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Behind the Rise and Fade of China’s Literary Sensation Fan Yusu

Beijing migrant worker Fan Yusu became an overnight sensation when her autobiographical essay “I Am Fan Yusu” went viral on Chinese social media in late April 2017. The author has since gone into hiding and her essay has been removed. What’s behind the sudden rise and silent disappearance of China’s biggest literary sensation of 2017?

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Beijing migrant worker Fan Yusu became an overnight sensation when her autobiographical essay “I Am Fan Yusu” went viral on Chinese social media in late April 2017. The author has since gone into hiding and her essay has been removed. What’s behind the sudden rise and silent disappearance of China’s biggest literary sensation of 2017?

Fan Yusu was the name on everybody’s WeChat in late April and early May of this year. An essay titled “I Am Fan Yusu” (“我是范雨素,” full translation here) spread like wildfire over Chinese social media, seemingly coming out of nowhere.

In some ways, the popularity of the essay in China is comparable to the recent hype over Alex Tizon’s essay “My Family’s Slave” on Western social media; this non-fiction story about ‘Lola’ Eudocia Tomas Pulido from the Philippines, who lived as a modern slave with an American family for 56 years, went viral on Twitter and Facebook in May. It gripped its many readers for exposing poignant problems in modern-day society that usually stay behind closed doors.

Fan Yusu’s account, in its own way, also revealed the harsh realities of an ever-changing society. China has an estimated 282 million rural migrant workers. The autobiographical tale focuses on the difficult childhood and adult life of one person amidst these 282 million – Fan Yusu herself.

Fan Yusu on April 25, 2017. Photo by Sina Finance.

“I Am Fan Yusu” was first published on Noonstory.com, an online literary platform by Shanghai news outlet Jiemian. A year prior to its publication, one of their journalists (Dan Bao 淡豹) headed out to Picun for an interview. Picun is a migrant village on the outskirts of Beijing, not far from the capital’s airport. It was here that Jiemian learned about the local literary club and its many poems and essays. One of these works titled “My Brother’s Dream” particularly stood out to them. It was written by the 44-year-old Fan Yusu, and the editor soon decided to publish her first story (“农民大哥”) in May of 2016.

A year later, Jiemian published a second essay by Fan, not expecting that it was this piece that would soon hit three million views and go viral across the country.

 

HER STORY

“Am I living in the Qing dynasty or is this new socialist China?”

 

In “I Am Fan Yusu“, Fan recounts her impoverished childhood in a rural village in Xiangyang, Hebei. Fan came to Beijing at the age of 20. Being a clumsy waitress with low expectations for her future, she rushed into an unhappy marriage with an alcoholic husband and had two daughters. When her marriage turned violent, she returned to her hometown for help. It was here that she discovered she was “merely a passer-by” in the village where she was born and raised. Her brothers could, but were not willing to help; her mother wanted to, but could not help.

Being the youngest of five siblings, Fan already learned at a young age that men have the final say in China’s countryside. Although her mother was a powerful local politician for more than forty years, she resigned from her official post the moment Fan’s oldest brother objected to his mother’s work.

The twenty-something Fan then returned to Beijing and took on a job as a nanny in a rich family, leaving her own two daughters behind in the village of Picun, where many other children grow up without a mother. She writes about life as a babysitter for the child of her boss’s mistress, while his dressed-up young wife waits on the sofa every night for her husband’s return: “I wondered if I was living in the Qing dynasty or if this was new socialist China.”

Gate at village of Picun, Beijing.

Despite her low educational background, Fan always had a thirst for knowledge and became a well-read person with a love for writing and literature. “If a person cannot feel happiness or satisfaction in life,” she writes: “they simply aren’t reading enough novels.”

 

ONE VOICE OUT OF MILLIONS

“We are all Fan Yusu.”

 

Thousands of netizens shared Fan’s essay shortly after it was published online. They responded to it with praise, saying it was a “unique piece of work” and even “Nobel-Prize worthy.” Why did specifically this essay become so hyped on Chinese social media?

The answer can be found in both the person of Fan Yusu herself as in her essay. The piece appealed to people because it uses simple yet powerful language. Some called it “unpolished”; a reflection of Fan’s own life and society at large.

The fact that Fan Yusu is in her forties, a single mother of two, and a migrant worker who has had a difficult life, makes her story carry more weight. She represents a voice that is generally lost in a media environment that is dominated by the middle class.

The popularity of this account also shows that a migrant worker with a low educational status can still be a successful writer. At a 2015 social gathering, Fan already mentioned that “‘migrant worker’ is not a derogatory term, just as ‘artist’ is not an elite one.”

“I Am Fan Yusu” also touches upon numerous issues such as domestic violence, divorce, gender inequality, the poor and rich divide, and a lacking healthcare system. These being issues that a lot of people have to deal with, the catchphrase “We are all Fan Yusu” (“我们都是范雨素”) soon made its rounds on WeChat and Weibo.

