Melon eaters and censorship in the PRC

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Because of the scandal surrounding the illicit, involuntary relationship between female tennis star, Peng Shuai 彭帅, and top CCP official, Zhang Gaoli 张高丽, which became a hot button issue around the world beginning about a month ago, the Chinese government went into overdrive to censor all trace of it from the internet (see here).  The issue was particularly sensitive and embarrassing to the Communist Party because it rekindled the Me Too / #MeToo / #Mǐtù 米兔 ("Rice Bunny") movement (which the government had only with great difficulty tamped down a few years ago), led to the cancellation of the lucrative Women's Tennis Association (WTA) tournaments in China, and is even threatening to cause a boycott of the upcoming winter Olymics, which would be utterly disastrous for the PRC.

The gross disparity between the absence of all mention of l'affaire Peng Shuai et Zhang Gaoli in China (indeed the disappearance of the star herself) and the raging indignation over it outside China led me to inquire of my friends in China what they were hearing about it sub / sotto voce.

All responses in this post are from Chinese citizens who must remain unidentified for fear of harsh government reprisals.

From a highly educated humanist in Beijing:

When Peng Shuai published her story on Weibo [VHM:  China's Twitter clone], it miraculously survived for about 20 minutes before being deleted. Thus many people read her story and the next day it was a hot topic in some WeChat groups I am in.  Of course the names were mentioned in an obscure way to avoid any risks to the WeChat group. Her story was circulated in the social media secretly for a few days and then became silent. You might have heard about the phrase “chī guā qúnzhòng 吃瓜群众” (melon eater?). Any exposed scandals are called guā 瓜, and those spectators “chī guā qúnzhòng 吃瓜群众” (melon eaters?), who feast upon this kind of news. In the eyes of the spectators, Peng's story is a huge guā 瓜 ("melon"), and they are eager to feast upon it. Meanwhile, as it became a taboo subject to the internet police, people passed it on secretively to avoid online censure in the first few days after its exposure. Now the hustle and bustle has quieted down. The government and people are saying nothing of Peng Shuai in public. She has disappeared completely within China. 

Tentatively, we may translate the phrase literally as:

“chī guā qúnzhòng 吃瓜群众” ("melon eating masses / crowd / public / populace")?

Apparently, exposed scandals are called guā 瓜 ("melons"), and those spectators who feast upon this kind of forbidden, yet delicious, news are referred to as “chī guā qúnzhòng 吃瓜群众” ("melon eaters").

Hence, I know roughly what the phrase means, and I know approximately how it is used, but it takes some digging to figure out why it means what it does.

Here is the explanation of “chī guā 吃瓜” ("melon eating") from the Baidu encyclopedia, but it is not very satisfying or illuminating.

A PhD candidate gave me a very full answer to my question of how this odd phrase means what it does:

Yes, I’m very familiar with the phrase as a member of the “chī guā qúnzhòng 吃瓜群众” ("melon eating masses" myself! Yes, exposed scandals are called guā 瓜 ("melons"), but I don’t think guā 瓜 ("melon") is limited to “forbidden” news. Anything that is delicious can be called a guā 瓜 ("melon"), though in most cases it’s scandalous, and within the entertainment / celebrities circles. Political or life-related events would not be a guā 瓜 ("melon"). For example, news that is disease- or war-related would not be a guā 瓜 ("melon"), unless in one special case: the news is “hilarious” as seen by a certain group of people. I believe that Middle Eastern warfare would be called a guā 瓜 ("melon") amongst anti-Muslim groups; yet most “normal” people would not categorize such life-and-death world affairs as guā 瓜 ("melons").

I think “chī guā 吃瓜” ("melon eating") has two possible sources.

First, Chinese people looooove to gather outdoors in summer. Perhaps because AC has not been a common thing (e.g., my home in China still doesn’t have one!). Therefore one of the favorite activities for people in summer would be to sit outside on little stools and make a circle with neighbors and friends — and chat. Usually with watermelon and other snacks, most of the times fruits and veggies and nuts for adults and puffed snacks for kids. So it’s natural to develop the idiomatic term “(water)melon eating” when it comes to describing the “virtual gossiping activities (with virtual watermelon in hand and mind)” on the internet circle.  Cf. Lu Xun's famous "Ménwài wén tán 門外文談" ("An Outsider's Chats about Written Language"), translated in its entirety in Hawai'i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture (2006).

