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The Rise of China’s Electronic Dance Music Scene: From Underground Culture to Online Communities

China’s electronic dance music: it’s status-quo, future, and why social media is key.

Luka de Boni

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Image via www.jammyfm.com

While most people would perhaps not expect to find a lively electronic dance music scene in the PRC, the popularity of the club culture is on the rise in China today. Social media plays a major role in its rapid expansion. What’s on Weibo talks to Rainbow Gao, an authority in the Chinese dance music world, and looks at the past, present and future of this scene in China.

Perhaps few foreigners would see China as a go-to destination for its electronic dance music scene. Surely, most Chinese also do not see their own country that way. But China’s club culture is on the rise.

Although most of the ‘dance music capitals’ are located in Europe and the US, the online music broadcasting platform Boiler Room – which is focused on electronic music – now lists two Chinese cities among its 100 locations, Beijing and Shanghai.

Created by producers and performed by DJs, ‘Electronic dance music’ is an umbrella term for percussion-based electronic music made for nightclubs, raves, and festivals. In Europe, electronic dance music is often simply called ‘Dance Music,’ with subgenres including techno, house, trance, etc. 1

In 2016, DJMag, one of the biggest electronic dance music magazines worldwide, listed a total of four Chinese clubs in its top-20-clubs ranking. And if one would walk around Shanghai or Beijing today, one would find a similar quantity and quality of good nightclubs there as in any major European city – although it might require some more effort to find the right ones.

Club Lantern in Beijing, photo by author.

Nevertheless, electronic dance music is generally still misunderstood, and, more importantly, under-commercialized, in China today.

The 54-year-old Rainbow Gao 2, an important face of Chinese electronic music and founder of the ‘The Mansionnightclub/hostel/concept, tells What’s on Weibo that the overarching obstacle to the spread and development of dance music in China is a lack of infrastructure and general awareness.

 

BACKGROUND: THE ELECTRONIC MUSIC SCENE IN CHINA

In the 1990s, dance clubs mainly focused on the music itself – they weren’t interested in making money.”

 

Since virtually no dance scene existed before Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening-up in 1978, a Western ‘party culture’ only started emerging in China during the 1980s. But at that time, parties were mostly concentrated around Western hotel bars in Beijing, and there were few dancing bars run by locals.

During the early 1990s, proper nightclubs started opening up in the big Chinese cities, mostly located in big hotels or in renovated cinemas. “During this period,” Rainbow Gao tells What’s on Weibo, “clubs and clubbers mainly focused on the music itself – they weren’t so interested in making money.”

Rainbow Gao, founder of ‘The Mansion’ Shanghai

The development of Chinese dance music continued throughout the 1990s. Through the efforts of Chinese pioneer DJs such as Ben Huang, a real underground scene started to emerge.

The first ‘Berlin-Basement-style’ clubs were opened 3, and the scene started gathering more attention. Later, DJs such as Weng Weng or Mickey Zhang started throwing their own parties and setting-up their own labels, showing that the spread of electronic dance music was well under way.

DJ Wen Weng (Organizer INTRO festival), image via The Beijinger.

Finding an audience was hard at first – according to an interview in the Beijinger with famous Chinese DJ Weng Weng, the first electronic dance music parties were actually organized and attended mainly by foreign exchange students.

But, as more and more young Chinese started appreciating the music, the culture, mixing, and promoting, the local scene slowly started to grow.

INTRO festival

In the 2000s, the underground scene experienced a slight setback. A series of money-focused nightclubs started to open, solely driven by commercial motives.

“For these clubs, the music itself is really the last thing they think about. Sales come first; how to sell tables to people, how to make the club look ‘busy’ by having foreigners drinking for free, hiring actors to attend,” Rainbow Gao says: “There is also this show-off culture, so if they buy a bottle of champagne, it is not unusual to light fireworks to make a spectacle out of it. It’s really about showing off and making money.”

