Tea Leaf Nation

Hazed and Confused

Meme watch: Citizens gird up as China endures severe smog.

Don't use cigarette filters to plug your nostrils -- do invest in a pair of night-vision goggles. This and other wisdom comes courtesy of smog-strangled Chinese netizens, who have been forced to contend with a recent bout of pollution in major Chinese cities like Nanjing and Shanghai serious enough to close schools and ground flights. Although by Dec. 10 the pollution in the two cities had started to abate, air quality in both remains officially "unhealthy." It's been so bad that women, such as the one above, who modeled gold jewelry at a Dec. 7 outdoor event in Nanjing were compelled to don face masks. Online, the ubiquitous use of these masks, and related riffs, have become something of an obsession. Below are some of the most vivid examples from around the Chinese web.

This image from Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, depicts a (surprisingly fashionable) jerry-rigged fresh air device, but one unlikely to be effective with pollution in cities like Shanghai reaching levels that even local authorities have declared "severe."  

Liu Xiangnan, formerly a reporter at the liberal Economic Observer, modified his Weibo profile to capture the Zeitgeist. In Liu's remix, the qilin, a mythical and auspicious beast, which often stands sentry outside of Chinese buddhist temples, seems to have fallen on hard times.

Some citizens claim they have found success removing the filters from cigarettes and stuffing them up their noses. One Weibo user wrote that the method helped forfend fine particulate matter, but cautioned that "the nostrils must be sufficiently large." The practice is sufficiently popular that widely-read state-run paper Beijing Youth Daily felt compelled to consult an expert, who declared it "unreliable."

The original of this photoshopped painting, dating to the Song dynasty  (1127 A.D. - 1279 A.D.), depicts the Guanyin, a bodhisattva generally thought to be compassionate -- but apparently not immune to unfiltered smog, which raises the risk of asthma and other respiratory illnesses for those who inhale it. 

This sketch depicts "essential equipment" for contending with Chinese haze. In addition to a gas mask, requirements include military-grade night vision goggles and a chest-mounted searchlight for visibility.

Rachel Lu contributed research. 

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Silver Linings Failbook

Chinese people do not think a state media article about "five surprising benefits" to deadly pollution is funny.

Polluted air is a fact of life for many Chinese citizens, and it's currently smothering parts of the country -- but that's not all bad, according to one state media outlet's widely-ridiculed attempt at positive spin. A recent bout of noxious smog has hit China hard: in the southern city of Nanjing, schools closed on Dec. 5 so children did not have to venture outside. The same day, authorities in the showcase city of Shanghai declared the air there "severely polluted," and many flights out of the city faced delays

It would seem an inopportune time to convince China's citizens of the virtues of breathing polluted air. But that didn't stop one reporter for China Central Television (CCTV), the country's major state-run network, from trying. On Dec. 9, CCTV's website featured an article, now deleted but preserved on Chinese chat and social media sites, entitled "Five Surprising Benefits From China's Haze." Although it may be satirical, the article reads more as a tin-eared attempt to wring an Upworthy.com-style listicle from a genuine environmental menace. Below are the supposed benefits of stifling pollution, and some highlights from the article's tortured logic:

1. It unifies Chinese people. 

Complaining about smog has brought Chinese citizens together. The haze "is everywhere," the article continues, from "every big city" to "small cities, towns, and villages." 

2. It makes China more equal. 

Never mind that wealth inequality remains deep and pervasive in China; everyone has to breathe the same filthy air, right? "Of course," the article admits, the rich can retreat to their luxury cars or use other means to avoid the worst pollution. "But that is after all a minority," and even they "have a hard time" avoiding the smog completely.

3. It raises citizen awareness. 

Here it gets a bit earnest. The article insists that "with the whole world playing up the Chinese miracle," the pollution "reminds us that China's status as 'the world's factory' is not without a price." 

4. Chinese people are funnier when they are contending with deadly smog. 

The article lists a number of popular smog-related wisecracks. The best example from a meager crop: "We're never farther away than when we hold hands on the street -- and I can't see you."

5. The haze makes Chinese people more knowledgeable. 

The article concludes that "through the arguments and the jokes" surrounding China's pollution, "our knowledge of meteorology, geography, physics, chemistry, and history has progressed." Also, students of English have added terms like "haze" and "smog" to their lexicon.

Whatever the article's intent -- to assuage readers, or to make them laugh -- it seems to have backfired. Thousands of users on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform, have derided the effort, with the account for Chutian Metropolis Daily, a small newspaper based in the industrial city of Wuhan, writing, "Only someone poisoned by the smog would be stupid enough to say something like this." Keen to the surrounding ridicule, most major outlets that carried the story seem to have removed it: The ill-fated feature could not be found on the front page of the CCTV site, while the website for state-run service Xinhua appears to have deleted the essay. Both have belatedly discovered that Chinese people prefer their government focus on reducing pollution, and leave the smog-related gallows humor to its citizens.

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