Fandom constitutes a particular form of leisure. How does it fit within the exam culture which so shapes the lives of Chinese youth?
I do not feel in a confident position in answering this question. Basically I have personal experience to draw upon on all other questions, save this one. I myself had passed the age of being afflicted by the most tediously part of the exam culture when I entered the Lord of the Rings online fandom as a collective community for the first time; I was a sophomore in college then. Before then, yes, I was a fan, but I didn’t know there is something called fandom (and the fandom before 2003 did have much less observable a presence in Chinese society).
Fandom activity is a very good complimentary to the tedious exam culture for the youth in China, especially when exams are not consuming all time of the students. It is difficult for fandom to take much of their time, but leisure times? Very possible. I often find a fan fiction author explaining his/her slow update with the reason “I am a senior in high school, and you know, I don’t have time at all.” Or “I am a high school student living on campus and can only be back home to use the computer on weekends…” or “I live on campus and I can only use my cellphone to update my fic! Please forgive me for the problems on the format.” etc. Some young students may post on fan forums their art products or doodles made in their classrooms, at the back of an exam paper, in a lined notebook; in some online chat, some young fans express their excitement when they encounter anything relevant to their beloved products in a classroom situation. Fandom activities do find a way squeezing into their busy life. However busy the students are, there is always some time left for themselves.
Fan culture has actually existed in Chinese high schools for a long time. I have heard of people who started to write fan fiction with pen and paper in high school years to communicate with other fans, even before the internet is available to average urban families, but such sporadic phenomena cannot be compared to the current situation, when more and more young students are at least aware that there are fandoms for them to participate if they are interested in. We can see that the fan culture is really becoming a major choice for leisure time activities for the busy students in China, and probably a type of convenient refuge for them. Yet I am also reluctant to claim that it is unique comparing to other types of leisure time activities and hobbies for young people in China. After all, even if the fandoms are more and more widespread and observable in Chinese society right now, fan culture still belongs to a small audience and remains a comparatively marginal community.
What are the dominant modes of fan cultural production and participation in China?
I guess that fan fiction is still one of the dominant modes of fan cultural production and participation, and of course, fan art and fan video are also immensely important. The fan fiction I discuss here, which is characterized by female perspectives and commercial consumptions, started around the mid-1990s, and has been prosperous since then. Considering fan art, it is now not only restricted to originally created paintings, but sometimes involves technical manipulation on screen grabs to make them present certain effects. There was not a VHS age for Chinese fan videos so far as I know. The earliest ones I encounter were produced around the turn of the century and are directly circulated online. The earliest ones are usually flash video files; then the production shifted to other formats when online streaming sites become popular. Fan music exists, but the creation of which is more restricted to certain groups of people. Yet even though only a limited number of people participate in fan music writing, these people are very prolific. There are other types of fan activities, for example, fan game designing. But video game designing requires technical expertise of quite a high level, and therefore is very rarely seen. But if created successfully, fan video games are highly welcomed by fans. I have also seen friends who participated in designing fan board games. Fan translation is another type of activities that are able to connect and gather fans of a certain media product. Fan translation is not restricted to subbing a video of reports or interview or other media products related to the original material; it also involves translating certain news and interviews, and even fan fictions, fan arts and fan videos. Another fan activity online recent called “language-cosplay” cannot be categorized in any of the types I stated above. It is an activity for a group of people, with each of them role-plays a character in the original media and interacts with one another online in dialogues as if s/he is the characters.
Fan books and fanzines started later than fan fiction and fan arts in China, and in early 2000s, digital versions of fanzines were more frequently seen than printed ones. Recently the trend changes: fanzines and fan books in printed forms are becoming popular. One reason is the easy access to direct online merchandize with the emergence of platform website such as Taobao 淘宝, and the rapid development of convenient private postal delivery systems, thus direct one to one merchandizes have become possible. Nowadays most fan books and fanzines are planned and pre-ordered online. There is a website called Tianchuang lianmeng 天窗联盟 (Alliance of Roof Windows), which is the largest online search engine of any Chinese language fanbooks and fanzines. Tianchuang, meaning roof windows, is a jargon in the fan community: if a fan artist or fan author is not able to finish his/her work on time, the fanzine or fanbook will not be available for the proposed cons. Then it is called “roof windowed.” (And this jargon is originally from a slang in the publish industry.) This is the link to the website in case that you are interested: http://doujin.bgm.tv/. From this website we can see clearly that the production and circulation of materialized fan products now still has direct connection to the digital media.
For the activities in the “real world,” cosplay and cosplay photography are of the most eye-catching and prevalent phenomena in the fan communities, and have attracted attention in the mainstream media. These activities often take place in fan conventions, though cosplay photography also takes place outside the conventions. The number of conventions is rapidly growing each year and has spread from several major cities to almost all large cities in China. For example in the year 2011, there were more than 100 fan conventions across the country, though the size varies (most conventions register on Tianchuang Lianmeng, you may want to explore that website to see). Sales of fan books and fanzines are one of the major functions of fan conventions in China. Comparing to the conventions held in the US, Chinese conventions are totally supported by the fan artists and fan writers who bring their works to the conventions to sell, since it is usually impossible to invite media celebrities or producers in the media industry for panels and autography—because a large portion of the original materials that the fans consume do not even have a legal distribution channel in China (though, celebrities’ participation is not totally impossible, Chinese manga authors, writers, illustrators, and most recently, celebrities as Japanese voice actors begin to attend conventions). Since there has not been such a tradition for holding panels and discussion sessions in cons, many Chinese fan conventions usually look exactly like flea markets with sellers and customers all dressed up in costumes. Smaller fan gatherings have been a longer tradition from before the 21st century, but such gatherings usually are much smaller in scale, usually turn out to be a dinner, a Karaoke party, or an afternoon spent together in a board game café.
I personally feel that concerning the types of fan activities, fandoms around the world are very similar to each other. Even though some details may vary because of different social historical context, in the end all fan activities are about consumption, interpretation and appropriation. Indeed there are cultural differences, but fans’ communities around the world share astonishing amount of similarities. Because of the possibility of instant interaction and communication brought by the internet, the fan communities around the world is gradually breaking the language boundary, which is more observable in a third world country as in China, as people volunteer translating and reposting the fan products in other languages they like. But sadly, in most cases, it is still a unidirectional process.
Are there distinctive forms of fan production which have originated in China?
Since it is hard to determine all the fan production forms in other culture, I am not sure whether there is some form that is authentically “made in China.” But I feel that fan sub, or more broadly speaking, fan translation is specifically important in China, much more so than in many other countries. One reason is of course, the imported media products have from the beginning held special significance to the development of Chinese fan culture. The original media products are not the only things that Chinese fans translate; but also foreign fan productions, including fan fiction, fan art and other relevant periphery productions and news surrounding the original media products. I am not sure whether it is the condition of all fandoms in other third world countries, but just as I mentioned above, you do feel the powerful existence of globalization in fandoms. Even in the case of fandoms on pure Chinese materials, we find interactions and communications among different Chinese speaking regions (I have encountered fans from Malaysia in several fandoms I participate in). Again, I am not claiming that it is exclusively “made in China,” but fan translation is something that makes Chinese fandom more complicated than the fandoms I see in the US and in Japan, but beyond my scope, it is still hard to say.