Today, Chinese nightlife is a combination of these big money-focused clubs and smaller music-focused ones. But even in the shadow of these big money-making machines, China’s underground dance scene is still thriving.

Most large Chinese cities now have at least one big electronic-music nightclub. Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Shenzhen, Kunming, Guangzhou and Hangzhou are all popular destinations for Chinese DJs.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese, young and old, go out every weekend to listen to dianzi wuqu (电子舞曲 ‘electronic dance music’), haoshi yinyue (浩室音乐 ‘House music’), tie ke nuo (铁克诺音乐, ‘techno’) or chushe yinyue (出神音乐 ‘trance music’).

 

THE CHALLENGES OF CHINA’S ELECTRONIC MUSIC SCENE

Only passionate people invest money in these clubs, and they’ll do so from their own pocket.

 

The rise of the electronic music scene in China has not been without hurdles, and more challenges are lying ahead.

One of these hurdles lies in the fact that China can be a bureaucratic maze for those wanting to open a nightclub or organize a festival or concert. Rents are high, licenses expensive and clubs can be subject to police crackdowns.

The Dutch organizers of the international trance music-focused Transmission festival, which took place in Shanghai last week, apparently were relieved and satisfied about their event – which was an administrative nightmare to prepare. After having been through the whole procedure of organizing a festival in China, Rainbow Gao explains, they will now probably be able to organize a festival anywhere in the world.

Transmission Festival Shanghai (image 票虫网).

“If someone wants to open a club for the love of music, the first obstacle they face is very high rent. Then, as a club, you have to arrange many licenses, from the fire department, for security, police approval, approval from the cultural department – and this process is really difficult. Sometimes there can even be corruption – and sometimes the local leader in charge will not give his approval for fear of causing trouble,” Gao says.

Because of the high costs and small commercial appeal, music-focused nightclubs can also find it hard to find finance, unlike their money-focused counterparts.

“Investors won’t invest in those clubs: only passionate people invest money, and they do so from their own pocket,” states Rainbow, who never got her own initial investment back after founding The Mansion.

Another pressing challenge has to do with the Chinese general public’s lack of awareness or understanding of dance music’s cultural and commercial potential.

One example is that Chinese parents will rarely regard the jobs of ‘DJ’ or ‘producer’ as ‘real’ jobs, and will thus not always support their children in their artistic ventures. It is an issue not specific to electronic dance; many children growing up in Chinese families will be told that “if you want to be homeless, go get an art degree.”

Local governments can also be short-sighted, Rainbow complains: “The thing in China is there is not only the economic problem, i.e. people thinking about money over culture, but the problem is also the government. For example, I have been asking local governments to support ideas like the YinYang festival on the Great Wall, or the China Pavilion all over the world for years, but when I talk about it with them, they say they can only put money in ancient Chinese culture. But I think that it won’t really have an audience, while we already have one.”

 

WHY SOCIAL MEDIA IS KEY

The use of social media is crucial to developing the scene.”

 

Electronic music is alive and kicking on the internet in Europe and North America, where there are thriving online music-sharing platforms such as Soundcloud or Mixcloud, websites for buying music like Beatport or Juno, and, of course, a multitude of other social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat for DJs and clubs to promote their brands.

China also has domestic equivalents to these online platforms. But, according to online music magazine Factmag, it is key for the Chinese dance music scene to use its local social media more effectively in order to develop a unified presence online, in the same way that Western countries have.

At time of writing, the most popular music sharing websites in China are Xiami 虾米, an online music service providing recommendations and downloads services and belonging to the Alibaba group, and Douban 豆瓣, an independent social-networking platform focusing on the sharing of cinema, literature and music.

Xiami is, by far, the more used resource of the two; DJs such as Mickey Zhang have tens of thousands of listeners on Xiami, but only several thousands on Douban.

DJ Mickey Zhang (image via thebeijinger.com)

Xiami Music has a large music library with more than 3 million tracks, 330 kinds of music styles, tens of thousands of music radios, and over 500 thousand hits packages created entirely by users and self-developed algorithms, which can recommend good music to users. It also boasts a much broader user-base, unlike Douban, which fosters smaller, niche communities.

