The Cultural Context of Chinese Fan Culture: An Interview with Xiqing Zheng (Part One)

From time to time, I have shared with my readers glimpses into the forms fan culture has taken around the world. For example, see this discussion of Harry Potter fandom in Russia or this discussion by one of my former USC graduate students about Chinese vids made in response to Kung Fu Panda or see this interview regarding the growth of Otaku Studies in Japan.

This week, I am sharing with you the insights of Xiqing Zheng, a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. We have been corresponding off and on for the past year because she is working on a translation of Textual Poachers for the Chinese market. In the course of our correspondence, she shared with me some of her work which touches on the relationship between Chinese fandom and Japanese Otaku culture. She was nice enough to let me interview her about her work, which touches on some fascinating issues concerning fandom, the global circulation of media, gender and sexuality, fan subs and digital piracy, and issues of cultural, economic, and political change in contemporary China.

You have been doing research about “otaku” cultures in China. “Otaku” as a concept originates in Japan. Why is this the most appropriate word to describe what has developed in China? Are Chinese Otaku draw primarily to Japanese media content or are they adopting and localizing Otaku practices but applying them to specifically Chinese content?

Frankly, I have to admit that the wording choice for this is partly determined by the fact that the article I sent you was written for a Japanese journal: I was trying to make their translator’s work easier, as well as to save some work on my own side—you really do not need to explain what is “Otaku” to a Japanese reader, while a strict definition of “fan” may take some time and space. Out of the Japanese context, I prefer using the word “fan” as a descriptive term for the community that I am interested in. Yet I do not see a clear distinction between the so-called otaku culture, in its current meaning, and the media fan culture in the Euro-American context. So I am against the tendency of connecting either of the identities with a fixed type of media, whether it is Japanese ACG (abbreviation of “anime”, “comic” and “game,” I will use this word constantly in below), or Euro-American sci-fi TV series.

But at the same time, I feel the word “otaku” especially appropriate in describing the situation in Chinese online fan community, because: First of all, the Japanese material actually was the starting point of the current Chinese fandoms, which was imported from Japan at the end of the 20th century. Secondly, generally the condition of Chinese fandoms looks similar to the Japanese ones, more than the US media fandom, with a boundary more thoroughly torn-down between high art and popular culture, the readers and the writers. Thirdly, in daily usage, the word “otaku” is often more connected to a certain media or a group of media, while “fan” can be linked to a media, but is more frequently associated with a single text or a single individual.

Usually if we talk about “sub-community” in Chinese fan community, there are several ways to divide up the group, and one of them is a division according to the origin of the original media text. Using this criterion, the fan community in China can be divided into Euro-American media and literature fans, Japanese ACG and literature fans, Korean media fans, Chinese media and literature fans, etc. According to the statistic of a fan author, Wang Zheng, around the year 2007, 70% of the whole fan fiction writing in China is based on Japanese original texts, especially anime and manga, 20% of Chinese fan fiction is based on Chinese texts while the other is based on Euro-American texts. I do not trust her statistic completely because such statistic is hard to conduct accurately in the internet age, but from one aspect, we can see the strong presence of Japanese media in Chinese fandoms.

However, the distinction among each group is very vague, as one person can be simultaneously put in all groups mentioned above. For example, I am personally a fan of Lord of the Rings, which is a British novel and a Hollywood film trilogy; a fan of Legend of Galactic Heroes, which is a Japanese space opera and a long series of anime; a fan of Three Kingdoms, which is a traditional colloquial historical novel written in China in the 14th century and derivative media products in China and Japan.

Most of my friends in fandoms are in exactly the same situation. And in many ways, the materials from all nations are treated in a similar way from the ending point of the media distribution and acceptance. In other words, different original places for media products do not necessarily lead to different types of acceptance and re-appropriation, while the same can be said that about the cultural value of the texts, for high art and popular culture can be treated the same way at the receiving end, also.

The naming issue for the Chinese fan culture has to be taken carefully but sometimes restricted by many other unexpected troubles. The word “otaku” has been imported to Chinese; because of the same writing system of Chinese characters shared by the Chinese language and the Japanese language, the Chinese character of otaku “御宅” is the one being imported to China, while in Japan, this word is more often written in hiragana or katakana as “おたく” or “オタク”. The word was originally a respective address to another person (referring the other person in conversation not directly, but indirectly to his/her house to show respect), and has been used jokingly inside the otaku communities for each other, as acknowledging each other as fellow “geeks.” Currently it generally refers to fans of ACG media, but terms such as “sci-fi otaku,” “railway otaku,” “board game otaku,” also exist. However, the word in Chinese has shifted its meaning mainly because it has crossed the boundary of subculture and entered the public vocabulary, or at least the urban public, but with a meaning very different from the original one.

