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Top 10 China’s Most Popular Smartphone Brands & Models (May/June 2019)

These are the ten most popular smartphone brands and models in China right now.

Manya Koetse

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There is one topic that is always buzzing on Chinese social media: the latest smartphone trends. This is a top 10 of the most popular Chinese smartphone brands and their hottest models of the moment.

In 2018, What’s on Weibo listed the top 10 most popular smartphone brands in China. With a smartphone market that is dynamic and rapidly changing, it’s time for an update to see which smartphones brands are currently most popular in the PRC.

Since 2017, we’ve seen various smartphone trends coming and going. Bezel-less devices, increasing the size of the screen, have gone from trend to norm. In the selfie era, the same holds true for high-performing front-facing cameras. More temporary trends have given way to more sophisticated gadget design. It’s all about superzoom cameras, full-view displays, pop-up selfie cameras, and let’s not forget about 5G.

One other major trend that is ongoing for the past years is that despite the popularity of Apple and Samsung, ‘made in China’ brands are dominating the smartphone and tablet market.

But the biggest trend now, more so than trendy and colorful design or smooth edges, is photography: the latest devices from different brands are now, more than ever, competing over who has the best (main) camera.

Looking at popularity charts on Baidu and Zol.com, leading IT portal website in China, the brands Oppo, Vivo, and Huawei are still the top popular smartphone brands in China. Huawei, Oppo, and Vivo were also the best-selling smartphones on the market in Q1 (Sohu), followed by Xiaomi, Apple, and Samsung.

Making an absolute top 10 of most popular smartphone brands in China at this moment is not so straightforward, however, since the rankings are different depending on the source and on which phone models are sold the most at a particular time.

The charts of leading e-commerce platforms JD.com and Suning, for example, are not exactly the same as Zol’s smartphone popularity rankings. We will stick to the Zol rankings for this article, looking at brands first and matching them with their most popular device models.

 

#10 Realme and the Realme X

Realme is a Shenzhen-based company that was established in 2018: it is the youngest smartphone brand in this list. Previously, it was a subbrand of OPPO but became independent in May of last year.

Realme has 1,2 million followers on Weibo. Realme is recently promoting its Realme X device, of which the hashtag page has a staggering 120 million views.

The Realme phone price starts at ¥1499 ($216) for the 4GB + 64GB storage variant. It has a a 6.53-inch full-HD+ (1080×2340 pixels) AMOLED screen, and features a 48-megapixel primary camera.

On social media, the Realme is mostly praised for its strong camera and friendly price.

 

#9 OnePlus (一加) and OnePlus7 Pro

OnePlus is a Shenzhen based Chinese smartphone manufacturer founded by Pete Lau and Carl Pei in December 2013. The company officially serves 32 countries and regions around the world as of January 2018.

The OnePlus 7 Pro of ¥4999 ($722) is currently listed as the number one popular smartphone by Zol.com; the brand itself is on the lower end of the top 10 most popular smartphone brands in China.

The 7 Pro device was called “one of the best Android phones you can buy” by AndroidCentral, on top of being “the best phone OnePlus has released to-date.”

The phone is big: it features a 6.67-inch display with a screen resolution of 1440 x 3120 pixels. It has fingerprint sensor, a 4000 mAh battery, and a rear 48MP + 16MP + 8MP camera.

 

#8 Meizu (魅族) and the Meizu 16s

Meizu is another Chinese homegrown brand, established by high school dropout Jack Wong (Huáng Zhāng 黄章) in 2003.

The Meizu device that is currently ranked in the top 10 hot-selling lists is the 16S that was released in April and is priced at ¥3198 ($462). The device has a 6.2 inch AMOLED screen (1080 x 2232 px). The main camera is a 48 MP, and the device is equipped with a 3600mAh battery.

The cheaper 16Xs (#魅族16Xs#) was a popular topic on social media on May 30, which is when it was launched.

 

#7 Xiaomi (小米) and the Redmi Note

Since the launch of its first smartphone in 2011, Beijing-brand Xiaomi has become one of the world’s largest smartphone makers. In the Zol rankings the brand is currently listed at number 7, in JD.com’s hot-selling lists, it’s ranked 3. The Redmi is actually a sub-brand of Xiaomi, but it’s still listed as Xiaomi in ranking lists such as that of JD.com.

