First Monday

Biaoqing: The circulation of emoticons, emoji, stickers, and custom images on Chinese digital media platforms by Gabriele de Seta

The Mandarin Chinese term biaoqing, or ‘expression’, categorizes genres of visual content ranging from emoticons and emoji to stickers and custom images. This article is grounded on ethnographic research and approaches biaoqing in terms of their circulation across Chinese digital media platforms. By formulating a comprehensive typology of biaoqing genres, I foreground the situated socio-technical specificities of their circulation: the creative play with typographical compositions, the affective repurposing of graphical emoticons, the platformed monetization of proprietary stickers, and the user-driven proliferation of custom images. Drawing on this typology, I argue for the need to recognize the circulation of biaoqing as an emergent and malleable category of semiotic resources profoundly shaped by two decades of development of the Internet in China.


Expressing emotions
The circulation of biaoqing
Biaoqing: A typology



Expressing emotions

The history of online communication is a complex one, yet one of its constants is the pull of the visual over the textual. Beyond the striking visuality of the content-rich interfaces typical of most social media platforms, graphical elements have occupied an increasingly substantial role in interactional contexts that we would consider thoroughly text-based, and this has largely happened thanks to the playful experimentation of users [1]. For example, since 19 September 1982 — when Carnegie Mellon University professor Scott E. Fahlman sequenced a colon, a dash, and a parenthesis into a :-) smiling face as a proposal to mark humor on the bulletin boards of his Computer Science department (Fahlman, 2002) — textual communications sent across networked computing devices have never been the same. Slowly spreading across listservs, mailing lists, and discussion boards (Rezabek and Cochenour, 1998), accompanied by netiquette rules and moral panics [2], typographic ‘smileys’ rapidly developed into intricate combinations of ASCII characters (Azuma and Maurer, 2007). Eventually, they entered the popular imaginary of Internet literacy as ‘emoticons’, a portmanteau of ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’.

Similarly, when Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita was assigned by mobile telecom company NTT DoCoMo to develop a set of pictograms to be offered by the company’s i-mode mobile Internet service, he would hardly have imagined that the name he gave to these images (‘emoji’, from the Japanese e ‘image’ and moji, ‘character’) would take a life of its own way past the original repertoire of icons he designed in 1998. Ten years later, the original set of 176 emoji designed by Kurita is enshrined in the permanent collection of the New York MoMA as a foundational artifact of early telecommunications design (MoMA, 2017). Meanwhile, after being included in the UNICODE standard in 2010 — and thus beginning to appear in the user interfaces of instant messaging software, social networking Web sites and smartphone apps — emoji have come to partially replace emoticons, becoming themselves iconic of digital media use around the globe (Ljubešić and Fišer, 2016; Park, et al., 2013).

And yet, as emoji become protagonists of an animated Hollywood movie (Leondis, 2017), digital media platforms compete to integrate additional functions for enriching textual communications with visual components: collections of thematic ‘stickers’, animated GIF libraries, and custom image upload buttons appear next to the text input boxes of comment sections and chat windows. Among these variegated genres of visual content, stickers are an interesting example of how innovations pioneered in local sociotechnical contexts (in this case, social media companies based in East Asian countries) are quickly replicated by digital media platforms around the world. Originally introduced by Korean Internet company Naver as a feature of its LINE messaging app in 2011, sticker collections have been incorporated into the user interfaces of the messaging apps most used in different areas of the world, from Facebook Messenger and Skype to VKontakte and WeChat, populating intimate conversations and group chats with a myriad of stylized characters, humorous animations, and marketing tie-ins.

Academic research identified emoticons as important components of computer-mediated communication (CMC) early after their enthusiastic uptake by users throughout the 1990s, often through an ethnographic attention to online contexts ranging from Usenet [3] and BBSs (Correll, 1995) to videogames (Peña and Hancock, 2006) and texting among Japanese teenage girls [4], recognizing them as examples of vernacular creativity [5] and mediated sociality [6]. Given the typographic nature of emoticons, much of the research on them comes from the fields of CMC and linguistics (Provine, et al., 2007), and is dedicated to understanding the local specificities of these new paralinguistic features (Azuma and Maurer, 2007), their contribution to emotional expression in online conversations (Xu, et al., 2007), and their locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary roles besides the straightforward expression of emotions (Dresner and Herring, 2010).

