were authentic “melons” , or important entertainment news (gossip) being exposed online on the same dates and replaced Wang's as trending news.

Counterpart Terms in Other Cultures:

Due to the relative novelty and cultural specificity of the terms gua and chi gua, there are currently no existing directly related counterparts other languages. Additionally, research on the circulation of online gossip by non-English speaking netizens is severely lacking on the English-speaking web. Included below are terms from other cultures that are loosely related to the ideas both gua and chi gua attempt to convey.

North America's Spill the Tea

Spill the tea is a contemporary North American phrase individuals will use when eagerly inquiring about popular gossip.[26] The popularity of this phrase on social media, which became widespread in mainstream culture in 2014 with the kermit sipping tea meme,[27] contains a similar sense of chi gua’s notion of “collective digital witnessing.”

The roots of spill the tea can be traced back to 1990s Black drag culture in the United States, where the usage of the term tea was widespread. In its early introductions to popular media, tea was spelled as T or tea, reflecting the term’s origins as T, shorthand for truth (in the sense of one’s life story). T had a double-meaning in Black drag culture, referring to one’s own hidden truth or the hidden truth of others—otherwise known as gossip. The phrase “spill the tea,” (possibly a blend with the traditional English phrase spill the beans)[28] entered mainstream culture in the early 2010s as Black drag culture began to enjoy mainstream attention.[26]

Surprisingly, the phrase originally was not a reference to the traditional North American social activity of meeting up with friends to gossip over tea. There are variations on this term, such as sipping tea. The term sipping tea, was originally used in Black drag culture to refer to actively listening to someone’s T (truth, life story), or tea (gossip). In contemporary culture, it is used on social media by users when reacting to scandalous news. The usage of tea in this phrase moreso connotes a concept that relates more closely to the origins of chi gua, where one is a distant observer of whatever gossip they are consuming. However, sipping tea implies that one is actively and unashamedly listening and purposefully came to find out what the tea is.[29]

South Korea's Netizen Crime Scene Investigation (NCSI)

Netizen Crime Scene Investigation (NSCI) is a term, borrowed from American TV crime shows, that describes a unique feature of South Kore’s online culture where netizens band together to investigate a variety of topics (most often celebrity gossip).[30] The term NSCI contains a similar idea to the idea of netizens who chi gua participating in citizen journalism.

The South Korean NSCI internet phenomenon is considered to be a direct result of the nation’s position as one of the strongest IT nations in the world, as these digital witnessing netizen investigations are often done without usage of illegal hacking programs. In addition to investigating celebrity gossip, netizens have also been credited with solving cases before police investigations have begun. The outcome of these investigations often make headlines in Korean tabloid magazines.[31]

However, several NSCI activities have violated the privacy of both celebrities and private citizens and have also led to South Korean netizens that do not partake in NSCI activities to feel a sense of entitlement to the personal information of others. In recent years, a myriad of K-Pop companies have sued netizens for spreading malicious rumors about their celebrities to combat this.[32] The current uninhibited nature of South Korean online gossip has resulted in public pressure on the South Korean government to implement security measures that better protect the personal information of individuals,[30] like the neighboring government of China has done to curb netizens that chi gua.[11]

Social, Political and Cultural Implications of 瓜 and 吃瓜

Gossip, Plot Twist Melon, Volution & Entertainment to Death (Social Implications):

An Image on "Boycott Zhu Jun" on Weibo

In his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” , Neil Postman argues that television programs degrade logical, clear and serious public discourse and value by spreading fragmented information that heavily promote“news entertainment”. [33] Diverse TV channels relying on rapid-fire editing enable the explosion of disconnected and superficial information (aka. “fragmented information”) to the public. Fragmented information comes from a variety of sources and lacks the necessary details to provide viewers with an accurate and complete understanding. [34] In addition, news broadcasting companies often create entertaining narratives from fragmented information in order to draw in viewership, prioritizing viewer engagement over the validity of the information itself. As a result, TV programs begin to fuse journalism with entertainment (aka. news entertainment) by constantly creating “anecdotes” and utilizing “entertainment gimmicks” such as commercials and theme music that degrade the seriousness and authenticity of the information that the public receives. Moreover, the visual and auditory presentation of information by TV programs are overly simplistic, so that the public can consume them without a need for rational and deliberate thinking. Overall, Postman argues that the public's consumption of fragmented information and news entertainment it creates cause them to lose the ability to think seriously, make rational judgements and demonstrate serious value towards information and social affairs (aka. "amusing themselves to death" or "entertainment to death").

