Criticising local politics, rejecting western cultural intrusion: a study of Sanlu Dairy online jokes.

Author:Li, Mu

Prestigious Past and Tarnished Present

In addition to the Beijing Olympic Games, another event shook China in the summer of 2008--tainted milk. This event, which became known as "the 2008 Chinese milk scandal," originated in early May, although it did not initially attract much attention. On July 16, 2008, sixteen infants in Gansu Province who had been diagnosed with kidney stones were all found to have been fed milk powder produced by the Shijiazhuang-based Sanlu Group. Although the Chinese central government's Administration of Food Safety became involved, in order to maintain China's reputation during the Olympics, no investigation was initiated and sales were never stopped. The news broke on August 2, when the Sanlu Group's New Zealand partner Fonterra became aware of Sanlu milk's contamination. By Sept 5, 2008, Frontera had notified the New Zealand government of its discovery and, three days later, on September 8, New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark alerted Beijing officials directly. The World Health Organization was informed about the contaminated milk powder on September 11. With the contamination exposed, the Sanlu Group admitted that its milk powder was tainted by melamine, and recalled all its products which had been used before August 8. Meanwhile, both the Chinese central government and the local government in Shijiazhuang, initiated an investigation into the matter. By September 13 they had arrested 19 persons. According to the Chinese Ministry of Health, from September until December 10, 2008, 22 million children were examined for kidney problems.

Soon afterwards more Chinese food products were found to contain melamine and many countries temporarily stopped all imports of mainland Chinese dairy and other food products. In late October 2008, food safety officials established that the problem had spread to eggs and possibly other food categories as melamine is commonly added to animal feed, despite a ban imposed in the wake of a 2007 scandal over melamine-contaminated pet food exported from China to the United States. Given China's wide range of exported food products, the scandal soon affected countries on every continent. It left Sanlu labeled as a tarnished brand and significantly degraded the reputation of "Made in China" products.

While the timeline of events may be straightforward, the Sanlu scandal is a complex event. To understand it we must consider the reputation of the formerly "prestigious" Sanlu brand. According to official reports, Sanlu Infant Formula milk had been the top-selling infant formula in mainland China for the last nine years. In one Sanlu advertisement potential formula consumers were told that sales over the past 15 years were large enough to cover the whole of the Sahara Desert! Moreover, just as the scandal was revealed, a government-authorized program on product quality, Weekly Quality Report, boasted on September 2, 2008 that there are more than a thousand rigid scientific procedures involved in Sanlu milk production. In comparing Sanlu milk's prestigious past with its tarnished present, the Chinese people realized that the problem was not just the deteriorating quality of Sanlu milk but that fraudulent businessmen, in collusion with a corrupt government, had fabricated the company's stellar reputation. Ultimately, the scandal raised both issues of food safety and political corruption in mainland China.

This summary of the Sanlu scandal provides a background for the subsequent online jokes. While the origin of these jokes is still unknown, they spread quickly on the Internet from mid-September to early November, making the Sanlu scandal a hot topic throughout China and in parts of the rest of the world. But what triggered these jokes? What prompted people to transmit them?

Different Types of the Sanlu Joke Cycle

Before interpreting Sanlu jokes the first step is to identify their form and content in order to classify them into different subsets. Actually, definitions of "form" and "content" are often confused in the history of folklore research since, in many cases, it is hard to clearly separate one from the other. To clarify these two terms Christopher Wilson's definitions seem helpful. He states that

content refers to the specific perceptions and meanings evoked by joke stimuli. In the case of a verbal joke, for example, the content consists of its sounds and of the meanings that these evoke [while] form refers to the interrelation or pattern of these stimuli. (Wilson 1979, 2)

Thus, according to Wilson, the core of a joke is the joke stimulus, which is the trigger in the joke that alerts one. It may be a word, a phrase, or something else prompted by the joke itself, and it determines both content and form. In this essay, I classify Sanlu jokes according to their internal joke stimuli.

By scrutinizing the Sanlu joke cycle, it is possible to divide the jokes into five main categories: A. nation-identity jokes, B. sexual jokes, C. political jokes, D. familial jokes and E. anti-media jokes.

