Quick question: How do you say “nnnnnggghhh…brains!” in Mandarin?
The answer may soon become relevant as Chinese web users get increasingly hungry for their very own zombie fad. Like many in the West, Chinese fans are attracted to zombie horror films, and enjoy Western movies and television shows like 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and The Walking Dead. China’s blogosphere is anxiously awaiting the release of World War Z in 2013—so anxiously, in fact, that there are already over 650,000 posts devoted to the subject on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, and a search for the Chinese word for zombie yielded more than 32.5 million entries. Excited for the movie, @看重庆 wrote, “Thousands of zombies bring about Doomsday, must see!”
An outsized interest in the undead
Zombies are not a Western import. China has a long tradition of folklore about the living dead, or more accurately vampire-zombies called jiangshi (僵尸). In a short story collection from the Qing Dynasty called Yuewei Caotang Biji by Ji Xiaolan (纪晓岚), the jiangshi kill living people and animals in order to steal their living energy, or qi. These zombie-vampires are uniquely terrifying, too. The do not shuffle slowly, but hop from spot to spot, usually with extended arms and stiff knees. They stock living prey with malice aforethought. Ji described them as creatures “covered with white hair, have bloody red eyes, hook-like fingers, and exposed teeth like sharp daggers. They fill your nostrils with the smell of blood and gore.”
Weibo users have also been fascinated by a strange tradition in a remote part of western Hunan Province called “zombie-herding.” Many men from this impoverished region work away from home, and when they die, local sorcerers supposedly put a spell on their corpses and “herd” these zombies as they hop back to their native villages for burial.
The “zombie-herders,” a specialized profession, stay at “zombie inns” with their charges during the day and travel under the cover of the night when the zombies, dressed in black with yellow amulets glued to their faces, are seen hopping along with their herders.
Reasonable zombie fans differ on how the herding is done. One school of thought is that several corpses are placed upright and linked with long bamboo sticks under their arms, and two herders carried each end, giving the illusion that the corpses are hopping.
Don’t be a stiff
China’s Internet users have also embraced the humorous side of the undead. One Western video titled “The Dancing Dead” depicts a zombie dancing to Skrillex, Elvis, and Gangnam Style, and has more views on Chinese social networking site 56.com (1.56 million) than it does on YouTube (approximately 980,000). Perhaps seized of China’s need for more energy resources, one blogger on China’s Sina platform calling himself “Colin” has presented ideas for using the un-killable zombies as a clean energy source in every-day life that include powering a car from behind (the undead chase the passengers, to no avail) or cracking open walnut shells (since zombies always try to bite).
Some Weibo users have also enthusiastically followed an annual contest to design the ultimate zombie apocalypse hideaway. The contest is organized by Architects Southwest, an architecture corporation with the mission of designing buildings that complement the surrounding environment, and asks participants to design a house that is defensible, and that also provides sustainable food, water, and energy sources for its inhabitants in the case of a zombie apocalypse. One Weibo user, @最潇洒的狼, marveled at some of the entries from last year’s competition, but posted a picture of what he thought should be the true winner. Dismissing the winning entries he wrote “They have all lost to this: Treadmill Zombie Safehouse” which you can view here.
Games like Plants vs. Zombies and Zombie Farm have also taken zombie absurdity to the next level. On Weibo, the games are very popular, with a combined total of about 170,000 followers. In comparison, on Twitter, Plants vs. Zombies and Zombie Farm only enjoy a combined total of more than 50,000 followers, even though the games were produced by Western companies.
Zombies to the rescue?
The fact that recent Chinese fans have tended to adopt Western zombie movies and games wholesale is incongruous, given China’s rich history of zombie tales. While the U.S. and other Western countries look to the Caribbean and Haitian voodoo for much of their zombie legends, China can draw from its own cultural mythology to create zombie stories.
However, even though Hong Kong and Taiwanese studios have been putting their own spin on zombie movies since the 1970’s with hits like Mr. Vampire, Chinese films have tended to prefer the Western zombie style over the jiangshi. For example, the 2012 release Zombie 108 (Z-108 棄城) portrays a zombie apocalypse in the style of 28 Days Later in Taipei and bills itself in English as “the first genre movie combining apocalypse and zombie [sic] in Chinese film history.” (You can see the not-quite-safe-for-general-audiences clip here).
However, change may already be on the horizon. This past November, the Chinese mainland released its first-ever zombie movie, Zombies Reborn (无间罪). While bloggers originally anticipated it with excitement and curiosity, many were disappointed with the lack of hair-raising horror after seeing the movie, @织里葵花籽 tweeted “Went to see Zombies Reborn last night. Thought it would be terrifying, the introduction said that zombies came alive, eh. Watched it, and it wasn’t very interesting. The plot and acting are generally bad.” In a one sentence review that says it all, another Weibo blogger, @多孔纤维 , lamented “It’s increasingly looking like there is no hope for domestic-produced horror films.” While viewers generally found Zombies Reborn uninspiring the movie did introduce a couple indigenous innovations, like zombies with red eyes and fangs.
A truly creative and original zombie movie could also inject new life into China’s fledgling film industry. Chinese producers are worried about the fact that while total box office revenue in China increased by over 40% this year, box office revenue for Chinese films dropped by 4.3%, and domestic studios only control about 41.1% of that market share now. Producers blame a recent agreement signed by the government, which allows 14 more foreign movies to be imported every year. They are finding it hard to compete with Hollywood’s television shows and movies, which often come to China by way of pirated DVDs. However, with the evident popular interest in zombies as displayed on Weibo, a well-directed Chinese zombie movie might be just the thing to extract more revenue from Chinese movie buffs.
A zombie movie might also have better luck getting past China’s strict censors in the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. Hypothetically, a story about restoring order after the chaos of a zombie attack could strike just the right tone with censors conscious of fostering a harmonious society. Throw in some gratuitous scenes to show off China’s new military equipment, and you might just have the recipe for a domestic box office blockbuster. Next step: Protecting the Chinese studio’s intellectual property rights. But that is a story for another time.