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Top 10 of the Most Evil Power Women in China’s History

They might have lived centuries ago, but are still the talk of the day in Chinese books, television shows and online media. They were often beautiful on the outside but cruel on the inside. They were rebels of their time, and would bewitch men with their charms to get what they wanted- some of them changed China’s history because of it. A top ten list of the most evil and powerful women in China’s history.

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China has a long history of notoriously strongheaded or ruthless women. This is a list compiled by What’s on Weibo of 10 women in China’s history who are often referred to as “evil” in (online) media.

They might have lived centuries ago, but are still the talk of the day in Chinese books, television shows and online media. They were often beautiful on the outside but cruel on the inside. They were rebels of their time, and would bewitch men with their charms to win more power – some of them changed China’s history because of it. From ten to one: a top 10 of evil power women in China’s history, carefully selected and compiled by What’s on Weibo based on different online Chinese charts and books about ‘evil’ women of China.

(Updated April/2018: Check out our recent video on this topic here).

 

SECRET ROMANCE & LAVISH SPENDING

10. Lu Xiaoman (陆小曼)
Lu Xiaoman was one of the most famous women in China’s roaring twenties. In her own time, she was considered scandalous: she had an extramarital affair, was then divorced, and led a lavish lifestyle.

Lu was born in an upperclass Shanghai family in 1903 and became known as a beautiful, well-educated and talented woman. She spoke fluent English and was a gifted writer and painter. She became married to the erudite Wang Geng. Within the first years of their marriage, Lu fell in love with one of Wang’s friends named Xu Zhimo, who was one of China’s most famous poets at the time. Zhimo had been married before, but was already divorced in what has been described as China’s “first modern divorce” (Lee 2007, 389).

Lu and the poet soon got tangled up in a complicated love-affair, while Lu was still married to Wang. Eventually, she got divorced herself and remarried to Xu in 1926. Xu soon found out that he could not afford Lu’s lifestyle. She lavishly spend their money on luxury goods, delicacies and extravagant nights out. She rented an expensive apartment and hired 14 servants. Lu’s luxurious lifestyle eventually got Xu in serious financial trouble.

During a fight over their expenses, the two got into a fight and Xu left their home for a trip, during which he died in a plane crash. Because Xu left during an argument, and because he took an old plane since he could not afford a modern one due to Lu’s spending, some argue that it was Lu Xiaoman who actually “killed” her husband (Sina 2014; Hong Lee&Stefanowska 2003, 389-391).

陆小曼Lu Xiaoman, on the right pictured together with Xu Zhimo.

 

FROM SUPERSTAR TO SUPERTRAITOR

9. Li Xianglan (李香兰)

Li Xianglan was an actress and singer who was loved by the Chinese people for her talent and beauty, but also hated by them for her nationality. She was a Japanese woman who pretended to be Chinese for many years. Yamagachi Yoshiko (her Japanese name) was born in 1920 Manchuria to Japanese parents. As the Sino-Japanese War was on the way, she jumped to superstar status. Being fluent in Mandarin, the Chinese audience did not know she was Japanese.

During these years, she played in seventeen different films, of which some were produced by Japanese studios to create pro-Japanese sentiment in China. When she was later arrested for treason, she had to expose her true nationality in order to avoid punishment.

She initially fled to the US and changed her name to Shirley Yamaguchi, but later settled down in Japan and took on the name Otaka Yoshiko, although she also remained known as Ri Koran (the Japanese pronunciation of her Chinese name).

Throughout her life, Li Xianglan had five different identities. When she passed away in the summer of 2014, many Chinese people still remembered her as a woman who lied about her identity and betrayed China. To know more about Li Xianglan, read ‘Caught Between China & Japan: Superstar Li Xianglan‘.

xianglanLi Xianglan.

 

INCEST & MURDER

8. Wen Jiang (文姜)

Her charm and beauty was praised in the oldest collection of Chinese poetry, the Classic of Poetry (诗经): Wen Jiang.  She lived during the 6th century BC as princess of the State of Qi, and became the wife of Duke Huan of Lu (present-day Shandong) with whom she had a son.

Wen Jiang was a politically powerful woman with a dark secret, as she was involved in an ongoing incestuous relationship with her own brother, Duke Xiang. When the affair was exposed, Duxe Xiang threw a big feast for his brother-in-law and got him drunk in the hopes of calming matters down.

The opposite happened, as things got out of hand and Duke Huang was killed on the same night – allegedly by the son of Xiang at his order. Although Wen Jiang initially was supposed to bring her dead husband’s body back to Lu, she ended up staying at the border of Qi and Lu, where her son build her a residence. She stayed there for the rest of her life (Cook 2007, 81).

wenjiangWen Jiang in contemporary imagery.

 

ADULTERY & INFANTICIDE

7. Zhao Feiyan (趙飛燕)

Zhao Feiyan (c. 32-1 BC) was a beautiful woman of humble origin who was called ‘flying swallow’ (feiyan) because of her ability to dance elegantly like a bird. The ruling emperor of the Han Dynasty, Cheng, became enticed with her. He turned Feiyan one of his mistresses together with her sister Hede.

Feiyan soon became powerful. Emperor Cheng became so attached to her that he got rid of his empress in favor of Feiyan, who now became empress in spite of her low societal background. Although she had taken the place of the first wife, she had one problem: she could not bear a son. She went to extreme measures to try to get pregnant. She started sleeping around with palace slaves in the hopes of getting pregnant.

