The Chinese Way of Cooking Chicken Soup (for the Soul) : A dose of Societal Placebo?

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The Chinese Way of Cooking Chicken Soup (for the Soul) : A dose of Societal Placebo?

The Takeaway

∙Chicken Soup for the Soul (心灵鸡汤) has been going viral on Chinese social medias.

∙It took the name and general style from the U.S originals, but the current Chinese version of Chicken Soup is more female-oriented, popularizing self-betterment through material spending and calculated self-investment.

Despite its popularity, Chicken Soup has faced mounting criticisms from younger, more educated Chinese netizens. In fact, anti-Chicken soup has become as popular as Chicken soup itself in today’s China.


 Yan:  I think last time we were taking about the types of viral contents on China's self-medias especially Chicken Soup...

 Biyi:  Yessss, Chicken Soup! love it.

 Yan: You mean you like (reading) Chicken Soups?

 Biyi: Well not literally like like, but I sure do like the ideas behind them, all those mesmerizing story-tellings!

 Yan: Explain please, explain...

Chicken Soup for the Soul: the Original Definition

"A Chicken Soup for the Soul story is an inspirational, true story about ordinary people having extraordinary experiences. It is a story that opens the heart and rekindles the spirit. It is a simple piece that touches our readers and helps them discover basic principles they can use in their own lives."

 The Modern Chinese Chicken Soup:

What and How

(To make sure things are clear, we are not talking about this ↓)

Originally a term came up by publishers Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen in 1993, Chicken Soup for the Souls were an American book series filled with inspirational stories from the common people. To date, the series has over 250 titles, sold over 100 million copies in the U.S and Canada along, and certainly made its way into popular culture internationally, including China. The translated book series has been in the Chinese market for more than 10 years, with many individual stories appearing in textbooks or referenced in local literatures.

Published versions of the translated Chicken Soup for the Souls series.

But this is still not the Chicken Soup we are talking about.

The Chicken Soup we are talking about today is a populistic content style that has dominated the Chinese internet media over the past few years (we'd say 3-4 years roughly, definitely under 5), more specifically, dominating Chinese users' WeChat Moments feeds.

As China-curious as you are, you'd probably know by now that WeChat Moments is this giant space of which your contacts could post status, photos, or share whatever they fancy with friends. It's a handy feed-style tool (just like the early days of Facebook...) and, given the popularity of WeChat, has quickly become the media and social entrances for Chinese, who on average now spends over 90 minutes on the app everyday.

As much as it was all fresh and fun, those who use WeChat Moments quickly noticed and start to complain about one thing: the endless Chicken-soup style articles that have been shared so frequently and buzzed around like bees. People were so annoyed that soon "anti-Chicken Soup" became a momentous movement on Chinese Internet: on Weibo, Wechat, Zhihu, Douban, Tianya and other popular online forums, there'd be people angrily analyzing, mocking or criticizing the spread of Chicken Soup, marking it as "poisoning the Chinese population" and "corrupting the morals".

Two media articles appeared in 2015, the first one titled "Is Posting Chicken Soup on WeChat a Result of Low IQ?" and the second one "Enough Chicken Soup in Moments, Friends!"

Baidu "Chicken Soups", the Relevant Search section is filled with anti-Chicken Soup discussions such as "The threat/damage of Chicken Soup articles" and "What kind of people are posting Chicken soup everyday?!"


 Yan: You still haven't talked about the definition of Chicken Soup in our case.

 Biyi: It's impossible to define! and you know how shitty Baidu Baike is, I mean I hate bashing about things, but just check this out-


 Biyi: This is the Baidu definition of Chicken Soup, it is clearly submitted by someone who's in the anti-soup camp. It even writes "For those that are weak" on the "targeted audience"section, that's insanely biased!

 YanI don't think Baidu has a biasing control system whatsoever, and also, we all know these people are angry. Those making noises have emotions, so they relieve them online, that's how life works...

 Biyi: I guess the fact we live in such a anger-filled society is exactly why Chicken Soup gained popularity. The more mad people are, the more we crave for things that are comforting and soothing.

 Yan: But that's not the excuse for click-baits and logically flawed articles is it?

Here are how we investigated the world of Chinese Chicken Soup with the aim to find out what they really are-

Step one, to pick one specific, most popular type of Chicken Soup.

It's not like there are tons of different kinds anyways, since all the available Chicken Soups are based same original recipe. Out of all the slightly variated styles however, those targeting at China's adult females are definitely the crowd-pleaser. So Female Chicken Soup we go then.

Step two, find a bunch of popular Soup accounts and study them all. (We used Newrank and asked around our beloved friends to pick the best ones!)

Subscribing to a list of Popular Chicken Soup accounts (and sneaking in an Elephant Room on the top:D)

Step three, read through all the articles, especially those that have gained over 100,000+ views, aka have stood up for the popularity test on WeChat.


In order to keep followers engaged, many Chicken-soup accounts would update more than 5 articles a day.



 Biyi: Help! I am trying to translate some of these Chicken Soup titles from Chinese to English and got stuck half way...

 Yan: What have you got so far?


