What the Chinese Are Making of Avatar

Several years ago, I met a remarkable young man named Lucifer Chu in Shanghai. Chu had been the person who first translated the works of J.R.R. Tolkien into Chinese, after a considerable push to convince publishers that there was a market for fantasy and science fiction in China. He took the proceeds from the sales of the Lord of the Rings to launch a fantasy foundation, which promoted fantastical literature in Taiwan and mainland China, and he translated more than 30 fantasy novels for the Chinese market. As of a few years ago, almost all of the fantasy novels and role playing games available in Taiwan were translated by Chu and he was making in roads into getting these same works published for the mainland. He argued that the fantastic played crucial roles in Chinese folk and literary traditions but the genre had largely been eradicated there as a consequence of Maoist policies during the Cultural Revolution which promoted socialist realism and saw fantasy as western and decadent. Chu argued that bringing fantasy literature back into China was a way of helping his people rediscover their dreams and reimagine their future.

As I have been speaking with my USC student Lifang He about her work on the fan cultures which have quickly grown up around Avatar in China, I’ve wondered what connections, if any, exist between these two efforts to promote the fantastical imagination in that country. Are the young men and women we read about here the offspring of Chu’s efforts? Are they connecting with western fan culture on line? This piece offers us some tantalizing glimpses into the many different ways Chinese fans have mobilized around and fantasized about James Cameron’s blockbuster.

The American press has been following the commercial success of Avatar in China primarily as a business issue — exploring what it might tell us about other opportunities for selling media in this country, using it to shadow Google’s turmoil in the country, and marginally exploring why China was pushing the film from many of the nation’s movie theaters. Yet, this piece takes us inside the world of Chinese Avatar fans, helping us to better understand what the film looks like from their perspective.

Avatar and Chinese Fan Culture

Lifang He

James Cameron’s new movie Avatar is breaking the box office record in China. It is the highest grossing movie in Chinese movie history, achieving around 1.02 billion USD (Xinhua News, 2010). The influence and popularity of Avatar is spectacular and fans were crazy about the movie. Because of the limited IMAX 3D theaters in China, the movie tickets are in short supply and the price is very high. The tickets are officially priced at USD 18-26 but resold at up to USD 60. There are only11 IMAX 3D theaters in China.

Despite the ticket prices, Chinese fans waited overnight outside the store for many hours, similar to people waiting outside the Apple Store for the new iPhone. White collared professionals in small cities took their annual leave and made group trips to nearby big cities for the IMAX 3D version. Enthusiastic fans watched it multiple times in three different versions: IMAX 3D, 3D and 2D.

Being a fan of Avatar goes beyond the theater screens; it floods into a variety of online fan activities. When the Chinese government wanted to pull the 2D Avatar off most of the theaters to provide screens to the new released movie Confucius, many online fans called for a boycott of Confucius. Chinese audiences are becoming more and more active, embracing aspects of participatory culture and fandom, and seeking to more directly shape their entertainment options.

In this essay, Chinese fan culture will be discussed by examining various Avatar fan activities on one of the growing online communities, Baidu Tieba, a user driven network. Fan produced media will give us some clues as to how the young people react to the movie Avatar and why they are enthusiastic about the movie.

Collecting and Sharing Information

As of February 2010, users at Baidu Tieba generated 36,187 topics and 452, 509 posts about Avatar (Baidu, 2010). These posts involved the sharing of relevant information and the discussion of the characters, director, story, plot and other interests.

The planet Pandora draws most of the attention. Fans are very interested in the Pandora world because the movie only provides a glimpse of its ecology and culture. Fans established an online study group to learn the Na’vi language, planet, trees, customs, colors, lifestyle in Pandora etc. A fan bought an English version of Avatar: A Confidential Report on the Biological and Social History of Pandora and shared the content with other fans (link). Some fans can’t understand English very well, so they are waiting for the Chinese version of the book. As one fan explained “no matter how expensive the book is, I still want to buy the Chinese version although my monthly salary is only 800 RMB (120USD) a month.”

