"Moha Culture": Toad Worship Regarding a Former President of China (Part One)

Today, I am sharing another paper — a fascinating account of culture jamming and civic imagination in China — which emerged from my spring PhD seminar on Participatory Politics and Civic Media.

“Moha Culture”: Toad Worship Regarding a Former President of China

by Qiyao Peng, University of Southern California

Jiang Zemin served as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party between 1989 to 2002 and the President of China between 1993 to 2003 (CNN Library, 2017). Born in 1926, Jiang is known as the longest-living former president in China (CNN Library, 2017). During his presidential terms, Jiang was known for his corruption, a rumored affair with a female singer, and his ridiculous statements and behaviors (Zheng, 2016). Therefore, Jiang was not adored by the people during his presidency. However, since 2014, Jiang has become a popular figure on Chinese social networking sites such as Weibo (known as Chinese Twitter), WeChat (online chatting platform) and Zhihu (known as Chinese Quora) and generated many fans (RFA, 2016). On these platforms, Jiang is referred to as a “toad” because of his perceived resemblance to the animal, by a group of people who called themselves “toad fans.” This phenomenon is called “Moha culture,” which translates to “toad worship culture” in English.

This essay firstly explains the meaning and the context of “Moha” culture. Then, it introduces the cultural meaning of the toad in Chinese traditions and its connection to toad worship. Thirdly, this essay analyzes how toad fans can be regarded as culture jammers, and how “Moha” culture can be regarded as culture jamming. Lastly, this essay analyzes how this culture jamming became a source and battleground of civic imagination in the current political context in China. 

“Moha” Culture

The word “Moha” is the pronunciation of a Chinese word “膜蛤”, which can literally be translated as “toad worship” or “admiring toad.” In Chinese, “mo” means admiring and “ha” means “toad.” In this context, Jiang Zemin represents “Ha” because of his resemblance to a toad. People who worship toads call themselves “toad fans” or “toad lovers.” In this essay, “toad fans” refer to this community in general.

  Figure 1

Figure 1

  Figure 2

Figure 2

Figures 1 and 2 represent the most typical images associated with Jiang Zemin on Chinese social media. In Figure 1, the picture shows prominently Jiang’s mouth, flared nostrils and his usual black frame glasses. The “+1s” in Figure 2 represents “add one second to Jiang’s life to extend his life.” This is a common feature in memes of Jiang (Lam, 2016). The “+1s” denote Jiang’s longevity, particularly because of several reports of his death at different times that turned out to be fake reports. Therefore, people started to make fun of the fake news and ironically say that Jiang was about to die, but that people could contribute one second from their own lives to Jiang to keep him alive. In this same instance, Jiang is also referred to as “the elder,” who is old but cannot die. 

In addition to his age and perceived longevity, Jiang is also widely associated with the image of a toad. The nickname “toad” was firstly given to Jiang in 2004 by the members of Falun Gong (a religion that was suppressed by Jiang in 1999) to simply humiliate him (Zheng, 2016). However, after Xi Jinping, the current president of China, came into power in 2013, the purely negative meaning of “toad” when referring to Jiang changed (Zheng, 2016). “Moha” culture firstly became popular because of the popularity of a WeChat public account “Jiangxuanyantaohui” in 2014 during Xi Jinping’s first presidential term, which means “Seminar on the Selected Essays of Jiang” (Qin, 2015). From then on, toad fans emerged and some of them started to use the nickname “toad” in an ironic and even sometimes friendly way to refer to Jiang. 

According to Zheng (2016), most of the toad fans are well-educated young people who are mostly in college. The toad fans have mostly grown up with a limited understanding of Jiang’s governance because most were born after the 1990s. During Jiang’s presidential term, these toad fans were too young to get access to Jiang’s information directly. Therefore, their knowledge of Jiang’s leadership style mostly comes from the descriptions from their parents (Zheng, 2016). In addition, although they might be too young to remember his 14 years in power, they watched and shared videos and photos of his speeches to appreciate his confidence, openness, and occasionally his bad manners (Huang, 2016). In these videos and photos, Jiang sometimes plays the ukulele, dances and sings, and sometimes gives a speech in several foreign languages with hilarious accents, and even combs his hair in political meetings (Huang, 2016). Some of the Chinese millennials admire Jiang for his unscripted public persona, which is hard to see from other Chinese politicians, especially Hu Jintao (the former president of China who served between Jiang and Xi) who had a poker face, and Xi, who usually wears an artificial smile. After getting tired of Hu and Xi’s poker faces, toad fans turn the ridiculous manner of Jiang into a symbol of affability. Therefore, Jiang has a ridiculous but also informal image in most of the toad fans’ minds. 