Second, guā 瓜 may also mean guāzǐ 瓜子 ("melon seeds"), usually watermelon, but sometimes also sunflower seeds. It’s such a popular snack to munch on, not only for gossiping outdoors, but also on trains. Long-distance trains are perhaps the most important public transportation for China, even more than buses and way more significant than the “elitist” plane, especially during chūnyùn 春运 (“Spring Festival Transportation”) that takes place around Chinese New Year, transporting crores of blue-collar workers from metropolises to their home villages through hours-long, even days-long trips. Trains are therefore a crucial place to study the Chinese way of communication, bonding, and dialectal exchanges (if anyone is interested or any scholarship has been published on these subjects!) amongst the lower and lower-middle social strata. The most common, or cheapest snack sold on long-distance trains would be seeds. They are even cheaper than instant ramen. They are also convenient to eat because no hot water is required to make the food edible — imagine moving your feet to the hot water machine in an overcrowded train on which there are even people lying flat beneath the seats and sitting inside the toilet!!! I used to take such trains when I went to southern China during the Spring Festival to visit my grandma’s sister’s family. My parents and I had to wear adult diapers to avoid having to move our bodies to the bathroom during the 12-hour ride. The point is that guāzǐ 瓜子 ("melon seeds") became THE food for train riders, and the vendors at train station hawking “guāzǐ qìshuǐ xiǎo bǎndèng 瓜子汽水小板凳” (“melon seeds, soda, and little stools!”) became an indelible collective memory for Chinese people in the late 20th- and early 21st-century. And this is perhaps the second reason why guāzǐ 瓜子 ("melon seeds") was simplified into guā 瓜 ("melon"), and thence “chī guā qúnzhòng 吃瓜群众” ("melon eating masses / crowd / public / populace") in the internet-gossiping context.

Here's a note from a student with an M.A. in Chinese literature:

Actually I do not know the exact origin of “chī guā 吃瓜” ("melon eating"), though sources on the internet suggest that it could come from the popular post “qián pái chī guāzǐ 前排吃瓜子” ("eating melon seeds in the front row") a few years ago, which means that “I am among the earliest ones who saw this post, but I do not have anything important to say, so I just stay here nibbling on melon seeds (and probably some other snacks)”. But I guess it is extremely popular now, as WeChat’s default emojis even have one called “chī guā 吃瓜” ("melon eating").

A Ph.D. candidate in Chinese history:

The phrase is very popular, and if my memory serves me right, I think people began to use it as early as in 2016. “Chī guā qúnzhòng 吃瓜群众” ("melon eating masses / crowd / public / populace") can be roughly equated with "wéiguān qúnzhòng 围观群众" ("onlookers"), which means that those "eaters" are only bystanders, but not directly participating in the discussion of a scandal. 

All this by way of explaining how watching netizens try to circumvent the censors in China becomes a kind of morbid entertainment.


Selected readings


  1. jehovoid said,

    December 8, 2021 @ 10:03 pm

    I always correlated it with the popcorn-eating "dis gon be good" meme in the English-speaking internet, so I just assumed it was a reference to people eating seeds while watching traditional Chinese opera and the like. But apparently it doesn't go back that far…

  2. ycx said,

    December 8, 2021 @ 10:52 pm

    It's interesting that both the man and the woman in the relationship have names that are usually used for their opposite genders:

    帅 is usually translated as "handsome"

    丽 is usually translated as "beautiful" and is a common female name component.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    December 9, 2021 @ 3:25 am

    Two things interested me in the writing of your second informant — firstly his use of "AC" to mean "air-conditioning" (my initial interpretation was "alternating current") but I was completely thrown by his "crores", as in "transporting crores of blue-collar workers". I initially thought that it might be a typo for "scores", but buses carry scores of people while trains (to which he was referring) carry hundreds. Do you have any idea what he meant by "crores" ?