As the act of clicking or tapping on graphical emoticons and emoji supplanted that of composing typographical emoticons for a larger majority of users, researchers have shifted attention to these visual components of online communication, while the concern with emotional expression and sentiment analysis has remained a central concern (Kralj Novak, et al., 2015). Alongside this focus carried over from emoticon research, more explorative inquiries trace how emoji are appropriated for specific relational purposes besides emotional expression, including socialization, playfulness, and semantic creativity, emphasizing the contextual and pragmatic process of meaning-making involved in the use of these semiotic resources [7]. Not only are emoji appropriated by users from relatively fixed and limited repertoires for linguistic creativity, but their graphic design, along with their inconsistencies in rendering across platforms, leaves them open to interpretation and prone to misinterpretation (H. Miller, et al., 2016).

Other analyses of emoji have emphasized their connection to capitalist culture, conservative agendas, corporate surveillance, and the datafication of user behavior. These critiques build on the idea of “communicative capitalism” (Dean, 2010) and on affect theory in order to argue that the digital circulation of “smiley-face and cranky-crab emoticons” [8] embodies “the tension between affect as human potential, and as a productive force that capital continually seeks to harness through the management of everyday biopolitics” [9]. While recognizing that emoji can be both normative and progressive, both tools for activism and raw data for sentiment analysis, I argue that this sort of critique conveniently ignores the broad spectrum of non-affective uses and the semiotic openness of this paralinguistic resource, equating the platform’s rendering of the icon with a loss of user creativity. By focusing on the circulation of emoticons, emoji, and stickers in China, this article follows instead the call made by Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver (2016) for a sensitivity to the socio-cultural specificities and interrelated forms of visual social media content. As Highfield and Leaver argue, visual content on social media is not merely a trivial or frivolous collection of curiosities, but can highlight “affect, political views, reactions, key information, and scenes of importance” [10].



The circulation of biaoqing

As a quick search on the Baidu Baike online encyclopedia reveals, the distinction between emoticons, emoji, stickers, and other genres of visual content is muddled in Mandarin Chinese [11]. Technically, ‘emoticon’ is translated as 表情符号 biaoqing fuhao [expression symbol], ‘emoji’ is either maintained in its alphabetic spelling or adopted in its original Japanese characters as 绘文字 huiwenzi [image-character], and ‘stickers’ are usually called 表情 biaoqing, a contraction of 表达感情 biaoda ganqing [expressing emotion]. In everyday usage, though, all these media forms are commonly referred to as 表情 biaoqing, a general term that encompasses multiple genres of visual content shared by a user as part of a chat conversation, a comment reply or a forum discussion — a category that is also sometimes stretched to include animated GIFs (also known as 动态图 dongtaitu [dynamic images]), as well as cropped or edited screenshots (also known as 截图 jietu [image-cutting]).

This conflation of strikingly different media forms under a single linguistic descriptor presents a curious case in the history of paralinguistic resources in online communications. The emoticons devised by users of an American university bulletin board, the emoji designed for a Japanese mobile provider, and the stickers introduced by a Korean Internet company all found global fortunes, becoming widely adopted across linguistic boundaries, national publics, platform userbases, and communicational practices. And yet in China, these genres of visual content are all called biaoqing, an umbrella term that brings them together (along with other sort of images) in virtue of a popular understanding of their shared usage: ‘expressing emotion’, complementing and enriching the textual communications mediated by computing devices and digital media platforms.

Throughout this article, I use the term “genre” to refer to types of visual content such as emoticons, emoji, or stickers. The concept of genre, used in sociolinguistics to refer to varieties of speech acts (Bakhtin, 1986), has been fruitfully applied to the study of written forms of organizational communication, and defined as “a distinctive type of communicative action, characterized by a socially recognized communicative purpose and common aspects of form” [12]. In Orlikowski and Yates’ formulation, genres coalesce into repertoires that reveal the social structuration of semiotic resources over time [13]. This understanding of genre repertoires has been fruitfully applied to the analysis of new domains of communication such as Web site design (Crowston and Williams, 2000) and, more recently, to visual content such as Internet memes (Shifman, 2014; Wiggins and Bowers, 2015). Following these efforts, I argue that approaching biaoqing through the lens of genre repertoires can help unravel how categories of semiotic resources are socially structured through their use in communicative practices.

