Korean Pop Music in China: Nationalism, Authenticity, and Gender

Rowan Pease. Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia: What a Difference a Region Makes. Editor: Chris Berry, Nicola Liscutin, Jonathan D Mackintosh. TransAsia: Screen Cultures Aberdeen, Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

Authenticity and nationality are closely linked for fans of South Korean popular culture in China, as well for the Korean cultural establishment. Bringing gender into the equation, in this essay I focus on the mainly young female fans of Korean boy bands and idols. It was in 2000 that South Korean pop music became fashionable in China, as part of a regional phenomenon commonly dubbed “Korean Wave” (Hanliu in Chinese, Hallyu in Korean, a pun on the meteorological homonym “cold current”). Hanliu first arrived in China in 1997, brought through broadcasts of televised Korean soap operas, which were said to enthral middle-aged women. A proliferation of local and satellite TV channels, such as Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV, led to increased exports of foreign programs within Asia, including music television, and through these Korean dance and rap music spread. Increasingly, the Internet gave Chinese youth unprecedented access to music from different cultures, enabling the Korean Wave to spread beyond urban centers. Korean rap group Clon, building on their success in Taiwan, performed in Beijing in November 1999, followed by H.O.T. (High Five of Teenagers) in 2000, and girl groups S.E.S. and Baby Vox. The middle-of-the-road R&B/hip-hop that they performed — with either mildly rebellious or romantic lyrics, including smatterings of English, and slick dance routines — was what KMichi Iwabuchi has described elsewhere as a “culturally odorless” or “Asianized Western” model of pan-regional modernity. That is to say, there was no element of traditional Korean instrumentation, melodic modes, or compound rhythms, and none of the guttural passion of ppongtchak ballads  that were ubiquitous in 1970s and 1980s Korea. Korean pop attracted a younger Hanliu audience, the most dedicated of whom were dubbed the haHanzu (or haHanyizu), the “crazed for Korea” tribe, noted for their outlandish clothes and extreme behavior. These fans celebrated their solidarity as members of the tribe, sharing their passion in clubs and online. Defending themselves against charges that they were unpatriotic, they claimed that Korean musicians were more natural and sincere than “commercial” Chinese idols, a quality that could not be imitated. The fans tended to feminize the objects of their adoration, in discussion, artwork, and fiction that was sometimes homoerotic.

In this essay, I discuss the role of Korean cultural industries (including entertainment companies, business conglomerates, and government agencies) in supporting Korean popular music as part of a broader national promotion, and their complex relationship with agencies in China and the fans who reworked it into “an intensely pleasurable, intensely signifying popular culture” that undermined the intended messages of nationalism and regionalism. The conflicting notions of gender, authenticity, and modernity throw up new questions about alterity within East Asia. I draw on the work of Cho Hae-Joang on Hanliu discourse, and Iwabuchi’s work on fans’ self-reflexivity and transnational consumption.

The Hanliu Industry in China

There have been several peaks and troughs in China’s Korean Wave, its fortunes seemingly dependent on the success of individual idols or of particular TV dramas or films (and hence their original soundtrack sales). For instance, actor Ahn Jae wook [An Chaeuk], star of the TV drama Star in My Heart (Pyŏl’ŭn nae kasŭm-e), was one of the few Korean stars popular enough to successfully mount a solo concert in a major stadium, while Shin Seunghun’s [Shin Sŭnghun] theme song I Believe from the hit film My Sassy Girl (Yŏpki chŏgin kŏnyŏ, Kwak Jae-young 2001) was a major bestseller, selling 200,000 CDs in China in 2001, and covered by Taiwan artist Van Fan. For many Korean singers, it was essential first to get international exposure through acting in dramas, sometimes co-productions.

During my fieldwork in China in 2003, Korean pop occupied only ten percent of the imported music market (excluding imports from greater China), was disappearing from radio stations and TV, and I (incorrectly) predicted the imminent recession of the wave. The pop idol Rain (a.k.a. Bi, Jung Jihoon [Chŏng Chihun]), boy band TVXQ, and TV drama Jewel in the Palace (Dae Changgŭm) reversed that trend, but even in 2006 Korean and Japanese songs were grouped together in pop charts (RiHanpaihangban) in which Japanese artists dominated, and neither has ever dented the popularity of music from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

