T an Yunxian (谈允贤) was a female physician during the Ming Dynasty in China, a time when Confucian ethics played a crucial role in everyday life and women had a low status in society.
‘The Imperial Doctress’ (明代女医师), also known as ‘Ming Medicine Woman’, is a costume drama produced in mainland China in 2015 and aired daily since February 13th 2016 on Dragon TV (东方卫视) (19:30, 50 episodes total). The drama is directed by Li Guoli, Zheng Weiwen and Lu Zeliang (李国立、郑伟文、卢泽良).
The costume drama tells the story of the Tans, a family that has the doctor profession in its bloodline – even its past ancestors were imperial doctors. But when the family is set up by a grudgeful enemy, the royal court no longer allows them to practice medicine. Young daughter Tan Yunxian, played by Liu Shi Shi (刘诗诗, a.k.a. Cecelia Liu) secretly learns the art of medicine from her grandmother and helps to cure plagues and illnesses among the common people. The drama follows her as she grows up and struggles with her pursuit to become the doctor she wants to be. Emperor Zhu Qi Zhen (actor Wallace Huo) comes to play an important role in fulfilling her destiny (Viki 2016).
Tan Yunxian lived from 1461-1554. Her great-grandfather was a physician, as was her grandmother and grandfather, who passed their knowledge on to her. Tan Yunxian was a wife and a mother of four children, and combined these roles with learning to be a doctor. She started practicing medicine by treating her own children, and checking her diagnoses with her grandmother. She later on treated others, only women, for different illnesses (Ebrey 2009, 231).
Tan Yunxian became the first known female doctor in China to write about her work. Her writings have recently been translated by Lorraine Wilcox and Yue Lu in Miscellaneous Records of a Female Doctor (2015 – Amazon link). The book consists of one volume with 31 different cases.
As explained in the book’s synopsis about Tan Yunxian: “Tan Yunxian primarily treated women in her practice, and these records reflect insights into the pathology of female patients that male practitioners might not have been privy to. At this time, a wealthy woman could not see a male doctor without having a male relative such as her father, husband, or son present. Modesty was the utmost female virtue. The male doctor questioned the husband, not the woman herself. He might not be allowed to see her face. He needed to ask for permission to feel her pulse. Therefore, because Tan was a woman, she was allowed by her female patients to do things that a male doctor could not, and this intimacy in turn led to a better diagnosis of the patient’s problems.”
Tan Yunxian lived to be 93 years old.
The TV series about Tan has already become a great success; it is currently one of most popular TV dramas in China according to Baidu charts. On Sina Weibo, netizens seem mostly very positive about the show. Under the hashtag of ‘Imperial Doctress’ (#女医明妃传#), fans share their love for the series with hearts and smiling emoticons.
In a world were female doctors were extremely rare, and women had a low status and were not expected to go out and be ambitious, Tan Yunxian could definitely, as the World of Chinese says, be described as a “Badass Lady of Chinese History”.
Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. 2009. “East Asia: A Cultural, Social, and Political History, Volume II: From 1600.” Boston & NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Rocking it for a Decade, Beijing Band Namo Catches the Spirit of Their Generation
Beijing band Namo, that brings a fresh sound by mixing rock with Chinese traditional music influences, is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year.
Although the Beijing-based ban Namo (Nanwu 南无乐队) has been already rocking it for over a decade, their star has especially been on the rise recently, with their upcoming anniversary tour, titled ‘Ruyi’ (如一) bringing them to concert halls all across China.
The start of ‘Namo’ – a term from Buddishm showing reverence and devotion – takes us back to late 2007, when lead singer Liu Xiangsong (刘相松, 1984), who was born and raised in Shandong, had come to Beijing and founded the band after graduating from the Sichuan Music Academy.
Liu’s education has had a profound impact on the band, with his focus on guitar performance, classical guitar, and Chinese opera. Liu also has a strong interest in Chinese traditional culture and Buddhism, which clearly shines through in Namo.
Through the years, the band has seen some shifts in its line-up and now is a perfect coming-together of six people with their own strengths and backgrounds.
Besides Liu, the band consists of Zhang Lan (also known as Lanzi 张岚) on guitar and keys, Chen Ying (陈颖) on flute, percussion by Zhang Shuo (张硕), Daniel (丹尼奥) on bass, and drums by Shenzi Jun (申子俊) (主唱：刘相松/吉他手：张岚/笛子：陈颖/贝斯：丹尼奥/鼓手：申子俊/民打：张硕).
A little over two years after the band first came together, they were the first music group to perform at the Famen Temple (法门寺), one of China’s most prestigious pagoda temples, to open for renowned Chinese pop star Faye Wong. Shortly after, they became the first Chinese band ever to play at Japan’s Summer Sonic in 2011.
Namo won the “Best Newcomer Award” at Midi 2010. Since then, the band signed with the SX Music (视袭音乐) label, and have made quite a name for themselves, performing at music festivals across China, Japan, and Korea.
In 2014, Namo was invited to perform for the CCTV Spring Gala, where they played their song ‘Spring is Here’ (春来了).
In the first season of Chinese reality TV show ‘Sing My Song’ (中国好歌曲), in 2014, Liu Xiangsong also performed the same song on stage (see video below), which then gained in popularity.
Their music is inspired by Chinese music, but also uses influences from Western music styles, resulting in an original style that is both charming and humorous at times.
At Beehype, William Griffith describes the band as follows: “Combining Chinese culture obsessed, 80s nostalgic, vigorous lyric-based melodies, and crosstalk rock, a traditional Chinese comedic performance style, the band is a creation of their generation of youth.”
Namo is a representation of the Chinese post-80s generation (bālínghòu 八零后) in multiple ways. Their songs reflect on the urban stories of China’s modern-day society and the lives of young Chinese, and the overall style of the band also corresponds with what characterizes China’s post-80s; they are formed by traditional Chinese culture, but also grew up in a China that was quickly modernizing, transforming, and impacted by Western influences. Noteworthy is that Namo’s band members come from all across China.
Social Media & Online Channels
Recently, Namo and its band members have been growing more popular on Chinese social media. Their official Weibo account @南无乐队微博 has over 48,500 fans, but the individual members also have quite a following.
* Lead singer Liu Xiangsong currently has approximately 74,000 fans on his Weibo account: @南无刘相松.
* Band member Lanzi: @南无岚子 (48,400 fans).
* Namo’s Chen Ying: @陈颖小卡 (30,100 fans)
* Shenzi Jun: @申子俊 (10,150)
* Zhang Shuo: @南无张叫母 (4270 fans)
* Daniel: @丹尼奥帅牛哈哈 (2000 fans)
Although the band has already been touring over the past year, they will still perform in many Chinese cities for the weeks to come. For those interested, we’ve listed the tour dates with links to further information on venues, times, and tickets.
November 9: Xi’an
November 10: Chengdu
November 11: Chongqing
November 14: Nanning
November 16: Guangzhou
November 17: Shenzhen
November 18: Xiamen
November 21: Wenzhou
November 23: Shanghai
November 24: Nanning
November 25: Wuhan
Don’t forget to check out What’s on Weibo’s latest video on Namo here.
Interested to read more? You might be interested in the following:
* Rock Hotpot: Why Chinese Celebrities are Opening Up their Own Hotpot Places
* The Early Days of Rock in China – Interview with Sinologist & Hardrocker Jeroen den Hengst: From copied tapes to a unique rock scene – Jeroen den Hengst was part of the Beijing rock scene when it first awakened.
Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.
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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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
* 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.
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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