 

A NEW LITERARY MOVEMENT?

“Many in China’s elite literary circles do not touch upon society’s pain points the way Fan does.”

 

Fan Yusu’s account comes at a time when there is a surge of stories that tell the individual stories of ordinary people. An essay on Beijing’s crazy housing market titled “Housing Madness” (“房疯”) by an author named Chongzi (虫子) also saw its fair share of success in April of this year.

There is a growing appetite for these types of stories, and non-fiction websites such as Noonstory or Guyu Story provide a platform for them.

The popularity of such stories seems to relate to a growing weariness with established literature. On Weibo, many people shared their overall discontent with China’s literary circles in response to Fan’s essay. Many said they think of Chinese literature as being elitist and out of touch with ‘real life.’

Renowned author Zheng Shiping (Yefu) praised Fan’s writings in a recent interview.

This idea was backed by renowned novelist Zheng Shiping (a.k.a. Yefu 野夫), who applauded Fan’s writing in an interview in May. He criticized Chinese modern literature, saying that many in those “elite circles” never touch upon society’s pain points in the way Fan does.

Some Weibo netizens responded with sarcasm, saying: “Literature is literature. No matter if it touches upon society’s pain points or not, it always needs to follow the ideology of the Propaganda Department.”

 

ROOTLESS WOMEN OF CHINA

“A married daughter is like water that has been poured.”

 

Another major factor that has contributed to Fan’s sudden success, is that her account shows the disadvantaged position of women in China’s countryside. Rural women are often caught in a vulnerable position, facing various economic and social obstacles that hinder their emancipation.

“A married daughter is like water that has been poured,” is a saying about countryside women who go out to marry. They often leave the house empty-handed. Fan addresses this ‘floating life’ of rural women in her essay. Women from the countryside are ‘rootless’ because their status, location, and economic rights change depending on the role they have as daughter, bride, wife, daughter-in-law, or mother. All land ownership is generally in name of the fathers, husbands, and sons (Also see this article on China’s ‘rootless women’).

When a woman marries outside her hukou (household registration permit), she usually has to give up any benefits or rightful land ownership she had in her previous household. No matter if a woman gets married into a different household or joins China’s mass urbanization, she often is bound to end up in the lowest layers of society.

 

WHAT HAPPENED TO FAN YUSU?

“Why is Fan Yusu censored?”

 

Only three days after Fan Yusu’s essay went online and viral, the text disappeared from its original source [editor’s note: the essay is still available on some websites]. Different Chinese media reported that Fan Yusu, overwhelmed by the media’s attention, had gone into hiding in a mountainous village.

It was not just Fan’s essay, but also its reviews that were soon “harmonized” (被和谐, meaning ‘censored’). One popular Weibo blog titled “Why I Like Fan Yusu” was no longer accessible as of May 6 for “violating the rules” on Weibo. The sudden disappearance of the essay and its direct reviews also made many netizens wonder: “Why is Fan Yusu censored? (范雨素怎么被和谐了?)”

Although the real reasons are not exposed, there is ample speculation. In her account, Fan writes about her problems with social anxiety. The sudden attention for her personal life may have been so overwhelming that some suggested it is Fan herself who wanted her essay removed. Especially since there were also journalists who went to her Hebei hometown to interview her mother – something that she dreaded. “I’ve run into a sandstorm,” Fan Yusu reportedly told her friend about the flock of journalists swarming into her village.

But there were also those who said that reasons for censorship perhaps related to the fact that the account revealed details about the personal life of her former boss, a rich and powerful man who may have put a halt to online publications.

Another plausible option is that the publication was removed due to its criticism on Chinese society and politics. “Sharp criticism is just not allowed,” some people commented: “She is very realistic, and exposes some gloomy aspects [of society].” Although Chinese state media initially lauded Fan’s essay, it is possible that the hype surrounding it just grew too big too fast.

The sudden rise and disappearance of Fan Yusu has some resemblance to the hype surrounding Chai Jing and her documentary “Under the Dome” in 2015. This self-funded documentary on China’s pollution problem originally was supported by Chinese state media. It received over 200 million views before it was abruptly removed from Chinese websites a week after its release.

At the time, Greenpeace East Asia’s Calvin Quek told Bloomberg that it might had to do with the timing, just before the start of China’s plenary sessions: “It’s a reflection of some kind of political infighting that they chose to shut it down. The government censored the film because it got 200 million views, and they did not want it to dominate the twin conferences,” he said.

In Fan’s case, the hype came just before the Beijing One Belt, One Road Summit, a very significant event during and around which Chinese media emphasized the idea of China as a responsible and harmonious global leader.

Although Fan Yusu’s ‘sandstorm’ has gradually blown over by now, she still has not returned to her Picun home according to the latest media reports. Fan might have disappeared from the limelight for now, she is not forgotten.