In the following section, inspired by the work of Susanna Paasonen on the unfortunate trans-linguistic journey of the term ‘cyberspace’ (Paasonen, 2009), I develop a typology of biaoqing in order to show how different repertoires of semiotic resources are constructed by digital media users with whatever is available in local sociotechnical contexts, and understood in pragmatic terms rather than according to formal characteristics and design histories. This descriptive effort is grounded on five years of hands-on usage of Chinese digital media platforms including Tencent QQ, Sina Weibo, and WeChat, compounded by ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Chinese urban areas between 2013 and 2016, during which I have extensively engaged with local users and their everyday communicational practices. Given the nature of the visual content described in this article, most of my descriptions are based on the analysis of one-to-one and group interactions afforded by messaging applications and social media interfaces, often consolidated through the interpretive aid offered by research participants.

Inquiring about the history and role of biaoqing genres on Chinese digital media platforms is important not only for the internationalization of digital media studies beyond the Anglophone contexts that are usually taken as paradigmatic or representative of the ‘global’ (Goggin and McLelland, 2009), but also to push back against stereotypical depictions of technology usage in East Asian countries that tend to explain away aesthetic decisions and semiotic practices by emphasizing the weirdness, cuteness, or obsessiveness of non-descript “Asian sensibilities” [14]. The argument presented in this article is derived from a close examination of the creative practices involved in the circulation of one specific series of biaoqing (de Seta, 2016) through which I called for a move away from diffusionist accounts of ‘memetic’ or ‘viral’ digital media content and towards circulationist accounts that take into consideration the users’ creative articulation of semiotic resources and the resulting structuration of genre repertoires [15].



Biaoqing: A typology


When the Internet started to be accessible from China during the mid-1990s, its early users — most of them experiencing online communication through rudimental HTML Web sites and bulletin boards (BBSs) — had at their disposal simple textual tools to interact with each other: e-mail, Web site guestbooks, and discussion board interfaces. Before the popularization of input software and encoding for Chinese characters, some of these users were already exploring the possibilities of using the few typographical symbols at their disposal to render Chinese characters. One striking example of this pioneering practice are the ASCII art compositions, often dedicated to seasonal greetings or traditional representations, that the folklorist Seana Kozar (1995) collected during these early years from e-mail messages exchanged with her students [Figure 1].


Greeting gonghe xinxi in ASCII
Figure 1: The greeting gonghe xinxi [Happy New Year] rendered through ASCII characters. Reproduced from Kozar (1995).


As encoding standards like zw-DOS, GB2312, and Big5 [16] became adopted by a majority of users, punctuation symbols and other glyphs could be dedicated to enriching messages written in Chinese scripts with emoticons, which were popularly known as biaoqing fuhao. The category of biaoqing fuhao, intended as expressive combinations of symbols included in written texts, includes emoticons drawn from the American repertoire as well as from the Japanese kaomoji repertoire. Given the different typographical rendering of punctuation of Chinese input systems and the wider availability of characters, biaoqing fuhao such as the :) emoticon would look slightly different as :), and they could easily incorporate Chinese characters into emoticons such as :目 [grinning teeth face], or the character components of more complex Japanese 顔文字 kaomoji [17] such as 凸ಠ益ಠ凸 [angry face giving the middle fingers].


Character for jiong
Figure 2: The character for jiong, originally meaning ‘bright’ or ‘brilliant’, used in online communications as an emoticon for its clear expressive resemblance to a frowning, sad face.


The variety of biaoqing fuhao used on local mailing lists, Web sites, and discussion boards testifies to the same sort of “cyberplay” described in Brenda Danet’s (2001) analysis of creative online writing through which the first generation of Chinese Internet users repurposed typographical resources available during specific historical moments of the technology. Cobbling together typographical compositions was at first a resourceful technique to reproduce Chinese characters despite the lack of encoding standards, and then became embraced as a playful way to enrich written texts with expressive combinations of punctuation and Chinese characters. This typographical playfulness, tightly linked to a local history of technological affordances, resembles the interplay between phonetic scripts, linguistic registers, onomatopoeic words, and kaomoji that Nanette Gottlieb (2009) identifies in Japan. In the case of China, the most well-known embodiment of biaoqing fuhao playfulness is the obsolete character jiong, rediscovered by virtue of its resemblance to a frowning face, appropriated as a convenient one-character biaoqing fuhao, and even revitalized in everyday parlance as a dejected exclamation for something disappointing or embarrassing [Figure 2].


