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14 March 2014

What Baidu’s search autofill reveals about the soul of the average Chinese web surfer

“What do I do if I'm ugly?”, and other questions.

By Christopher Beam

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Bored at work? Type “why is” into Google, and up pops a list of the most common user questions beginning with that phrase, such as “why is the sky blue” and “why is my poop green”. Then try “what is”, “how do you”, “how to pronounce”, and so on, and before you know it you’ll be face deep in the greatest parlour game/time-suck of the early twenty-first century. After Google Suggest debuted in 2008, it quickly became a handy tool for armchair psychologists looking to analyse our collective psyche. Among its revelations: we cheat on the New York Times crossword, we don’t know how to pronounce “gif”, and we mainly use the internet to find song lyrics. Google Suggest tunnels into the far recesses of the soul, revealing humanity at its most innocent (“why am I me”), ugly (“I am extremely terrified of Chinese people”), and bizarre (“I like to tape my thumbs to my hands to see what it would be like to be a dinosaur”).

Baidu, the Chinese search engine, has a similar feature. Foreign Policy recently used it to develop a map of China by regional stereotype, while others have mined it to learn what Chinese think of foreigners from various nations. But that’s just a start. There’s a lot more Baidu can tell us about China’s search engine users, from their hopes and fears to their obsessions and consumer preferences. As I played around with the tool this week, a portrait of the average Baidu user started to emerge: a broke, sexually frustrated guy/girl who wants to become a teacher, buy a car, marry, and have a son (or, better yet, twins), if only he/she can get this damned wifi router to work.

Indeed, China has many problems, but the biggest headache plaguing Baidu users seems to be how to get wireless. Type in “怎么”, or “how”, and four of the top ten suggestions involve the setting up of routers and cracking of passwords. (For simplicity, the searches below are all translated from Mandarin.) Rivalling wifi for subject of greatest concern is pregnancy. “How do I make sure I have a son?” users ask, reflecting a common desire in China, especially under the government’s one-child policy. Women also want to know how to “get pregnant quickly” and have “dragon-phoenix twins”, or twins of opposite genders. Otherwise, users are most concerned with how to “buy stocks”, “apply eye-liner”, “download videos”, “reduce belly fat”, “repair a kidney”, and “catch pheasants”, slang for soliciting prostitutes.

Sex questions are popular – understandably so, given the relative dearth of sex education in China. (Plus, asking the internet is less awkward than asking your teacher or mom.) The top “why” question among Googlers may be “why is the sky blue”, but Baidu users have a different primary concern: “why is my semen yellow?” Runners up include “why do I ejaculate so quickly?” and “why don’t I have any semen?” They also pose questions they might be too shy to ask their partners, such as, “why do girls go to the bathroom after sex?” You may have noticed these are all dude questions. It’s hard to say whether that’s because Chinese men have a disproportionately large number of sexual hang-ups, or because Baidu users are disproportionately male, or because China itself is disproportionately male. Evidence points to the latter two explanations: if you type in “I’m looking for”, “a wife” makes the list of top suggestions, but “a husband” does not.

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Physical appearance is another perennial source of anxiety. Men search for ways to “grow taller” and “cure baldness”, while women ask how to “make my skin white”, “make my legs thinner”, and “make my face thinner”. “Am I handsome?” is the most common search about users’ appearance, followed by “I’m ugly”, “I’m very ugly”, and “what do I do if I’m ugly?” Insult to injury, the search results page is populated with photos of beautiful celebrities.

Baidu also catalogs the hopes and dreams of its users. The search term “my dream is” reveals the most-sought profession to be teacher, followed by doctor, designer, police officer, scientist, painter, astronaut, and soldier, in that order. And whatever their job, Baidu-ers want the trappings of a middle class lifestyle. The most common phrase that starts with “I want to buy” is “I want to buy a car.” A close second: “I want to buy a car but I have no money, what do I do?” After that, users are most interested in purchasing a phone, a house, a pigeon, and a gun.