Beyond fans: The importance of virtual subcultures in China

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By Wei Baipei

NANJING, China —By the end of February 2020, as China began to recover from the coronavirus outbreak, millions of users of Sina Weibo, the largest social networking platform in China, began following a hashtag unrelated to the virus: #FansofXiaoZhanreportedAO3(肖战粉丝举报AO3). First appearing on February 29, the words embedded in the hashtag themselves are difficult to decode, because they are heavy on the slang used by subculture groups. Within 24 hours, AO3 (Archive of Our Own), a well-known foreign fanfiction site, became inaccessible in China and Xiao Zhan, a Chinese celebrity, was accused of allowing his fans to virtually harass anyone that disagreed with them.

However, the blocking of AO3 fails to explain the whole story. The drama began with Xiao Zhan’s young admirers actively—perhaps rebelliously—creating fanfiction in the face of growing censorship. The stories, and the debates surrounding them, often concern the topic of homosexuality. Although the Xiao Zhan-AO3 incident came from online subcultures, it is rooted in a desire to be accepted by the mainstream.

Fans’ Fight

“There are two types of fans, growing from two distinctive fan-cultures. When they begin to interact with each other, conflict is an inevitable outcome.” (Wu Zhu, AO3 user and a fan of “The Untamed”)

“Although we all may consider ourselves fangirls, from the very beginning, we have been composed of two totally different types [of fans].” stated Wu Zhu, a longtime user of AO3. She became an avid fan of the online drama The Untamed (陈情令) during the summer of 2019. Following the show’s success, Xiao Zhan, the drama’s star, gained internet fame. Xiao Zhan’s fandom, as Wu Zhu described, is “highly organized” by leaders who manage the online fan group. Two types of fan culture have emerged: the idol culture, which is rooted in South Korean K-Pop, and fanart culture, which can be traced to the 1970s and the emergence of Star Trek fanfiction.

Xiao Zhan (left) and a fanfiction character (right).
Source: Wei Baipei

Xiao Zhan’s fandom developed out of idol culture, which values a celebrity’s reputation over all else. Everything about the idol, including their appearance, personality and marital status, is considered a necessary element to commercial success. With the goal of protecting his celebrity status, Xiao Zhan’s fans were intent on intercepting and suppressing certain types of fanfiction that they felt would be received poorly by mainstream contemporary culture. They focused on one particular fanfiction series titled Xià Zhuì (下坠), or Falling, which portrays Xiao Zhan as a sex worker with a gender identity disorder. This type of fanfiction, referred to as Real People Slash (RPS), often faces controversy because of the way it damages celebrities’ public images. The legality of RPS is unclear. For fans, who make every effort to protect a celebrity’s popularity, however, RPS is “totally intolerable.”

After the author of Falling refused to delete the story, Xiao Zhan’s fans enlisted the help of government censors.

According to Elizabeth Zhang, a graduate student in Cultural Studies at Xiamen University, it is unclear exactly when AO3 became a force in Chinese internet culture. However, “one thing we can be sure of is that in recent years it has become more and more popular among Chinese young people.” According to the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the non-profit that has operated AO3 since its founding, there were around 140,000 works in simplified Chinese at the end of 2019 and at least 50 volunteers in charge of maintaining the Chinese site. There are various reasons why Chinese AO3 users turned to a foreign website to publish their work. Ms. Zhang believes that the most vital motive is as follows: “Fanfiction writers can freely upload their works that are aimed towards a specific group of people, depending on age and preferences. They don’t need to worry that one day their work will suddenly be deleted on the pretext of ‘having a bad influence on teenagers.’ Therefore, this system protects freedom of expression.” 

The clash over Xiao Zhan was grounded in one fangroup’s emphasis on artistic expression and another’s desire to elevate and protect the reputation of a celebrity. As Wu Zhu describes, “AO3 users use the freedom of creation to embrace diversity, while frenzied fans of Xiao Zhan exclude people who hold different views because of their cult of extreme personalities.”

Distorted Expression

“The Xiao Zhan-AO3 event is only the tip of the iceberg. It exposed a paradox in mainstream media: to be accepted and promoted, you cannot be associated with homosexuality, but to gain reputation, you must be involved in subculture groups.”(Elizabeth Zhang, 2nd year graduate student majoring in Culture Studies at Xiamen University) 

Coexistence between disparate fan cultures is not a singularly Chinese phenomenon. Browsing social networks in South Korea, or websites such as Tumblr, it is easy to find both idol and fanart culture. However, as Ms. Zhang remarked in the interview, “never have I seen a country like China, where these two types of culture are completely incompatible.”

