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Oscars 2021: Chinese Social Media Reacts as Chloé Zhao Wins Historic Best Director Award

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The 93rd Academy Awards weren’t shown live in mainland China (nor in Hong Kong, for the first time since 1969). Apparent fears that there might be some pointed comments about China at the winners’ podium — particularly after Beijing-born director Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was pulled from Chinese cinemas, and short documentary Do Not Split (about the Hong Kong protests) made the nominations — were reportedly responsible for a ban on showing the Hollywood ceremony live.

But of course that didn’t stop people across China keeping an eye on proceedings, with multiple social media accounts live-blogging the ceremony.

Zhao’s historic wins in the Directing and Best Picture categories didn’t initially appear in the “hot trending” section on the Twitter-like platform Weibo, while the entertainment-focused Sina Hollywood handle announced her awards on that platform in a very matter-of-fact way, with simply the award categories, her name and that of Nomadland in Chinese (a format they chose for all awards as they broke). But the perfunctory posts weren’t enough to stop plenty of commenters piling in — many of them offering up congratulations for Zhao, who became the first Asian woman and only the second woman ever to win the Best Director Oscar.

Some users on Chinese social media called for the film to be given a cinema release in China, while one referenced the preceding controversy around Zhao by stating, “Those sour pink [haters] can bow down.” However, hours later many such posts were no longer visible.

Zhao ultimately did reference China in her Directing acceptance speech, but — as was really to be expected given her poise throughout her run to the ceremony — she did so with charm rather than controversy. “When I was growing up in China, my dad and I would play this game. We would memorize classic poems and text and try to finish each other’s sentences,” Zhao said, before delivering an example of said lines: “People at birth are inherently good.”

The most-upvoted comment under one clip of her speech on Weibo echoed her thoughts: “I really hope everyone can maintain the good side of human nature.” Yet hours later, video of the speech appeared to have been removed from messaging app WeChat, while a number of Weibo posts related to her triumphs also seemed to have been deleted.

In addition to Nomadland and Do Not Split, there were three films with strong China links in the running for Oscars this year: school bullying drama Better Days, entered via Hong Kong, was up for Best International Feature Film; Over the Moon, the Netflix animation about the goddess Chang-e, was in the Best Animated Feature Film category; and Disney’s live action Mulan had picked up nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design.

Better Days lost out to the Mads Mikkelsen-starring Another Round, while Mulan was bested in the costume category by Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and in visual effects by Tenet. Over the Moon lost out to Soul and Colette was crowned Best Documentary Short winner.

Related:

How Chloé Zhao Became an Oscar Winner with Just Her Third Feature Film

Zhao and Nomadland had already made history, with the filmmaker becoming the first Asian woman director to be nominated for Best Picture and Best Director awards.

Her run to the Oscars had initially been celebrated in ChinaNomadland had secured a limited release in the country and posters for the film made sure to emphasise that she was a “Chinese director.” Yet that all unravelled when nationalist posters on Chinese social media demanded to know whether the director still held Chinese citizenship and dug up negative comments about China attributed to her in old English-language interviews.

In the immediate build-up to the Academy Awards, buzz around Zhao on Chinese social media was therefore limited. Her BAFTA wins were reported, for example, but barely commented on.

Related:

Cover photo: “THE OSCARS® – The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station Los Angeles and the Dolby® Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and international locations via satellite. “The Oscars” will be televised live on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT and in more than 200 territories worldwide (ABC/AMPAS).”

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.