China was a frustrating market for the Korean music industry. As domestic sales shrank, the initial promise of massive sales in China was undermined by piracy at ninety percent and hampered by China’s strict publishing controls and high tariffs for legal products. Such problems were by no means unique to Korean cultural products or to music. Anthony Fung has outlined the steps taken by Hong Kong and Taiwanese entertainment companies to overcome the twin barriers of state control and piracy when launching stars such as Andy Lau and Jay Chou in China. An added impediment for the Korean music industry was that the youthful audience for Korean artists had little disposable income to spend on records or concert tickets. For legitimate music companies, the way to earn money from this market was through sponsorship and advertising deals rather than through the traditional business of selling records or rights. Illegal publishing was the major driving force behind the distribution of Korean music and hence the market value of their stars. As one media executive told me, “without piracy, there would be no Hanliu.” Laikwan Pang has noted the importance of piracy in enabling the distribution of films that would otherwise be censored or unavailable in China, and in challenging the notion of a homogenous Chinese collective by catering to fragmented audiences, and this is pertinent to the diffusion of Korean popular culture in China. Fans expressed distaste for purchasing pirated copies: genuine CDs carried considerable cachet, but these were hard to obtain.

Given the barriers to profitability in China, it is not surprising that Korean entertainment companies were perceived as being ambivalent in their efforts to enter the Chinese market. Perhaps they felt that their efforts would be better rewarded if they focussed on opening the Japanese music market, the second largest in the world, rather than China. While solo idols BoA [Kwŏn Poa] and Seven [Ch’oe Tonguk] were both making terrific sales in Japan in 2003, one Chinese record company executive complained to me that Korean entertainment companies just “threw” famous artists at the Chinese market rather than analyzing it and laying groundwork as they did for domestic audiences. Another said that, after two years of hard effort placing artists in Chinese television shows, companies had sat back waiting to reap the rewards rather than sustaining their presence. Likewise, a Hong Kong DJ I interviewed in 2003 criticized the lack of supporting material and follow-on that could build on the success of particular songs or TV shows.

Nevertheless, one agency, the SM Entertainment Company, headed by Lee Soo Man [Yi Suman], was widely admitted to be the driving force behind the export of Korean popular music to China. SM was the company behind H.O.T., the greatest of the Hanliu stars, and after H.O.T. broke up in 2001, SM continued to manage two former members, Kangta and Jang Woo Hyuk [Chang Uhyŏk], who remained popular in China. A poll on Sina.com’s entertainment pages in February 2006 revealed that four of the five most popular Korean singers/bands were SM artists, with Jang in top position and Kangta in fifth. The other, Rain, belonged to the JYP Entertainment stable of artists. Rain’s manager, Park Jin-young [Pak Chinyŏng], had already built a large fan base in Japan, and pinned his hopes on opening the US market. His success in China was apparently of secondary importance. Lee Soo Man, in contrast, remained focused on China, which has the potential to be the world’s greatest market as soon as piracy is brought under control. He stated his confidence in the regularization and growth of the Chinese music market in an interview in 2005 and suggested that his activities in Taiwan and Hong Kong were a springboard for further expansion there. After H.O.T. split up, Lee struggled to replicate their success with new artists, and for several years he worked on reuniting H.O.T. He also went to China repeatedly from 2001, auditioning artists to recruit to his Starlight Academy and eventually to form a “Chinese H.O.T. or S.E.S” that would surely outstrip foreign artists. Later, his overarching strategy was to form pan-regional bands, as part of a so-called “blue ocean” policy (announced at Hanyang University), or “culture technology” theory. Consequently, appealing to the first generation of haHanzu, Kangta formed a singing partnership with Vanness Wu [Wu Jianhao], a member of Taiwanese boy band F4, and two boy bands were launched to appeal to Chinese youth: TVXQ (Dongfang shenqi, “Gods Rising in the East”) and Super Junior. In a documentary about the band shown on the SBS television channel one member of TVXQ, U-Know, said that “Our name was chosen to make Chinese people feel familiar,” while band member Xiah’s stage name was reportedly a short form of “Asia,” to “reflect his desire to become known throughout Asia.” In 2005, Lee Soo Man announced that as part of his “blue ocean” policy of creating a transnational group, he would split TVXQ into two bands, one with a Japanese member and one with a Chinese singer, perhaps chosen through a televised competition. As a result of fan resistance (see below), he abandoned this plan. However, the larger, even cuter and younger boy band, Super Junior, included a Chinese member, Han Kyung [Han Kyŏng; Ch. Han Geng] who graduated through SM Entertainment’s auditions and academy. SM also launched a solo Chinese female R&B singer in Korea, Zhang Liyin (K. Chang Ri’in).

