BuBu fandom and authentic online spaces for Chinese fangirls

Ting Huang

College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Considering BuBu fandom to be an authentic online fan space has implications for the transformative cycle of literacy production, social exchange, and identity formation as fangirls appropriate new materials and make new meanings. Specific illustrative data from two informants demonstrate that the site of BuBu fandom engages fangirls both in interest-driven literacy practices and social activities, with both rooted in a Chinese cultural context.

[0.2] Keywords—Baidu; BuBuJingXin; Chinese fandom; Chinese media; Fandom of color

Huang, Ting. 2022. "BuBu Fandom and Authentic Online Spaces for Chinese Fangirls." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 38.

1. Introduction

[1.1] As China plays a greater role in the world economy and more people seek to communicate in Chinese (Thussu, De Burgh, and Shi 2017), Chinese popular culture and fan worlds are impacting the world (Rojas and Chow 2008; Wang 2021; Yang and Bao 2012). However, fan cultures have traditionally been studied in Eurocentric ways (Khachidze 2021), as Chinese fandoms may be hard to understand from a Western perspective because Chinese language, culture, history, and social realities are unfamiliar and difficult to learn for Western fans (Huang 2017; Huang and Lammers 2018; Tang 2013). At the same time, from a feminist perspective (Hannell 2020), media and communication scholars are interested in understanding alternative non-Western fan spaces so that the field of fan studies can extend beyond its Western-centric, flattened, homogenized boundaries (De Kosnik and carrington 2019; Hellekson 2009). This study of Chinese fangirls and their engagements with online spaces and communities (Yang and Bao 2012) seeks to fill this knowledge gap.

[1.2] Given the restrictions in formal education of learning Chinese history and culture regarding the Qing dynasty in China (Huang 2014; Yang and Bao 2012; Yu 2009), authentic online fan spaces might be an alternative and effective venue for fangirls (Magnifico, Lammers, and Curwood 2020) to engage in literacy development and various social activities associated with the fondness of Chinese history and traditional culture both in and out of the classroom. In addition, online media play a number of important roles in communication and literacy development activities (Bahrani 2014; Furlong and Davies 2012), including providing access to authentic audiences for writing (Black 2008; Magnifico, Lammers, and Curwood 2020) and engaging language learners in informal settings (Thorne, Black, and Sykes 2009). Authentic Chinese online spaces could be equally powerful for nurturing Chinese literacy and communication activities, and it is to this end that I address Chinese fan writing communities.

[1.3] Although there is a growing body of research on media studies in China (Chen 2021; Yang and Bao 2012; Yu 2009) and on the use of Chinese media for pedagogical purposes (Huang and Lammers 2018), similar research on literacy practices and social activities of Chinese online fan sites is not available. To address this gap, as well as to shed light on digital literacy and make meaning of feminist, non-Eurocentric media spaces, I explore Chinese literacy practices and social activities offered by the fans of a popular Chinese media fandom space, BuBu (, by answering the following research question: Which of fangirls' literacy and social activities are recruited for participation?

2. Theoretical framework: New literacy studies and affinity spaces theory

[2.1] This study aligns with research in new literacy studies (NLS) (Barton 2017; Gee 2012; Gee and Hayes 2011; New London Group 1996; Street 1993, 1997, 2003) and affinity spaces theory (Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico 2012). By specifically following the concept of literacy as a social practice in NLS—which considers the importance of context, specifically as it relates to how ideological, social, and political forces of institutions shape fangirls' social and literacy practices (Street and Street 1984)—the work of NLS researchers interested in making sense of everyday literacy practices in a variety of contexts may be informed (Barton 2017; Barton and Hamilton 2012; Street 1995, 1997).

[2.2] NLS theory is a great match for this project because of its online media focus and its consideration of literacy development and socially, historically, and politically situated fangirl activities (Black 2008; Lam 2004) in BuBu fandom. NLS theorist James Paul Gee (2012) conceives of affinity spaces as physical, virtual, or blended sites of engaging learning, which he uses to describe video game–related sites. Participants gather in affinity spaces to pursue a common passion and have fun. In this study, I draw on a later iteration of the defining features of affinity spaces, that of Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico (2012), to focus attention on how BuBu fandom allows fangirls to pursue self-directed participation in literacy development, how knowledge is constructed and shared among its members, and how socialization operates in this space.

