By Weiyu Zhang

China’s Fandom Publics and Re-Assessment of the Internet’s Democratic Potential

May. 24, 2016  |     |  0 comments

Despite the empirical prominence of popular culture in China, scholarly investigation on the topic is still scarce. First of all, popular culture in China is often considered as low, in contrast to high culture or fine art. Academics, as part of the intellectual elite, are thus not supposed to work on such issues of little taste. The dismissal of popular culture in China is further reinforced in a historical era that follows the closure of Cultural Revolution. Wang (1996) named the 1980s a period of “high culture fever” during which China’s post-revolutionary utopian vision reached new heights among the intellectual elite until 1989 brought an abrupt end to the heated debate. Meanwhile, the marketization introduced by Deng Xiaoping ironically brought some members of the intellectual elite unprecedented popularity, leading to both fame and money (Zha, 1995). The intellectual elite who were given or witnessed this sudden celebrity status were perplexed by this radical transformation.

When commercialization and consumption took root in Chinese society during the 1990s, the local intellectuals seemed to retreat to the ivory tower by alienating themselves from the debate on cultural politics (Wang, 1996). Meanwhile, burgeoning scholarly attention from English-speaking academics became evident (e.g., Chinoy, 1997). Considering that popular culture could be imagined as just another type of mass-consumed product that contributes to the economic growth of the country, cultural consumption as an economic activity has emerged as one significant characteristic of the 1990s’ cultural scene. The influence of consumption was so profound that some scholars proclaimed that there was a “consumer revolution” (e.g., Wu, 1999), empowering Chinese to become citizens through their purchasing power.

The complexity regarding globalization has driven popular culture studies to go beyond the economic aspect and to investigate the production, distribution, and consumption of cultural products as social and cultural practices embedded with meanings. One thread of such research focused on the media reform (e.g., Lu, 2002), arguing that the implications were largely centered on the problem of modernity, or a cultural identity that is neither Communist nor Capitalist. Popular culture in this sense is not only seeable/hearable media content, but also the embodiment and expression of the confused identity of being Chinese in a modern society. Both cinema studies (e.g., Zhu, 2003) and studies on TV programs (e.g., Lull, 2013), especially TV dramas, have long discussed issues of identity politics, in addition to party or ideological politics.

The identity of being fans has become prominent since the 1990s and Chinese fandom has been heavily intertwined with the above-mentioned issues including modernity, commercialization, and globalization. Much of the focus of my recent book, The Internet and New Social Formation in China: Fandom Publics in the Making (Zhang, 2016), is on understanding these entertainment-seeking Chinese and their social and political significance. The fans I talked to and researched on range from movie fans, fans of foreign reality TV shows and TV dramas, fans who took a step further to translate and disseminate such foreign language content, and fans whose fan objects are celebrities instead of cultural products. These ordinary fans have done much creative work and modified the Chinese reality little by little, and bit by bit, over the years. The most interesting moment of their creative work is when these fans transform into publics, via the mediation of information and communication technologies.

How Do Fans Become Publics?

Fandom publics have been observed to, first, form with the enhanced self-selection and self-organization of communication networks by individual fans. A ten-year long participant observation of online movie fans (Chapters 3 and 4) has provided a longitudinal account about how the individual fans of movies are able to recreate their lives via the social connections they made in the virtual fan space, Rear Window to Movies. Whereas various motivations may be relevant here, the initial drive for the early generation fans was to share their love for movies. This love for movies was very self-centered considering how the social networks they were embedded in a decade ago had almost nothing to do with movies. However, during the process of constructing and disseminating their own discourses, the individual fans not only made visible their self-expressions, which collectively present a face of a subaltern public to the larger society, but also made possible the change of their identities in accordance to their preferred selves, such as shifting careers to the movie industry. This self-centered selection and organization of communication networks is also illustrated by individual fans who actually decided to break away from the fan network and became irrelevant.

Hereby I introduce the second proposition under the concept of fandom publics: the mediation of new ICTs, or the networking capacity afforded by newer media, is key to the formation of fandom publics. So how key is key? A study on online Chinese translation communities (Chapter 5) shows that media technologies, such as pirate VCDs and DVDs followed by broadband Internet, make foreign-language content easily accessible to Chinese fans and fans start to volunteer for collaborative translations because the ICT-based mechanisms (i.e., hierarchical crowdsourcing) make such collaborations possible. This mediation of new ICTs is especially evident when the majority of interviewees stated that their intention was not to have some social impact but instead was very personally oriented towards the fan objects. To some extent, we may say that the “intent” of the technologies (e.g., data storage and data sharing) wins over the intent of individual fans (i.e., better enjoyment of the fan objects) and makes the fans do things that each of the individuals may not have envisioned. This is exactly how “key” new ICTs are to the formation of fandom publics.

