The new cultural revolution: How Little Fatty made it big

An overweight teenage boy who found that his image had been superimposed onto movie stars and politicians by web users has become a cult figure in China. Clifford Coonan reports

Like a teenager anywhere in the world, Qian Zhijun was worried about his appearance, particularly his weight. So when, at the highly sensitive age of 16 years old, his portly features were posted online, he was terribly upset.

But despite his hurt feelings, Qian has become a sensation in China. Described by the China Daily as "the face that launched 1,000 clicks", the 100kg petrol station attendant now wants to make it as a heavyweight entertainer and has hired a manager to help him realise this dream.

Dubbed "Xiao Pang" or "Little Fatty", his pudgy face is everywhere as witty webizens superimpose his large head onto a host of stars. You can see his melon-sized head on the shoulders of Austin Powers, or as Jackie Chan, Marilyn Monroe - even the Mona Lisa. His personal favourite is his face on the body of Russell Crowe as the Roman general Maximus in Gladiator.

One hilarious image has him sitting beside President George W Bush, holding up two fingers behind his head. Xiao Pang is also portrayed as one of the presidential conks on Mount Rushmore. Or as a Brokeback Mountain gay cowboy. Or an unlikely porky Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.

So what does Qian's story tell us about modern China? Well, it reflects two of the most remarkable themes. It shows how growing affluence has translated into a serious increase in the number of obese people. And it demonstrates how the internet is providing a platform for creative expression that the traditional, strictly controlled media can't even begin to match.

The first, fateful photograph was taken on a spring day in 2003, as Qian was attending a road-safety class. No one knows who took the initial picture, but it was his chemistry teacher at school who first tipped him off that he was rapidly becoming an online superstar. He went into a cyber café and found an array of images of his face on the body of some of the world's best-known celebrities. Something about the Shanghai boy's face had captured the imagination of China's netizens, prompting an amazing outbreak of creativity as they got busy with the photographic editing software Adobe Photoshop and started putting his features on all kinds of images.

Now a legend on the streets of Jinshan, the Shanghai satellite town that is his home, Qian's initial reaction was not positive. "When I saw that I was very angry and upset," he recalls. But then he realised that fame, however it manifests itself, has an upside. People started to stop him on the street wherever he went to ask him if he was indeed the legendary Xiao Pang.

His fans follow his every move. In one interview, Qian revealed that his idol is the American comedian Jim Carrey. Within hours of the interview being published, cyberspace was filled with postings of Qian's face on the body of Carrey in movies like Bruce Almighty and Dumb and Dumber (or Fat and Fatter as the tag line read). "I don't mind it if it's well-meant. But I hate it when they place me on the shoulder of naked women or when the touch-up job is terrible," he said. He also dislikes the photographs of his face on a porn star's body.

Qian's mother said he should take legal action but the family's problem is they don't know who to sue. And with the kind of pragmatism that is characteristic of the New China, Qian has decided to try to turn his web notoriety into hard cash.

With hundreds of fan clubs dedicated to his face, all registering tens of millions of clicks, Qian has not made a single yuan from the exposure. "It would be nice to work as an entertainer, even though it'll mean I'll have to give up some of the pleasure of being a regular guy. I can't sing and dance very well, but maybe there will be something I can do in commercials or in cartoons," he said in a recent interview.

Web designer Gao Feng, himself once overweight, discovered Xiao Pang when the boy contacted him on the website Gao set up to help obese people. At first he thought Qian's email was just another hoax - he'd already been sent a number of emails by people claiming to be Xiao Pang. However, Gao soon confirmed the internet legend was indeed trying to get in touch with him.

"I didn't believe him at first as I'd had a few people claiming to be him and none had been real. But then he supplied me with photos of himself and so we met, and it was him," said Gao.

He has now taken Qian on as a client and is using his website www.xiaopang.cn to help promote him. Gao says he knows how Qian feels and claims this is why he decided to manage the teenager, now 19. "Maybe this will improve his chances for the future," he says.

Qian's story is a classic tale of changing China, where the media is still tightly controlled. The Communist Party does not tolerate satire and there are precious few outlets for the humourist via official channels because the government keeps a close eye on the internet for signs of subversion. But the Chinese net nannies are mostly focused on political content, and the methods for tracking suspicious content rarely pick up on the weirder websites, leaving room for oddball phenomena such as Little Fatty.

Computer software such as Photoshop and other sound and image editing software are widely available in China as pirate copies - the vast majority of software is illegal. This provides an outlet for the satirist and there are thousands of online wits doing their own websites which poke fun at or highlight the weird stories in contemporary China.

It will be interesting to see if Xiao Pang's website falls foul of new regulations. The government's top media monitor says it wants to censor "vulgar content" such as extramarital sex, violence and porn. And municipal authorities in the city of Chongqing have announced fines of up to 5,000 yuan against "online defamation", a vague term that many say is a smokescreen for asserting control over content circulated online, especially satire.

Chinese people tend to be slim, and obesity is a rare sight on the streets. But all this is changing as the country's economy grows year by year, translating into a taste for Western fast food and poor dietary habits. A leading nutritionist recently pointed out that, while 24 million people in China live in abject poverty and suffer malnutrition, 60 million Chinese are obese.

China's favourite dishes traditionally come in small portions. A balanced mixture of meat, vegetables and carbohydrates, Chinese cuisine is generally seen as a healthy diet which provides plenty of protein and roughage. But Western fast-food restaurants are having a major impact on people's waistlines.

The One-Child Policy which restricts the number of offspring born to a family, has created a generation of spoilt children who gorge themselves on hamburgers, fried chicken and chips - foods that were unknown to their parents' generation. Eating in Western fast-food restaurants, which are relatively expensive in China, is also a way of letting people know that you have money to spend.

Pan Beilei, deputy director of the State Food and Nutrition Consultant Committee, told the media recently: "An increasing number of Chinese are eating more fat and junk food but less grains and vegetables, leading to a high number of cases of high blood pressure and diabetes."

Figures show that around 160 million Chinese have high blood pressure and 20 million have diabetes and there are growing calls on the government to issue dietary guidance. Pan said he believed that narrowing the growing income gap between rich and poor will help improve the diet of citizens in poverty-stricken areas and make them more healthy.

Boys, more treasured than girls, are often those who suffer most from being overweight, as the older generation stuffs them with sweets, cake and meat in the hope that a fat boy will turn into a big man.

Fast-food chains are targeting Chinese schools as a growth market, offering to supply meals, and in many primary schools, where children standing in line are graded according to size with the smallest in front and the biggest at the back, the boys' lines invariably end with a handful of seriously overweight boys. Overweight girls are less common.

Meanwhile, for the first time, Chinese airlines are having to deal with bigger passengers. China Eastern Airlines said that this has not been a problem so far, because the company buys its aircraft from Boeing and Airbus, which both have seat sizes built for bigger Western passengers. But now it is considering reducing the number of seats on the new Airbus 321 by about 20 to create more room.

Which hopefully means that if Qian's newfound superstardom requires him to travel a lot, he should find it a bit more comfortable.

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