When Fiction Becomes Reality: Examining Chinese Censorship, Culture, and the Celebrity

Much can be said about the role of the idol. For some, the idol is merely a celebrity who represents a kind of role model. For others, the idol has come to consume their lives, a full-time job that needs active protecting. For many individuals in the latter group, the idol has evolved beyond an individual, but into an image that becomes the justification for doing what is both right and wrong. 

For 28-year-old actor, singer, and idol Xiao Zhan, this concept of the image has become central. Xiao Zhan shot to popularity last summer for his role as one of the main leads, Wei Wuxian, in Chinese boys’ love (abbreviated as BL) drama The Untamed. The novel-turned-drama focuses on two “soulmates” Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji (played by fellow idol Wang Yibo) and their burgeoning relationship while solving mysteries along the way. Due to censorship from the Chinese government, The Untamed downplays the romantic relationship between the two leads, intentionally leaving it up to interpretation. Yet the ambiguity of the drama led to many spin-offs and fanfictions created by fans, who found online platforms the most effective way of emphasizing the nature of the characters’ relationship.

The real drama came when one fanfiction in particular, Falling, provoked the ire of Xiao Zhan’s fans. The fanfiction, published on Archive of Our Own, centered on Xiao Zhan as a cross-dressing sex worker in love with Wang Yibo, an underaged student. This controversial representation of Xiao Zhan became the subject of collective anger in the Xiao Zhan fandom; according to Jing Daily, fans viewed the fanfiction as “tarnishing Xiao’s image.” 

With the relentless clicking of every “report” button on Chinese websites and social media, fans reported AO3 and other platforms meant to share BL content to Chinese authorities. The reporting mechanisms in place by the Chinese government only enabled the spread of this collective behavior. Shortly afterwards, Chinese authorities banned national access to Archive of Our Own, as well as Lofter, another Chinese fanfiction site. 

Fans of the sites were angered. To many, these sites represented freedom of speech under an authoritarian government. The response to the censorship of these platforms was to retaliate against Xiao Zhan’s reputation as a public figure. Xiao Zhan’s works and affiliated brands were boycotted, with the hashtag #BoycottXiaoZhan reaching more than 260 million views. Xiao Zhan was under fire for his perceived involvement in the case, which by that time had escalated into the subject of national dialogue about fandoms, censorship, and the nature of consumer culture.

LGBTQ identities are still largely censored by the Chinese government, and Xiao Zhan’s “scandal” reflects that conflict, as well as the dynamics behind their narrative consumption. According to an article from The Beat, young women are especially attracted to BL fiction — even, as the article implies, inclined to fetishize it —because it allows some degree of fantasy. Susan Napier, professor of Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, says that in BL, young women can choose which male lead they identify with, thus exploring sexuality without being directly inserted into it. Such a framework can explain why the BL genre is so popular. It also explains why the Chinese entertainment industry has attempted to profit off of it while also censoring the more physical reminders that it does not cater to the government’s vision of traditional values.

Since the release of The Untamed, Xiao Zhan’s popularity has soared. This popularity came to a head with the actions of his fans, who drew widespread outrage and condemnation. According to Ju Chunyan, associate professor of sociology at Beijing University of Technology, fandoms have grown prevalent with the rise of consumer culture and now apply rational business techniques to “seemingly crazed” behavior all in order to preserve their idols’ images.

Yet looking at the case of Xiao Zhan requires a broader understanding of idol culture. A lot of people will criticize the nature of idol fandoms, dismissing fangirls as only participants because of perceived romantic attraction or a mere gravitation to visuals. In this kind of framing, it’s easy to attribute fans’ actions to the all-consuming fanbase. But this is only one way of looking at the issue. To some extent, we love our idols because they represent an image of what we aspire to be and what we want in our own lives. As a Chinese American, I never felt more connected to my culture than in the consumption of my idol’s content. 

Loving my idols was how I came to love being Chinese. It was through these magnified onscreen people that I came to love my Chinese identity just as much, if not more, than I loved my American one. It was here that I began to believe so concretely in my culture through what I consumed of it. And in those darker moments of my life, my idols became a fantasy.  I desperately wanted to imagine a life where I wasn’t just me, but someone born attractive and talented, meant to be onstage. I craved a shining life beyond the one I had grown up with; I was unsatisfied with what I perceived as mediocrity. My idols progressed beyond a mere cultural interest to an illusion of perfection. Psychology Today calls it “hero worship,” a zealous culture that takes the form of “deep attachments to a charismatic individual who might represent an intense belief system.” I called it love.

The purpose of this is not to justify fandoms as collective echo chambers, but to provide some insight into how a cultivated image is central to the concerted efforts of fans. Such a phenomenon can explain why a fanfiction like Falling provoked such a collective response in the sociology of Chinese idol culture. If our idols are our image of perfection, then how do you justify actions to preserve this image? If love means protecting, then what is the role of one who loves the idol? Isn’t it to protect?