Some fans complained that the Chinese translation of the movie were really bad and posted the correct translation for other people. Similar to the Chinese translation team who volunteered to work on English and Chinese translation of American TV shows like Lost, 24, and CSI, they are very dedicated.

As Neytiri draws many discussions on the web, fans wanted to make Jake as popular as Neytiri so they tried to build the buzz online. In these efforts, they collected all kinds of pictures and posters from the movie and other media. They also discussed Jake’s hair, dress style, facial expression, and his pure smile in the movie. For instance, fans chatted about when Jake had the best smile in the movie. The first time Jake ran out of the research institute when he first got his avatar, his smile was regarded as the most pure and innocent.

Fans were also eager to explore all kinds of information from the production, back-story to the reception process. For example, they talked about the sex scene that was cut off from screen, explored the different versions of trailers, the couple’s relationship in the movie, and their stories in the future. Other interesting discussions included the best time to use the restroom during the movie. They indicated that it is better to go to the toilet when the movie was at 56 minutes so they won’t miss a lot of exciting moments.

Fans share the knowledge with all the members of Tieba community, circulating the information and inviting other members to participate in the discussion. As Pierre Levy wrote “no one knows everything, everyone knows something, all knowledge resides in humanity” (Levy, 1998).

Fan Writing

Besides collecting and sharing information about the movie, fan writing is another emerging form of fan activity on the web. Because of the restrictions of the Chinese publication rules, the internet provides more free space for fans to publish their work and most of their work is much better than what has been written by the professional journalists, covering comprehensive stories about the evolution of IMAX 3D technology, the background of director, back-stories of the characters.

Some fans also wrote a parallel story based on the Chinese current social issues. As a famous blogger, Chenpeng Li wrote, the story of how the alien Na’vi are pulled off their homeland by humans is similar to Chinese residents being forced to leave their homes and land by the Chinese government (Sina.com, 2010). Avatar is a great metaphor of nail house dwellers against big property developers. “Nail House” refers to home or buildings of people who refused to move when the property needs to be demolished by the government for development (Wiki, 2010). In Li’s blog, he wrote

“in 2154, a land development company RDA went to Pandora to get more land and living resources with the assertion that the residents who agree to move out can get attractive compensation. The residents refused to move out since they have lived there for many generations, just like the Na’vi people who didn’t want to move because their roots were under the tree. RDA has a strong relationship with the government and also has other supports such as city managers acting as low-level government officials, responsible for maintaining city laws and rules. A disagreement erupted and started a fight between the RDA and the residents. “

Li regarded Jake as the leader who betrayed the Housing Demolition Office, referred Colonel Quarles as the chief city manager and the Na’vi people as the Chinese residents who are pulled off their land. The last scenario about Neytiri beating Colonel Quarles represents the extreme military power that was defeated by the Chinese mass residents.

Chinese fans also associated themselves with another Hollywood movie UP, which tells a story of a 78-year-old man Carl Fredricksen who refused to move out from his neighborhood. He made his house as a makeshift airship to fly to his dream place Paradise Falls using thousands of the balloons. A popular Chinese blogger, Han Han commented on his blog:

UP provides the Chinese citizens with a new perspective toward house demolition. Chinese residential tenants only have the right to use the land for 70 years, and after 70 years the land use rights belong to the government and the houses are regarded as private owned property. Both the movie UP and Chinese government provided us a solution to cope with the house demolition. UP tells us to lift the house off the ground by the helium balloons; and the Chinese government tells us that don’t think too much because after 70 years, the houses will probably collapse” (Han, 2009).

In recent years, China has been experiencing a fast period of urbanization and many old buildings and neighborhood have been torn down for modern shopping malls and skyscrapers. Over 30 million residents have been forced to move from their homes (Hays, 2008). Li referred the movie to some cases in China that residents refused compensation deals and fighted with the government. Fuzheng Tang who poured gas and burn herself to protect her three floor home from Chengdu violent home demolition, Pan Rong who threw self-made petrol bomb to the demolition crew, and Chongqing nail house are the all real cases for anti-demolition.

