Pop Convergence: Transnational Cultural Flows, State Control, and Cultural diversity in Contemporary China
von Ling Yang

Chinas Pop-Importe

[eine deutsche Teilübersetzung dieses Artikels ist erschienen in: »Pop. Kultur und Kritik«, Heft 3, Herbst 2013, S. 132-155]

In China, the term ‘popular culture’ generally refers to media-entertainment industries and various cultural phenomena related to the Internet and new media technologies. While traditional media like newspaper, television, and movies are still subject to tight government control, the Internet presents a cherished window in the iron cage. It not only ‘opens up new worlds of information and learning’ but provides ‘tools for cultural production and innovation, and the spaces of communication’ (Yang 2009: 214).

As the number of Internet users in China soared to 564 million at the end of 2012 (China Internet Network Information Center 2013), the importance of Internet to popular culture can hardly be overestimated. Like the boundary-crossing nature of the Internet, popular culture in China also shows little respect to national borders, government regulations, or intellectual property rights of cultural capitalists. The persistent and counterproductive censorship of domestic cultural industries helps cultivate a national penchant for cultural flows from the outside world, which is further facilitated by China’s notorious culture of piracy. Hence, for Chinese people, popular culture is always a site of glocalization, the exciting and unpredictable encounter between the local and the global.

Contemporary Chinese popular culture began with the flooding of pop culture from Hong Kong and Taiwan in late 1970s and early 1980s. After ten years of Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) turned China into a virtual cultural desert, Cantopop, Kung Fu movies, martial arts and romance novels, and pop icons like Teresa Teng and Chow Yun Fat swept across China like a welcome rain (Xie 2008). For the impoverished Mainlanders at that time, Taiwan and Hong Kong not only symbolized an affluent cosmopolitan modernity, but functioned as a gateway to the more remote and unfamiliar West.

With China’s skyrocketing economic growth in the past three decades, the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, and the acceleration of integration and cooperation in the Greater China region, Taiwanese and Hong Kong pop cultures have gradually lost their distinction (in the double sense of difference and worthiness) in China. Since the turn of the new century, urban Chinese youth have enthusiastically embraced popular cultures from East Asia and the West. Many of them grow up with »Harry Potter«, Korean pop music (K-pop), Japanese anime, and American TV shows.

Research on transnational cultural consumption tends to focus on the local reception of a single cultural product, like the cross-cultural reception of American TV show »Dallas« studied by Liebes and Katz ([1993] 2003), of a single cultural form, be it Indian soap operas (Burch 2002) or Japanese anime (Cooper-Chen 2012), or of a single national culture, such as the expansion of Japanese popular culture or the Korean Wave in East Asia (Iwabuchi 2002; Chua and Iwabuchi 2008; Yang 2010).

This analytical framework, however, could not fully capture the reality of how people receive global cultural flows today, and would most likely eschew the thorny issue of cultural value. Obviously, in this era of globalization, none of us would watch only one foreign TV show, nor consume cultural goods of only one foreign country. In the case of China, while transnational cultural traffic used to be orchestrated by the state and steeped in diplomatic, ideological, and economic calculations, the spread of the Internet and the ineffective policing of intellectual property rights give the younger generation an opportunity to access a great variety of cultural products from diverse regions in the world purely based on their own cultural preferences, even though those preferences are socially conditioned.

In this article, I examine the rich and complex local reception of trademark cultural products from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. All of those products have drawn huge followings in China and penetrated deeply into the everyday life of Chinese people. The first section of the paper outlines the ups and downs of Japanese popular culture in China from late 1970s to the present. In particular, I discuss the profound influence of anime on Chinese youth cultures and its contribution to the social acceptance of formerly stigmatized gay community.

Section two traces the development and ramifications of the so-called ‘Korean Wave’ in China. It also investigates the appeals of Korean TV dramas and K-pop idols. Section three offers a sketch of the rising popularity of American TV series among Chinese youth and its indebtedness to Internet fansubbing. The well-organized fansubbing of American TV shows paradoxically leads to both greater dominance of American popular culture and more cultural diversity. By juxtaposing cultural flows from both East and West, I attempt to map out a general pattern of reception and diffusion of cultural imports in China, reveal the potential conflict in values between East Asian pop culture and Western pop culture, and highlight the significance of Chinese popular culture as the site of an emerging global cultural commons.

While this article is arranged by geographical location for the convenience of the discussion, it is unified by two overarching concerns: the validity of cultural proximity theory and the efficacy of state control. Drawing on his observations of media flows in Latin America, Straubhaar (1991: 39) argues that audience, especially those with lower cultural capital, tend to prefer regional or national TV programs to international ones, because the former brings greater cultural relevance and proximity.

Yet as Iwabuchi (2002: 122) has pointed out in his analysis of the popularity of Japanese TV dramas in Taiwan, cultural proximity is not an intrinsic attribute possessed by a given cultural product, but a ‘dynamic process’ mediated by multiple forces and factors. It is necessary to investigate ‘how and under what conditions’ the cultural proximity of any specific international cultural product is evoked and experienced by the local audience. Based on the insights of Iwabuchi, I would like to note that geographical and cultural proximity could generate both benefits and impediments to the reception of regional cultural traffic in China.

Historically and currently, the three countries in East Asia have never enjoyed equal political and cultural power. Used to be the dominant cultural force in East Asia and had influenced the traditional culture in Japan and South Korea, China now falls behind both neighbors in the field of popular cultural production. Chinese cultural products, such as the ‘the ideology/pedagogy-heavy’ TV dramas, are deemed as tiresome and unattractive to sophisticated domestic audience, let alone to a transnational audience (Chua 2012: 26). This embarrassing demotion from a cultural sender to cultural receiver is exacerbated by historical memory of Japanese aggression, territorial disputes with both Japan and South Korea, and unfulfilled ambition for indisputable regional leadership.