Korean State Branding

Chinese media executives may have had some criticisms of Korean impresarios, but during my fieldwork they unanimously praised the investment of the Korean government and large corporations such as Samsung, that were willing to maintain the profile of Korean music through mounting concerts and album giveaways. For companies such as LG and Samsung, Korean artists headed up advertising campaigns that helped them to claim a substantial portion of the Chinese mobile phone and electronics market (for example, Samsung’s sales in China increased fivefold between 1998 and 2001, and by 2003 their display screens occupied twenty-nine percent of the Chinese market, and mobile phones nine percent). The Samsung Economic Research Institute in 2005 drew up a report on Hanliu, entitled “The Korean wave sweeps the globe,” to see how best to sustain and benefit from the wave, and economists credited Korea’s healthy export figures to the country’s cultural diplomacy. In 2005, South Korea had the world’s second largest trading surplus with China (US$42 billion, second only to Taiwan). Not only Korean companies but also Chinese and global companies adopted Hanliu idols for campaigns throughout Asia. For example, Ford in 2006 signed up Ahn Jae-wook for its East Asian promotions, and Pantech, the Chinese mobile phone company, was one of many companies that paid Rain to advertise its brand.

The Korean government was likewise keen to capitalize on the economic benefits of Hanliu. In 2001, the Korean Ministry of Culture set up the Korean Culture and Contents Agency (KOCCA) — “in recognition of the value of cultural content and its importance as the nation’s economic growth factor” — to support cultural industries at home and to facilitate cultural exports and exchange. Besides KOCCA, a major investor in Hanliu was the Korean National Tourism Office, which noted the increase of tourism generated by overseas drama fans, and employed Hanliu stars, such as Rain, as “goodwill ambassadors.” In 2003, the KNTO conducted a Hanliu tourism survey in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong exploring attitudes to Korean culture, publishing the results online. While TV dramas and film were found to have had the greatest impact on visitor figures to Korea, the survey revealed that 27.5 percent of Chinese respondents listed “attend concerts of popular singer” as their “desired purpose of visiting Korea,” and fifteen percent cited the “influence of Korean music” in choosing that country for future tourism.

The survey suggested that Korea had found a niche in the market but in no way displaced other cultural imports (for example, although forty-three percent of respondents in Greater China felt Korean culture was very influential, this was below the figure for Hong Kong, American, or Japanese culture). It compared the impact of Korean culture with that of four “competitor” countries (the US, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong), and in the process revealed much about Korea’s own political and nationalist concerns, particularly in relation to Japan and America. Six of the eleven options for respondents to the category “reasons I like Korean culture” reflect this preoccupation: “less sexual than Japanese culture,” “less sexual than American culture,” “less violent than Japanese popular culture,” “less violent than American popular culture,” “decreased interest in American culture,” and “decreased interest in Japanese culture.” One other echoes Straubhaar’s notion of cultural proximity: “similar in culture.” Certainly, Korea’s own music media censorship laws (which even in 1997 prohibited the displaying of body piercings, navels, tattoos, “outfits which may harm the sound emotional development of youth,” and banned violent or political lyrics), meant that Chinese TV stations could buy in Korean music videos and music TV shows knowing that they were unlikely to upset local censors. However, these questions also reflected a perception that Korea acts as a defender against excessive Westernization and as a guardian of Confucian values within East Asia.

Cho Hae-Joang analyzes discourses about Hanliu in Korean scholarship and media, and identifies three main strands: the cultural nationalist (Korean culture is international, it stresses familism rather than violence, it benefits from anti-Japanese sentiment, and challenges US cultural hegemony); the industrialist and neo-liberal (stressing the market rather than culture, giving precedence to mass rather than high culture, youth rather than middle-aged markets, and calling for investment in production and distribution); and the post-colonialist perspective (Hanliu is a shallow “B-class” — lowbrow — culture produced by Western capitalist culture “penetrating our bodies”; an East Asian cultural bloc should be formed to resist it). Cho argues that these three strands have coalesced into a neo-liberal strand that stresses the economic benefits of Hanliu, and that Hanliu is indicative of a global shift in which shared East Asian cultures are creating a sense of community that challenges the use of Western “others.” It seems to me that this perspective is embodied in Lee Soo Man’s pan-regional “Culture Technology” policy and his refusal to measure Asian artists’ success by reference to the US market.

