“Moha Culture”: Toad Worship Regarding a Former President of China
by Qiyao Peng
Not only can “Mona” culture be seen as a kind of culture jamming, it can also provide a battleground and a source for civic imagination. Jenkins (2016) defines “civic imagination” as “the capacity to imagine alternatives to current social, political, or economic institutions or problems” (p. 29). In addition, Jenkins (2016) also stated that civic imagination allows us to think beyond the range of current possibilities. This part analyzes how “Moha” culture provides a new way for people to imagine a better world.
Zuckerman (2015) suggests that Weibo is more effective to intrigue political participation than those platforms built by other liberal regimes such as Twitter or YouTube. In this case, toad fans in Mainland China usually use WeChat as their main platform. However, most of the toad fan groups were banned because of Chinese government censorship. Zuckerman (2016) also stated that the use of certain languages which can only be understood by a group of people might be an obstacle to intrigue wider participation. By the discursive dissemination of information about “Moha” culture on Chinese social networking sites, people who do not worship the toad can gain access to this phenomenon. However, again because of the censorship in China, the information about “Moha” distributed on Chinese social networking sites is often fragmented and may have an incomplete understanding of the culture. Consequently, the meaning of “Moha” culture has changed and split into several different understandings. Some of the original toad fans believe that they worship the toad because they only wanted to mock and satirize Jiang, while others have admitted that they are using Jiang to satirize Xi.
The toad fans with different purposes can be categorized into the following two groups. First, toad fans who only see “Moha” as a way to mock Jiang still inform other netizens about the existence of such an unusual former leader and emphasize the presence of government censorship. They treated Jiang as someone with the power to decide who could live or not.
The second kind of toad fans embodies reflective nostalgia (Boym, 2002). This nostalgia is closely related to Xi Jinping, the current president of China. He showed his affability at the beginning of his first presidential term in 2013. People called him “Xidada” and his wife Peng Liyuan “Pengmama,” which translate to “Xi Boss” and “Peng Mom,” which are endearing terms. However, the afterward strict control of the internet environment and free speech changed this situation. After Xi Jinping made the constitutional amendment that restricted the president’s terms for only two consecutive terms, the situation became more obvious. A growing number of Chinese nationals started to feel disappointed by Xi and attempted to admire the president that was more open-minded, such as Jiang, compared to the current one, Xi. It then created a sense of reflective nostalgia by reminding the audience of their “ache of temporal distance and displacement” (Boym, 2002). As a result, Chinese netizens started to cherish Jiang given their current dissatisfaction with Xi’s governance.
As previously discussed, toad fans notice that Jiang’s human-like image is very different from Hu Jintao’s (the former Chinese president served between Jiang and Xi) poker face and Xi’s artificial smile. A toad fan said that “I would rather to have a ridiculous president like Jiang rather than an emotionless machine like Xi.” According to a survey, the number of people who liked Jiang is similar to the number of people who disliked Xi (BBC, 2016). It can be seen that with the comparison between Jiang and Xi, the dissatisfaction regarding Xi is even more serious.
In addition, toad fans want a president who is more knowledgeable and more open-minded than Xi. For example, Jiang received his bachelor’s degree from Shanghai Jiaotong University, a reputable university in China, while Xi only completed a middle school education. Although Xi has a bachelor degree from Tsinghua University, many Chinese citizens believe that he received this degree because of his power rather than his knowledge because he went to Tsinghua based on recommendation rather than an entry exam. Also, Jiang appeared to treat dissidents in a friendly manner during his presidential term. He gave emotional responses to the journalists who have asked harsh questions to him rather than trying to block those journalists. According to Boym (2002), reflective nostalgia usually contains ironic meanings. It can be seen from the analysis above that the core of “Moha” culture is the ironic depiction of Jiang and the indirect criticism of Xi.
However, toad fans also admit that they are not real fans of Jiang; they just use Jiang to express their dissatisfaction regarding the new president. Boym (2002) argues that reflective nostalgia does not include the need to come back to the time or place that people admired. In this case, although toad fans tend to admire Jiang and use Jiang to ironically criticize Xi, most of them still insist that they do not want to go back to the time when Jiang was the president. They admit that there Jiang committed horrible deeds. Reflective nostalgia reveals that longing and critical thinking are not opposed to one another and has a capacity to awaken multiple planes of consciousness (Boym, 2002). In this case, most of the toad fans are aware that even if they can imagine a more open and more liberal society in China based on Jiang’s governing style, they still treat the nostalgia as a hope which can be achieved in the future rather than dreaming to go back to Jiang’s presidency. Therefore, it can be seen that the second kind of toad fans conveys a good example of reflective nostalgia. It also demonstrates that “Moha” culture allows toad fans and other netizens to be able to imagine a better world.
In conclusion, for a number of the toad fans, the image of Jiang is well-educated and open-minded, which is the opposite of the serious image of Xi. Although the images of Jiang and Xi may not represent the reality, the differences between those two images may provoke toad fans’ doubt regarding the current regime. The ideal image of Jiang provides the model of a more democratic and free society for those toad fans, and also gives them confidence to build a better society for China in the future.
Based on the analysis, “Moha” culture can be seen as a kind of culture jamming that provides both the source and the battleground for civic imagination. The way toad fans participate in online interactions helped to attract more toad fans and other netizens. Although toad fans first emerged in order to show their rebellion to the nowadays regime which has a serious image and conveyed an ironic meaning, the fan community is still a steady community that is similar to other fans groups, which can generate collective action. Moreover, they effectively use social media to express their ironic worship of Jiang and they are able to influence other netizens as well. Therefore, it can be seen that “Moha” culture embodies the possibility as a battleground for civic imagination and political participation.
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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.