As of result, fans of Japanese or Korean pop culture are more likely to be charged for being unpatriotic than fans of Western pop cultures, even though China was a victim of Western imperialism in the 19th century. Compared to the complications involved in the reception of Japanese and Korean popular cultures, popular cultural flows from the West are relatively freed from historical entanglements. As we shall see, Chinese youth are motivated by a variety of reasons to consume Western media products. They are neither ‘uncritical’ about the damaging effect of capitalism nor ‘caught up in the fantasization of the West’ (Fung 2008: 170). Instead, they are quite concerned about the quality of those products and often use their cultural choice as a gesture of protest against the cultural restrictions at home.

As China has been a one-party state for the past sixty years and no fundamental political change can be foreseen in the near future, ‘the tension between state and society’ (Link, Madsen, and Pickowicz 2002: 3) continues to loom large in Chinese popular culture despite the expansion of individual freedom and the increase of cultural choices in the new century. To prevent the diffusion of any ideologically harmful foreign cultural content, the state has established a complex and interlocking control system (Fung 2008). For instance, television stations have to apply to the State Administration of Radio Film and TV (SARFT) for permission to broadcast any foreign television program and the broadcast of foreign news program is strictly prohibited (SARFT 2004). Unless authorized by the state, it is illegal to manufacturer, import, sell, install, or use equipment to receive foreign satellite TV broadcasts in China (State Council 1993).

Yet as one popular Chinese saying goes, ‘Whenever there are policies from the top, the bottom produces counterstrategies’. The tight control of the state is inevitably undermined by sector interest, global capital, and grassroots resistance. Although harassed by censors, ordinary Chinese citizens are now able to take the distribution of international media products in their own hands through organized fansubbing and computer technology. Nevertheless, the lasting presence of a hopelessly corrupt, hypocritical, and often brutal regime is crucial to our understanding of the consumption of transnational cultural flows in China, because it instantly politicizes any apparently apolitical forms of cultural consumption.

Wind from the East Sea

China’s import of Japanese pop culture occurred in tandem with Deng Xiaoping’s implementation of the reform and open up policy. In 1978, Deng first helped China signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Japan and then paid an official visit to Japan to win support of Japanese business and political leaders for his reform policy. In the same year, China imported three foreign movies as a gesture of opening up to the world and two of them were Japanese. One was »The Man Who Wades the River of Rage« (1976) starred by Ken Takakura, the other, »Sandakan No. 8« (1974) starred by Komaki Kurihara. Despite being censored, both became the must-see films at cinemas, making the two Japanese stars household names in China. Takakura’s tough guy image even set up a new model of masculinity for Chinese youth (Xie 2008).

The 1980s witnessed a boom of Japanese culture in China. While Japanese movies like »The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness« (1977) and »It’s Tough Being a Man« (1969-1995) continued to attract Chinese audience, Japanese TV dramas, including »Oshin« (1983-1984), »Red Suspicion« (1975), and »Moero Attack« (1979) also enjoyed massive popularity among all age groups. Those stories of ordinary Japanese people who try to create a better life for themselves with faith, perseverance, and hard work resonated well with a nation determined to rejuvenate itself after decades of political and economic turmoil. In addition, a large number of modern Japanese literary works, both serious and popular, were translated into Chinese in 1980s, creating a lasting ‘Japanese literature fever’ (Li 2004). During this honeymoon stage in Sino-Chinese relations, Toshiba, Panasonic, Hitachi, and other Japanese consumer electronics giants also earned the trust of millions of Chinese consumers.

By 1990s, with the maturation of domestically produced TV dramas and the fragmentation of audience, Japanese dramas were no longer sensational hits as they used to be. Nevertheless, trendy dramas like »Tokyo Love Story« (1991), »Long Vacation« (1996), and »Love Generation« (1997) that foreground ‘beautiful people, beautiful clothes, good food, and good entertainment’ (Chua 2004: 206) were still well-received among the younger generation yearning for cosmopolitan fashion and lifestyle. According to a survey conducted by Japanese researchers in 1999, 75% of Chinese audience had watched »Red Suspicion«, 72.6% watched »Oshin«, 57.2% watched »Moero Attack«, and 33.2% watched »Tokyo Love Story« (Li 2004: 285-286). Through acting in those trendy dramas, Takuya Kimura, the ‘King of Japanese Drama’ and a member of the chart-topping Japanese boy band SMAP, attracted a large number of Chinese fans in late 1990s. It was also in late 1990s that Chinese youth started to have first-hand knowledge of Japanese pop music (J-pop), even though J-pop bands or singers were generally preoccupied with domestic market and seldom toured outside Japan.

While J-pop has never had a big impact in China and Japanese dramas lost their popularity to Korean dramas in the 21st century, Japanese manga and anime have remained irreplaceable in Chinese market ever since the state TV network, China Central Television (CCTV) aired the black-and-white version of »Astro Boy« (1963) in 1980. Since then, manga and anime series like »Doraemon« (1969- ), »Slam Dunk« (1990-1996), »Detective Conan« (1994- ), »One Piece« (1997- ), and »Naruto« (1999- ) have captured the hearts and minds of generations of Chinese youth. In 2004, Professor Chen Qijia, a pioneer researcher of Japanese manga and anime in China, conducted a comprehensive nationwide survey of over 3,000 Chinese youth, mostly aged 19-25, about their favorite comics and animations. The results show that 9 out of the 10 most favored comics and animations are produced in Japan, the other one being the US cartoon series »Tom and Jerry«.