According to Chinese social media marketing company Chozan, most of the 60 million registered Douban users come from a well-educated, urban, middle-class background.

The platform is more niche-focused than other Chinese social media platforms and fits the needs of Douban users, who use it to view and share specific topics they are interested in; it is an online community based on user-generated content, predominantly focused on books, movies, and other (popular) culture related topics.

Of course, virtually all Chinese DJs and nightclubs also have Weibo accounts, where they often gather more followers than on Douban. But the problem with Weibo is that the range of topics covered is overwhelmingly broad – it can then be very hard to create communities centered around a specific genre of music. “On Weibo, people talk too much about everything, so it can be a little bit of a waste of time..”, Rainbow says.

Most music discussion groups (some of which we will list below) on Weibo do not focus on techno, house, or trance but rather on ‘underground’ music in general, or on all kinds of electronic dance music put together.

This is why, according to Rainbow, the online potential of dance music lies more with the development of Xiami and Douban: “I think that there is a great potential with new technologies for the spread of culture and music. For example, when I use Xiami today, I am so happy to see many young people writing and uploading music.”

Photo posted by Arkham on Weibo.

In this way, social media could provide the infrastructure necessary for the development of a thriving China-based electronic-music scene. Fostering creative online communities and online sharing can give opportunities to new generations of artists to get together, organize events, and share music and knowledge.

Social media could also help in increasing the general public’s awareness of different genres of music. According to Rainbow, the problem is not that Chinese people do not like dance music, but rather that many have never been exposed to it.

“The thing is – I have also seen a lot of poor countryside people who listen to music, but not electronic music, simply because they don’t know it yet. When we did the YinYang festival on the Great Wall, the first year (out of five) we had some promotional CDs and t-shirts which we gave to villagers who live there. The second year, they came to us asking for more CDs because they all loved it. Within a year, it [electronic music] became extremely popular among them. It’s just that they were not aware.”

Despite its relatively late beginnings, and the series of obstacles it faces, the electronic dance music scene in China has enormous cultural and commercial potential. And perhaps, social media could be the key to unlock it.

“People don’t really have a way to reach out. The use of social media is crucial to developing the scene,” Rainbow Gao concludes.

By Luka de Boni

 

EXTRA: WHO TO FOLLOW IN THE SCENE

 

What’s on Weibo has compiled a list of DJs, Nightclubs, labels and discussion groups to follow on Chinese social media. Not all artists/nightclubs/labels have pages on all platforms. Because Douban and Xiami don’t function on a follower-followee basis, but rather by the number of page visits or music streamings, the number of followers on these platforms have not been listed:

DJs to follow:

Mickey Zhang: Weibo – 2,800 followers. Xiami. Douban.

Weng Weng: Weibo – 4,800 followers. Douban.

Diva Li: Weibo – 13,000 followers. Xiami.

Yang Bing: Xiami.

 

Nightclubs to follow:

Arkham, Shanghai: Weibo – 19,000 followers. Douban.

Mansion, Shanghai: Weibo – 2,000 followers. Xiami.

Lantern, Beijing: Weibo – 9,000 followers. Douban.

TAG, Chengdu: Weibo – 6,600 followers. Douban.

 

Labels to follow:

Genome6.66MBP: Weibo – 2,000 followers. Xiami.

Asian Dope boys: Weibo – 5,400 followers.

 

Discussion groups/pages to follow:

Shanghai Nightclub Guide (上海夜店蹦迪指南): Weibo – 23,600 followers.

No Solution Music Network (无解音乐网): Weibo – 37,000 followers.

Mixmag China: Weibo – 12,000 followers.

Native Instruments China: Weibo – 10,000 followers.

Electronic music live performance equipment application and discussion (电子音乐现场演出设备应用及讨论): Douban – 4000 members.

National electric music musicians contact (全国电子音乐人联系): Douban – 3000 members.