The Image of the “Toad” in China 

Although the nickname “toad” was firstly used to describe Jiang only because of his physical appearance, people use different expressions about toads to convey more complex meanings. Firstly, it is worth noting that the word “toad” has two expressions in Chinese, one is “Hama” (also known as “Ha” in this context), which is a colloquial and vulgar expression that usually conveys a negative meaning; and the other one is “Chanchu,” which is a neutral word often used in written language. When people refer to Jiang, people usually use “Hama” or “Ha,” the vulgar version of toad, while in Chinese traditional culture, the lucky totem is usually represented as “Chanchu.” Therefore, although “Hama” and “Chanchu” mean the same thing, the difference in expression suggest different implications.

Moreover, the toad has an important figure in Chinese traditional culture. According to Yao (2017), the Chinese have tended to worship the toad since ancient times. The toad is a totem of longevity, wealth, and is considered an auspicious omen. However, although the toad represents positive meanings in Chinese traditional culture, it is never regarded as something sacred such as the Chinese dragon. In addition, in recent fantasy novels, toads are usually represented as the kind of animals with “spirit” and mostly evil. For example, a Chinese saying that translates to “a toad lusting after a swan's flesh” is used to satirize an ugly man who wants to marry a pretty girl. Based on this, toad fans often make fun of Jiang’s unconfirmed extramarital love affair with a pretty female singer. Therefore, it can be seen that although the toad has both positive and negative meanings in Chinese culture, it still represents something negative in everyday life and especially in Jiang’s case. 

In addition, the differences between a toad and a frog should be recognized. The toad was firstly used to represent Jiang. But since frog images are much more widely available online, and given its similarities to toads, the frog (in Chinese “Wa蛙”) is sometimes also used to refer to Jiang by toad fans. Although the toad has its meaning in Chinese ancient fairy tales, most of the literature, such as Chinese ancient poems, hardly used toads in the content. On the other hand, frogs are more often represented in popular culture than toads and are usually seen as cute animals. Frogs are regarded as friendly to humans because they eat pests and their sounds forecast the coming of spring, which represents positive meanings such as hope and rebirth. This aspect of the symbolic meaning of frogs also relates to Jiang’s longevity and to the toad fans’ contribution of “+1s.” Toads, on the other hand, often represent something ominous. The use of frogs in memes about Jiang, then, suggests more about the lack of toad images and symbols to use than the positive associations the Chinese might have to frogs.

  Figure 3: Toad

Figure 3: Toad

  Figure 4: Frog

Figure 4: Frog

Another interesting thing is that although people use “toad” to represent Jiang in language, they normally use the picture of a “frog” rather than a “toad.” It can be seen from Figures 3 and 4 that a toad can often be interpreted as much uglier than a frog because of its larger size and its bumpy skin compared to the frog’s much smoother, leaner appearance. The frequent use of frogs instead of toads might be due to the unsightly image of toads not only for toad fans, but also for other netizens who are willing to engage with “Moha” culture. Therefore, the way they normally use a frog’s picture as a substitute for a toad’s picture helps to spread the popularity of “Moha” culture. 

It can be seen that when using a toad and a frog to refer to Jiang, the meaning can be sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Therefore, toad fans tend to use degrading language to represent Jiang to fulfill their desire to kick up the people who have higher social statusthan themselves, which is also a way to make “Moha” culture interesting and more acceptable to broader audiences.