Around 2008, Professor Chen conducted a similar survey among 5,200 college students across the nation and this time around all top 10 comics and animations are from Japan. The enormous appeal of Japanese manga and anime is attributed to their bold visual effects, complex plots, thought-provoking themes, fully developed characters, outstanding music, and excellent voice acting (Chen and Song 2009). Compared to the monotonous superhero cartoons from the US and the crude and didactic Chinese animations designed for young children, Japanese anime is far more diverse in themes and artistic styles, catering to a wide range of age groups. Starting from 2004, however, the state has taken systematic measures to curb the influence of Japanese anime in the name of protecting domestic animation industry. Although China has now become the world’s largest animation producer with all-round government support, Chinese youth still overwhelmingly prefer Japanese anime to domestic animations and they can easily access and download nearly all Japanese anime titles on the Internet.

Taiwanese scholar Chung-wei Chen (2009) describes the difference between Disney cartoon and Japanese anime as ‘vertical integration’ versus ‘parallel connection’. While vertical integration emphasizes copyright protection, standardized production, and exclusive market share, parallel connection is marked by a production style that focuses on craftsmanship and a dynamic fan culture that treats producers of fanzines as equal but parallel creators.

Through consuming manga and anime, as well as their spin-off games and light novels, Chinese consumers have also appropriated a whole set of fan practices, vocabulary, aesthetics, and worldviews from Japan. Dedicated manga and anime fans began to set up online manga and anime forums to exchange information, write critical reviews, and create fan fiction and fan art as early as 1998, four years after Internet arrived in China. Such model of Internet-based grassroots cultural production was later adopted by other media and celebrity fandoms. The Japanese origin of Chinese fan culture can be detected from the Chines name for fan fiction »tongrenwen 同人文«, which derives from the Japanese term »dōjinshi 同人志«, a reference to self-published works. Yet till this day, few fan fictions are devoted to American and European cartoons.

Japanese manga are known for their liberal treatment of gender and sexuality, resulting in abundant depiction of deviant sex acts, unconventional sex roles, and incredible sexual fantasies (Perper and Cornog 2003). Boys’ Love (BL) manga, a genre of male homosexual romance created mostly by and for women, have particularly affected youth attitudes towards gender and sexuality in contemporary China. Since its first appearance in Japan in 1960s, the genre has gained followers worldwide and become ‘one of Japan’s most influential, if overlooked, cultural exports’ (McLelland 2009). BL was introduced to Mainland China in early 1990s during the influx of pirated Japanese manga, and the first known Chinese BL fiction was posted on the Internet in 1998.

Hardcore female fans of BL are jokingly called »fujoshi 腐女« in both Japan and China, literally meaning ‘rotten women’. Unlike the predominance of BL manga in Japan, the majority of Chinese BL production comes in the form of fiction, either original BL fiction or BL fan fiction, because it is easier for words than pictures to bypass government prohibition of sexually explicit materials. Through underground publications and online dissemination, BL has transformed from a secret hobby of a small group of fans into a massive subculture and a functional, albeit not fully legitimate cultural industry.

It is now a major genre on commercial literature websites, where readers need to pay a small amount of fees to read a complete novel. At Jinjiang Literature City (2003- ), the largest online publisher of women’s romance novels in China, approximately one third of the 650,000 titles published there are categorized as BL. Despite the huge amount of BL fiction on the Internet, few could be turned into print via official publishing channels (Xu and Yang 2013).

Female readers are drawn to BL because they are tired of women’s role as passive sex objects in traditional male-dominated literature. By writing and reading BL women could freely explore male body and male sexuality with neither guilt nor anxiety. Although there is a division of sex roles between the two male protagonists in BL narratives, the two men are believed to be fundamental equal, because neither is secondary to or dependent on the other. This egalitarian appeal is crucial to the popularity of BL. As one Japanese BL fan has claimed, ‘Images of male homosexuality are the only picture we have of men loving someone as an equal, it’s the kind of love we want to have’ (cited in McLelland 2006/2007).

While there was an ‘emergence of gay identities and practices’ in Chinese metropolises in mid 1990s (Rofel 2007: 87), homosexuality was not decriminalized in China until 1997 and since then the government attitude towards LGBT community has been ‘not encouraging, not discouraging and not promoting’ (Mountford 2010: 3). The rise of BL culture, however, forcefully subverts the state silence on issues of gay rights. Since BL valorizes homosexuality over heterosexuality and contains explicit depiction of gay sex, it has in fact become the biggest viral advertising campaign for the legitimacy of same sex relationship in China. Many »fujoshi« are not only passionate about gay love in the imaginary BL fiction but interested in the existence of gay people and other sexual minorities in the real life, therefore constituting a significant source of support for Chinese LGBT movement.

Although Japanese manga and anime have permeated Chinese youth culture and profoundly shaped how young people speak and think, cultural flows from Japan generally have to face higher political risks and barriers in China. With the ever-widening income gap and the increase of civil unrest in Chinese society in the 21st century, anti-Japanese sentiments have also been on the rise. On one hand, Japanese TV dramas are seldom broadcast by the state-run TV stations for political and economic reasons. On the other hand, Chinese airwaves are dominated by anti-Japan propaganda. In 2012, more than 70 out of the 200 or so domestic TV dramas aired during the prime time slots were themed on anti-Japanese war (1937-1945). The number is expected to be even higher in 2013, as it is relatively difficult for other themes to gain production permit from SARFT (East Morning Post 2013).