Avatar and UP are a good reflection of recent Chinese social problems, showing a lack of citizen rights and choices. As Han said ” brutal demolition can only happen in foreign planets and China, which foreigners can’t image” (Sina.com, 2010). Chinese fans found both movies quite related to their life and both provide them with a story that they can share and discuss. The only Chinese popular TV series Snail House (Wo Ju), also titled Dwelling Narrowness, that can truly reflect their life tells a real story about how average Chinese people became house slaves in Shanghai in an environment of rising home prices and official corruption, was eventually banned by the government. Li regarded Avatar as the best movie that eulogizes the nail house successfully fighting against forcible demolition in China. The forcible city managers, house demolition office, Chinese City Demolition Ordinance was vividly analogized in the movie (Sina, 2010).

Fans Creative Work

Besides collecting and sharing knowledge and fan writing, fans also use other ways to create their own works such as costume play, Avatar paintings, etc. One of the most popular works online is the costume play by a couple from Chongqing. They dressed like Jake and Neytiri and posted their Avatar pictures online, which has over 94630 viewers (Baidu, 2010).

Vidding is another way for them to participate in the creation. Three kinds of videos will be shown here to showcase the vidding culture in China. The first one is a theme song vid, which remixes the video “I See You” and “My Heart Will Go On.” Fans find that the stories of two theme songs are very similar: both are love stories and the main actors in the two movies both died. For example, the lyrics of “My Heart Will Go On” has the words “I see you” that can match with the content of Avatar. Here is the video of “I See You.”Also fans made another version of Titanic with “I See You.”

In another video, fans used photoshop to make Avatar posters for the celebrities such as Obama, Yao Ming and Li Yuchun and used their Avatar photos as materials to make the video, which can be played here. Similar to the fans of Kung Fu Panda, they like using Photoshop software to make posters with different themes such as Harry Potter, Lust, Caution, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.

Another vid is created by a World of Warcraft fan J J. Because the worlds of Warcraft and Pandora are very similar, he incorporated the video clips from the WOW game and made a WOW version of Avatar, which is very popular among Chinese fans. Here is the video.

Why fans are so enthusiastic?

The Internet and digital technology has given fans unprecedented access to information and has changed the concept of freedom of choice and creative expression. Because of the national system and media censorship, Chinese people can not say anything they want. But online community provides a good platform for the fans to say something they can’t in real life.

Online community also provides them a way to relieve the stress and escape from the reality because they face so much pressure from all aspects of society such as intense high school graduation examination, competitive job hunting, etc. In addition, playing around in the Internet is not regarded as a serious hobby by Chinese old generation who are very realistic and more concerned about their children’s future such as going to a good university and having a decent job.

Chinese youth are tired of Chinese serious mainstream film culture because Chinese films lack the creativity that American TV shows and movies have. Avatar created a dream and an ideal world that Chinese fans can’t have in reality. As a famous movie director Lu Chuan said, “Avatar made me realize that what we lack is not technology. I suddenly realized how far away our films are from simple beauty, crystal-clear purity and passionate dreams” (Sina.com, 2010).

Conclusion

Since its launch, Avatar has developed a huge enthusiastic fan base in China. Although Chinese fans are not exposed to as much media products as Americans because of the unequal international distribution, they are very active in learning and understanding what’s happening with the movie. Internet and new technologies provide them a medium to participate in the media production and distribute their work online. They collect and circulate information, participate in the discussion, and create their own works to contribute to the Avatar community. It is a great representation of creativity and self-expression.

Avatar has also had a revolutionary impact on Chinese movie industry, stimulating the development of the local movie making. Chinese Film Association and Chinese Film Art Research Center hosted a conference meeting in January 2010, discussing how to improve Chinese movies. The professor Shixian Huang from Beijing Film Academy criticized the famous Chinese film director Yimou Zhang’s recent work A Simple Noodle Story, which was only taken several months to be finished and is a very low quality movie. The secretary-general from China Movie Forums indicated that the main film audience is generation 80s and 90s who are enthusiastic with the non-reality films which lacks in China. He appealed to the Chinese government that China should give support and help to such kind of films. Some other interesting questions are also raised in this meeting such as how to nurture the audiences by the series films, how to cultivate the young talents, how to bring the technology to the movie making, etc.