When Cheng’s other concubines got pregnant, Feiyan forced them into abortions and killed any living children. As a result, the Emperor never had a heir. When Emperor Cheng passed away, Feiyan was arrested and sent to his tomb. This is where she commited suicide (Zhao 2000, 89).

zhaoThe role of Zhao Feiyan played by actress Tong Liya in the 2008 Chinese film The Queens (母仪天下).

 

THE REAL MADAME BUTTERFLY

6. Shi Peipu (时佩璞): ‘M. Butterfly’

Although Shi Peipu was not biologically a woman, ‘she’ needs to be on this list because of her incredibly crafty ways and the fact she has cross-dressed as a woman for over two decades.

Shi Peipu was a spy working for the Chinese secret service, and was involved in what has been called one of the “strangest cases in international espionage” (Wadler 2009). For twenty years Shi pretended to be a woman during a love relationship with French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot in order to gather intelligence information from him.

Shi Peipu originally was an opera singer and actor from Kunming, who moved to Beijing in the 1960s. The 26-year-old Shi met Bouriscot there at a Christmas party at the French embassy in 1964, where Shi came dressed as a man. Shi told Bouriscot that he was actually a female opera singer who had been forced by his father to present himself as a man because he desired a son so much. Bouriscot believed it, and their affair took off; a romance that also continued when Bouriscot was stationed abroad.

Shi got Bouriscot entangled in Chinese espionage practices and went to extreme measures to keep the Frenchman close, as ‘she’ even convinced Boursicot that she had become pregnant with his child. Shi adopted a boy and presented him as their alleged child. In 1982, Shi and Bouriscot moved to Paris where they were both arrested a year later. Boursicot attempted suicide when he discovered that Shi was actually a man. He was convicted of espionage and spent six years in prison.

Shi passed away in 2009. The Broadway play ‘M. Butterfly’ by David Hwang was based on this story. It was also turned into a film. About the affair, Boursicot later said: “When I believed it, it was a beautiful story” (KPBS 1993; Leung 2003, 119). Shi’s adopted child, Shi Dudu, lives in Paris and has a family with three sons.

peipuShi Peipu the opera singer on the left, on the right: Bouriscot and Shi Peipu at court.

 

ANYTHING FOR POWER

5. Wu Zetian (武则天): Empress Wu 

Wu Zetian (625-705) was an empress during the Tang Dynasty, and become famous for being the first and only female in Chinese history to rule the country as an emperor. She reigned China from 690, when she was 65 years old. Her status as emperor was not the only reason she became a famous historical figure: she was known for being extremely ruthless, going to utmost extremes in order to maintain power.

Wu Zetian was born into a rich family and was well-educated. She was only 13 when she was introduced to Emperor Taizhong. She became his concubine, although she also took a liking to his son Li Zhi. When the Emperor died, the 27-year old Wu then, unconventionally, became a concubine to Li Zhi. She had a baby daughter, but it was soon strangled to death. Wu accused the first wife of Li Zhi of murdering her baby, although it is commonly believed that it was Wu herself who killed it to frame Li Zhi’s first wife. She succeeded; the empress was deposed, and Wu rose in in rank. Her power grew even more when she had a son, who became the new emperor.

When the young man died of a stroke, Wu took over his rule. Some historians believe Wu in fact killed her own son to ascend the throne. She was declared emperor in 690. Wu was known for killing or locking up anybody that stood in her way. She had her own army of secret police to spy on her enemies and eliminate them. She eventually abdicated to let her third son rule. Not long after, she passed away at the age of 80 (Custer; WIWH 1996). The popular 2013 Chinese costume drama Women of the Tang Dynasty is based on the era of Wu Zetian the generations that followed.

xiaomanWu Zetian played by Hui Yinghong in the TV series Women of the Tang Dynasty (唐宫燕).

 

KILLING WITH CAKE

4. Empress Wei (韦皇后)

Empress Wei lived around the same as Wu Zetian. You might say Wu Zetian was a role model to Wei, as she tried to emulate her evil ways in order to gain power and influence. She was the wife of Emperor Zhongzong, Wu Zetian’s son, who was sent into exile when his brother was put on the throne. Wei joined her husband in exile. After 705, the emperor reascended the throne. At this time, Wei and the emperor had suffered many hardships while away from

After 705, the emperor reascended the throne. At this time, Wei and the emperor had suffered many hardships while away from court. Now that Wu Zetian had died, the spiteful Wei was determined to get a hold onto power. She began to interfere in state affairs. In order to get what she wanted, she manipulated and mobilized the clique of spies and supporters Wu Zetian had gathered while in power. In this way, Wei got to control the entire court. Her husband had become nothing but a puppet. She soon set out to remove and kill all of her enemies; she framed them with ingenious plots, got them exiled or executed. When her husband saw through her plans, she murdered him with poisonous steamed cakes – his favorite food.

In order to get what she wanted, she manipulated and mobilized the clique of spies and supporters Wu Zetian had gathered while in power. In this way, Wei got to control the entire court. Her husband had become nothing but a puppet. She soon set out to remove and kill all of her enemies; she framed them with ingenious plots, got them exiled or executed. When her husband saw through her plans, she murdered him with poisonous steamed cakes – his favorite food. Eventually her plans failed as her former sister-in-law jumped to power. Wei was beheaded in 710 (Peterson 2000, 202-206).

url-2Empress Wei played by He Saifei in the 2013 television series Women of the Tang Dynasty (唐宫燕).