Culture Jamming and Toad Fans

With its ironic nature, “Moha” culture can be seen as a form of culture jamming. According to DeLaure and Fink (2017), “culture jamming” refers to a series of tactics used by activists to critique, subvert, and “jam” the dominant forms of power. These tactics include media pranks, advertising parodies, textual poaching, billboard appropriation, street performance, and the reclamation of urban spaces for noncommercial use (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). “Moha” culture can be seen as a typical example which makes use of the existing sources to challenge mainstream culture. In addition, DeLaure and Fink (2017) distinguished several universal qualities and functions of culture jamming. This part demonstrates that “Moha” culture embodies most of these qualities and functions. 

First, culture jamming appropriates (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Jammers typically retool existing cultural forms, poaching an image, corporate logo, advertisement, billboard, city wall, or retail space and transforming it into something new (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Their raw materials are the images, sounds, landscapes, and habitual practices of late-modern consumer capitalism (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). In this case, toad fans usually use existing videos and pictures of Jiang to start their media pranks and textual poaching. They mainly produce videos, pictures, or memes based on Jiang’s interviews and photos. In this case, Jiang becomes a source of adaptations and is being reformed into something new by toad fans. 

The most notable example of appropriation is the toad fans’ adaptation or ironic use of pre-existing Chinese ancient poems and Jiang’s words as their sources to express new meanings. For example, Jiang’s own words or speeches are adapted to satirize Jiang. In an interview with a Hong Kong reporter, the reporter asked Jiang’s opinion about the election of Hong Kong’s governor. After Jiang said he supported the current Hong Kong governor without deep consideration, the reporter then criticized Jiang that the Hong Kong governor was internally determined by the Chinese Communist Party. Jiang was utterly discomfited, he left his seat and emotionally criticized the reporter in three languages, including Mandarin, Cantonese, and English with his strong accent. He blamed the reporter by saying “You only want to make big news!” and that the reporter was “too young, too simple, sometimes naïve!” and started to show off his relationship with an American reporter Mike Wallace and his ability to deal with hard questions by saying “Do you know Wallace? He is far more talented than you all and I talked to him very happily!” (Qin, 2015). Mike Wallace has interviewed Jiang before and criticized him as a “dictator” (Qin, 2015). Jiang’s words were appropriated by toad fans in memes featuring his face with the words “making big news” and “too young, too naïve.” The memes were then used to satirize other online news reports, and toad fans would use these two phrases from Jiang’s outburst in the comments section. By doing so, the concept of Moha is further spread and becomes known to a larger number of netizens. Also, Jiang’s words regarding Mike Wallace made people think that Jiang was tolerant to dissidents. Toad fans use Jiang’s own word to satirize Jiang, which corresponds to DeLaure and Fink’s (2017) idea that culture jamming occurs when mainstream culture is used and adapted to criticize itself. 

  Figure 5 (BBC, 2016)

Figure 5 (BBC, 2016)

Second, culture jamming is artful (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Most of the jammers featured in this DeLaure and Fink’s work are artists of various stripes: painters, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, graphic and web designers, actors (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Toad fans create new content artfully by adapting Chinese ancient poems for their own use, such as replacing other animals in the poem with “frog”. For example, the poem “the river becomes warm in spring duck prophet 春江水暖鸭先知” from the Song dynasty poet Su Shi was adapted into “the river becomes warm in spring frog prophet”. The original meaning of the sentence is to show the close relationship between the spring, nature and animals. By adapting “duck” into “frog”, toad fans try to satirize Jiang as a prophet who still does not want to give up his power and is informed of everything happening in China. Also, making videos and memes requires specific creative skills. For example, Figure 5 shows a news photo taken when Jiang was enjoying floating on the Dead Sea (BBC, 2016). Toad fans added the title “The floating toad on the Dead Sea” and transformed the news photo into a meme with a simple addition. The artful way of creating content is common among toad fans when “worshipping” the toad. 

