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Self-Help Culture

Chicken Soup Mania

Since the self-help best-seller Chicken Soup for the Soul landed in China in the late 1990s, “chicken-soup” motivational culture has become a social, cultural and commercial phenomenon. In the age of social media, the cheesy, gooey, feel-good culture has flooded people’s smartphones, formed a huge positive-thinking industry, and caused heated arguments.

By NewsChina Updated Mar.1

Best-selling author and Chicken Soup for the Soul creator Jack Canfield addresses Kaplan University online graduates during the summer commencement, August 4, 2012, Chicago / Photo by IC

I feel that I am being attacked by ‘positive energy’! Every day my parents will send me chicken-soup stories on WeChat. Their own social media platforms are devoted to nothing but chicken-soup articles. Sometimes they’ll share as many as 20 pieces in one day!” Wang Bingyi, 29, told NewsChina.   
People in China today seem to be besieged by the culture of positive thinking, also known as “chicken soup.” The term originates from the Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help book series by American motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Hanson. The first title was published in the US in 1993, and once it arrived in China in 1998, translations of the book series launched a bestselling genre there too.   
Though the popularity of self-help culture is a global phenomenon, the rapid rise of the self-help industry in modern China is particularly spectacular. Bookstore best-seller displays are loaded with chicken-soup-style self-help books and DVDs; motivational speakers and life coaches are on a constant merry-go-round of events for their followers; social networking platforms, especially Twitter-equivalent Sina Weibo and the social chat app WeChat, are bombarded with chicken-soup content with catchy titles such as “Three Tips That Will Beat 20 Years of Earnings,” “17 Good Habits That Will Lead to Your Success,” “36 Tips to Become a Perfect Woman.”  
In a fast-paced, highly stressful modern Chinese society, chicken-soup products hold sway over the country’s popular culture market, flooding almost every part of the public life, and shaping the reading tastes of the majority, according to best-seller lists for book and e-book sales. Instead of awakening souls, many argue that today’s mass-produced chicken-soup content may in fact lead to spiritual escapism and numbness.

Li Yanjie, China’s first motivational author-speaker / Photo by Dong Jiexu

‘Cooking Soup’ for 30 years 

On a wintry afternoon in 1981, through the campus tannoy, Zhu Botao heard the magnetic speech of Li Yanjie for the first time, the subject of which was “Truth, Goodness and Beauty.”  

“His speech immediately seized me, filling my heart with immense passion and warmth, as if I was being fed with a bowl of warm chicken soup,” Zhu told NewsChina about the epiphany he had on hearing the speech of Li Yanjie, who is a prominent educator and the first public motivational speaker after the Cultural Revolution.  

At that time, several years after the Cultural Revolution, people’s imaginations, values and aspirations had yet to be emancipated. Confused young people, who faced a spiritual vacuum, were in desperate need of life advice.  

“Imagine how enlightened you might have felt during that period if you were suddenly told about the importance of self-motivation, being successful and pursuing truth, goodness and beauty. Our souls were kindled with sparks by his words,” Zhu recalled.  
Li’s speeches mainly focused on problems that faced youths: dreams, success, marriage, family and self-actualization. His first compilation of speeches, Shaping Beautiful Soul, gained immediate popularity when it was published in 1982 and sold over 4.6 million copies. The book was prized by youth at that time and given as a prized gift to friends.  
Since so many young souls needed to be nourished at the time, a number of speakers appeared in various sectors mimicking the style of Li Yanjie. They constitute the first generation of local “chicken-soup” writers or speakers.  

“Indeed, my speech is chicken soup for the soul,” the 87-year-old master speaker told NewsChina. Li still occasionally conducts the odd lecture, but the topic has shifted from “truth, goodness and beauty” to “the China dream.”  

During the mid-1990s, local self-help gurus met their international counterparts. The development of Chinese chicken-soup culture was heavily influenced by America’s. Once Canfield and Hanson’s Chicken Soup for the Soul series was introduced to China in 1998, the series immediately swept the country.  

 American self-help books, from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936) to Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), from John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) to Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese? (1998), are sold at virtually every bookstore.  

The desire for self-actualization in hyper-competitive Chinese society is strong. In the context of social pressures and competition, the wish for self-realization is driven by the need to succeed. As Eric Hendriks, author of China’s Self-Help Industry: American Life Advice in China, puts it, “Chinese urbanites live in fear of losing out while also nourishing an obsession with ‘winners.’” Therefore, business self-help is the most popular subcategory of chicken-soup culture.  