 

RUTHLESS & LAVISH

3. Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后)

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) is one of China’s most famous empresses, known for her ruthlessness and resilience. She was born into a distinguished family of Manchu lineage and arrived at the Forbidden City as a concubine to Emperor Xianfeng in 1851.

She soon became his favorite, especially after she had given birth to a son. Xianfeng often discussed political matters with Cixi. She became well informed on state affairs and gradually grew more powerful. When Xianfeng died, Cixi did everything she could to gain political power. She ordered the suicide of the emperor’s regents and had her own son Tongzhi crowned as emperor.

She governed the state during his reign and during that of her nephew Guangxu. When he was put on the throne, she ordered him to reclusion in a palace within the Forbidden City, isolating him from the world and leaving him to see nobody but his wife and servants, who were then either put to death or banished. She effectively ruled the Chinese government for 47 years. Cixi was known for squandering money on luxurious banquets and expensive jewelry. At her banquets, she would request to be served 150 different dishes. She drank from a jade cup and ate with golden chopsticks. She was known for putting her own interests ahead of the nation until the end of her rule. At the end of her life, she still held grudges against her nephew Guangxu. She killed him through arsenic poisoning. She died one day later (Hilton 2013; SACU 2001; Spence 1990, 217-218).

cixiThe empress in pictures. Right photograph is part of a photo series of the Empress Dowager, 1903-1904. To learn more about these pictures, see this info page about an exhibition themed around them.

 

MURDER, MANIPULATION & TORTURE

2. Empress Lü Zhi (吕后)

Empress Lü (241–180 BC) was the first woman to become Empress of China. She was the wife of Emperor Liu Bang (Gaozu), founder of the Han Dynasty. Lü was very intelligent and her role was crucial in centralizing her husband’s rule. She became infamous for her cruelty and persistence in gaining ultimate power.

Empress Lü had several aristocratic and influential families killed so that the Emperor (and she herself) would maintain authority. After he died, she turned against his concubines. One of them was Qizi, who was very much loved by the Emperor. Qizi had born the Emperor a son, Ru Yi, who was the new heir of the household; something the Empress was displeased with. She had the young boy poisoned to death, and later turned against his mother. She mutilated Qizi by chopping off her hands and feet, scooping out her eyes, making her deaf and dumb with toxins, and abandoning her in a pigsty.

Up to her dying day, Empress Lü was known to make others suffer so she could have all the power to herself (Yao et al 2010, 64; Peterson 2000, 45-51).

luThe role of Empress Lü played by Wang Ji in 2011 costume drama The Han Triump (大风歌).

 

A VERY EVIL, VERY EVIL WOMAN

1. Jiang Qing (江青) or Madame Mao

Jiang Qing (1914-1991) is often pinpointed as one of the most evil women from China’s history because of her role during the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping once called her a “very evil, very evil woman” (很坏很坏的女人). Jiang played an important role during the Mao years as she was married to Mao Zedong and influenced his policies, especially those on art and culture.

She met Mao when she went to Yan’an in 1937. She was an actress in the left-wing theatre, and had been married and divorced twice before. She soon started to live together with Mao. Although Jiang initially kept her distance in political matters, she gradually became more influential and involved during the 1950s. She strengthened Mao’s position (and her own) by making sure that all influential people in the government and work units were loyal to Mao and herself. She removed those who allegedly were not. She soon gathered a group of supporters around her, and focused on the destruction of her enemies.

In 1968, she had the children of her enemy Zhou Enlai tortured and killed. As Mao’s health declined, she grew in influence. Together with Yao Wenyuan, Wang Hongwen and Zhang Chunqiao she formed the Gang of Four. After Mao’s death, the Gang was soon overthrown and accused of “persecuting to death” an estimated 34,800 people during the Cultural Revolution and having “framed and persecuted” 729,511 others during the years they were in power. Jiang maintained that Mao had supported her and that she had only obeyed his will (Spence 1990, 680-681; Kristof 1991). Although Jiang was initially condemned to death, she was later sentenced to life in prison. She committed suicide at the age of 77 in 1991 (Lee 2007, 259-263).

jiangqingJiang qing in her young years on the cover of a movie magazine and pictured with Mao Zedong (right).

 

References

Cook, Constance. 2007. “Wen Jiang, Wife of Duke Huan of Lu,” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E., 81. New York: ME Sharpe.

Custer, Charles. “Wu Zetian, China’s Only Female Emperor.” Chinese Culture  http://chineseculture.about.com/od/historyofchina/fl/Wu-Zetian.htm (Accessed Dec 8, 2014).

Hilton, Isabel. 2013. “Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang – review.” The Guardian, 25 Oct http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/25/empress-dowager-cixi-jung-chang-review (Accessed November 19, 2014).

KPBS. 1993. “Theatre Preview M. Butterfly at North Coast Reportory Theatre.” KPBS On Air Magazine, August www.patteproductions.com/Previews/Archive/prev93/oa930800.htm (Accessed December 5, 2014).

Kristof, Nikolas. 1991. “Suicide of Jiang Qing, Mao’s Widow, Is Reported.” New York Times, 5 June http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/05/obituaries/suicide-of-jiang-qing-mao-s-widow-is-reported.html (Accessed December 5, 2014).

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong and A.D. Stefanowska (eds). 2003. Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Women. The Twentieth Century: 1912-2000. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong. 2007. “Lu Xiaoman.” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds), Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E.,389-392. New York: ME Sharpe.

