#TBT: China's Obsession with Breaking World Records

By That's Shanghai, December 7, 2017

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Throwback Thursday is when we trawl through the That's archives for a work of dazzling genius written at some point in our past. We then republish it. On a Thursday.

By Erik Crouch and Tongfei Zhang

We’re in the ballroom of a high-end Shanghai hotel. Glass and gold chandeliers hang from the ceiling like giant, opulent octopi. Marble columns flank two-person-tall wood doors. And 388 people are sitting in rented beds beneath lunch trays stacked with noodles, fruit, spring rolls and a bottle of orange juice.

It happens to be 388 people, but really just needed to be more than 289 – the number of Australians who set the previous Guinness World Record for “Most people eating breakfast in bed” in 2012.

“Please enjoy your breakfast, and please enjoy being part of a new world record!” a man exclaims from a podium bedecked with Guinness logos.

READ MORE: World's Biggest Breakfast in Bed Held in Shanghai

The not-quite-400-strong crowd claps and cheers from beneath their beige food trays and stark white sheets, and a crisp crunching noise floats through the room: the sound of 776 disposable wooden chopsticks being snapped apart at the same time.

The rules are read out to the crowd. “There must be enough room in the bed for each person to have both hands on their tray.” Check. “The breakfast can be of various ingredients, but must contain breakfast food and a beverage.” Check. “Participants must eat breakfast for at least five minutes.” Check.

A small, excitable man in a suit jacket emblazoned with the ‘Guinness World Records’ logo circles the room with a clipboard. Cheng Dong came down from the company’s Beijing offices for this, and he approves: the Australians are dust.

Cheng Dong
Cheng Dong came down from Guinness' Beijing offices for the event.

He jots down a few notes on his clipboard, proudly hands a copy of the latest Guinness Book of World Records hardcover to a representative from the hotel and does a quick interview with local TV.

He is a busy man: today Cheng is counting heads at the world’s biggest breakfast in bed; tomorrow he is off to Chongqing to bear witness to a group shooting for the title of longest-drifting car.

Cheng and his 14 colleagues in Beijing – one of Guinness World Records’ five international representative offices – are struggling to keep up with the pace at which China’s massive population is breaking world records. Since Guinness printed its first Chinese edition in the year 2000, the concept has been a runaway success.

Cheng Dong is a busy man: today the world’s biggest breakfast in bed in Shanghai; tomorrow the longest-drifting car in Chongqing.

“Guinness World Records are like the Olympics for laobaixing [common people]” says Cheng. “The people are ordinary, but at the same time, they dare to challenge themselves and see what their extremes are.”

Something about China – the world’s biggest population, greatest wall, biggest economy (nearly) – makes it a perfect fit for Guinness. The country’s records range from the impressive to the bizarre: the largest line dance (25,703 people); longest time a man spent completely covered in ice (120 minutes); most needles threaded by a person’s mouth in one minute (101); longest fried youtiao (3.732 meters). The list goes on.

When Guinness was in its early stages in China, it received many entries that showed the country was making up for lost time – the Confucius family genealogy (86 generations); the biggest jade Buddha (287 tons); the world’s largest square (Tiananmen, at 97.9 acres).

Largest steamed cake: 500 kilograms (2013)
Largest steamed cake: 500 kilograms (2013)

Most needs inserted into head: 2,188 needles (2013)
Most needs inserted into head: 2,188 needles (2013)

Longest distance driving on glass bottles: 197 feet, 5.68 inches (2010)
Longest distance driving on glass bottles: 197 feet, 5.68 inches (2010)

Longest hair (female): 18 feet, 5.54 inches (2004)
Longest hair (female): 18 feet, 5.54 inches (2004)

Most bowls broken with one finger in one minute: 102 bowls (2014)
Most bowls broken with one finger in one minute: 102 bowls (2014)

Most people washing their feet:  10,289 people (2014)
Most people washing their feet: 10,289 people (2014)

 the largest line dance (25,703 people)
Largest line dance: 25,703 people (2014)

World's largest fried youtiao (3.732 meters)
Largest fried youtiao: 3.732 meters (2014)

Since then, they have expanded both in quality and quantity: as of 2014, China had 809 world records, with 619 from the Mainland, 111 coming from Hong Kong, 74 from Taipei and 5 from Macau (and yes, Macau’s records include the world’s biggest house of cards.) Guinness has become so popular in China that it even spawned its own unlicensed knock-off – Chinness – a portmanteau of “Chinese” and “Guinness.” Yes, it’s real.

The Chinness Book (well, website) prides itself on eschewing international recordbreakers and being completely China-centric. It was, of course, engaged with copyright lawsuits with Guinness from its inception.

Guinness World Records is a brand worth protecting. The book itself is a record holder, claiming the title of the best-selling copyrighted series of all time (it helps when you have annual editions dating back to 1955).

And the record business is a lucrative one: while individuals can apply free of charge, official accreditations like the one Pudong Shangri-la just received for hosting the “Most people eating breakfast in bed” don’t come cheap.

“Challenges like this are what we call ‘commercial’ ones,” Cheng Dong says, “We’re invited over to witness the record and they [the host] need to pay certain fees, which includes travel and a presentation fee. The starting price of this kind of commercial cooperation is RMB80,000 including trademark authorization.”

Guinness has become so popular in China that it even spawned its own unlicensed knock-off: Chinness.

The Pudong Shangri-la also hosted the world’s longest chocolate yule log (1,068 meters) in 2011 and “Most people blowing out candles simultaneously” (509) in 2013.

Commercial accreditations are a publicity move, but that’s not all they’re good for: all proceeds from the Shangri-la’s events have been donated to charities. Donations gathered during the baking of the world’s longest yule log cake (and proceeds from selling the cake itself) funded chemotherapy treatments for children at the Shanghai Children’s Hospital of Fudan University. And the candle-blowing event was held for Earth Day. Today, five children who received chemo thanks to the Shangri-la’s donation are back, three years later, munching down on some breakfast in bed.

The vast majority of today’s attendees are sporting green and pink t-shirts, identifying themselves as cancer survivors from the More Than Aware breast cancer fund. As the last breakfast noodles are eaten, a representative from the hotel takes to the stage and presents a group of More Than Aware employees with a giant check for RMB18,000.

Breakfast in Bed world record
Two members of More Than Aware enjoying some well-deserved breakfast.

The crowd applauds, the final sips of orange juice are taken and 388 people – mostly middle-aged women, and mostly in green and pink – climb out of their beds. Many are laughing, either at the ridiculousness of the record they just completed or with gratitude at the money they helped to raise (or both). Cheng Dong is still making the rounds, shaking hands with the Shangri-la’s head chef and posing for photos.

“Some people say the records are boring, or that the challengers don’t have anything better to do,” he says, “But those people take it too seriously! It’s a world record, sure, but just have fun.”

READ MORE: China's 10 Most Insane World Records of 2016

This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of That's Shanghai. To see more Throwback Thursday posts, click here.

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