In the United States, video of a wedding party boogieing down the aisle was about to become a summer sensation on YouTube, viewed more than 20 million times.
At the same time in China, the latest Internet obsession began with an anonymous post on a computer gaming forum: “Jia Junpeng, your mom is calling you to come home and eat.”
Was it a vexed parent hunting down her Internet-addicted child in cyberspace? A cheeky gamer poking fun at one of his buddies? Or simply an idler with a sense of humor?
The post’s author and motive are unknown. What’s clear is that the catchphrase has gone viral in recent weeks, kind of like a Chinese version of the satirical “facts” about actor and martial artist Chuck Norris that have spread on U.S. social media.
Jia Junpeng has popped up on T-shirts, on blogs and in song. The expression has been embraced by human rights advocates who sought the release of a jailed legal scholar. Naturally, businesses have also co-opted the meme of the moment.
A Sichuan car dealer advertised its vehicles with a banner that read: “Jia Junpeng, your mom is calling you to drive home a Roewe 550.” A nearby restaurant hung a banner that read: “Jia Junpeng, your mom is calling you to eat Yanjing Hotpot!”
So widespread is the joke, it has its own Wikipedia entry. Even the state-run China Daily felt it necessary to weigh in with an editorial that called the spectacle “a demonstration of collective boredom.”
The exact reason this quippy non sequitur has captured the fancy of millions of Chinese is as murky as its author. But it arrives while the Internet is expanding its reach into contemporary Chinese culture.
Jia Junpeng (pronounced Jah Joon-pung) joins a slew of online fads that have littered an increasingly crowded Web. China added 40 million Internet users in the first half of this year, boosting its total to 338 million -- a group larger than the population of the U.S.
In a country where free speech and public discourse are limited, Chinese are coalescing online and churning out catchphrases and goofy videos the way Americans have done for years.
Instead of the roly-poly, light saber-wielding “Star Wars kid” of American viral video fame, China has “Xiao Pang,” or “Little Chubby,” an unsuspecting Shanghai schoolboy whose face has been slapped onto images of everything from the Mona Lisa to “Pirates of the Caribbean” posters.
What makes the Internet especially potent in China, experts say, is its growing role as a social outlet.
Most young Chinese can’t afford to roam shopping malls, catch a movie or go to karaoke. State television is often painfully out of vogue. So keeping up with peers on Internet forums and instant messaging services becomes a far more appealing alternative. Inside jokes such as Jia Junpeng are a big part of the allure.
“China has a more tightly integrated Internet community,” said Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing blogger. “Everything you do is social media. It’s almost incomprehensible for something like Jia Junpeng to pick up millions of posts in the States. But in China, virality is so much more ferocious.”
Those movements can take on subversive undertones. Wordplay, a classic form of Chinese humor, is not only satirical but also necessary with so many government minders about.
When Internet censors clamped down several months ago, netizens defiantly celebrated a fictional alpaca-like animal called the grass-mud horse that triumphs over invading river crabs. When inflected improperly, its name in Chinese becomes an expletive involving one’s mother and the term for “river crabs” becomes a term for “censors.” The creature has abounded online and turned up in song, on T-shirts and as stuffed toys.
When police in southwestern China explained that a man who died in custody this year received his injuries while playing hide-and-seek with his cellmates, Internet forums ridiculed the story. Hide-and-seek quickly became a buzz phrase meaning something’s fishy.
Most posts, however, are not seasoned with dissent. Like in America, it’s the uncomplicated that often attracts the most eyeballs -- student brawls, long-legged women at car shows, a traffic cop doing the cha cha.
“It’s like if you go to Tiananmen Square, spit on the ground and then look at it for 10 minutes, people will inevitably crowd around you and want to see what’s going on,” said Alei Wang, a Beijing advertising executive who specializes in online campaigns.
A couple of years ago, Internet surfers discovered a clip of a news reporter trying to interview a passerby about his thoughts on a Hong Kong star’s sex scandal. “What the heck’s it got to do with me?” the passerby said. “I’m just here to buy soy sauce.”
And with that, “I’m just here to buy soy sauce” became a raging euphemism for “Leave me out of it.”
But even by today’s standards, the phenomenon of Jia Junpeng has spread unusually far and fast. The original post, which was left on a World of Warcraft forum the morning of July 16, has generated more than 300,000 responses.
From there, it got another popular Chinese netizen treatment: doctored photographs.
One picture shows the phrase written on a scroll signed by Mao Tse-tung. Another splashes a fake headline across the People’s Daily: “National People’s Congress Discusses Problem of How to Get Jia Junpeng to Go Home and Eat.”
Meanwhile, a Twitter feed supporting the incarcerated legal scholar Xu Zhiyong was titled “Xu Zhiyong, your mom is calling you to come home and eat.” (Xu has since been released on bail.)
Domestic media pounced on the story, each competing to scoop the others on Jia’s true identity. One newspaper said a database search showed only 14 people in China bore Jia’s unusual name. Using the Internet protocol address of the original post, they contacted a high school student in Nanjing. He denied having anything to do with it -- though he begged people to stop telling him to go home and eat.
With each passing day, Jia’s legend seemed to grow.
“I read on Facebook that he was real and that he just died,” said Wang Xin, 26, a customer at a Beijing Internet cafe.
In late July, Huang Liang hua, an Internet marketer in Beijing, announced on his blog that he was behind the mystery. He said he hired 700 people to spread the phrase on behalf of a computer gaming company he could not reveal. Huang said that he made up Jia Junpeng because it sounded similar to his friend’s son’s name, and that Jia was a play on the Chinese word for “fake.”
“We’ve been preparing this for a long time,” Huang said in a phone interview. “We were sure it would catch on. I estimate 50 million Internet users paid attention to this.”
Huang, however, declined to explain how his client would benefit.
A few days later a rival advertiser claimed credit for popularizing the phrase. Fang Weicheng of Shanghai said he stumbled onto the post, had a laugh and then urged users of his social networking website to write it elsewhere, thus sparking the craze.
“Huang is giving the advertising industry a bad name,” Fang said. “He, like many, is just trying to benefit from the fruits of a big tree.”
Huang has since deleted his blog post.
To some observers, the Jia Junpeng saga represents China’s continuing slide toward lowbrow tastes.
“Ten years ago, only the elite used the Internet,” said Fang Xingdong, an information technology analyst and blogger. “Now we have 300 million Internet users. There’s a new element that isn’t very educated. It seems like any website my 12-year-old son likes gets venture capitalists investing in it. Any website I like runs out of money.”
Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.