In this week’s Panel Introduction we talk to the directors of OCF 2021’s special ‘fandom seminar’, Lily Jiang and Tingyu Xie, about China’s devoted, combative and at times radical celebrity fan clubs, collectively termed ‘fanquan’. Tingyu is a fourth year philosophy undergraduate at Tsinghua University, and Lily is in her second year studying Mathematics and Philosophy at Magdalen College, Oxford. We touch on their personal experiences with fanquan and how we might better understand this intriguing modern subculture.
Panel Directors’ Interview
Q1: As someone who has never been part of a fandom and is almost detached from fanquan culture, I’m curious about how you both became interested in fanquan. Is it because of personal affection for a particular idol or are you purely interested in studying the fanquan phenomenon?
Tingyu: I have to admit I haven’t always been a fanquan member. I became interested in the subculture when I stumbled upon the popularity boosting battle on Weibo between Jay Chou and Cai Xukun (established Mandopop superstar and rising Gen-Z favourite, respectively). And it’s fascinating how the fanquan subculture has almost formed its own language system. I began studying fanquan by looking into phenomena such as popularity boosting and vote boosting, eventually extending my research to organized groups in fanquan and their behaviour.
Lily: I got into it after becoming a fan of the actor Zhu Yilong in 2018. I did all the things you would expect: popularity boosting, comment section manipulation, spending money to support idols… you name it. Looking back at it now, my teenage self seemed almost possessed: why did I do all those ridiculous things? What did I become a card-carrying member of fanquan for? Thinking about these questions motivated me to produce this special seminar.
Q2: What role does fanquan play in your lives? And picking up on what you said there Lily, why do you think some fanquan members exhibit the ‘irrational’ behaviours you mention?
Lily: I think fanquan helps us achieve things that are difficult to realize in real life… it’s a sort of projection, I suppose. For example, in real life it’s often very challenging to ‘be the best’ or ‘come first’ in anything, but in fanquan you can help send your idol to the top of Weibo’s superstar power ranking through popularity boosting. It’s easy to be enthralled by the feeling that ‘my hard work and persistence is paying off’. In a way, fanquan is a substitute to achieving targets seemingly unattainable in real life. This might be the reason why many people like me became part of fanquan in the first place. My most passionate periods of involvement with fanquan usually coincide with periods of high stress, like when I was applying for universities. Now I’m inclined to think that participating in fanquan was a way for me to deal with pressure: dissatisfied with reality, I can find some sense of recognition and fulfilment in that virtual community.
Tingyu: I agree with Lily – I think a lot of the reasons boil down to some projection complex. Our generation suffers from loneliness, and this is clear from the rise of commercialized ‘parasocial relationships’. In fanquan we can do things together (e.g. highly coordinated popularity boosting): it’s a convenient source of a sense of collective achievement and honour. And it’s worth mentioning that a lot of people like to portray their preferred idols as ‘pretty, talented, yet fail to get what they deserve.’, I think this points to some form of projection of ourselves onto our idols.
Q3: Many think that the concept of fanquan emerged very recently, in the last couple of years. Can you talk about the difference between being a ‘solo’ fan and being a member of fanquan? What facilitated the rise of organized collective fan behaviour?
Lily: Of course, ‘solo’ actions necessarily take the individual as unit, but fanquan demands collective action. The battle for traffic and attention between different fan clubs is like disputes between gangs over limited resources. In some sense it is unavoidable, but the key takeaway is that no gang is a gang of one.
I think fanquan can be seen as an extension of the entertainment industry. A decade ago, the entertainment industry seemed very far from us. But now, for a lot of idols, fame is crucially dependent on the support and collective action of their fans, so fans have become an integral part of the entertainment industry. Naturally, disputes in the industry extends to the fan community, eventually forming fanquan as we know it. Businesses and capital play an important role in this process. The agencies behind the idols push for a tight knit, highly organized cult following for their stars by actively shaping fan opinion. After all, the myriad faithful are an unprecedented source of commercial value.
Tingyu: I think this transformation from largely solo to collective behaviour is very much real. We used to use words like ‘idol-chasers’ or simply ‘fans’ to denote the loyal following of celebrities. (The term ‘idol-chasing’ came about because fans of the 1980s Taiwanese boy band Xiaohudui used to literally chase after them on bikes after concerts). But now we use the idea of a ‘fan circle’ (fanquan): this change in our language is not unfounded. Two factors played a big role in facilitating this transformation. The obvious one is the prevalence of the internet and social media like Weibo. The other is the involvement of capital and professional ‘fan leaders’ who earn a living from participating in fanquan. Their presence makes fanquan much more systematic.
