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Watching China Eat: The Future of China’s ‘Mukbang’ Broadcasts Amid a Food Security Crisis – US-China Today

In China, a Mukbang (Korean portmanteau for “eating broadcast”) streamer records himself enjoying his meals, but the food is missing. In each short video he mimics the act of eating various everyday meals like hamburgers and dumplings with the help of empty bowls, unused wrappings and impressive acting skills. This content creator, who goes by the Weibo handle péng niǎo péng niǎo 朋鸟朋鸟, is the face of what is now known as “foodless Mukbangs.” As a mukbanger, 朋鸟朋鸟’s eccentric uploads are not new to his channel, but he has only achieved stardom this August as China’s Mukbang industry rapidly perished. In fact, he is one of the only thriving Mukbang artists precisely because of the lack of food in his videos. This abrupt change is almost unimaginable, as Mukbang was one of China’s most lucrative online entertainment industries only months ago.

Credit: Weibo ID “朋鸟朋鸟”

Mukbang, or Meokbang, is a global entertainment phenomenon revolving around the act of binge eating. It originated in South Korea during the late 2000s when live-streaming first began taking off. People broadcast themselves eating while interacting with their audiences, much like those who streamed themselves gaming and performing. By 2015, Mukbangs have become a staple subculture in Korea’s online entertainment scene and a growing trend in international markets such as China and North America. In China, chī bō 吃播 (literally “eating broadcast”) has become an integral part of the booming foods and entertainment industries, generating over 28 billion total related views on Douyin (China’s TikTok sister app) alone. Yet this empire that took years to build was seemingly toppled within days.

The catalyst for this change was the “Clean Plate Campaign 2.0” announced by the Chinese Communist Party on August 11, 2020. In a national announcement, Chinese President Xi Jinping drew attention to a looming food security crisis and emphasized the need to reduce food waste. The roots of this campaign date back to 2013 but was given a greater sense of urgency following the agricultural supply shocks caused by multiple floods, a swine fever epidemic and COVID-19. The government urged individuals and corporations alike to be more mindful of consumption habits and aim to reduce waste on all levels. Among various food-related industries that were impacted by this broad initiative, Mukbang creators found themselves in a series of rapidly compounding events over the past two months.

CCTV, China’s public service broadcasting network, immediately aired segments criticizing mukbangers for their wasteful behaviors. These dà wèi wáng 大胃王 (literally “big stomach kings”) were branded as irresponsible advertisers and called out for failing to finish their meals while using editing techniques to deceive their audiences. This came as a surprise because not long ago CCTV had supported the very same content creators for driving sales in the food and dining industries. The feature boasted that in 2019 China’s streamer-driven consumption spree brought in over 400 billion RMB in sales; in hindsight, this achievement could very much have been a hint of the troubles that irked the government.

Netizens were divided on the issue; many fans supported the streamers and the freedom to create content. Chloe Yorke, a writer who covered the issue for RADII, explains that Chinese social media and forums were filled with conflicting opinions because people enjoyed Mukbangs for very different reasons. She says that “some people watch these videos to feel like they’re having a conversation with someone at the end of the day”, and that for others, Mukbangs are good sources of ASMR (Auto Sensory Meridian Response, a pleasant form of paresthesia) and helps them “relax and calm down because they enjoy listening to the sounds of eating”. However, it was evident that popular Mukbangers started rapidly losing followers under the growing pressure.

The final blow came when popular platforms such as Douyin and Kuaishou began censoring related contents and deleting broadcaster accounts in response to the Cyberspace Administration’s broad multimedia cleansing initiative. To lay low, many creators also started manually deleting their own videos and removed sensitive keywords such as “big stomach king” from their account names. By the middle of September, over 13,600 accounts had been removed and millions of Mukbang videos were deleted, leaving the once lively community a shell of its past.

As the dust settles, these streamers, their fans and genuine foodies have the same question: what happens next?

Glen Donnar of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) School of Media and Communication, whose research covers both stardom and popular culture, puts the question in perspective by explaining the cyclical nature of China’s Mukbang industry. This interpretation combines two layers: the Mukbang industry and the broader relationship between China’s government and celebrities.

The Cyclical Nature of Mukbang

Like all novel entertainment models, Mukbang evolves over time once it reaches a new market and is heavily influenced by the existing culture and values. Donnar explains that in South Korea, commensality and virtual intimacy were widely valued and Mukbangs were originally about “taking time to eat and share”. In the western world, similar eating challenges are more associated with influencer marketing. In China, the evolution of Mukbang culture is a mixture of both worlds. The nation shares many traditional values with Korea as well as a rise in single-person households, but the market is highly competitive.

“Eating together is still culturally valued and there is an association of plentiful food and banquets with celebrations. However, the rise of ‘big stomach kings’ is not unlike what we see in American food culture. These ‘big stomach kings’ attempt to not just conquer the food challenge, but defeat other ‘big stomach kings’ in terms of what you can eat, how much you can eat, how quickly you can eat it, but also how many followers you can accumulate and retain.”

