On April 1, UK-based Chinese student ZhouDan Pan was amazed when he turned on his phone and realized he was a rising internet star in China.
“It was April Fool’s Day and suddenly a large number of friends came forward to say, ‘You’ve become a meme over the internet,'” he told CGTN Digital.
ZhouDan’s fame came from his appearance on the Chinese TV game show The Brain two years earlier.
In particular, his dramatic exit from the crowded audience and the subsequent walk to the stage, during which he theatrically dropped his shoulder, turned on his heels and marched purposefully down the aisle, won the hearts of the audience.
“It was the very first part of the show. It was a very crowded waiting area, so when my name was called, I had to dodge to step out of the crowd,” he recalled.
After ZhouDan was made aware of his popularity by his friends, he was amazed to find countless imitations of his exaggerated physical movement online, many with extremely high production values and detailed editorial scenarios.
“It took me a while to understand what was going on when I saw all these people mimicking my movement on social media,” he said. “Generation Z people in China imitated this movement in a sensational way.”
The University of Oxford doctor of philosophy (DPhil) student was intrigued by the logic behind his fame.
He explained: “I’m a Dphil engineering student studying algorithms, so I’m very sensitive to numbers. I searched the relevant hashtag on TikTok in China and found the number increasing insanely, starting from tens of millions to tens of millions to hundreds of millions and then billions. Then I realized, ‘Oh my god, there might be more views than all of humanity.’”
ZhouDan-inspired videos include fans dodging kisses and stepping on a baby’s pacifier, stepping on a landmine, stealing food, falling in doors, bumping into friends, and even running from a man standing by a gentleman’s urinal .
Perhaps the most elaborate video shows a plane full of passengers making the move at the same time. Some versions show animals unknowingly performing similar head jerking.
ZhouDan said he got a few explanations as to why his on-air performance was so popular.
He said: “Some people say it’s a symbol of pride. But later, when people realized that wasn’t the case because the waiting area was way too crowded, it turned from a gesture to show pride to a gesture of determination to face life in a difficult situation. It got more positive.”
ZhouDan’s fame has even spread to Oxford. “When I go to a Chinese restaurant, someone recognizes me there, and when I attend Chinese student society events,” he said.
While being interviewed by CGTN on a quiet Oxford side street, ZhouDan was recognized by three fellow Chinese students, who happily mimicked his movement in front of the camera.
“We all know him. It was a fun way to get up, a very fun curl move that went viral in China,” said one.
ZhouDan said he feels like the character of a famous 1994 Hollywood blockbuster.
He joked, “Most of us have seen Forrest Gump. Do you remember when he walks in the movie and people follow him? I feel like I’m a Forrest Gump character.”