This phenomenon is highly prevalent in the contemporary Chinese popular culture of collective digital witnessing (chi gua, 吃瓜), which is inseparable from the rapid spread of fragmented information that has continuously promoted news entertainment (娱乐化新闻)including "melons" (gua, 瓜: gossip in this case). In the age of the Internet, with the support of various social media platforms, the explosion of fragmented information has become more far-reaching, since many netizens, sometime acting as amateur journalists, are free to publish information using their personal accounts and as the traditional channels of journalists also expand their platforms to include digital media. Big data, information streams and cloud computing also enhance the distribution of fragmented information, causing the online audiences (netizens) to read and care about the most interesting and controversial ones. In order to stand out from other fragmented information online, many contemporary Chinese news articles include entertainment gimmicks such as clickbait (标题党), the strategic designs of titles to entice netizens to click on links. [35] However, the contents are often irrelevant and unserious. In addition, an increasing amount of entertainment news focuses on the rumors, affairs and scandals of celebrities are published by professional and amateur journalists and now often occupy the front pages (头条) and trending topics (热搜) of Chinese social media platforms, especially Weibo (微博) .[35] In fact, the term gua often refers to celebrity salacious gossip, but can also be interpreted generally as any initially unproven appealing and controversial information that grew into news. Billions of short-videos on social media platforms including Tik-Tok (抖音) and Kuai Shou (快手) illustrate fragmented information with sticky music (洗脑音乐)and vivid images so that netizens can absorb it easily. Both forms of news entertainment (clickbait and gossip) involve a large amount of frivolous news or current news in an entertaining manner such that it degrades the quality and seriousness of much of the information that netizens receive and the seriousness of their attitudes and rational thinking skills towards social issues. A survey of 84,987 Chinese citizens done by The People's Daily (人民日报), an official PRC journalism channel, shows that 54.12% rely on the internet to receive information and that 38.35% only read articles that have titles they find interesting. Most importantly, under 15% of them read the news article completely and carefully. [36]

An Image of the Web-Literature,“Reborn as the Child of Zheng Shuang: Chapter 1 - Got Aborted”

Besides the negative impact of gossip (one specific type of gua), (general) gua show the “entertainment to death” of netizens when they easily accept and gloat these initially unproven and controversial information. The authenticity of many gua (including gossip) is questionable, because they can be easily produced by amateur journalists, common people and anonymous users in the form of posts, sometimes derogatorily known as “(short) essays” (小作文) on Weibo  (微博) with the motive of attracting the netizens’ attention to increase traffic and thus gain profits online. In PRC, there is a phrase called“plot twist melons”(反转瓜), [37] a type of controversial information posted from an one-sided perspective, attract netizens’ attention quickly enough to become trending news, and show surprising endings or disclose the original exposure to be completely fake after official investigations take place. [38] (Note: Even though gossip are originally unconfirmed and controversial information and thus fits into the general definition of gua, they might or might not be plot-twist after the official investigation takes place.) Additionally, when the netizens observe (general) gua, they often take sides (站队) to comment on and arbitrarily criticize one-side or even engage in virtual duels(激情对线)only to later be proven wrong (also known as 打脸: da lian, or getting one's face slapped) many of the times when many gua are revealed to have a plot-twist. The irrational actions of netizens depicted in their witnessing and consumption of gua can be attributed to their mindless consumption habits of the massive amount of fragmented information provided by the professional and amatuer journalists online. As such, many lose the ability to think logically and carefully about unproven information (gua) since they are used to consume and understand things instantly without second-thoughts (秒懂). One famous case occurred on July 26, 2018, when a woman named Xuan Zi (弦子) posted a long essay on WeChat (微信), accusing the prestigious CCTV host Zhu Jun (朱军) of harassing her in 2014. This gua quickly became trending news. After approximately four years of legal investigation, the court ruled that Zhu was innocent and Xuan Zi made a false accusation against him on August 10, 2022. Nevertheless, during the incident, many netizens attacked and condemned Zhu as a sexual harasser, and they boycotted Zhu collectively in a hashtag (#), or chao hua  (超话) on Weibo with 3,866.3 thousands views and 47 thousands discussions in 2020. Zhu lost both his job and reputation due to the incident.

