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No Tolerance for ‘Wild Imams’ in China – But ‘Weibo Imams’ are Thriving

This week, Weibo netizens voiced their anger about what they deemed an unfair trial for a Xinjiang imam by the District Court. Although Chinese authorities have no tolerance for what they call ‘wild imams’, online imams are thriving on Weibo.

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This week, Weibo netizens voiced their anger about what they deemed an unfair trial for a Xinjiang imam by the District Court. Chinese authorities have no tolerance for what they call ‘wild imams’ – but online imams are thriving on Weibo.

In November 2014, Chinese media and Reuters reported that China was targeting ‘wild imams’, jailing almost two dozen people who preached illegally in the western region of Xinjiang, where the government is countering violent campaigns by Islamist Uighur militants who want to establish a separate state, also referred to as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

This week, Weibo netizens voice their anger about the trial procedures for one imam case. According to one netizen‘s post, the convicted imam’s lawyer did not show up in the Xinjiang district court for the appeal as he would not “defend the guilty”.

China’s Campaign against Religious Extremism

China has implemented several measures the past few years to keep religious expressions to a minimum after a string of attacks allegedly committed by Chinese Muslim extremists. Xinjiang authorities became extra strict about the ‘promotion of religious extremist ideology’. The wearing of the burqa was banned in February 2015, along with the wearing or using of religious badges, artifacts, memorabilia and symbols. This also meant no niqabs, hijabs or large beards in buses.

As part of China’s crackdown on ‘terrorist criminals’ and campaign against ‘religious extremism’, 22 people from Xinjiang were sentenced to jail in November 2014. They were sentenced from 5 to up to 16 years in prison for three different types of religious crimes. The first crime category was that of people engaging in ‘illegal preaching’ – also referred to as ‘wild imams’. The second type was that of people who were still engaged in illegal religious work after being removed from their post, and the third was that of people committing illegal acts while working as a religious person (China News 2014).

40435030 The ‘mass sentencing’ of ‘religious offenders’ in 2014, image via China News.

The case that received attention on Sina Weibo this week was referred to as the “imam teaching Koran case”, and involved an imam from Xinjiang who was reportedly arrested for illegally teaching the Koran to 17 students in the mosque.

This Weibo post, by a user nicknamed Nuh Zam Zam, was first spotted by PhD researcher Tricia Kehoe (see tweet below). She also tweeted the court case document that was uploaded by the original Weibo poster. The document states that the Yili court is reexamining the case because of “inappropriate original punishment” (“原判量刑不当”).

Netizen Nuh Zam Zam, who describes himself as a Muslim “fighting for constitutional rights, defending freedom of religion”, writes on his Weibo page:

[Yili Prefecture in Xinjiang reinvestigates the ‘teaching-Koran case’:] When one imam in Huocheng County taught Koran lessons to 17 citizens in the mosque, he and the mosque Rector were sentenced to five and four years in prison for ‘gathering a crowd and disturbing public order’. The Yili middle court already rejected their appeal before, and affirmed the original sentence. The other day, Yili court hurriedly re-examined the case again because of “inappropriate sentencing”, but the lawyer did not show up because he would “not defend the guilty”. Yili has more similar ‘trials’.

This post was shared over 60 times and attracted dozens of comments that were filtered by Weibo censors. “It’s not like they were lecturing about stoning or whipping, that would’ve really deserved punishment,” one Weibo user responds.

Another netizen says: “If you’re guilty, you’re guilty – that’s the law.” One Weibo user responds: “This is a typical case of policies exceeding the constitution. What a disgrace!”

Islam is permitted in China, as long as it conforms to state-approved principles. Instead of guaranteeing free exercise of religion, the Chinese constitution only guarantees freedom of religious belief. In other words; you can believe what you want, but how you engage with your religion in everyday life has to comply with what the state deems right (also read How Chinese are China’s Muslims?, 2015).

Amnesty International has reported harsh measures taken by Chinese authorities to suppress unrest in the northwest, including unfair trials. “The fight against terrorism is no excuse for repression,” says Amnesty.

Will the ‘Real’ Imam Please Stand Up?

A ‘wild imam‘ (野阿訇) is an ‘imam’ without an official position as a religious person. These imams are thus not appointed or approved by the government.

According to Wang Hong, director of China’s Research Center for National Security, there can be no place in China for ‘wild imams’ and their illegal preaching activities. The root cause of terrorism, Wang writes in Chinese media outlet Global Times, is its nature as an ideology. Wang suggests that Muslim separatist group ETIM uses “distortions of Islam” ideology to gain their followers, and that this is mostly done by ‘wild imams’. This explains China’s zero tolerance policy towards imams preaching in communities and ‘influencing people’ without the consent of (local) authorities.