Worker’s culture home in Picun (by Southern Weekend / 南方周末).

Fan Yusu is the voice of a social class often ignored; she is a shining example that migrant workers can influence and shape the world of Chinese literature today. The heightened media attention for “the writers of Picun” (article in Chinese) is just one manifestation of how Fan Yusu has already made her mark – an unerasable one.

– By Manya Koetse

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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Backgrounder

K-Pop’s Recipe for Success: Why Korean Idol Groups Got So Big in China and are Conquering the World

The success of K-Pop in China and beyond is evident – the causes for its success are less obvious.

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K-Pop (Korean pop music) is one of South Korea’s most successful export products today. With bands such as BTS that are dubbed the ‘biggest boy band on the planet’, it is obvious that the locally produced K-Pop has become a globally well-liked phenomenon. Although its popularity is obvious, the reasons why K-Pop became so big, from China to the US and beyond, are less evident.

On coming Saturday, October 13, the South-Korean boy band BTS will perform in an Amsterdam area in front of thousands of fans who have been looking forward to this event for months. Ticket sales for the first concert of the 7-member boy group in the Netherlands were sold out within minutes, despite their relatively high prices, with people paying up to €250 ($290) in the official sales, or even €400 ($460) and more for a single ticket in the unofficial online sales afterward.

It is not just the success of the BTS European tour that is making headlines; the record-breaking views on YouTube on their videos – the latest being the song ‘Idol’, that had more than 200 million views in little over a month – is also attracting the attention of the media.

And BTS is not alone. Other Korean pop (K-Pop) groups such as EXO, BIGBANG, TWICE, Shinee, or Got7, have also broken records when it comes to online video views or Spotify plays.

Although the English-language media attention for the K-pop phenomenon is more recent, the Korean entertainment industry has since long been extremely popular in China and on Chinese social media. In this overview, What’s on Weibo explores the K-Pop popularity (focusing on its idol boy and girl groups), its short history, and success formula.

 

BTS and More: An Army of Fans

 

The pop group BTS (방탄소년단), also known as the Bangtan Boys (防弹少年团, lit: ‘Bulletproof Boyscouts’), is an award-winning seven-member South Korean boy band formed by Big Hit Entertainment that debuted in the summer of 2013. They are currently hyped as the “biggest boy band on the planet.”

Initial auditions for the band were held in 2010, followed by roughly three years during which the band was formed and prepared for their major debut, that was promoted on social media months before their actual launch in June of 2013.

The band consists of multi-talented young men. Singer-songwriter Kim Seokjin (Jin) (1992) was studying film at Konkuk University when he was invited to audition by Big Hit; rapper Min Yoongi (Suga) (1993) was an underground rapper before he was signed; dancer and rapper Jung Hoseok (J-Hope) (1994) was part of a dance team in his pre-BTS life.

Lead rapper Kim Namjoon (RM) (aka Rap Monster, 1994) was already active in the music scene as rapper and producer; dancer and vocalist Park Jimin (Jimin) (1995) was a top student as Busan School of Arts before joining; vocalist Kim Taehyung (V) (1995) is known to have one of the most expressing voices of the group; and main vocalist Jeon Jungguk (Jungkook) (1997) was only 12 years old when he auditioned for BTS, followed by three years of intense training.

BTS, formerly ‘Behind The Scenes’, is known for its strong social media presence, which helps to spread its music and connect to its fans, who call themselves an ‘ARMY’ (also stands for Adorable Representative Master of ceremonies for Youth). The band has more than 16 million followers on Twitter, 3.3 million fans on Weibo, 12 million subscribers on Youtube, and nearly 8 million followers on Facebook.

Although BTS is the band that is currently dominating the headlines, there are many more K-Pop bands that are extremely popular on Weibo and beyond. The nine-member South Korean–Chinese boy band EXO, for example, has dozens of fanclubs on Chinese social media. Band member Oh Se-hun alone already has almost 9,5 million fans on his Weibo page. BIGBANG has more than 7 million Weibo fans, the eight-member girl band Girl’s Generation (少女时代) is on the rise with 1,5 million Weibo followers, Super Junior over a million, and the list goes on.

 

CREATING SUCCESS

A Short History of K-Pop: Finding a Sublime Entertainment Formula

 

Besides media attention, there has been ample scholarly attention for the Korean pop culture phenomenon over the past decade. The year 2012 especially marked a special moment in the history of K-Pop, when the song ‘Gangnam Style’ by Korean rapper Psy broke all YouTube records and became a global hit.

But before K-Pop became a global force to reckon with – that seemingly rose out of nowhere -, it had already made its first international successes in neighboring countries China and Japan since the early 2000s.