  4. Peter Taylor said,

    December 9, 2021 @ 5:37 am

    @Philip Taylor, crore is an Indian English word meaning ten million.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    December 9, 2021 @ 6:26 am

    Ah, thank you Peter — much appreciated. Had I thought to look in Hobson-Jobson, all would have been immediately clear.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 9, 2021 @ 9:27 am

    I found it a bit initially surprising that a Chinese citizen who had presumably learned English as a second language would have picked up as distinctively Indian a lexical item as "crore(s)." But India of course has a very large English-speaking population (with a substantial internet presence) and is located "right next to" China if you're willing to climb mountains, so maybe I should not have been surprised. But are there common or well-known instances of features of the variety of ESL current in the PRC showing direct influence from Indian English?

  7. David Marjanović said,

    December 9, 2021 @ 11:07 am

    …Maybe English teachers from India are much cheaper than those from elsewhere, and so they're employed a lot in the PRC…? Just speculating, I have no idea about the facts on the ground.

    By the way, air conditioning in private homes is still pretty much a US phenomenon. It's practically unknown in Europe, in both the warmer and the richer parts.

  8. Alexander Browne said,

    December 9, 2021 @ 11:48 am

    J.W. Brewer: Ditto, and I remembered the Chinese number system used a different scale from the western ones, but looks like it's myriad/10⁴-based, while in the Indian system "there are new words for every second power of ten: lakh (10⁵), crore (10⁷), arab (10⁹), kharab (10¹¹)".

  9. V said,

    December 9, 2021 @ 5:42 pm

    So, the peanut gallery?

    As a language-first Bulgarian whose second language is English since the mid '90s, crore is a word I passively acquired in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, by being exposed to Indian English.It's in my passive vocabulary.

  10. V said,

    December 9, 2021 @ 10:24 pm

    David Marjanović: air conditioning in private homes is quite widespread in the hotter parts of Bulgaria and in Greece.

  11. V said,

    December 10, 2021 @ 12:47 am

    Almost ubiquitous, actually. Not confined to "rich" parts, however you might define that. You have to be quite "poor" (relatively speaking) to _not_ have air conditioning in southern Bulgaria or Greece.

  12. Joshua K. said,

    December 10, 2021 @ 2:30 am

    If there were a boycott of the Winter Olympics, how disastrous would it really be to the PRC? The Olympic organizing committee has already received payment for the TV rights, and most of the ticket sales would normally be to Chinese citizens anyway.

    The Chinese government might be embarrassed, but they'd be cheered up by all the medals their own athletes would win.

  13. V said,

    December 10, 2021 @ 2:45 am

    Joshua K. :
    I would guess Moscow 1984, rather than LA 1980 levels of disastrous. And it's also a Winter Olympics, so even worse for the PRC.

  14. V said,

    December 10, 2021 @ 2:48 am

    Mixed the two up :/

  15. Scott Mauldin said,

    December 10, 2021 @ 8:08 am

    I was expecting more examples of what your Chinese contacts were hearing about the scandal.

  16. V said,

    December 10, 2021 @ 10:47 am

    In my experience, people outside of the US and Greece don't really care about the olympics? And even inside Greece, mostly.

  17. Diana S. Zhang said,

    December 14, 2021 @ 2:10 pm

    It is likely that the "Chinese citizen who had presumably learned English as a second language" has "picked up as distinctively Indian a lexical item as 'crore(s)' " did so via received trainings in South Asia studies and non-China related fields.

    An interesting phenomenon is that, compared to especially Japanese, there are significantly less Chinese who are immersed in trainings and devoted to trajectories that are neither China-related nor "West"-related. Take the South Asia field as example: there are so many Japanese people who one can name, in the contemporary time, that are solid South Asian specialist and South Asian alone (e.g. Akira Takahashi, Ryosuke Furui, etc) — without considering "connectivity with their 'own' culture". There are Chinese who master Sanskrit, even Hindi or Tamil or Tocharian or old Javanese, yet their essential argument always link back to associations with the Chinese culture, aka "themselves". Ditto for other fields. Of course it is a stereotype that the training that which a Chinese receive, especially in a "foreign Western" land, should presumably be primarily Sinospherical studies if not "Western" studies. But meanwhile, why are Chinese people's ātma-grāha ("self-attachment") so strong so that their conduct keeps feeding such ethnocultural stereotype rather than cutting through them?

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