Third, culture jamming is often playful (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). According to DeLaure and Fink (2017), in confronting serious issues, culture jammers frequently use humor, pranks, and carnivalesque inversions. The ways toad fans interact with each other are playful and often ironic. This playfulness can attract more people to understand “Moha” culture, which is an effective way to encourage civic participation. In addition, the intentional choice of “Hama,” which is the vulgar version of “toad,” shows toad fans’ willingness to “kick up.” According to Littlewood and Pickering (1998), pleasure can be generated from kicking up and humiliating the person who has a higher social status than you. In this case, to use a vulgar word to refer to Jiang, who is a former president and has a high social status, is a way to jam and challenge the mainstream culture in a playful way. Moreover, Benton (1988) argues that humor is a way of easing political tensions. It can be seen that using humor to worship the toad in a playful way is effective for people to diminish the power of political leaders. 

Fourth, DeLaure and Fink (2017) argue that culture jamming is often anonymous. According to them, culture jammers do not seek personal fame and fortune. This is usually true in “Moha” culture because toad fans who worship Jiang do not like to disclose their personal information, especially under the censorship of the Chinese government. However, this statement is also arguable among toad fans. When interacting with other toad fans on social media, these fans tend to intentionally use self-censored words as if there were someone trying to delete their own content. For example, if they wanted to comment “too young too naïve” to make fun of Jiang, they normally only write “too young…” sometimes with the frog emoji. Then other toad fans might start to comment on that original comment by saying “your body is cold,” which means the original blogger has already died, or “you are now on the shot-to-death list.” Toad fans intentionally exaggerate the outcomes of toad worship, and then emphasize their braveness to break the rule. Therefore, to worship Jiang is a way of showing toad fans’ self-identity and their unique rebellion against the mainstream culture. It can be seen that toad fans are under control by the government censorship, but in the meantime, they try to play with the censorship and highlight the existence of censorship so that other people would notice it. This act corresponds to Zuckerman’s (2015) statement that Chinese government censorship pushed netizens on social media to use metaphors to circumvent censorship, and that those metaphors can remind people of the existence of censorship. 

Fifth, culture jamming is participatory (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). According to DeLaure and Fink (2017), culture jamming might facilitate collective organizing and bring people with similar opinions together. Although there are still disagreements on whether culture jamming facilitates or hinders organizing, the example of “Moha” culture demonstrates the ability of culture jamming to bring toad fans together and facilitate interactions among them. As mentioned before, toad fans have a willingness to interact with each other by using their own language. In addition, Moha culture includes the participation of toad fans to create videos and memes and requires a large number of people’s comments on social media. The interactions among toad fans and the discussion regarding “Moha” culture also benefit from transmedia storytelling. On different platforms, toad fans use their own language to communicate and comment on public accounts. Therefore, the language and the concept of Moha culture can be seen by a large number of people multiple times and reinforce the impression of Moha in their mind. 

Sixth, culture jamming is political (DeLaure and Fink, 2017). Culture jamming challenges existing structures of power, seeking to reveal hypocrisy and injustices, spark public outrage, and promote collective action (DeLaure and Fink, 2017). It is obvious that toad fans usually work together and interact with each other on social media to ironically criticize or degrade political figures, which is a way to challenge both the mainstream culture and the structures of power. 

Seventh, culture jamming operates serially (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). The serial quality to culture jamming means that actions are repeatable (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). In Moha culture, the memes and words can be used in different settings by different toad fans. People serially use similar memes and words to comment on different social issues. By doing so, “Moha” culture maintains its sustainability and improves its possibility of exposure. 

Eighth, culture jamming is transgressive and boundaryless (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). In addition, culture jamming in the twenty-first century can traverse national boundaries and grow into a global phenomenon (DeLaure & Fink, 2017). Although Jiang is a Chinese political figure with little popularity in other countries, the language of “Moha” culture, especially memes, can be seen by people outside of China. Also, there are no criteria to be able to worship the toad; everyone can be a toad fan and every platform can be used to spread “Moha” culture. 

Therefore, “Moha” culture can be seen as a form of cultural jamming and helps to encourage not only toad fans, but also other netizens to participate in politics by discussing political figures.

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Qiyao Peng is a master candidate at Annenberg school of the University of Southern California. She is interested in online communities and fandom. With a background in mainland China, she is also interested in how Chinese online communities engage in political participation.