Boys' Love, Cosplay, and Chinese Fandom: An Interview (Part 3)

What can you tell us about the status of fandom studies in the Chinese language world? Little of this writing is known here, so it would be helpful to map some of the key debates there.

LY: I know a lot more about the status of fandom studies in Mainland China than in Hong Kong and Taiwan, so I’ll focus on the situation in Mainland China. Chinese fandom studies more or less started with the phenomenal success of Super Girl in 2005. From 2006 to 2009, there were a whole bunch of journal articles, master theses, and one PhD dissertation, my own, centering on the Super Girl fandom. In 2007, Zhang Qiang, a Taiwanese scholar who obtained her PhD from Tsinghua University, published an article about Anglo-American fandom studies in a top academic journal in China, which helped Chinese scholars realize that fandom had already become the subject of serious academic research in the West.

In 2009, I co-edited Fan Cultures: A Reader with my PhD advisor, Prof. Tao Dongfeng. It is a translated volume of 23 English-language essays that cover research on media fandom, celebrity fandom, and sports fandom in the 1990s and early 2000s. This anthology has provided much-needed academic legitimacy and theoretical frameworks for the fledgling Chinese fandom studies and is probably still the most-cited publication in this field for better or worse. We have included two pieces of writing from you in the anthology, along with works from John Fiske, Matt Hills, Cornel Sandvoss, Constance Penley, Jackie Stacey, and Rhiannon Bury, just to name a few.

During the past decade, two issues have aroused great interest and controversy, if not debate, in Chinese fandom studies. One is about how to understand fans’ affective investment into their objects of fandom, especially their idols. Unlike Anglo-American fan studies that inaugurates with research on media fandom, Chinese fandom research has been fascinated by celebrity fandom, such as Super Girl fandom, from the beginning.

To both the general public and scholars, fans’ intense and “irrational” devotion to a remote media personality is culturally unintelligible and politically dangerous. Since traditional Chinese culture emphasizes the importance of family and filial piety, it is morally transgressive for fans to be more dedicated to a celebrity than to their own family members. Fans’ selfless and obsessive devotion is also viewed as incompatible with the modern process of individualization that espouses individual autonomy and reason. In other words, celebrity fans’ behavior cannot be justified by either traditional Chinese values or Western values, and their religious fervor often revives memory of the cult of personality during the Mao Era and the specter of totalitarianism.

 

 TFBOYS

TFBOYS

The other issue concerns fan economics, which refers to fans’ growing economic clout in the media entertainment industry and the booming Internet economy. Due to the population base in China, some large fandoms could exert considerable power over the industry. TFBOYS is probably a good example. Although it is managed by a small private entertainment company, the enormously popular boy band gains its popularity mostly through the tireless promotional effort of its numerous dedicated fans. Unlike traditional entertainment celebrities who gain their fame and fans through well-known works, those fan-made idols achieve celebrity because they could attract a lot of fans through their appearance and personality, even though they might lack hit songs or acting ability.

Similar concerns could also be found in the so-called “IP (intellectual property) industry,” the Chinese equivalent of media franchising in the U.S. and media mix in Japan. To be considered as a valuable IP, the media content, usually hit novels and comics, must have already generated a stable fan base. One benefit of big data technology is that we could develop rather objective methods to gauge the popularity of a media product. This kind of evaluation has raised alarm for high-minded critics for prioritizing popularity or commercial value over genuine artistic value.      

JJZ: I don’t think there are fewer scholars and students who are interested fan studies in Hong Kong and Taiwan. For instance, a number of MA theses and Ph.D. dissertations discussing local or transnational Chinese-language fan cultures have been done in recent years at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Some scholarly papers about Taiwanese BL culture have also been published in Chinese or Japanese by young scholars recently. Moreover, some established media scholars in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Australia, such as Sinophone queer scholar Fran Martin (U of Melbourne) who contributes one chapter to our book, have published influential research on queer fan cultures and androgynous star images.

Yet, one of the biggest challenges for developing Chinese-speaking fan studies is to figure out effectively ways to bring these context-specific fan studies together and encourage meaningful, productive dialogue across linguistic, sociocultural, and geopolitical differences in these Chinese-speaking regions. Moreover, most of the existing Chinese-speaking fandom research, especially that done by students, largely relies on Western and Japanese fan scholarship and theories. The question of how to challenge Western or Japanese centrism in the field and establish Chinese-speaking fan studies is what we have been trying to answer in our research projects.

You note that the accounts in your book do not fit easily into “a polarized resistance/capitulation model of fandom.” Perhaps, negotiation is a better term. In what ways are Chinese fans negotiating a space for their pleasures in relation to powerful institutions and entrenched social norms that define the current Chinese context? To what degree has the shift towards a more consumer economy made fandom a possibility in China?