China is in a transition period where old system and new system are colliding and they haven’t developed a very stable system yet. In the future, with political and social policy more and more open and transparent, there will be more freedom for movie production. It will be also be easier for the Hollywood filmmakers to promote their films and other media extensions.

Lifang He is from China, where she received her undergraduate degree in Journalism. After college, she was hired by two global advertising agencies Wieden & Kennedy and Euro RSCG Worldwide. At these agencies, she worked as a strategic planner for a variety of international brands including but not limited to Nike and Nokia and gained experience in consumer and market research and developing brand strategies. Since August of 2009, she has been pursuing her Master’s degree in Communication Management at USC Annenberg School for Communication. It was while attending a USC class taught by Henry Jenkins that her academic interest turned toward transmedia planning and studying fan culture. Her specific areas of interest in these fields revolve around digital culture, brand communities, and how brands relate to and engage fans.

References:

Baidu (2010). Retrieved Jan. 20, 2010

Baidu Tieba (n.b.). Retrieved Jan.20, 2010

Chuan, Lu (2010). Avatar Critics. Sina.com. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010.

Han, Han (2010). Sina Blog. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010, f

Hays, Jeffrey (2008). Urban Life in China. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010

Itzkoff, Dave (2010). You Saw What in Avatar? New York Times.

Jenkins, Henry (2006). Fans, bloggers, and gamers: exploring participatory culture.

Levy, Pierre (1998). Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace.

Li, Chenpeng (2010). Story of Avatar and Nail House. Sina.com. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010.

Nail House. Wikipedia. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010.

Sentinel, Asia (2010). Avatar vs. Confucius in China. Korea Times. Retrieved Jan.20, 2010.

Xin Hua News (2010). Retrieved Jan. 20, 2010.

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Comments

  1. Dear Mr. Jenkins]

    Do you check your henry3@mit.edu yet?

    I emailed to this address because i couldn’t find your USC email.

  2. I found USC mail.

  3. Dear Lifang / Henry,

    The blog talks about 2 aspects – quality of the movie and its connect with the mass audience on the oppression (for lack of better word) of some locals. Would you ascribe more importance to any one particular aspect ?

    If we credit the success to its incredible portrayal of visual effects (the same reason it created a lot of buzz in so many nations), is the Chinese success any different from the reception ‘Avatar ‘ got worldwide?

  4. Henry Jenkins says:

    Kunal,

    The point of this essay is not to explain WHY Avatar is popular in China. The film has been popular all over the world and in any case, that’s not a question that we can answer very directly. The core of this post, as the title suggest, is to explore what the Chinese have done with Avatar — we wanted to provide a glimpse into Chinese fan culture around the film and to see some of the specific conversations which have grown up around it. Some of those fan practices are global — though most of us know very little about what fans in China are doing. Some of them are very specific to the Chinese context. Lifang may have her own responses to your question, but from my point of view, I am far less interested in WHY it is popular than what activities its popularity has inspired.

  5. Lifang He says:

    Hi Kunal:

    I agree with Henry’s point here. My paper is mainly focused on Avatar’s impact on Chinese fan community and various fan activities, rather than explaining the movie’s success. It helps readers to understand how Chinese fans understand the movie and what they’ve done with the movie. It also gives readers an overview of the Chinese fan culture.

    –Lifang

  6. Barbora says:

    Thank you for a very interesting account! I am working on a master’s thesis on science fiction fandom in mainland China at the moment, but haven’t had the time to look at Avatar yet.

    Fantasy literature seems to be really popular on the mainland, however, Western-style fantasy is quite a recent phenomenon and is sometimes distinguished from a much older Chinese fantasy tradition (I was actually told by (SF) fans that Western-style fantasy did not really become popular until LotR translations came along, which I understand happened in the early 2000s). Science fiction is an altogether different matter. Sf is indeed popular in the form of Hollywood blokcbusters, but the market for sf literature is not large (by China’s standards).

    Good luck with further research!

    –Barbora

  7. I read that entire article and I must admit that I am impressed. He tried to do an amazing thing. English chinese translation