The problem with hyper-competitiveness has led creators to take extreme creative measures to satisfy their fans. China’s main distribution platforms feature short videos (around 1 minute long), so mukbangers found the most success in visually shocking viewers with increasingly more food on display. Chloe suggests that judging by how popular Douyin is, even those who aren’t fans often enjoy “scrolling through” Mukbang videos, especially when the cover images are extreme. Daring broadcasters even attempted eating live animals and other unorthodox meals to chase after views. The concerns over unhealthy diets, wasteful habits and deception has been brought up by CCTV and echoed in other state media in response to the new guidelines, but controversy has been brewing among netizens and experts long before. Donnar suggests that the nation began enjoying abundance since it abolished ration coupons in the 1990s, and the Clean Plates campaign reflects a greater “moral panic” that can be observed within China’s society as a byproduct of this growing indulgence.

Chinese mukbanger eats live geoduck – Credit: Youtube channel “OMG Seafood”

Whether China’s food security is really an imminent issue or not, the concerns over it are cyclical. Like the broader economic cycles, consumption levels will rise and fall, and drivers of consumption such as Mukbangs share an almost directly inverse relationship. The prognosis is that once consumption stabilizes and the economy declines (very likely given the impacts of COVID-19), Mukbangs will find the room it needs to flourish again. Faced with regulations and shifting social trends, the Mukbang industry is going through a challenging downturn, but Donnar describes its trajectory with a historical example.

“We even saw that [cycle] in South Korea intermittently every once in a while. In the years following the country becoming a democracy and becoming more affluent there were campaigns from the South Korean government against excessive consumption in the early 1990s. Then the Asian financial crisis [1997] hits and priorities flipped, so the government encourages and supports consumption. We see a number of different responses to that support, including the initial rise of Mukbang.”

A news segment shows a streamer spitting out food off camera – Credit: CCTV

 

The Cyclical Nature of China’s Celebrity Regulations

Donnar explains that “The Chinese government has a long history around celebrity and co-opting or incorporating troublesome elements and then using them to promote party ideals and ideas…If anything, once government attention moves onto something else then it can slowly return but probably in a very different format.”

The dynamic described above is one we see regularly in China’s entertainment sphere, and can happen for many reasons. Local talent often face obstacles due to political opinions. K-pop tours were banned by China’s government to send Seoul a political message and concerns over children’s masculinity and the industry has only recently begun rebuilding ties. The NBA was banned all of last season over a single 2019 Tweet by a team general manager, but CCTV did air to air the playoff finals. Hollywood has spent decades slowly prying open the door to China’s highly regulated film market by adapting film contents pragmatically. Now, Mukbangers, who Donnar calls “micro-celebrities”, are likely receiving the same treatment.

Furthermore, Chinese society has adapted to respond rapidly to government initiatives, sometimes too zealously. Donnar explains that “platforms will self-censor immediately, and Chinese citizens and netizens are encouraged to ‘name and shame’ anyone who is going against the moral and national impetus behind something like the ‘Clean Plates campaign’”, which is depicting a powerful form of market regulation.

As harsh as the obstacles are, this relationship is again cyclical in nature. Celebrities with hundreds of millions of combined followers are valuable assets for the Chinese government; just because they are distorting the national image now does not mean they cannot help reshape the national image in times of need. After all, the act of consuming food can be patriotic and mindful just as easily as it can be wasteful. Previous research has suggested that watching Mukbangs may help satisfy viewers rather than drive desires, further proving that there is plenty of room to mold the visions of a new Chinese Mukbang culture.

In fact, as regulations ease, some of China’s top Mukbang streamers are back with sensibly portioned meals and mindful messages to spread.

A former “big stomach king” comedically announces her style change through a video focusing on restaurant introduction – Credit: Kuaishou ID “langweixian”

 

Popular mukbanger reminds her audience to maintain a healthy diet in a recent video – Credit: Bilibili Channel “密子君”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rebirth of the Industry?

On the topic of creativity, Donnar says “If you are already ostensibly banned, there’s nothing that should stop you from trying out new formats”.  is an excellent example of someone who found success during unlikely times. Other creators experimented with “pet Mukbangs” or blogs to support local restaurants. In light of COVID-19 drastically reducing the likelihood of meal gatherings, there is also a high chance that the pleasures of binge eating will be overtaken by the pleasures of responsible social eating. Not all of the endeavors will work, but in the end “the government will be able to point to positive examples as ways in which it has transformed the industry and people’s behaviors for the better”, says Donnar.

“The difficulty is that it’s always difficult to predict what will draw negative attention next, how long that negative attention would last, and how interested the government might be in co-opting and transforming it to match their image.”

Navigating these government regulations in the context of an impending crisis will remain a challenge, but hopefully understanding the nuances of the history, culture, and politics behind Mukbangs will provide some food for thought on the rebirth of a cultural phenomenon.

 

Credit: Dr. Glen Donar

 

Header Image Credit: Chan Walrus, White and Brown Cooked Dish on White Ceramic Bowls