The Xiaomi Redmi Note 7, Redmi K20, and Xiaomi 9 are all doing well, with the Redmi being the more popular device within the PRC. Techradar describes the Redmi Note 7 as a “great budget smartphone” with “stellar battery life.”

The Xiaomi Redmi Note 7 has a 6.3 inch (1080 x 2340) full-HD display (Full HD+) and a 12 MP main camera(the Redmi Note 7S has a 48 MP main camera). The cheapest models of ¥998 ($144) are among the lowest priced devices in this list.

 

#6 Apple (苹果) and the iPhone XR/XS Max

The position of Apple in China’s smartphone market has become a hot topic of discussion on social media recently in light of the rising China-US trade tensions. Although iPhone sales in China have indeed been dropping according to news reports, the iPhone XR and iPhone XS Max currently rank number 8 and number 10 most popular devices according to Zol at time of writing, with Apple ranking 6 in the top 10 smartphone brand charts. In the current list of best-selling smartphones on e-commerce site JD.com, the iPhone XR even ranks number one.

The iPhone XS Max is bigger than ever: it has a 6.5-inch OLED (2,688 x 1,242 pixels) screen whereas the XR has a 6.1-inch LCD (1,792 x 828 pixels). The camera of the XS Max has a dual 12-megapixel camera with wide-angle and telephoto. The XR has a single 12-megapixel wide-angle.

Some Chinese bloggers don’t understand why the iPhone is still so popular in China. Influential Weibo tech blogger Keji Xinyi (@科技新一) recently wrote: “The exterior of all Android flagship devices looks better than iPhone, they take better pictures too, why do girls still like the iPhone so much?”

Some of the popular answers include that people like iOS, that they prefer the “uncomplicated” use of the iPhone, and praise it for being “stable.”

With its ¥8399 ($1214) price tag, the iPhone XS Max is the most expensive phone around. The XR is currently priced at ¥5399 ($780).

 

#5 Honor (荣耀) and the Honor V20

Honor, established in 2013, is the budget-friendly sister of the Huawei brand. The company’s sub-brand has been doing very well over the past years. Honor focuses on great value for money.

The brand has over 21 million fans on Weibo. Honor targets younger consumers, not just with its relatively low prices, but also with its trendy designs, often offering phones in vibrant blue, pink and purple colors.

While the Honor brand currently ranks 5 on China’s nationwide smartphone brands popularity charts, its most popular device, the Honor V20, now ranks number 9 within smartphone device rankings. Another bestseller is the Honor Magic 2.

Priced at ¥2799 ($404), the V20 device is one of the cheaper ones in the popularity charts. It has a 6.40-inch display with a resolution of 1080×2310 pixels. Its rear camera is a 48-megapixel camera, with its selfie camera being a 25-megapixel one. It is available in colors Charm Sea Blue, Magic Night Black, Charm Red, Phantom Red, and Phantom Blue.

 

#4 Samsung (三星) and the Galaxy S10

Samsung currently is the most popular smartphone brand in the PRC that is not made-in-China. The brand seems to have been able to win back consumer’s trust after its previous problems with overheating and exploding batteries. In the first half of 2018, China actually replaced the US as the biggest market for Samsung.

The Galaxy S10 is the most popular Samsung device of this moment, and recent reports on bugs that allegedly come with a recent update have not seemed to impact its ranking.

The S10 has a 6.1-inch Super AMOLED QHD+ screen with 1440 x 3040-pixel display resolution.  Like most devices on this list, its camera is good: a triple rear camera (12 MP x 12 MP x 16 MP) that can shoot panorama shots on ultra wide.  The device has a dual-SIM tray/microSD card slot, and is water-resistant.

Price: ¥5999 ($867).

 

#3 Huawei (华为) and its P30 Series

In light of the China-US trade war, Huawei has been making international headlines recently. Judging from e-commerce ranking lists and ZOL.com popularity lists, Huawei’s popularity within the PRC seems to be unaffected by the recent consternation; if anything, it has only made the brand more popular within mainland China. Huawei remains to be one of China’s top smartphone brands.

The most popular device of the Huawei brand currently is the Huawei P30 Pro mobile, ranking fifth in Chinas most popular smartphone charts of this moment. The Huawei P30 is slightly less popular, ranked at number 8.