Hanliu Discourse: The Chinese Perspective

Elements of the first two strands (cultural nationalist and industrialist) were reflected in writings and in comments on Hanliu from the cultural brokers in China. For instance, on Confucian values in Korean culture, Jiao Yan of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was quoted in the China Daily as saying “We see a purer form of Confucianism and are refreshed by it because we feel a sense of belonging.” Such Confucianism, according to a Beijing publisher quoted in the same article, cannot be found in “our own writers and artists.” During my fieldwork, Confucianism was not mentioned, nor were family values, though perhaps it is partly that these are not made so explicit in music as in dramas. However, the success of Hanliu as an alternative to American and Japanese popular music was mentioned. For instance, on the popularity of Korean hip-hop, Hao Fang, of Starry Sky TV said,

Hip-hop never got big in China; lots of people think it doesn’t fit Chinese language. Chinese don’t respect blacks, but they can take Koreans doing hip-hop…. they can’t totally love Japanese, for historical reasons, and because they feel it’s too different.

As for Korean music being international music, on the whole, media executives described Japanese as being more varied, less imitative of the West; for example “In my opinion, Japanese music has already gone past copying the US and Europe.” There was a subtext that there was an evolutionary timeline, the West at the most developed end, followed by Japan, and then Korea/Hong Kong/Taiwan. Hong Kong and Taiwan were viewed as being less influenced by Western fashions, according to Robin Pak, because Western and Eastern popular music styles coexisted there rather than fusing. Korea was described as being in an exciting period of development (penfa) and specialized in high-quality dance music. One Chinese student, a fan of Western rather than Korean music, made a direct comparison binding fans’ social status to their choice of music, saying that the more educated a listener, the more likely the listener was to like Western music. Those with less exposure to Western culture (say, college rather than university students) might find Japanese music interesting, and those with the least exposure (high school graduates) would be satisfied with Korean music.

The industrial perspective described by Cho was more clearly echoed by all those I interviewed. Chinese media executives ascribed the success of Hanliu to the packaging and “factory style” production of artists. For example, Ji Lingli, who worked for Baidie Record Company, told me: “SM’s packaging is really good. It’s really commercial. They don’t care if it’s rubbish or not; they don’t respect art; they just care if they can sell it. Our company is really stupid: we want to do good music, to raise the national standard. Because our boss is a musician, that’s our attitude.” Gu Hong described SM Entertainment as a “star-making factory” that closely followed changing styles and rapidly adapted to them. Robin Pak likewise admired the artist creation: the vocal, dance, image, and language training (in Chinese and Japanese). He also spoke of how strictly the artists were controlled both on and off stage during their visits to Hong Kong, as part of maintaining the artist’s image.

The Fan Perspective

The discourse about Hanliu idols among fans — those who “not only consume a culture, but who translate that consumption into activity, joining a community with whom they share feelings and thoughts about their common interest” — was radically different from that of the Korean and Chinese producers and commentators quoted above.

The stigmatization of haHanzu as hysterical, screaming, undiscriminating dupes is a characterization broadly similar to the image of young female fans in the West and elsewhere in Asia. Best known for the sheer volume of their passion, they were hardly the audience that Korean cultural and political elites aspired to attract. The contempt is revealed in this article on the KOCCA website: “… the interest of musical value and meaningful content does not extend to the teens.” That statement is belied by the wealth of discussion and writing about Korean idols that is to be found in fan sites and forums on the Internet. Likewise, Robin Pak warned me, “If you ask them why they like Korean stars, they won’t know… They are blind. They’ll just say ‘like is like,’ or that they are handsome.”

When I conducted a survey among fans in 2003, “because I do,” love, and good looks were common answers to this question, but there were many answers that are pertinent to the issues discussed above. Perhaps not surprisingly, the fans had little interest in comparing Korean music with Japanese or American music, and many enjoyed music of different nationalities, as well as Chinese music. Where K-pop, J-pop, and US-pop fans were put together in bulletin boards there were occasional conflicts, but they were more likely to be about battles between specific artists (for example, H.O.T. versus the Backstreet Boys) rather than issues of nationality. If the “significant others” for Korea were the US and Japan, for the Chinese fans it was Korea that was the other to their Chineseness, that gave them the self-reflexive distance to consider their own culture. In their responses to me, fans never compared Korean music to American, and only one mentioned Japan (and then in passing), in a passage more concerned with Chinese (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) music:

