A wave of nostalgia has swept through China’s entertainment world, as netizens coin new slang for old stars
If you’ve been online in China lately—perhaps watching a reality show on a streaming platform, or swiping through one of the many short videos on WeChat—you might be struck by the wave of nostalgia (怀旧风潮 huáijiù fēngcháo) that seems to have swept through cyberspace. Chinese netizens born in the 1980s and 1990s, have begun to “recall youth (回忆青春 huíyì qīngchūn)” by revisiting celebrities, songs, and shows that were hits when they were children and teens...as well as old scandals from that time.
The chief architect of this trip down memory lane is singer and actress Cyndi Wang Xinling, one of the earliest entertainment idols in the Sinosphere, who debuted in Taiwan in 2003 and was nicknamed the “sweetheart high priestess (甜心教主 Tiánxīn Jiàozhǔ),” for her girlish appearance, sweet lyrics, cute dancing style, and bubbly acting in plenty of “Taiwan idol dramas (台湾偶像剧 Táiwān ǒuxiàngjù).” After topping various charts in the noughties, Wang all but disappeared from the public eye for a decade, but returned during the third season of Sisters Who Make Waves (《乘风破浪的姐姐》 Chéngfēng Pòlàng de Jiějie), colloquially known as Sisters 3 (浪姐3, Làngjiě sān), a popular reality show that features 30 female celebrities and ex-celebrities over the age of 30, competing to form an all-female group.
Wang debuted in the first episode on May 20 by singing her 2004 hit “Love You (《爱你》),” sporting a ponytail and a school uniform similar to what she wore in the music video 18 years ago. Seeing their idol seemingly not aged at all, many viewers born in the 80s and 90s, who grew up watching Wang’s videos and regarded her as their “first on-screen crush (荧幕初恋 yíngmù chūliàn),” wrote: “I was in ‘high three’ when I became her fan, and now I’ve got the ‘three highs’ and she’s still a young girl (追她时我高三，现在我三高，她还是那个少女 Zhuī tā shí wǒ gāosān, xiànzài wǒ sāngāo, tā háishì nàge shàonǚ),” making a play on words between their third and final year of high school (高三 gāosān) and the “three highs (三高 sāngāo)”—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar—that come with age.
They were amazed by the passage of time, commenting: “My dead youth suddenly attacked me (我死去的青春突然攻击我 Wǒ sǐqù de qīngchūn tūrán gōngjī wǒ)” and “tears of time (时代的眼泪 shídài de yǎnlèi).” They flooded in to vote for Wang on the show, which was also a vote for their youthful memories: “If you vote and I vote, then Xinling will sing and dance ’til she’s 80 (你一票我一票，心淩八十还唱跳 Nǐ yí piào wǒ yí piào, Xīnlíng bāshí hái chàngtiào).”
As many fans are now middle-aged and financially secure, they even rushed to purchase stock in Hunan TV, the parent network of the streaming platform broadcasting Sisters 3, to show their support. It also began a trend for female netizens to film their husbands’ fixed eyes and sloppy smiles while watching Wang's performance, calling them “Wang Xinling Boys (王心凌男孩 Wáng Xīnlíng nánhái)” to compare with “Liu Genghong girls (刘畊宏女孩 Liú Gēnghóng nǚhái),” a nickname for the female fans who followed fitness routines posted by Taiwan singer Liu Genghong while he was locked down in Shanghai.
Since her debut on the show, Wang’s songs have occupied the top 10 in Chinese music streaming service QQ Music, and other stars have seen a “renaissance” of interest in their works: a re-screening of legendary singer Jay Chou's 2013 "Ferris Wheel" concert and his 2019 "Strongest on the Surface" concert gained nearly 100 million combined views on various Chinese music platforms over a weekend; renowned singer Stefanie Sun Yanzi launched her virtual concert on Douyin, the Chinese version of Tiktok, to 240 million viewers; and in the Cantopop-themed reality show Sound Never Stops (《声生不息》), several singers popular in the 80s and 90s, including Coco Lee, Sally Yeh, and George Lam, revisited old hits and impressed viewers by belting powerful ballads despite their advancing age (47, 60, and 74 respectively).
