Chicken soup for the soul: the weird universe of Tiktok wisdom
The self-help craze: chicken soup for the postmodern soul
You might be familiar with the expression “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” as it is not a phenomenon particular to China. In fact, its roots can be traced back to a self-help best-seller by American motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen. First published in the 1990s, the first edition was followed by many others addressing specific demographics (such as Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul). It is now an established media company boasting over 250 self-help publications.
The name originated from the Christian habit of reducing food consumption before Easter as a means of spiritual cleansing. The starving body would be served chicken soup to alleviate the suffering of fasting. Similarly, “Chicken Soup for the Soul” came to symbolize the increasingly-popular genre of self-help books and media, consumed as a comforting way to ease the pain provoked by the uncertainty of postmodern life.1
Literally translated in Chinese as 心灵鸡汤 xinling jitang, the term is widely popular online (the thread 心灵鸡汤吧 on the online forum Baidu Tieba has more than six hundred thousand posts alone2). Public opinion seems divided, as many netizens point out the shallowness and cheesiness of such inspirational content. However, its consumption is enormous and it seems to be transcending generations and social classes.
Self-help and Guoxue: scholars turned Tiktokers
What is peculiar to the Chinese context is how 心灵鸡汤 intersects with the current国学热 guoxue re or “National Studies Craze.” This term describes the revival of traditional studies and culture (especially Confucianism) that started after the economic reforms in China.3 Since then, many books have been written about Chinese classics in an attempt to explain otherwise obscure content to a broader audience and show its applications in contemporary society.
However, in the streaming era, short video apps have become the go-to venue not only for entertainment but also for inspirational and educational content. It is on apps such as Douyin and Ximalaya (the number one podcast app in China) that we can find the most interesting and bizarre examples.
Two instances of this trend are曾仕强 Zeng Shiqiang and 吴军 Wu Jun.
Zeng Shiqiang was a famous professor of National Studies and founder of the discipline of “Chinese-Style Management” (中国式管理 zhongguo shi guanli). Even after his death in 2018, his speeches are still watched by millions of Douyin users. On the official Douyin account “传世国学” fans can listen to his Chinese wisdom-imbued advice while a soothing flute tune plays in the background and images of the sky and the sea play on a loop. It is indeed a bizarre experience for younger Chinese, but it might feel like an enlightening event for less aesthetic-oriented users.
In a similar fashion (but arguably with a better postproduction team), Wu Jun offers advice about virtually every domain of life: from children’s education to furniture arrangement and Chinese medicine; he seems to have an answer for any trouble you might encounter. Also coming from a management background (he boasts an EMBA from Peking University in his bio), Wu Jun embodies the pinnacle of success and knowledge for his followers. He wears simple black outfits remindful of Steve Jobs and Confucian scholars at once, drinks tea and uses a wide array of Chinese philosophy concepts to comfort the followers, and help them navigate the complexity of life.
Selling Chicken Soup: soulful profit in the Douyin era
Lacking extensive training in Chinese classics, it is beyond me to evaluate the accuracy of their interpretation. However, what strikes me as an observer is the versatility of National Studies and its potential profitability. In fact, Douyin has far transcended its nature of streaming platform and quickly rose as one of the most profitable e-commerce apps as the last Double Eleven sales have shown.4 When watching Wu Jun and Zeng Shiqiang videos, a button will pop up on your screen, quickly redirecting you to the built-in online store. Collections of books and DVDs containing the master’s speeches are available and, according to the comments, widely purchased and appreciated by the audience.
The reason behind the success of self-help media is simple: contemporary China lacks an institutional religious system, and the rapid socioeconomic transformations of the last decades have left many citizens feeling overwhelmed and lost. According to the latest social media trends, the answer to modern problems might reside in ancient Chinese wisdom, repackaged and sold in a new, concise, easy-to-consume format.
References / To go further
“心灵鸡汤吧,” Baidu Tieba, accessed November 15, 2021, https://tieba.baidu.com/f?dyTabStr=MCwzLDYsNSw0LDIsMSw4LDcsOQ%3D%3D&fr=ala0&kw=%D0%C4%C1%E9%BC%A6%CC%C0&tpl=5.
Chen Jiaming, “The National Studies Craze: The Phenomena, the Controversies, and Some Reflections,” China Perspectives, no. 1 (2011): 22-30..
Wu Peiyue and Jiang Yaling, “Alibaba Tries an Unfamiliar New Singles’ Day Strategy: Restraint,” SixthTone, November 12, 2021, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1008954/alibaba-tries-an-unfamiliar-new-singles-day-strategy-restraint.