On Monday, April 15th, the whole world was shocked by the fire at the emblematic Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral. Although the fire is now under control thanks to the intervention of hundreds of firefighters, two-thirds of the cathedral’s roof has been destroyed.
Given that Paris is one of the favourite destinations of Chinese tourists and that visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral is among the top three favourite activities of Chinese tourists in France, it is understandable that the Notre Dame’s fire shocked Chinese Internet users. Daxue Consulting conducted a study to understand how Chinese media and Chinese netizens reacted to this tragic event.
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The most discussed topic on Chinese social networks
Notre Dame de Paris’ incident quickly became the most talked about topic on Chinese social networks, reaching more than 830 million views and hundreds of thousands of comments and pictures posted in a matter of hours.
On April 16, the first morning after the fire of Notre Dame for the Chinese people, the number of searches on the keyword “Notre Dame de Paris fire” increased to over 1,800,000 on Baidu, according to the Chinese SEO tool Baidu Index.
A majority of Chinese people are saddened by the scale of the Notre Dame de Paris’ disaster
This Monday, million of Chinese expressed their shock at the fire and posted their own pictures of Notre Dame with the hashtag “Notre Dame de Paris and me” #NotreDamedeParisandme. The hashtag had been viewed more than 120 million times, and around 20,000 comments expressing sorrow were posted.
On Weibo, the Chinese social media with more than 340 million users, Chinese netizens have also expressed their grief and dismay about the Notre Dame tragedy. Most of them evoke cultural reasons: more than 800 years of history, an architectural treasure, works of literature and cinema, etc.
Many Chinese Internet users then referred to the novel by the French writer Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Notre Dame de Paris in French). The novel, well known and loved in China, is even considered “a must-read masterpiece for middle school students.” The characters of Quasimodo and Esmeralda have given the Chinese people a better understanding of French culture at a time when many films and operas have been made based on the story in China.
On Chinese e-commerce platforms, there is even a craze for works related to Notre Dame Cathedral. For example, on three different versions of Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, translated into Chinese on Tmall/Taobao shops we can see that in one night, the number of sales exploded from a few dozen the day before the fire to almost 2000 sales in just a few hours (see chart below).
For this younger generation, which has often traveled overseas, the loss of such a monument ”is not only the loss of France but also the humanity” as KOL Yingguo Baojie wrote a few hours after the incident, with more than 30,000 interactions:
A minority of Chinese Internet users remain doubtful about the sense of urgency in Paris
Questioning the effectiveness of emergency measures and origin of the Notre Dame fire
Since the cause of the Notre Dame fire was accidental and stemmed from work that had been undertaken by France, some Chinese Internet users concluded on Wechat, the Chinese giant which amounted 1.0825 billion monthly active users last year, that this was maybe a lack of professionalism and rigor from France.
Some Chinese netizens are so disappointed to see the Notre Dame cathedral destroyed that they question the preventive measures put in place by the French government around the Notre Dame and the responsiveness of the Parisian fire brigade. According to some Chinese tourists on the scene, it took time for the firefighters to respond and deploy their full power:
Notre Dame fire is being compared to the burning of Yuanming garden in 1860
A series of comments comparing the fire in Notre Dame to the one in Beijing’s Old Summer Palace were posted on Chinese social networks these recent days.
Yuanming Garden (圆明园), also known as the Old Summer Palace, is a historic site in Beijing which was known for its extensive collection of gardens, building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures. However, in 1860, during the second opium war, it was extensively looted and destroyed by English and French troops. English troops continued burning the gardens for three days until the complete destruction of the palace. Many exquisite artworks were stolen at the time, including porcelain, jade, silk, gold…
This painful part of China’s history was, therefore, at the center of online discussions after the incident happened in Paris. On Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer social network, the top question was ‘‘How do you view the Paris Notre Dame fire’s aftermath? Many netizens are comparing it to Yuanming Garden’’. And here’s one of the top answers:
Some netizens explain that they can understand the pain felt by the French, but that the Beijing incident was much more serious. In this debate, a minority of Chinese users even went so far as to say they will never give money to rebuild the Notre Dame cathedral, as France plans to ask, but they would prefer to ask French people to give money to rebuild Yuanming Garden.
On Baidu, we also find that the peak of searches on the keyword ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ and on ‘Yuan Ming Garden’ match, showing the interest of the Chinese in this debate.
According to some of them, what happened in France is a matter of karma. This means that it is because of the intentions of the French troops who looted and burned Yuan Ming garden in 1860 that the cathedral is now burning. These rather extreme remarks rejoicing in Notre Dame’s fate have fuelled an endless debate on Chinese social networks.
Despite everything, a large majority of the Chinese netizens are indignant about this debate and feel a great deal of sympathy for the French, knowing how emblematic the cathedral is.
How do Chinese media report on the Notre Dame de Paris’ fire?
Highlighting the strong China-France friendship
If we look at several articles in China’s national media, one element stands out: the long-standing relationship between France and China.
‘’Given our country’s longstanding commitment to the preservation of world cultural heritage, given our countrymen’s special enthusiasm for French culture, as well as the historical China-France friendship, it would be great if we could see Chinese participation in the upcoming restoration projects.’’
China Daily Global edition, ‘’Grief over Notre Dame shows cultural heritage global treasures’’, 04.1
All the media also took up the Chinese President’s announcement expressing his condolences to the French, showing the proximity between the two peoples.
Growing awareness: the Notre Dame’s fire as a warning for China’s heritage
The destruction of an architectural treasure has also made the Chinese realize how important it is to preserve their heritage. The Chinese newspaper People’s Daily, therefore, published an article on the fire prevention measures applied to the Forbidden City. The aim was to make sure that they are effective, especially since this ancient architecture is mainly built of wood.
‘‘Fire protection measures for the Forbidden City’’ was on top search on Monday.
[Chinese media discussing protection issues about the Notre Dame fire – Source: Xinhua Net]
Many Chinese media have thus relaunched the debate on the protection of Chinese architecture, reminding everyone how fragile history is.
Hou Weidong, a researcher from the Chinese Academy of Cultural Heritage told the online Chinese media Shine that “Exchange of ideas, technology, and experience on protecting cultural relics between countries and regions should be strengthened to further protect the cultural heritage of all humankind”.
Although opinions differ somewhat on Chinese social networks, the dramatic incident that took place at Notre Dame de Paris is a reminder of how much the Chinese are attached to French and European culture. Many of them even said they were willing to give money to rebuild part of the cathedral within the next five years.
Author: Steffi Noël
Monitoring social media trends is an excellent way to understand Chinese consumers and to gain strategic insights. If you want to learn more about the Chinese social media landscape or to run a survey in China, please contact our team directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.