But while some fans are lost in sweet memories, others have relished digging up “dark histories (黑历史 hēilìshǐ)”—long-forgotten rumors, gossip, and scandals in the entertainment world—and “flog their corpses (鞭尸 biānshī),” referring to an ancient practice of digging up the graves of one’s enemies and humiliating them further by whipping their dead bodies.
One old scandal that has been flogged mercilessly is an awkward conversation that took place between actresses Yuan Li and Stchingowa during an interview in 2012. In order to deflect an uncomfortable question about her pregnancy, Yuan had posed a question about skincare to her colleague: “Ms. Stchingowa recently injected herself with sheep placenta. Can we say that? (斯琴高娃老师最近打了羊胎素了，这是可以说的吗? Sīqín Gāowá lǎoshī zuìjìn dǎle yángtāisù le, zhè shì kěyǐ shuō de ma?)” As the public still had rather conservative views about unconventional cosmetic treatments then, Stchingowa, apparently offended, tried to brush her off with: “Sure, sure (可以可以 Kěyǐ kěyǐ).”
But Yuan wouldn’t take the hint. She persisted: “Our skin develops wrinkles due to the demands of filming, so I am really interested in the effect of the sheep placenta. Did your skin smooth out? (我们拍戏拍得皮都皱了，所以我就比较关心，看看羊胎素打了有什么效果吗，皮是不是展开了? Wǒmen pāixì pāi de pí dōu zhòu le, suǒyǐ wǒ jiù bǐjiào guānxīn, kànkan yángtāisù dǎle yǒu shénme xiàoguǒ ma, pí shì bú shì zhǎnkāi le)?” Stchingowa answered: “Oh, but that’s not because of the sheep placenta, which affects you from the inside out (那倒不是因为这个，它是从内到外的 Nà dào bú shì yīnwèi zhège, tā shì cóngnèi dàowài de).”
Regarded as one of the most awkward “dark scenes (冥场面 míng chǎngmiàn)” in entertainment history, netizens have mercilessly parodied these lines with statements such as: “I don't like this band. Can we say that? (我讨厌这个乐队，这是可以说的吗？Wǒ tǎoyàn zhège yuèduì, zhè shì kěyǐ shuō de ma?)” And, in reply: “Of course. It’s from the inside out. (当然，这是从内到外的。Dāngrán, zhèshì cóngnèi dàowài de.)”
Another incident awkward enough to make audiences feel “socially dead” involves actress Hai Qing, who was invited to be a VIP, called a “V God (V神),” in the singing contest Super Boy (《快乐男声》) in 2013. After contestant Ou Hao finished his performance, she theatrically stepped onto the stage and showed her support by exclaiming: “Tonight, I am the ‘V God,’ but right now, on this stage, you are—my—god! (今天晚上我是V神，但是此刻，在这个舞台上，你是——我的——神！Jīntiān wǎnshàng wǒ shì V shén, dànshì cǐkè, zài zhège wǔtái shang, nǐ shì —— wǒ de —— shén!)” If the dramatic pauses weren’t bad enough, she even got down on one knee in front of Ou Hao, who seemed so embarrassed that he couldn’t speak.
Of course, this dark chapter was dug up again nine years later, and now netizens use “You are—my—god” to replace similar terms like “yyds” in order to spice up their slang dictionaries.
Celebrities who’ve had their old scandals revisited may be envious of Wang Xinling, whose “boys” look to nostalgia as nothing more than a sweet vacation from real life: “It feels like a lifetime ago, and this lets me temporarily escape from the difficulties of my middle years (就是这种恍如隔世般，让我可以暂时逃离艰难的中年生活 Jiùshì zhè zhǒng huǎngrú géshì bān, ràng wǒ kěyǐ zànshí táolí jiānnán de zhōngnián shēnghuó),” they comment. These stars may wish they also had fans who would proudly announce: “Wang Xinling’s fans are just getting old, but are not dead (王心凌的粉丝只是老了，不是死了 Wáng Xīnlíng de fěnsī zhǐ shì lǎo le, bú shì sǐ le)!”
But whether positive or negative, celebrities can at least be sure that their legacy will always remain in some form. As netizens say, “the internet never forgets (互联网是有记忆的 hùliánwǎng shì yǒu jìyì de)."