The term emoji initially described the specific set of 176 minimalist 12x12 pixel icons designed by Shigetaka Kurita for NTT DoCoMo, but has since the early 2010s become used in a broader sense to indicate the various sets of graphics through which device manufacturers, social media platforms, and mobile apps render a repertoire of icons that has been managed by the Unicode Consortium since 2010. From the 722 “core emoji set” characters added to the Unicode 6.0 release, hundreds of new emoji are added after regular internal debates — as of June 2017, the Unicode 10.0 release includes 2,666 emoji in total, each rendered in slightly different (or sometimes drastically confusing) ways depending on the interface being used to visualize them [18]. Emoji have come a long way from the monochromatic 144-pixel designs by Kurita, and are as of 2018 available as high-definition, scalable PNG and SVG files going from 128x128 pixel of resolution upwards, their design choices sometimes influenced by timely representational critiques [19] and emerging proposals for culturally relevant inclusions (Ortutay, 2017).

However, emoji are not the first kind of graphical iconography to be implemented in online communications. While NTT DoCoMo was the first mobile provider to develop visual elements for incorporation into textual communications over the i-mode protocol, the visual rendering of typographical emoticons with sets of graphical emoticons has been a common feature offered by discussion board software packages like vBulletin and phpBB since the early 2000s, and users grew accustomed to seeing their typographical emoticons such as :), :D or :cool: be automatically converted in the images emoticon emoticon emoticon. In China, this was the case as well. Many Chinese discussion boards, instant messaging services, blog providers, and, later, social networking Web sites offered their own sets of icons mapped over typographical combinations and emoticon codes. One of these sets in particular — the QQ “Classic” biaoqing collection reproduced in Figure 3 — became as representative of Chinese Internet literacy as iPhone emoji are for American users (Yan, 2016).


Classic biaoqing set of graphical emoticons
Figure 3: The “Classic” biaoqing set of graphical emoticons included with the Tencent QQ instant messaging software. Screenshot by the author from QQ International, v. 1.91.


The “Classic” set of 159 graphical biaoqing (some of which animated) was included by Tencent into its instant messaging application QQ since its early versions and has undergone remarkably few updates throughout the years, accruing the nostalgic affection of users for the quirky design of its smileys and the somewhat haphazard assortment of symbols. Among the default set of QQ biaoqing, it is easy to recognize a quite standard collection of facial expressions, a few global symbols (a heart, the sun, thumbs up, a car, a pile of poop, an umbrella), but also a series of penguin emoticons (paying tribute to the mascot of the software), and some icons clearly aimed at a local userbase (a bowl of rice with chopsticks, a ‘double happiness’ Chinese character, traditional fireworks, a Chinese lantern, a Mahjong tile, a bowl of noodles, and so on).

The popularity of this set of biaoqing, which Tencent has carried over, with only a few changes, into QQ’s mobile cousin app WeChat, has resulted in extremely self-referential and ironic usages of specific icons such as the smileyemoticon or the smiley with waving hand emoticon, deployed by users as cryptic responses implying detachment, sarcasm, or outright rejection that have been widely described as Chinese people “meaning something very different” (Huang, 2017) when they use emoticons such as the “mysterious smile” from QQ (Zhou, et al., 2017). During my fieldwork, it was not uncommon to receive messages from friends that combined the gun biaoqing with the standard QQ smiley emoticon emoticon to express feelings of despair or comment about a stressful day at work, a common example of semiotic re-inscription over unambiguous expressive resources. The playful abuse and misuse of certain QQ biaoqing also spawned an entire genre of user-generated images combining several of them, paying tribute to the uncanniest ones, or re-inventing them with humorous designs in countless variations [Figure 4].


Poor to the point of ... series of edited and captioned QQ smileys
Figure 4: “Poor to the point of ...”, series of edited and captioned QQ smileys depicting the distorting effects of financial difficulties. Collage of images collected from WeChat conversations by the author, original authors unknown.