Q4: What is ‘traffic’? How is it related to fanquan?
Lily: ‘Traffic’ can be taken to be the number of fans. It’s the most fundamental measure of an idol’s popularity and serves as a proxy for other things the idol can bring to the table. For example, a larger fan base usually means higher sales for products advertised by the star and thus traffic reflects their commercial value. Currently it is also common practice to take a show’s view count as an important indicator of a featured actor’s talent, and traffic brings higher view counts. Traffic might not be a fair measure, but it is a good proxy for how well the idol can generate profit for their agency. In the current entertainment industry, whether a star is valuable is largely determined by their traffic.
Tingyu: I think Lily’s characterisation is more or less accurate. Nowadays there’s all this talk about the attention economy or the ‘eyeball’ economy, and traffic, to put it plainly, is just how many eyeballs you can attract and how much attention you command. Weibo and WeChat has some more intricate measures, like the ‘Superstar Power Ranking’, which takes into account data like retweets, likes and money spent on supporting a certain idol. But all it is trying to capture is how much attention the star can attract. And this command over attention is turned into raw profit when the idol features in a show or sells goods via livestreaming.
Q5: I want to explore the phenomenon a bit more in terms of money and consumerism. Have you spent money on fanquan activity? There is now a popular line of thought that goes something like this: to show true love for your idol, you have to spend money for them, engage in popularity boosting, buy all their merchandise etc. And you must spend more than the fans of rival idols. This sounds a lot like a narrative borne out of consumerism and the result of over-commercialization of idols. How are members of fanquan trapped in this narrative? What are your takes on this phenomenon?
Lily: I’ve spent a lot of money on fanquan activities, and at a time I was passionately critical of those fans who didn’t. Looking back at it now, my thoughts at the time were frankly quite scary: blaming and shaming people who didn’t spend money borders on the absurd. For many, it is hard to understand, but the environment at the time was just like that: if you didn’t spend money for your idol, limited resources will be taken away by their rivals. In fanquan terminology, the ability and willingness of an idol’s fan base to support them with real money is called ‘purchasing power’. Comparing the purchasing power of different fan bases has always been a favourite past time for those in fanquan. Low purchasing power and unwillingness to spend money often entails ridicule by others. So, fans might spend money just to avoid this sort of ridicule, or even try to establish self-esteem through coming on top in this comparison.
Tingyu: I think there exists a disparity in the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ points of view here. Even if you try to stop some fanquan member from spending money, telling them it’s capitalist manipulation etc. it’s unlikely they will listen. They see things differently: spending money is a crucial way to express and demonstrate their affection. But it’s worth mentioning that the creativity shown by fanquan members in edited fan videos etc. is also very admirable. You can take a critical or a sympathetic stance, I think both are quite reasonable.
Fanquan is the contemporary Chinese term for fandom. In February 2020, fans of the actor Xiao Zhan reported popular writing sites AO3 and LOFTER to Chinese cyberspace authorities due to negative portrayals of Xiao in fanfiction stories, and both websites became inaccessible on the Mainland soon after. The incident led to renewed interest in online fanquan communities. Over the past year, fanquan has developed into a well-known youth cultural phenomenon that deserves more attention: binded together by shared idols, many young people are developing self-awareness and identity through these communities, where they can both find outlets for personal frustrations and companionship among peers. Fanquan has had positive effectivs: during the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak, online fan communities enthusiastically crowdsourced donations and essential materials to send to Wuhan. However, fanquan‘s many other complex social implications have created controversy in Chinese society, igniting radical opinions on all sides.
OCF’s Fandom Seminar does not aim to label fanquan as right or wrong; instead, we hope to use fanquan as an extremely timely case study and discuss it as part of a larger discourse on young people’s lived experiences in China. Through analyzing fanquan, we hope to help contemporary young people understand personal experiences, psychology, and behaviours in depth as well as providing a new way of thinking about online communities, thus building a stronger bridge between fanquan and the world.
Cover Image: Paparazzi and Fans Chasing Idol by Gan Khoon Lay from the Noun Project