Du Mei Zhu's Description of Toothpick Wu

Moreover, many netizens treat social issues in gua (in this case: initial gossip proved to be authentic after official investigations took place) with playful attitudes.They engage with this type of gua by creating and using punch-lines (玩梗) and memes (表情包) and supporting recreational videos (鬼畜). On January 18, 2021, Zheng Shuang (郑爽), a Chinese female actress was exposed by a friend of her ex-boyfriend, Zhang Heng (张恒) on Weibo of being involved with illegal scandals of surrogacy and child abandonment (郑爽代孕事件). [39] The released audio recording revealed her saying “It’s so goddamn annoying that I can’t have the child[ren] aborted” (这孩子真的打不掉,TMD 我都烦死了) when the surrogate had been pregnant for seven months. [40] Another recording showed that Zheng’s parents also wanted to give away the two children. Thus, many netizens created punch-lines, namely,“shuang phrase”(“爽言爽語”),[41] repeated her quote in titles, bullet curtains and comment sections of related recreational videos, and spread an image of a web-literature named “Reborn as the Child of Zheng Shuang: Chapter 1 - Got Aborted” (重生之我妈是郑爽:第一章 - 胎死腹中) to mock her irresponsible tone, words and behaviors, which showed the frivolous public manner towards the serious issues of surrogacy and child abandonment. 

A Meme on "Toothpick Wu" . There is a Toothpick Inside Wu's Given Name, "Fan"

Similarly, in July 2021, Kris Wu (吴亦凡), a Chinese rapper was exposed by an influencer(网红)named Du Mei Zhu (都美竹) to have slept with (allegedly raping) her and other teenage girls (吴亦凡事件).[42] According to Du's long essay on Weibo, Wu said “Mine [penis] is big so bear with me”(我的很大你忍一下)when they were about to have sex, but “his penis is [in fact] as small as a toothpick.”[42] Du's sentence soon became a punch-line and the nickname, “Toothpick Wu'' (吴签) went viral on the Chinese Internet, filling comment sections of entertainment videos and songs made about Wu's incident in addition to several memes.[43] Sometimes, traditional idioms are also manipulated by netizens into new punch-lines in response to this type of gua. For instance, jian yi si qian (见异思迁), which meant“inconsistency”became 见易思签,  having the same pronunciation but with the new meaning of“seeing Li reminded the netizens of Wu (toothpick)”to laugh at both for their sexual scandels. [44] Li Yifeng (李易峰) is another famous Chinese male celebrity who was exposed for soliciting prostitutes illegally. [45] Some netizens even clamored for more gua (gossip), because they felt ethical lines were repeatedly crossed by these celebrities and they no longer felt surprised and were open to witnessing any wrongdoings. [46] This entertaining treatment of social issues including surrogacy, child abandonment, prostitution and sexual assault by netizens show that they sometimes over-emphasize the novelty and fascination instead of severity of this type of gua. Thus, the netizens might be gradually amusing themselves to death unawarely.

Volution: Perish Together With People Working in the Same Industry!