The success of the standard set of Tencent biaoqing, popularized by the QQ software and, as of 2018, available at the fingertips of one billion WeChat users, is a clear example of the local specificity of biaoqing repertoires. While emoji are natively available on most mobile devices, Chinese messaging apps, discussion boards, social networking services, and digital media platforms often offer their own repertoires of proprietary biaoqing mapped onto textual codes rather than Unicode standards, making these visual resources more manageable and avoiding the constant updating work necessary to render the new emoji added by each Unicode release [20].

This platform specificity of biaoqing design also allows for a degree of control, as clearly exemplified by the case of the candle emoticon emoticon offered by the Sina Weibo microblogging service. The 22x22 pixel lazhu_thumb.gif, mapped onto the textual string “[lazhu]”, has been adopted by users of the platform as a visual resource to participate in public and social acts of grieving. Its increasingly ironic and critical use, often unaccompanied by text and repeatedly posted as striking lines of flickering red candles, has led Chinese authorities to force Sina Weibo to recurrently disable the [lazhu] string and the corresponding emoticon in occasion of anniversaries of sensitive events such as the Tiananmen Square incident (Wu, 2013) or, more recently, the death of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo (Ng, 2017). The case of the Sina Weibo candle, intermittently available to hundreds of millions of users as a grieving resource depending on the political climate and its calendric sensitivity, confirms how biaoqing can be used for communications not necessarily endorsed by platforms, even when they are part and parcel of proprietary interface designs [21].

As illustrated by this section, platform-specific sets of proprietary graphic emoticons are generally more popular in China than the Unicode emoji, but this does not mean that emoji are unknown to Chinese digital media users — they are, in fact, seen more as merely one repertoire of biaoqing among the many available on different devices and platforms. During my fieldwork, I witnessed emoji used in SMS and iMessage conversations, as well as in blog posts, private messages, and status updates on multiple apps and Web sites. Emoji might be less immediate to access and less familiar to users who have gained their digital media literacy through platforms like QQ, Sina Weibo, and WeChat, but they also offer a pictorial variety that is sometimes preferred over proprietary biaoqing sets. The emoji compositions that I regularly receive on WeChat from many of my Chinese friends during different festivities are a striking example of how the creative aesthetics that led to the creation of the earliest pieces of Chinese typographic art are still practiced on new platforms and with new repertoires of semiotic resources, resulting in new genres of visual content [Figure 5].


Emoji and text compositions copy-pasted on WeChat as seasons greetings and holiday blessings
Figure 5: Emoji & text compositions copy-pasted on WeChat as season’s greetings and holiday blessings — from left to right: New Year 2015, Mid-Autumn Festival, New Year 2016, Christmas, Spring Festival. Collage of greeting compositions collected from WeChat conversations by the author, original authors unknown.



Besides typographical emoticons, graphical sets of proprietary icons and Unicode emoji, the Mandarin term biaoqing is today most often used to indicate ‘stickers’. Stickers are images, usually larger than graphical emoticons and emoji, offered as thematic sets in the communication interfaces of instant messaging apps and social networking services, often organized in tabs and personalized collections. Stickers are usually programmed to be sent with a single tap of the finger as an individual message and cannot be included as parts of a textual message; some stickers are embedded in the platform as static PNG images, others animated through CSS code. As a specific paralinguistic genre of content, stickers were formalized in 2011 by the Korean company Naver, with the introduction of a sticker set in their LINE instant messaging mobile app. The first set of LINE stickers, featuring a cast of original characters, was designed by Korean artist Kang Byung-Mok, and successive sets featuring licensed characters, commercial tie-ins and special editions have followed on a regular basis, some downloadable for free and others sold in a dedicated online store (LINE Wikia, 2017).

Stickers have contributed to the popularity of LINE in East Asian countries beyond South Korea, including Japan, Taiwan, and Indonesia (Jessica and Franzia, 2017), and their success has prompted other instant messaging platforms and social networking services around the world to develop their own set of stickers and sticker stores, and to foster a community of designers contributing new content. In China, Tencent was one of the first companies to include stickers in the biaoqing repertoires of both their platforms QQ and WeChat as early as 2012, organizing them in centralized sticker stores during the following year (Hong, 2013) as part of the company’s push towards a monetization of their social apps [Figure 6]. To keep its users interested, Tencent regularly orchestrates branded sticker tie-ins and holds WeChat Sticker competitions for designers to pitch their sets of biaoqing, win prizes, and see their work featured in the app.