Whereas in the 1980s the ‘“humane” image of Japan’ (Iwabuchi 2002: 75) in Japanese films and dramas, along with government promotion of Sino-Japanese friendship, successfully diluted people’s memory of Japanese wartime atrocity, today Chinese TV screen is populated by demonized, stereotypical figures of ‘Japanese devils’, in an attempt to displace class resentment and redirect social protest. The twists and turns involved in SMAP’s China concert amply reveal how entertainment and politics are intertwined in the Chinese context.

SMAP originally planned to hold a concert at Shanghai World Expo in June 2010, but it was cancelled after fans of Super Junior, a popular K-pop band, clashed with police in their quest for tickets. SMAP later rescheduled two concerts in Shanghai in October. One month before the concerts, however, a Chinese fishing boat collided with Japanese coast guard vessels near the disputed Diaoyu Islands. After the incident happened, Chinese government cancelled all government-level cultural exchange activities with Japan and SMAP’s commercial concerts in China was also forced to be called off. During the 2011 annual East Asian summit held in Tokyo, Premier Wen Jiabao met the J-pop band in person and invited them to hold concert in China. With support from top Chinese official, SMAP finally held a concert at Beijing Workers Stadium in September 2011 and performed in front of an audience of 25,000 under the theme ‘Come on, Japan. Thank you, China. Asia is one family’. It was the band’s first overseas concert since its debut in 1991 (China Daily 2011). Concert ticket sales reportedly exceeded RMB 10 million (USD 1.6 million), making it one of the best-selling concerts in China (Shou and Zhang 2011).

The Korean Wave

Compared to the three decades of diffusion of Japanese pop culture in China, Korean pop culture is a relatively late comer in Chinese cosmopolitan cultural scene. In 1993, one year after China and South Korea established diplomatic ties, CCTV broadcast the first Korean TV drama »Jealousy« (1992). But for various reasons, Korean television drama did not attract notice in China until the broadcast of »What is Love All About« (1997) in 1997. Without any promotional efforts, this humorous story of two families achieved an impressive viewing rate of 4.2% nationwide (Li and Fan 2006: 1).

In November 1998, in celebration of the first national visit of Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, CCTV and Korea Broadcasting System jointly hosted a friendship concert in Beijing, in which NRG, a five-member Boy band, became the first K-pop group to perform in China. The following two years witnessed the arrival of Clon, H.O.T., Baby VOX, Ahn Jae Wook, and other K-pop idols that easily enthralled tens of thousands of Chinese teenagers with their hip fashion, rhythmic music, and energetic performing style.

It was around that time that Chinese journalists started to use the phrase ‘Korean Wave’ to describe the shocking popularity of K-pop among Chinese youth. The term has later been picked up by media and academics outside China to refer to ‘a surge in the international visibility’ of Korean popular culture, especially TV series and popular music in East Asia and other world regions (Ravina 2009:3).

With a string of hit dramas like »Autumn in My Heart« (2000), »Winter Sonata« (2002), »Can’t Take My Eyes Off You« (1998), and »Men of the Bath House« (1995) aired on CCTV and provincial TV stations across the nation, the influence of Korean popular culture quickly expanded from adolescence to adult consumers. After the romantic comedy »My Sassy Girlfriend« (2001) became a blockbuster in 2002, Korean movies also gained the attention of Chinese moviegoers.

In 2003 and 2004, a total of 32 Korean movies and TV dramas were broadcast in China, accounting for 25.4% of all foreign films and TV drams officially imported into China during that period (Li and Fan 2009: 125). The wide popularity of»Dae Jang Geum« (2003-2004) in 2005 further pushed the Korean wave to the crest. Set in 15th century Korea, the epic TV show chronicles the life of an orphan kitchen cook who later became the first female physician in Korean royal court through intelligence and perseverance. After the drama was broadcast, made-in-Korea products, including food, fashion, cosmetics, cellphones, and kitchen utensils, all enjoyed a boost in sales.

Most of the Korean dramas imported in China are either upgraded version of Japanese idol dramas centered on cross-class love affairs or domestic dramas that focus on everyday life and familial relations in extended family. Their high viewing rates are therefore commonly attributed to the stress of Confucian family ethics and pure romantic love, two things that are increasingly hard to find in Chinese society due to rapid social and economic changes. The portrayal of several generations living under one roof in Korean dramas particularly brings nostalgia to audience who leave their hometowns and supporting networks behind to pursue work opportunity in big cities (Li and Fan 2006; Xia 2011). In the eyes of some audience, the compromise and combination of traditionality and modernity in Korean dramas, albeit fictional, offers a more attractive model of modernization than the radical anti-tradition and pro-western stance intellectual elites have adopted since the beginning of the 20th century.

Unlike Japanese dramas that were enjoyed by both men and women back in the 1980s, women make up the majority of audience for Korean dramas. For them, Korean dramas provide a ‘fairy tale’ or ‘beautiful dream’ in which they can temporarily escape from the harsh reality. In this fantasyland, despite much hardship, the virtuous ‘Cinderella’ invariably wins the love of her ‘prince’, while the beautiful but scheming woman receives the punishment she deserves (Lin and Tong 2008; Xia 2011).

Apart from cultural affinity and emotional resonance, ideological and economic concerns are also involved in Chinese TV stations’ generous importation of Korean dramas. For one thing, the Confucian ethics and ‘apolitical sensitivity’ (Leung 2008: 64) of Korean dramas pose no danger to the rule of the party-state. Besides, in the early days of Korean Wave, Korean dramas were not only cheaper than Hong Kong dramas, a staple of Chinese TV imports, but even cost less than locally-produced dramas (Li and Fan 2006: 6).