On the other hand, Volution, Nei Juan (内卷), the behavior of internal volution, or“a strong competition level inside a particular industry or a party”is a social phenomenon that contributes to the popularity of gua (mostly gossip) and explains the irrational actions of many netizens in collective digital witnessing of (general) gua.[47] High competitive pressure at schools and work induce many netizens to enjoy gua (gossip) to relieve stress and tiredness psychologically. Specifically, intensive socio-economic pressure to purchase houses and cars, become successful, get married, take care of parents and children are all burdens on their shoulders, causing them to lack the energy to read serious news or think deeply in their free time. [48] One Zhihu user exclaims directly: “What is wrong with entertainment? I work a nine-to-five job, make up to my boss and please Party A every single day!”[49] Another one also states,“Well, entertainment to death is not that extreme, it's just our attitude towards life, afterall we all need to have some fun (找乐子).”[50] These two quotes indicate why many netizens are more likely to be irrational when they consume gua - to let off steam and show their dissatisfaction towards life, especially by joining virtual duels. In return, these temporary releases keep them energized and motivated for the drudgeries.

Digital Witnessing, Collectivism & Conformity (Cultural Implications) :

Collectivist Culture in PRC: An Image on the Tradition of Agricultural Community

Collectivism explains the digital witnessing tendency of Chinese netizens from a cultural perspective. A collectivist culture prioritizes the needs and welfare of the group over the desires and benefits of each individual. [51] The dominant ideology of communism, a Confucianist educational system and the agricultural community tradition all signify that the PRC has a collectivist culture. Peng Kai Ping, the dean of the psychology department of Tsinghua University argues that this collectivist culture makes many citizens feel close to one another physically and psychologically. [52] Therefore, many citizens prefer to connect with, be concerned about or engage in the lives and affairs of others. As such, the collectivist culture reveals why many netizens actively discuss personal affairs in gua.

Collectivist culture is also related to conformity, also known as “cóng zhòng xīn lǐ” (从众心理) or “suí dà liú” (随大流) , the “act of matching attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors to group norms, politics or being like-minded” by the individuals, [51] especially under the pressure or influence of the majority. An experiment conducted by Bond and Smith in “Culture and Conformity: A meta-analysis of studies using Asch's (1952b, 1956) line judgment task”shows 37% of conformity in collectivist countries including Asia compared to 25% in individualist countries in North America. [53] They argue that majority rule is highly valued and appreciated in collectivist countries. [53] Although conformity promotes social cohesion and harmony in PRC, it also puts pressure on many Chinese people to express their individual thoughts once an opinion gains popularity among the majority. When a negative or positive opinion about gua became dominant, many netizens would simply accept, agree with and promote such a perspective to conform with the majority. This can be problematic, because the truth doesn't always rest with the majority, which is why there are so many plot-twist “melons”, especially when there are people hiring internet water army (网络水军) , a group of users who are paid to post ordered online comments using fake and anonymous accounts in order to manipulate the public opinion. [54] A traditional idiom dedicated to this situation is, “Woozle Effect” (sān rén chéng hǔ, “三人成虎”). [55] Sometimes netizens also spread and reinforce the negative attitudes towards innocent people involved in gua through cyberbullying as depicted in the case of Zhu Jun. Moreover, some Chinese netizens who hold divergent opinions will give up expressing themselves in order to avoid acting differently or getting criticized by the majority.  

Digital Witnessing, Pan-Moralism & Morel Coercion (Cultural Implications):

Plot Twist? Follow-up on Chengdu Female Driver's Incident

The popular culture of collective digital witnessing of gua also shows Pan-Moralism, which treats “ ethics as the value standard to judge all [problematic] social phenomena”, [56] and attributes the causes of this to moral degradation. It regards selfishness, materialism and cowardice as the lack of sacrificing and devotion spirits. [56] Failing to conform to the moral standards of society (aka. social morality) causes one to become subject to others’ judgments. In the PRC, the cultural root might be Confucianism, an ancient Chinese belief system that emphasizes personal ethics and morality by depicting two major groups of people, the gentlemen, (君子) and the petty men (小人) of society. [57] The gentlemen are ethical for they seldom make mistakes that violate social standards. [58] Conversely, the petty men are morally corrupt for they might violate social principles and thus require discipline. [58] Such a clear dichotomy may impact the mindsets of lots of Chinese people growing up under the influence of Confucianism. [58] Some of them believe that good people are always those who uphold social morality. Therefore, if some people do not follow social morality, they are morally degenerate.