The P30 Pro features a Full HD+ OLED 6.47 inches display, an integrated fingerprint sensor in the display, with a screen resolution of 1080 x 2340 pixels. It has a 40MP + 16MP + 8MP camera that is the best part of the device, with an impressive zoom function:

The device has been called “one of the best and most unique phones” to be released this year, and is an absolute winner for its camera compared to the Samsung S10 or the iPhone XS Max. The Pro price is set at ¥5488 ($793), also making it one of the most expensive phones in the top lists of this moment.

 

#2 Vivo and its Vivo X27


Vivo is another Chinese brand that has gained worldwide success since it first entered the market in 2009. Its headquarters are based in Dongguan, Guangdong.

Vivo often cooperates with Chinese celebrities in its marketing campaigns, such as Chinese singer and actor Lu Han (born 1990) or Chinese actress Zhou Dongyu (born 1992), clearly targeting the post-90s consumer group.

The brand has over 37 million followers on its Weibo account, making it the most popular brand in terms of online fans.

The Vivo X27 device was launched in China in March of 2019 and is specifically marketed as a “night photo” wonder tool.

The VivoX27 is a 6.39-inch dual-sim device with a super AMOLED screen. It has a 48 MP main camera and 12 MP selfie camera, and in-display fingerprint sensor.

The Vivo X27 Pro hashtag (#vivo X27 Pro#) has over 96 million views on Weibo at time of writing, with most netizens mostly praising the device for its ability to make good photos at night. The device is currently also ranked number one on Zol.com in the best mobile gaming device category.

Priced around ¥3598 ($520).

 

#1 Oppo and its OPPO Reno Series


2019 is the year of 5G, and OPPO Reno is ready for it. Oppo launched its latest 5G supported OPPO Reno smartphone in April of 2019 and has since been a hit on Chinese social media. The OPPO Reno hashtag (#OPPO全新Reno#) has a staggering 560 million views on the Sina Weibo platform at the time of writing, with the launch of the orange Reno becoming a trending topic in late May.

OPPO is a Guangdong-based brand that officially launched in 2004. The brand is known for targeting China’s young consumers with its trendy designs and smart celebrity marketing. In 2016, the brand hit international top smartphone lists and ranked as the number 4 smartphone brand globally.

OPPO currently has over 25 million fans on Weibo.

The OPPO Reno has a 6.4-inch AMOLED display, a 48-megapixel main camera, a wedge-shaped pop-up camera (16-megapixel front-facing), and in-display fingerprint scanner. Besides the standard Oppo Reno, there is also the OPPO Reno’s 10x Hybrid Zoom, and that model is mostly praised on Chinese social media for its photo quality under the OPPO Reno 10 X Zoom hashtag (#OPPOReno10倍变焦版#). Check the photos below of one Weibo user (@塔湾小魔王) trying out the zoom.

Price starting from: ¥3599 ($520).

 

Worth mentioning:

Some brands that did not make this top 10 list are still worth mentioning. One of them is Nubia (努比亚): Nubia may not be a very well-known brand outside of China, but in the PRC it’s been consistently hitting top brand lists. Nubia, owned by parent company ZTE, has been doing very well in China’s top-scoring smartphone lists since it was officially launched in 2015.

Other popular brands include Lenovo, ZTE, and Smartisan, Meitu: all Chinese companies.

“China has so many domestically produced smartphone,” Chinese tech blogger Keji Xinyi (@科技新一) recently wrote on Weibo: “Xiaomi, OPPO, vivo, OnePlus, Meizu, Lenovo, etc. etc. Why is it that if we’re talking about Chinese phones we’re always talking about Huawei?”

Among the hundreds of responses, many think Huawei is simply the best, with others saying it just has a very strong marketing campaign. Most people, however, agree that Chinese smartphone market has much more to offer than Huawei alone.

By Manya Koetse

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

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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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China Digital

Chinese E-Readers: The Best E-book Devices in China

Overview of the top 10 e-readers in China in 2021.

Manya Koetse

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From Onyx to Xiaomi, these are the top selling e-readers in China right now.

Ereaders have become booming business over recent years. Some people prefer an e-reader because it is easier on their eyes than reading from phone screens, others want a distraction-free digital reading style, and some just like the idea of carrying their own mini-library with them with a battery that lasts much longer than those of tablets or smartphones.