Harsh criticism of the Korean Wave first emerged from professionals working in the TV industry, who accused Korean TV stations of barring outstanding Chinese dramas from entering the Korean market while dumping their own mediocre products in China. Paying heeds to such charges, SARFT cut the import of Korean drama by half in 2006 based on the rationale of fair trade (Li 2011; Xia 2011). After the initial novelty wore out, viewers were also getting disenchanted by the formulaic plots, sluggish pace, and highly unrealistic romance of Korean dramas.

In 2006, a former fan got so fed up with Korean dramas that she even set up an online discussion group called ‘Korean Dramas Go to Hell’. By 2009, it was observed that Korean dramas might continue to attract audience in second-tier cities, but their fan base had shrunk considerably in metropolis like Beijing and Shanghai (Southern Metropolis Weekly 2009). Interestingly, the public complaints of Korean dramas as standardized, superficial, and intellectually inferior cultural products are eerily similar to Adorno and Horkheimer’s supposedly ‘outdated’ critique of culture industry in the 1940s.

Although the peak of Korean dramas has passed, male K-pop idols continue to hold sway in Chinese market. In fact, one of the biggest strengths of Korean pop industry is their capacity to churn out a new batch of desirable male stars every year for the overseas idol market. While Singaporean fans are fascinated by Rain’s combination of boyish cuteness with a manly body (Jung 2011) and middle-aged Japanese women are attracted to Bae Yong Jun’s sincere and urbane image (Mori 2008; Creighton 2009), Chinese girls are often enamored of beautiful androgynous boys.

Those most popular Korean idols in China, from K-pop boy bands like TVXQ, Super Junior, and Big Bang, to actor-singers such as Lee Min Ho and Jang Keun Suk, can all be categorized as the »bishonen«, or ‘beautiful boy’ type. As early as the late imperial period (1550-1911), there had been a ‘general taste for youthful male beauty’ among the literati (Wu 2003: 19). In one of the four great classical novels, »Dream of Red Chamber« published in the 18th century, the hero Jia Baoyu is portrayed as a feminized bisexual pretty boy who openly flaunts social conventions and shows great sympathy for the female race. Since 1990s, under the influence of BL manga and novels, the aesthetics of »bishonen« has caught on among many young Chinese women who are discontented with the rigid divisions between male and female, masculinity and femininity, heterosexuality and homosexuality.

For those well-educated »fujoshi«, the figure of »bishonen« signifies not only freedom from gender and sexual norms, but an awareness of fundamental tensions of the human condition—the flight of time, the ephemerality of beauty, and the fragility of flesh. Japanese actor Takashi Kashiwabara, the young Leonardo DiCaprio, and Bill Kaulitz and Tom Kaulitz, the twin brothers from the German rock band Tokio Hotel, have all been regarded as contemporary icons of »bishonen«. Kashiwabara’s screen debut in »Love Letter« (1995) as a shy and tender high school boy has left a lasting impression on Chinese audience. Although his film career was cut short in Japan by his public misconduct, Kashiwabara continues to enjoy a fair degree of popularity in China.

In the past decade, metrosexual Korean stars have almost monopolized the »bishonen« market in China. One reason is that male Korean idols often have a height advantage over their Japanese counterparts and are more willing to undergo cosmetic surgery to enhance their facial features. The other reason is that Korean idols generally take the Chinese market far more seriously than Japanese stars and have made substantial efforts to maintain relationship with their Chinese fans, including learning Chinese, opening account on microblog, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, and making an appearance on Chinese TV shows.

From its inception, the Korean Wave seems to be engineered by Korean government who regards the development of ‘cinema and other media content production as a national strategic industry’ (Shim 2008: 17) and ambitious entertainment companies who are eager to penetrate into foreign markets with their carefully packaged products (Cho 2005; Ryoo 2009). This nationalist and capitalist approach to popular culture, however, does not work in favor of the long-term sustainability of Korean Wave in China. As Korean scholar Lee Dong Yeun predicted, ‘If the Korean Wave continues to surge, reflecting the diplomatic relations that supports a capitalist logic rather than a strengthening of the communicative power of civil society to provide the possibility of diversifying the cultural tastes of the masses, then it will have to put up a hard fight against China’s ethnocentrism and Japan’s malleable nationalism’ (cited in Cho 2005: 172).

The first noticeable backlash against Korean Wave on Chinese Internet was ignited by an offhand comment made by Korean singer-actress Jang Nara. In 2009, Jang Nara stated in a Korean talk show that whenever the production budget was tight she would go perform in China (Zhao 2009). While the comment frankly acknowledges the fact that China has become a major market for Korean entertainers to make good money, many netizens were upset by its implication that Chinese audience might be perceived as undiscerning cultural dopes by Korean stars. Although Jang Nara later apologized for her remark and claimed that she came to China to promote cultural exchange between the two countries, this incident has tarnished the image of both Korean stars and their Chinese fans. Since then, Chinese fans of Korean popular culture have often been stigmatized as ‘mentally retarded’.

On May 30, 2010, Super Junior fans went into scuffle with armed police and volunteers in order to get tickets for their idols’ concert at Shanghai World Expo. The news immediately aroused a new wave of protest against the Korean Wave and culminated into the so-called ‘69 Holy War’, in which over 100,000 netizens participated in the hacking of Super Junior’s official websites and their online Chinese fandom. The attack was scheduled on June 9 because it was the day that high school students finished their college entrance exam.