–. 2003. “Jiang Qing.” In Lily Xiao Hong Lee and A.D. Stefanowska (eds). 2003. Biographic Dictionary of Chinese Women. The Twentieth Century: 1912-2000, 259-263. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Leung Li, Siu. 2003. Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Peterson, Barbara Bennett (ed). 2000. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

SACU. 2001. “The Life of Empress Cixi.” Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding http://www.sacu.org/cixi.html (Accessed December 5, 2014).

Sina 2014. “花钱太多:徐志摩养不活陆小曼.” Sina News, 3 July http://history.sina.com.cn/bk/mgs/2014-07-03/163294573.shtml (Accessed December 5, 2014).

Spence, Jonathan. 1990. The Search for Modern China. Norton&Company: New York.

Wadler, Joyce. 2009. “Shi Pei Pu, Singer, Spy and ‘M. Butterfly,’ Dies at 70.” New York Times, 9 June http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/02/world/asia/02shi.html (Accessed Dec 9, 2014).

WIWH (Women in World History). 1996. “Empress Wu Zetian.” Women in World History www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine6.html (Accessed December 4, 2014).

Yao Dan et al. 2010. Chinese Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zhao Xiaoming. 2000. “Zhao Feiyan.” In Barbara Bennett Peterson (ed), Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century, 87-89. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

 

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

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11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Xiaoxiao Li

    December 9, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    “In 1968, she had the children of her enemy Zhou Enlai tortured and killed.” Not true. Zhou Enlai s well known for having no child.

    • Manya Koetse

      December 11, 2014 at 11:28 am

      He did – they were adopted.

  2. Ricky

    December 10, 2014 at 5:50 am

    That was a fascinating article. I have been pondering why no one seems to trust anyone in Chinese culture. It seems these chess matches have been going on for centuries.

  3. Sania Bright

    April 20, 2015 at 7:41 am

    great list thanks for sharing

  4. Yan

    December 2, 2015 at 9:26 pm

    I don’t think Wu Zetian is evil. As a female ruler in ancient China, she has been highly appreciated throughout history by people, particularly by women. We can’t ignore her contribution. We can probably say that other women were evil, because they did terrible things without any contribution to society. I disagree with that Lu Xiaoman is evil. You shouldn’t say that she “killed” her husband. That’s discrimination.

    • Big Duh

      April 22, 2017 at 12:58 am

      Well, we all know that there are many rumors out there and maybe they are true. But if she actually killed a child, it doesn’t matter how she contributed to society, she’s still evil. You can contribute to society and still be an evil son of a bitch bastard that ruin innocent people’s lives.

    • Maggie

      June 2, 2017 at 1:54 pm

      I agree, she isn’t very evil. My parents and my relatives all think Wu Zetian aren’t evil. Maybe this is from a Chinese perspective. A lot of western articles say she is evil. But the Chinese wrote songs about Wu Zetian and how great she is. She made Buddhism the national religion. She made equal rights for women, and she made less taxes for the peasants. She’s ruthless, but probably not evil.

  5. Bernard R

    February 3, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Informative and well-written, Ms Koetse. I’m thinking that Wei and especially Wu might’ve torn a page from the previous Nothern Wei Dynasty archives and the infamous Dowager Empress Hu, huuuu had poisoned her young son (and heir to the thrown) when he reached ruling age and replaced him with a different (2-yr-old) crown prince but was quickly overthrown by a general who was loyal to her late son and who promptly had her–along with the uncomprehending 2-yr-old Emperor–into the Yellow River to drown-
    Oh, which reminds me, who was the badass 18th or 19th century Chinese woman pirate? Powerful and viscious; evil too, if you don’t like pirates.

  6. anonymous

    August 20, 2017 at 1:48 am

    I just knew that Mao’s wife would end up at #1 on this list!

  7. MNRC

    May 4, 2018 at 12:56 pm

    The title of this article is incredibly misogynistic and smacks of patriarchal condescension. Why were any of these women “evil”? Because they had the nerve to do what any smart male emperor would have done in her place? Political intrigue, ruthless assassinations, and societal manipulation was the name of the game in the imperial courts of dynastic China and you either lived to tell your story or died trying. Any of the “evil” actions of these women were committed a million times more by male emperors throughout Chinese history.

    As a leader Wu Zetian was actually one of the best emperors China had ever seen. Chinese historians hate her because she was strong, unfeminine, and unapologetically power hungry; she was utterly ruthless–seizing and wielding power like a man when no woman had dared to do this so publicly in the past. Wu Zetian embodies feminist leadership and her actions were no worse than the male leaders that came before or after her. To condemn these powerful women as “evil” is to enforce sexist oppression on women who chose power over the life of a docile doormat there to be stepped on by men, husbands, sons, and an intensely patriarchal society.

    “She reformed the educational and governmental selection process so that talented people were promoted, regardless of rank. She boosted agricultural production by rewarding good administrators, punishing those who taxed the peasants too heavily, re-allocating land fairly and improving public works. She strengthened defence and foreign relations, so that by 697 AD, military threats in the far northwest had been overcome and territorial limits extended deep into Central Asia. She also completed the conquest of the upper Korean peninsula. Notably, she made Buddhism the favoured state religion ahead of Daoism.