In China, the success of Korean popular culture is defined as Hallyu (韩流)*, the ‘Korean Wave’ since 1997 (Yang 2012, 105). Hallyu encompasses far more than idol bands; it includes the boom of South-Korean dramas, films, celebrity idols, and entertainment programs. In 2002, for example, the South-Korean soap opera ‘Winter Sonata’ became a hit in both China and Japan.

The former Exo (formation has now altered): a Chinese-South Korean band formed by SM Entertainment in 2011, consisting of twelve members separated into two subgroups, EXO-K and EXO-M, performing music in Korean and Mandarin.

The early 2000s mark the ‘first Korean wave’ in China, that mainly revolved around TV dramas produced in South Korea and were liked by females above the age of 30. It was followed by the second wave from the mid-2000s to 2010, when the K-Pop music genre popularized in China.

The third period, after 2010, marks the moment when K-Pop was further incorporated into mainstream Chinese popular culture, with a ubiquity of K-Pop idols in everyday Chinese pop culture, and the launch of Chinese versions of Korean entertainment programs (Ahn 2014, 47). It was also in this ‘third wave’ that you saw the debut of pop groups such as EXO. Formed in 2012, that band incorporates both Korean and Chinese members, performing in both languages.

Although K-Pop from South Korea became somewhat less visible in the PRC during the past few years, mainly because the industry suffered from various politically-motivated bans on Hallyu in China, the genre’s influence on China’s mainstream pop culture is evident, with some Chinese groups, for example, also being modeled after K-Pop bands.

Entertainment Powerhouses

Many studies explain the foreign success of Korean popular culture in Asia, mainly China and Japan, through “cultural proximity,” saying that the success of K-Pop especially occurred in China and Japan because they have, for example, linguistic similarities and corresponding Confucian values (Ahn 2014, 47; Messerlin & Shin 2017, 412).

But the more recent global wave of K-Pop shows that cultural proximity is not the sole answer to the genre’s success. Besides, there is actually nothing traditionally “Korean” about K-Pop, which only emerged in the 1990s (Shin & Kim 2013, 256).

The genre’s success mainly lies in the big players that brought forth the first Korean pop idol groups and have excelled (and still do) in selecting the right entertainment “products” to invest in, with a strong focus on both on the production side and the market demand side.

SM Entertainment, JYP, and YG Entertainment are the first major and leading entertainment houses of the 1990s. Big Hit Entertainment, home to BTS, followed later; founder Bang Si-Hyuk (1972) used to collaborate with JYP Entertainment founder Park Jin-Young (1971) before going his own way in 2005.

-SM Entertainment, founded 1988 by musician and TV host Lee Soo Man (1952)
-YG Entertainment, founded in 1996 by musician Yang Hyun-Suk (1970)
-JYP Entertainment, founded in 1997 by musician and producer Park Jin-Young (1971)
-Big Hit Entertainment, founded in 2005 by producer/songwriter Bang Si-hyuk (1972)

What characterizes these entertainment houses is that they are/were small in terms of revenue and employees (very different from big labels such as Sony or Universal), and play multiple roles as intermediate between musicians and consumers, as well as producers.

Different from many international big players in the entertainment world, K-Pop entertainment companies integrate processes of artist selection, songwriting, management, signing advertisement deals, etc. in-house rather than leaving these processes to various parties outside their own studio (Shin & Kim 2013, 260). Significant about the founders of these entertainment powerhouses is that they all had ample experience in the music industry themselves before starting their studios.

Lee Soo Man, image via AllKpop.com

The story of SM Entertainment, which was founded by musician and TV host Lee Soo Man in 1988, is crucial in understanding the beginning of the K-Pop industry. Lee was inspired by the transforming American music market after spending time there in the 1980s, and decided to replicate US entertainment in a new way. In his first studio he brought together the right equipment, the right expertise, and the right talent all in one place to kick-start his business (Shin & Kim 2013, 263).

Although the first acts that came from SM’s studio were no instant success, Lee was determined in learning through trial and error until he found the right beat and image that struck a chord with young consumers. In doing so, he adopted a strategy in which teenagers were surveyed on what they wanted, and in which he focused on scouting new talent from all over the country to give them intensive training in dancing, singing, and acting at the SM Studio (Shin & Kin 2013, 264).

The band H.O.T. stood at the beginning of the K-Pop genre. (Image by Soompi).

In 1996, eight years after Lee Soo Man started his entertainment company, and going through years of changing, refining, and improving his strategies, the first success was there. The boy band H.O.T., consisting of five hand-picked members who each had their own strength, debuted in 1996 and became the first major success in the short history of K-Pop.

Companies that followed after SM’s initial successes further experimented in adopting new strategies and trying out new styles of music, but stayed true to the idea of in-house training of young, new artists, rather than selecting renowned artists with defined styles (Shin & Kim 2013, 264). With frequently held auditions and training programmes that can last for years, some trainees start as young as 5 or 6 so that they are fully equipped for the entertainment industry by the time they reach adolescence (ibid., 265).