The controversial and illogical responses of netizens towards the people involved in plot-twist “melons” underlines this distinction and depicts an ironic solution to conflicts. As “keyboard men” (键盘侠), they stand on moral high ground (道德高地)and post self-righteous comments to accuse those involved of moral corruption. This phenomenon is moral coercion (道德绑架), the use of (unrealistic) social morality to discipline, threaten or attack other people. [59] Moral coercion causes netizens to grow apathetic towards other people for they mostly care about gaining moral high ground to justify their insults. They also do not negotiate and discuss with one another rationally to find solutions. As a result, people involved in gua often receive unethical punishment including abuse, isolation and defamation. [60] A famous plot-twist “melon” took place on May 03, 2015 between a female driver and a male driver and his family in Chengdu city (5.3 成都女司机随意变道遭男司机暴打事件) . [61] A controversial recording of a male driver beat up a female driver was released and soon got circulated online. The injured female driver who initially gained much support online soon got doxed after the investigation of the police showed that her risky driving habit had threatened the security of his whole family and caused him to physically assault her. [61] Her private information was leaked and spread by netizens online including the fact that she was an official’s child, had two resident ID cards and was in possession of records of hotel check-in. [58] It is true that the female driver’s risky driving habit harmed public security, which required the standardized judgment and punishment by the legal system instead of the netizens, who believed according to their whims that it is right to punish her unethically.

Citizen Journalism, Empowerment of the Grassroots & Seeking Justice (Political Implications) :

A Gif of Wang Yong Ping Saying, "Whether You Believe It or Not, I Do Anyway"

Even though many netizens (chi gua qun zhong) are indifferent and flippant spectators when they observe and comment on gossip (gua), they can be active onlookers at times that monitor and pressure the authority to adjust policies and address injustices through witnessing the serious “citizen journalism”(also gua): the recording and sharing of first hand grassroot information that disrupt the monopoly of professional journalism. [9] In this case, gua refers to the first-hand, (sometimes) initially unconfirmed and serious information posted by citizens. The process of witnessing (chi gua, 吃瓜) also entails a sense of responsibility and unity among netizens (吃瓜群众) when they comment, discuss, like and retweet their fellows' first hand posts to combat social issues collectively.

An Image on "The Wenzhou Train Incident"

A notable example is “Wenzhou Train Crush” that took place on July 23rd, 2011 (7·23甬温线特别重大铁路交通事故) at 20:34 p.m. as two bullet trains, D301 and D3115 crashed on a viaduct in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, causing 40 deaths and more than 200 injuries. [62] Due to its severity and relevance, this event immediately gained much attention and discussions among netizens especially on Weibo, who demanded to know the causes and received statements from the authority: the Ministry of Railways. According to Guo's account of the event, the Ministry of Railways declared the completion of rescue operations and hurried to bury the derailed carriages underground only seven hours after the incident. [9] Additionally, the Shanghai Railway Bureau attributed the cause of the crush to lightning. [9] Nevertheless, public suspicion and debates grew when a two year old girl named Xiang Weiyi, also known as Yiyi (项炜伊/小伊伊) was found alive after 21 hours in one of the carriages by the SWAT police. [62] Wang Yongping (王勇平), the spokesperson for the Ministry of Railway at the press conference on July 24 further enraged the public with his controversial response and attitude. [9]Wang not only failed to adequately explain the hasty burying of the wreckage by declaring that it was “for the convenience of rescue efforts” (since Yiyi was found later), but also shows a careless and domineering manner by asserting that, “whether you believe [this cause/explanation] or not, I do anyway” (至于你信不信,我反正信了). [63]