    By the time she died 15 years later, Wu had created a powerful and prosperous regime and social stability. She was buried in the Qianling Tomb in Shaanxi province.” From http://yp.scmp.com/education/article/91619/wu-zetian-chinas-fierce-and-fearless-empress-and-feminist

    From a feminist perspective Wu Zetian demonstrated that women can be equally as powerful and effective leaders as men.

    • Tervashonka

      August 16, 2018 at 5:29 pm

      If a female emperor acts in the same evil way as a male emperor, that means they are both evil. Saying that atrocities carried out by female emperors is misogyny just because male emperors have been guilty of same kind of actions just does not make any sense.

      From a non feminist perspective Wu Zetian did indeed demonstrate that women can be equally as powerful and effective as men, but she also demonstrated that women can be just as ruthless and evil leaders as men. Therefore she indeed deserves a spot on this list.

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Backgrounder

This Was Trending in China in 2018: The 18 Biggest Weibo Hashtags of the Year

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First published

It’s been an eventful 2018 on Chinese social media. What’s on Weibo lists the 18 topics that have generated the most views and discussions on Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo over the past year.

What’s trending in Western media when it comes to China is not necessarily what is trending on Chinese social media, too. While topics such as the Xinjiang ‘re-education centers’, China’s nascent Social Credit System, #MeToo in China, or the allegedly “banned” Winnie the Pooh movie were some of the biggest China-related topics on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook this year, Chinese internet users were discussing other things – some issues trending in the Western media were not as big within the PRC due to censorship, but some also simply weren’t as big because of a seeming lack of public interest.

What’s on Weibo has selected the 18 biggest hashtags that were trending on Weibo in 2018, mostly based on their total views, but also based on the impact they had on the meme machine, and the overall discussions that flooded Wechat.

This list has been fully compiled by What’s on Weibo.1 Please note that we have left some topics and hashtags out. One such example is the World Cup. While the World Cup hashtag (#世界杯#) has received a staggering 31 billion views on Weibo alone, this is a more general hashtag that has also been used before 2018; we have attempted to make a selection of topics that were the biggest of this year and 2018 alone.

Due to the scope of this article, some major topics such as the arrest of Richard Liu, the Changchun vaccine scandal, or the online success of the two vlogging farmers and their bamboo rats, did not make the cut, simply because other hashtags garnered more views.

Here we go –

 

#1 The Didi Murders

Hashtag “Female Passenger Murdered by Didi Driver” (#女孩乘滴滴顺风车遇害#) – 2,45 billion views on Weibo. Hashtag “Stewardess Killed in Didi Ride” #空姐滴滴打车遇害案# – 55 million views.

See article here

This year Didi Chuxing, China’s most popular car-hailing app, faced huge public backlash on Weibo, where netizens threatened to boycott the company amid safety concerns. Over the past years, Didi has seen dozens of cases where female passengers were assaulted by their drivers. The terrible murders of two young women in 2018 sparked national outrage.

In May of this year, the murder of a 21-year-old flight attendant by her Didi driver became a major topic of discussion on Weibo. The young woman, Li Mingzhu, was killed in the early morning when she was on her way home from Zhengzhou airport. The body of the driver who killed Li was later found in a nearby river. In August, the 20-year-old passenger Xiao Zhao was raped and stabbed to death by her Didi driver on her way to a birthday party on a Friday afternoon. Hours later, the driver was arrested.

What contributed to the major impact this topic had on social media was the fact that several people came forward on WeChat and Weibo to tell how Didi was warned beforehand: Xiao’s friend immediately contacted Didi after her friend had called out for help during that fatal ride, but she was told to wait and no immediate action was taken. Another female claimed she had already reported the driver to Didi for indecent behavior earlier that week.

In a rapidly changing society where companies such as Didi play an increasingly important role in how people travel and navigate their lives, the Didi murders not only showed the enormous responsibility these companies have in creating a safe environment for passengers, but also showed that the public expects these companies to provide these secure conditions.

After the August murder, Didi suspended its Hitch service, which pairs drivers and passengers traveling the same route (the young women were killed while using Hitch), and added several new safety features to make Didi safer for passengers and to quickly assist customers with any problems they might have.

 

#2 Flaunt Wealth Challenge

Hashtag “Flaunt Your Wealth Challenge” (#炫富挑战#) – 2,3 billion views

See article here

The ‘Flaunt Your Wealth’ or ‘Falling Stars’ hype, in which people post staged photos of themselves ‘falling’ out of their vehicles surrounded by luxury items, first spread on social media in Russia in the summer of 2018, and then made its way to other countries. In China, it became one of the biggest social media hypes of this year.

But besides those photos of seemingly rich Chinese ‘falling’ out of their super expensive cars surrounded by Gucci bags and Chanel make-up, there was also an anti-movement that became hugely popular. It showed how people were mocking the challenge by laying on the floor surrounded by their diplomas, military credential, or study books – defying superficial ideas on the meaning of ‘wealth’ and what it actually looks like.

 

#3 The Traveling Frog Craze

Hashtag “Traveling Frog” (#旅行青蛙#) – 2,1 billion views

See article here

1997 was the year of Tamagotchi, 2018 was the year of the Traveling Frog. The mobile game, designed by a Japanese company, took Chinese social media by storm this year, with thousands of people sharing their struggles in taking care of their virtual frog, which often goes traveling.

The game is characterized by its rather uneventful nature. While at home, the frog sits around and eats or reads, and while away, the player can’t do anything but take care of the garden and wait for their virtual friend to send them a postcard before finally returning.

