Positive Energy or Poverty Porn? “Second Uncle” Viral Video Sparks Debate About China’s National Character

A viral video about a 66-year-old disabled rural man weathering adversity with resourcefulness and optimism has touched the hearts of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens—and touched off a complex debate about poverty, disability, authenticity, exploitation, and how ordinary citizens ought to respond to depictions of suffering.

“Just Three Days After My Return to the Village, Second Uncle Has Cured Me of ‘Mental Burnout’”《回村三天,二舅救好了我的精神内耗》racked up over 10 million views in a single day, after being uploaded to the hugely popular streaming and video-sharing site Bilibili last Monday. Posted by Tang Hao, a vlogger and former history teacher who goes by the online handle “Yige Caixiang” (@衣戈猜想), the eleven-and-a-half minute video employs Chinese voice-over narration as it depicts Tang Hao’s “Second Uncle” (his mother’s brother) using crutches, performing household chores, taking care of his own elderly mother, and working as a handyman repairing sundry items for the other villagers. What’s on Weibo published a useful summary of the video content, and noted the tremendous response from the public: “One hashtag for the short film […] received a staggering 630 million clicks by Tuesday. The hashtag ‘Why Did Uncle Blow Up Like That’ (#二舅为什么突然火了#) received over 140 million views on Weibo.”

The outpouring of initial commentary about the video was largely sympathetic, positive, and even admiring. As SCMP noted, “Commenters online said the short film was ‘healing’ and ‘inspiring’ and called the old man an ‘ordinary but great’ person.” Some state media outlets lauded the “positive energy” of the short film. An opinion piece in China Daily’s global edition praised “Second Uncle” for exhibiting “the same spirit that has supported the Chinese nation for thousands of years. […] These are Chinese virtues that impress the world.”

CDT Chinese editors compiled an initial selection of viewer comments, several of which are translated below. Most of the comments were positive, while some expressed reservations about extolling the pockets of poverty and suffering that remain in China, despite historic advances in alleviating poverty, without exploring the root causes:

@得过且过过不过:The writing is wonderful, the story is engaging, and the pacing is smooth but never dull. I can’t quite express it, but the way he uses humorous language to describe a life of poverty, the heart-wrenching twists and turns of one person’s story in an ordinary world, wrapped up in a bittersweet package … what a great story.

[…] @zwenwei: After all, submissiveness is a quintessential part of our national character. At least Yu Hua and others like him dared to write about the origins of suffering, but the root cause of this second uncle’s suffering is barely mentioned in passing by his “nephew.” Passive observers who have been trampled countless times by reality have no intention of delving into this more deeply. What moves them is the fact that Second Uncle has struggled at the bottom rung of society for his entire life with nary a regret or complaint. How fortunate this nation is to have a citizenry so easily hoodwinked.

[…] @wondyelf: Second Uncle’s story is truly moving, but I don’t want to live like him. In another place, he would have a better life. [Chinese]

As the video continued to gain traction, social media was filled with posts explaining its popularity, aggregating the best viewer comments, analyzing various reactions to the video, and searching for lessons it might hold for today’s generation. A widely-shared screenshot listed “The 15 Things ‘Second Uncle’ Taught Us,” including such tips as the importance of finding honest work, considering adoption if you can’t have children, and living life with no regrets or complaints. Guangzhou-based Time Weekly even interviewed some of Tang Hao’s former students, who praised his teaching methods and sense of humor.

Before long, however, there was a small backlash to the video, as some social media users began to question the identity and motives of the creator, the authenticity of the setting, and certain factual discrepancies in the story. A now-deleted WeChat post from the account @青春好暖和, archived by CDT Chinese, posed “Ten Questions about ‘Second Uncle’” and concluded that for this generation, it is more important to interrogate rural misery than to lionize it:

Suffering is suffering. Never extol misery, or say you’re “moved” by suffering, and certainly don’t consider the hardships of the Chinese people as a badge of honor to be passed down to the next generation. Rather, we should reflect on and learn from suffering, so that suffering does not become perpetual. No amount of hardship will make the nation prosper, and it is only by carefully reflecting on these hardships that we will find the path to prosperity. [Chinese]

