This post is based on an article published in the Asian Studies Review. The full article can be read here and is available open-access to all readers.
Fan conflicts or fan wars have already become part of du jour global fan culture. Inter-fandom conflicts tend to emanate from conflicts of interest between different fan communities and their associated stars or celebrities. However, little attention has been paid to the internal side of fandom and intra-fandom conflicts. This is the focus of our recent article published in the Asian Studies Review. In our article, we reject the assumption of the existing literature that fans of a star or celebrity are a homogeneous group. Instead, we contend that there are hierarchies and sub-communities in any particular fandom. Such hierarchies and sub-communities are embodied in the intra-fandom conflicts between “only-fan” and the “coupling-fan” (‘CP-fan’). In popular Chinese mediascape, fans who solely love the star are classified as Only-fans, while those who enjoy the romantic relationship between two stars are known as CP-fans, or “shippers” in Euro-American contexts. Our research examines the close relationship between intra-fan conflicts in China and increasingly tightened party-state censorship.
Understanding Fan Culture and Delving into Chinese Popular Mediascape
In post-millennial China, fan culture has emerged as a thriving popular cultural form since the introduction of Hallyu (Korean wave) culture and the phenomenal reality television talent competition franchise, including the Super Girls and Chinese versions of Produce 101. However, this great popularity is also accompanied by many controversies. The self-organised star fandom and their online and offline fan activities have been criticised by non-fan netizens, cultural critics, as well as the Chinese government. Notably, the phrase “Fanquan Siwei (fandom mindset)” is repeatedly employed by these parties to condemn fans on social media. For example, in 2020, Chinese official media Banyuetan (China Comment) issued a commentary titled “being wary of fandom mindset eroding the mainstream values” in 2020.
As two researchers in popular media and culture, and as veteran fans belonging to different fan communities, we have always felt ambivalent about the stigmatisation of fans and fan culture. On the one hand, we have experienced the vigour of fan culture and collective identity formation through online and offline activities. We believe that what underlies these seemingly crazy fan behaviours is exactly the fact that fans have become scapegoats. Commercial capital and Chinese party-state power is complicit in the production of the so-called fandom mindset. This makes the effect the cause, and drives fans to invest more time and money and self-censor their behaviours. On the other hand, we have witnessed a series of fan conflicts, which discloses the “dark” side of fan culture. This paradoxical experience invited us to research intra-fan conflict and examine its close relationship with Chinese party-state censorship.
Fans Remain the Vulnerable Party that are Exploited and Censored
We conducted a twelve-month Weibo-based digital ethnography in observing the fandom of Xiao Zhan, a male star who has gained great popularity because of his performance as Wei Wuxian in the danmei-adapted web drama The Untamed. Danmei, known as Boys’ love culture (‘BL’), includes original fiction and adapted comics, animations, audio series, and web series, featuring male-male romance. Danmei has gained wide currency among the young generation in China. In particular, we examined the “227 incident”. The 227 incident was an unprecedented fan war in the Chinese cultural landscape which started in February 2020 and involved different sub-communities in Xiao’s fandom, i.e., the only-fans and the CP-fans and other star fandoms and subcultural fan communities. Two years later, in 2022, sporadic fan conflicts within and beyond Xiao’s fandom still occur.
Taking Xiao and his fan communities as an example, we delved into the inner workings of fan communities to find the reasons for fan conflicts and their evolution into an incident of the wider public sphere. We found that the female-dominated fan sub-culture cannot be straightforwardly understood as resistance against mainstream heteronormative culture. Rather, it is in constant negotiation, and sometimes complicity, with mainstream culture. This mainstream culture is backed by state power, which intensifies the internal hierarchies of fandom and perpetuates heteronormativity.
We found that fans use reporting mechanisms backed by state power to censor their rivals in fan conflicts. “Reporting is effective!” has therefore become the credo for fans. Yet, these reporting practices are incorporated into governmental monitoring and become the very object of governance. In other words, the government’s connivance with reporting by fans and the punishment of reported rivals makes the idea of “reporting is effective” deeply rooted in the minds of fans, who thus replace the government as the fandom police of speech and cultural products. This is a form of self-censorship by fan communities. Fans are always subject to manipulation and exploitation by state power, and the use of censorship by fans, in effect, becomes the governmentality of state power to monitor fans. Thus, although the relationship between the fan community and state power in fan conflicts appears to be mutually exploitative, fans always remain the vulnerable party that is monitored and censored. Under the constant surveillance and intervention of state power in the Chinese cultural sphere, the creative space for fan communities is continuing to shrink. The intra-fan conflicts and the “internecine struggle” in fandom have made fan communities increasingly vulnerable.