[2.3] Existing research related to Chinese online spaces with a focus on fangirls' literacy and social activities is scarce. NLS and affinity spaces theory have been used to gain rich understanding of online fan sites in the Western world (Black 2008; Curwood, Magnifico, and Lammers 2013; Thorne, Black, and Sykes 2009). I extend this to research using a Chinese perspective by making BuBu literacy and social practices visible in order to examine what BuBu fandom might tell us about Chinese fangirls.

3. Research methods

[3.1] I chose affinity spaces methodology because the concept of affinity spaces is specifically designed for researchers studying online spaces with a particular interest in fangirls and their participatory culture. Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico (2012) explicate features of affinity spaces research and argue that studying fangirls in affinity spaces (in their case, fangirls in Sims and Neopets games) affords us access to participants outside our geographic proximity, a readily available web-based historical record, and a way to trace social and literacy practices across portals, modes, and texts.

[3.2] Using the lens of affinity spaces, in 2014, I conducted virtual interviews and observations to develop a contextualized understanding of fangirls' experiences in BuBu fandom. Interviews provided access to the participants' thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and values. Systematic observations of how the fandom worked provided direct evidence of the fans' experiences on BuBu fandom.

[3.3] To provide research context: BuBu fandom is a fan discussion forum website for BuBuJingXin, a hit time-travel dynasty drama (and a novel with the same title by Tong Hua, published online in 2005 on Jinjiang Original Network), which aired in 2011 in China. At the time of data gathering, January 31, 2014, there were more than 166,000 individual site members. There were 2,562,507 posts spread across five main topics: posts, pictures, collections, videos, and groups. On this site, fans write, read, offer feedback on fan fiction, share artwork, chitchat, and engage in other activities related to the BuBuJingXin franchise.

[3.4] To collect data, every day, I observed BuBu fandom, including its chat rooms on QQ (an instant messaging tool popular before WeChat) and other related portals, for 3.5 months, which enabled me to witness, understand, and participate in BuBu fandom and to get to know the participants well. These participatory observations (Creswell and Poth 2016) captured the rich experiences of participants in the context of how the experiences happened and were constructed in their lives (Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw 2011).

[3.5] During the process of observation, according to the relevance to social activities and literacy practices online, I collected communication records, entries of postings that fans made, screenshots, memos, and my own reflections of researching. I also conducted and transcribed two online interviews with each informant, during which the informants relayed the richness of their dynamic, changing BuBu experiences through retelling and meaning making.

[3.6] The two informants I selected for this study were both longtime site users, each representing a different key aspect of BuBu fandom participation: fan fiction writing and moderating. Xiaomeng, age thirty, a popular fan fiction writer from Taiwan, had posted 28,000 posts during her nearly three-year membership on the site. Shishi, age twenty, originally from mainland China but at the time an international student in Canada, was a fan with a particular interest in reading historical texts who had served as head of the site for 3.5 years when interviewed. The interview with Xiaomeng took place via multiple email exchanges. The interview with Shishi began via email exchanges and eventually moved to a forty-seven-minute audio recorded QQ chat session. All interviews were conducted in Chinese; translations are my own.

[3.7] For analysis, data were coded both holistically and line by line. Then themes were created from the repeating categories and codes, permitting me to come to a newly theorized understanding of this online fan space.

4. Findings

[4.1] I identified various literacy practices that were available via BuBu fandom. BuBu fangirls were writing, reading, connecting, and socializing with peers who shared a Chinese traditional cultural mindset and a feminist perspective that promoted free sharing (Hannell 2020). Fangirls led their communities and connected with others over their fondness of traditional Chinese culture. For example, fan stories included various types of popular historical romance for the community to consume, but with feminist negotiations including alternative ways to shift attention away from women as objects of the gaze and instead toward women as having agency (Hannell 2020). These literacy activities were predominately based on Chinese historical knowledge, despite which many events were not factual.

[4.2] In what follows, I highlight a activity that I observed within BuBu fandom and link it to not only fan-shared literacy but Chinese-specific modes of practice. I observed fans engaged in a number of literacy activities imbricated with identity formation, socialization via knowledge transfer, self-directed social learning driven by an affective passion for the topic, and friendship, all while relying on Chinese contextual differences and a unique Chinese culture. In addition to fan remarks made on the website, I rely on the interviews I conducted with Xiaomeng, the fan fiction writer, and Shishi, the reader/moderator.