Through social media, the Public Security Office of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region warns netizens for the dangers of underground lecture classes run by ‘wild imams’ who could potentially harm children both mentally, by influencing them with extremist ideas, and physically, such as the wild imam who allegedly beat a 4-year-old pupil to death for not knowing the scriptures (see featured image and image below, both by Xjgat.gov.cn).

xinjianggov

On the Xinjiang Review blog, Professor Ma Haiyun, specialised in Islam and Muslims of China, writes that China’s definition of ‘wild imams’ asks for new basic definitions of what an imam is, and calls for further investigation into the legal processes for becoming an official imam in China.

According to Ma, an imam basically is a Muslim religious worker and/or a Muslim theological intellectual. Although the “ideal imam” has both the career and the knowledge, an imam could also be a Muslim intellectual without the official post. But in China, Ma writes, this definition does not hold, as only those imams who have been officially appointed count as the ‘real’ ones. The so-called ‘wild imam’ arguably does have the knowledge and community leadership that can potentially influence people, but has no official job as religious worker.

Ma writes that the distinction between real imams and wild imams is problematic, as many Uighur Muslims might have more trust in so-called ‘wild imams’ than in the ‘real’ ones that are approved and appointed by government authorities.

But it is very likely that Chinese authorities, in their turn, have no trust in those powerful imams who are most respected by local communities. This triggers the question of who the ‘real’ imam is actually is.

Preaching Online: ‘Weibo Imams’

Although ‘wild imams’ are generally not tolerated in the PRC, ‘Weibo imams’ are. There are quite some imams who have verified Weibo accounts from which they post videos or microblogs about Islamic teachings.

imam

One of Weibo’s imams is Imam Mu Huaidong, a Beijing-based imam from the Deshengmen Mosque with over 8100 followers. Mu Huaidong uses his Weibo page to share different news items and to talk about the mosque’s charity work.

Li Haiyang from Henan has nearly 8000 followers. One of his most popular recent posts is about Islamic diet, titled “Raising some Awareness about Islamic Dietary Law” (“关于清真食品立法的几点认识“). The blog, that was posted on March 10, talks about imposing national standards on halal food in China. Li Haiyang writes that all Muslims should follow the classic rules and abide by their beliefs, of which Islamic dietary laws are an important part, and that the PRC cannot discriminate against Muslim ethnic groups by refusing to legally protect Muslim halal food.

The imam’s post was shared over 460 times and attracted many comments, also of many netizens who strongly oppose the imam’s views: “China is a secular country ruled by an atheist Party, and firmly boycotts Islamic laws!”, some netizens say. But others support the imam saying: “Please don’t let the nonsense here get to you, imam, just stand firm.”

Another example of a Weibo imam is Imam Ma Guangyue from Gansu, who has over 15400 fans on his Weibo account. His most recent post, that was shared 413 times, is a video where he addresses the question ‘is it allowed for Muslims to marry Han Chinese?’. In the video, he explains how Chinese Muslims are only allowed to marry other Muslims and should not marry Han Chinese who have not converted to Islam.

weiboimam

“Stoning people, beheading people and oppressing children and women – such an evil cult,” one netizen responds on the imam’s page. “No matter what religion or ethnicity,” another Weibo user responds: “There will be good and bad people everywhere.” The imam’s Weibo page is a collection of hundreds of comments of netizens discussing and arguing over Muslim religion, with many attacking it and others supporting it. The imam’s posts, nevertheless, are well-read and shared collectively by Weibo’s netizens.

There are more examples of Weibo imams, such as, amongst others, Han Daoliang from Zhengzhou, or Imam Yong Shengmu from Xi’an.

All of Weibo’s popular verified imams are from outside China’s muslim region Xinjiang. This is possibly because China’s strict religious policies are mainly aimed at the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, while there are softer approaches to religion in other provinces of China (Ma & Chang 2014). This status quo means that it’s uncommon to see news of ‘wild imams’ outside Xinjiang, just as it will be less likely to see a ‘Weibo imam’ from Xinjiang.

Except for ‘Weibo imams’, there are a myriad of Weibo accounts that support them and propagate Islam. Meanwhile, on the Weibo page of Nuh Zam Zam, the discussion on the trial of the Xinjiang imam continues. There may be no place for ‘wild imams’ in China, but these ‘Weibo muslims’ make the religion alive and kicking on China’s social media.

– By Manya Koetse

©2016 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.

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©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.

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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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