Today in Chinese Soft-Power Surreality: The 十三五 !

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last night the online China-watcher world was erupting in delight over the video you can watch below. It raises questions that are the Chinese state-run media version of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

That is: could this hokey masterpiece possibly have been meant in earnest? Or is it an Onion-style winking joke, in which we’re the rubes for being lured into thinking that it was serious? Or — the Heisenberg angle! — through the very process of noticing and making fun of it, do we bring about its conversion from one category to the other, earnest to Onion?

We will never know. (Although, based on past evidence, I am betting: earnest.) Meanwhile, I give you The Shi San Wu, or 十三五 or 13-5, the meaning of which will become evident:

After I saw this last night, via a Tweet from the NYT’s Michael Forsythe, I asked online if anyone knew the background of the (apparently) foreign production talent behind this remarkable piece of work.

Ask and it shall be answered!

Forsythe himself has an item on the Times’s site now, and our own sister site Quartz has one by Zheping Huang as well. Here is another by Erik Crouch at Techinasia. They all give credit/responsibility to an organization calling itself the Fuxing Road Studio,  复兴路上工作室. This group has produced some other … remarkable videos. For instance, this one on how the dream of growing up to be president/prime minister plays out in the U.S., China, and other places:

No larger theme here. But hey, you native speakers of American English who are evidently working at Fuxing Road: get in touch some time! I’d love to hear the back story on these videos.


Update Thanks to Ben Wang of the Eurasia Group for the embeddable link to another notable work from Fuxing Road. It’s called “The Communist Party of China Is With You.” See for yourself!


Update-bonus No sane person has ever sought my advice on pronouncing words in Chinese, or for that matter in any other language (except sometimes English). But I’ve gotten a number of notes to this effect:

Did you catch the pronunciation of “五”?  It sounded much more like “oo” than “wu.”  It seemed like an odd mistake.

If you listen to the song, you’ll hear a zillion repetitions of shi-san-ooo, where I would have expected shi-san-wu. Yet another question to ask at Fuxing Road.