More than being teachers, producers, songwriters, marketers, etc., these entertainment houses are also trend watchers; training their talents in various areas now in order to be able to place them in the right setting and format in the future, corresponding with (global) market demands.

Companies such as SM place an emphasis on the export of music, and focus on appealing to global audiences, making use of hundreds of composers and experts from around the world in doing so. In producing and performing the K-pop girl band Girl’s Generation’s song ‘Genie’, for example, SM Entertainment used a Japanese choreographer, a Norwegian songwriter, and Korean lyricist (Shim 2016, 38).

 

SHAPING SUCCESS

The Popularisation of K-Pop: A Digital Strategy

 

Although a main cause of K-Pop’s initial success lies in the (training) strategies adopted by the aforementioned entertainment houses, there are also other major factors that have contributed to its global influence.

The Korean government contributed to the initial success of K-Pop by developing a world-leading internet infrastructure (although the goal of developing that infrastructure, obviously, was not to promote K-Pop), which helped the rapid rise of the genre through online strategies.

According to some studies (e.g. Messerlin & Shin 2017, 422-425), Korean entertainment companies have been the first in the world when it comes to realizing the potential of the internet for the distribution and marketing of their performances; they were already long awake to its possibilities and were acting upon them, while many big players in Europe and America were still focusing on traditional album formats.

What also helped the spread of K-Pop at the time were the relatively friendly and equally balanced Korean policies on issues such as copyright, that were (and are) less protective and restrictive compared to America or the EU (Messerlin & Shin 2017, 421).

The first success (1997-2007) of K-Pop and other Korean popular culture products in China, Japan, and other countries within Asia, have also been called the first major Korean Wave, whereas the current period (2008-present), represents the ‘New Korean Wave,’ that is defined by the role that is played by new media technology and social media as a platform for K-Pop to reach every corner of the world (Jin 2016).

Online strategies were particularly relevant in the context of the (early) K-Pop industry because 1) it was dominated by relatively small businesses that did not have the means to invest in other major publishing platforms than that of efficient online distribution and 2) they did not have costly plants where they could produce CDs, DVDs, or vinyl. Having the high-tech Korean electronical market on their side, online strategies were thus a natural and cost-efficient solution to give publicity to their performances (Messerlin & Shin 2017, 426). More so than focusing on traditional album releases, the release of digital singles that come with visually attractive online videos, for example, is one important K-Pop production characteristic.

Probably the best example showing that this strategy works is the global success of ‘Gangnam Style’ that was made possible through YouTube. By now, six years after its release, the world-famous song by Psy, who was signed by YG Entertainment, has over 3,2 billion plays on YouTube.

The revenue of concert tickets for K-pop performances, its merchandise industry, the digital singles, advertisement income, the many brands wanting to associate themselves with the star industry that K-pop has generated, etc., makes K-Pop production a money-making machine that shows that the model that focuses on traditional (CD) album formats and promotional single releases has become outdated.

 

CONTINUING SUCCESS

Marketing more than a Band: Active Fans and Interesting Characters

 

While South-Korea’s innovative music enterprises were crucial for the international launch of K-pop, its worldwide fanbase has now also become a motor driving its continuing success.

Different from the initial spread of K-Pop in China or other Asian countries – where K-Pop has become common in everyday pop culture -, is that many consumers of the genre in the US, Europe, or elsewhere, fully depend on the internet and social media to access K-Pop, as it is not a genre that is prevalent in the mainstream popular culture of their own countries.

The fact that fans of K-Pop in these regions have to actively seek for the latest information and releases of their favorite groups, also means that they have become participatory and engaged consumers in the spread of K-Pop – almost turning them into the ‘soldiers’ of fandoms such as the BTS ‘army’. They have become part of enormous (online) subcultures in various countries across Europe and America.

More than just listening and watching K-pop, these fans become members of the ‘culture’ by translating material, circulating it to friends, or integrating it on their own social media channels (Jin & Yoon 2016, 1285).

TWICE

What further strengthens this fandom is that the successful K-Pop bands are anything but one-dimensional. More than just building on their synced choreography, flawless singing, fashionable looks, and visually attractive videos, the band members of groups such as BTS, EXO, or TWICE, have their own identities, voices, and goals that go beyond music; their various characters and roles within the group resonate with their different fans.

The fact that many K-Pop groups and members also have an androgynous and gender-bender appearance also makes them more interesting to many fans, with many K-pop boys being ‘pretty and cute’ and girls having a ‘strong and handsome’ look, breaking through typical male and female stereotypes.

Amber from F(x) has an androgynous look.

Heechul from boy band Super Junior.

Furthermore, more than pop bands, these K-Pop groups have virtually become ‘platforms’ with their own streaming channels, websites, television shows, merchandise shops, lively online communities, stories, and so on.