Censorship proved to be a method to resolve the dispute, but it is not the appropriate approach. Contemporary Chinese censorship remains firmly aimed at political content. The artistic and creative powers in subculture communities outpace government censors, rendering regulation slow and ineffective. “Fans can create several new memes and slang in a few hours, while censorship requires a longer period of time to identify and comprehend these ‘new words,’” Ms. Zhang said. In any event, Xiao Zhan’s fans are not seeking stricter censorship but rather a positive online representation of their idol. Mainstream culture has already established the metrics by which one’s image is judged good or bad. What Xiao Zhan’s fans fear is a negative reception from mainstream media and more widespread disapproval of their star.

“Xiao Zhan himself is an unusual product from an assembly line of celebrity-making in China,” Sherly Li, an economics student and fan of several Chinese stars, shared. The plot lines of Xiao Zhan’s online series, The Untamed, include stories of homosexuality, setting the drama apart from other Chinese TV series. “However, we can hardly say that Xiao Zhan is actually portraying a homosexual character,” Ms. Li told The SAIS Observer. In 2017 the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) regulated that “abnormal love and marriage related content in TV series and online programs should be portrayed under strict scrutiny.” Despite such regulation, those funding the entertainment industry understand the popularity of subcultures and the LGBTQ stories that circulate within them. As such, portrayals of gay characters are often disguised as “bromances.”

For idols like Xiao Zhan, who never received professional acting training, popularity is tied to publicity. Mentions of his name on social networks and clicks on advertisements in which he appears are important metrics of his commercial value. A large flow of network traffic requires continually expanding fandom, which means “if he wants to maintain his popularity, he has to eventually be accepted by the mainstream.”

Although The Untamed’s hidden stories of homosexuality inspired the creation of fanart, Xiao Zhan’s fans made every attempt to erase his image as a “bromance star.” “It is a sad fact that if he carries a label like this, his career will be dead as soon as another replica shows up. [He’ll] star in a bromance series, go viral and find no place in the mainstream,” an anonymous fan of Xiao Zhan explained. Fans who obsessed over The Untamed, including Wu Zhu, “were kind of excluded from Xiao Zhan’s fandom.” “They believe we are a group that firmly pushes the label of ‘Bromance Star’ on him and thus could create public misunderstanding of his sexuality,” Wu Zhu said. 

The Xiao Zhan-AO3 event revealed how censorship distorts expression, in contrast to previous discussions about how censorship deprives people of self-expression. In order for subcultures to maintain creativity, they must be able to continually form new virtual communities. The mainstream media will continue to create their own systems of discourse to rationalize slang that emerges in subcultures, without fully accepting the ideas that such slang represents. The tacit approval of homosexuality under the guise of “bromance” in mainstream media in the Xiao Zhan-AO3 incident is a stark example. Unfortunately, distorting these messages of social change may prevent the message from being fully conveyed. Expressions of homosexuality in China’s subcultures include efforts to allow LGBTQ groups to be seen and heard by the greater public. However, distorting a homosexual relationship into a bromance only serves the purpose of satisfying the mainstream, while muting rising calls for societal acceptance.

A poster widely used to protest the censorship of the Xiao Zhan fanfiction, advocating for freedom of expression online.
Source:  Lofter (ID: 汤戈)

The Xiao Zhan-AO3 event revealed the important role played by virtual subcultures in China. An area previously ignored by the censorship regime, subculture groups have often had freedom to communicate with the rest of the world. Members of fan culture groups can incorporate what they learn from online communities into everyday life. April004, an AO3 user from Britain, told The SAIS Observer that she became obsessed with Chinese Song Dynasty history after reading fanfiction on AO3. Henry Jenkins, a scholar of American media at the University of Southern California, has explained that one of the greatest contributions of online subculture is the increasing understanding of cultures that are geographically distant and inaccessible. Subcultures can push mainstream culture to confront long-avoided social issues. In China, homosexuality was first accepted within subcultures, which has allowed LGBTQ people to be more open in mainstream society. However, censorship hinders and distorts the social developments that take place within online communities. The fear of being excluded by the mainstream and the anger at being forced to assimilate intersected in the Xiao Zhan-AO3 event.

In the future, how will Chinese subcultures react to increasing censorship? Can they push mainstream authorities to reassess the value of subculture groups? These questions sprang from a clash between online groups themselves, but they reflect far larger social questions in desperate need of response. 

Wei Baipei is reporting from Wuhan, China 

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