A WeChat post titled “There are Very Few Truths in the ‘Second Uncle’ Video, I’m Afraid” (archived here by CDT) dissected the original Bilibili video and pointed out a number of inconsistencies and falsehoods. Based on the brickwork and construction, writer Chenmo Ke (沈默客) noted, the house did not appear to have been constructed “before the U.S. even existed,” as the narrator of the video claimed. Moreover, given certain architectural incongruities—and the fact that Second Uncle and his mother are never seen entering the house—the writer posited that the house did not belong to them at all. A bit more detective work followed, with the writer unearthing discrepancies regarding dates in Chinese history, Second Uncle’s academic record, the tale of his disability certificate, and his “Schrödinger’s” left foot, which he appears to be able to use to walk, climb ladders, and drive when he is unobserved.

Second Uncle is Fake, So Is His Story, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul is Poisoned,” a now-deleted WeChat post by Zuo Qinglong (左青龙), mined a similar vein, but focused on possible plagiarism and the suspicious aftermath of the video. The author detailed similarities between the video and “My Silent Second Uncle,” an article by Wu Biaohua, and provided screenshots to back up allegations of plagiarism. Zuo also pointed out a red flag in Tang Hao’s response to requests for follow-ups or interviews with Second Uncle: “Realizing that the fake ‘Second Uncle’ character would soon be exposed, the fake ‘nephew’ immediately issued a public statement saying “I have asked [Uncle’s adopted daughter] Ning Ning to come pick up Second Uncle and Grandma and drive them away from the small mountain village seen in the video … to live in a different place, where they will not be disturbed by anyone.”

A number of thoughtful articles have criticized the video for its glorification of hardship and excessive focus on the “aesthetic of suffering.” A WeChat post from the account @行走的哈姆雷特, “The Essence of Second Uncle’s Story Is the ‘Aesthetic of Suffering,’” noted that what is so “abnormal” about the video is that it “tallies too much with the ‘positive energy’ narratives so familiar to the Chinese people. […] Now enjoy this bowl of rustic chicken soup for the soul.” Another WeChat post, “Why Are People Stanning Second Uncle? Because They’re Ah Q,” referenced the protagonist of Lu Xun’s 1921 novella The True Story of Ah Q. Author Yu Feng argued that there is “no reason to package it as an inspirational fairy tale, a ‘chicken soup for the soul,’ or a so-called ‘cure for mental burnout.’ For if it is medicine, then it’s just spiritual opium with which to numb people.” Popular WeChat blogger Wang Wusi, never one to mince words, chided those who would voyeuristically seek psychological relief by observing the suffering of others. “This is both very perverse and very typical,” he wrote in a now-deleted post. “You may think your Second Uncle has cured you of mental burnout, but I suspect you’re going to have a relapse. Suffering is not a vaccine against mental illness.”

Other commentators grappled with the uncomfortable fact that Second Uncle speaks not a word in the video, and that all information about his life is provided by the nephew’s voice-over narration. A WeChat post by Lan Xi, titled “Sorry, But I’d Still Like to Hear Second Uncle Speak for Himself,” described it thus: “Someone is summing up Second Uncle’s life for him, reconciling him to his sufferings, resigning him to his fate.” Zhang Hong, writing for the Peking Review of Books, offered a broader historical perspective in Second Uncle’s Chicken Soup Nourishes Viewers’ Souls, But Obscures Historical Suffering.” This thought-provoking article detailed the historical hardships faced by China’s farmers, and concluded that “the cinematographer’s narration does not do justice to the decades of hardship suffered by Chinese farmers, nor to Second Uncle’s lifetime of experience. Compared with the bitter lessons of Chinese history over the past few decades, the film seems superficial and frivolous.” 