  1. The nation-identity joke contains a comparison between China and foreign countries (often Western, developed countries). In these jokes China, which seeks to catch up with developed countries by drinking milk to make the bodies of "her" citizens strong, is depicted as fossilizing their kidneys with poisoned milk, for example:

    A1

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]:

    ["Sanlu 2008 advertisement: 'Half a kilo of Sanlu milk daily will give you a Strong Chinese kidney'."]

    A2

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    ["Milk makes foreigners strong and Chinese people stones."] (1)

    A3

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    ["The Japanese slogan is 'A cup of milk daily makes a nation strong' while the Chinese is 'A cup of milk daily shakes a nation strongly'."]

  2. The sexual joke usually contains sexual images, words popularly termed "dirty," or an explicit indication of sexual relations, for example:

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    ["A mosquito, looking for fun, went downtown. When it felt hungry, it noticed a woman with large breasts. When it bit into them, it sucked silicone. The mosquito was so disappointed it sighed: 'My god! Food safety really is a problem if I can't even get safe milk from a woman's breast!'"]

    B2

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    [Male: "Darling! Can we have a talk?"

    Female: "Yes?"

    Male: 'Darling, melamine was found in many dairy products, they are no longer safe. We have to consider our child's health. I have an idea. Why don't we look for an ernai. (2) Then we'll be guaranteed safe and fresh milk! Don't worry about my cost, (3) consider the kid first!'"]

    [Sanlu said: "The dairy farmer did the crime."

    The dairy farmer said: "the dairy cow did."

    The dairy cow said: "Grass did." The grass said: "My mom did." The mother of grass (motherfucker) said: "Sun (Fuck)."]

  3. The political joke overtly expresses anger towards an untrustworthy Chinese government that disguises the truth and speaks up for the criminals, disregarding the public's safety and the health of victims. One joke, for example, reveals that the Chinese government is responsible for concealing the scandal:

    C1

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    [It's a pity you guys are arrested but, to save Sanlu, you have to keep your mouth shut and take the blame for the crime. Sanlu was awarded the Nation's Technique Prize, which involved a lot of money being spent for that honour. If Sanlu were sentenced, imagine how many people would be implicated, how many scandals would be opened up by that bitch? So, keep quiet and be the fall guy! If you're afraid of pissing too much in prison...just drink Sanlu milk!]

    Another joke, satirizes both Sanlu and the "One family one child" policy proposed by the Chinese government:

    C2

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    ["Sanlvzi (4) is great! It remembers its responsibilities. Because the 'one family, one kid' policy was not very successful in the past, Sanlvzi invented a plan to reduce the infant population quickly, and control the birth rate for the long term: milk + melamine. This great new product could make a big financial profit, so we should support this kind of national enterprise, introduce it to the whole country and the whole world, promote it, and then we'll reach the goal of decreasing the population in this planet to 1 billion in the next 50 years!"]

    Although some jokes and parodies do not directly criticize the Chinese government, they employ the Sanlu event to satirize Chinese athletes, such as Liu Xiang and the Chinese Male Football Team sponsored by the Chinese government, or the 29th Olympic Games held in China. In doing so, they express resentment toward the Chinese government. These jokes are also categorized under the rubric of "political joke," for example:

    C'1

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    ["Drink Sanlu milk: you'll be a hero in the Paralympics"]

    C'2

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    [Sanlu said that the dairy station did the crime.

    The dairy station said it was the responsibility of dairy farmer.

    The dairy farmer said it was the responsibility of dairy cow.

    The dairy cow said it was the responsibility of grass.

    The grass said it was because it drinks the water in the river.

    The river said the Chinese male football team had washed their feet in the river.

    The Chinese male football team said they are raised by the Sanlu milk.]

    Besides the above jokes, there is also a parody of the theme song of the 29th Olympic Games--"You and Me" sung by Sarah Brightman and Huan Liu--which criticizes Sanlu Milk for causing infant kidney stones.

  4. The familial joke mainly focuses on the relationship between a stepmother and her stepchildren, in which the stepmother is portrayed as wickedly abusing her stepchildren by feeding them Sanlu milk. This subset also refers to the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, for example:

    D1

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    ["Sanlu milk: the choice for stepmothers."]

    D2

    [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]

    ["A: 'Aunt Zhang! Did you...

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