[4.3] First, to address identify formation, the example of my first informant Xiaomeng's fan fiction thread illustrates how BuBu fandom encouraged self-directed, multifaceted, and dynamic participation and identity development. For example, Xiaomeng's "Another Time Travel Back to the Dream," a fan fiction sequel to BuBuJingXin (the novel), involved descriptions of Ruoxi's love/sex stories with the Yongzheng emperor. As Yang and Bao (2012) argue, from a sociopolitical perspective, Confucian and communist asceticism still affect Chinese girls' attitudes toward sex, although nowadays restrictive attitudes about sex are opening up, particularly in urban China and among a new generation of young girls. BuBu fandom is an example of how female writers use writing fan fiction as a way to express their gender and sex identities, their sense of self, and their affective lived experiences. Xiaomeng's writing affectively celebrates such sexuality-related freedom, along with the ability to rebel against taboos and heterosexual norms in the Chinese world. However, I, like Yang and Bao (2012), find it concerning that certain writings that trivialize women, such as harem stories, actually reinforce gender and sexual stereotypes and hierarchies—values deeply embedded in traditional Chinese culture.

[4.4] Because fangirls are a passionate audience and motivated fan fiction writers, they shared social knowledge on the site, the second feature I observed in my study. Socializing via gift exchange in the form of fan fiction was a key form of participation. Xiaomeng took the main characters from the original BuBu novel and created her own time-travel fiction in the same historical moment, which she shared with BuBu fandom. Her engagement with the site included weekly updated chapters, interaction with readers, and chitchatting. Hundreds of interactions happened every day within this thread. For example, from 9:00 p.m. on February 23, 2014, to 9:00 p.m. on February 24, 2014, the thread grew by 1,420 posts. Numerous secondary threads followed each chapter update, with readers providing support, feedback, and interactions, to which Xiaomeng replied by directly addressing the readers' responses.

[4.5] Relatedly, knowledge is shared in the context of the fan site via socializing. For example, one reader, 小two, asked whether Yongzheng should be a "wangye (prince of the first rank), not a beileye (prince of the third rank)." Xiaomeng replied by noting that Yongzheng had not yet been promoted (BuBu posts, February 12, 2013). Such interactions allowed readers and writers to situate their fan literacy practices within the historical context of the Qing dynasty. As Street and Street (1984) note, literacy practices are social in nature, and within BuBu fandom, fans were able to interact in a space where historical knowledge is collectively constructed, shared, and valued, all while being situated within their interest in BuBu stories.

[4.6] Third, social activities and literacy development in BuBu fandom are driven by interest and self-directed informal learning. Xiaomeng shared her feelings about how readers pushed her: "I had to force myself to adhere to what I had promised the readers" (interview, February 28, 2014). Xiaomeng self-directed her writing on BuBu fandom: she worked whenever she had a break from her job, and she worked to fulfill her initial promises, with regular engagement and textual updates. At the time of the study, this effort had lasted a year and a half.

[4.7] The fourth element, friendship, which is valued in Chinese collectivism culture, is exemplified by BuBu fandom's sociality. For my second informant, Shishi, a college student majoring in finance at a university in Canada, BuBu fandom offered a space to share her interest in classical Chinese culture. After she left China, her friendship with a particular BuBu friend continued, which evolved from sending postcards to sharing valuable items, such as signature photos from Cecilia Liu, the actress who plays Ruoxi, a BuBu character.

[4.8] For the fifth element, Chinese contextual differences, my analysis identified interactional patterns unique to Chinese online spaces compared to their Western counterparts. For example, Shishi noted that she engaged in BuBu fandom largely because of her passion for classical Chinese culture. She agreed to serve as a site moderator "because I have a passion for Chinese traditional culture, and this passion makes my life colorful" (interview, March 30, 2014). To this end, the inherent Chinese-ness of the BuBu fan community could be seen as a way of emphasizing that fan communities are not always transnational, transcultural, and Westernized. The fan stories that BuBu fandom archives may not always be accessible, understandable, and available for a transcultural and transnational perspective.

[4.9] The sixth and last element important to BuBu fandom literacy is the uniqueness of Chinese culture, which fans must understand and negotiate in order to properly engage. Of course, fans' debating canon-specific or culturally specific details that appear in fan fiction is not unique to BuBu fandom (Black 2008). Yet BuBu fandom shows that originary culture and history are deeply important. By extension, this means that the fandom is necessarily closed to many who do not know enough about these cultural and historical details to understand the TV show, much less the fan works.