While with the word “宅” meaning “house” in Chinese, the public is using this word as the synonym of “staying-at-home-type of people,” or those who do not go out in their spare time, or do not go out at all, which is described with another Japanese word “hikikomori”引き篭もり in Japan; such behavior is not necessarily a trait for otaku. This meaning is more widely spread in Chinese society that I have already found people using this word with the new meaning in academic environment. Therefore except that I am conducting comparisons with the Japanese otaku community, I really am reluctant to use the word otaku to refer to the Chinese fan community now. Therefore I will still use the word “fan culture” to refer to the cultural phenomenon of cultural recirculation and re-appropriation in China.

 

There is a strong history of cultural conflict between Japan and China. What role (if any) does this history play in shaping potential contacts between Chinese and Japanese Otaku?

This is one of the questions that intrigue me most. I have read and heard some presentations by Japan scholars that the popularity of Japan media materials may relieve the influence of “anti-Japan” education in many Asian countries, and therefore play a beneficial role in construction of a better image for Japan in the younger generation, and make these young people grow an attitude more friendly to Japan. (I personally feel rather repelled by the ideology connotation of the wording of “anti-Japan” education.) It is true that every media product is political, and it is also true that in Japan the otaku culture is often considered right wing, though not always so. But it does not mean that as a foreign consumer, a Chinese fan will take in everything that the producers want her to take, especially in the case like here, that the social historical and ideological circumstance of the audience is distinctive from the producers’. And here is where the complicated Sino-Japan relationship comes into play.

Interestingly enough, there is a tendency in Chinese fans to divide a “cultural Japan” and a “political Japan” when consuming Japanese media material. There is a certain tendency in Chinese otaku to clearly distinguish two “Japans” in their perception of this country: one is the governmental Japan, who still refuses to formally apologize for their imperialist invasion in Asia and its military nationalism, and the other the cultural (and especially popular cultural) Japan, who represents a fashion and “Japan cool.” Chinese fans generally accept that the products are from Japan, and they are very good, intriguing, and worth becoming a fan for. But at the same time, they refuse to identify with the political national identity of Japan linked with the media product. In fact, they try to sever the role of Japanese government and politics out of the media products.

This phenomenon is very different from the situation in the US. As I have observed so far in the US, if a consumer becomes a fan of the media products from a certain country, he/she may in a large probability become a fan of the country as a whole. But in China, many friends of mine complain about their parents’ attitude towards their cultural preferences: “Who tells them that I will love Japan if I just love to watch Japanese anime?” And this is at least the fact for a large portion of ACG otaku in China. Moreover, when there is any conflict between the cultural preference and political identification, the political identification often prevails. For example, there was an anime called Night Raid 1931, broadcasted in Japan in 2010, which is set in the background of Shanghai right before Japan invaded China, and features much denigrated representation of the Chinese people. This anime was refused totally by most large fansub groups, who usually translate literarily all new Japanese anime episodes available. Several comparatively marginal groups did the fansub, eventually, but this anime is generally intentionally ignored by the Chinese otaku group for a whole season. As the media product is never imported to China, there is no other way to show our upset about it anyway.

However, the story is usually not an easy one. For more explanation, I want to raise one fandom as an example. I actually have presented on this topic at a conference, but I feel there is still more to develop. There is a Japanese web comic, titled Axis Powers: Hetalia (referred to APH below) by Himaruya Hidekazu, and has been adapted into manga and anime. APH is a set of media products of parody descriptions of the world military and political history, especially of the World War II era, with vignettes about various countries’ culture; each character is an anthropomorphizations of various countries and areas. These anthropomorphized characters, different from the traditional fixed national personifications such as John Bull for Britain, Uncle Sam for America, are created by the author Himaruya himself and does not intend to carry any political significations. APH is now immensely popular in the US also, by the way.

APH is widely circulated in Chinese otaku community basically through online video websites and through non-copyrighted fansubbed video files, downloadable through p2p venue. Similar to many other Japanese anime, APH inspires a large amount of fan creation, including fan fiction and fan video, and also cosplay shows. Usually in the APH fandom, audience attempts to create a non-political neutral perspective that is far away from the debate of the real life political discussion. In the Chinese speaking world, there is a set of “internet etiquette,” first promoted by the Taiwan fandom, then spread into mainland China. This set of etiquettes are promoted mainly to prevent any possible conflicts between the fan writers and some “outsider” readers that happens to see the fan writings that probably will enrage him/her because of the less serious political presentation in the stories.

