Tea Leaf Nation

The Brangelina Divorce Just Broke the Chinese Internet

Chinese who grew up watching <i>Friends</i> are on Team Aniston. Others blame karma, or even the Dalai Lama.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  Actor Brad Pitt (L) and actress Angelina Jolie arrive at the 84th Annual Academy Awards held at the Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26: Actor Brad Pitt (L) and actress Angelina Jolie arrive at the 84th Annual Academy Awards held at the Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2012 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

When news of the divorce of Hollywood’s most glamorous power couple, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, or “Brangelina” for short, hit the airwaves on Sept. 20, America uttered a collective gasp. The news quickly eclipsed coverage of the United Nations General Assembly in New York and inundated Twitter feeds. Though popular irritation at the obsession with celebrity gossip also abounded, it was, without a doubt, a shared national moment.

The same would soon be true for China. A few hours later, 8,000 miles away, 700 million Chinese web users woke up, yawned, and swiped through their government-censored social media feeds on their Chinese-made smart phones – only to have their belief in true love shattered too. The news of the split overtook microblogging platform Weibo, as entertainment news sites, gossip accounts, and individual users posted related links. Tens of thousands of comments poured in as web users expressed shock, dismay, or a certain karmic smugness at the end of Brangelina.

Chatter about the celebrity break-up quickly turned to larger issues in Chinese society. Divorce rates have spiked there over the past decade after legal restrictions were loosened in 2003. Some debated the relative merits of prenuptial agreements; others referred to Jolie as a “little three,” the Chinese term for the mistresses that some wealthy Chinese men infamously like to keep — a reference to Pitt’s marriage to American sitcom Friends star Jennifer Aniston, which ended after Pitt fell in love with Jolie. One article that went viral on Chinese mobile messaging app WeChat evaluated Jolie’s statement that she had filed for divorce for the health of the family. “We Chinese always say that, because of the children, I won’t divorce you. But Jolie said, because of the children, I will divorce you,” wrote the author. “I think that’s great.” One enterprising English teacher in Beijing even converted the news of the separation into an online English lesson, with a short bilingual summary of the event and handy definitions of key words like “irreconcilable” and “split.”

The outpouring of online commentary also reflects the enormous popularity Friends has enjoyed in China for years. Millennial kids grew up on the American sitcom; it was so popular there that it has become a common cultural currency among Chinese under 35 and even a lingua franca to communicate with visiting Americans. The dissolution of Aniston and Pitt’s marriage in 2005 was major gossip then, too. So after the news of the impending divorce — especially amid speculation that it was due to Pitt’s alleged affair with French actor Marion Cotillard, who has denied the rumor — memes of Aniston rejoicing at the split went viral on Chinese social media just as they had on Twitter. “It seems like the perfect little mistress love story won’t get a chance to make it all the way to a happy ending,” wrote one user in a popular comment. “What goes around comes around,” wrote another. “Whom does heaven spare?” Another user wrote, “Justice never fails.” Others stood up for Jolie. “She basically doesn’t even need a man,” opined one commenter. “Her personality is so strong.”

But one figure absent from the U.S. gossip mill played a starring role in Chinese circles: the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel laureate admired around much of the globe but widely scorned in China, where he is perceived as a dangerous separatist. Pitt starred in the 1997 drama Seven Years in Tibet, which portrayed the young Dalai Lama in a sympathetic light, earning Pitt lasting enmity in China. Many netizens haven’t forgotten. “I bet it’s because Jolie didn’t want to teach the kids to love Dalai,” went one popular comment. “But Pitt wouldn’t agree.” Another Weibo user listed “Tibetan independence” along with “mistress” as the reasons Jolie desired the break.

The online outpouring highlights the vast cultural influence that Hollywood continues to wield in the world’s most populous country. China’s ruling Communist Party is deeply wary of this soft power — it strictly limits the number of foreign films that can be shown each year in Chinese cinemas, and in recent years has blocked some U.S. television shows particularly popular in China, such as The Big Bang Theory and The Good Wife. The party covets such influence for itself, but most Americans have never heard of mainland Chinese superstars like Huang Xiaoming and his partner Angelababy, and couldn’t name a single movie the pair had starred in. A Chinese push for influence in Hollywood has seen a Chinese firm acquire a major U.S. cinema chain and a film studio, as well as a wider attempt to get Chinese stars into U.S. films, even if in minor roles. But Americans are still a long way off from embracing Chinese celebrities, or the gossip that surrounds them, the way Chinese fans have flocked to Brangelina.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr

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