On February 24, fans of singer and actor Xiao Zhan stumbled across a racy novella on fanfiction site Archive of Our Own (AO3), featuring their idol as a cross-dressing prostitute, and all hell broke loose.
Like-minded supporters of the Chongqing-born star rallied and reported AO3 for “pornographic content” to Chinese cyber-authorities, who promptly blocked the site and several other platforms with LGBTQ content behind the infamous Great Firewall. Netizens who thought this was overkill (as well as those who simply hated Xiao) retaliated by spamming the actor’s social media accounts with verbal abuse—but the incident had already taught a sobering lesson on what well-organized, fanatical supporters of a Chinese celebrity can achieve.
Government authorities don’t usually get involved in spats between celebrity fans, but their cult-like behavior is well-known to the public. In China, communities known as “fan circles” (饭圈, fànquān), transliterated from the English word “fan,” have become prominent on Weibo, WeChat, QQ, and other social media platforms in the last decade, distinguishing themselves from individual fans (散粉, sǎnfěn) who support their idols independently.
Fan circles vary in their size and level of discipline, but most regard it as their sacred duty to promote their idols’ careers. In 2016, to celebrate the 17th birthday of Wang Junkai, lead singer of Chinese boy band TFBoys, his fans bought ad space in public squares in Beijing, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Seoul, and Iceland to send birthday messages to their idol. For Wang’s 18th, his fans raised enough money to send a satellite with his picture on it to space. Following their adventure with cyber-authorities this year, Xiao’s fans mass purchased his new single “Light” on April 25, racking up 3 million downloads in one hour after its release, and setting a record for the most downloaded digitally released song in the country.
Fanquan can even get political, such as when “fans” of Hong Kong police swarmed Twitter and Weibo with patriotic messages last August. During the Covid-19 crisis, Xiao’s fan circle channeled its organizational prowess to positive ends by reportedly raising 4.4 million RMB’s worth of relief supplies for Hubei province. “It’s common for fan groups to raise 1 million RMB [for a cause] within minutes,” claimed one fan in an interview with Xinhua News Agency.
Though some of the above actions were applauded, ordinary netizens still tend to be wary of fan circles. It doesn’t help that their online behavior and lingo can appear very confusing to outsiders. First, it’s common for fan circles to adapt “cheering (应援, yìngyuán)” slogans, a practice borrowed from Japanese and Korean fan culture, and display them on big banners and posters they hold up during concerts, or chant them at fan meetings and other public appearances by their idols. For instance, fans of TFBoys member Yi Yangqianxi are well-known for shouting at the band’s concerts:
Heart and soul for Yi Yangqianxi!
Yìxīn yíyì, Yì Yángqiānxǐ!
Similarly, the slogan for Wang Junkai goes:
Only for Wang Junkai, all the way to the future!
Cóng kāishǐ dào wèilái, zhǐ wèi Wáng Jùnkǎi!
But these are just the easy ones—sometimes, a “bystander fan (路人粉, lùrénfěn)” might not even know who the true fanatics are chanting about, because they often give their idols or themselves affectionate nicknames, usually based on the star’s real name or related trivia. Pop singer Li Yuchun’s fans call themselves “Corn (玉米, yùmǐ),” which has a similar pronunciation as “Yu’s admirers” in Chinese. Singer Zhang Jie’s fans are called “Stars (星星, xīngxing)” because Zhang won first place in a singing contest with a cover of the song “Stars” in 2004, which started his career. Fans of actor Yang Yang call themselves “Wool (羊毛, yángmáo),” because Yang’s name sounds like “sheep” in Chinese. When Yang appeared on a Hunan TV program last year, his fans stood outside the TV station all day holding up LED signs with the slogan:
Wherever Yang Yang goes, I go; Wool will conquer the world with you.
Yáng Yáng zài nǎ wǒ zài nǎ, Yángmáo péi nǐ chuǎng tiānxià.
Despite this penchant for wordplay, though, most fanquan messages are not very creative. One comes across many formulaic slogans when trawling fan comments on different celebrities. The template “……勇敢飞……永相随! ([Idol] soar bravely and [fans] will forever stand by!)” is universal for all fan circles, as in “张杰勇敢飞，星星永相随 (Zhāng Jié yǒnggǎn fēi, xīngxing yǒng xiāngsuí).”
Sometimes, fans are too overcome with enthusiasm to even be coherent, and replace cheering slogans with screaming:
Aaaahhhh! Too handsome!
Āāāā……Tài shuài le!
Aaaahhhh! My life is yours!
Āāāā……Mìng gěi nǐ!