If all those Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland singers like Andy Lau, Jeff Chang and Sun Nan cover Korean songs, isn’t it better to go directly to Korea to listen to the original? And their [Korean singers’] image is more healthy and individual. For example, H.O.T. means High Five of Teenagers. Their behaviour and songs are really a model for youth. Korean singers are fashionable and have vigour, and don’t just rely on packaging (in fact, I think Koreans on the whole are very plain). Their dance is the highest level in Asia. We all see that Japanese music is on the wane, while Korean is flourishing. The Chinese mainland is so inferior there is no possibility; the HK/Taiwan singers obviously sing covers for their main songs; their decline is obvious. (IYAH, 30.1.03:9)

Common themes to emerge from the answers to why fans liked Korean artists were that their musical and dance standards were high, that they were vigorous, that they were sincere (“NRG are very natural, they are never artificial” [cjking, 20.9.03:49]), that they showed their feelings (“They are not afraid to cry on stage” [ting 21.10.03:163]), that they were hard-working and creative (“Many people think they are idol singers… in fact those five all try to write lyrics and music” [xcandy, 29.8.03:12]), and that their songs covered varied themes. These latter qualities were seen to be in direct contrast to Hong Kong, Taiwanese, and Mainland singers, for example, “That sincere feeling is really hard to see with contemporary Hong Kong/Taiwan music” (ting, 21.10.03:163); or “They’re not like the majority of pop music in China, always singing that sort of mm mm chee chee, love you love me romantic song. They always sing about the problems appearing in society or fresh and original themes” (xuxu, 24.9.03: 101).

In an almost complete antithesis to the “industrial” view of Korean and Chinese pundits, for fans it was the absence of commercialism — the authenticity — that differentiated the Korean artists from the Chinese:

When they [Chinese singers] haven’t even sung much, they put out “greatest hits” and take our money. It sullies music, and the media spin, so hateful, it’s all for money. (rcandy, 21.9.03: 68)

Another complained about the lack of segmentation in the market:

The reason China’s music is less exciting is connected to the size of its population (like most of its problems). China overemphasises totality: they want the whole, not parts. Clearly in pop music, if you want to write a song that everyone likes, of whatever status or age, there is going to be less creative power, it’s not so rich. (Sun Ho, 14.9.03: 37)

Fans were outspoken in their contempt for the Hong Kong, Chinese, or Taiwanese boy bands that seemed to imitate the style of Korean pop, without embodying its essence. Such bands were described to me as rip-offs (bianlu pin), or “meaningless imitation” (holim, 22.9.03: 86). Another fan wrote:

When I see how many Chinese singers cover Korean songs, it reveals how the Chinese music world lacks creativity. As a Chinese person, I feel really ashamed. Taiwan’s latest bands even more so are obviously imitating Korean bands. (IYAH, 30.1.03: 9)

Even Chinese haHanzu came in for criticism for inauthenticity from their peers:

Some of the kids, who wear hip hop clothes and dance on the streets, imitate the appearance of Korean singers, but don’t really understand Korean music and don’t understand the amount of sweat and diligence behind the bright appearance of these singers. They are not real haHanzu. (rabbit27, 23.9.03: 3)

Having noted their hatred of all things commercial, it is not surprising that, within the haHanzu community, the greatest enmity was towards Lee Soo Man, who was widely blamed for the demise of H.O.T. and who was seen to be too manipulative. Given this, and their perception that nationality and authenticity are closely linked in Korean music, the fans’ response to Lee Soo Man’s reported plan to insert a Chinese member into TVXQ was predictable. Here are some of their comments on the rumour from a posting on the Sina Hanliu bulletin board which called for a petition:

  • Noooooooooooooooo!!!!
  • I don’t know how you all feel, but I like the 5 guy TVXQ. If everyone wants to keep our TVXQ, quickly sign up. Thank you.
  • Ooooohhhh! [written 555555555555, literally pronounced wuwuwuwuwuwuwuwuwuwuwuwuwu]
  • I was up all night crying
  • It can’t be. Although I am a Chinese, whatever you say they are a Korean band. Adding in a couple of people from other countries, I feel it would be really weird
  • This is just what SM loves doing — H.O.T., Shinhwa, all went that way. Now it’s happening again. Kill!
  • God! How’s that possible? They are one body. How can it be a Sino-Korean joint venture? I’m going to pass out!
  • Lee Soo Man has got water on the brain
  • If that’s true then we Chinese fans [literally “immortal followers”] must go to resist!!!!!
  • No matter what happens, you must handle them reasonably. Like us H.O.T fans. We couldn’t take it when they split. But now, so many years later, we still support them. I hope you can be like us.

