Why TikTok is obsessed with memes of China’s Donghua Jinlong glycine

What’s 2024’s hottest product? According to TikTok, there is only one answer: industrial-grade glycine from China.Yes, you read that right. A Chinese manufacturer of the amino acids, Donghua Jinlong, has found unexpected online fame, with its earnest marketing videos inspiring parodies garnering many millions of views and spawning a new meme.“I’m kinda a glycine girly at the moment,” one fan said on X.” Don’t even talk to me before I’ve had my donghua jinlong industrial grade glycine,” another said.It all started with mundane marketing posts from the company’s TikTok account, involving an upbeat voice-over extolling the company’s campus and “premium” manufacturing processes. The ads show B-roll footage from Donghua Jinlong’s factory floor, backed with instrumentals and overlaid with bold fonts. The company’s slogan states its mission humbly: “Glycine comes from here.”The joke’s punchline lies in its nicheness: Glycine is an amino acid product used in industrial quantities to produce pesticides, among other uses, and most people do not need to source it regularly. According to experts on internet culture, the trend reflects the surreal sense of humor that many Gen Z internet users have developed, partly in response to the increasingly algorithm-driven curation of social media feeds.“You never know where memes will emerge from,” said Idil Galip, a lecturer in digital culture at Amsterdam University, in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The more surreal the memes, the more interesting they become. The more niche they are, the more people want to know what the meme is.”“The sincere, earnest marketing strategy of this company really opened itself up to people making fun of its random sincerity about glycine,” she added.A spokeswoman for Donghua Jinlong said it is perplexed by its fame in the United States, which was never part of its marketing strategy.“We are so happy and grateful that our advertisement has got so much love. But to be honest, I was more baffled than excited,” Chen Liya, an office administrator at the company, said in a telephone interview Tuesday, adding that the original advertisements were produced by an external marketing agency.“We hoped it could show up on the timeline of some potential customers. But going viral in America has never been part of the plan.”Chen said that several days ago, a “young American guy” even showed up at the company’s factory in Shijiazhuang, northern China: “He was curious what kind of magic we have,” she said. “We gave him a campus tour and told him that we supply glycine to businesses on an industrial scale and have not dealt with individual buyers before.”Donghua Jinlong sells industrial-grade glycine as a “white crystal powder” for uses in pesticide production, water treatment and the electronics industry.The firm advertises on TikTok, which is not accessible in China, because it exports internationally, including to Japan and across Europe, Chen said. It’s not on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, because Donghua Jinlong already accounts for around a third of glycine production capacity in China, and “we don’t need advertisement for the domestic market,” she said.According to Know Your Meme, parodies of the glycine ads started going viral in “early 2024.” By mid-April, the trickle had turned into a flood and entered the internet’s mainstream. Now, no one can get enough of the amino acid product.A recurring theme of the parodies is the Donghua Jinlong’s apparent superiority compared to its commercial rivals. “I just can’t do it with these cheap imitators of Donghua Jinlong’s industrial and food grade glycine,” lamented one TikTok user. “They’ve been doing it for years. They’ve perfected their formula. Like, why are we trying to imitate art?” Another feigned fighting off tears after admitting that she’d inadvertently bought an “identical knockoff” product without realizing.In one video viewed more than 2 million times, a deadpan TikTok user encourages consumers to buy the company’s nonindustrial glycine. “This is 2024. Donghua Jinlong’s production standards have just been through the roof. I’m telling you — just try out their pharmaceutical-grade glycine one time, and let me know what you think about it.”It is, of course, a joke. According to Chen, Donghua Jinlong cannot export the product to the United States because of trade restrictions.Galip said that this form of niche humor is a deliberate response to the way social media feeds have changed over the past 10 years, becoming increasingly curated by algorithms and restricting the control that users have over the content they see.“Previously you chose the content you followed and saw, but due to these systems, we get in contact with places that we may not normally engage with,” she said.“Most of the culture that we access online is curated and organized and ordered, not by people themselves, but by these fairly vague algorithmic recommendation systems,” she said. “By introducing an algorithmic curation system to the internet — you take some of the power that people have about curating their cultural consumption.”“The meme itself probably emerges from a need to parody these random encounters that we have online,” she added. “In those moments, you get to see meme culture for what it is: quite silly and even surreal.”Despite its newfound fame, Donghua Jinlong said it had not noticed any large increase in sales of its products.But there are follow-up plans in the works. “As a thank-you to our followers, we have been thinking maybe we should upload more videos to show what glycine is and about its industrial use and benefits to the human body. We don’t have other commercialization plans yet.”

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