The comedy business in China used to be dominated by male entertainers from the north of the country. In the radio and television era, the most popular forms were xiangsheng (two-handers) and xiaopin (sketches). For xiangsheng, performers wear the traditional cheongsam, hold a fan in one hand and stand in front of a small table: the dou gen, or lead, tells the story and throws out punchlines, while the peng gen, his foil, takes the role of the ignorant spectator. Xiaopin usually involves two or more performers satirising some current trend. The annual Spring Festival Gala, which has been broadcast live every Lunar New Year’s Eve since 1983, features xiangsheng and xiaopin, singing and dancing, and in the 1980s and 1990s every household with a television tuned in. It still reaches more than a billion people and is often said to be the most powerful tool of Chinese identity formation – or at least this was the way it was thought of in the earlier years of opening up. I still remember my excitement when famous comedians came on stage. They were the crème de la crème, and almost all of them come from northern or north-eastern China. Then a Western face showed up. Mark Rowswell is Canadian. He made his name performing xiangsheng at the gala several years in a row, becoming the best-known and most loved foreigner in China. In a recent interview, Rowswell talked about how bored he was of always playing the role of a Western student who outsmarts his wise Chinese mentor. Xiangsheng, he said, was in decline. He now prefers stand-up comedy.
It is not quite fair to say that xiangsheng is in decline. It survives surprisingly well in the social media era. Instead of trying to hold on to older male audiences, the Chinese equivalent of boomers, the shrewdest performers now cater to a new cohort: urban, educated young women. Deyun Club, led by the old-school performer Guo Degang, still functions as comedy did in feudal times (all-male cast, master/apprentice system, absolute hierarchy etc), but tickets for its live shows are sought after. The fans are enthusiastic and engaged: unlike the boomer audience who just sit and laugh, ‘Deyun Fan Girls’ sing along with the performers, boo when a joke fails and often get to the punchline first. I imagine they have put new pressure on traditional performers, who have to work much harder to keep up with the pace set by their fans.
Compared to xiangsheng, which is almost two hundred years old, stand-up comedy (mistranslated in Chinese as ‘talk show’) is still a baby. When Chinese overseas students moved back home in waves in the 1990s, they wanted to keep watching the shows they had enjoyed in the West. Pubs in Beijing and Shanghai started to host open mic nights, usually in two languages. Anyone could have a go. Fansub (short for fan-subtitled) groups, who already provided free subtitles for their favourite movies, started to translate Saturday Night Live and other shows. Now every major streaming platform, including iQIYI, Bilibili and Youku, is scrambling to acquire rights to comedy shows.
Li Dan, creator of the massively popular variety shows Roast (tu cao da hui) and Rock and Roast (tuo kou xiu da hui), was born in Inner Mongolia and arrived in Shanghai determined to shake some humour out of the cold, indifferent, commercial world. Even his way of courting capital is smart. He repeatedly tells his audience that he refuses to get up early: in response, companies throw money at him and then require him to attend morning meetings. Li noticed that his audience consisted mainly of young women. Men would approach him with the same opening line: ‘My girlfriend/wife is a huge fan of yours. Can I take a selfie with you to impress her?’ When he was asked about male fans, he replied: ‘It’s hopeless. They only want to play games now. If men come to see my show, they are dragged there by their girlfriend.’
The profile of the audience affects the content of a show. In the West, stand-up can take on difficult subjects: politics, religion, gender, race, sex. In China, politics is off-limits (Beijing taxi drivers are the only exception), but comedians talk about relationships, work, domestic drama, money, kids and other everyday things. Many jokes rely on memes that have gone viral, which can baffle outsiders. The homogenisation of audiences has given female comedians the edge. Yang Li, who shot to fame after asking why ‘so many men are so confident when they’re so ordinary’, has become the poster girl for independent women. She is clear-sighted about her ‘protest’ comedy: ‘I only say what my audience want to hear.’ She makes a good living from teasing men. Male comedians have retreated to self-mockery; none of them would commit career suicide by teasing his female audience. But sometimes men like Li Dan get carried away. Li was recently invited by an underwear brand to promote a new bra (an odd choice) and decided to make a pun on tangying, which means ‘an effortless win’ but also carries the implication, via tang, of lying down. ‘Wear the bra and lie down to win with no effort?’ Female netizens took offence and the topic went to number one on Weibo. Lawyers reminded Li that according to Chinese advertising law, a celebrity should use a product before endorsing it. He quickly apologised and spoke of his respect for women. The bra company took the commercials off the internet.
As well as men, older people attract derision. Western ‘boomer horror’ resonates with Chinese millennials. Our boomers (sometimes called qianlang, literally ‘last wave’) are less educated than their children, bad with smartphones and online trends, and cling to outdated ideas. Die wei, literally, ‘a whiff of daddy’, mocks boomer mansplaining. Boomers and celebrities are both fair game. Roast (modelled on the Comedy Central series) has a middle-aged male presenter, Zhang Shaogang, whose sensational style and narcissistic persona belong to TV’s dinosaur age, but now every guest is allowed to roast him. While Yang is getting paid to tease men, Zhang is getting paid to be teased. The pandemic has made both of them, and comedians in general, much richer.