While Amazon’s Kindle is the biggest brand name in the American and European e-book reader market, the Chinese e-reader market also has several domestic brands topping the popularity lists.

Here is an overview of the top 10 brands currently dominating the lists in China. This list is based on the rankings of Zol.com, one of China’s leading IT information and business portals.

The devices mentioned in this list are all devices with E Ink (“electronic ink”) display technology, which gives them that low-power paper-like display. Devices using E Ink technology are usually in grayscale, but color e-paper technologies are now also available.

 

1. ONYX BOOX (CHINESE BRAND)

BOOX, also known as Onyx Boox (文石BOOX), currently is China’s top e-book reader brand, produced by Onyx International Inc., which mostly produces E Ink (ePaper) devices. Onyx Boox was founded in 2008 by a team from IBM, Google, and Microsoft. It is headquartered in Guangzhou.

What sets Onyx apart from many other e-book reader brands is that they offer devices from 7.8 to 13.3 inches that can also function as digital note-taking tablets, equipped with a pen that allows users to pen down their notes as they would in any paper notebook.

The latest Onyx devices such as the Max Lumi (13.3 inch), Onyx Boox Note Air (10.3 inch), the Note 3 (10.3 inch), and the Nova 3 and Nova 3 Color (7.8 inch) all have a wide variety of functions. Besides the common e-reading functions and digital note-taking possibilities, these devices run Android, handle many different file formats, and allow an install of Google Play, Kindle, OneDrive, and more, which really make them “like a tablet unlike any tablet” (which just happens to be their slogan).

Currently, the Boox Nova 3 is the brand’s most popular model in China. Priced at ¥2480 ($377), it is also among the pricier models in the markets due to its multifunctionality. It has 32GB of storage, E Ink Carta Plus (the latest generation of screens made by “electronic paper” technology) and also has a screen front light system, allowing users to keep on reading in the dark.

At ¥2780 ($423), the Onyx Boox Note S, which features a 9.7-inch screen, is also rising in popularity. Then there is also the Nova 3 Color 7.8-inch color E Ink tablet with a new Kaleido (Kaleido Plus) screen.

The Onyx is also sold outside of China, check it out here on Amazon.

 

2. AMAZON

The American Amazon brand is also popular in China when it comes to its e-reader devices. While compiling this list, the Onyx and Amazon brands actually competed over the number one spot, so there is not much difference there in terms of ranking.

Along with the entry-level Kindle Migu X, the 4th generation (2018) Kindle Paperwhite (6 inches, 1448x1072px) is among the most popular e-reader models in China, priced at ¥998 ($152). Like the Onyx Nova 3, it is also available with 32GB storage, but keep in mind that the screen is smaller.

The Kindle e-book devices are much more affordable than the Onyx ones, and their functionality is more straightforward as an e-book reader. They are known for their great battery life, and since the first Kindle was introduced in 2007 it has become the world’s most famous dedicated e-reader. Kindles are designed to interface seamlessly with Amazon’s online store, which makes them perfect for Amazon fans and less appealing for those who have no desire to use the Amazon ecosystem.

The Paperwhite model has an extra advantage to it, as it allows to keep on reading while taking a bath or sitting by the pool since it is water-resistant. The Paperwhite is currently the no.2 best-sold e-book reader on Chinese major shopping platform JD. It is sold through Amazon here.

 

3. iFLYTEK (科大讯飞) (CHINESE BRAND)

iFlytek is a partially state-owned Chinese AI firm established in 1999 that also produces e-book readers. The company made headlines in 2019-2020 when it was blacklisted in the US for allegedly using its technology for surveillance and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Its iFlytek Smart Office X2 (科大讯飞智能办公本X2) is the e-book reader that is currently in the top 5 list of most popular ink screen devices in China (it even scores no 1 on e-commerce platform JD.com at the time of writing), and it is also among the most expensive (¥4999/$762). The X2 is a 10.3-inch E Ink device.

Similar to the Onyx Boox devices, it is much more than an e-reader alone; it is also a note-taking device (comes with the Wacom stylus) and incorporates fingerprint authentication, Wifi/4G, (offline) voice recognition, and transcription functions; it probably is the smartest e-reader around.