[4.10] During my research, I found that a fondness for specific handmade Chinese classical artifacts was a common passion among those engaged in BuBu fandom. A traditional hairpin is a good example of the uniqueness of this Chinese cultural aspect in BuBu fandom. Learning how to craft such traditional hairpins, then sharing the process and result online, is a form of engaging in literacy practices connected to historical China. Fan-made pins like those in figure 1 are displayed on the BuBu fandom website because the users proudly made them. Crafting them requires specialized tools and jade materials, both of which are hard to get. Further, making them in this particular artistic style requires special research, because it is not a common, contemporary style that today's people would DIY.

Heads of silver Mulan hairpins set against a plum flower sprig

Figure 1. Chinese Mulan flower hairpins, one red and one white, handmade and then posted by an anonymous BuBu fan. Downloaded March 27, 2014, from BuBuJingXin Baidu Tieba.

[4.11] Further, the Mulan flower hairpins in figure 1 exemplify the passion for classical Chinese language, art, and culture. They look exactly like the white plum flower pin in the BuBu TV series, so they directly refer to that text, but they also act tacitly as a Chinese cultural symbol of integrity—a moral standard in traditional and modern China. Within BuBu canonical texts, such hairpins were used as love token between the fourth prince (Yongzheng, real in history, fictionalized for the TV show and novel) and Ruoxi (a fictional BuBu protagonist). Making, sharing, gifting, and otherwise exchanging these historically inflected pins was an enjoyable process that let fangirls share artwork, make friends, and play in BuBu fandom while also harking back to Chinese associations and culture.

[4.12] In summary, these literacy practices, working via socialization, positive interactions with peers, classical Chinese culture, and multivocal art pieces created by BuBu fans, are distinctively rooted in the culture of China and this affinity space. To engage is to click, read, comment, write; to make up a song and sing it; to hotlink; and to create a video related to Bubu Jinxing. As Hellekson (2009) has demonstrated, these kinds of exchanges are made up of three elements related to the fan community: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. Within BuBu fandom, fangirls develop literacy and gender identity, socialize with friends, connect with a unique Chinese traditional culture—and most of all, have fun.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] BuBu fandom is an affinity space (Gee 2012; Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico 2012), where fangirls socialize with friends, connect with their passion for Chinese traditional culture, and develop interest-based literacy. To add to the Western fan site research (Black 2008; Hellekson 2009; Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico 2012; Thorne, Black, and Sykes 2009), I use an Eastern-inflected sensibility to study BuBu fandom and found that it displays unique features. It is a Chinese fangirl space that allows fangirls to develop their collective and feminist literacy, to create artworks, to build building friendships in and out of online spaces, and, as Shishi put it, to make their everyday life "colorful." These activities are rooted in a specific logic that springs from Chinese history and Chinese narrative traditions. Fan spaces like Bubu have implications for the transformative cycle of literacy production, social exchange, and identity formation.

[5.2] In conclusion, this project, by incorporating affinity spaces (Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico 2012) and NLS (Street 1997, 2003) from a feminist perspective (De Kosnik and carrington 2019; Hannell 2020), fills a void in Eurocentric fan fiction research by adding an emphasis on Chinese social activities and digital literacy development. I see the potential for literacy educators to introduce students to such an authentic Chinese space in order to develop students' contextual understanding of China. Authentic Chinese online spaces offer valuable opportunities through culturally engaging practices, such as reading and writing fan fiction. BuBu fandom is an example of Chinese cultural connection for fangirls, which, however, may not always in progressive in nature (Barton 2017; Barton and Hamilton 2012; Street 1995, 1997, 2003). Echoing existing feminist theorists (Hannell 2020), I consider topics on fangirls' gender formation and writing of hierarchies of gender roles to deserve future research attention.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] I would like to express my sincerest gratitude to Jayne C. Lammers for her guidance in an earlier version of this work. I thank Nancy Ares for her support in conducting this research. I also thank Bridget Kies and Hanna Hacker for their kind feedback and constructive comments. I am also grateful that I could have Karen Hellekson's support and feedback in copy editing the final document. All have demonstrated that a research work in print is never a piece solely of one's own. Thank you!

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