There are various theories explaining the success of the game. Some say the uneventful app is appealing for young Chinese with stressful lives since it has a calming effect, others might suggest it offers a sense of ‘home’ in a society where fewer people feel at home where they live, and there were even some voices in state media ascribing the success to China’s low birth rates.

 

#4 Jin Yong Passes Away

Hashtag “Jin Yong Passes Away” (#金庸去世#) – 2 billion views on Weibo

The passing of Chinese wuxia novelist Jin Yong (查良鏞), also known as Louis Cha, became big news on Chinese social media this fall. Wuxia (武俠) is a genre of Chinese fiction that focuses on the adventures of martial artists in ancient China, and Jin Yong is regarded as one of the best – if not the top – authors within the genre. Many of his works, of which over 300 million copies were sold worldwide, have been turned into tv series and films.

Jin’s passing set off waves of nostalgia on Weibo, where thousands of netizens shared their favorite works and scenes, thanked the author for all he did, and praised his contributions to Chinese popular culture.

Another person who passed away in November of 2018 is the renowned Hong Kong actress Yammie Lam (藍潔瑛). News of her death also received millions of views on Chinese social media.

 

#5 Gene-modified Babies

Hashtag “First Case of Gene-Edited HIV Immune Babies” (#首例免疫艾滋病基因编辑婴儿#) – 1,9 billion Weibo views 

See article here

News that a Chinese researcher from Shenzen has helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies made international headlines in November of this year. He Jiankui (贺建奎) claimed that together with his research team, he succeeded in altering the DNA of embryos, making them resistant to HIV. The twin girls were born earlier this year.

On social media, the topic received many mixed reactions, with many condemning the researcher’s work, and others praising it. Chinese authorities launched an investigation into the research shortly after news came out, and He Jiankui has not been heard of since. Many people on Weibo are now wondering about his whereabouts, what will happen to him, and how this will further impact the lives of the two girls whose genes were edited.

 

#6 Golden Horse Ceremony’s ‘Taiwan’ Speech

Hashtag “Gong Li Refuses to Confer Award” (#巩俐拒绝颁奖#) – 1,9 billion views on Weibo

See article here

The annual Golden Horse Film Awards in Taipei turned out to be a painful confrontation between mainland actors and Taiwanese pro-independence supporters this year. Although Ang Lee, chairman of the Golden Horse committee, had probably hoped to keep politics out of the film festival, the atmosphere of the live-streamed event changed when award-winning director Fu Yue expressed her hopes for an independent Taiwan during her acceptance speech. Later on in the show, actor Tu Men from mainland China struck back on stage by saying he was honored to present an award in “China, Taiwan.”

Things got more polarized and political when famous Chinese actress Gong Li, at the end of the show, refused to get on stage with Ang Lee to present the award for Best Feature Film. The evening officially seemed ruined when, at the end of the night, it turned out that most mainland actors and producers declined taking part in the celebratory award dinner and went straight back to the mainland instead.

This was not the only topic this year that showed that the current and future status of Taiwan is still an incredibly sensitive topic that can set off waves of angry nationalism on social media. A brief visit to Taiwanese bakery 85°C by ROC President Tsai Ing-wen and the surfacing of an old video of actress Vivian Sung in which she called Taiwan her “favorite country” also triggered major discussions on cross-Straits relations.

 

#7 Chongqing Bus Plunges Into River

Hashtag “Why Chongqing Bus Plunged in the River” (#重庆公交车坠江原因#) – 1,4 billion Weibo views

See article here

In late October of this year, an incident in which a public bus plunged off a bridge into the Yangtze river, causing all 15 passengers to die, became a huge topic on Chinese social media. The security camera footage from inside the bus later showed how a passenger who apparently had missed her stop gets angry with the driver and starts hitting him with her mobile phone. The driver then abruptly turns the steering wheel, hitting oncoming traffic, crashes through the safety fence, and plunges into the river.

The incident caused major concerns over aggression in Chinese public transport, with other videos of similar incidents also making their rounds on social media. The city of Nanjing soon introduced security partitions on buses, and the existence of special “grievance awards” for bus drivers who do not respond to angry passengers also became a topic of debate. Many people on Weibo called for bus cards to be linked to one’s identity so that troublemakers will be able to be blacklisted from buses in the future.

 

#8 The Kunshan Stabbing Case

Hashtag (#追砍电动车主遭反杀#) – 1,25 billion views on Weibo

See article here

A bizarre road-rage incident in which a muscular and tattooed BMW driver attacked an innocent cyclist with a big knife, but then ended up dead himself, was the biggest story on Chinese social media this summer, triggering countless of memes.

The entire scene was caught on security cameras. In the night of August 27, a BMW switched from the car lane to the bicycle lane in the city of Kunshan (Jiangsu), colliding with a man driving his bike, who seemingly refused to give way. Two men then step out of their BMW vehicle to confront the cyclist, with one man going back to his vehicle, suddenly pulling out a long knife and going after the cyclist, stabbing him. During the fight, however, the BMW driver suddenly lets the knife slip out of his hands, after which the bike owner quickly picks it up. With the knife in his hands, he now starts attacking the BMW driver, who eventually dies of his injuries.

One of the main reasons for the mass focus on this incident was that there was an ethical question involved, namely: to what extent could this be regarded as legitimate self-defense? It did not take long for the answer to come out, as authorities ruled it self-defense in September. For many, the news was proof that justice had prevailed.