In their recent appearance on the US Tonight Show by Jimmy Fallon, BTS frontman RM explained the group’s mission in perfect English, saying: “It is about speaking yourself, instead of letting other people speaking for you. Cause in order to truly know ourselves, it is important to firstly know who I am, where I’m from, what my name is, and what my voice is.”

Many find their voice in K-Pop. And that is a sound, from a local Korean product to a global force, we can expect to grow much louder in the future.

By Manya Koetse

* For clarity: note that due to scope this article focuses on the development of the K-pop phenomenon, and does not explore the anti-Hallyu or anti-Korean wave movement in China, and the previous bans on Hallyu in the PRC.

References

Ahn, Jungah. 2014. “The New Korean Wave in China: Chinese Uders’ Use of Korean Popular Culture via the Internet.” International Journal of Contents, 10 (3): 47-54.

Jin, Dal Yong. 2016. New Korean Wave: Transnational Culture in the Age of Social Media. University of Illinois.

Jin, Dal Yong, and Kyong Yoon.2016. “The Social Mediascape of Transnational Korean Pop Culture: Hallyu 2.0 as Spreadable Media Practice.” New Media & Society 18 (7): 1277-1292.

Messerlin, Patrick A. and Wonkyu Shin. 2017. “The Success of K-Pop: How Big and Why So Fast?” Asian Journal of Social Science 45: 409-439.

Shim, Doobo. 2016. “Hybridity, Korean Wave, and Asian media.” Routledge Handbook of East Asian Popular Culture,Koichi Iwabuchi, Eva Tsai, Chris Berry (eds), Chapter 3. London: Routledge.

Shin, Solee I. and Lanu Kim. “Organizing K-Pop: Emergence and Market Making of Large Korean Entertainment Houses, 1980-2010.” East Asia 30: 255-272.

Yang, Jonghoe. 2012. “The Korean Wave (Hallyu) in East Asia: A Comparison of Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese Audiences Who Watch Korean TV Dramas.” Development and Society, 41 (1): 103-147.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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Backgrounder

Beyond Four Walls: ‘Home’ and ‘Unhomeliness’ in a Rapidly Transforming China

About changing concepts of home in China: from ‘home is where my pig is’ to ‘has your frog returned home yet?’

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A new global research report by IKEA has found that, increasingly, the feeling of home is no longer restricted to the four walls of residential buildings. In China, the study finds, approximately one-third of people in cities feel more ‘at home’ at other places than the space they live in. How can we translate these findings into present-day China? An overview by What’s on Weibo editor Manya Koetse.

According to a global research report released by IKEA Group this week, traditional ideas of where people “feel at home” are drastically changing. The annual study on international living trends found that 35% of people feel more at home elsewhere than the place where they live, with a staggering 29% of people not feeling at home where they live at all.

The findings show remarkable changes associated with “feeling at home” compared to earlier annual reports, indicating that demographic, technological, and cultural forces are rapidly transforming conceptions of “home” in various places across the world.

China is part of this trend. The report, undertaken by London-based agency C Space, is based on studies that were conducted from March to August of 2018. Besides China, a large-scale survey was undertaken in 21 other countries among 22,854 respondents (11,325 from urban areas), and qualitative research was conducted in China, US, Germany, Denmark, Italy, and the UK.

The results of the study might resonate with what many experience in Europe and the US, but also with the societal changes they have seen in China over the past decade – although the reasons for these developments are different between these places.

These are transformations that do not only become clear from the trends on Chinese social media, but, for me personally, also from the lives of friends and social circles in Beijing and Shanghai, and the rapid pace in which I have seen them moving from residence to residence, from neighborhood to neighborhood, and sometimes even from city to city, often with seemingly little emotional attachment to the houses where they have lived for years as urban dwellers. Where is that place called ‘home’?

 

Going “Home” in China

“‘Home’ is much more than the place where people sleep at night: it is there where the (grand)mother cooks.”

 

Every year at the time of China’s Spring Festival, there is one hashtag that always goes trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo: “Return Home”, #回家, Huíjiā.

For many people, the Spring Festival is the only time of the year they can return to their hometowns to celebrate the new year with their family and friends. As many now know, the travel season leading up to the Festival, the chūnyùn (春运), is the biggest annual mass migration of the world. Many of China’s urban areas become deserted as people return to their native provinces to be ‘home.’

Image via China news

The word for ‘home’ in Chinese, ‘家’ jiā, means both ‘home’ and ‘family.’ The character has a history of some 3000 years; first depicting a house with a pig inside, as this article explains, and then evolving into the character it is today (see image below). In its earliest meanings, the ‘home’ was simply there where pigs were raised and where family activities took place; there where the family house was situated.