The danger in this kind of thinking comes when we lose our own selves in the process of worshipping. This is where we start to view ourselves as representations of our idols, as somehow responsible for protecting them — or rather, what we think is them but is in reality just an image of them that we have crafted so meticulously over the years. 

Idol culture, especially in China, is a passionate and brilliant thing. But when it infringes on artistic freedom, this is where the ethical and cultural boundaries of representation become central. Writers must simultaneously navigate how they represent the idol and the idol’s fanbase, which have become conflated with one another. And of course, there is a whole debate over the ethical implications of using real people in fanfiction. But having fans report fanfiction because of perceived harm to their idol is counterintuitive to the very idea of artistic freedom. When fandoms treat a representation as equivalent to their idol’s image, the line between fiction and reality blurs.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more clear than in The Untamed, which beyond its depiction of boys’ love and solving mysteries, is about a man who becomes the subject of hate because of the collective power in “mob mentality.” There’s a particularly striking part where Xiao Zhan, as Wei Wuxian, stands on a rooftop. Below him are all the clans who now despise him for both what he has done in the past, and what they perceive he has done in the past. He has become a scapegoat for all issues, whether or not they were directly related to him. Everyone now hates him; some don’t even know why. 

It is here that in response to an individual who yells that he once idolized him, Wei Wuxian responds: “You said you admired me once. Why didn’t I ever see you when you were admiring me? But when I’m at a disadvantage, you suddenly jump out to help them and yell and shout?” He’s shaking. Tears are leaking out the corners of his eyes, but he’s also laughing, almost at the injustice of it all. “How cheap your admiration was,” Wei Wuxian sneers. “Both your hatred and admiration are so cheap.”

To me, this moment epitomizes the very essence of cancel culture, which revolves around the fragility of reputation above all else. It also illustrates the darker dynamic inherent within fandoms that choose to worship an image more than they worship the actual idol. There’s something beautiful about fandom at its very core, which often implies a shared following constructed upon common interest and goodwill. And there’s nothing wrong with this iteration; in fact, the majority of fans do express their love in positive ways. But when one chooses to attempt to project fantasy onto reality, that’s when we run into problems. Because how real can our love really be, if we choose to protect an image above our idol? Why are we so willing to shame any aspect of our idol even if it is merely a representation that doesn’t conform to our vision of perfection? 

There is an ongoing debate about whether the idol is required to “manage” fans, particularly since fans base themselves off the identity of the celebrity. Through the actions of his fans, Xiao Zhan has lost brand opportunities, potential variety show appearances, and his cultural value in relation to the Chinese government. Reddit user r/mish09 wrote:  “People accused [Xiao Zhan] of not controlling his fans better, but what can he do? He shouldn’t be expected to parent young girls … his only crime was being too popular for his own good.” 

Xiao Zhan is only the latest idol to witness how the actions of fans are projected as his own actions. He is also acutely conscious of the dynamics of his influence. In a recent interview with Economic View, Xiao Zhan was asked about his perspective on whether a celebrity must “manage” his fans. In response to the question, he expressed that he does not believe in the word “control” when applied to fans, saying: “I don’t think the relationship I have with people who love and support me is of superior and subordinate … rather, I think our relationship is as equals.” He goes on saying that all he can do as an artist is do his job well, and that really all he can do is promote positivity, a positive energy that he hopes his fans can use in living their own lives well. That’s the key, he says, that fans acknowledge their own lives first.

Instead of placing the blame on certain “obsessive” fans or idols themselves, it is worth taking a step back to evaluate the very ideals behind idol culture. There is an issue when it comes to the widespread conflation of idol and image because for some, an idol is an image. One could argue that the very role of the idol is to represent a kind of fantasy for one’s life. The idol industry runs on illusions; it constructs itself upon the appeal of certain personas. But to be a critical consumer means looking beyond these personas and at the relationship between celebrities and their fans. In China, the role of the celebrity is so often influenced by the context of the Chinese government and its ever-present censorship. In light of this political context, Xiao Zhan became the target. As a fan, it is necessary to consider whether an action really protects the idol and not just the version that has been allowed to be produced, the version that fans have been allowed to love.

The parallels between fiction and reality are clear. In some ways, Xiao Zhan and the character of Wei Wuxian do appear to be living similar situations. Yet it’s also important to recognize that they are not the same person. As a TV and film star, Xiao Zhan is no stranger to the way that stories reflect a kind of desire. And as such, it can be said that consumption of dramas like The Untamed reflect a desire for fiction as reality. The Untamed and Xiao Zhan’s subsequent rise to popularity and downfall are warnings of a consumer culture that has grown to affect more than public personas, but also personal lives. 

Xiao Zhan’s “scandal” is a testament to the clear limit between fiction and reality when it comes to idol worship. It simultaneously acknowledges the collective power of fandoms as well as the underlying danger in an industry that relies on the image above all else. Because when you admire an image, you admire an illusion. And eventually, these illusions vanish, leaving nothing but harsh reality in their wake. 

This article reflects the opinion of the author.

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