Chinese celebrity fans during the Covid-19 pandemic

Yang Lai

Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Connected learning is a valuable tool that may be used in China to mitigate the stigma of fan activities, as a case study of Chinese celebrity fans' activities during the coronavirus outbreak in China illustrates.

[0.2] KeywordsChina; Connected learning; Education

Lai, Yang. 2021. "Chinese Celebrity Fans during the Covid-19 Pandemic." In "Fan Studies Pedagogies," edited by Paul Booth and Regina Yung Lee, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 35.

1. Introduction

[1.1] The English-language literature in the fields of fandom and education has grown over the past decades. Recognizing the importance of participating, interacting, and collaborating during learning activities, social constructivism and sociocultural theories of learning have prepared the theoretical foundation that permits a connection to be made between studies of fandom and education. Scholars have demonstrated that fan activities, which may comprise an important part of youth culture, can help participants gain media literacy, develop self-identity, and increase social/civic participation. Fandom provides rich learning opportunities that permit fans to learn and grow.

[1.2] However, academic discussion along these lines remains rare in China, where fan culture is mostly overlooked or stigmatized because fan activities are considered a waste of time, as they distract naive and gullible youth from study and work. During the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, in early spring 2020, Chinese celebrity fans banded together to support hospitals by organizing donations and creating fan works for construction vehicles within makeshift hospital construction areas. Although fans' charitable activities were praised by the media, their fannish activities were condemned as being frivolous and even cruel during a disaster.

[1.3] This case, however, illustrates the need for an education-based approach when publicly discussing Chinese fan culture. Using connected learning would help mitigate the long-standing stigma of fan activities.

2. Chinese celebrity fans during the Covid-19 outbreak

[2.1] In late January 2020, the new coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2) turned China, a country preparing for its New Year celebration, into a miserable quarantine zone. In Hubei province, the heart of the epidemic outbreak, the rapid increase of infected people put tremendous pressure on public health resources, including a shortage of hospital medical supplies. To make things worse, in Hubei, the local Red Cross, a state-controlled organization that receives and distributes donations and supplies, was criticized for its inaction, bureaucracy, and even corruption (Hollingsworth and Thomas 2020). For example, when one of the major hospitals in Wuhan accepting coronavirus-infected patients only received three thousand face masks from the Red Cross, another hospital that did not accept coronavirus-infected patients received eighteen thousand masks (Guo et al. 2020). These reports ignited public ire.

[2.2] Chinese citizens sought their own ways to collect and send supplies to medical staff directly—an arduous task, given the chaos resulting from supply shortages and transportation shutdowns. Celebrity fans became one of the most organized, transparent, and efficient groups that successfully delivered medical supplies to hospitals. Most logistics companies stopped fulfilling personal orders because of the Spring Festival break. Further, purchasing did not mean merely placing orders through online platforms. Self-organized fan groups had to find and contact factories directly, using personal connections to find carriers. Their efforts worked. The state confirmed human-to-human transmission of the virus on January 20, 2020. On January 31, a celebrity fan group successfully delivered supplies worth $40,000 to a hospital in Wuhan. With their ability to mobilize, in a mere ten days, these fans accomplished fund-raising, finding and purchasing medical supplies, contacting transportation carriers, and arranging for delivery (Zhang, Wang, and Wu 2020). Fangirls devoted enormous amounts of time, labor, and money to fight the epidemic. From February 8 to February 20, 2020, a total of 1,869 donation activities organized by 506 fan groups were recorded. In addition to arranging for supplies, celebrity fans also donated about $978,010 for this national rescue attempt (Funji 2020). Figure 1 lists the fan groups that participated in a joint donation endeavor.

Long red list in Chinese

Figure 1. List of fan groups that participated in a joint donation endeavor during the Covid-19 outbreak. Source:

[2.3] Chinese celebrity fans' contribution was reported by media outlets and was praised on Weibo, a popular social media platform in China. These fan organizations, originally founded and operated to support the fans' idols, could quickly be repurposed to engage in disaster relief. "Don't forget them [the fangirls] on the list of contributors!" an official media outlet exhorted (Chen Xiaosong 2020). "Would it be better to donate money to a celebrity fan group [than to the Red Cross]?" a netizen wondered on Weibo (quoted in Sheer 2020). Some news reports also mentioned how fans organized the donations: "All the accounts [for fund-raising] must be open and transparent, accurate to two decimal places, or [the organization] would be scolded by the fans" (Xiaochu and Hejiu 2020). Some fan groups used internships, open defense, and voting to choose their administrators (Zhang, Wang, and Wu 2020). For a while celebrity fangirls were even viewed by other netizens as a hope for democratization—not a far-fetched notion considering the 2005 Super Girls phenomenon, in which many observers regarded voting for pop stars as a kind of referendum (Meng 2009).

