Surfing the web and becoming an internet celebrity are pursuits usually associated with the young, but one group of elderly in China are becoming the darlings of netizens for the energy and unique charm they bring to the online world.
Zhang Shaozhong, a 68-year-old retired rear admiral of the navy and former professor at the National Defense University, has gained more than 4 million fans on Bilibili, a video streaming platform popular with users born after 1995. Zhang posts videos of himself commenting on international politics and military in a professional and witty style, and is nicknamed “Director of the National Strategic Fooling Bureau” due to his tendency to downplay China’s military strength, only to be contradicted by the latest news of the country’s weapons developments.
On short-video platform Douyin, a 79-year-old woman under the handle “Grandma Wang Who Only Wears High Heels” has gained more than 16 million followers for her exquisite style—makeup, slim figure, red nail polish, and high heels—and her slogan, “Age is only a number; my wonderful life has just begun.” Grandma Wang typically uploads videos showing her outfits, occasionally offering life advice to her primarily young fan-base.
Young people make up the largest group of China’s internet users. The country’s top two short-video apps, Douyin and Kuaishou, each have more than 400 million monthly active users, and around 70 percent of those are younger than 35.
Members of “Glamma Beijing” on a photo shoot in Beijing (VCG)
However, according to the state-run China Internet Network Information Center, one in six internet users is now over the age of 50, an increase of nearly 8 percent over the last five years. A 2019 report by the government-run China Netcasting Services Association found that the proportion of users over 50 on short video platforms rose from 6.5 percent to 11 percent over the previous year, making them the fastest rising demographic of users on these platforms.
While many elderly internet celebrities gain popularity simply by subverting common expectation of the fashion sense and lifestyle of retirees, there are those like Professor Zhang and Grandma Wang who stand out due to the professional knowledge and life experience they’ve gained with age. Grandma Wang’s short videos have featured her talking about the safety of women, the relationship between genders, and how girls can protect themselves from sexual harassment, gaining millions of clicks.
The e-commerce industry has taken notice of the trend, partnering with senior influencers to host product reviews and make sales. In March, Grandma Wang made her e-commerce debut on Douyin, making 4.7 million RMB’s worth of sales in food and beauty products in 4 hours. Since then, Grandma Wang’s studio has maintained sales worth millions of yuan in product livestreams.
“Elderly internet celebrities are more likely to inspire trust among people due to their age, and this is their advantage,” Zhao Haiguo, owner of “Auntie’s Got Style,” a Douyin account with millions of fans, told China Newsweek magazine. To further capture internet users and consumers over the age of 50, Zhao has started a business that hires seniors to make short videos, and promote products when they become popular.
However, not all elderly internet celebrities want to monetize their fame. Wang Xinghuo, one of the founders and operators of “Glamma Beijing,” a WeChat public account with over a million followers, told China Newsweek that she had rejected offers from with many livestreaming companies that requested several videos from her per week, which she believed is too demanding for her age.
According to the 70-year-old Wang, her purpose for operating the account is only to break the public’s stereotypes of the elderly. A former civil servant, Wang’s life had revolved around work and family when she was younger, but retirement gave her the opportunity to sign up for a modeling course for seniors, where she met the other three co-founders of the account.
Whether posing with her friends in qipao in Beijing’s fashionable Salitun district, or showing her affectionate interactions with her husband, Wang sees her videos as a way to finally pursue her own dreams. “‘Granny’ is just a self-modest label; I’ve never thought my age was a problem,” she told journalists at Beijing Fashion Week. “As long as your heart is clear and bright, you can always have a new start in life.”
Cover image from VCG