Extravagant fan culture isn’t new in East Asian society: comedians are just getting the treatment girl groups, boy groups and movie stars are used to. Fans take on different roles in relation to their idols. If you see him or her as your child, you’re a ‘mom fan’; if it’s romantic, you’re a ‘girlfriend fan’ or ‘wife fan’. ‘Mom fans’ are usually middle-aged women with money to spend, who buy every product the idol promotes. Young women are more likely to be ‘girlfriend/wife fans’: they have limited cash but will spend their time doing digital labour for free – boosting the hashtag count, for instance, to keep their comedian trending on social media. They will also post hundreds of positive comments to drown out any negative ones. A strong profile and steady online traffic attract commercial deals. The fans refer to their efforts as building the house, brick by brick, and the idol’s duty is to live up to their expectations. If a scandal erupts, careers are cut short (the government is cracking down on drugs), and for fans, this can be shattering. Some, feeling betrayed and disappointed, might turn ‘dark’ and criticise the idol as enthusiastically as they used to support them; others move on to a new idol. Nurturing an idol creates a bond of sisterhood. ‘Once I’m a fan,’ one young woman told me, ‘I’m not lonely any longer. I can go to any city and find fellow fans there to show me around.’
Fans equal traffic, and because the entertainment business is now all about traffic, they wield tremendous power. If they decide they want to see ‘coupling’, their celebrity has to comply. Non-celebrities also get involved. For the debate show I Can I BB (Chinglish for ‘I’ve got something to say’), the political science professor Liu Qing was ‘coupled’ with the economist Xue Zhaofeng (imagine David Runciman and Adam Tooze playing a warring couple on James Corden’s Late Late Show). Liu now gets stopped in the street by fans asking for autographs and selfies. His showbusiness experience has prompted him to think about how far removed academia is from everyday life.
‘Sole fans’ and ‘CP fans’ – ‘CP’ stands for couple or character-pairing – often clash. Early last year, the sole fans of actor/singer Xiao Zhan reported to the censors several fanfiction sites where CP fans had written romantic stories about Xiao and another idol. The subsequent ban enraged Xiao’s CP fans, who arranged a boycott of all Xiao’s luxury brand collaborations. Netizens of Douban (a major website forum where people rate and discuss books, movies and music) may remember that during the PRC’s 70th anniversary celebrations in 2019, some ‘patriot’ groups (‘melon group’ and ‘big ship group’) got overexcited and started to ‘couple’ Chinese leaders. Practised at dodging censorship, they used bear, tiger, baby and frog emojis to refer to Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and Jiang Zemin (the bear refers to Winnie the Pooh, Xi’s doppelgänger; the word for tiger rhymes with Hu; baobao, ‘baby’, rhymes with Jiabao and ha is the nickname given to Jiang because he smiles like a toad). The discussion forums were very lively: ‘I love tiger and bear couple!’ ‘I truly feel bear elevates China to a new level!’ ‘Come and see frog singing and dancing and conducting!’ ‘I miss tiger and baby together …’ Douban panicked and shut down the groups. Fans reacted by claiming Douban had been manipulated by foreign forces to suppress patriotic discussion. Fans call Chinese liberals the ‘eight thousanders’, in reference to the alleged monthly payments they receive from the CIA to smear the CCP; liberals respond by calling fans ‘fifty-cent trolls’.
The spectacle of fan power ricocheting between capital and state was unimaginable before the online era. There were shots fired again recently in a culture war between misogynists on the streaming website Bilibili and Douban feminists. The origins of the conflict had nothing to do with gender or culture. Some of the anime series on Bilibili targeting otaku (manga geeks) contain soft porn and would be rated 18 if there were such a system in China. Nevertheless, Bilibili featured one of these series as its ‘spring highlight’ and the first four episodes were viewed seventy million times. This irritated one of Bilibili’s biggest anime influencers, LexBurner, who has more than seven million followers and released a video describing the show’s fans as ‘bottom feeders’. The offended fans began digging for problematic quotes in his comment history. After two days, Bilibili took down the series and banned LexBurner. As the starting point for the cyber war that followed, this move drew comparisons with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Lex’s fans retaliated by reporting Bilibili for broadcasting pornography and paedophilic content, and pointing to its history of misogyny. Douban’s famous ‘Goose Group’ (a closed forum where 700,000 young women exchange entertainment gossip) joined with all guns blazing: we’ve had enough of Bilibili’s otaku wankers was the gist. The Goose Girls complained to every brand associated with Bilibili, urging them to end their support for the site. Inspired by Reddit traders, they tried to short Bilibili’s stock on the Nasdaq and swore to take down the site’s investors, Alibaba and Tencent. They even planned to use the charge of promoting paedophilia to get Joe Biden’s attention, in the hope that he would kick Bilibili off the US stock market. This last round went to the otaku, however: Bilibili’s stock price soared 11 per cent in a day. Then Lunar New Year came and a seasonal ceasefire was called.
The state is watching these cyber fights closely and will intervene when it’s deemed necessary. While stability is unthreatened, capital is allowed to flourish and idols are allowed to profit from it. Revenues have been much higher during the pandemic, when people have needed to be entertained. Fan circles are mostly composed of patriotic or apolitical youth and Bilibili hosts a good deal of pro-PRC content alongside the anime and gaming required to occupy the unmarried otaku. They are both useful tools for the state, which isn’t afraid to use fan power to keep the tycoons on their toes.