Via zhihu.com

This duality in the concept of jiā still plays an important role in how the meaning of ‘home’ is understood in China today. In a small-scale survey that was done for the dissertation research of Wei Zhao (2015), for example, participants had various answers to the simple question of “what is jiā?”, some describing it as a space or place, some seeing it as an abstract concept (representing, amongst others, ‘harmony’), with others understanding it as the (extended) family itself (Zhao 2015, 125).

A simple search for the words ‘going home’ (回家) on Chinese social media today comes up with dozens of photos of mostly food, with Weibo users describing ‘home’ as that place where they eat the traditional home cooking from their family, also suggesting that ‘home’ is much more than the place where people sleep at night: it is there where the (grand)mother cooks, it is there where the land is, it is there where the family residence might have been situated for decades.

According to Wei Zhao’s research, people from Yanxia, a town in the Zhejiang region of China, often associate ‘home’ with the various forms of land, both in the present and past, that is tied to where their families live or lived. It is a “place-bound relationship,” Zhao writes (2015, 123), “enriched with social meanings,” where the land incorporates those places that “support various kinds of daily activities, help construct social relations, and sustain cultural performances.”

Many people who have moved from outside their family homes or villages to far away places or cities are no longer physically connected with this concept of ‘home’, drastically impacting how people experience “feelings of home” and how it relates to the places where they actually reside.

 

Unhomeliness and the City

“36% of Chinese renters get a sense of “belonging” from other spaces outside their residential home.”

 

Due to many different factors, including the privatization of farmland, surplus of rural labor, and increased labor demands in the city, China is currently seeing the largest rural-to-urban migration in human history.

Rural residents who have lived in the same homes for decades are being relocated to new settlements, old houses are being demolished, and China’s so-called ‘ghost cities‘ are rapidly coming to life.

For the first time in Chinese history, more people are living in China’s cities than they do in the countryside. In 2020, it is expected that 60 percent of the Chinese population will be permanent urban residents (Xinhua 2018).

A significant percentage of China’s population is what is called a “floating population,” China’s internal migratory population; those who are living as temporary residents or ‘migrant workers’ in the cities (without changes in their ‘hukou‘ or household registration). According to data provided by Chinese state media, that number of people is expected to hit 291 million in 2020 (Xinhua 2015).

As described by Yang et al (2014) in their article in Transforming Chinese Cities, there is a gap in living conditions between household residents and the ‘floating’ population, with the latter holding an 11,4 square meter size residence per capita, compared to 27.1 square meter per capita for the household population. Besides size, the ‘floating’ population also has less access to the more basic necessities in a home such as a kitchen (more than 45% has no kitchen) or flushing toilet (nearly 75% have to do without) (Yang et al 2014, 71).

In cities such as Beijing, underground nuclear bunkers from the Cold War era still serve as a residence to many urban dwellers. According to some sources, there are still one million people living in this underground world in Beijing alone, often dealing with poor air circulation and tiny living spaces with no daylight.

Via http://projects.aljazeera.com/2015/01/underground-beijing/.

Although the nuclear bunkers are an extreme example, the living conditions of many people in Chinese cities, whether they are migrant workers, students, or those who have restricted access to urban housing, are far from ideal; think of overcrowdedness and a lack of what many would consider basic conditions for comfortable housing.

So, without even considering the idea that the perfect concept of “home” might always be a place outside of one’s (urban) residence, it perhaps does not come as a surprise that many people do not always feel at home at all in their own house.

In China, the IKEA-commissioned study* found that 32% of those surveyed felt more at home outside their residential home, and that 36% of Chinese renters get a sense of “belonging” from other spaces than where they actually live (in other physical and/or virtual environments).* Since 89% of those surveyed lives in an urban location, these sentiments are especially telling about experiences of ‘home’ in the city.

 

A Sense of Belonging

“I felt that my house was the place I rented, but it was not my ‘home’.”

 

When residences are experienced as “unhomely,” it could mean many things. There might be a lack of comfort, a lacking sense of community, a feeling of security/privacy that is not there, or a missing feeling of ‘rootedness’ in the place where one lives.

The findings of IKEA’s study in China perhaps makes more sense when one considers the study’s results that found that 62% of those surveyed believe that community is an extension of the residential home. This strengthens the idea that ‘home’ is not the four walls one lives in, but an emotional landscape that is influenced by all kinds of factors.

An interesting 2013 study by scholar Xiaobo Su argues that ideas of ‘home’ are made through social and emotional relationships, and that ‘houses’ in China are often perceived as exchangeable commodities to which one does not necessarily have these emotional connections, whereas ‘home’ is a sphere where one feels free and at ease.

People, therefore, go looking for that ‘experience of home’ through other ways; it might be through friends and social events, through (digital) communities, or through tourism: traveling to those places where people do get that sense of home. Su (2013) suggests that Chinese domestic tourists consume the idea of ‘home’ by visiting (heritage) tourist sites that embody that image for them.