Aoda Cat speaks Dongbei dialect set of animated QQ stickers
Figure 6: The “Aoda Cat speaks Dongbei dialect” set of animated QQ stickers. Screenshot by the author.


Following the pioneering model introduced by LINE, WeChat stickers come in sets of 16 or 24, each set dedicated to a specific character or theme. One of the first sticker sets to be offered by WeChat was also one of the most consistently popular, and it featured a stylized white rabbit called Tuzki in various animated poses. Tuzki was designed in 2006 by Momo Wang, an undergraduate student at the Communication University of China, who used it on her own blog until it accrued so much popularity that it made its way to multiple platforms, including MSN Messenger, Facebook, KakaoTalk, QQ, and WeChat; in 2010, Tuzki’s rights were acquired by Time Warner, and a feature-length animated movie produced in collaboration with Tencent is reportedly scheduled to be released in theaters in 2018 (Millward, 2016).


Original set of Tuzki animated GIFs
Figure 7: The original set of Tuzki animated GIFs designed by Momo Wang for her blog (Wang, 2013). Screenshot by the author.


Not many sticker sets share the commercial success of Tuzki, and yet the WeChat sticker store is regularly updated with new collections featuring beloved characters such as Frog and Horse, B.Duck, Chubby Shiba, and Ruan Baobao, whose “Sticker Stories” are chronicled on Chatterbox, the official WeChat blog, on par with technical updates and yearly reports (WeChat, 2018). Except for the Bubble Pups, a duo of green and white dogs introduced in 2015 as WeChat’s official mascots, most of the biaoqing sets available in the sticker store are created by independent designers, who offer them for free as a chance to promote their work or put them on sale as part of their commercial activity. The biaoqing collections available in the WeChat sticker store testify to the successful monetization and internationalization of the platform: besides cute characters and funny animations, there are sticker sets featuring Asian celebrities, brand identities, and regional belongings [Figure 8].


Three sets of stickers available in the WeChat store
Figure 8: Three sets of stickers available in the WeChat store (the official mascots Bubble Pups, Korean actor Kim Woo-bin, and Cantonese slang terms) illustrating the variety of visual genres. Screenshots by the author.


Stickers are a peculiar kind of biaoqing: enclosed in a platform just like proprietary emoticons, yet more amenable to personalized curation thanks to massive sticker stores and independent designer submissions. According to Luke Stark and Kate Crawford, the proprietary nature of stickers, combined with their marketization, represents “an attempt on the part of social media platforms — seemingly successful in the short run — to re-commodify the affective labor which, at least in part, had been lost with the standardization of emoji into Unicode” [22]. Studies of mobile communication on WeChat confirm this success, as stickers are an integral part of most user’s activity on the platform, enlivening everyday interactions as well as special occasions [23], and yet it seems reductive to equate the popularity of this biaoqing genre with a mere platform-driven commodification of affect.

As Japanese media theorist Eiji Ōtsuka notes in his pioneering study of the collectable stickers included in the packaging of Bikkuriman chocolates, the perplexing popularity of this sort of design product has to be understood in the framework of “narrative consumption” (Ōtsuka, 2010) in which users are active co-creators of meaning. In the case of WeChat stickers, this process also involves amateur and professional designers, transmedia celebrities and brand strategists, as well as political actors like the Chinese Communist Party, that in late 2017 launched a set of biaoqing promoting its latest anti-corruption campaign rules (Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, 2017).

Custom images

Most of the kinds of biaoqing discussed up to this point — graphical emoticons, emoji, and stickers — require a certain degree of editorial and curatorial choice on the part of device manufacturers, digital media services, or the Unicode Consortium itself. This is evident for graphical emoticons and emoji, which are embedded in Web site and app interfaces, and yet even stickers, which are largely created by third-party designers and often distributed for free through in-app stores, must still abide to certain technical specifications and go through a platform-side process of approval. The creative freedom of typographical emoticons, which are composed user-side with a few characters available on most keyboards, seems to have been largely obfuscated by the shift to the high-definition, polished visuality of contemporary Internet paralanguages. But certain Chinese social media platforms preserve functions that offer a surprising degree of freedom to user-side visual creativity, and this has interesting implications for the circulation of biaoqing at large.

