○ Chinese people's obsession with setting new records has spawned multiple Guinness World Records imitators in China
○ Such awards are criticized as being overtly commercial and profit-driven
In Hefei, Anhui Province, 3,750 people form a human Chinese national flag prior to the 2017 National Holiday. Photo: IC
At the end of 2017, Xi'an Changning Palace Villa resort in Shaanxi Province, Northwest China, found itself in a sticky situation - 500 ear-cleaning masters from all over the country simultaneously removing the earwax of 500 volunteers.
Professional ear-cleaners use various tools such as little metal scoops, tongs and head lamps. Chinese netizens joked on social media that the earwax collected that day was enough to make a dozen large meatballs. Ear cleaning is a service common to see on some streets in China. Professional ear cleaners solicit customers from their sidewalk stools, inviting them to sit down and have their wax scraped out for a small fee.
The spectacle with apparent Chinese characteristics at Xi'an Changning Palace set a new record for the largest-scaled and most populous ear-cleaning event in the world. But it was not recorded in the world-famous Guinness World Records, but rather by its Chinese competitor - Shanghai China Records Headquarters (SCRH).
Although SCRH calls itself a "Chinese Achievements Creator" on its official website, its three-character Chinese name Jinisi - which sounds the same as the Chinese translation of Guinness and differs from Guinness by only one Chinese character - has confused many and incurred accusations of inauthenticity and even trademark infringement.
China's unparalleled interest in setting new world records among individuals, organizations and even local governments has also incubated some other competitors in the Chinese market - similar both in nature and name. These imitators, while catering to China's demand for breaking records, have also grown profit-driven, questioned by many as overly commercialized.
10,000 people recite the Thousand Character Classic in Qian'an, Jilin Province in September 2017. Photo: IC
China's obsession with setting new records started in the 2006, when the television program CCTV Guinness China Night captured impressive record attempts made by Chinese locals. China has since become Guinness World Records' fastest-growing market, with 2,000 annual applications, the 64-year-old Guinness announced in Shanghai in April. China's applications to Guinness, founded in 1954, increases 10 percent every year, faster than any other country in the world.
SCRH has issued more than 3,300 Jinisi records since it was founded in 1992 in Shanghai. These records, however, are only valid for domestic challengers and effective only within China. But since its name sounds the same in Chinese as Guinness, it has led many to think it is internationally recognized.
Zhang Di from Beijing spent 12 years trying to get his name into the Guinness World Records. He first tried in 2002. Attempting a bungee jump from a moving helicopter, Zhang believed he was the "world's first" to do so after he won a Jinisi record from SCRH, until he learned that a Frenchman had already leapt 1,080 feet by bungee from a helicopter, which was recorded in Guinness.
Zhang was disappointed that all of his risks and hard work amounted to little more than being "China's first" to do so. Four years later, Zhang resubmitted his application to Guinness World Records, finally achieving his dream by setting a new world record for bungee jumping 50 meters into water.
Though their names might be confusing, what truly differentiates Jinisi from Guinness is that the former requires a submission fee, while Guinness is totally free. The UK's Guinness World Records is a not-for-profit organization, which means, there is no charge for applying or auditing except there are extra special demands.
According to the official SCRH website, submitting an application costs individuals 600 yuan ($92) and organizations 900 yuan. During the examination stage, individuals must pay 4,200 yuan while organizations pay between 27,000 yuan (for general events) and 37,000 yuan (for grand events with advertising). Applicants must also pay travel and accommodation fees for Jinisi employees to present the award and take photos on site if they so desire.
According to Beijing Youth Daily, in 1993 SCRH was the Chinese-associated agency of the Guinness World Records organization. But in 1996, Guinness ceased its cooperation with the SCRH, with unverified reasons claiming that SCRH had offended the spirit of Guinness by being more commercial and profit-driven.
When media asked again about their relationship in 2002, SCRH insisted that they still represent Guinness, saying that the confusion between Guinness and Jinisi was caused by translation gaps.
In 2003, Zhang Di sued SCRH for fraudulent misrepresentation. He asked the agency to reimburse his 1,800 yuan registration fee and pay him 50,000 yuan as compensation for his "trauma and loss" from having been duped by Jinisi's misleading moniker.
"I feel deeply shamed and cheated by their behavior, because my hardship, money and risks of challenge have all gone to waste," Zhang told the Beijing Youth Daily. The Global Times attempted to contact both SCRH and Guinness for comment, but neither side gave any response as of press time.
Over 21,000 people perform a square dance in Changde, Hunan Province, in March 2018. Photo: VCG
Not everyone who was originally misled by Jinisi has completely lost faith in the Chinese imitator. Some actually enjoy the economic interests brought about by the fame of being "China's first," especially some domestic enterprises.
Among all registered records on SCRH, a large number of projects are crowd-oriented. One project named "the biggest colored painting on pregnant bellies" gathered nearly a thousand pregnant Chinese women inside a stadium, where 100 painters decorated their bellies while live streaming. The name of the event's sponsor, a private maternity hospital in Anhui Province, received tons of media reports as a result of the event.
This type of huge-crowd strategy, based on China's large population, is welcomed not only by companies but also local governments or tourist attraction developers.
In September 2017, the county government of Qian'an, Jilin Province, organized over 10,000 people, including local officials, to recite the Thousand Character Classic, creating a new Jinisi record for "the largest Chinese classics recitation." The event represents the efforts being made by local governments to carry on traditional culture in modern society.
Tourist attraction Taohuayuan Ancient Town in Changde, Hunan Province, recently set a new Jinisi record for gathering over 21,000 enthusiasts into a joint square dance within one scenic area. This was not the first time for a Chinese crowd-strategy square dance to set a new record.
Some events are more targeted, such as "the enterprise with the highest accumulative sales of hydropower electric tricycle," or "the highest attendance in a milk powder flushing activity," which are more like soft advertisements for a motorcycle firm and a milk powder brand than actual record-breaking attempts.
As more and more corporate logos are attached to SCRH, Jinisi has attracted criticism for being overtly commercial, which is in violation of Guiness' spirit of challenging the limits of human. And yet, Guinness itself has also held its fair share of corporate-sponsored record-breaking events.
In 2016, 31,697 people from six cities across China got together to produce a fitness square dancing performance, which set an actual world record for largest choreographed dancing to the same song. Over 300 domestic and global media outlets reported the story, creating an estimated 20 million yuan worth of free advertising for Mighty Sunflower Seed Oil, the sponsor of the official Guinness event.
A search for "world records" on Baidu pulls up ads for not just Guinness and Jinisi but numerous other record-recording organizations, including one named Chinness which once aroused attention from Guinness. Another British-registered Chinese agency claims to be at the same level with Guinness, but was exposed by Chinese internet users for making improper comments and profanity in public statements on its official website.
"A nonstandard and chaotic market reflects Chinese people's blind pursuit of 'being first,'" Xu Xinmin, a lawyer at Beijing Mingtai Law Firm, told the Global Times. "Many of these people challenge world records only for commercial interests or corporate publicity."
"It is not necessary to blindly pursue the scale of certain events, because it represents nothing. The adoption of the huge-crowd strategy is not representative of any real skills or innovation breakthrough. An artificial record can only reflect a fickle attitude," he added.
Chinese TV host and media critic Liang Hongda commented on his program that the pursuit of world records reflects a certain vanity popular in contemporary Chinese culture. He suggested that it is unhealthy for the development of the nation and that the blind pursuit of breaking records should be halted as soon as possible.
Newspaper headline: Record obsession