There were also articles expressing concern that these sorts of “positive energy” pieces encourage passivity, impede activism, and crowd out real calls for change. “Who is Responsible for Second Uncle’s Suffering?” from WeChat account @有马体育 raises a number of questions about why Second Uncle appears to have received such inadequate support from his government, his community, and his family. It is irresponsible, the author argues, not to confront these questions head-on:

No one is born happy or born suffering, much less born to be indifferent to suffering. What we need to ponder is this: who caused Second Uncle’s suffering? And even more importantly, at every step of the way—as life was backing Second Uncle into a corner, as his suffering took root, as he passively accepted that suffering—who was extolling his passivity? The “Second Uncle” video isn’t some sort of national cure-all; it’s more like a national anesthesia. Neither the creator of the video nor the audience confront the problem directly: they actively dodge the issue. [Chinese]

The “Second Uncle” phenomenon seemed to invite comparisons to other films, people, and events in recent news. WeChat account @Philosophia 哲学社 published an intriguing (and extensively footnoted) four-part article titled “How to Describe ‘Second Uncle’: A Narrative of Suffering and Emotional Mobilization.” In it, the author compared tropes found in the “Second Uncle” video with those in other films and documentaries about disability and rural poverty, in media reports on similar themes, and in public service announcements about rural poverty-alleviation programs:

The techniques used are not particularly clever, but the cinematic language invariably communicates a benign and tranquil ambience. In the end, the conspicuous message is, “Be resolute, don’t be afraid of making sacrifices, conquer all obstacles, and strive for success,” thus imparting a “therapeutic value” to the video. This style of writing is not uncommon, and it reproduces long-standing, stereotypical “narratives of suffering.” [Chinese]

A number of posts made the perhaps less obvious connection between “Second Uncle” and “second-generation-official-scion” Zhou Jie, a young man who recently became infamous for flaunting his wealth and official connections online. After members of his friends’ group shared screenshots of Zhou Jie bragging about wearing Omega watches, drinking $60,000-per-kilogram tea, and receiving expensive cartons of cigarettes from local officials, Zhou was dismissed from his job at state-owned Capital Operation Holding Group in Jiangxi province. More difficult to explain was how he and his parents managed to acquire six residences and two commercial properties on their modest, mid-level government salaries. Netizens and state media outlets alike were incensed, seeing it as proof of corrupt officialdom passing down ill-gotten gains to the next generation. Finance Professor Zhao Jian published a piece framing China’s rural/urban economic divide as a “dual spiritual structure,” with Second Uncle representing a generation born into rural poverty, and Zhou Jie representing urban, second-generation wealth. “It is this spiritual structure,” the author notes sadly, “that is impeding our progress toward a modern society.”

Lastly, a sharply satirical short story from WeChat account @闪光的哈萨维 adopted the language and tone of the “Second Uncle” video to highlight the case of a mother-of-eight kept shackled by her husband in a village in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province. Early this year, a viral video of the woman, wearing a metal collar around her neck and shivering in a shed in winter weather, provoked a public outcry and led to an investigation into her mistreatment and trafficking. The now-deleted story, archived by CDT and partially translated below, is titled Short Story: Three Days After My Return to the Village, My Shackled Third Aunt Still Hasn’t Cured Me of ‘Mental Burnout’:

This is a satirical short story. Any similarities to real-life events are purely coincidental. Do not take it as truth.

This is my Third Aunt, a formerly gifted young girl who married into Xuzhou from afar. And that is my Third Uncle, who in his youth was every bit as handsome, inside and out, as Kris Wu.

They live in this old house in Fengxian. When it was built, Biden and Trump were still pooping their diapers.

No one knows where Third Aunt came from, but rumor has it that she may have gone to school in Dazhou, Sichuan. Nor does anyone know her surname, only that it might be “Li,” and that it definitely isn’t “Zhao.” People say that Third Aunt was the number-one student at her elementary school, and the top student at her junior high school, as well. In the national “unified examination,” only three exams from rural students in Dazhou were accepted, one of which was Third Aunt’s.

I’ve also heard that my Third Aunt disappeared one day on her way to school, after having had a big fight with her parents. Not long after that, she reappeared in Xuzhou, thousands of miles away, and when she was 17 or 18, she married my Third Uncle.

