Course:ASIA319/2020/"Gufeng" (古風)

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The official logo of one of the first gufeng bands which was established in 2007 called Moming Qimiao 墨明棋妙 (MMQMusic). They have been followed by other popular self-composed groups including Xiyinshe 汐音社 and Pingshaluoyan 平沙落雁.

The connection of China to the Internet in 1994 not only increased transnational and transcultural flows of popular culture into the mainland, but also brought new forms of cultural production originating in the Internet age including Gufeng (古风, literal translation “Archaic/Ancient Wind”). Gufeng is most commonly used to refer to a style of music, which can be traced to one of the earliest entertainment websites of online songs in China called Fenbeiwang 分贝网 in 2005 (Du, 2019: 57; Wang, 2020: 15),[1][2] where young netizens initially posted their compositions with ancient-style poems as an accompaniment to popular online games (Du, 2019: 59).[3] Today, gufeng music is frequently circulated on sites such as Youku, Bilibili, Baidu Postbar, and 5SING (Wang, 2020: 15)[4] with famous gufeng singers amassing over millions of followers on Sina Weibo (Du, 2019: 57).[5] However, gufeng music is not only a popular internet youth subculture amongst those from the post-1980s and 1990s generation, but is also becoming generative of a variety of activities, practises, and communities across multiple different mediums and cultural products (Wang, 2020: 16).[6] In other words, gufeng is now not only associated with songs and MVs, but also with video games, TV dramas, animations, webnovels, hanfu, and other online subcultures — both disseminated within mainland China as well as increasingly overseas.

Given the ways in which Gufeng is subject to adaptation and recirculation, what are the expressions, problems, and aspirations embedded within the popularization of the term from that of an online subculture to a site across numerous mediums for the negotiation of national identity? In what ways are considerations of the term as a form of amateur cultural production related to its broader imperatives in the rewriting of Chinese tradition and history? The decision to study gufeng therefore is not only in its subcultural significance, but also in the sociopolitical implications embedded across its transmediation and its constitution. Gufeng is attributed to the numerous paradoxes that the term itself articulates and embodies, including its hybridisations of the sacred and the interpretative, the fusion of both the mythical and the national, and the obfuscation of the delineations between the public and the private. The contradictions inherent in gufeng ultimately not only make indistinct the boundary between traditional culture and modern technology, but are also reflective of the negotiation of social issues and conditions germinating from the broader neoliberal market-oriented ideology under which activities pertaining to the subgenre itself are generated from.

We seek to present an understanding of gufeng in the context of its significance as an aesthetic category, its appropriation across different mediums, and in the context of how Chineseness is constituted, replicated, contested, and deconstructed its employment as a keyword. Ultimately, we raise the question: If gufeng is fundamentally characterized by notions of Chinese antiquity and tradition, then how do we understand its revival and its significance in contemporary Chinese society?

Historical Genesis and Context

Gufeng is a two-character Chinese phrase with multiple cultural connotations and literary implications across different socio-historical contexts. According to the Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage compiled by modern Chinese linguist, translator, and novelist Lin Yutang (1895-1976), gufeng has two definitions in premodern Chinese cultural milieu. The first includes “ancient manners, customs and habits,” while the second includes “ancient style poetry.”[7] These two different definitions of the same phrase with exactly the same strokes and pronunciation tend to be determined by the different interpretations toward the second character, feng. In both these definitions, gu refers to the meanings of old, classic, and ancient.  When feng was translated as cultural manners and social habits (as in fengsu 风俗 social customs), gufeng will stand for its first definitions, as in “ancient manners, customs, and habits.”

A portrait of the philosopher, novelist, and translator Lin Yutang 林語堂 who compiled the Chinese-English Dictionary of Modern Usage.

In the context of classical poetry, feng was drawn primarily from the first section of Classic of Poetry, or Book of Odes and Book of Songs (Shijing, 诗经; fl. 600 BC), “Airs of the Domains” (Guofeng 国风). Many modern literary scholars and anthropologists think a significant component of these poems represents the “airs” collected from the early Zhou ruling house (1046-256 BC) ’s feudal domains and surrounding regions. These “airs” were used to represent the so-called “authentic voice” and probably the local customs of ordinary people and their lifestyles. Once these "airs” were collected, they might also be polished by musicians of the local courts and eventually became folk poetries as preserved in today’s manuscript. (Owen, 1996: 30)[8] It worthy to notice the transformation of the connotations of feng during this process of “collecting feng” (caifeng 采风; literarily means collecting local manners and folk songs). In other words, when the local feng (manners and customs) was absorbed into literary writings, it not only represented the cultural memory of local customs in ancient Chinese society, but also generated a certain literary topos or aesthetical style––recording ancient feng (manners) through poems.