 

Enjoyed this article? You might also enjoy our interview on The Early Days of Rock in China.

By Luka de Boni

1 In this article, electronic dance music refers to the styles of music which emerged in the 80s in Detroit and in Chicago, such as techno or house. The main components of these genres are 4/4 beats, with the repetitive rhythm of the music more important than the song itself. Note that Electronic Dance Music should not be confused with EDM, which is its own musical genre. EDM is a term given by American journalists in 2010 to commercial electronic music in order to boost the genres commercial appeal. EDM music is more melodic, non-repetitive and focuses on the ‘drop’, a fast, noisy accumulation of cymbals and hi-hats to give the song a feeling of climax. EDM DJs are world famous – Martin Gaarix, Aviici or David Guetta are well-known representatives. Electronic dance music DJs on the other hand are famous only within their community – names such as Maceo Plex, Pan-pot ir Richie Hawtin will probably not ring a bell.

2A DJ, model and entrepreneur, Rainbow Gao (高天虹) has been engaged in entrepreneurial ventures since the early 1990s. After a modeling career that spanned through the 1980s, she opened one of China’s first KTV rooms in 1992, hosted a podcast radio-show in Tianjin, and founded her first establishment ‘Sun Garden Bar’ in Beijing in 1995. Around this time, she became acquainted with electronic dance music while partying in Beijing. During the 2000s, she founded and managed a modelling agency. Since 2010, Rainbow has been heavily invested in the musical and cultural scenes, mostly through The Mansion, a nightclub and event-place which she owns and manages. The concept of The Mansion is simple: work, and you can sleep and eat there for free. Rainbow Gao explains: “Mansion as a club venue is creative in many ways . It’s not just about the music, it’s also about the community, the freedom, and not about the money … There is a free DJ school, and even a free bar-tending school.”

3The typical Berlin techno/house nightclub is set in a basement, or ‘bunker’. The concrete walls improve the sound-quality inside, and reduce the noise heard outside.

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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Luka de Boni is an MA student in Chinese Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen with a degree in (Chinese&Indian) History from the University of SOAS. De Boni has a strong interest in Chinese political culture and the role of Confucianism in modern-day China.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Denis Doeland

    August 28, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    Great read! The music industry has been fundamentally transformed by the digital revolution. The production, distribution, marketing, promotion and consumption of music, and electronic dance music (EDM) in particular, have been digitized. Music professionals and festival organizers face new challenges and are able exploit new opportunities. Especially in China. Herewith some of the learnings I experienced with the dj’s and festivals I assist https://www.edmandthedigitalworld.com/2015/09/22/why-djs-and-festivals-should-change/

    • Avatar

      Frankie

      October 6, 2018 at 4:27 pm

      I completely disagree, China has no music scene at all. They have no taste in music at all. They let recordings play or only EDM. The people never dance. They hire girls to stand around in the clubs so that men come and spend money. It`s all fake. Foreign Dj`s need to play what the owners want. It`s a total drag. When a tune plays that has lyrics in the people sit down as they don`t understand anything else besides doef doef doef. No house,tech house, minimal,techno or trance. Complete waste of time and above all else all the alcohol is fake.

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China Arts & Entertainment

China’s Woman Warrior Goes America Again: The Disneyfication of Mulan

The story of Mulan is ingrained in Chinese culture, but Disney has made her an international classic.

Manya Koetse

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Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan has become a recurring topic of debate on social media recently. The movie is much-anticipated in China, but there are also critical voices suggesting the American Disney company “doesn’t understand China at all.” How ‘Chinese’ is Disney’s Mulan really? 

Ever since news came out that Disney would turn Mulan into a live-action movie the topic has been frequently popping up in the top trending lists on Chinese social media.

The movie has been especially top trending on Weibo this week since the official trailer was released.

Mulan is the much-anticipated live-action remake of Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan movie, which tells the story of the legendary female warrior Hua Mulan (花木兰) who disguises as a man to take her father’s place in the army.