A study of the online discourse about the event shows that protestors emphasized cultural invasion, Sino-Korean disputes over the origin of some cultural traditions, South Korea’s claim of China’s northeast borders, and the negative coverage of China in Korean media. And they frequently belittled South Korea as China’s former tributary and an inconsequential small country (Shi 2010). The attack was also motivated by an underlying gender and sexual concern, as Super Junior fans are mostly ‘young girls aged from 15 to 25’, while their attackers ‘were young men of the same age group’ (Yang and Zheng 2012: 647).

The incident hence reads like an allegorical tale of a male chauvinist beating a woman in his tribe for her unruly desire for foreign men. Yet the violent and revengeful nature of the ‘war’ is compromised by the hilariously comic choice of the number ‘69’, a widely-known euphemism for the sex position in which two partners simultaneously perform oral sex for each other. Judging from the output of denouncement and self-defense from both fans and anti-fans on the Internet, two sides might have indeed engaged in some kind of mutually pleasurable oral intercourse. While anti-fans vented out their anger, fans reconfirmed their love for the idols.

The Onslaught of American Media Flows

Despite (or perhaps due to) years of warning against the dominance of American popular culture around the world, until the end of the 20th century the influence of American popular culture in China had been limited to fast food restaurants, Coca Cola, Hollywood movies, and NBA stars. American pop music used to be popular mainly among the cultural elites because not many Chinese listeners could understand the English lyrics. Since American TV series are usually laden with sexually explicit content, they were seldom dubbed and aired on Chinese TV screen.

Throughout 1980s and 1990s, only a score of American TV series were introduced to Chinese audience on a national level, far fewer than Hong Kong and Taiwanese TV dramas. Well-known American TV titles at that time include science fiction TV series »Man from Atlantis« (1977–1978), action series »Garrison’s Gorillas« (1967-1968), police drama »Hunter« (1984-1991), and family sitcom »Growing Pains« (1985-1992). The first and second series were both broadcast in 1980, one year after President Nixon visited China.

As Mayfair Mei-hui Yang (2002: 198) once observed, ‘Just as most of the capital flowing into China in the past two decades is overseas Chinese, not American, so the impact of American media cannot compare with the influence of Hong Kong and Taiwan popular culture’. Since Yang’s essay was published, however, the visibility of American media products has increased dramatically. Nowadays, in addition to Oscar winning films, American bestselling popular novels, Billboard hits, top-rating TV series are all finding their way into Chinese market, with little or no time gap.

Two factors have contributed to this insatiable demand for American media flows in the new century. One is the government policy of college enrollment expansion that has been implemented since 1999. As a result, the number of college students at school soared from 3.4 million in 1998 to 24.7 million in 2011, including 1.6 million graduate students (National Bureau of Statistics of China 1999; 2011). Since those students are commonly required to sit for one English test, part of the college entrance exam, to enter the college and another college English test to graduate with diploma, many of them use undubbed American movies and TV series as a language and cultural learning tool, even though they need English caption or Chinese subtitles to fully comprehend the content.

The second reason is China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, which forced the state to streamline its convoluted and cumbersome control of foreign cultural products and open up door to foreign investment. Americans are particularly eager to export more cultural products to the vast Chinese market to offset its trade deficit with China. In 2007, the US government filed a WTO complaint against China for restricting the importation and distribution of American films, DVDs, music, books, and journals and won a favorable ruling (Zhao and Dawson 2011). In 2012, after intense negotiation, the then Vice President Xi Jinping announced in the final hours of his US visit that China would raise the import cap for big foreign movies, that is, Hollywood blockbusters, from 20 to 34 per year (Hennock 2012).

Yet before the official ease of film quota, China’s annual import of foreign film had already reached a staggering number, much higher than state authorities are willing to admit. According to an investigational report posted at a famous film website, in 2011 alone over 1,000 foreign film titles, including Taiwanese and Hong Kong titles not co-produced with Mainland, were legally imported into China by China Film Group Corporation, various DVD publishing companies, national and local TV stations, and commercial video websites.

From 1949 to late 1970s, film import was solely handled by China Film Group Corporation (CFGC), formerly known as China Film Import and Export Company, under the supervision of Film Bureau. To this day, CFGC is still the supervisory body of the import of foreign films intended for cinema release, while SARFT and the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) are respectively in charge of the import of foreign content for TV broadcast and DVD publishing. Along the way, Film Bureau, SARFT, and GAPP have all set up affiliated importing companies across the country and tried to protect their own turfs from the interference of the others.

The state monopoly was encroached, however, by the emergence of private-owned video websites in 2005 (Yu 2012). While those commercial websites used to be the haven for pirated media content, they have made great improvements in using licensed audiovisual products under government pressures (Ni 2012). As of today, video websites are the most accessible and influential legal providers of foreign film content in China and they often stream a large variety of American movies (Yu 2012).

Such complicated state-controlled importing and distributing system, however, has been challenged by the rise of fansubbing, ‘a new model of content distribution’ based on collective knowledge, global collaboration, and voluntary fan labor (Lee 2011). Around year 2000, some college anime and manga clubs started to use File Transfer Protocol to download and fansub their favorite anime programs from the Internet (Tao 2011). Since then, numerous fansub groups have been set up, offering netizens convenient, free, and timely access to a wide range of English, Japanese, and Korean TV shows and movies formerly unavailable in the Chinese market.

While the popularity of Japanese and Korean TV dramas in China all began with CCTV screening, it is purely through fansubbing and fan distribution that American TV shows, and recently British TV shows, have become trendy cultural products among Chinese youth. While a couple of hit American shows did make it to the screen of CCTV in recent years, they were so heavily edited that even the story lines were altered (French 2006; Tian 2011). Fansub groups in contrast, not only try hard to get the original meaning across but add valuable annotations to help audience understand the cultural context. Some fansubbers also use Internet catchphrases and funny personal comments to spice up their translations (Tian 2011).

