Short videos present new way to tell Chinese stories

By WU WEIHUA and ZHANG SHOUXIN / 06-23-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Peking opera artist Dong Fei has been sharing his stories of this traditional Chinese art form on TikTok since 2018, attracting many young followers. Photo: SCREENSHOT FROM TIKTOK

From User Generated Content (UGC) to Professional Generated Content (PGC), from the random spontaneous creation of individuals to large-scale platform production, China’s online video industry has undergone a chaotic and self-regulated growth, embarking on diverse development paths. Representative of China’s internet culture transformation and media innovation, online short videos have become the most prominent cultural phenomenon bridging Chinese audio-visual production and the entertainment and information consumption of Chinese internet users.


Micro narratives
China’s online videos, whether in new forms or mimicking long-form TV series, whether grassroots UGC or semi-professional PGC, have gone through a decade of volatile and critical transformation. From the earliest Flashempire (a website allowing users to upload flash clips) to “Shooting in Action” (a TV program at Henan TV Station featuring picture stories of ordinary people photographed by ordinary people); from web TV dramas to micro records, short videos and vertical videos; from the innovation of “No social media, no news” to the “Internet of Everything”; new buzzwords and phenomena have been endlessly emerging.

Short videos on new media platforms have been redefining entertainment’s spatial and temporal characteristics, social experience, information and knowledge sharing, and fundamental production modes, while reconstructing traditional media’s narrative logic and cultural landscape.

The micro narratives in short videos are a creative combination of audio-visual symbols manufactured via digital technology. In the end, personalized, empirical and secular information comes together and is redistributed based on individuals’ preferences, resulting in the diverse short video culture. This format completely forges new temporal and spatial relations.

For short videos, time is scattered and discrete, but it is also integral, because hundreds of millions of short videos form a database, where algorithms can sort out, regroup, distribute, display and offer feedback based on users’ personal interests and habits, so that on the timeline, scattered and integrated information interchange constantly.

At the same time, the sense of “space” in short videos has become virtual and inconsistent because of the blurring of the boundary between the virtual space and the lived space. As virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, today commonly referred to as extended realities, continue to advance, users are invited into an immersive and real-world experience.

Such a free, pluralistic and dynamic form of creation, derived from the integration of users’ personal resources, the refinement and expression of experience, and the interaction and evaluation of oneself and society, constitutes a new cultural landscape in the acts of mass trend watching, forwarding and parody on social media.


Traditional culture
As one of the most popular carriers of information at present, short videos also dabble in the reproduction of traditional culture using the innovative expression of micro narratives, representing a unique window into Chinese culture, while attaching modern significance and realistic value to traditional culture.

Through their being reprocessed and re-presented in short videos, some long-dormant traditional culture or cultural elements have regained popularity and vigor, transforming some elegant and top-of-the-shelf classics into down-to-earth daily communication, which has been welcomed by the younger generation.

For example, on TikTok, home known as Douyin, short videos of traditional Chinese culture have undoubtedly been a phenomenal event in 2018. According to the data released by the “2018 TikTok Big Data Report,” there are as many as 180,000 users participating in the traditional culture related projects launched on the TikTok platform. To be specific, one clip featuring a Peking opera actor’s demonstration of how to laugh on stage received nearly 2.6 billion clicks. Similarly, views of some Yu opera short videos exceeded 510 million, and the number of likes exceeded 20.32 million.

In addition to Chinese operas, intangible cultural heritage, such as embroidery, papercutting, printing and dyeing, shadow play works, oiled paper umbrella making, bamboo weaving, and the mortise-tenon joint structure technique have also been widely promoted on short video platforms. The “traditional culture + popular culture” collaboration innovatively offers a fun, popular and easy way to explore the traditional art forms, promoting Chinese culture.