The iFlytek also has a whopping 64GB storage, which can be expanded to 128GB. GizTechReview did a review of the Smart Office X2 here.

 

4. IREADER / ZHANGYUE (掌阅) (CHINESE BRAND)

Ebook reader Zhangyue (掌阅) made headlines in late 2020 when it was announced that Tiktok owner Bytedance would invest $170 million in the company.

Zhangyue, founded in 2008 in Beijing, is not just a producer of e-readers, it is also the online literature publisher behind the iReader platform (掌阅书城). Its most popular ebook reader in China at this time is the 6-inch Zhangyue iReader Light (掌阅iReader Light青春版), which is priced at ¥638 ($97) and comes with 8GB storage.

A much pricier model is the Smart X (¥3499/$539), which has 32GB storage and a 10.3 inch 1872×1404 resolution screen, making it just as big as the Onyx Boox Note Air and the iFlytek Smart Office X2. The iReader Smart X also comes with a Wacom pen for note-taking. There’s a review of this device on Gearbest.

The iReader Smart 2 is popular on shopping site JD.com, priced at ¥2299 ($353). It came out in 2020, and also is a note-taking device with 32GB storage and a 10.3 inch screen. The difference with the Smart X device mainly lies in its screen quality.

 

5. XIAOMI (CHINESE BRAND)

Beijing-brand Xiaomi is mostly known for being one of the world’s largest smartphone makers, but the tech company does so much more, from watches to earphones, TVs, scooters, and e-readers.

Priced at ¥599 ($92), the Xiaomi MiReader (小米多看电纸书), released in November 2019, is among the more popular e-reader devices in China at the moment. Mainly marketed for the Chinese market, it is Xiaomi’s first ebook reader which comes with a 6-inch e-Ink screen and 16GB storage. With its 1024×768 pixels at 212 PPI screen, it might not be as crisp and fast as other devices in this list, but its price is also much lower. This review at Goodereader was not positive at all, calling it “super slow and plodding.”

The MiReader also has a Pro device (小米多看电纸书Pro) available in China, which is ¥1299 ($200) and comes with a 7.8-inch 300 PPI screen and 32GB storage. The Xiaomi e-readers allow access to the WeChat Library, which is a great advantage for Chinese consumers (Kindle doesn’t allow access to the WeChat Library).

 

6. HANVON (汉王) (CHINESE BRAND)

Established in 1998, Hanwang is a pioneering company in character recognition technology and intelligent interactive products.

Although Hanvon is in the top 10 of China’s hottest e-book device brands, its Hanvon Gold House 3 model (汉王黄金屋3), priced at ¥799 ($123), is not nearly as popular as other devices in this list. The Hanvon Gold House comes with a 6-inch 1024×758 resolution screen and 4GB in storage. The device is marketed as being simple, stylish, and ergonomic.

 

7. TENCENT (CHINESE BRAND)

Chinese tech giant Tencent is mostly known for its social media and gaming products, but it also produces e-book devices.

The Tencent Pocket Reader (腾讯口袋阅) is small and lightweight with its 5.2 inches 1280×720 eInk screen, it comes with 8GB storage and is priced at ¥889 ($136). The device is centered around the Tencent ecosystem and provides access to the Tencent Library and bookstore.

Its small size makes this device different from other e-readers. It is the size of a smartphone, which is great if you really want an e-reader in your pocket, but less ideal if you are looking for a more comfortable reading experience. The Pocket Reader supports a 4G mobile card and can also make calls and do text messaging.

 

8. BOYUE (博阅) (CHINESE BRAND)

Boyue is a digital reading technology company founded in 2009. Throughout the years the company has released different e-book devices as well as digital note-taking devices.

The Boyue T80 model and its Likebook Mars are its best-sold devices in China. The Boyue T80 is priced at ¥1199 ($184) and has 8GB of storage, features an 8-inches 1024×768 screen, and supports SD.

The Likebook Mars is ¥1380 ($212) and comes with 16GB of storage, a 7.8 inch 1872×1404 screen, and it also has SD card support, which allows you to extend the storage capacity to 128GB.

 

9. OBOOK (国文) (CHINESE BRAND)

Guowen or OBOOK is an e-reader company established in 2010 as what was meant to be the Chinese answer to Kindle.

