In the late summer of 2015, observant Internet users noticed the uncanny similarities between a large, cartoonish blow-up amphibian, a ‘toad’ 蛤蟆, floating on the lake at the Summer Palace, and the former president, Jiang Zemin, with his characteristic thick, black spectacles and high-waisted pants.
The initial commentary was mocking and much of it was censored. But instead of fizzling out, it blossomed into a meme called ‘toad worship culture’ 膜蛤文化 as ‘fans of the toad’ 蛤丝 gathered on WeChat, Weibo online community Baidu Tieba (Baidu Paste Bar), and Q&A website Zhihu to share their favorite quotes, memories, and pictures of the former leader.
In one frequently shared picture, Jiang confidently combs his hair in front of the King of Spain. In another, he gesticulates widely next to US president Bill Clinton. In yet another, Jiang, in waist-high swimming trunks and goggles, beams for a picture before diving into the Dead Sea—a comment reads ‘I am utterly moved by the Elder’s openness and confidence’. To indicate laughter, fans replace the characters for ‘haha’ 哈哈 with the ‘ha’ from the character for ‘toad’ 蛤蛤.
In toad worship culture, Jiang Zemin himself is called the ‘Elder’ 长者, a reference to one toad fan’s favorite memory: in 2000, Jiang scolded Hong Kong reporter Sharon Cheung 张宝华 at a press conference, referring to himself as an ‘elder’ with an imperative to impart some real-life experience to Hong Kong’s simple-minded media. Cheung’s Weibo account has become something of a virtual mecca for toad fans.
Toad worship delights in Jiang’s unselfconscious and free-wheeling nature, a strong contrast with Xi Jinping’s meticulously choreographed public image and self-important persona. Discussing the differences between Xi and Jiang is called xixihaha 习习蛤蛤, a pun on the onomatopoeia for the sound of laughter 嘻嘻哈哈. In a thinly veiled satirical comment on Xi’s staged 2013 visit to a Beijing steamed bun shop, some toad fans posted the slogan ‘keep the toad, destroy the bun’ 续蛤灭包. This was apparently too much: soon after this slogan appeared, censors eliminated most of the toad worship culture from the Internet.