[2.4] However, fans were quickly criticized on Weibo when they watched livestreams during the construction of a makeshift hospital in Wuhan. The construction event, broadcast by state media outlet CCTV and watched by more than forty million people on January 29, 2020 (Shan 2020), was considered proof of the state's strength and commitment to fighting the epidemic. Fans, however, applied their fan-circle memes and practices to this live event, including anthropomorphizing the construction vehicles, producing fan works (figure 2), and building a discussion board (known as a Super Topic) on Weibo. For example, they called a forklift Little Forklift ("fork-chan," a nickname influenced by Japanese popular culture), and called excavators Little Yellow and Little Blue, thus turning the trucks into stars and themselves into the trucks' fans. The Super Topic board for Little Forklift had thousands of followers who chatted and shared fan artworks (figure 3). CCTV (2020) reported the live event as providing "transparency and open information with a 'rumor-dispelling' effect" and fan activities as expressions of "Chinese people's confidence in China speed." It also set up a page for fans to vote for their favorite vehicles (figure 4) (Allen 2020). Because the live event happened at the same time as the questioning of the Red Cross, fans' activities were criticized by angry netizens who were dissatisfied with the government's performance and censorship during the disaster, and who were offended by fans' having fun during an epidemic.

[2.5] Fans' language was considered to be evidence of the deterioration of civil discourse. One post, which was reposted more than forty-six thousand times on Weibo, called fans' language infantile (@Miaozai_). Others criticized fans for not including the workers in their fannish expressions: "It is weird to treat the machine as a human being but neglect the real people inside the machine" (@Zhujiayin). Jiang Sida, a television talk show host, criticized the fans of Little Forklift as having "no knowledge, no logic, and no decency" (quoted in Liu 2020). One flame post even wondered, "Can we drive the forklift to kill the fan-circle girls under the Little Forklift super topic?" (@Sagako).

Two characters in hard hats, work boots, and overall shorts carrying construction materials

Figure 2. Screenshot of an example of anthropomorphized construction vehicles. Source:

Web page with a cute forklift cartoon

Figure 3. Screenshot of Super Topic board for Little Forklift on Weibo. Source:

Phone view of web page showing different construction vehicles

Figure 4. Screenshot of voting page set up by CCTV so everyone could select a favorite construction vehicle. Source:

[2.6] Of course, it is unfair to blame fans for the authorities' performance and decisions during the epidemic. Neither censorship nor bureaucracy in China is a result of fans' infantilization. Also, there was no evidence that producing fan artworks celebrating the construction trucks would cause actual harm, and there was no evidence that these fans did not participate in citizen-driven rescues in other ways. For example, one fangirl helped her fan group donate 2,300 N95 respirators to the Red Cross, but was then angry at the institution's performance. She watched livestreams of Little Forklift as a form of self-healing (Zhang, Wang, and Wu 2020). A main reason why fans focused on construction vehicles was that a live camera used a bird's-eye view, which seldom presented images of workers (figure 4). The controversial practice of focusing on machines rather than on human beings may also partially be a result of fans' attempts to avoid possible disputes caused by the highly controversial genre of real person slash (Lantagne 2016).

[2.7] Nevertheless, celebrity fans became the scapegoat in the resulting disputes. Netizens vented their anger at the government toward the celebrity fans instead. As a result of the disputes, fans of Little Forklift soon stopped their activities and disbanded their chat group; in total, their activities lasted for about a week. Yet even articles that praised fans' participation in the live event still criticized fans' activities. Zhou and Li (2020) argued that the fannish participation was evidence of how society united to fight the epidemic, but because fans do not need to think but rather only worship, their activities would prevent the public from deliberation and action. Liu (2020) summarized the controversial image of fans as "two-faced fan-circle girls":

[2.8] When they [the fangirls] fought the epidemic like adults, they were also using childish language…Although the campaign against the virus has significantly increased the public's favorability of the fan-circle girls…it is not enough to eliminate the outside world's stereotypes by just participating in major public events.

3. Connected learning

[3.1] Zheng (2019) observed that Chinese fans are welcomed by the media industry and the state when they create visible revenue but are marginalized and suppressed when they create in fan works. In this case, it seems that Chinese society also held the same attitude toward fan activities. Chinese fans summarized the situation with the following highly popular self-mocking remark: "When something happens [and they need us], they call us fan-circle girls; when nothing happens, they call us fan-circle bitches." Indeed, stigma drove fans to charity. In addition to the prejudice against fans, China also has a long tradition of discriminating against entertainers, who are considered part of the underclass. Hence, an incentive for fans to participate in charity projects is to improve the public image of fans and their fan objects (Jeffreys and Xu 2017; Liu 2020; Yang 2009). Charity is also a safe way for fans to express and justify their love for their fan objects. This is why observers often indicated that fan charity is not genuine civic participation but rather an activity driven by personal and fannish interests (Chen Chun 2020; Jeffreys and Xu 2017).

