The term duang is perhaps the most defining example of wangluo yuyan, or 'internet language' to emerge in China during the 2010s. This internet language, a heterogeneous and shifting repertoire of terms, phrases and entire writing systems coalescing through the interactions of millions of users, has become a widely recognized and debated phenomenon, so much so that even the Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China has felt the need to provide a definition of it. In order to understand how duang came about, it is necessary to take a brief detour into hair care products.
Founded in 1989 and headquartered in Guangzhou, the B&W International (Group) Holdings Limited, commonly known as Bawang, is one of China's most popular shampoo manufacturers. One of its iconic products is the Anti-Hair Loss Shampoo, containing traditional medicinal herb extracts. In 2004, Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan starred in a series of video ads promoting this product line. It is in one of these ads that Jackie Chan unwittingly coined the term duang, using it as a onomatopoeia to describe the sound that fluffy doctored hair supposedly make when shown in product advertisement. In his words:
"When I first knew I had to shoot this shampoo ad I actually refused, because you can't just call me to shoot and I'll do it, first I need to try the product for a while, otherwise you'll finish shooting it and add a lot of special effects, making the hair move like duang, very black, very shiny, very soft, and then the audience would surely curse me if I didn't really have that kind of hair, realizing that the ad was faked.”
Jackie Chan's phonetic invention remained buried in his spiel about product quality and consumer confidence for more than a decade, until one day in February 2015 a Bilibili user named crimson toy (绯色 feise toy in Chinese) unearthed the original ad and remixed its lines over the beat of "My Skateboard Shoes", a popular exploitable song of the time: the result is "My Shampoo", a 鬼畜 guichu video that would trigger a nation-wide craze around the term duang.
In the span of a couple of weeks, "My Shampoo" was a sensation, widely reported on both state media and commercial portals as it raked up millions on views on multiple platforms and became a hot topic of microblogging websites like Sina Weibo. Along with countless remixes, someone even designed a Chinese character to write the word, since the duang syllable is not a standard phonetic unit in Mandarin. Some days later, even Jackie Chan himself weighed in on the matter, stating that he was quite puzzled by the sudden popularity of duang, but that if he could make people amused like this, he was ok with it.
As usual, internet users flocked on Q&A websites like Zhihu to discuss how to interpret this phenomenon: one exhaustive answer, for example, debunks conspiracy theories about duang being a publicity stunt by Jackie Chan, and makes the case for understanding in the context of the ACG (anime, comics and games) culture of Bilibili, from which videos like "My Shampoo" emerge. Duang was also enshrined in wiki-style platforms like Baidu Baike, defining the term's vernacular meaning as 'adding special effects' or something 'funny'.
On his part, the Bilibili user crimson toy, which China Youth Daily reporters quickly identified as a 20-year old Chinese computer science student at Drexler University, dismissed his creation as a passion project on which he spent fifteen hours or so to improve his editing skills, and decided to keep his identity secret so that this newfound popularity would not affect his daily life, despite both press and commercial companies getting in touch with him for collaborations. As its creator skirts a deserved celebrity status, duang is inscribed in the very architecture of the Chinese internet: searching for the term in Baidu, for example, triggers an animation that shakes the whole web page.