Over recent years, Disney has released and announced the live-action adaptations of many of its animated classics. Remakes such as Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), and Aladdin (2019), have all been successful and, besides Mulan, they are now being followed up by the remakes of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Lady and the Tramp, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Disney’s new Mulan movie is directed by the New Zealand film director Niki Caro.

The role of Mulan will be played by the (mainland-born) Chinese American actress Crystal Liu Fei (刘亦菲). The film also features Yoson An as Mulan’s love interest, Tzi Ma as Mulan’s father, Donnie Yen as Mulan’s Commander mentor, Gong Li as the evil witch, Jason Scott Lee as the enemy warrior leader, and Jet Li as the Emperor of China.

 

MULAN: WEIBO MANIA AND CRITICISM

Americans really have no idea about China.

Since the story of Mulan is a Chinese legend that has a history of over 1500 years in China, Chinese audiences are particularly invested in the topic of the upcoming Disney movie. Every new detail concerning Mulan seems to become another trending topic on social media.

On Weibo, “Disney’s Mulan” (#迪士尼花木兰#) has seen over 420 million views by now, while the hashtag “Mulan Trailer” (#花木兰预告#) alone received a staggering 1.2 billion views.

Following the release of the movie poster made by Chinese visual artist Chen Man, the relating hashtag (#花木兰海报是陈漫拍的#) was viewed more than 260 million times.

A topic dedicated to the missing Mushu, a talking dragon that is the closest companion to Mulan in the animated film, also received 310 million views (#花木兰里没有木须龙#).

Online discussions on Mulan show that there already is quite a lot of criticism on the movie and its historical accuracy, even though its release is still months away.

Some commenters criticized Mulan’s makeup in one of the movie scenes as being too exaggerated and unflattering.

The fact that the actors in the movie all speak English also did not sit well with some people, writing: “Why is it all in English?!” and “I understand the logic, but why would a group of Chinese people speak English while it’s filmed in China? Even if it’s a Disney movie, it seems awkward.”

Another controversy that has been especially making its rounds for the past few days is the one relating to the traditional tulou round communal residences that are featured in the movie trailer (#花木兰 福建土楼#, 170 million clicks).

The tulou are Chinese rural, earthen dwellings. Although the buildings are part of Chinese traditional architecture, they are also unique to mountainous areas in Fujian province. Not only is Mulan not from Fujian, her story also takes place long before these tulou were built – something that many Chinese netizens find “nonsensical” and “distracting.”

“Americans really have no idea about China,” some people on Weibo commented, with others writing: “We can’t expect Disney to research everything, but they can’t not do research. They shouldn’t let Mulan live in a tulou just because it looks pretty, she is not from Fujian!”

“Why on earth would she live in a tulou,” others write: “Isn’t she a northerner?”

“Foreigners just don’t understand China,” one among thousands of commenters said.

Another Weibo user writes: “Americans should first thoroughly understand the Northern and Southern Dynasties, and Chinese geography, and Mulan’s ethnic background, and then they can give it another try.”

 

FROM SELF-SACRIFICE TO SELF-DISCOVERY

The meaning of the story of Mulan varies depending on how it is told, when it is told, and by whom it is told.

Although many people outside of China only know about Mulan through the 1998 Disney animation that made the story of this Chinese warrior go global, Hua Mulan’s story has seen continued popularity in China for more than a thousand years.

The first known written version of the Mulan legend is the anonymous sixth-century Poem of Mulan (木兰辞), followed by other plays and novels in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Edwards 2016, 19-20; Li 2018, 368).

Especially since the twentieth century, the story of Mulan has become a recurring theme in China’s popular culture, appearing in various plays, movies, TV series, operas, and even in games. Some of China’s earliest films were about Mulan; from 1927 to 1939, three different films came out on the female heroine, all titled Mulan Joins the Army (木兰从军).

“Mulan Joins the Army” is a 1939 Chinese historical war about the legend of Hua Mulan.