This celebration of (ancient) feng continued to be espoused by many Tang poets, such as high Tang poet Li Bo (701-762). Approximately during this time period, gufeng was also used to refer to gushi 古诗 (ancient poems) or gutishi 古体诗 (ancient style poetry). (Luo, 2018: 16)[9] Many contemporary poets imitated the antique style poetry to express their admirations and nostalgia toward the old cultural manners, as well as their gesture of takings the heritage of ancient poets’ “style” (fengge 风格) and “moral characters” (fenggu 风骨). In the days when “recent style verse” (jintishi 近体诗) became increasingly popular, the engagement and motivations of poetrs writing gufeng often used to reveal their “self-conscious rejection[s] of modern, fashionable tastes and to mark themselves as morally authentic archaists" (Denecke, Li, and Tian, 2017: 247).[10]

When China stepped into the new millennium, gufeng comes back with an overwhelming gesture. Although it emerges as a “new phrase” in post-socialist China’s national terminologies, as it specifically refers to the popularity of China’s cultural heritage, aesthetic, and history among today’s young Chinese generations, especially in the domains of internet and popular culture, the soul of looking look back towards the ancient cultural aesthetics as the individuals’ resistance against modern cultural fashions, as we see from the story of Tang poets, does not disappear. Additionally, this ancient “wind” (as in fengxiang 风向, wind, trend, and direction) often overlaps with the other cultural, national, and ideological “winds,” such as “National Cultural Fever” (guoxue re 国学热), “Chinese Dreams” (Zhongguo meng 中国梦), and “telling good Chinese stories” (jianghao Zhongguo gushi 讲好中国故事), which becomes one of the most crucial cultural personas in (re)constructing the post-socialist national image in China.

Contemporary Meanings and Usage

As illustrated in the aforementioned section, the definition of gufeng is derived from a diversified range of historical and sociopolitical contexts. The various implications are based on different interpretations of feng, but there has been little doubt that gu refers to the old, the classic and the ancient. In contemporary China, however, the term gufeng paradoxically becomes more about the present than about the past, partially because gufeng is not the only “wind” that blows into people’s minds. People are familiar with associating different commodities and pop cultural artifacts with different discourses and forms, such as hefeng 和風 (wafuu in Japanese) referring to Japanese style and zhongguofeng 中国风 referring to that of the Chinese. Not only does the juxtaposition between the “archaic/ancient wind” and other “winds” remind us of the necessity to scrutinize what is constituted and defined as gufeng, but it also questions the ways in which China and its historical legacies are reimagined and recirculated in its contemporary context.

It is inadequate to simply define gufeng in relation to nostalgia for the past based on its various references of Chinese history, or as a means of propagating nationalist sentiment given its value as a cultural form for soft power under the Chinese party-state. While the popularity of gufeng in the past two decades initially emerged amongst fans of wuxia and xianxia videogames and indeed features an idealized and mythologized past, this subculture expands into an incorporative one that includes multiple media products and the hybridization of various cultural forms. It is also challenging to define gufeng because by no means do netizens guarantee to hold a single, coherent version of gufeng; rather, their diversified worldviews and activities pertaining to the musical form and the subculture itself shape it. (Gao, 2018: 205)[11] Ultimately, the subcultures generated by Gufeng can be viewed as rising digital communities in which participants hybridize media to curate a fantasized, imagined past, yet the tension here is not only in the use of these reconstructions for nativist or nationalist interpretations, but also in its alternative articulations and re-imaginations of its historical and present contexts.

Traditionality and Chineseness

As the Cultural Revolution came to an end in 1976, cultural scholars in China attempted to revitalize the academic discourses on traditional aesthetics in China as well as Western aesthetic theories (Gao, 2018: 166)[12] The notion of traditionality obtained increasing cultural significance as contemporary Chinese history became contested and controversial. The fact that CCP issued the Resolution on Certain Historical Issues of the Party Since the Founding of the People's Republic of China 关于若干历史问题的决议 in 1981, which officially acknowledged the Cultural Revolution as a "mistake," does not mean the topic can be openly discussed, and public discourses even to this day remain monitored and subject to official sanctioning in the cyberspace. When the PRC began its process of globalization in the 1990s, it underwent a redefinition of aesthetics in which the use of "modern concepts" of aesthetics to reinterpret historical works was commonly practiced (Gao, 2018: 172).[13] The past gained significance partially because of the controversial nature of the present in facing the need for a unique voice and identity in an increasingly globalized economy. One way in which this relationship is mediated is in the sense that cultural forms such as zhongguofeng and gufeng both serve as representations of “traditional” Chinese culture and aesthetics despite their contemporary origins. The significance of zhongguofeng as well as the gufeng subculture for example are often attributed to preserving ‘the essence of traditional (Chinese) culture” (Li, 2015; Ma and Chen, 2016)[14][15] Both gufeng and zhongguofeng are often situated in the rhetoric of "embrac[ing] traditional culture with a spirit of innovation," (Zhao, 2018)[16] by providing substance for a sense of contemporary Chineseness despite the often ambiguous relationship such terms have with Chinese history. There is no doubt that the “traditional”, the “classical” and the “ancient” are mediated by gufeng and zhongguofeng in relation to Chinese culture; however, this results in the inherent contradictions in terms of its meaning given the fact that gufeng music in its contemporary sense has relatively recent origins in the Chinese cyberspace.