The study that compares Douban and Renren (Chapter 7) is a great illustration of how new ICTs not only make fans do things but also make fan objects “do” things. In the case of Douban, fan objects such as movies, books, and music albums are critical to the assembly of a network. These fan objects have been there for decades or even centuries and it is only when Douban’s technologies, such as user ratings and automated recommendations, translate these fan objects into their current digital life, are these fan objects able to start doing things that they could not do before. One such thing is to connect human users, through being the common focus of attention and related performances. When human users form social relationships through these digitalized fan objects, their relationships also tend to be different from those social relationships that are aimed at accumulating social capital. For instance, friends on Douban may not be able to introduce job opportunities to each other but they can easily bring more fan objects to each other because of their already shared interests indicated in the formation of relationships via fan objects.

In order for a fandom public to exist, the fandom public has to continuously perform to achieve visibility in a digital world where attention has become a scarce resource.

So far I have more or less dwelled on the formation of fandom publics and we have to be reminded that each such formation is not just one historical moment. In order for a fandom public to exist, the fandom public has to continuously perform to achieve visibility in a digital world where attention has become a scarce resource. The third proposition is thus: the formation of fandom publics has to rely on visibility achieved through the associational relationships among individuals and their constant performances. If a fandom public stops performing and it cannot be visible to the larger society, the fandom public ceases to exist and the members of the fandom public go precisely to the opposite of public — private. From the subaltern discourses constructed in the Rear Window to Movies forum (Chapter 3), to the heated discussions on the Baidu Post Bar for House of Cards fans (Chapter 6), the performances made by fandom publics take various formats and engage diverse claims. Notable findings include that co-performance is often made in front of both expected and unexpected audiences. The style of fan publics’ co-performance is thus personal and mixed, as well as both ludic and contagious. Authenticity and indigenousness are the two aesthetic standards appreciated and enjoyed by fandom publics.

What is the Internet’s Political Significance?

It has been almost twenty years since China introduced the Internet to the everyday life of its citizens. Yet China is still not a democracy. This has deeply puzzled those who believed that the Internet is a force for democratization. Some attributed this to the tight control of the Chinese government. Others blamed the ordinary Chinese for being drowned in material pleasures. Still others suggested that China is such an exceptional case that it cannot be understood using existing frames. So what is the political significance of the Chinese Internet, if the majority of its users do not spend much time on it advocating for democratic revolutions?

My understanding of fandom publics from the perspective of democratization has two facets: firstly, fandom publics do not regard democratization as their ultimate goal; secondly, fandom publics do not necessarily influence democratization only in one direction. Although the political implication of fandom publics is one important reason why this work is written, democratization is not the political end fandom publics wish to reach. The politics of fandom publics is not a politics of democracy, but a politics of survival first, then a politics of recognition. A politics of survival indicates that not all social categories have to exist just like not all TV shows have to be renewed. Fandom publics that gather around fan objects have to first of all ensure their existence, regardless whether their survival is achieved in a democratic or a totalitarian system. After gaining existence, fandom publics become public through playing a politics of recognition, a politics that struggles for being recognized as existing. Such recognition may go all the way to be acknowledged in a constitution, which can be seen as a democratization effect. But in most cases, the recognition fandom publics try to achieve is much less monumental, manifested in their satisfaction in knowing that there exist other fans who share their passion. Does this politics of survival and recognition lead to democratization? The answer is perhaps not. We can observe that in certain circumstances such as banning of fan objects, fandom publics strive to protect their shared interest by making the banned objects available to each other and in some sense, promote the freedom of information flow. But it has to be noticed that fan objects are often not directly related to advocating for building democratic institutions, but rather directly related to shaping feelings, eliciting affects, and staging co-performances. Therefore, if fandom publics are criticized for not being explicitly pro-democracy, the critique is fair but driven by a misplaced cause. The political implication of fandom publics does not lie in democratization but in other interesting domains that are often found in the traditions of post-Marxism, post-colonialism, and post-modernism.

Based on my research on fandom publics in China, I argue that we need to go back to the social in order to understand the political. To answer the questions about the Internet’s political significance in China, we have to first understand how the Internet has changed Chinese society. Instead of searching for the Internet’s contribution (or lack of such) to building democratic institutions, we should instead expend our efforts to find out how Chinese society has evolved, including the examination of how the basic mechanisms of social formation have shifted, and how the transformation between social categories and political entities has become different, due to the mediation of the Internet and other communication technologies.


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Lu, X. (2002). Introduction. In Lu, X., Jia, W., & Heisey, D. R. (Eds.), Chinese Communication Studies: Contexts and Comparisons. Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 1-16.

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Zhang, W. (2016). The Internet and New Social Formation in China: Fandom Publics in the Making. London and New York: Routledge.

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