Celebrity in China

A visit to a Chinese city of any size—looking up at downtown billboards, flicking through a magazine, riding public transport, shopping at a mall, or even a convenience store—is to be in the presence of a Chinese celebrity endorsing a product, lifestyle or other symbols of “the good life”. In contemporary urban China, the image of a Chinese actor, singer, athlete or TV personality is never far away. Celebrity in China is big business, feeding off and nourishing the advertising-led business model that underpins the commercialized media system and large sections of the internet. It is also a powerful instrument in the Party-State’s discursive and symbolic repertoire, used to promote regime goals and solidify new governmentalities through signalling accepted modes of behaviour for mass emulation (Jeffreys, 2009). The instrumentalization of celebrity by Party, state and business actors is strategic, motivated and sustained by the “spiritual vacuum” created by the transition to a market socialist system and its associated societal dislocations and aspirations (Kipnis, 2001). Despite its ubiquity, there is an aura of frivolousness around celebrity culture that perhaps explains why “Chinese stars and stardom rarely receive sustained academic attention” (Farquhar and Zhang, 2010: 2). While the professional milieux that celebrities inhabit have long been recognized as sites of political and cultural power, negotiation and contestation, the contours and implications of celebrity in contemporary China have received little recognition within the broader China Studies field. However, as demonstrated by recent pioneering work, on which this article aims to build (Edmonds and Jeffreys, 2010; Farquhar and Zhang, 2010; Hood, 2016), in combination with related studies on popular culture and the media (Berry and Farquhar, 2006; Chow 2007; Curtin, 2007; Keane 2013; Latham, 2007; Link et al., 2002; Wang, 2008; Zhang, 2004; Zhu and Berry, 2009), celebrity in China plays an important signalling role with implications for regime stability, social integration and the pursuit of the “Chinese Dream” of national strength and prosperity.

China has a long history of literary, musical and folk celebrity in the Imperial and Modern eras (McDermott, 2006), in addition to concerted efforts at creating “socialist stars” during the Mao era (Cheek, 1997). But the contemporary celebrity scene is a product of processes associated with the emergence of “market socialism”. Economic reforms and urbanization, increasingly widespread prosperity and the associated rise of consumerism, commercialization of the media and technological change, the growth of individualism and decline of collectivist ways of life have all contributed to the emergence of a celebrity culture that has imbued individuals with great wealth, visibility and influence within large fan bases. In addition to advancing a range of commercial interests, notably via advertising and endorsements (Hung, 2014; Wang, 2008), celebrities are increasingly involved in supporting social causes through philanthropy (Hood, 2015; Jeffreys, 2015a), advocacy and representation in formal political institutions (Jeffreys, 2015b), as activists and social critics (Strafella and Berg, 2015a; 2015b) and as leaders of online public opinion (Fu et al., 2015). With increasing internet penetration and the popularization of social media, celebrities have the capacity to connect directly, unfiltered and unmediated, with substantial audiences; the hundred or so entertainers we identify in this article as “major celebrities” (a sub sample of the celebrity population) have a combined following of around 2.5 billion people on Sina Weibo (新浪微博) alone. The ability to step outside their respective professional milieux is one factor that distinguishes celebrities from simply being well known figures such as members of the Politburo. Celebrity is a multidimensional quality, the sum of an individual’s product and packaging, personal attributes and life beyond the professional realm. We understand celebrity as analogous with the concepts of “brand identity” or “brand image” employed in marketing studies. A further feature that separates celebrity from well-knowness is the celebrity persona, i.e. “a crafted and consolidated public projection of the real person, built in part out of film roles and other public appearances” (Shingler 2012: 125). A review of the literature on “stars”, the sub-group at the apex of the celebrity hierarchy, highlights numerous attributes associated with this persona including glamour, beauty, sexuality, theatricality, charm, confidence, wealth and sophistication. The closest China has come to a celebrity politician to date was Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing Party Secretary now in jail.  The multi-dimensional celebrity persona, and the public interest it stimulates in off-stage lives, requires an academic focus on the workings of celebrity itself as a supplement to analysing the products (zuopin 作品) that celebrities create in their professional roles. The potential to connect with large numbers of ordinary people also marks the special status that celebrities have within China’s constrained socio-political ecology. The motivation for this paper is to further scholarly understanding of how celebrity operates in China and to bring this expression of popular culture into the broader conversation about contemporary Chinese politics and society. Full paper here.