Despite the political neutral intention from the author and most of its fandom globally, what happens in the Chinese APH fandom is that many fans eagerly celebrate and reinforce the Chinese identity, history and culture in a way close to the mainstream narrative or sometimes even clichéd official narrative in China. I argue the main reason is the clear self-alienation from totally identifying with the Japanese text, or in other words, an identity creation process with the background of understanding otaku as mainly a Japanese-exported phenomenon.

What I mean by this self-alienation and identity creation roots from, the deep rooted Sino-Japanese conflict, which is only half relieved or hidden by Japanese media products’ popularity in China, including the immergence of the otaku culture itself. With this clear split in the “Japan” idea, the accepting Japanese culture no longer becomes a critical issue even if one is unhappy with the Japanese government’s attitude. However, it also makes the acceptance for the Japanese culture much less complete. It is already difficult to separate a pure “culture” totally devoid of political narratives; the acceptance of narratives with certain reference to real world politics, such as APH becomes further difficult with the Japanese ideology involved in the story. Therefore, the interpretation and fan creation basing on such narrative takes on a mode of accepting the “Japan” on the cultural level, i.e. taking the setting and the moe characters, while refusing Japan’s self-interpretation on the political level, instead using the Chinese mainstream narrative of the history to adapt the original narrative and create new narrative. The alienation caused by the Japanese social historical narrative then pushes the Chinese fans back to their own familiar zone of Chinese self-narrative.

Take one dōjinshi (fan book or fanzine) published in 2008, Wei Long (为龙, Being a Dragon) as an example. This dōjinshi has already become a legend in Chinese fan community. It is a dōjinshi centering on the China character, Wang Yao王耀, and it is consisted of about 25 illustrations, several four-grid comics, and several short manga stories. Highly well-known in the fandom, its original price was 75 RMB, but the price of a used copy now usually exceeds 500 RMB (this speed of price increase is very rare in China). After the release of this dōjinshi, there was also a theme song of very high quality written by fans specifically for it. If you are interested, here is a link for it on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gwB8vPGDIM.

The popularity of this dōjinshi comes from not only the quality of the pictures (there were more than ten professional manga authors participated in the creation of this dōjinshi), but also the content, which celebrate passionately the glorious long history of China and the strong will that China experienced in the 19th and 20th century to overcome all the difficulties to rise up again from defeat and invasion. Such usage of the original materials, especially the setting, is never intended by the original author, but has become at least one of the most important traits of Chinese APH fandom. As far as I know, such modes of consumption are rare in the APH fandom elsewhere.

There is another issue that I want to point out here, even though Himaruya as well as most APH fans repeatedly claim that the characters are merely created for entertainment purposes and not for political interpretations, still one cannot really separate one’s perception of a certain country with the cute personages in the anime. However, the historical truth in this narrative becomes then largely simplified and single-lateral. I want to note one specific example in the original narrative of APH. All country characters in the anime speak standard Japanese, with occasional utterance of several sentences in their respective native languages. The only character that does not speak standard Japanese is the China character, Wang Yao. Adding a redundant “aru” (ある) at the end of most sentences he speaks, this trait presents clearly the characteristics of a specific Creole language called “kyowago” (協和語) promoted by the Japanese colonial government in Manchuria during the 1930s and 1940s.

Even though Japanese colonization is never directly mentioned in APH, the using of this specific linguistic trait implicitly alludes to this history. Yet, curiously enough, this linguistic trait has also become a forgotten history on the Chinese side, with most Chinese fans interpreting this linguistic trait as a simple personal style. As my observation goes, Japanese fans also do not explicitly take this issue very seriously. Yet it at least shows in one aspect the political and historical complications behind this seemingly simple setting. It also tells us that it is really impossible to imagine a cultural product totally independent from social political issues in the real world.

Therefore, I suggest it is erroneous to imagine that the Sino-Japanese historical political conflicts can be easily remedied by developing Chinese fans of Japanese media products (or vice versa), nor should we over-emphasize the power for the audience to totally subvert or ignore the ideology embedded in cultural materials. But at the same time, how audiences interpret or appropriate a certain fictional narrative is definitely cannot be totally controlled by the producers, therefore the fandoms based on the same media product could be very different from country to country.

 

Author’s Bio: As an academic fan from China, I entered the fandom around 2003 when I was still an undergraduate student of Chinese Literature at Peking University. I am currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. My dissertation topic is Chinese online fan culture, as well as its relationship with the media and fandoms from Japan and the English speaking areas. I have done several presentations on Chinese fan fiction and fan culture in conferences, but up to now I do not have any publication in English. By the way, I am now translating Professor Jenkins’s Textual Poachers into Chinese, not as a voluntary fan translator, though.