Sep 04, 2021 06:52 AM

Weekend Long Read: Why Chinese Pop Stars Are Expected To Be Moral Models — and Fail

The recent crackdown on the entertainment industry shows that Chinese want cultural icons to have high moral standing. This conventional notion in China is based on the assumption that ordinary people can’t think independently and are prone to being misled. The cultural elite is expected to provide a moral role model for the masses.

If this is the case, the icons of China’s entertainment industry put on a poor show in 2021.

At the beginning of the year, the public was shocked to learn that actress Zheng Shuang abandoned two children born to surrogates abroad. In the following months, news of celebrities’ secret marriages, secret children, and scandalous affairs sprang up. In July, actor and singer Kris Wu was arrested on rape charges and made national headlines. Later, another singer, Huo Zun, was accused by his ex-girlfriend of having cheated and threatened her. Then came the sexual assault allegations against host Qian Feng.

Of course, some of these things are private matters, and although the public was surprised, they did not dwell on them. Others caused a storm of indignation. Zheng Shuang’s career as a performer has more or less ended. Kris Wu could never come back to show business, although this is a lesser problem to him than possible imprisonment. The most striking aspect of these incidents is that a sudden media storm can change stars’ lives in 24 hours, showing that people in show business today are walking on thin ice.

What we have seen are not standalone celebrity scandals. Different parties’ reactions to these stories amount to a social drama reflecting the morals, values, public sphere and popular sentiment of our times.

Kris Wu
Kris Wu's fans at a concert in Nanjing in 2013.

An actor’s morality

When celebrity scandals emerge, they are seen as moral issues in the eyes of the Chinese public.

Not only did the scandals become social media sensations, but they also provoked criticism from mainstream media on celebrities’ slipping moral standards. The China Association of Performing Arts recently reiterated in a statement that entertainers are the main contributors to the spread of social and cultural values, so the public expects better moral character from them.

This is not just lip service. On Aug. 25, Chairman Hu Zhanfan of the China Television Artists Association said at a symposium that production groups should prioritize social implications and social responsibilities in casting.

Celebrities’ moral failures have great personal consequences; one misstep could result in their works being removed from streaming platforms, terminated commercial contracts, lost profit and a halted career.

Amid the turmoil, more than 80 hosts, anchors and performers with Hunan Television signed a letter of commitment, pledging to fight misconduct, unprofessional conduct and disinformation and speculation. This is not only in response to the ethical requirements of the authorities and the public, but it is probably mainly for the sake of business. For a talent agency, the morality of a public figure has become the most elusive business risk factor.

However, people’s demands on entertainers’ moral character are not a recent fad. To please the audience, the 1930s Hollywood film studios disciplined entertainers. Divorce was prohibited. Stars worked in plain surroundings with nothing extravagant in view. After all, showing off was not a winning strategy during the Great Depression.

Usually, such damage in businesses tends to be temporary. Celebrities may live scandalous lives. On stage, though, they still perform. One example is Marlon Brando, famous for his role in “The Godfather.” He is considered a legendary actor. However, in real life he lived a hedonistic lifestyle. He was the father of 25 illegitimate children, although the specific number is controversial. He was a bona fide scumbag — if he had been in today’s China, he could have died countless “social deaths,” as we call them.

Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando in a scene from 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

When performers need to educate

But Chinese society has set extremely high standards of morality for artists and entertainers, something very rare in the world. This may be because the Chinese people subconsciously see celebrities as the cultural elite and jump to the conclusion that celebrities should behave as role models — which is “to have a good reputation in moral integrity and artistic abilities,” where moral integrity comes before artistic abilities.

All of this stems from the Confucian tradition that “literature is used to express ideas,” which has further extended into disseminatable nonliterary works.

However, looking closely to Chinese history, early Quyi (曲艺,or traditional Chinese folk vocal art forms) performers were not obligated to “be an example for others.” In Old Beijing before 1949, Quyi performances were most seen in the Tianqiao area, a place full of “people with low-social-class occupations” according to elderly artists. In Shanghai, the local Yueju Opera was also initially started by a group of people lacking advanced artistic skills. Both the performers (who often came from the lower class) and their performances were plain, ordinary and of everyday life. It was not until the enlightenment movement in modern times that the educated noticed how inspiring popular literature could be for ordinary folks.

With new orthodoxy of literature emerging after 1949, performers, formerly despised as “people with low-social-class occupations,” now became “literary and art workers.” In addition, traditional crosstalk, drum songs and Chinese Opera were refined. As a result, performances were elevated, and perhaps a new feeling of elegance was formed out of the ordinary. “To have a good reputation in moral integrity and artistic abilities” became a new requirement. In other words, what they face are not audiences who want to be entertained but ordinary folks who can be educated.

The new age of diehard online fans

With the growth of the market economy, this pattern is starting to collapse.

The way information spreads through society has changed significantly over the past decade. The ability to attract a high volume of online traffic has become the core of the commercial value of celebrities. Without online traffic, new stars may never get a chance to emerge; therefore, moral integrity and artistic abilities come second. Gradually, performers no longer maintain their reputation in moral integrity and artistic abilities and sometimes even don’t care about their artistic abilities at all, completely lacking acting skills or singing techniques. As long as they can amass a group of diehard fans, the online traffic generated by them can always be converted into money. A small-scale ecological system is thus formed: Celebrities with a huge following seem to be capable of achieving anything — giving them a feeling that they can do whatever they please.

