Article by Tim King
The Guinness Book of World Records was first published in 1954, but the idea was hatched in 1951 after an argument between Hugh Beaver, the managing director of Guinness Breweries, and a companion of his on a hunting trip. They argued over which game bird was faster, the golden plover or the red grouse, but no reference book at the time could confirm that information (turns out it was the plover). Realizing that there might be thousands of questions like this raised amongst Ireland’s plurality of dudes arguing over dumb crap in bars, Mr. Beaver eventually partnered with a couple of professional fact-checkers and, thus, the Guinness Book of World Records was born.
In the 60+ years since its inception, the compendium has evolved from facts about game birds to a larger focus on individual achievement in nearly every field imaginable. Many stick to that essential “I’m right and you’re wrong” quality embodied by the catalyzing “plover vs. grouse” argument, such as “longest tongue” (9.9 cm from tip to closed lip) and “shortest cat” (13.3 cm from floor to shoulder); a high number seem to be rewards for a person that has ruined their life with their commitment to “excellence,” like “longest fingernails” (cumulative length of 909 cm) or “longest time spent standing” (17 years and he slept by sleeping on a plank); and others drift off into that bizarre blue-ocean space of stupid crap no one else thought to do, such as “most apples crushed with a bicep” (8 apples) and “longest usable golf club” (4.39 meters and definitely not compensating for anything).
China, it seems, should be the perfect breeding ground for world record dominance. It’s the most populous nation on Earth, so simply by the law of numbers it has the highest chance of being the “most” anything. At the time of writing, a cursory search for “China” on the Guinness World Records official website brought up 3180 results; this is just a stone’s throw away from what I would consider the world champion of trying to be the world champion, the United States, a search for which returned 3812 results. From reading the expat blogs around the country, my perception of China’s world record-setting efforts is that they’re increasing. When all is said and done, what does all of this tell us?
As previously stated, the sheer numbers in China don’t lie, so anything having to do with multiplicity is practically a lock. Cynical laowai will be unsurprised to find out that China has the highest consumption of cigarettes in the world when measured in terms of cigarettes sold. A 2002 figure by the Economist, recognized by Guinness as the world record, is 1.69 trillion cigarettes sold (equivalent to every man, woman and child in the country smoking 3.5 cigarettes a day for a year), which more than quadruples the runner-up, the United States. Aside from smoking like chimneys, China’s ample resources also enable it to have the world’s largest high-speed rail system (19,000 km of track) and the most hospitals (69,105). That’s not even mentioning the coveted “world’s biggest prenatal yoga class” award (913 pregnant women, not one giant pregnant lady).
Another common theme in the recent glut of records is the promotion of Chinese culture, with many records involving uniquely Chinese things. World’s largest erhu? It’s five meters tall and takes three people to play it, but we got that. World’s largest youtiao? Science said it couldn’t be done, but six chefs from Wuhan armed with chopsticks proved them wrong with a 3.732 meter behemoth of oily dough.
I’ve just rattled off about 600 words full of facts and figures, and you must be thinking, “So what? China’s big and good at Chinese stuff. We get it.” Do you? Do you get it? Because China, as befits their competitive, ambitious edge, is and will not be content to just be big and Chinese. They’re coming for all of it.
As an example, let’s talk about the world of line dancing. For Americans, this phrase conjures images of barrel-bellied wannabe cowboys and their Toby Keith-loving wives listing to the sounds of “Achy-Breaky Heart”. And, indeed, in 2007, 17,000 people from Atlanta, Georgia set the world line dancing record with a dance called “The Cupid Shuffle”. And so they were contented. Year after year, there were couples brought together and made stronger, who looked deeply in each other’s eyes and said, “If not for that night we did the Cupid Shuffle with 16,998 other people, I don’t know where we would be today”; there were elderly country enthusiasts who said, “I was worried that, when I passed, I would be forgotten. Now the world will know: I was part of the world’s biggest line dance”; and lame dudes with touch-and-go relationships with the truth were in honky-tonks proclaiming to all the pretty cowgirls that they were “the world line dancing champion.” People from the southern U.S. take their line dancing seriously, as a Catholic would church, and, in return, the Guinness took them seriously. All was right in the world.
Then 2014 happened. It started slowly, with one ayi, and then a second, and a third, and so on. In nineteen locations across Hangzhou City, the ayi swarmed, untold thousands of them appeared and, lo, they began to dance. Minutes later, they had stripped the people of Atlanta of far more than just a world record. But it didn’t end there. It happened again in 2015, when the people of Xianghe in Hebei Province took the mantle from the Hangzhounese, six months of preparation bursting forth in a five-minute climax of 18,000 matching red jumpsuits set to the dulcet tones of “Xiao Ping Guo”. But they weren’t finished yet. 2016 brought another attempt at the record; 30,000 ayi, not just from one city but from across the country, organized into impossibly straight lines and synchronized as if to say “We are stronger together, and those who wouldst dare challenge us shall tremble at our numbers”.
The dominance does not end with the ancient rite of line dancing, but their victory has emboldened others. From the Beijing SWAT officer who planked for eight hours and stopped not due to exhaustion but because he “felt like it” and the beekeeper who endured 2,000 stings from the 109 kg of bees he covered himself with, to the gentleman who took the front wheel off of his motorcycle and then drove it on a tightrope for fifty meters, China is no longer in the business of breaking records—its only concern now is to shatter records. And when the rest of the world sees the shards of its folly—of failed attempts to have the most people enjoying breakfast in bed and the most people dressed up as Japanese anime maids—it will look eastward to the Middle Kingdom and, awestruck, say “Where once we were kings, now stands a god.” Whether that happens now or later is anyone’s guess. Like the man who planked for eight hours, China will be the one to decide when it’s finished.
Tim King is the editor-in-chief of Xianease Magazine and doesn’t even hold the world record for being the most Tim King. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org