Defining Gufeng

Given how both gufeng and zhongguofeng involve cultural and digital hybridisation with an “obsessive” emphasis on traditional and national symbols of China (Wang, 2020), the distinctions between both categories have been subject to significant debate. Gufeng music is generally considered in popular discourse, specifically newspapers and online blogs, to be defined by characteristics which include the frequent adoption of the five-note scale of Chinese traditional music, as well as its incorporation of classical Chinese instruments including the guqin, pipa, erhu, and dizi  (Wang, 2020: 16).[17] Creators generally adapt the form and structure of existing Chinese classical poetry and spoken words, with an especially important emphasis on the lyrical meanings of the music (Lin, 2018: 74).[18] While similar aspects may also be present, specifically through the mobilization of “traditional” Chinese cultural elements, zhongguofeng instead tends to combine “classical Chinese melody and/or instruments with trendy global pop styles, particularly R&B and hip-hop,” and a discursive formation notably attached to its endorsement by mainstream artists (Chow & de Kloet, 2011: 61).[19]

The majority of scholarly debate on the differences between gufeng and zhongguofeng are notably attributed to the significance of authenticity; specifically in how zhongguofeng is usually associated with development under professional music companies for the mass market, and “has become so in vogue that it is no longer exclusively or even predominantly applied to popular music but also to popular culture at large….[including] a wide range of items from fashion accessories...packaged tours, to anything else that is modern and yet traditional” (Chow & de Kloet, 2011: 64).[20]  On the other hand, gufeng music is frequently made by amateur participants circulated within Internet fan communities, who often initially create such works as cover songs or theme songs for existing cultural products (Wang, 2020: 16).[21] In other words, emphasis is placed on the gufeng music as an Internet subculture phenomenon; in that it is a site of collective voluntary collaboration amongst fans online based on cooperation between music producers, voice actors, and playwrights, as well as a target audience that is primarily connected across Internet fan communities (Lin, 2018: 75; Wang, 2020: 16).[22][23]

Meaning-Making through Transmediation

At the same time, however, such delineations cannot be categorized easily because of the cultural hybridity of gufeng, given how gufeng music is a site of inter-generic and cross-media transformation (Wang, 2020: 16).[24] For example, the increasing adoption of electronic software in the production of gufeng render it vulnerable to Western and electronic popular music (Wang, 2020: 15),[25] while zhongguofeng itself also mobilizes “traditional” Chinese cultural elements through references to legends and classics (Chow & de Kloet, 2011: 60).[26] Notably, gufeng often defies homogenous categorization, as the music itself is not an end product but instead subject to further transformation, especially as gufeng music videos circulated on sites such as Bilibili frequently combine “background music, found-footage videos, and viewer-generated comments without being fully integrated into a coherent narrative” (Wang, 2020: 16).[27] Ultimately, as gufeng music itself is connected to and constitutive of different media and generic traditions, the term gufeng itself therefore also requires characterization and contextualization in relation to adaptation and transmedia studies. We next illuminate how gufeng music is also defined and employed in relation to its construction across different youth Internet subcultures and media forms, and emphasize the significance of its continued (re)interpretation and (re)appropriation in its contemporary context.

The Germination of Youth Internet Subcultures

Hanfu and Discourses of Identity

A picture from the 2018 Xitang Hanfu Festival, which is part of Hanfu Culture Week and recently held its 8th annual iteration this year.

