The Memeification of Chen Shih-chung

Written by Sam Robbins.

Image Credit: Keynote by Minister Shih-Chung Chen @ 2017 Global Health Forum in Taiwan by Ministry of Health and Welfare /Flicker, License: CC0 1.0

Currently, if you visit the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University, you will be greeted by a cartoon cut out of Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare, Chen Shih-chung (陳時中). The Cartoon tells you to use your card to buzz in and to get your temperature checked. If you are a user of popular social messaging app Line, you can now download a package of cartoon stickers of Chen accompanied with messages like, “stand together and defeat the virus” (團結對抗,戰勝病毒). Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus was first reported in late 2019, Chen has become an increasingly visible government figure appearing in daily press briefings. As his visibility has increased, another, somewhat less-expected phenomenon has occurred, he has gradually started to appear in internet memes in Taiwan.

This memeification has taken various forms. The earliest iteration surfaced back in mid-February. This took place during ongoing debates about whether to allow the Chinese children and spouses of Taiwanese citizens into Taiwan from China, as Chinese nationals had already been banned from entry. This early version of a meme theme centred on Chen’s somewhat blunt comment, “If you didn’t choose Taiwanese nationality at the beginning, you can deal with the consequences of that now on your own” (當初國籍沒選台灣,現在後果自己承擔). These memes praise Chen, often by comically portraying as someone willing to bravely and confidently taken on some kind of rival.

In contrast, the recent iteration is much softer, or “Q” (cute). In these instances, Chen often functions as a synecdoche of the effort to fight Coronavirus in Taiwan. Furthermore, this version is used to share messages of solidarity and positivity; it is also used to share specific information about health policies. This seems to have taken off after Taiwanese artist, Tonn Hsu created and shared the model for the now-ubiquitous cut-out cartoon model of Chen. As is the nature of memes, once this original graphic was released, a slew of improvisations and new iterations on this theme has emerged. A search for posts tagged with Chen Shih-Chung on Instagram is a good way to get a sense of this. Recently, a cartoon of Taiwan’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, also created by Tonn Hsu, has also started to gain popularity. Tang’s reputation for being a genius has started to grow even more ever since she became a sensation in Japan for her role in fighting the Coronavirus in Taiwan. She is also popular because of her identification with forward-thinking measures in Taiwan like the mask2.0 scheme.

Although the specific conditions in which these images emerged are quite unique, there is a strong precedent for the mixture of cute aesthetics and politics in Taiwan. President Tsai Ing-Wen released a manga-style video game where she is portrayed as a high schooler wearing cat ears. The recent election also saw cosplayer Lai Pin-yu enter parliament, who famously turned up to a rally dressed as the character Asuka from the Japanese anime Evangelion. Rival Han Kuo-yu also released an official cartoon version of himself earlier in 2019. In the 1997 local elections, the DPP turned many of their key politicians into cartoon superheroes in political advertisements. Politicians the world over employ an array of methods to present themselves are more approachable and “just like you.” In Taiwan, being “cute” is one way in which this can be achieved. At least aesthetically speaking, the cute version of Chen Shi-chung is not particularly out of the ordinary in Taiwan. 

Of course, in reality, Chen is just one figure amongst many who are working to protect public health in Taiwan. Still, it makes sense as to why Chen has become the face of the current movement. Chen has become an increasingly visible figure in Taiwan over the last few months. Although the daily press briefings by the Centre for Disease  have been ongoing since January, these events seem to have been gaining more attention since cases began to pile up in mid-March. Chen’s face appears in many articles that report on the news from daily briefings. As the Coronavirus has increasingly become a regular part of life and politics in Taiwan, so has Chen. It is perhaps, thus, inevitable that his visage would start to be remixed in meme formats.

But Chen has also emerged not just as a meme, but as a symbol of encouragement and support that sections of the public identify with. The emergence of cartoon Chen reflects the extent to which people have faith in the government’s response to the outbreak. As the Coronavirus has made feelings of uncertainty a staple feature of both political consideration and individual daily experience, the appropriation of the image of Chen reflects public identification with Chen as a figure of certainty and clarity. This reflects nothing specific about Chen as an individual, but rather the successful health communication campaign of the Taiwanese government over the past few months. The government has been extremely proactive in sharing health information on a range of channels online and offline. Such measures place Taiwan’s approach in contrast to the opaqueness of its neighbour China, and also in contrast to the initial dismissal response of countries like the US. In short, the appearance of Chen memes reflects not only general public support of Chen but a more profound identification with him — and by the extension, the whole public health effort — as efficient, reliable and trustworthy.

Despite being preserved online, memes — in their design —  are meant to be ephemeral. The popularity of cartoon Chen, or other variations, will probably lose popularity over time, but the appearance of these images is not entirely trivial. Especially within the aesthetic language of Taiwanese politics, the appearance of cartoon Chen can tell us something important about public opinion on Taiwan’s public health measures, which is perhaps especially useful since official polling on this question has remained infrequent. Indeed, the fact that cute Chen has become a symbol of support and encouragement — or a way to share information about health — reflects that the Taiwanese government has not only been getting public health measures correct but also demonstrates robust health communications.

Sam Robbins is studying for a master’s degree in Sociology at National Taiwan University; he focuses on digital society and digital politics in Taiwan. He is also a production assistant for the English-language, Taiwan current affairs podcast “The Taiwan Take,” which can be found on all major podcast platforms or here.

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