Besides its classic set of emoticons and the sticker collections illustrated above, Tencent’s QQ software offers a screen-grabbing tool (accessible through the shortcut CTRL+ALT+A) that allows users to select an area of the screen, capture it as an image file, and modify it with rudimentary image editing tools. This tool is most commonly used to jietu, a term that indicates both the act of taking a screenshot and the practice of sharing a screengrab into a chat conversation — often with the purpose of quickly sharing information or for referencing conversations happening on other social media interfaces. Once these screen captures are sent as chat messages, QQ also offers the possibility of adding them to a tab of custom biaoqing, accessible through a star-shaped icon right next to the default set of emoticons. This function of the QQ software, which as of 2018 has been updated into a more user-friendly image editor [Figure 9], was the central locus for the production of custom biaoqing during my fieldwork between 2013 and 2016.


The Biaoqing DIY window through which QQ users can create their biaoqing from scratch or edit existing ones
Figure 9: The “Biaoqing DIY” window through which QQ users can create their biaoqing from scratch or edit existing ones. Screenshot by the author.


Perhaps inspired by the success of the screen-grabbing function and the popularity of the custom emoticon QQ tab, Tencent included the possibility of adding images as custom biaoqing to its mobile messaging app WeChat as early as 2014, along with the possibility for users receiving these personalized images to add them to their own tab of custom biaoqing with a simple tap. The immediacy and user-friendliness of these editing and sharing functions, combined with inter-platform exchanges and the familiarity of WeChat users with QQ (both Tencent products), resulted in a veritable explosion of personalized biaoqing being created by users for their messaging platforms (de Seta, 2016). Custom biaoqing include animated GIFs as well as static images, and users can either collect them from chat conversations or import them from their own local image galleries. There are custom biaoqing depicting virtually any imaginable subject, and their proliferation follows the familiar social media logics of remixing and versioning (Vierkant, 2010); their variable dimensions, resolutions, and styles testify to a kind of vernacular creativity practiced by users with widely different technical skills (Douglas, 2014) through in-app image editors, simple drawing software like MS Paint, or more advanced applications like Adobe Photoshop [Figure 10].


Examples of various kinds of custom biaoqing
Figure 10: Examples of various kinds of custom biaoqing, combining digital drawings, edited photos, and humorous textual captions. Collage of images collected from WeChat conversations by the author, original authors unknown.


As illustrated by ethnographic studies of WeChat use in everyday life, Chinese users curate their collections of biaoqing as an important component of their identity-making practices, and deploy the flexibility of custom images to piece together repertoires of paralinguistic resources that best represent their professional belongings, aesthetic preferences as well as their intimate feelings [24]. These practices, that Jenny L. Davis (2016) identifies as “productive and consumptive curation”, result in the creation of WeChat groups populated by hundreds of members dedicated to the sole purpose of exchanging custom biaoqing (over the years, I have been invited to eleven of such groups, each dedicated to slightly different genres of content, ranging from short videos and funny GIFs to ethnic minority humor and old people’s emoticons). Given the surprisingly little amount of control and censorship to which the exchange of custom biaoqing is subjected by WeChat (the platform claims not to store these images on their servers), one striking consequence of this media form is its hijacking for the circulation of pornographic content, which is otherwise illegal in China [25]. Tencent’s app has been the conduit for the dissemination of many scandalous materials (Coates, 2017), and a couple of groups of which I am a member are routinely used for the exchange of porn, in the form of short video clips and animated GIFs.


WeChat screenshot posted by Twitter user @YigeKing
Figure 11: “I’m so bored that I started making my own biaoqingbao ...”. WeChat screenshot posted by Twitter user @YigeKing, 2017.


WeChat users’ curatorial practice also results in the compilation of what have come to be known as biaoqingbao [‘biaoqing packs’], vernacular collections of biaoqing revolving around a specific character, celebrity, theme, genre of humor, or media event, that are usually offered for free download as a zipped file or a Web-based repository. Biaoqingbao can range in size from a few biaoqing to hundreds, and are compiled by users for their own enjoyment [Figure 11] and for more organized purposes such as the performance of fandom or even the flooding of chat groups and other social media contexts (de Seta, 2018).