[3.2] However, it is unfair that young female fans in particular—a group that has been long and easily marginalized in society—must use charity to defend their fannish interests. Furthermore, ironically, on the one hand, Chinese fans were mocked as naive and foolish. On the other hand, fans were examined and criticized from the perspective of expecting them to break the Chinese state's control on civic organizations with their strong ability to mobilize. Apparently the public (especially intellectuals) expected "infantile" Chinese fans to be mature and responsible citizens who could quickly mobilize their way out of state control. Chinese commentators failed to consider the age, experience, and social status of fans, or whether nonfans shared the shortcomings of fans. As Jenkins, Ito, and boyd (2016) note,

[3.3] It's unfortunate that we limit young people's ability to exercise agency, and then lament they are irresponsible or slackers when they can't step immediately into adult shoes…We highlight certain negative behaviors as part of the developmental stage of teens, and we can be incredibly unreflective about how adults exhibit these same needs and behaviors. (54)

[3.4] What, then, would be a more useful way to approach these fans? I suggest a framework using the educational theoretical framework of connected learning. Such a framework asks (adult) society to perform actions that help and show respect to youth who are connecting personal interests with academic, career, or civic opportunities (Ito et al. 2013, 2020). Such a framework can help the public be more aware of the stereotypes and have a better understanding of fan activities. Compared to other theories that view fandom from the perspective of education, connected learning urges action from adults—that is, people who hold power or who inhabit social institutions. Connected learning demands that organizations and agents "sponsor and legitimize the interests and identities of diverse youth" (Ito et al. 2020, 5). It also asks parents, educators, elites, schools, and industries to "embrace the cultural identities of diverse young people, meeting them where they are in their communities of interest, and building points of connection and translation to opportunity in schools, employment, and civic and political institutions" (Ito et al. 2018, 3). If the formal school education system seeks to cultivate youth, then connected learning aims to push influential adults to take the initiative to show respect for and sponsor youth culture.

[3.5] For civic engagement specifically, the approach of connected civics as a part of the theoretical framework of connected learning focuses on connecting young people's agency, interests, and affinity networks together with civic opportunities (Ito et al. 2015). Researchers have observed that barriers to civic participation are being lowered for youths as youths themselves apply cultural elements they are familiar with to civic themes, building infrastructure like websites or creating organizations for their activities in which younger members can work with older members (Ito et al. 2015). When youth are already actively engaging in civic actions on their own, it is then society's turn to reflect on their own biases and stereotypes—biases and stereotypes evidenced by the example of Chinese celebrity fans' activities during the Covid-19 outbreak.

[3.6] In the case of Little Forklift, some netizens were angry at the fangirls because fans were chosen by the state media to represent the voice of the people even as criticism of corruption and bureaucracy was suppressed on China's censored internet, thereby elevating supposedly trivial and infantile fangirl concerns above more weighty topics. Under such circumstances, could the state media be considered a sponsor of youth culture and connected learning? I feel such a claim is questionable because it looks more like incorporation than recognition. To ease the Chinese public's prejudice against fans, connected learning tells us that adults and institutions should model a desired connection between fan object and civic connection by engaging positively, rather than negatively, with these fans where they are.

[3.7] The current research on connected learning has mainly focused on the youth culture in the United States (Ito et al. 2020). Compared to China, participatory culture in the United States is growing in an environment where power distributes in a relatively decentralized way. Cultural policy is more directed by industry, not the state, while US society has strong nongovernmental and nonprofit sectors to support people's civic participation (Jenkins, Ito, and boyd 2016). However, media and education in China are both under the state's direct control. This does not mean that the Chinese state automatically rejects all forms of bottom-up civil participation or organization. Rather, it supposes that any form of participation and organization should occur under the government's control. Finding space for connected civics might be quite a different practice in China's particular social and political context.

[3.8] Connected learning ought to be applied in China; an opening exists not only for more research on this topic in China and elsewhere outside the Anglophone world, but also for more adult stakeholders to engage appropriately. For educators and scholars, this case study demonstrates the importance an educational approach in studies of fandom, which inherits the core belief of "fandom is beautiful" of the first wave of fan studies by recognizing fan cultures' vitality and creativity in creating opportunities for connecting and learning.

4. References

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