 

#9 The Dolce and Gabbana Controversy

Hashtag “D&G Show Canceled” #DG大秀取消# and “D&G Designer Responds Again” (#dg设计师再次回应#) 820 & 940 million views on Weibo 

See article here

Although 2018 was supposed to be a great China year for Italian luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana, things unexpectedly spiraled out of control in November of this year, while the brand’s “D&G Loves China” campaign was in full swing.

It started with criticism on a video that was launched by the fashion brand to promote its upcoming Shanghai show. The video, that shows a Chinese model failing to eat Italian food with her chopsticks, was deemed sexist and insulting by many. Things started going downhill real fast after screenshots of comments attributed to fashion designer Stefano Gabbana, in which he scolds China and makes derogatory remarks about Chinese, went viral. It soon led to the cancellation of the big D&G show in Shanghai.

Despite apologies issued by the D&G founders, many netizens called for a boycott of the brand. It is yet unclear to what extent the marketing disaster has affected the brand, but one thing this incident shows is that cultural insensitivities in marketing campaigns can soon lead to a public relations mess.

 

#10 Wang Baoqiang’s Divorce Drama Continues

Hashtag “Wang Baoqiang Beats up Ma Rong” #王宝强殴打马蓉#) received some 520 million views before it was taken offline 

See article here 

Will there be another year when the 2016 split between Chinese celebrities Wang Baoqiang (王宝强) and ex-wife Ma Rong (马蓉) does not make into the top-trending lists?! Ever since the dramatic divorce of the two became one of the top hashtags of 2016, their fights have continued to be a major topic on Chinese social media.

This time, Chinese actress Ma Rong claimed that her ex-husband attacked her when she came to pick up her children at his house in early December. Dramatic photos and hospital footage soon made their rounds on Weibo, but when news came out that the ‘attack’ might have been staged, and that Ma Rong had caused a scene at her ex’s house, netizens condemned the actress for her actions.

The incident became a major source of inspiration for the Weibo meme machine, where others imitated the dramatic Ma Rong photo and photo-shopped it into gossip magazines.

 

#11 The High-Speed Train Tyrants

Hashtag “High-speed Train Tyrant Woman” (#高铁霸座女#) – 505 million views and #高铁霸座事件# – 110 million views

See article here

The two train tyrants of 2018 will probably go down in China’s social media history for their meme-worthy and bizarre behavior, that triggered a storm of criticism online. Both of their bad behaviors on high-speed trains were caught on video.

In August of this year, one rude man from Shandong, who refused to give up the seat he took from another passenger, became known as the “High-Speed Train Tyrant” (高铁霸座男 gāotiě bà zuò nán) on Chinese social media. A video showing the man’s rude behavior went viral, and netizens were especially angry because the man pretended he could not get up from the stolen seat and needed a wheelchair – although he did not need one when boarding the train.

In September of 2018, a woman from Hunan, who was dubbed ‘High-Speed Train Tyrant Woman’ (高铁霸座女 gāotiě bà zuò nǚ) by Weibo netizens, had also taken a seat assigned to another passenger while riding the train from Yongzhou to Shenzhen. Despite the conductor’s reasoning, she refused to get up from her window seat to return to her own seat.

Netizens soon linked the two ‘Train Tyrants,’ creating dozens of memes that showed the two as lovebirds getting married. The incidents also showed public support of China’s nascent Social Credit System, with many calling for a system that would allow these kinds of misbehaving people to be blacklisted from public transport in general.

 

#12 Invictus Gaming: The E-Sports Craze in China

Hashtag “The Meaning of IG Championship”  #IG夺冠的意义# – 540 million views on Weibo

See article here

People were going absolutely crazy over the success of China’s e-sports when ‘Invictus Gaming’ (IG) became the first Chinese team to win the League of Legends World Championship. Students were hanging banners from their dorm rooms, videos of cheering crowds in school canteens flooded Weibo, and dozens of new memes surfaced on Chinese social media. One of them showed two monkeys with a big “Congratulations IG” above them and one wondering “What is IG?!”, and the other telling him just to follow the rest in congratulating them anyway, signaling that many people had never heard of ‘Invictus Gaming’ before, and were clueless about the top trending lists being filled up with this new topic.

China’s e-sports craze also made one Weibo post the most popular of all time, when billionaire Wang Sicong announced he would be giving away more than $160,000 to Weibo users to celebrate the victory of the Chinese team.

 

#13 The Boy who was Duped at the Hair Salon

Hashtag “Hairline-boy expressions” (#发际线男孩表情包#) – viewed  470 million times on Weibo

See article

What was supposed to be a quick visit to the hairdresser turned into a disaster when the 18-year-old Wu Zhengqiang (吴正强) was presented with a 40,000 yuan ($5750) bill and a bad haircut. Although the teenager eventually could pay a much lower amount of money to the salon, Wu turned to local media to tell about his unfortunate haircut, and shared that he was not just sad about losing the money, but that he was also unhappy with his new hairstyle and hairline.

The story soon went viral and triggered the creation of dozens of new memes across Chinese social media, turning the duped boy into one of the biggest internet sensations of 2018.

 

#14 Meng Wanzhou WeChat Moments Post

Hashtag “Meng Wanzhou’s WeChat Moments Post after Release” (#孟晚舟保释后发朋友圈#) – 380 million views on Weibo

See article

The December 1st arrest of Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟), the financial officer of Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technology – which happens to have been founded by her father, Ren Zhengfei (任正非), – became huge news in China and across the world.