Its Dangdang E-reader 8 (当当阅读器8) is currently rising in popularity. It features a 6-inch 300 PPI resolution screen and 16GB of storage and is priced at ¥918 ($141).

 

10. SONY

Sony is perhaps not a name you’d expect in this list, since Sony seems to have exited the e-reader business some time ago.

There are only a few e-book devices by Sony that are still popular in China right now, and one of them is the 10.3-inch 1404×1872 screen Sony DPT-CP1 model that is priced at ¥4888 ($750). For this price, you get a lightweight, thin device that also serves as a digital note-taking tablet that syncs with PC or Mac.

The DPT-RP1/WC model is even pricier at ¥5299 ($815), for which you get a 13.3 inch 1650×2200 screen, which is comparable to the Onyx Boox Max Lumi.

 

By Manya Koetse

This is not a sponsored post. This article could contain links to online shops, which might allow us to earn a very small affiliate commission at zero extra cost to you – it helps us in maintaining this site. Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Luo Tianyi and the Booming Virtual Idol Market in China

The virtual entertainment market is exploding in China.

Manya Koetse

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They are featured on China’s biggest TV shows and on the covers of fashion magazines: they’re virtual idols yet their success is very real.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China, see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

At the Spring Festival Gala of 2021, the Chinese state media’s annual televised event that only invites the country’s top-notch performers, the virtual idol Luo Tianyi (洛天依) made a guest appearance.

It was a big media moment that showed the growing importance of virtual superstars in Chinese pop culture. Luo’s performance was even announced on the show’s promo posters, making this the first time ever for a virtual star to be on the show like this.

Virtual celebrities such as Luo Tianyi are also called ‘vsingers’ and often have an enormous fanbase. What is the story behind Luo Tianyi and the boom of virtual superstars in China, leading to the remarkable appearance of a non-human celebrity in the country’s biggest mainstream TV show?

 
Luo Tianyi: The First Chinese Vsinger
 

Although it was the first time for Luo Tianyi to appear at the Spring Festival Gala, it was not her first big performance. The superstar previously showed up as holograph live at big events such as the Bilibili night, and in 2019 she shared a stage with renowned Chinese pianist Lang Lang.

Promotional poster for the Luo Tianyi and Lang Lang concert.

Such a performance does not come easy. It takes months to design the looks and the moves. The holographic appearance of Luo Tianyi and the spectacular two-hour show took around six months of preparation by around 200 professionals involved in the production of Luo Tianyi.

Luo Tianyi is a so-called ‘vocaloid’ singer – a Mandarin Chinese language virtual character that was originally featured in the voice synthesizer software called VOCALOID developed by Yamaha, using third parties to create the characters. Vocaloid is a commercial product (released in 2004) with the purpose of enabling users to get a singer for lyrics and melodies without needing to hire an actual human singer.

The Shanghai Henian company collaborated with Tokyo-based Bplats in developing Luo Tianyi. The character was based on the winner of a contest that was organized in support of creating the first Chinese Vocaloid. The real-life singer whose voice was used for the creation of Tianyi is Chinese singer Shan Xin (山新).

Luo Tianyi was officially launched in 2012 as a 15-year-old entertainer and vsinger. By now, she has around five million followers on her Weibo account (@Vsinger_洛天依) where she posts about her performances, with thousands of people liking and sharing these posts.

 
Virtual Idol Boom: From Japan to China
 

According to Chinese state media outlet Global Times, 2020 was the year that virtual idols really took off in China, going hand in hand with the growing popularity of livestreaming.

Chinese video-sharing site Bilibili has contributed to the growing success of virtual idols in China. Bilibili is a homebase for many fan communities in China, since it is mainly themed around animation, comic, and games (ACG). It is one of the earliest platforms in China to broadcast virtual idol concerts, and in 2020 it held China’s first concert consisting solely of virtual performers under the title ‘BML-VR 2020’ (link).

The Bilibili concert featured a performance by various virtual entertainers, including the popular Hiseki Erio. Hiseki Erio is not Chinese, but Japanese. So is Hatsune Miki, one of the most famous virtual idols ever.

You could say Japan is the birthplace of virtual idols – a history that goes back to 1996 when Kyoko Date, also known as DK-96 or ‘Digital Kid 1996,’ made her debut as the first virtual talent.

