Ai Weiwei’s fake ‘leg-guns’ become Chinese Internet meme

BEIJING — Like most Internet memes, the leg-gun pose that has caught on in China is hard to describe (much less explain).

It involves taking a selfie while holding your leg up as though aiming it like a rifle.

The first leg-gun pose was posted five days ago by China's famously irascible dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who struck the pose in his underwear, a straw hat and little else.

Since then, hundreds have posted versions of their own online. They've leg-gun posed in front of troops, on horseback, aiming at tanks and in staged scenes of assassination.

As memes go, this one has subversive political undertones, especially in a country where guns are heavily controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

The timing is also interesting, coming on the heels of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which China's military opened fire on unarmed student protesters.

Examples of leg gun meme quickly spreading through China from Ai Weiwei's Instagram account
Examples of the leg-gun meme that has spread like wildfire in China. (Courtesy of Ai Weiwei's Instagram account)

But it's not clear what exactly all those fake leg guns mean.

Armchair theorists have attempted to explain it as commentary on Communist brutality, a mockery of how party cultural censorship has reduced art to ridiculous extremes, a more broad statement on gun violence worldwide. Some have even suggested that it alludes to the continuing tragedy of U.S. school shootings.

One clue lies with another photo Ai posted around the same time as his first leg-gun pose. In it, he appears to trace the pose to a video of female dancers depicting students-turned-soldiers during the 1940s Communist revolution.

You can see the original performance here (the leg-gun pose starts at 5:55). For their innovative and patriotic moves, the all-woman dance troupe won bronze in a 2010 national competition established by the government.

Lending an appendage to the cause has been especially popular among other artists and fellow dissidents and government critics. But regular Chinese have posted their own, as have a fair number of foreigners. Lego men, babies and even Kermit the frog have been enlisted.

Also interesting is that the trend started with Ai on Instagram — a rare popular foreign social media app that is accessible in China, even though its parent company, Facebook, is blocked. But the meme quickly spread to China's popular WeChat app, where users have been endlessly sharing their leg-gun poses within their social circles.

Although Ai has been reluctant to explain the mysterious pose, we pressed him for answers during a previously scheduled session with a photographer shooting for The Washington Post.

He responded with this cryptic and somewhat playful stream-of-consciousness answer:

"It is a pure use of social media. To pick up public notions on mixed issues — the power to control individuals…terror, arms, many issues... to use the body as weapon," he said. "You cannot do this with a novel or movie or in theater. It's more like poetry… Some are so empty; some are so profound."

Andy Warhol chose to use language everyone could easily understand, Ai noted, and the leg pose is similarly easy. "To grab your own leg as a foreign object and to ponder and to photograph. I think it is very profound."

Liu Liu contributed to this report.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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