Bookstores overflow with business motivation books and DVDs, with titles such as How I Earned My Fortune, My Success Is Not By Chance, or What Rich People Won’t Tell You. Tycoons like Jack Ma of Alibaba Group, Li Yanhong of Baidu, and Wang Jianlin of Wanda Group are celebrated as life coaches for people who long for quick success.  

A few steps away from these captivating business magnates is the benevolent Master Hsingyun, a famous Buddhist preacher in Taiwan. His placatory books such as To Live Is to Let Go, Suffering Is a Blessing and Life Lies in Inner Peace, have become consolation for struggling people who strive for success but fail.  

Associate researcher at the Chinese National Academy of Arts, Zhang Huiyu, indicated that the exam-oriented education system has trained Chinese to be accustomed to a binary “win or lose” rule from a young age. Each individual has to compete with each other, like racers in sports.  

“With the drastic social changes of the last three decades, the function of chicken-soup culture is to provide spiritual massage to the struggling people, rather than encourage them to challenge the increasingly unreasonable and unequal social rules,” Zhang Huiyu told NewsChina. 

Li Xiaoyi, a very popular chicken-soup writer and relationship guru

Li Xiaoyi (middle) with her fans in a readers’ seminar in June, 2016, Chengdu / Photo courtesy of the interviewee

Cyber Chicken Soup  

Embedded in a larger process of commercialization, self-help’s tentacles have reached from the book market and mass media into social networking platforms. The massively popular messaging app WeChat has become the dominant incubator for generating chicken-soup content.  

As the Beijing-based data-tracking firm QuestMobile indicates, the monthly active users of WeChat surpassed 706 million as of March 2016. The far-reaching app guarantees a considerable amount of potential chicken-soup consumers.  

WeChat’s verified account service, launched in 2012, grants a channel for chicken-soup providers to post articles as daily updates. Readers can subscribe to a verified account and share articles to their Moments feed, a platform where users can share pictures and a few lines of text with friends.  

According to the 2016 China Social Media Impact Report published by the London-based market research firm Kantar Group, “emotional content” has surged in popularity on social media platforms this year. By analyzing 6.9 billion pageviews generated by the top 50 influential WeChat subscription accounts, Kantar has found that there are now 19 emotion-themed accounts in the top 50 list.  

In 2014, Li Xiaoyi, a popular chicken-soup writer and relationship guru, launched her verified account “Women With a Scented Soul.” Within two months, her account had over 20,000 subscribers. The number of fans increased to 300,000 within a year. Now over 1.3 million WeChat users have subscribed to Li’s official account.  

Li identifies herself more as a product manager than a self-help writer: “Every article is a product, designed for market as well as for targeted readers.” According to her own early research, her readers are usually urban women aged 25 to 35, who need to organize their marriage, family and career as well as their children’s education. 

Through the WeChat platform, Li plays the role of an agony aunt. She updates emotional- and relationship-themed articles on a daily basis such as “Do You Feel Lonely in Marriage?” “Women’s Wisdom Is a Lasting Sexiness,” “Must an Independent Woman be Single?” She calls her readers “scented besties” and tells them that modern women, in pursuit of happiness, need to live a life of moderate, partial independence and sometimes learn to make compromises.  

 “Many love coffee. Some prefer freshly-ground coffee, while more may choose Starbucks. Being popular is a success – this is the meaning of a product, as well as of the chicken-soup literature,” Li told NewsChina.  

Pleasing readers is every chicken-soup writer’s skill, though earning fans is their ultimate goal. Appeals to common taste, motivational fundamentals, fast-food-like text and lighthearted content – all these elements contribute to a chicken-soup blockbuster. 
Ma Ling, founder of one of the most popular verified chicken-soup contents accounts, “Mimeng,” knows this all too well. With over 6 million subscribers, most of her articles posted on WeChat get over 100,000 hits, and some even over a million. One of her most widespread articles, “Bitches, Why Should I Help You?” gained more than 3.5 million hits and got her over 200,000 new subscribers in three days.  

Having worked as a newspaper editor and columnist for 14 years, Ma knows how to use language to win fans. Being mean is the main characteristic of her chicken-soup style. Unlike the traditional soothing chicken soup, Ma’s writing is full of foul, caustic expressions and extreme opinions. She describes her writing as “spicy chicken soup for the soul.”  

“Statistics show that those bitchy articles have the most beautiful viewership. People need an outlet to vent their emotions. Chicken soup is a must of our time,” Ma pus in the article “How to Write a Social Media Article with One Million Plus Hits.” Extreme opinions and evocative language, she stresses, are the key to writing hit social media chicken-soup articles.  

