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The Body Politic on Douyin

by Lim Sheau Yun

A particular video genre has emerged on Douyin (for the uninitiated, the Chinese precursor of TikTok): groups, whether human or animal, orchestrated in synchronised movement for the twin purposes of awe and entertainment. Imagine the Olympian discipline of a synchronised swimming team, but in banal settings and always against a backdrop of generic, garish Chinese electronic music. A group of ten dogs – all with curly coats, in black or white and with Chinese New Year attire – jump rope in time. A row of old farmers, hoes in hand, march and lip-sync to a song on a dirt road. A personal favourite: a line of male waiters in flashing-neon roller skates turn a corner, ducking down in succession while holding trays of food. Little Chinese flags line the hallway, swaying with the air-conditioning. With the waiter’s buzzcuts, sequined songkoks and floral waistcoats, the effect is not unlike a disco parody of the Chinese state.

The image of the mass of Chinese bodies is, of course, not new. The mass emerged as an aesthetic category in large part because leftist 20th-century political movements were born from numbers. Marxism and its Maoist iteration emphasised politics not on the scale of individuals but that of class: mass mobilisation and mass participation in political affairs were required to move forward in this linear historical process. By the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the crowd had become the visual encapsulation of Maoist China, plastered over posters, film, plays and other representations of the nation.

The body politic was first articulated to impose the metaphor of the body onto the state, most notably with the cover of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, where the King’s head is shown surmounted upon a body created from his subjects. The body as a mediator of space and a metaphor through which we understand space: Geoffrey Scott sees humanism as merely a two-way metaphor “we have transcribed ourselves into terms of architecture… and architecture into terms of ourselves.” However, the mass represents a different understanding of spatiality – when bodies multiply, they create and occupy space.

The masses thus became a kind of modern architecture. If we understand space not as built objects, but as an emergent condition that arises from the relationship between objects, then the mass can be understood in singular and plural. They are space generators in the body politic and body-as-politics. The individual body becomes secondary to the horizontal sprawl, an atomic particle in a charged sea. While I would argue that there are many typologies to this architecture, including the rally or the mob, one stands forth in our cultural imagination: the Parade.

The Parade is the masses made monolith. With its carefully considered geometry, it is a highly homogenous and orchestrated configuration of mass space. Order characterises the Parade. Often, mass space is fragmented according to predetermined configurations in an exhibition of discipline. It is notable that in this scene, the camera never pans to any individual: the mass in its totality is occupied space, as if they were blocks that can be continually rearranged. A militaristic aesthetic is central to the Parade’s configuration. The atmosphere of the masses is one of vital sterility: in all cases, those in the parade are dressed in uniform and act as a single entity. Expressions are neutral: the Parade is the most malleable form of the mass, constituted from without and based on the projections of the elites who have made the Parade possible.

Peng Zhen, a leading member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the 1950s, commented that “Parades are a grand demonstration against imperialism. They display our strength and can have an influence on capitalist countries.” For the revolution to be felt globally, the Parade needed to be staged in “the most overwhelming way.” But the Parade was also a political text that spoke within the nation. Mao claimed that the historical process proceeds in a “wave-like advance” rather than “a continuously rising line” – given insufficient motivation, the nation could slip back into capitalism. The Parade embodied his spatial metaphor: marching, wave-like, advancing.


A parade to commemorate the first national day in Tiananmen Square shows a clear, ideal hierarchical relationship between leader and mass. Technology acts as a multiplier: a one-point perspective is used to suggest the extension to infinity of the masses. This is juxtaposed against Mao’s singular image, hung on the Gate of Heavenly Peace – it is the one versus the many. The very act of observing a horizontal mass privileges the viewpoint of those raised in vertical space. For the elite, the masses are mere landscape: the eye of the camera and the eye of the leader are one and the same.

The Parade has endured in part because it is a mainstay in Chinese cultural exports, from Shen Yun, the exiled religious group Falun Gong’s anti-Communist acrobatics performances in the US, to Encore Melaka, a grandiose production complete with a rotating stage emphasising Chinese entanglements in the history of Melaka in Malaysia. But nowhere was the contemporary Parade more refined than the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics opening ceremony, the culmination of years of experiments with the masses by the film director Zhang Yimou. Gone was Mao: instead, it was the imperial tradition that was emphasised as Confucian disciples chanted passages from the Analects, dancers painted with ink on a scroll, and villages marched across the stage to mimic the desert. In one segment on movable type printing, gargantuan grey printing blocks were arranged in a grid in the centre of the stage, rising and lowering with such perfect synchronisation that one imagined they were mechanised. The catch? At the end of the segment, the caps with Chinese characters were pushed off their hinges to reveal that it was, in fact, people, not machines, underneath. They waved, elated. The crowd went wild.

Image Credits, clockwise: Goh Chai Hin, Reuters, Christophe Simon, Joe Chan. Images from Alan Taylor, “The Chinese Art of the Crowd” in The Atlantic, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/05/the-chinese-art-of-the-crowd/392531/

The art of the masses has now made its way onto short-form video: it has become meme. Douyin is merely the latest iteration in these orchestrations, but – to me – perhaps the most fascinating. The numbers are at far smaller scales, but the spectacles march on. In mundane settings, away from the overt hand of the state, the mass seems apolitical: restaurants, gyms, apartment lobbies are all fair game as for staging a parade.

Unlike other social media apps which draw content from what your network of contacts – your friend’s wedding pictures on Instagram, or an event from an organisation you follow on Facebook – Douyin and TikTok don’t primarily rely on a pre-existing social connection to formulate its suggestions. Its algorithm is based on pure behaviour, its content based on what you have watched. There is no past or future in short-form video; there is pure entertainment. Jia Tolentino has likened TikTok to “the last sunny corner of the internet,” and Douyin is no different: the content that does best is impressive enough to hold your attention, funny or cute enough to warm the fuzzies in your quarantine-deadened soul, and benign enough that it will leave you wanting more.

The trope of the Parade is peculiarly suited to this algorithmic behaviour. The eye of the state is now invisible, embedded in the code. If the Maoist Parade was designed to show state power, then the Douyin Parade is its cooler younger sibling who just does things for the lols. After liking many such videos, the algorithm began to learn. Who knew if I was still interested in watching this? The line between what you like to watch and what the algorithm wants you to like to watch is dangerously thin. State machinery has made way for the machine in the code. We are made mass.