The background of the stage is a dazzling clash of bright pink, yellow and blue. At its center lies a logo of a tongue jutting out from a huge pair of lips. Three middle-aged men are sitting behind the equally bizarre table—one is wearing a leopard suit, the other has a moving puppet on his shirt, and the last one is waving a Chinese folding fan.
This is the set of the most popular variety show in China—Qipa Talk (《奇葩说》). With 3.27 billion views on Weibo and 1 billion plays online, it’s hard to believe that this is actually a debating show.
“Qipa” (奇葩 qípā) originally means “a beautiful and rare flower” in Chinese. In the internet age it has become a sarcastic term for people who behave in an unusual and nonsensical manner. Officially taking this name and proudly calling every debater a “qipa”, the talent show has revolutionized the meaning.
Sure, there are top-tier professional mandarin-speaking debaters from Chinese mainland, Taiwan, and Malaysia, but most of the participants on the show are not trained in debating: they are cross-talk comedians, playwrights, TV hosts, news reporters, and college professors. But nonetheless, they all have experiences and opinions valuable enough to be heard.
Qipa Talk successfully brings the critical debate down from the altar. Drowsy and abstract topics are replaced by familiar struggles in daily life: “Should we block parents from our WeChat Friend’s Circle?” or “Should you date your boss in the working environment?” are representative examples. When AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol in a five-game match, the topic was “Would it be love to fall in love with an Artificial Intelligence?”
Here, the audience rules. As six debaters from two sides speak in turn, the 100-member audience can change their opinions and re-vote for either side any time. The team favored in the final poll wins the debate, and one person from the losing team will be voted to leave. In contrast to formal debates, here, flaunting debating techniques and speed tends to repel the audience. But as is the case with all debates, good debaters are sincere, logical, and always true to their own technique, even if it means being different.
Jiang Sida (姜思达) came to Qipa Talk in Season One with a flamboyant red flower in his hair. Worried about the public opinion he then changed into a plain shirt, losing all his edge and presence. But like all other debaters, the first lesson he learned at Qipa Talk was not to please the audience at the risk of hiding himself. In one debate, “Should gays and lesbians come out to their parents?” He publicly announced his gay identity, and his sorrows and struggles on coming out to his parents made many audience members shed tears.
Individuality is rarely encouraged in the socialist China, which partly explains why “rare and beautiful flower” evolved to insinuate “weird freak”. A photo shot four decades ago reminds us how far this country has come along—all people, female or male, were dressed in grey uniforms that suppressed personalities and individual expressions. Today, more and more “qipas” are showing their unique faces, voices and clothes on the screen, winning respect from audience as a real person.
A photo shot four decades ago reminds us how far this country has come along
We are all what Huxley called “Great Abbreviators”, meaning that none of us knows the whole truth. In Qipa Talk, the percentage of the audience supporting each side is always fluctuating, suggesting huge potential for different opinions, and room for the crowds to be shaped and persuaded. The show has a rather nonsense English name, “u can u bb”, borrowing from a popular online saying “no can no bb”, a literal translation into Chinese, meaning that “if you don’t have something worth saying, just shut up”. Qipa Talk encourages everyone to say whatever they want to say.
Qipa Talk, no matter how many layers of meanings it carries, is in essence an entertainment show. The host Ma Dong (马东) is witty and humorous, cracking jokes endlessly. Having been a celebrity host in central television for two decades, he knows where the minefields lie, and where the safe zones are. In an age where we “amuse ourselves to death”, entertainment has become a platform—a means, not an end.
Cover images from qianlong