Meng was detained during a transit at the Vancouver airport at the request of United States officials. She is accused of fraud for violating US sanctions on Iran. Meng allegedly helped Huawei get around these sanctions by misleading financial institutions into believing that subsidiary company ‘Skycom’ was a separate company in order to conduct business in Iran. Chinese officials, demanding Meng’s release, have called the arrest “a violation of a person’s human rights.”

Meng was released on bail on December 11th. She then shared an update on her Wechat ‘Moments’ page, which received mass attention on Weibo. It showed the feet of a ballet dancer along with a quote saying that “there is suffering behind greatness” (伟大的背后都是苦难). Meng also thanked people for their support, and in doing so, once again received thousands of supportive messages on social media.

 

#15 The Tang Lanlan Case

Hashtag “The Truth about the Tang LanLan Case” (#汤兰兰案真相调查#) – viewed 340 million times on Weibo (also 汤兰兰性侵案 => hashtag now removed, then 50 million views)

See article 

The news story of a decade-old abuse case caused an uproar on Chinese social media in late January of 2018, when many netizens on Weibo believed that reporters of the story were biased and were harming the privacy of Tang Lanlan, the alleged victim in the case.

In 2008, a then 14-year-old girl named Tang Lanlan (汤兰兰, pseudonym) accused her father, grandfather, uncles, teachers, the rural director and neighbors of sexually abusing her since the age of seven. It later led to the prosecution of 11 people for rape and forced prostitution of a minor – including Tang’s own parents. As some of those people, including Tang’s mother, had since been released after serving their sentence, they sought the attention of the media in claiming that Tang, now 23 years old, had fabricated the story and that they were searching for her.

Netizens harshly criticized Chinese media outlets such as The Paper for featuring the story and giving away details about the identity of Tang, saying they should protect the victim instead of choosing the side of those convicted. The outrage was so huge that some reporters were even doxxed by netizens, and that articles and hashtags were removed, making the Tang Lan Lang case the greatest clash between Chinese media and netizens in 2018.

 

#16 Foreigners’ “Preferential Treatment”

Hashtag “Pretend to be foreign and Ofo gives back deposit right away” (#假装外国人ofo秒退押金#) – 250 million views. 

See article

There have been many topics over the past year that involved national pride and Chinese social media users feeling insulted or discriminated against. One such topic is the recent collective anger directed at bike sharing platform Ofo for allegedly helping foreigners much quicker than Chinese nationals.

A Weibo user who did not feel like waiting for hours on the phone to get his Ofo deposit back decided to pose as a foreigner to see if it would help. He sent an email in English via Gmail to Ofo, requesting his deposit back. It worked. He posted about it on Weibo, and millions of people responded with anger. Earlier in 2018, there was also outrage when a short movie went viral on Chinese social media that exposed the big differences between the dorm conditions of Chinese students and of foreigners studying in China.

 

#17 The Sweden Controversy

Hashtag “Chinese Tourists Abused by Swedish Police” #中国游客遭瑞典警察粗暴对待# and “Swedish TV Show Insults China” #瑞典辱华节目#– 170 and 50 million views on Weibo

See article here and here

The alleged maltreatment of a Chinese family in Stockholm ignited major discussions on Chinese social media this September when footage showed how a Chinese man was dragged out of a hotel lobby by Swedish police, while his elderly parents were crying on the sidewalk. The dramatic footage was shot after the tourists arrived at their hotel long before check-in time, and were refused permission to stay overnight in the lobby. When they refused to leave, police got involved.

Chinese media greatly criticized Swedish authorities for how they handled the incident, and it even led to the Chinese embassy in Sweden issuing a safety alert. Not long after, a satirical Swedish TV show made fun of Chinese people through a sketch that listed a number of do’s and don’ts for Chinese tourists, including “not taking a poo outside of historical places.” The TV show added fuel to the fire and was condemned by Chinese social media users. The Chinese embassy in Sweden denounced the satirical Swedish TV show for “maliciously attacking” China. The entire ordeal did not do any good for the relations between Sweden and China, that have already been tense due to the imprisonment of Swedish-Chinese author Gui Minhai.

 

#18 Fugitives on the Loose

Hashtag “Two Fugitives on the Loose” (#两名重刑犯逃脱#) – 170 million views

See article here

It was almost like a movie: two criminals spectacularly escaped from a Liaoning prison and the entire country went on a manhunt, with authorities giving out a big reward for those who’d catch them and setting out drones to catch the two.

Social media played an important role in the search for the fugitives, that took place in early October of this year. Ten thousands of people closely followed the ordeal, as security footage from a local store was posted online only hours after their escape, showing the two criminals buying some food and cigarettes. Within 50 hours of their escape, the fugitives were captured by the police through the help of local villagers.

While you’re here, also check out the top 30 best books to understand China we published earlier this year!

By Manya Koetse

*1 (We kindly ask not to reproduce this list without permission – please link back if referring to it).


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Backgrounder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

BTS and More: An Army of Fans

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CREATING SUCCESS

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Entertainment Powerhouses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Soo Man, image via AllKpop.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

SHAPING SUCCESS

The Popularisation of K-Pop: A Digital Strategy

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CONTINUING SUCCESS

Marketing more than a Band: Active Fans and Interesting Characters

 

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

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

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

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

TWICE

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

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

Amber from F(x) has an androgynous look.

Heechul from boy band Super Junior.

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

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

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

By Manya Koetse

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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