When questioned by outsiders about why they’re so dedicated to certain pop stars, many fans offer the same answer: “始于颜值，陷于才华, 忠于人品 (Shǐ yú yánzhí, xiàn yú cáihuá, zhōng yú rénpǐn. Begin to like them for their looks, fall in love with their talent, and become loyal due to their personality).”
The hashtags and comment sections of celebrity-related Weibo posts are, therefore, flooded with fans’ confession of love and long lists of the celebrity’s merits:
What an absolute cutie!
Zhè shì shénme juéshì xiǎokě’ài!
She has always been so serious about her career, and never abandoned her dreams or betrayed her original aspiration. Her acting is so natural, making her characters come to life. Her every performance is a wonderful surprise, and through her ability she wins thunderous applause.
Tā yìzhí rènzhēn duìdài shìyè, búfù mèngxiǎng, búfù chūxīn, yǎnjì shōufàng zìrú, měi yí bù xì dōu yǒu jīngxǐ, yòng yǎnjì fùyǔ juésè shēngmìng, píng shílì yíngdé zhǎngshēng qiānwàn.
And even if the idol is neither especially good-looking nor talented, a true fan can always find something to fawn over anyway:
Do you know how hard he works?
Nǐ zhīdào tā yǒu duō nǔlì ma?
To outsiders, this baseless flattery is known as “彩虹屁 (cǎihóngpì),” literally “rainbow farts,” a term used derisively about fan communities since 2017. Fans’ effervescent praise can sometimes put the cheesiest pick-up lines to shame:
You must have been a carbonated beverage in your past life, or else why would I bubble up with happiness at the sight of you?
Nǐ shàngbèizi yídìng shì tànsuān yǐnliào ba. Wèishénme wǒ yí kàndào nǐ jiù néng kāixīn de màopào?
More concrete actions taken by fan circles to promote their idols’ interest are known as “generating electricity with love (用爱发电, yòng ài fādiàn),” namely to spend time, energy, and money to help their idols “走花路 (zǒu huālù, walk on flowery road),” or smooth their path, without expecting anything in return. Though some managers of fan circles on social media are actually employed by the celebrities’ agency to organize fan events—and some may even be actors hired to cheer for celebrities at events or vote for them in talent contests—most fans claim to contribute their efforts selflessly out of love.
As some fanquan insiders have revealed, joining a circle is almost like getting a full-time job at a large public relations firm. Members are required to “clock in” daily by posting with the celebrity’s hashtag on Weibo, vote in various celebrity ranking polls, forward certain Weibo posts, and downvote or report defaming posts from “haters,” among other tasks. In this way, they drive positive internet “traffic (流量, liúliàng)” for their idol, which has a direct impact on the roles, product endorsements, and other economic opportunities available to rising pop stars in the era of social media.
Fanquan also have to be on guard for any possible wrongdoings against their idol, and be ready to engage in online “flame wars” on their behalf, usually against fans of other celebrities. For instance, so-called “girlfriend fans (女友粉, nǚyǒufěn)” of male celebrities rally against female celebrities who seem to be getting too close to their darling:
You B-lister, stay away from my boy! Don’t try to share his spotlight!
Shíbā xiàn húkā lí wǒ gēge yuǎn diǎn! Shǎo lái cèng rèdù!
Fan circles have a rocky relationship with celebrities’ actual PR managers. On the one hand, the professionals are deeply indebted to these amateurs for free publicity, but they can do more harm than good to the star’s reputation, as shown by Xiao’s fans. On the fanquan’s side, when an artist’s new single flops or an actor gets less screen time in a movie than they expect, brace for a flood of comments on social media blaming the management company:
Garbage company! You’ve hindered our girl!
Gōngsī fèiwù! Dānwù wǒmen jiā mèimei!
Other fans claim to be “mom fans (妈粉, māfěn).” Though probably very young themselves, these fans profess to take a maternal interest in the young star’s well-being, scolding and fussing over them only as a mother can:
Don’t stay up late, baby! Make sure to eat! Don’t lose any more weight! Mom’s heart is broken!
Zǎizai bié áoyè! Hǎohǎo chīfàn! Búyào zài shòu le! Māma xīnténg!
Being part of a fanquan is usually a thankless job. It’s time-consuming, exposes the fan to ridicule from other internet users, and it’s not always clear that the idol will appreciate or even notice the fan’s efforts. But true supporters persevere, because they believe, “We’re the only ones our boy/girl can rely on (哥哥/妹妹只有我们了！Gēgē/Mèimei zhǐyǒu wǒmen le)!”
“Fanning the Flames” is a story from our issue, “Contagion”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.