The meaning of the Mulan legend varies depending on how it is told, when it is told, and by whom it is told. The story has seen a centuries-long period of change and development, with different perspectives being presented depending on the region and genre (Kwa & Idema 2010, xii).

The basic outline of the story is always the same: Mulan is the daughter who disguises as a man to protect her father and take his place in the army, where she fights for twelve years before being promoted to a high-ranking position by the emperor. Mulan declines and asks for an honorable discharge instead, so she can return home to her family. Once she is home, Mulan changes into women’s clothing again.

Chastity, filial piety, feminism, perseverance, sacrifice, militarism, patriotism – the Mulan story has it all, but which motives are given prominence is always different. Within China, the Mulan narrative is related to issues of China’s national identity and political goals.

“Mulan: Rise of a Warrior” is a live-action film produced in mainland China in 2009.

In Chinese literary versions before the twentieth century, Mulan is presented as a northerner of uncertain ethnicity, a figure of resistance, who sacrifices her own safety to protect her father and show filial piety. Confucian values and the importance of family are at the core of the Mulan story (Edwards 2016, 19-20).

In Chinese versions after the twentieth century, Mulan is implicitly presented as being Han Chinese and as a “loyal patriot defending China.” The focus is no longer solely on Mulan giving up her own freedom for the sake of her father; it is her militarised sacrifice to the state and the importance of patriotism that is highlighted instead (ibid., 19-20).

With Disney’s 1998 adaptation of Mulan as an animated film, the main focus of the story was again shifted. Disney presented Mulan not so much as a patriot or as a Confucian daughter, but as a somewhat goofy and free-spirited young woman on her “Americanized self-realization journey” (Li 2018, 362-363).

Mulan’s individual coming of age and feminist story is echoed in the film’s Reflection song, in which Mulan sings:

I am now
In a world where I have to hide my heart
And what I believe in
But somehow
I will show the world
What’s inside my heart
And be loved for who I am

Although the narrative of the young woman who finds her own true voice resonated with many around the world – Mulan became an international box office smash hit -, it did not resonate with Chinese audiences.

In China, the Disney film grossed only about one-sixth of its expected box office income and was even among the lowest scoring big imported US films since 1994 (Li 2018, 362-363).

According to scholar Lan Dong, the Mulan flop in China indicated Disney’s failure to anticipate how the film would be received in China and how the Chinese audience’s familiarity with Mulan’s story had already shaped their expectations of the film (ibid.): Disney’s Mulan clearly was not the same as China’s Mulan.

 

THE DISNEYFICATION OF A CHINESE FOLK HEROINE

The animated Mulan film clearly Disneyfied the story by playing into various American stereotypes of feudal China.

But who is “China’s Mulan”? And who is “Disney’s Mulan”?

As described, Chinese versions of Mulan have significantly changed through times. And Disney’s Mulan of 2020 is also very different from the Disney princess that stole the hearts of viewers around the world in 1998.

Judging from the trailer, the upcoming Mulan will be a much more serious movie that focuses on the action and martial arts, and seems to represent Mulan as a self-sacrificing woman warrior (nothing goofy).

There’s an apparent risk in this route taken by Disney. On Chinese social media, the complaints about the movie relate mostly to the movie not being ‘Chinese’ enough when it comes to historical accuracy and language.

In English-language media, the movie is criticized for omitting the talking dragon and the songs and for “bowing to China’s nationalistic agenda” with its patriotic theme (Jingan Young in The Guardian, also see Vice).

The Disney company aims to entertain children and adults all around the world. In doing so, they convert “cultural capital” to “economic capital”1 and create content with universal appeal for global audiences, virtually always requiring commercial concessions to adapt to tastes and expectations of their mass audience.

Mulan merchandise, image via mouseinfo.com.

Since tastes and audience expectations change over time, it seems logical for Disney to make different choices for its Mulan feature film in 2020 than it did in 1998, and not only because the company might have learned from its past mistakes in mainland China. China’s role in the world, and how people view China, has also greatly changed over the past twenty years.