Spread of knowledge
Short videos transform traditional text-based modes of knowledge transmission into audio-visual narratives condensed into 15-to-60 second highly participatory and practical performances that feature personal charm and efficient and direct oral expression. This transcends text-based expression, reading and understanding, and presents a vivid picture of knowledge production and dissemination on the screen, improving the dissemination, transmission efficiency and popularization of knowledge.

What’s more, intelligent recommendation systems effectively prevent the formation of information cocoons. Diverse, multi-field and interesting short video content improves the possibility of expanding users’ knowledge horizons and stimulating their interest in further learning.

For example, the micro narration of short videos makes knowledge communication in the fields of education and science a hot topic, a hot spot of content consumption, and even a trend in social communication. Some bloggers dedicated to the spread of knowledge become the new generation of celebrity influencers. Traditional research institutions have also begun to dip their toes, exploring interesting ways of spreading knowledge with short videos.

In a way, technological advancement breaks through the disequilibrium of traditional modes of educational resource allocation and knowledge transmission, providing a new mode of interaction and a new solution to effectively promote education and poverty alleviation work.

From this perspective, we could say that short videos generate a brand new discourse system of knowledge transmission and a new visual cultural landscape through scenario-based and life-oriented restoration, personalized expression, professional and interesting demonstration, and emotional connection and resonance.

However, it should also be noted that the rate of information updating and iteration is exponential, so the change of personal ideas and knowledge is accelerated accordingly. Therefore, a large amount of observation, cognition and reflection becomes just a flash of personal experience, which is purely visual, or audio-visual, and is relatively temporal. People’s biological memory is somewhat replaced by the digital memory stored in the cloud in the form of likes and forwards.


Traditional media
With the popularization of mobile internet and smart terminals, the whole society has stepped into a “digital” state, with the momentum of traditional media in decline. The whole society has formed two public opinion fields: traditional and new. Short videos carry the traditional mainstream media’s dream of transformation toward mobile and social communication, and it is the flagship product and pilot project of China’s convergence and mobile news.

The features of short video, such as deep immersion, high interaction and multi-connection, have reconstructed the ecology of the Chinese video industry. However, users are yet to give up on traditional radio and television, rather allowing them to form differentiated media functions.
While short videos tend to be entertaining, social, easy to access and share, rich in content and timely, the advantage of traditional TV is also apparent in aspects such as authority, professionalism and production value.


In this light, traditional media shall ride on new technology and platforms to produce products in line with the new era, relating to users through drawing on cultural background and emotional identity and encouraging more interaction and participation.


China’s stories
Ten years ago, some scholars studying the online video industry in the West coined the concept of the “YouTube Generation,” a term which has dominated online video research in international journalism and communication ever since. As China’s online video industry continues to prosper and grow clout, the landscape has slightly altered. China’s new audio-visual media shows the world a dynamic, open and diverse new internet media market. The industrial phenomenon, content production and cultural structure of short videos in China has drawn heated discussion among practitioners and academics, forming a new online audio-visual industry with Chinese characteristics.

The transition from “Made in China” to “Created in China” not only requires the support of technology and cultural theory, but also needs high-quality design concepts and philosophy. Some scholars put forward that short videos have humanistic cultural genes, so they should be people-oriented, emphasizing personal stories and showing warmth and affection in ordinary life.

In this aspect, short videos can also feature rich and profound thinking. The reconstruction of the Chinese position of audio-visual micro narratives is also an exploration of the cultural connection between the grand narrative of the “Chinese dream” and people’s daily stories.

Every day, practitioners and educators in China’s online audio-visual industry strive to catch up with the evolution of communication and information technology. At the same time, short videos are challenging the classical theories and teaching methods of traditional media, communication and related research in a rebellious, brave and bold manner. From production to learning and then to research, it is crucial to rethink the audio-visual form of micro narration and the media ecology of short videos in the field of journalism and communication in China.


Wu Weihua and Zhang Shouxin are from the Television School at Communication University of China.


​edited by YANG XUE