Yang Feng's Questions about the Burying of Train Wreckage on Weibo

Disappointed by the Ministry of Railways' response, netizens searched for the true causes of the event on Weibo by tracking updates mostly through the posts of surviving eyewitnesses and the victims' family members, the citzen journalism in this case. Most notably, the tweet of one trapped passenger's account named “Yang Quan Quan Yang,” calling for rescue on Weibo thirteen minutes after the event was retweeted over 100,000 times and was rescued later. [9] The Weibo account  “Yang Feng Chen Bi” held by Yang Feng, who lost six family members including his fiancée Chen Bi in the crash also garnered the support of thousands of netizens in the comments of his posts. [64] In fact, Yang Feng found the remains of his fiancée with the help of his friends and family members after the Ministry of Railways had declared the completion of rescue operations.[9] Together, they questioned the early termination of rescue operations and exerted pressure on authorities for investigation. Eventually, the collective efforts of the netizens (吃瓜群众) through their digital witnessing of the event proved effective. While Wang Yong Ping was fired on August 16, the State Council acknowledged in an official report released on December 28th that the flawed design, staff negligence and the “mishandling of a lightning strike”caused the event. [9] Fifty-four personnel including the former minister of the Ministry of Railways were held responsible and punished. [62] The resolution proved the legitimacy of citizen journalism that the collision was a liability accident instead of an unpreventable tragedy. This case study demonstrates the positive role of netizens (chi gua qun zhong ) in activism for uncensored and grave gua posted by their fellows, interrupting the control of information by the official journalisms and driving positive political changes.

Jiu Jungg's Description and Audio Recording on the 120 Incident on Weibo

Another important case took place on June 3rd, 2022, when an account named “Jiu Jungg” (玖君gg) released a firsthand eight minute recording of a phone call with a description on Weibo, revealing that on May 17th, a Zhengzhou 120 operator delayed the treatment of his daughter Peng Xin Jun (彭新君) , a third-year student of Henan University, leading to her death on the 30th. [65]120 is the official telephone number in the PRC for medical emergencies. This caused netizens to call for the municipal authority' s inquiry. The recording and Jiu Jungg's account showed that the operator was unprofessional, impatient and unsympathetic towards Peng in the situation.[65] It was only 2.5 hours later when Peng's roommate called 120 again that she was transferred into the hospital.  

Netizens' Comments Below Jiu Jungg's Post (including "Dancing Beefcake")

The controversial recording and the post under the title, “Sourced from Internet: Zhengzhou 120 Delayed the Rescuing of a Female University Student '' became a trending topic on Weibo, attracting 7,137.1 thousands views.[66] Jiu Jungg's post also received 170,235 retweets, 2,144,000 likes and 88,113 replies. These large figures depicted the rage, sadness and concerns of millions of netizens who demanded the municipal authority to respond fairly. Once again, it shows the roles of gua and "collective digital witnessing" of gua in online activism vividly. By releasing the recording found in Peng's phone and clearly depicting the tragedy, her parents produced and posted first-hand citizen journalism that could be regarded as gua,  controversial and originally unconfirmed information. This style of citizen journalism also transformed netizens from passive observers into active onlookers, who brought injustices to the attention of authorities through collective digital witnessing of the incident on Weibo.  Both Peng's parents and the netizens questioned the accountability of the medical authorities (120). One netizen’s comment received 115,858 likes and said, “She [Peng] trusted 120 so much, even prior to her parents, teachers and roommates…Who will save me if I am in a medical emergency when even 120 can't? I hope the related departments address this incident directly, improve and prevent similar tragedies from happening again.”[67]

The tremendous public attention online pressured the Zhengzhou Municipal government to act accordingly on the same day and its Municipal Health Commissions to establish a special investigation team for investigation, which confirmed the authenticity of Peng’s parents' recording and statements. [68] On June 6, Qing Feng Zhengzhou (清风郑州), the municipal account of Commission for Discipline Inspection and Supervision concluded on Weibo that the event was caused by poor judgment, unprofessionalism and lack of flexibility of the operator and underreporting of the incident by authorities and apologized sincerely to Peng's family and netizens. [69] Additionally, five people were charged, including the operator, who was fired.