National cultures, stories, and legends go through a process of ‘Disneyfication’ once they became part of the Disney canon. The term ‘Disneyfication’ has been coined since the 1990s to describe this phenomenon and has been used in various ways since.

Speaking of globalization and literature, author David Damrosch (What is World Literature?, 2003) uses ‘Disneyfication’ to describe how many foreign literary works will only be translated and sold in the West when its content ‘fits’ the image audiences have of that certain culture. What remains is actually a ‘fake’ cultural product that holds up certain stereotypes and clichés in order to please the audience (Koetse 2010).

In the 1998 animated film, Mulan was clearly ‘Disneyfied’ by playing into various American values and stereotypes of feudal China that were most dominant at the time.

Although the upcoming Mulan movie will be very different from its animated predecessor, we already know that it will play with some of those stereotypes again in a way that you could call ‘market realistic’: viewers will see an English-speaking Mulan that lives in a traditional Fujian tulou building. Some of the sceneries and settings will have absolutely nothing to do with the authentic story, but much more to do with how viewers around the world now imagine China.

The movie will undoubtedly present folk heroine Mulan and ancient China in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and accessible, making Mulan and her story easy to understand, digest, and love.

 

WHOSE MULAN IS IT ANYWAY?

For many Chinese viewers, Mulan has become ‘too American’, while foreign media criticize the film for being ‘too Chinese.’

The irony in the criticism that has emerged over Disney’s Mulan recently, is that in the eyes of many Chinese viewers, Mulan has become ‘too American’, while foreign media criticize the production for being ‘too Chinese.’

This is by no means the first time the Disney company is under attack for the way in which it adapts local legends or stories into international feature films.

With Pocahontas, Disney was accused of “whitewashing horrific past,” the Moana movie was said to show “insensitivity to Polynesian cultures,” some critics found Aladdin to be “rooted by racism and Orientalism,” and recently, Disney’s choice to cast a black actress for the remake of The Little Mermaid triggered controversy for removing “the essence of Ariel.”

There are two sides to the controversial ‘Disneyfication’ coin. On the one hand, one could argue that some of the cultural value of the original local myths, legends, and stories are lost once they are transformed and simplified to satisfy mass market demand.

On the other hand, the Disney corporation also truly makes these local stories go global and in doing so, further adds to their cultural significance and worldwide recognition.

Mulan is now a Chinese legend that has gone beyond its borders and is no longer ‘truly Chinese’ – whatever that might mean. She has become a part of people’s childhood memories and popular culture in many countries around the world.

Just as The Little Mermaid no longer solely belongs to the realm of feudal Nordic folklore, Quasimodo no longer just exists in French literary canon, and just as Aladdin has become so much more than part of the The Thousand and One Nights, Mulan has also come to represent more than a Chinese folk heroine. She has become a world-famous woman warrior whose story will keep evolving for the years to come.

About the upcoming Mulan movie and its criticism, one Weibo commenter writes: “I find it hard to understand why people are so fussy. They have a problem with Mulan’s make-up, or with the fact that there’s no singing and no Mushu, or with the scenery. This is a movie. It can only stay close to the original work, but it will never be the original work.”

Luckily for Disney, many Chinese viewers are still very keen to watch the Mulan premiere despite – or perhaps thanks to – the ongoing controversies. The casting of Liu Fei as Mulan has also been met with praise and excitement.

Popular Weibo law blogger Kevin (@Kevin在纽约) writes: “On the first day that the trailer for Disney’s live-action Mulan was released, it had 175.1 million global views, making it the number two Disney adaption. The number one is The Lion King which had 224.6 global views [on its first day]. Although the Americans made Mulan live in a tulou, and made her speak English with a Chinese accent, it all won’t prevent Hua Mulan from having great success in 2020.”

Other netizens also agree, and they do not seem to mind sharing ‘their’ Mulan with the rest of the world.