It perhaps reveals that fans understood how the Korean state values Hanliu that they decided not to petition Lee Soo Man, who was in their view irredeemable, but the president of Korea, Roh Moo-hyun.

Confucianism and Cultural Proximity

One of the elements that Korean cultural nationalists stress in Hanliu is shared Confucian values, and linked to that, the absence of sex in Korean culture. If for Confucian values we read respect for education and elders, for the haHanzu this is manifested in the sense of a shared struggle against those elements of Confucianism. For example,

Many of their songs have expressed our hearts’ feelings… the pressure at our schools is so high, the H.O.T. brothers’ songs give us lots of encouragement. They are our companions in study. (lovewoohyuk, 20.9.03: 85)

In one fan story, “The first person who loves me” by “Hyun&Hyuk,” the author expresses frustration through the feelings of H.O.T. member Heejun:

HeeJun suddenly felt cynical: it didn’t matter how many beautiful lives went down this route, in the end the old society, parents and family would drag you back to tradition, the deadest ends, you must marry a girl, have a child… this was all mother wanted. However romantic the love, in the end you couldn’t get past this oldest wish.

Popular songs by H.O.T. included “IYAH” [Children], which one fan described as “earthshaking”: “their song denounced humanity’s evils. Their models looked like warriors fighting for humanity” (Sun Ho, 14.9.03: 37). Another popular song was “We are the future,” which exemplifies the “classroom ideology”:

“We are the future”

Hey Everybody look at me! Now let’s overthrow the conventions of the world

I am the new master! Adults’ world has already passed.

Old weak things, give up your voice that speaks only rubbish

(The) future is mine. 1, 2 and 3 and 4 and Go!!

Until now we’ve been in the shade of adults

In a place without freedom, this way, that way interfering, living one day is exhausting

How long until we finally throw off the adult control

As the days go past, we are so tired we feel faint

I will make my own world myself.

Don’t expect the same life as them. I will grow my own century!

Other songs from the album continue in this theme, such as Yŏldŭng kam (“The End of my Inferiority Complex”), and Chayu-ropke nalsu ittorok (“Free to Fly”).

Sexuality and Gender

Although explicit sexuality was absent from song lyrics and videos, it was certainly present in the fans’ fantasies and implicit in band publicity. The fans playfully overturned gender roles and the power relationship between males and females, stars and fans.

It is helpful here to explore briefly the sexual politics of popular music in China, in order to reveal the extent to which, and especially how, fans’ behaviour undermined the status quo. Chinese popular music production and distribution, long under the control of the “masculinist state,” is described by Nimrod Baranovitch as male dominated, including in the counter-cultural spheres of rock or rap. The reform and opening of the 1980s and 1990s had allowed gender differences, suppressed by Maoist ideology, to be expressed once again as the image of the ideal “iron girl” gave way to the domesticated, soft, and restrained woman. There is much debate about whether the renewed sexualization of women was a step towards liberation or a return to male-controlled commodification. In mainstream pop, women continued to be objectified in popular songs, exoticized and “othered;” even when songs ostensibly spoke with their voice about their experience, these were mostly written by men “usurping their consciousness.” In the 1990s, Baranovitch saw an increasing empowerment of women through their role as consumers of popular music. This, he says, was reflected in “soft” male ballads, expressing romantic love for women, that were “an attempt to compensate for actual experience” of male domination. Nevertheless, “although women do participate in and perhaps even dominate the patronage of soft mainstream music by male singers, the latter are seldom objectified in the way… female singers are objectified.”

The period when Hanliu spread across China saw a further increase in the power of women as consumers. In the early years of the twentieth century, young urban women — constituting 38.1% of the total urban workforce and generally in control of purse strings — became the prime target of marketers, who identified them as ego-, rather than duty-driven. The younger haHanzu were economically less powerful, yet finding that the market was unable to satisfy their musical tastes — due to state controls, distributors’ hesitancy, and their own avowed reluctance to buy pirated discs — they were able to take some control of distribution through their illegal circulation of music on the Internet. Technology increasingly gave them the tools not only to circulate music but to rework it, creating their own videos and montages, blurring the boundaries between “creativity” and “copying,” and inserting a private, female presence into the public male-dominated production of music.

