If you’re a TikTok user, you’ve probably come across videos of an eccentric Asian man — with long hair, black clothes and sunglasses — leading groups wearing headphones dancing at night in public squares to classics like the 1970s hit Ma Baker by Boney m.
The videos have attracted tens of millions of views with many confused people trying to figure out who this man is, and what these people are doing.
The memes have become infectious, with many copying his moves and reposting videos of their own to TikTok and other social media platforms.
But who is this guy? Who are the people in these videos? And why do Chinese teenagers hate what they’re doing?
Brother Jian — the moonlighting tea man
The man in the videos is known as Brother Jian, a resident of the city of Baoding in Hebei province in northern China.
According to his Chinese social media profile, during the day he runs a small tea business.
But at night he’s known as “the Chinese master of the square dance”.
Brother Jian records himself leading groups of dancers in public squares, and posts the videos online to Kuai Shou (Kwai), a Chinese short video platform similar to TikTok.
On Kwai, these videos only attracted a few hundred likes.
But once outside observers caught sight of them and began re-uploading them onto TikTok’s international platform, they caught the attention of millions, turning Brother Jian and his nondescript cohort into mini-celebrities.
“I see this guy more than my own parents.” – Teresa
“Whatever cult this is… I’m in.” — MorriKombat
“I had a dream this guy united the world to dance and world peace and compassion was created.” – Luis
“Why is this so addictive?” — Iamnotapotato
“Can someone please please please explain what is going on?” —Brandon Fischer
These are but a few examples out of tens of thousands of comments from fans and copycats alike.
Observers have often questioned: “Who is Lori?!” As a TikTokker using the alias “Lori” is consistently commenting on his videos of her sentiments of her along the lines of: “Beautiful baby. My gorgeous special man. You look fantastic. Best baby ever. Love you forever.”
But what he’s doing is actually pretty common in China.
Square dancing has been a popular form of group activity there for decades, with roots dating back thousands of years.
Participants gather in public squares or parks — the events are usually free, and there’s no skill or knowledge requirement to join in.
To kick things off, a lead dancer or instructor will blast music and then begin to map out and “choreograph” simple and repetitive steps to popular, rhythmic songs that attendees can easily and quickly follow.
It was initially popular with older women — as it provides an easy opportunity to exercise and socialize — but lately, many younger men have joined in too.
It has become so popular that the Chinese government has led campaigns releasing instructional videos encouraging more people to join, leading to square dancing “dance-off” competitions.
State media says there are more than 100 million participants across the country — but not everybody likes it, especially Chinese youth.
Kids source ‘tool’ to shut dancers down
Many young Chinese people have complained the early start times and loud music disrupt weekend sleep-ins, and the popular hit songs turn into “earworms” that drive students crazy while trying to study.
Additionally, the dances often take place on basketball courts or soccer fields, leaving teenagers with fewer places to gather and play weekend sports, leading to conflict.
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There have been a number of widely discussed incidents of teenagers and dancers — dubbed square-dancing “grannies” — fighting over public squares.
Some young people have started sharing square dancing “silencing” devices to mute public square dancing events.
The devices, which look like torches, are basically universal remote controls that can mute the music of a square dance from long distances away, as can be seen happening in the videos above.
To try to find some middle ground and compromise, some Chinese cities introduced “silent” square dancing, which requires participants to bring wireless headphones to events to dance along without the noise pollution.
Hence why in many of the viral videos on TikTok large numbers of choreographed dancers can be seen square dancing in silence.
Square dancing migrates to Australia
As square dancing became more and more popular, the Chinese diaspora have sought to bring the phenomenon to other countries, including Australia.
In 2015, a Chinese art association organized a square-dancing event at Melbourne’s Federation Square, grabbing the attention of many passers-by who either watched or joined in.
There are also regular square-dancing events throughout various Australian communities across the country that are becoming increasingly popular with baby boomers.
So next time when you see one, don’t be shy — they’re open to everyone!
You can view this story on ABC Australia’s TikTok account here.