I think this must be love, for even if lovers are separated by thousands of miles, they will run toward one another, and find a way to be together.

And yes, even though Third Aunt is twenty years younger than Third Uncle, they love each other so much that they’ve had eight children together, each one of whom is terribly clever and adorable.

When Third Aunt first arrived at Third Uncle’s house as a teenager, she kicked up a big fuss, screaming and smashing things.

[…] Afterward, Third Aunt stopped speaking, refused to eat or drink, and kept her door locked securely. Third Uncle pleaded with her, and brought meals right to her door, but Third Aunt just lay in bed with her eyes closed and wouldn’t say a word. The way Third Uncle described it, when he would peep at her through the window, Third Aunt looked as beautiful as an angel with a broken leg.

Later, and I don’t know how it came about, Third Aunt finally gave in and began to interact with the other villagers. She stopped sobbing and fussing and smashing things, and although her face was sometimes black and blue, she became less withdrawn, and even learned how to laugh.

And although she would often cry, Third Aunt was willing to work hard when she saw the expression on Third Uncle’s face. At one look from Third Uncle, Third Aunt would get straight to cleaning his house, without even being asked.

Third Uncle is an uneducated man, but Third Aunt always talks to herself when she is out basking in the sun. She’ll point to the sun and say “sang,” point to the village’s dirt path and call it “roude,” and sometimes mumble to herself, “Ai wang te gou huomu.”

Because the villagers couldn’t understand Third Aunt’s foreign gibberish, the old men and women in the village would always laugh at Third Uncle behind his back, saying how embarrassing it was that he’d married a crazy woman.

But Third Uncle would always rush to Third Aunt’s defense, saying, “She’s smart, she’s a good woman, and she rushes out the door as fast as that Olympian Wang Junxia from the TV. There were a few times when Bo Guang and I barely managed to catch her.”

Bo Guang is a huge wolfhound that Third Uncle keeps to guard the house and the yard. He is as fierce and powerful as Hu Xijin.

Then, one afternoon, Third Aunt suddenly vomited. She was pregnant.

[…] And so it went for several years, until one day Third Aunt became lame. There were rumors in the village that she had been beaten, but Third Uncle denied it, saying that she had slipped and fallen.

One of the village busybodies asked Third Aunt how she had become lame. Third Aunt glanced at her mother-in-law, then glanced at Third Uncle, then lowered her head and meekly admitted she’d fallen into a ditch one night walking down a dark road.

And Third Uncle patted Third Aunt on the back and said, “That’s right, isn’t it.”

Third Aunt is lame, and can’t get off the ground, and can’t run fast, but she can still have children.

So she became pregnant again, and a second child was born, another boy.

[…] At this point, the couple was still in love, so a year later, a third child was born.

Although they were poor, they were loving.

After that came a fourth child,

and a fifth,

and a sixth,

and a seventh, born in quick succession.

[…] Perhaps Third Aunt’s life hasn’t turned out to be as lovely as she had imagined. She has bled, and scabbed over, but the scabs cannot be ripped off, lest they tear the flesh away. But she has seven children, and a mother-in-law and husband who love her, and this tranquil, lovely countryside. You spectators out there—can you not see how happy her life is?

[…] Not only does Third Aunt have a problem with her legs, her mental problems have resurfaced. She has started muttering to herself as if bewitched, whispering things like “You all are rapists” in a foreign tongue the villagers can’t understand, like the traveler in that story about Cthulhu, muttering into the abyss.

[…] Third Aunt can hardly take care of herself anymore, and she doesn’t have much will to live. Once, she even hung a rope from the door frame.

[…] To prevent Third Aunt from relapsing, or from harming their seven innocent children, or from trying to bite off her own tongue or commit suicide, Third Uncle has—for several years now—been making sure to chain her up in the shed beside the house when he goes out to work the fields, or when he leaves to do carpentry work for the other villagers.

What is bound by chains is love, that intoxicating misery. [Chinese]

Open popup
X

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.