 JJZ: Yes, indeed. Throughout the book, we use different case studies to demonstrate the ways queer fans work within and against dominant commercial cultures and normative social structures. China’s liberalization of its media system and the development of digital tools and cyberspace in recent years have certainly empowered Chinese media consumers to actively participate in media industries and to express certain marginalized desires and fantasies. Meanwhile, the Chinese media industries have also realized business opportunities from these participatory practices and frequently displayed images or connotations of same-sex intimacies in order to encourage fans’ queer readings.

The audience cell-phone voting feature of the show Super Girl is a good example here. The show’s viewers and fans made use of this participatory feature to support their favorite participants, some of whom later became the most successful androgynous icons in the Chinese-speaking entertainment industries. A large number of fans formed queer communities online for further explicitly voicing homoerotic fantasies about their idols manufactured in the shows, which also discursively challenged the heteronormative contour of mainstream media and cultural industries.

Yet, contemporary Chinese society is still largely defined by (neo-)patriarchy, heteronormativity, and ideological and political authoritarianism, in which LGBTQ, feminist, and politically sensitive and sexually explicit information and content remained censored from time to time. Even in cyberspace, online communities and public discussions are still under political surveillance and self-censorship. Not to mention the fact that some queer fan practices, such as fansubbing and recirculating some Western TV shows that have never been officially distributed in China, violate copyright laws. Therefore, both queer fans and celebrities with gender-nonnormative personae have had to simultaneously embrace certain queer sentiments and craftily express dissatisfactions with local social-political systems while distancing themselves with socioculturally tabooed, censored identities and positions.

For example, as discussed in some chapters, Chinese fans use exaggerated, utopian queer imaginaries of non-Chinese nations and cultures to voice their disappointment at or critique toward local societies (e.g., Chapters 4, 9, and 10).

Meanwhile, in some of my own publications, I have also revealed that to protect themselves and their idols, some Mainland Chinese queer fans also tend to silence explicit LGBTQ-related discussions in the fandoms or to awkwardly differentiate the focus of their queer fan communities from real-life homosexual and feminist identities and issues. In Hong Kong and Taiwanese queer fan communities, there have been different ways to negotiate and contest official cultures, ideologies, and regulations, some of which might be more disruptive to the heteronormative logic of mainstream media industries (e.g., Chapters 7 and 10). These negotiative, sometimes compromising, strategies, to some extent, carve out and protect spaces for queer desire-voicing. Yet, they also create hierarchies, segregations, and tensions within queer fan communities and cultures.

The term, “globalization from below,” is a compelling one. So, explain what it means to think about fandom in the terms?

LY: Thank you very much for your interest in my co-authored chapter. Yanrui and I formulate the term “globalization from below” to describe the evolvement of Chinese BL from a marginalized and clandestine fan community to a popular web genre and powerful Internet culture. We want to use the term to draw attention to those cross-border media and cultural flows that have to lay low because of their conflicts with the legal system or official ideology of the nation-state, and at the same time we aim to differentiate those grassroots, fan-led transcultural appropriations from cultural exportations driven by corporate desire for profit or soft power ambitions of the state. 

The term might advance our understanding of fandom in the non-Western world in two ways. While fandom has been widely accepted as a harmless everyday thing and is at most threatened by copyright law in the West, it could be more risky and confrontational in the non-Western world due to legal, cultural, or religious reasons. For example, Chinese BL writers have to face censorship on a daily basis and a few of them have even been arrested by police on criminal charges of disseminating pornographic materials or illegal business operation.

Just last month [December 2017], a well-known BL writer was arrested for publishing novels in print without an official publication permit. This incident has stirred up a new round of panic in BL community, as many BL writers has published their works in print in this underground fashion to satisfy fan demand for collection. To circumvent the legal restrictions, Chinese BL fans have drawn on various resources--Internet technology in particular--to build their own communities and develop a rhizomatic and transborder network of production and distribution.   

Apart from reminding us of the complex and precarious existence of some non-Western fandoms, the term “globalization from below,” might also prompt us to rethink the transnational nature and radical potential of networked fandom in the age of globalization. Despite all the restrictions and obstacles, BL fandom has survived and thrived in China, and has helped bring about some progressive social changes, including contributing to the social awareness and acceptance of nonnormative sexualities, and carving out a lively public space for women to engage in discussion of social and political topics. The success of Chinese BL owes much to its gender, genre, and cultural inclusiveness.

Like slash fandom in the West and BL fandom in Japan, Chinese BL fandom is predominantly made up by young girls and women. Yet there is a significant percentage of young male fans, both gay and straight, in Chinese BL fandom, and one of the top BL writers in China is a self-identified gay man. As a result, BL writings often overlap with gay literature in China to the extent that a number of popular gay-themed novels are categorized as both BL and gay literature.