Words lead to money. The rise of fans attracts investments from advertisers, the main channel of remuneration for WeChat’s chicken-soup writers.  

From October 2015 to July 2016, Ma wrote 65 advertorial items that she posted on “Mimeng.” They were on behalf of 60 different brands covering cosmetics, food and restaurants, education, cars, shopping websites, TV series and apps. Ma’s advertising rate has reached 450,000 yuan (US$65,000) for an advertorial in the top spot on a posting and 220,000 yuan ($32,000) for an item in second place on a posting. “I never imagined writing could be so lucrative,” said Ma Ling to local media. 

The boom of the WeChat chicken-soup industry has encouraged more and more influential self-help author-speakers to launch official accounts, such as business startup guru Li Kaifu, bestselling chicken-soup writer Zhang Jiajia and Hong Kong relationship motivational writer Zhang Xiaoxian.  

Zhang Jiajia, 36, an extremely popular self-help author who published the relationship self-help book I Belonged To You in 2013, which sold 4 million copies in one year / Photo by CFP

Soup Going Sour  

The generation of people born in the 1960s, as research by WeChat owners Tencent Inc. shows, constitute the main consumers of chicken-soup content on WeChat’s Moments. Middle-aged people today, many of whom were once “spiritually enlightened” by the early self-help culture of the 1980s and 90s, are much fonder of motivational chicken-soup content than younger generations are.  

Nevertheless, people’s gullibility and acts of blind sharing have made them fall victim to cyber chicken-soup traps. Along with the boom of the WeChat chicken-soup industry, a grey zone has gradually emerged.  

It is an open secret within the industry that many verified account operators buy fake hits to attract advertisers. Paid Internet marketers, known as the “water army,” use computers to control dozens of mobile phones to automatically access the given account article and click “Like.”  

Shi Xiang, the founder of MicroIndex, a company that provides WeChat big data analysis services, speculates that there are at least four or five “water army” companies in China that provide data-faking services to verified WeChat accounts. As Shi told NewsChina, such companies can easily produce 5 million fake followers for an account.  
Many chicken-soup articles on the WeChat platform are embedded with ad links. Once readers click on a link within the article, they are instantly taken to a shopping page. Thus, chicken-soup articles on WeChat’s Moments have gradually replaced TV shopping to become the main marketing channel for shoddy health products, fake and substandard medicines, weight loss and breast augmentation products.  

“Their primary goal is to gain fans. […] They know how to get through to you. They talk a bit about family, education, enterprises, everything you care about. Those you forward are designed by marketing experts and firms. It’s quite easy [for netizens] to fall into such traps,” the president of Tencent Inc., Ma Huatang, said in a lecture in November 2013.  

This has led to the mass production of sentimental, error-riddled chicken soup content for social media marketing. The likes of many famous figures, from Confucius to Plato, Shakespeare to Nietzsche, Eileen Chang to Steve Jobs, have been used for fake chicken-soup quotations or stories.  

Harvard University, for example, is a favorite fake source for chicken-soup stories. Rumors about Harvard abound in China, depicting its students as high-functioning study machines: at 4:30am, seats in Harvard’s libraries are all taken by students who have stayed up late to study; restaurants in Harvard are nothing but dining libraries where students sit and read in silence, taking notes as they eat; “‘sleep now, and you may dream forever; study now, and you may fulfill your dream,’ - Harvard’s motto”. All these rumors have been officially denied by Harvard, whose real motto is the single word, “Veritas,” Latin for “truth” . 

Apart from the fabrications, the value of much of the chicken-soup content has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism.  

In his article “Why I Hate Chicken Soup,” the online writer Wan Fangzhong elaborates on the unreasonableness of the genre’s value. As Fang puts it, “people’s distress, sadness and frustration usually result from existing problems in their lives. But the purpose of chicken soup is not to teach them how to solve these problems, but persuade them to change their attitude and perspective so as to be happy towards the negative things - that’s the ridiculousness of chicken soup.” 

With the viral spreading of chicken soup content on social media, an anti-chicken-soup campaign has arisen. Many punsters write “poison soup” lines to burst the bubble that chicken soup books and articles try to create.  

Unlike the lengthy, didactic, gooey traditional chicken soup, the poison-soup jokes are short, vicious, self-mocking and full of dark humor. They parody the chicken soup style and borrow from similar subjects - success, failure, dreams, marriage, relationships and life, but aim to mercilessly unveil or exaggerate the “cruel truth” of life, and give underdogs a punch instead of succor.  