But this is merely an illusion. Fame and fortune often turn out to be a mirage. However impressive it looks, it is all built on sand. These celebrities cannot afford to be invisible, as being “unheard-of” is equivalent to being dead in show business. Meanwhile, it is impossible to separate their public and private lives. Any gossip about their personal lives will be magnified and shown to everyone. In these digital times of 360-degree scrutiny, few people are morally perfect — and sometimes they need to be controversial to stay in the limelight.

Now physical appearance is essential in China’s celebrity culture. Being young and beautiful is viewed as the key leverage. Strip off the super stars’ celebrity aura, and they are just immature young people who are at risk of getting lost when faced with sudden but huge fortune and instant fame.

The entertainment industry of any country will be viewed as “a pretty mess,” mostly because very few people can remain their true selves in the face of fame, fortune and desire. But in China, this is not only about staying within legal bounds but also about behaving in a morally correct way in the eye of the public.

Responsibilities for stars

It should be emphasized that China attaches attention to stars’ morality not out of concern that their conduct may violate the law or hurt a specific individual, but for its risk of negative impact on society — the belief that cultural icons ought to have high moral standing. This conventional notion in China is based on the assumption that ordinary people are inept at independent thinking and are easily misled. The cultural elite thus is expected to provide a moral role model as people might copy the idols’ words or deeds.

This was a relatively easy thing in the past when literature and arts influenced morals by osmosis, but the fame and fortune in those undermarketed days are very different from today — they moved slowly and on a small scale. More importantly, unlike today’s social media, entertainment media then was the only channel with information about celebrities, and those were easy to control. This hindered the spread of scandals and their fermentation under public opinion, which also made it difficult to have a well-organized fan club at that time.

Fan clubs, or “fandom” today, are a new thing that has followed the emergence of the internet. Apart from adoration, fan clubs revolving around a star also work as a mobilization and operation mechanism to ensure that the star gets enough online traffic. In this situation, the star is more than an art practitioner or a moral model — he or she is also playing a core role in the fan club.

Many of us may have forgotten that it has just been slightly over a decade since the rise of homemade pop stars in the mainland. For the generation that grew up in the 1980s and ’90s, the popular stars they knew in their childhood were mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and some were from Europe, America and Japan. At that time, although domestic singers and actors might have been just as skilled, they still came off as rather “unsophisticated.” The Super Girl 2005 talent show organized by Hunan Satellite Television might have been a milestone as it enabled countless Chinese people to witness the stunning rise of grassroots stars, as well as the fervent support the fans could give to their idols.

super girls

The Super Girl 2005 talent show organized by Hunan Satellite Television

The tide has turned surprisingly fast.

According to a study based on the Baidu search index in 2014, among the top 10 stars, eight were from the Chinese mainland and two from South Korea, none from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or Japan. In hindsight, Jay Chou is probably the last superstar in a double sense. He was the last of the Hong Kong and Taiwan superstars, marking the end of a generation. And at the pinnacle of his career, the entertainment market was moving toward high fragmentation, and no one has been able to reach his height and awareness since.

Fans gather to see their idol in Chengdu on December 18, 2014

Fans are the new king

The market has transformed the ecosystem of literature and the arts. The stars of today may be less widely known to the entire society and have smaller groups of fans, but they must work hard to maintain these groups’ loyalty, which determines their incomes. And what fans care about is often neither the stars’ virtue nor necessarily their talents, but rather an idolatrous intuition. Through social platforms and online chat rooms, fans may form a closed subcultural group and constantly reinforce the sense of identity and belonging.

This is why fans will support and forgive a star even if he or she behaves immorally after gaining influence. That’s why it is also common for two fan groups to have beef with each other. A small scandal may be viewed as no big deal as long as it is within legal bounds. The stars involved are by and large glad to see that they can maintain their popularity and the fans’ loyalty — until the scandal develops into a social phenomenon that cannot be ignored.

The government requires that stars set a good moral example, which will naturally make a difference. However, this also means that stars’ social roles have changed: They are no longer just professionals focused on their respective artistry, but also moral models with an essential task of social governance. With their influence exponentially amplified by the internet, any subtle move or remark may bring huge consequences, positive or negative.

The problem is that the more famous you are, the more delicate your situation becomes. On the one hand, you have to be careful of your behavior and try to prevent it from being amplified and leading to negative consequences. On the other hand, you are responsible for things that are beyond your control — especially behavior of your fandom. Maybe you have done nothing wrong, but what about your staff and your fans? You have already formed a community with them, a symbiotic relation that affects your core interests.

In fact, many young Chinese people treat pop stars as handy objects to project their psychological status and express their identity rather than as moral models. It is not a vertical one-way system where stars give instructions, but a complex interaction between stars and fans. In other words, even if stars are serious about their social responsibilities, they may fail to control such a network or foresee what consequences their actions will have.

In an increasingly complex society, we cannot rely on old solutions — requiring stars to be moral models or urging them to undertake the mission of social governance — to solve a new problem in the digital age.

To fix this problem, we need the new generation to embrace independent thinking and society to form a framework based on the rule of law. When everyone takes responsibility for his or her behavior without relying on the moral demonstration of a cultural icon, stars will be unburdened. They can then focus on improving their professionalism on the premise of not violating the law or offending public morals.

The author is a current affairs commentator.

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