“Those never cried out hard in the middle of the nights are not qualified to talk about life”

"Having a beautiful face is cheaper than owning a beautiful life"

"Those with good manners will be lucky for life"

“To know if a woman is living a good life, just look if she's in shape”

"Wearing the right clothes and marrying the right guy make you a truly talented girl"

"Use your brain to live an expensive life"

"A wife is the one who decides a husband’s life quality"

"Try hard to be come a prettier person for yourself, not just for a guy"

"The men who truly love you won’t allow you to be too thoughtful" (seriously?!)

 Yan:  Lolll. I think we have enough titles for now, how about contents? Like the actual article themselves?

 Biyi: The content are actually not as juicy as the titles, they are like, formula-based: you first tell a story from a real person(friend, colleague, neighbor or whoever the author claims to know) or someone famous, usually extracting the part about their love lives or successes. You then add some inspiring quotes, like those sentences you see in a fortune cookies, and package them into even more inspirational, you know, things. Make sure to keep repeating yourself without being bland, and always bring in elements of storytelling, that's how chicken-soups are cooked!

 Yan: Wait a sec, don't make it sound too easy! What do you mean by "inspirational things" exactly? Like what and how inspirational?

 Biyi: (Eye-rolling) How can you always have questions for me?!


What's peculiar about today's  Chinese Chicken Soup, in comparison to its U.S counterparts, is that it's bounded less in utopian escapism but more in a materialistic reality. It calls for self-betterment through aggressive physical spending and calculated self-investment.

In the context of today's China-an golden age for spending and economic growth-consumption is packaged as the salvage to most of the modern day problems, especially for the busy, stressed modern Chinese females that are swirling in mounting troubles both at home and work.

We couldn't tell you how much problems buying can solve because we are busy buying more things...

How to pick the right husband candidate and win the dating game?
How to make your guy love you more instead of being seduced by some random pretty girls?
How to stay young, beautiful and sexy?
How to earn more money for the kids' education, for purchasing a better house, for buying more big and pretty things?

So, so many problems.

A cartoon from a popular Chinese Chicken Soup account(@kawaweika), saying "Women, learn to find happiness not from others but from yourself."

"Oh women, don't just stand still and wait for happiness to come/happiness is actually in your hands/stop expecting, starting chasing/only the happiness you create would provide you with the most security" - Would you say this is Chicken Soup?


That Warm Fuzzy Feeling...

Chicken Soup, as much as it claims to be useful, is obviously not a straight-up problem solver . What it does though is to comfort and soothe the dreadful minds through a sense of togetherness: no matter it is Huh someone's living a shittier life than me! or Argh I want to be as successful as she is! You envy what others are envying, and you feel better through learning about someone else's crappy lives.

It is as much an vicious logic trap as a cozy blanket in freezing winter nights; the giant vat of piping hot, golden-brown broth may not contain any real nutrition value, but it gives you that warm fuzzy feeling to make you immediately soothed, energized and, going from there, inspired.

"It gets to you, even when you know better." Says Katy Waldman from Slate on her own personal experience with Chicken Soup for the Soul.


 Biyi: You know what I think is comparable with our Chinese Chicken Soup? Life-hacks! Also super popular online, and people in U.S seems to be loving them as much as we enjoy Chicken Soup in China...

 Yan: You mean these kind of life-hacks? Aren't they the opposite to Chicken Soup though since they are all about saving money, being practical and becoming efficient etc?

Who doesn't like a good life-hack?

 Biyi:  Yes and no. I think both life-hacks and Chicken Soup are popular because they are presenting people with life-betterment shortcuts, only one is more material and the other is more, spiritual I guess?

 Yan:  Well that's true. I don't think people in China are that obsessed with hacks to save money though, at least not for those that are actively using internet and frequently updating their WeChat Moments.



 Yan: So what's the conclusion here? Chicken soups are good? bad? sh*t? #@$#$%?

 Biyi: Do we MUST land on a conclusion? I am still fascinated by Chicken Soup's stories and their storytelling skills, but I also hate how they bootstrap readers emotionally. Anyways, the fact that so many Chinese people love them certainly tells us something about the society as a whole, doesn't it?

 Yan:  Yes and no. Since you are not landing on a clear conclusion, I have the right to be ambivalent too!


Ok, no conclusion maybe, but I do have a story to share, may I?

 Yan: You may, but watch your time! This article is already long as #$@#$%!!


Biyi's story time....

Last December, I went to Yosemite for a two-day trip. For the second day, we spent the morning hiking then drove back to San Francisco to catch work the next day. It was a freezing, raining day, we were all muddy and tired and hungry but there wasn't anything to eat until we finally drove out of the national park and spotted a Subway.


I was desperately craving for something hot when walking in, so aside from a sandwich, I also, for the first time, ordered a soup in Subway. It was a Chicken and noddle soup, the only option they had, which I am sure was made by an instant packet and was served in a plastic fast-food-chain cup.

It had like three little-finger sized meat cubes inside and probably 10 spaghetti spirals in total, but that didn't matter anymore. Hungry and cold like a ghost, I took up the cup for a large sip-

The moment the soup slipped into my mouth, my senses were revived by the warm soup steam petting all over my face, and the meaty broth gently splashed over my tongue.

I finished that cup of chicken soup within 30 seconds. That was, in my memory, the best meal I've ever had in a long, long time.