 “If life deceives you today, do not be sad and do not cry, for life will continue to deceive you tomorrow.” “When you think you are ugly, poor and worthless, don’t despair, for at least your sense of judgment is still correct.” “Before 30, you live a hopeless life and you can’t get what you want. Never mind. After 30, you will get used to it.” “If God closes a door in life, he won’t forget to close the window as well.”  

These anti-chicken-soup jokes, and sometimes articles, aiming to spread “negative energy,” are popular among well-educated young netizens. It has created an ironic social media scenario where young people’s self-mocking dark jokes are juxtaposed with the earnest chicken-soup content that older generations are obsessed with.  

“[The poison-soup messages] choose a more cynical expression to make readers discard unrealistic dreams, lower their hopes, abandon sentimentality and positively face the ‘real and cruel’ world. Through self-devaluation and self-abandonment, youths use these sarcastic jokes to counter mainstream culture’s definitions of ‘success,’ ‘excellence,’ and ‘being a strong person’,” associate professor of the School of Communication at Zhejiang University, Wang Kai, said in an interview with Qianjiang Evening News.  

The spreading of self-mocking jokes, as Wang indicates, demonstrates the anxiety of today’s young middle class: they are eager to climb the social ladder, but in the meantime feel disillusioned by the increasingly consolidated social hierarchy and the lack of trust in social justice. 
Learn your lines  
Famous Chicken-Soup Lines  
“Hew a stone of hope out of the mountain of despair and you can make your life a splendid one!” 
– Yu Minhong, the founder of New Oriental, the largest comprehensive private education company in China, founded in 1993, whose principles are to combine English language education with motivational lecturing; as the motto of the New Oriental school, the proverb has inspired millions of students who plan on studying abroad and can afford the school’s fees 
“The fundamental formula of finding a good husband is made up of five equal parts: love + life habits + personality + responsibility + economic standing; these five factors each account for 20 percent and none is dispensable.” 
– Lu Qi, the renowned relationship guru, in his most famous self-help book, Marriage is a Woman’s Lifelong Choice, selling 3.35 million copies since 2011. In the book, he utilizes a large quantity of case studies and data analysis to “prove” his equation 
“Beijing has been blanketed by terrible smog for a week. What we should do is to stay at home and not confront it; keep the door shut so as not to let smog enter our houses; switch on the air purifier so as not to let smog enter our lungs; if all these efforts are in vain, the only thing we can do is to rely on the power of our spirit so as not to let smog enter our hearts.” 
– Yu Dan, the famous self-help author-speaker who combines life coaching with the teachings of classical Chinese thinkers such as Confucius and Zhuangzi, tweeted the post on Weibo on February 23, 2014. The post was harshly criticized by netizens as many argued Yu’s advice of using the shutting-the-door-and-doing-nothing “spiritual shield against smog” method is essentially an indication of escapism and cynicism.  
Anti-Chicken-Soup Jokes  
“All people’s complaints about social injustice and inequality can be translated into one sentence: give me money, women and social status.” 
“After 10 years of endless effort and struggle, I finally changed from an ignorant, sensitive and weak boy into an ignorant, sensitive and weak man.” 
“If it is gold, it will definitely shine one day. But since you are a stone, you won’t shine wherever you go.” 
“It’s always said that a girl who likes smiling is usually a lucky one. But to be honest, if a girl is always unlucky, I can’t see how she could be in the mood to laugh.” 
“Only those who write chicken soup can benefit from chicken soup.” 
“If you don’t try, you’ll never know how amazing you are at screwing things up.”  
False Attribution of Quotes to Famous People 
“If today you look down upon me, tomorrow I will never let you catch up.” 
– Jack Ma (Ma Yun), founder of the Alibaba Group, has long been a “victim” of false quote attribution. This particular phrase went viral in 2014 but was later refuted by Ma himself, who posted a tweet on Weibo, saying that “I really believed I said this. I’ve checked my speech but can’t find the quote…” 
“You envy my freedom, while I envy your restraint. You envy my car, while I envy your house. Perhaps we are far-sighted, always looking up to others’ lives; or perhaps we are myopic, always ignoring the happiness nearby… ” 
– Mo Yan, Novelist and Nobel Laureate, is another favorite of would-be chicken-soup writers. Guan Xiaoxiao, Mo’s daughter, told media, “My father said, ‘those quotes that have spread online were not said by me. I pay tribute to the talent of those writers’.”