All fansub groups rely on the Internet to obtain source content, organize and release fansubs, recruit new fansubbers, and communicate with viewers. In addition to hosting their own online discussion forums for fans to discuss and download fansubbed materials, major fansub groups also use social networking services like microblog to share information of shows and fansubbing progress. It has been noted that big Chinese fansub groups operate like a well-organized company, even though no monetary compensation is involved. With efficient workflow, strict trainee system, high team spirit and professional standard, as well as fierce competitiveness, those amateur fansub groups can be more productive than professional translating services (Hu 2009; Ye 2013).

Article 22 of Chinese copyright law stipulates that ‘a work may be used without permission from, and without payment of remuneration to, the copyright owner’ if it is used for the purpose of ‘personal study, research or appreciation’ (National People’s Congress 2010). Although fansubbers use this article to justify their behaviors, they are in fact more than benign researchers or aficionados of foreign media products. Since fansubs in China generally comes in the form of ‘hard subs’, meaning that subtitles are directly encoded into the video, in releasing the fansubs fansubbers also distribute the original content and the subtitled content could be easily stolen by pirate DVD manufacturers.

At this moment, the leading fansub organization in China is YYeTs (Renren Yingshi), literally meaning ‘everyone film and TV’. The name derives from the Chinese saying ‘I am for everyone and everyone for me’. This reciprocal sharing spirit is also reflected in the group motto ‘share, learn, and improve’. Founded in 2004 by a Chinese student studying in Canada, YYeTs is famous for its bilingual subtitles and fast fansubbing speed. With several hundred regular fansubbers and multiple task teams, YYeTs can fansub 50 programs at the same time. Initially focusing on American TV series, YYeTs now offers fansubbed TV series, variety shows, movies, documentaries, and educational videos from Asia, North America, Europe, and Australia. It has also developed into an umbrella organization for smaller fansub groups, providing them with free technical support and online distribution platform.

Besides voluntary fansubbing, YYeTs is cautiously involved in commercial translation projects, such as translating an English language biography of Steven Spielberg for a publishing house. The main reason for YYeTs’s commercial turn is to recoup its operational cost, which stands at RMB 60,000 ($9,618) per year, higher than the annual salary of junior college teachers (Qiu 2012). In 2010, the government temporarily shut down YYeTs’s website and confiscated its server because of their fansubbing of Open Yale Courses, which was considered to have politically subversive contents (Tian 2011). The website later went back to operation with a new server donated by users. After this incident, YYeTs was nominated by »China Newsweek« as the ‘Most Influential Person of Year 2010’ for ‘bringing outstanding international educational resources to Chinese netizens’ (Chen 2010).

Chinese fansubbing community is primarily made up of college students and educated white collar workers seeking to improve their language skills and enjoy quality media entertainment products. As English is the most studied foreign language in China and the myths of ‘American Dream’ and ‘American democracy’ hold wide appeal in China, American TV series becomes the most high-profile target of fansubbing. The first American TV series that has drawn a loyal fandom in China is the long running sitcom »Friends« (1994-2004). The show became popular because of its portrayal of a ‘laid-back, friendship-filled’ American lifestyle, ‘far from the stressful, competitive world that Chinese young people inhabit’ (Lim 2013).

The most influential American TV series to this day is probably »Prison Break« (2005-2008). The storyline of a courageous and brilliant escape from the state-run prison house and the theme of brotherhood seem to strike a chord with numerous Chinese netizens who have to wrestle with the state Internet control on a daily basis. When the show went wild on the Internet in 2006, big fansub groups all wanted to be the first to release their subtitles. As a result, fansubbed version of the episode was uploaded to the Internet within 7 hours of its debut in the US (Zhou 2010). The well-scripted and information-rich »Prison Break« helped establish the reputation of American TV series as an intelligent form of entertainment, superior to most Hollywood movies and Asian TV dramas. While Japanese and Korean dramas attract mostly women, American TV series are believed to have a more equal mix of male and female viewers.

A quick glance at the website of YYeTs will give us a rough idea exactly how popular American media products can be if there are no political, economic, or legal restrictions. As of February 2013, among the top 100 most watched TV shows and films on YYeTs, 11 come from Japan, 3 from UK, 1 from South Korea, 1 from Germany; the rest are all produced by the US. To capitalize on the booming market for American TV series, Sohu.com, China’s No. 2 Internet portal, purchased the streaming right of about 30 titles in 2012, including the ongoing hit show »The Big Bang Theory« (2007- ). As of November 2012, the show had received an accumulated 755 million hits on Sohu.com (Lou 2012). Of course, not all Chinese viewers go after hit American shows or care about their alleged worthiness.

In a large and unevenly developed country like China, consumers’ cultural preferences are inherently diversified due to different class origins and educational levels. While for many Chinese viewers, watching American TV shows has become a symbol of intelligence and good taste, ‘shoddy’ Korean dramas still have a strong fan base and more elite viewers tend to prefer niche European dramas to American ones. For instance, the British teen drama »Skins« (2007- ) has built up a cult following on Douban.com, a favorite SNS website for youth of an intellectual and artistic bent. The show has been lavishly praised for its emotional depth, realistic acting, and superb music. Compared to »Skins«, the similarly themed American series »Gossip Girl« (2007- ) looks like an empty fashion show.