Unlike the 1990s music consumers outlined by Baranovitch above, the female fans of Korean music were not satisfied with the “inauthentic” romantic expressions of “soft” Chinese stars, and proceeded to objectify their idols shamelessly. On websites such as the Kangta fansite, boy-band members were infantilized and feminized, in the characterization of the star/fan relationship, in artwork and in fiction. Kangta was depicted as a beautiful and idealistic innocent, requiring the fans to protect him from the record companies and the female predators that might exploit him. Similar vulnerable and childlike imagery was found on sites for other idols, for example Super Junior’s Han Kyung. There was some collusion from publishers: photographs in the magazine Yule Wuxian (Entertainment Unlimited) celebrated male beauty in soft focus, semi-naked group shots, while the artwork for TVXQ’s The Another Story of Balloon [sic] album shows the band members frolicking in cute animal jumpsuits with ears, paws, and tails. In fans’ cartoons, band members might be dressed up as fairies, or as sleeping babies with dummies and soft toys.

Other pictures and stories were homoerotic fantasies. Some were taken from Korean or Japanese sites, where this kind of art has a longer history, but others were by Chinese fans. Romantic stories were divided into two genres: love between a fan and the star (tongren stories) and stories of love between male idols (tongtong or BL — boys’ love — stories). Some were suggestive, but others were blatantly pornographic.

Sexuality is fluid, multiply experienced, and not easily discussed with a foreign scholar. I was reluctant to discuss this issue in much detail after my initial questions led the owner of one fansite to remove explicit slash stories, claiming they were unacceptable to some fans. She also suggested that fans couldn’t enjoy stories about the idols with female fans, because they would feel jealous. Just one fan wrote about the sheer pleasure of such stories: “Heh heh… I also really appreciate the protagonists’ stories that tell about fantasy love and their self-loving behaviour” (Sun Ho, 14.9.03: 37). I have therefore looked to secondary sources to consider the Korean star/Chinese fan relationship from several angles.

In classic discussions of Orientalism, the “other” is feminized and infantilized, rendered weak by the gaze of the powerful self. This does not seem a particularly useful model in the case of the Chinese fans and the Korean stars, where the “self” and “other” are, in economic and political power, in a reverse (or at least, more equal) relationship from traditional Orientalist discourse. China may be a greater military power, but South Korea was generally considered more economically developed and “advanced,” and the profile of the fans put them fairly low down China’s social scale. The work of Iwabuchi on capitalist co-evalness in East Asia suggests that, however equal the relationship between fan and foreign idol, “it still cannot be denied that fans are reducing [Hong Kong] to a convenient and desirable Asian other.”

Iwabuchi’s study of Japanese fan consumption of Asian popular culture describes the desire for the pre-modern “pure and tender” Southeast Asian boys as a “simple capitalist nostalgia,” bringing perceptions of temporality into the equation. And again, more recently, Japanese housewives’ desire for the romantic heroes of Korean TV dramas is described by Iwabuchi as expressing nostalgia for a “purity of love.” In the case of China and South Korea, fans did not express a temporal distance from their idols — they considered themselves equally modern — making their relationship rather more like that described by Iwabuchi between Japanese fans and Hong Kong idols: “self-reflexive nostalgia for a different Asian modernity.”

It is also important to note that ideals of masculinity in Chinese culture during the Qing Dynasty, and possibly earlier, valorized “gifted youth” (caizi), with feminine features such as “white skin, red lips, slender fingers and tender airs” rather than the macho ideals of much Western culture. Rather like the modern idol representations, Qing Dynasty romantic heroes had a personality that was “gentle, innocent, timid and even teary,” and this “became the model for an eligible and attractive young man.” Hence, the (to my Western eyes) feminization of Korean stars may be an affirmation of their masculinity and power, rather than an undermining of it. Continuing the comparison with Qing Dynasty ideals, the more macho characters in Qing romantic fiction are negatively associated with the pursuit of wealth, rank, official life, and public affairs, as “gold-digging toadies,” while the feminized male divorces himself from daily practical concerns. The female fans of the empathetic hero Jia Baoyu in Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou meng) seem to share much with the contemporary haHanzu. Although both the Republican and the Communist governments promoted a more Western model of vigorous masculinity, in retaliation against the “sick man of East Asia” stereotype, Kam Louie argues that both cultured (wen) and the martial (wu) images of masculinity are seen as desirable and sexy today. It seems that criteria for Chinese masculinity continue to change and are open to negotiation. Most recently in China, androgyny was credited as one of the elements that promoted Chinese “super-girl” singer Li Yuchun to stardom.

