Absurd as it may sound, the gap between mainland China and Taiwan as manifested in recent online chatters about tea eggs is probably wider than the Taiwan Strait. These slightly-tanned and savory eggs take center stage of how Chinese netizens react to the on-going anti-China protests in Taiwan against a controversial trade pact that looks to open up dozens of service sector industries from both sides to each other.
No one ever imaged that this humble snack pickled in tea leaves, spices and soy sauce would one day become China’s latest Internet meme, ranking among the top 10 most-searched keywords on China’s leading social media Weibo.
The origin can be traced back to a Taiwan TV show clip that went viral at the end of last year. In the clip, in response to the observation by a Taiwan snack shop owner that she seldom saw people eating or selling tea eggs during her visit to the mainland, a “retail expert” and “professor” Gao Zhibin, from Taiwan’s Ministry of Labor, explained that it was because tea eggs are too much of a luxury for mainland Chinese.
“Speaking of tea eggs, an ordinary mainland Chinese simply cannot afford them. China has very low per capita income. What we see here in Taiwan are mainland tourists. But China has 1.4 billion people; those tourists are the wealthy few. China has a lot of poor people, even in big cities.”
To put the conversation into context: 1) Chinese does have a lot of poor people. A GDP per capita of $9100 in 2012 puts China at the 120th globally; 2) a tea egg sells at about 25 cents or less in China (US cents). Some other things that mainland Chinese cannot afford, according to the show, are frozen dumplings, instant noodles, washing machines and fridges.
If this is how an average Taiwanese pictures their mainland counterparts, no wonder that one of their biggest concerns of the controversial trade pact is a pouring influx of mainlanders. After all, according to another expert in the Taiwan show, “the life dream” of many mainland Chinese is to “save enough to go to Taiwan for once.”
On the other side of the strait, mainland Chinese netziens are letting all mockery out. Tea eggs are apparently the new “symbol of wealth” now: “Two kidneys for one tea egg”.
“I’ve been saving for the better half of my whole life before I can finally afford some tea eggs,” one netizen Fashion-Planet joked. Another netizen 请叫我东亚小醋王 : “OMG, I just ate two tea eggs today. I need to see whether I’m on Forbes Billionaires list.”
The meme is a direction reaction to the anti-China protests in Taiwan. The Taiwan public fear that the trade pact will lead to increased mainland influence over the island’s economy, which, in turn, will lead to tighter control from Beijing.
Many mainland Chinese, however, believe that Taiwan’s protests stem from a fear of competition with mainland businesses, and more importantly, a lost sense of superiority – the once poor mainlanders who cannot even afford a tea egg are now the nouveau riche.
While making fun of tea eggs, one netizen 武功山小裁缝 pointed to this subtle “superiority complex: “The pro-democracy movements in Taiwan are all about tea eggs. They thought that no one from mainland can afford to eat tea eggs. Therefore, many of them have been stocking up tea eggs all their lives. Now all of a sudden, their stocks of tea eggs are worth nothing because they finally realize that tea eggs are cheap in China, and that mainland China is just as opened-up as Taiwan. Their life savings go to waste. What now? Occupy the legislature and oppose the trade pact!”
In an attempt to directly speak to protesters in Taiwan, mainland Chinese netizens are mobilized to use tea eggs as a symbol of their stance.
“Without the trade pact, [Taiwan people] still have tea eggs, and frozen dumplings and instant noodles.”
“No matter how poor the motherland is, we will keep feeding you tea eggs.”