Virtual idols come in various shapes, forms, and subgenres, and they all have their different background stories. Hatsune Miki was released in 2007 as the embodiment of the Vocolaid software developed by Crypton Future, and then there are the popular virtual Youtubers, ‘vtubers’, with virtual talent agencies such as Hololive also thriving in Japan.

The term ‘virtual Youtuber’ came with the arrival of Kizuna AI, who posted her first introduction Youtube video in late 2016. Kizuna, who later became a cultural ambassador for the Japan National Tourism Organization, is still considered one of the most popular vtubers on earth.

With the great popularity of Japanese manga and anime on the Chinese market, Japanese virtual idols also gained a strong foothold in the People’s Republic since around 2017. Hatsune Miki alone already has over 3,4 million fans on Weibo (@初音未来CryptonFutureMedia).

Virtual idols are increasingly popular in China, where Chinese virtual stars are springing up (Luo Tianyi, Ling, Xing Tong, Yousa).

The virtual entertainment market is now exploding in China, where the online ACG culture is flourishing on Bilibili and beyond.

Since Japanese popular culture products began to gain popularity in China in the early 1990s, there have been various developments that have shown the government’s dislike of the ‘Japanese cultural invasion’ in the country. As a counter-reaction, there has been stronger promotion of the production of made-in-China animations and other ACG products.

While China is seeing a steady release of domestic animated films and series, there is now also a wave of new China-born virtual stars, such as the Bilibili idol Yousa (冷鸢), or Xing Tong (星瞳), a virtual idol from Tencent. Chinese gaming company Papergames made the virtual character Nuan Nuan (暖暖) to also live outside of the gaming world; she is now a singer, a stylist, and a popular fashion ambassador.

Ling (right) featured on the cover of Vogue Me.

There is also Ling (翎), the Chinese virtual influencer who loves Peking opera, tea culture, and calligraphy. Ling, who was created by Next Generation studio and Shanghai AI startup Xmov, appeared on the CCTV show Bravo Youngsters (上线吧华彩少年) and was featured on the cover of Vogue Me in February 2021 alongside actual real-life celebrities.

Chinese virtual influencer Ling.

The number of Chinese virtual celebrities is expected to grow along with the growing market. In October of 2020, the Chinese variety show Dimension Nova (跨次元新星) first aired as a talent show scouting new virtual talent.

 
Virtual Commercials and Controversies
 

The growing influence of the virtual entertainment economy and culture in China is becoming more and more noticeable in pop music, commercial culture, and even in the sphere of politics.

Virtual celebrities are so popular that brands are also jumping in on this craze by hiring them as brand ambassadors or by creating their own cyber stars. Tencent’s Xing Tong, for example, modeled for Levi’s and sportswear brand Li Ning. Nuan Nuan, among others, was featured in a commercial for hair care brand LUX. Luo Tianyi appeared in campaigns for Huawei, Pizza Hut and KFC.

In January of 2021, McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador. They are not the only one: there are over thirty companies in China now using a virtual brand ambassador. The new McDonald’s idol was welcomed by Weibo users, where the news of her launch received 200 million views.

McDonald’s China announced their own virtual idol “Happy Sister” (开心姐姐) as a brand ambassador.

The virtual idol influence also became apparent when Japanese ‘Hololive’ virtual celebrities Akai Haato and Kiryu Coco recently got caught up in a diplomatic row because they referred to Taiwan as a “country” when discussing their YouTube channel analytics during a livestream, leading to controversy among their Chinese fanbase.

In a statement published on Bilibili by Cover (the Japanese company behind the Hololive talent agency that the virtual celebrities in question were under), the agency apologized for what had happened. Nevertheless, both virtual stars involved in the controversy were banned from Bilibili and eventually the entire Chinese Hololive branch was shut down.

This example shows that although virtual idols are generally regarded as a safe option for brands and companies because, unlike real celebrities, they are not likely to get caught up in scandals, it is still possible for them to spark controversy.

Nevertheless, the future looks bright for virtual stars in China with still an enormous market for Luo Tianyi and others to conquer, with plenty of room for growth. From concerts to fashion shows to live streaming channels, from Weibo to Bilibili and beyond, we are bound to see virtual stars increasingly become a part of everyday life in China.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

 

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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