Referring to elsewhere in East Asia, sexuality and fandom are discussed by Robertson in the case of the all-female Takarazuka revue, where fans again express the desire for an alternative kind of masculinity to their “boring salarymen” husbands. One actor says: “We look and act like men, but we are always kind and gentle. We understand what women really want.” Heather Willoughby suggests that in Korea pop music offers “emancipation from traditional norms” of gender, while noting that this freedom does not translate to audience behaviour.

Finally, Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs’s study of Beatles fans, although from a very different time and culture, throws up some interesting similarities. The Beatles’ somewhat androgynous sexuality seemed to offer “a vision of sexuality freed from the shadow of gender inequality because the group mocked the gender distinctions that bifurcated the American landscape into ‘his’ and ‘hers’.”

The idea of teens being attracted to idols because they are sexually “non-threatening” is still prevalent. In Japan, for example, “the benign rationale was that an all-female revue theatre provided a safe outlet for the budding passions of teenage girls and young women until they were older and their sexual desires had matured and shifted ‘naturally’ to anatomically correct men,” and in the 1960s, US psychologists opined that “very young women are still a little frightened of the idea of sex. Therefore they feel safer worshipping idols who don’t seem too masculine.” Such statements have played down the sexuality of teenage fans. The very act of being a haHanzu challenges the notion of the non-sexual teenager, as Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs note: “to abandon control — to scream, faint, dash about in mobs — was in form, if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture.”

It seemed through my reading of the fan sites I analyzed for Kangta, that far from embodying the modern or pre-modern other, Kangta was turned into the self, in his nationality (through the use of Chinese iconography and social structures), age, gender, his status, his idealism. Other fans attempted to become their idol in their appearance, copying hairstyles, makeup, and clothing. Thinking back again over the reasons given for liking the bands, the fans showed a strong identification with the singers and felt a resonance in their songs:

  • Because their age is about the same as ours, the music’s substance and feeling make us like them. (Xiaofei, 23.9.03:92)
  • H.O.T. teach us so much… how to be a person. I am so grateful… We and the Oppa [brothers] are from different countries, but love closes the distance. (hotfanlj, 20.9.03: 57)
  • They don’t look down on us. (brina, 23.9.03: 110)

Likewise, on a bulletin board for the idol Rain, members were asked which relationship they would most like to have with Rain. The poll results revealed that forty-five percent said brother/sister, thirty percent said lover, twenty-one percent said friend, and two percent husband/wife. Referring again to Ehrenreich, Hess, and Jacobs, this does not imply that fans do not view Rain, Kangta, or other idols sexually; it is that they want to share their sexuality rather than be an object of it. They want to share the sexual and romantic freedom that they project onto the stars in their erotic fantasies.


Comparing the discourse on Hanliu in Korea with that of the fans reveals the extent to which producers and international consumers of Korean popular culture are at cross-purposes. Despite all the efforts and aspirations of cultural gatekeepers in Korea and China, intended messages of regionalism and nationalism were overturned in the fantastic world of the haHanzu. The economic side-effects of Hanliu were undoubted, but the soft benefits of Hanliu, such as the image of Korea as cultured and Confucian, were undermined, by the fans’ “uncontrolled” behaviour, by their adoption of the idols as themselves, and by their use of Korean pop as a “nostalgic other” against which to measure China. In the haHanzu ‘s worldview, as described to me, China was the masculine, the commercial, the insincere, the pragmatic, and the convention-bound. This was contrasted with the femininity, authenticity, sincerity, idealism, and passion that the fans ascribed to themselves and to their (imagined) idols. As one fan told me, where they themselves fall short in these ideals they look to Korean artists for support, “… the brothers are our models, and we would do our utmost to do good for the brothers we admire” (eugene 3.9.03: 16).

Despite the fans’ expressed resistance to the commercialization of pop, and its manipulation by SM Entertainment in particular, there was little negative impact on the sales of Korean music and associated products. Fans still chose to express their loyalty to idols by purchasing legal recordings wherever possible and by using the products that stars endorsed. While the Korean music industry’s attempts to enter the Chinese market suffered from bureaucracy and piracy, these factors also limited the growth of domestic competition and thus created a demand for musical imports. Ultimately, Korean entertainment industries may be able to benefit from China’s increasing control of piracy and from the global pressure on China to allow greater access to its audiovisual publishing market by foreign companies and to reduce tariffs. However, even should the market ever be completely open, Korean state agencies, record companies, or Chinese media and publishing outlets are not likely ever to be able to control what the fans make of Korean pop.