Studies Related to 瓜

Psychological Study

In the western culture, chi gua qun zhong (吃瓜群众) are generally called bystanders. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a bystander[70] is a person who is standing near and watching something that is happening but is not taking part in it. Although the bystanders are not directly taking part in it, their presence can still influence the situation without their awareness. In the field of psychology, there is a bystander effect, which occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation, against a bully, or during an assault or other crime. Moreover, the bystanders are less likely to provide help when there are more numbers of them, while people are more likely to take action when there are no to minimal witnesses present.[71]

A psychological study related to the bystander effect was conducted by Peggy Chekrou and Markus Brauer, which explored the influence of the number of bystander-observers on the likelihood of social control. They hypothesized that the presence of others would inhibit people’s tendency to communicate their disapproval to the deviant but only if personal implication was low.

In study 1, Chekrou and Brauer assessed the participants’ perceptions of the two types of deviant behaviours: an individual draws graffiti on the walls of an elevator in a shopping center and an individual throws a large plastic bottle in the bushes of a small neighborhood park. As the experimenters thought that personal implication was lower in the situation ‘graffiti in the elevator’ than in the situation ‘littering in park’, this study was conducted to verify empirically whether the two deviant behaviors have the same level of counternormativeness but differed on the dimension of personal implication. The result indicated that the major difference between the two experimental situations was the extent to which people felt personally implicated for the damaged property.

The second study was designed to test the hypothesis, in which they should observe a bystander effect when personal implication is low (‘graffiti in elevator’) but no evidence for a bystander effect when personal implication is high (‘littering in park’). In the ‘graffiti in elevator’ condition, the randomly chosen participants would enter the elevator with a confederate played by a male student. The confederate would draw graffiti on the walls of the elevator with his back facing the participants, but he would give an opportunity for them to intervene with him through establishing eye contact before he left the elevator on the first floor. For the ‘littering in park’ condition, two confederates were played by female university students. Along a path in a public park, one of the confederates would throw the bottle in the bushes next to the path when one individual or a group of two or three individuals were nearby. They would first pretend to ignore the participants, but they would establish eye contact just as they pass each other. The results supported the hypothesis that the presence of others inhibits participants’ tendency to exert social control when personal implication is low and their tendency to exert social control in unaffected by others when personal implication is high.

In conclusion, evidence of a bystander effect was found in the low personal implication situation (‘graffiti in the elevator’) but not in the high personal implication situation (‘littering in park’), which indicates that personal implication moderates the extent to which people are inhibited by the presence of others when they decide whether they should exert social control or not. [71] This conclusion also correlates to some extent with the online behavior of the chi gua qun zhong (吃瓜群众) in which they observe gossip as passive bystanders.

Media and Cultural Study

In a 2010 study by Shubo Li, the prevalence of gossip on the Chinese internet is examined. Li discusses the history of online communities in China, starting in 1997 with the popularity of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS).

Li describes how early BBS operators and communities aspired to create online forums that provided netizens with a space to indulge in free speech without fear of state interference. Early BBS websites, such as Xici and Netsh, allowed netizens to create their own discussion boards, facilitating the growth of discussion spaces for groups marginalized by mainstream society.

From 1997 to 2003, topics in these spaces included civic debates, academia, religion, resource compilations and leisure activities. Li describes how moderation during this time period was executed by individual moderators who were mostly young intellectuals that adopted a democratic moderation style. The height of this era was in 2003, where several major offline collective events such as regional gatherings and public seminars were organized in major cities by netizens in BBS forums.

According to Li, beginning in 1999, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) began to exert more political control over the content on BBS forums. As of 2007, 51 guidelines and regulations were established to establish order across the Chinese internet. The crackdown went to such an extent that in 2005, 62 netizens were arrested for their online activities. Public discussions that challenged the regime and mainstream notions were quickly stifled, prompting public forums on trivial gossip, hobbies and leisurely activities to thrive.

In addition to this online crackdown, the commercialization of the Chinese internet through Silicon Valley investments also pushed out civic discourse and encouraged the transformation of the Chinese online sphere into a market place centered on sensationalized, trivial contents in addition to nationalistic debates. Li pinpoints the beginning of the online spectatorship phenomenon in China to be during this time period.