“Some people are being too obstinate,” one female Weibo user writes in response to all the criticism: “This is the American Disney company, and all princesses speak English first. Jasmine in Aladdin also did not speak Arabic. I gather that in the film there will definitely be some subjective ideas or errors based on Western conceptions of China. As Chinese, we might find them misrepresentative or laughable. But from the trailer, I can already see that [this film] matches our esthetics and imagination. Most importantly, this film expresses the strength and beauty of Chinese women, and of women in general – that’s what matters.”

Discussions on Disney’s Mulan will certainly continue in the time to come. The movie is scheduled to be released in theatres on March 27 of 2020.

Too Chinese? Too American? Too Disneyfied? Too patriotic? Disney’s Mulan might not please all viewers. Fortunately, there are and will be dozens of other Mulan versions providing viewers and readers with new and different perspectives on the centuries-old legend. But who is the ‘real’ Mulan in the end? We’ll probably never know.

By Manya Koetse

1 (Harris 2005, 50).

Dong, Lan. 2010. Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Bibliovault OAI Repository, the University of Chicago Press.

Edwards, Louise. 2016. “The Archetypal Woman Warrior, Hua Mulan: Militarising Filial Piety.” In: Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China, pp. 17-39.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, David. 2005. Key Concepts in Leisure Studies. SAGE Key Concepts. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Koetse, Manya. 2010. “The Imagined Space of Chinatown: An Amsterdam Case Study.” Leiden University, https://www.manyakoetse.com/the-imagined-space-of-chinatown/ [July 12, 2019].

Kwa, Shiamin and Wilt I. Idema (eds). 2010. Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts.” Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

Li, Jing. 2018. “Retelling the Story of a Woman Warrior in Hua Mulan (花木兰, 2009): Constructed Chineseness and the Female Voice.” Marvels & Tales 32 (2): 362-387.

Young, Jingan. 2019. “The Mulan trailer is a dismal sign Disney is bowing to China’s nationalistic agenda.” The Guardian, July 8 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/08/mulan-trailer-is-a-dismal-sign-disney-is-bowing-to-china-anti-democratic-agenda [July 12, 2019].

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China Celebs

Weibo Blows Up after Fan Bingbing Announces Breakup

It’s been a tough year for Chinese celebrity Fan Bingbing.

Manya Koetse

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Two years after their engagement, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing and actor Chen Li have announced their breakup.

On the night of June 27 (China Standard Time), news came out that Chinese actress Fan Bing Bing is breaking up with her partner, Chinese actor Chen Li.

It was Fan herself who announced the separation through a post on social media, writing:

We go through all kinds of farewells during our lifetime. The love and warmth we gain throughout our encounters become everlasting forces. I want to thank you for all the love and support you’ve given me. Thank you for your care and love in the future. We are no longer ‘we’, but we are still ourselves.

The post soon received over 180,000 comments and more than 650,000 likes.

Chen Li also posted a message on his Weibo account, saying:

From friends to lovers, and now back to friends. Emotions can change, but the purest feeling between you and me will not change. The trust and support we have for each other will always be there. We are no longer ‘we’, but we are still ourselves.”

This breakup comes after a difficult year in Fan’s career. In summer of 2018, the 37-year-old actress was at the center of a social media storm due to a tax evasion scandal.

She disappeared from the public eye for months, and then returned with an emotional apology on Weibo.

The announcement of the split has triggered thousands of reactions on Weibo, where the hashtag “Fan Bingbing and Li Chen Split Up” (#范冰冰李晨分手#) had received 380 million views by Thursday night.

At time of writing, the breakup is dominating Weibo’s top trending topics, with many netizens commenting that Weibo is ‘exploding’ and that Weibo servers must be overheating due to the celebrity news.

It is often celebrity news that causes Weibo to blow up. A recent incident of Chinese teen idol smoking inside a Beijing restaurant also triggered millions of views and comments.

When Chinese singer and actor Lu Han announced his relationship with actress Guan Xiaotong in 2017, it even led to a rare temporary breakdown of Weibo’s servers.

By Manya Koetse

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