As mentioned above, Chinese BL has been influenced by both Japanese BL and Western slash fanfic. As a genre of Internet literature, it has also borrowed extensively from other popular genres and media. In societies where political expressions and social movements are severely hampered by the state, networked fandom might well become a major platform for civic engagements and social transformations.  

You’ve organized your book around specific national contexts -- Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Given the different political and economic systems shaping each of these contexts, not to mention different forms of cultural production, does it make sense to discuss them together? What do you see as the key similarities and differences in the ways fan culture operates in each of these cultures? 

JJZ: Although being situated in rather different social-political systems, the entertainment media and pop cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have been mutually shaping and borrowing from each other for decades. For instance, the Chinese government has been trying to intervene in media policies, productions, and celebrity images, especially the ones with heavy political content (e.g., anti-cross-strait reunification), in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Nevertheless, the media and celebrity industries of these three regions have been in productive, continual conversations and collaboration. These intertwined cultural, political and ideological tensions and battles among these three regions are interestingly teased out in transcultural queer fandoms (Chapter 8) and co-produced queer media (Chapter 6).

Moreover, China was invaded by Japan during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), while Taiwan has a history of being colonized by Japan. These geopolitical discourses are also manifested in the dissimilar attitudes toward Japanese people and cultural traditions between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese queer fandoms. As some of our contributors elaborate, while nationalistic sentiments are evident in Mainland Chinese queer fans’ imaginaries of Japan (Chapter 3), the postcolonial Taiwanese BL culture heavily draws on a Japanophilic affect (Chapter 9). Also, as a former British colony, Hong Kong’s LGBTQ movements and politics have been shaped by combined ideological, eco-political, and sociocultural factors and forces, such as traditional Chinese familial ideologies, the British colonial legacy, various religious beliefs, and Hong Kong’s contemporary social-political dilemmas as a post-colonial Special Administrative Region. These factors are also well manifested in Hong Kong lesbian celebrities’ star images and fan cultures (Chapter 7).

Both the editors and contributors have been fascinated by the diversity and productivity of queer fandoms in these regions resulting from their unique contexts. We are very excited about the scholarly dialogues that these queer fan phenomena generate and facilitate when being discussed together in the book. Therefore, we include rich discussion of queer fan communities and practices in diverse Chinese-speaking societies to highlight their interconnections, similarities, and differences in media productions, mainstream cultures, and grassroots activities.

By so doing, we hope to establish Chinese-speaking queer fandom as a promising field of scholarly inquiry and thus encourage future conversations and research that examine queer fan practices in other Chinese-speaking communities, such as cross-racial or Sinophone queer fandoms.

LY: I think one key difference between fan cultures in the three geographical contexts is the size and the role of the fandom in the media entertainment industry. Generally speaking, fandoms in Mainland China are larger and more assertive than fandoms in Hong Kong and Taiwan. It’s interesting to note that a few extremely big and well-organized Chinese fandoms have been described by the domestic media as “fan empires.” There is no media empire in China, but there are fan empires. Apparently, when the number of fans reaches a critical mass, it could drastically change the power dynamics in the relationship between the industry and consumers, and then maybe “a new day is on the horizon.”

(Ling Yang and Jamie J. Zhao are grateful to Maud Lavin for her wonderful input to this interview.)

Ling YANG is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Xiamen University, P. R. China. She is the author of Entertaining the Transitional Era: Super Girl Fandom and the Consumption of Popular Culture (China Social Sciences Press, 2012) and the co-editor of Fan Cultures: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2009, with TAO Dongfeng), A New Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (Beijing Normal University Press, 2011, with ZHAO Yong), Celebrity Studies: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2013, with TAO Dongfeng), and Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017, with Maud Lavin and Jing Jamie Zhao). Yang has published extensively on Chinese fan culture, BL culture, Internet literature, and young adult fiction. She is also the chief translator of Stardom: Industry of Desire (Peking University Press, 2017).

 

Jamie J. ZHAO is a PhD candidate in Film and TV Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. She holds another PhD degree in Gender Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her work examines queer-natured Chinese entertainment media, grassroots publics, and fan cultures in a digital age. Her academic writings can be found in a number of English-language journals, such as Feminist Media Studies, Intersections, Transformative Works and Cultures, Journal of Oriental Studies, The East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, Media Fields Journal, and MCLC. She is also a coeditor (with Prof. Maud Lavin and Dr. Ling Yang) of and a contributor to the anthology Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (HKUP, 2017). She is currently working on two English-language monograph manuscripts, tentatively titled From Super Voice Girl to The L Word: A Queer Occidentalism in Contemporary Chinese Pop Culture and A Queer Sensationalism of Post-2010 Chinese Formatted Variety TV.