Earlier this year, the huge success of the mobile ‘Travelling Frog’ game in China became a media hype. The game revolves around the travels of a little frog who lives in a stone cave and goes on frequent trips. Although perhaps far-fetched, some Chinese media tied the success of this game to a need for belonging and family, saying that higher house prices, intensive jobs, and the collapse of the pyramid family structure had led to a decline in young people starting their own family and homes; and started looking to these type of games or digital communities to fill the gap. “Has your frog returned home yet?” even became somewhat of a common question among young people in January of 2018.

The Traveling Frog at home.

Besides the rise of various online communities, the rapid digitalization of China has also made it easier for families and friends to stay in touch through social media and messaging apps. This also brought about that physical proximity to relatives has become less of a priority now than in earlier (nondigital) times (Tao et al 2014, 197).

A China Merchants Bank commercial that went viral in late 2017 titled ‘The world is no bigger than a fried tomato omelette’ (“世界再大,大不过一盘番茄炒蛋”) shows how a mother helps her son to cook a home-made dish via mobile video while he is studying abroad. The viral campaign hit home for many exchange students.

Despite the fact that the dwellings of many people in present-day China lack space, privacy, or comfort, it does not necessarily mean that those living in these houses are dissatisfied. An interesting study by Li Tao et al (2014) on residential satisfaction of migrant workers in China found that kinship, family, friendship, and mobility, all play a significant role in how people feel about how they live. Additionally, instead of a focus on the sizes of their houses or the privacy they have, there is also a heightened focus on the low costs and transportation convenience of where one lives.

The fact that ‘home’ is an ever-changing and hot topic also becomes evident from the many posts on Chinese social media dedicated to this issue. As said, food is a recurring topic in these posts. On October 9, one Weibo netizen named Zhang Xizi (@张西子) wrote:

What do you think is ‘home’? For me, at one time, I felt that my house was the place I rented, but it was not my ‘home’. If I was hungry, I would just order something, and I hardly touched my stove at all. But then I started feeling that although I rent my home, it is still my life. Home should be a place with character. And then I started to enjoy cooking, especially when other people enjoy the food with me, is when I feel happy. So feel welcome to come to my home.”

Another Weibo user nicknamed ‘I love rabbits’ (@我爱兔子) writes:

What is home? It’s a person’s most private space. What is happiness? It is the warmth one feels with every dish at the dining table after returning home.”

A person named Sofo concludes: “What home is? If the people I love are there, then even a tent on the beach could be my home.”

Interested to read more relating to this topic?
* Viral Merchants Bank Commercial Hits Close to Home for Chinese Students Abroad
* Chinese Ghost Cities Coming to Life
* Chinese Media Ascribe ‘Traveling Frog’ Game Hype to China’s Low Birth Rates
* “I Am Fan Yusu” – Beijing Migrant Worker’s Writing Takes Chinese Internet by Storm

Find the IKEA Life at Home report here.

By Manya Koetse

* Note that not all of the market specific results have been publicly issued by IKEA. What’s on Weibo author has access to the market-specific results. Please email us if you have further questions about this data and the report’s findings or contact IKEA.
* The report says that “36% of renters look to other physical spaces or even virtual environments for a sense of belonging”; for Chinese home-owners, this is 22%.

References

IKEA. 2018. Beyond Four Walls: Life at Home Report 2018. October. https://lifeathome.ikea.com/home/ [9.10.18].

Su, Xiaobo. 2014. “Tourism, Modernity and the Consumption of Home in China.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 39(1): 50-61.

Tao, Li, Francis K.W. Wong, Eddie C.M. Hui. 2014. “Residential Satisfaction of Migrant Workers in China: A Case Study of Shenzhen.” Habitat International 42:193–202

Xinhua. 2015. “China’s floating population to hit 291 million in 2020: report.” China Daily, Nov 12. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2015-11/12/content_22438127.htm [9.10.18].

Xinhua. 2018. “Urbanization rate of China’s agricultural province exceeds 50 pct.” Xinhua, March 5. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/05/c_137017957.htm [9.10.18].

Yang, Shangguan, Chunlan Wang and Mark Y. Wang.2014.”Synergistic Evolution of Shanghai Urban Economic Development Transition and Social Spatial Structure.” In Transforming Chinese Cities, Mark Y. Wang, Pookong Kee, and Jia Gao (eds). London: Routledge.

Zhao, Wei. 2015. “Home Beyond the House: The Meaning of Home for People Living in Yanxia Village, Zhejiang Province, China.” Dissertation / Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Architecture, Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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What’s on Weibo provides social, cultural & historical insights into an ever-changing China. What’s on Weibo sheds light on China’s digital media landscape and brings the story behind the hashtag. This independent news site is managed by sinologist Manya Koetse. Contact info@whatsonweibo.com. ©2014-2018

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