Biaoqing are central protagonists of Chinese digital media ecologies in terms of both everyday use and public discourse. Emoticons are used in advertising and branding, stickers are materialized as plushes and prints on smartphone cases for sale on street stalls, and new custom images make the rounds across WeChat groups every day, prompting gossip, humor, and heated discussions. As exemplified by the case of the Sina Weibo candle emoticon discussed above, biaoqing are also regularly taken as symbolic grounds of contestation in the larger scheme of digital media design through critical discussions, activist campaigns, and public outrage. More cases testify to the prominence of biaoqing in public discourse: the removal of a cigarette from the mouth of one specific QQ emoticon but not from its WeChat equivalent prompts users to ask when biaoqing will all quit smoking (Bai, 2017); a People’s Daily editorial pleads TV actors to focus on their acting skills rather than on finding quick fame as the subjects of biaoqingbao (Zhang, 2017); after popular outrage, Tencent apologizes for offering a set of stickers tastelessly appropriated from a documentary about Chinese WWII comfort women (QQ Kongjian, 2017); feminist activist groups repurpose the Sina Weibo ‘rice’ and ‘rabbit’ emoticons to render the #MeToo hashtag in Chinese (Daoyu Ningmeng, 2018).

As evidenced throughout this article, interactions on Chinese digital media have consistently been accompanied by the visual — from the earliest attempts at rendering unsupported Chinese characters through ASCII punctuation to the most recent pictorial vernaculars of creative users. The term biaoqing emerges as a situated category that Chinese digital media users have historically adopted to indicate a wide variety of genres of paralinguistic content including emoticons, emoji, stickers, and custom images. Beyond its literal meaning of ‘expressing emotion’, biaoqing points to a much more diversified range of practices: adding contextual clues and localized elements to computer-mediated communication; expanding the limited repertoires of proprietary emoticons through irony and ambivalence; combining and repurposing semiotic resources into creative compositions; and, domesticating a fluid assortment of platforms and services through personalization and curation.


Table 1: The typology of biaoqing genres outlined in this article.
Biaoqing genrePlatformExample
Typographical emoticonsAny textual interface:)
Graphical emoticonsBBSs, QQ, blogs, SNSsemoticon
EmojiMobile OS input interfacesemoticon
StickersQQ, WeChat, messaging servicesemoticon
Custom imagesQQ, WeChatemoticon


The conflation of widely distinct media forms under one single linguistic descriptor — biaoqing — is to be framed in the context of ongoing trans-linguistic journeys (Paasonen, 2009) of the genres of visual content used in online communications. The study of situated genre repertoires such as emoticons, emoji, kaomoji, reaction images, stickers, or animated GIFs, each with its own communicational history and sociotechnical specificities, needs to recognize the circulation of biaoqing as an emergent category of media forms profoundly shaped by two decades of development of encoding standards, networking protocols, and digital platforms in China. In this article, I have developed a typology of biaoqing that highlights how different genre repertoires of visual content resist a reduction to the trivial and the frivolous: ASCII compositions and typographical emoticons react to the textual nature of the early Internet; the quirkiness of proprietary QQ emoticons becomes an affective anchor for a generation of users; the use of Sina Weibo emoticons encodes the politics of grieving and the reactions to censorship; Unicode emoji are repurposed to create culturally-appropriate holiday greetings on WeChat; custom images are designed by users to fulfill their own expressive needs over the design choices of platforms. End of article


About the author

Dr. Gabriele de Seta is a media anthropologist. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and has recently completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. His research work, grounded on ethnographic engagement across multiple sites, focuses on digital media practices and vernacular creativity in contemporary China. He is also interested in experimental music scenes, Internet art, and collaborative intersections between anthropology and art practice.
E-mail: notsaved [at] live [dot] com



Thanks to Ge Jingrui, Yi Ge and all my WeChat contacts for all the biaoqing and related expertise they shared with me.



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Editorial history

Received 8 August 2018; accepted 9 August 2018.

Copyright © 2018, Gabriele de Seta. All Rights Reserved.

Biaoqing: The circulation of emoticons, emoji, stickers, and custom images on Chinese digital media platforms
by Gabriele de Seta.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 9 - 3 September 2018