In conclusion, although civic debate is now discouraged on the Chinese internet, Li asserts that online spectatorship, casual talk and gossip play an important role in online community building. Li also describes how popular beliefs expressed in grassroots art forms will often be disseminated through gossip, the central process of social life and entertainment.[10]

Journalism Study

In this 2020 study by Lei Guo and Yiyan Zhang, the widespread nature of online rumors on China’s Internet is explored through the lens of the competing forces by media forces for agenda-setting dominant discourse on social media. The primary object of focus of the study is the interplay between rumor advancement and rumor refutation on China’s internet and which media forces exert the greatest agenda-setting power in terms of rumor advancement and rumor refutation. The two examine this as a cultural example of the broader international phenomenon of “fake news,” a term that enjoyed widespread use during the election leading to the term (and during the term as well) of U.S. president Donald Trump.

Guo and Zhang focus on three types of media: professional mainstream news media (such as the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the Xinhua Agency), social media (such as Weibo and WeChat) and self-media (a form of citizen journalism, such as celebrity, business and individual blogs). Guo and Zhang describe how a significant portion of rumors on China’s internet are profit-driven, a result of the click-based advertising model that has led to the high levels of sensationalized content in modern internet journalism. Rumors are most often perpetuated by self-media or amongst netizens on social media and then, due to their popularity amongst netizens, may be picked up by mainstream news media. Each media, however, was found to play a different role in the rumor advancement and rumor refutation processes as well as the agenda-setting of popular discourse.

Through an analysis of ten popular rumors on China’s internet, Guo and Zhang determined that the agenda-setting power of rumor refutation of mainstream media remained strong on platforms such as Weibo, whereas on WeChat self-media and official government accounts held more sway over the agenda-setting of mainstream media on the platform. Guo and Zhang note that while many articles on social media include rumor-refuting information, the titles still often include sensationalized content in order to attract higher audience levels.

Contrarily, the study’s findings also demonstrated that mainstream news media also tend to set the agenda on social media in terms of determining the relevance of online rumors. While rumor’s origins often lie within self-media and amongst netizens, mainstream news media will often significantly contribute to rumor advancement on WeChat due to the emergence of the attention economy on China’s internet. Both of these findings, however demonstrate the agenda-setting power of China’s mainstream media while also illustrating that the government’s attempts to tighten the circulation of online rumors has not been entirely successful.

Lastly, Guo and Zhang also point out the lack of research internationally on the relationship between professional mainstream news media and social media in the advancement and challenging of misinformation. Guo and Zhang also highlight the limited scope of their analysis of ten rumors in their study. Guo and Zhang encourage further research that analyzes more long-lasting rumors over multiple years in order to better analyze the trends of online rumor circulation.[72]


Despite the variety of meanings that gua (瓜) holds across different terms and idioms, its most popular usage relates to observations of public spectacles. The continuous use of the term chi gua (吃瓜) sometimes paints a picture of desensitization and indifference in regards to situations and incidents that warrant interventions. This is evident when netizens digitally witness social issues (chi gua) involved in gossip (a type of gua) with playful and passive attitudes. However, netizens are not necessarily always passive bystanders. Rather, they take on the role of active onlookers who have the power to pressure the authorities. This pressure prompts them to act in response to sensational stories produced by common people by making changes to relevant policies.

The popularization of the term gua also reveals the deeper issue of fragmented information. Being used to consume fragmented information published by professional and unprofessional journalists, many netizens do not exercise critical thinking when they witness unconfirmed information (gua) to seek credibility. The consumption of gua also highlights the collective digital witnessing nature of Chinese society. Often, personal affairs are transformed into public affairs, where netizens exercise their judgements online and relate private situations to broader issues and concerns. Conformity within the collectivist Chinese society makes many netizens follow the dominant opinion blindly. Additionally, Pan-Moralism also causes many netizens to display moral coercion and punish people that violate social morality unethically. Studies on the presence of social conformity in China compared to individualistic societies or the economic implications of gua and chi gua would be recommended.


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