With the surge of Chinese diaspora around the globe and the consequent expansion of horizon, Chinese consumers are now able to access cultural flows from non-English-speaking world and build affinity with unfamiliar media products. The stir caused by German sketch comedy, »Knallerfrauen« (2011- ) in China is a good example of creative cross-cultural reception. The show’s surprising popularity among netizens is often credited to fansubbers’ clever employment of the Chinese Internet buzzword »diaosi 屌丝« to translate the title of the show. The word »diaosi« originally refers to a young man who comes from a low social origin, does not have a decent job in the city, own neither apartment nor car, and cannot find a girlfriend. Lately, the term has been appropriated by lower-middle class young men and women to express their discontent with the increasingly unattainable neo-liberal dream of success and middle-class lifestyle. Although viewers recognize that the heroine in »Knallerfrauen« is not really a low-class German »diaosi«, they still relish her hilariously crazy rebellion against middle-class norms and find it mirror their own thoughts. For those who struggle to cope with various kinds of difficulty in life, »Knallerfrauen« provides exactly the good laugh they need. Since its debut on the Internet, the show has single-handedly changed the stereotypical image of German people as rule-loving, reserved, and humorless (Yangtse Evening News 2012).


This article offers an overview of contemporary Chinese reception of Japanese, Korean, and American popular cultures in an attempt to give readers a glimpse of the constantly evolving popular cultural trends, sensibilities, and products in China, as well as the underlying interplay between state regulation, corporate push, and grassroots agency. Since Cultural Revolution came to an end, generations of Chinese have fallen in love with novels, music, movies, TV programs, and animations imported, smuggled, or poached from various locales outside China. Those transnational cultural forms and products have constituted the most diverse and dynamic area of Chinese popular culture.

There are two channels for foreign cultural products to enter Chinese market: the official importation and distribution system, and the unofficial network of piracy and fansubbing. While the official channel is largely determined by diplomatic ties, ideological and economic concerns, the unofficial channel is mostly driven by consumer demand. While the two contesting channels are likely to co-exist for a long time to come, there are signs showing that the state is stepping up efforts to promote more effective governance. In March 2013, the State Council unveiled a plan to integrate the broadcasting and press regulators, namely, SARFT and GAPP, into a single regulatory body (Zhang 2013). Although such a cut-down on bureaucracy is intended to benefit domestic media and entertainment industries and augment China’s soft power, it might also lead to more licensed cultural imports in Chinese market.

Since there are numerous cultural products available in the market and cultural consumption has become a form of self-expression, Chinese youngsters often choose what they consume with a certain degree of discrimination, both going after the latest trend and searching for aesthetically distinguished products. In the area of TV drama, for example, British and American TV series are generally held in higher regard than Korean, Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and domestically produced dramas.

While this cultural hierarchy has contributed to the process of ‘nation branding’ in transnational cultural traffic (Huang 2011) and reflects the unequally structured global economic and political system, it is also grounded in consumers’ views about concrete issues of gender, class, tradition, and modernity. Part of the reason many female viewers prefer American TV series to Korean dramas is that the former contains more liberal message about gender norms and female sexuality. The Confucian values touted in Korean dramas simply do not fare well with viewers of strong feminist consciousness. The hypothesis of cultural proximity therefore needs to be complemented by a discussion of value judgment because viewers do not blindly accept a media product merely based on its similarity to their own culture.

Among the three transnational cultural flows examined in this article, Japanese pop culture probably faces the highest institutional barriers in China because of its historical baggage. Yet through consumer initiated cultural flows (Nakano 2002), Japanese manga and anime have profoundly influenced the way Chinese youth speak, think, and live. Consequently, Chinese net speak is filled with anime-inflected slangs and the lifestyle of »otaku«, that is, obsessive fans of manga, anime, and games, has also been in vogue.

While Korean Wave is sometimes looked down as fast food-like low culture, Japanese pop culture seems to have traversed the boundaries between high culture and low culture. Japanese cultural figures like writer Haruki Murakami, film directors Hayao Miyazaki and Shunji Iwai, and musician Jou Hisaishi have all enjoyed cult status among educated Chinese youth. While Murakami’s sensitive description of human solitude earns him a larger readership than the 2012 Nobel Literature Prize winner Mo Yan, Iwai’s delicate grasp of emotion and atmosphere also brings him equal, if not more respect than the renowned Chinese director Zhang Yimou. More interestingly, Chinese youth’s identification with Japanese artists is fused with the longing for a more spiritual and cultivated China, as opposed to the crass, materialistic contemporary Chinese society. And they believe that they could feel this ideal image of China in the elegance and sophistication of Japanese culture, because it has preserved some ancient Chinese cultural heritage.

Apart from the clash in values and different positions in cultural hierarchy, there is also a convergence between transnational cultural flows. One such example is the appropriation of Japanese BL in K-pop fan practices. The sustaining appeal of Korean boy bands in China largely owes it to their capacity for gender bending and the homoerotic tension in the band. As a result, many Chinese K-pop fans are »fujoshi« who love to pair up members of those boy bands and write BL fan fiction for them (Huang Shuzhen 2011). Similarly, the recent popularity of »The Big Bang Theory« is due to the fact that its representation of American geek culture resonates well with millions of Chinese otakus. In a sense, Chinese popular culture has developed into a global cultural commons, where multiple strands of transnational cultural flows have found their audience and made their marks, but none could achieve complete hegemony. How different strands of transnational pop culture are remixed in this commons, and how consumers negotiate with the multiple facets of cultural globalization and the demand of national allegiance might be some of the questions for future research.



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Ling Yang ist Assistant Professor of Chinese an der Xiamen University.