The practises of wearing traditional Chinese costumes in public has been celebrated by many gufeng culture fans in contemporary China, and further illuminate the contention revolving around notions of antiquity and nationalism. Some scholars believe this social phenomenon reflects the young Chinese generation’s nostalgia to their past culture and embodies their self-recognition of individual identity, and cannot be separated from the interest in gufeng culture (Gao, 2019: 16, 42-44).[28] However, others criticize its potentially ethnocentric nature implied in the revitalization of hanfu. For example, in The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, Kevin Carrico argues that Han-style clothing was the central medium in delivering the message of nationalism, the so-called “unyielding fascination with the idea of the Han Chinese nation,” specifically through the Han Clothing Movement (Hanfu yundong 汉服运动) which emerged over the past decade in contemporary China (Carrico, 2017: 2)[29]

Source: Qiu, Wenzhao, ed. Manhua jifa wanquan jiaocheng: huali gufeng pian. Shenyang: Liaoning meishu chubanshe, 2017.
Gufeng clothing is not always necessarily drawn from Han Chinese influences.

The contrast of these different evaluations of wearing traditional Chinese costumes and their ideological implications is determined by the different presumptions of the definitions or scopes of the traditional Chinese clothes. Carrico’s criticism lies in those who emphasize ethnically-Han Chinese citizens’ superiority and their desire to revitalize the “Great Han." Specifically, Carrico defines the Han Clothing Movement movement as a “youth-based nationalist movement" that reveals the “interaction between personal desires, disappointments, aspirations, and anxieties in the present" (Carrico, 2017: 1, 70).[30] On the other hand, Gao evaluates hanfu as a cultural symbol used to represent hanfu fans’ enthusiasm and devotion to traditional Chinese aesthetics. For example, Gao mentions that The Central Committee of the Communist Young League adopted huafu 华服 (China’s costumes) instead of hanfu when naming the traditional Chinese clothes festival on April 8th, 2018 (Gao, 2019: 2).[31] The implications of an inclusive and diverse China may be no less political vis-a-vis a united portrayal of Han ethnonationalism; yet both perspectives illustrate the ways in which the boundaries of Chineseness are dynamically conceptualized on a daily basis.

Indeed, different from Han Clothing Movement discussed by Carrico in his monograph, the concept of hanfu in the discourse of gufeng fever refers to a broad scope of traditional Chinese clothes that covers different historical periods (such as Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing) and different ethnicities (such as ethnically-Han people and Manchurian people). The complexities of gufeng are also replicated in relation to its connections to hanfu; on one hand, this broad definition of traditional Chinese clothes seemingly promotes a national imagination of Chinese culture by raising an inclusive, collective, and indiscriminate point of origin and nostalgia toward the past. At the same time, however, the use of hanfu in the context of gufeng culture may be reinforcing and germinating of an imagined, collective cultural community based on the notion of Chineseness, even if fundamentally based on fictitious and idealized reinterpretations of history.

Videogames and Historical Reinterpretation

A screenshot of a gufeng themed channel in Chengguang games (, with the different games categories including wanghou jiangxiang 王侯将相  gonggui shouzhai 宫闺守宅 wuxia jianghu 武侠江湖, etc.

The origin of gufeng music and often the subculture itself is commonly traced back to the theme song of Chinese Paladin 3 (Xianjian qixia thuan san 仙剑奇侠传三), a role-playing game produced and published by Softstar Entertainment Inc, illustrating the close relationship between gufeng and Chinese videogames. (Wang, 2018)[32] However, unlike gufeng music, which expands into a unique music genre, “gufeng game” (gufeng youxi 古风游戏) is a less frequently used term to connote a specific type of videogame. On the other hand, gufeng is more often considered as a set of broad characteristics with very loose meaning, an aesthetic trait that can be incorporated into wuxia/xianxia-themed games. The cause of this difference might lie in the very nature of a videogame. A videogame is a multimedia entity in which audio and visual elements only constitute a part of the entirety. It is only natural that a game has a much more extended development life-cycle and higher cost to produce compared to a piece of music. In this sense, creating a videogame has much higher barriers than many other types of fan activities, and game-production largely remains as a commercial activity.

The hostility Chinese authorities had toward games and rampant piracy left Chinese offline games and console games nearly no ground to grow in the late 1990s and 2000s. The aforementioned Chinese Paladin franchise together with the Xuanyuan Sword (Xuanyuan jian 轩辕剑) franchise (both are works of the Taiwanese company Softstar Entertainment Inc) survived the hardest time and have been continuously received positively until today. Their successes made role-playing the norm for more recent Chinese games that are considered related to gufeng, which are either MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game) or fan-made visual novels released on Cheng-Guang or, the url itself which also suggests the perceived linkage between role-playing games and visual novels. Although we start to witness successful exceptions, such as Jiangnan baijing tu 江南百景图 (The illustration of hundred landscapes in Jiangnan; Yedao Games, 2020), a mobile online city-management game which features a setting situated in southern China in Ming Dynasty, the games continue to be interacted with and circulated online. This characteristic speaks to the very nature of gufeng subculture which cannot be separated from the participations of fans through the Internet.

The tension between gufeng and history in videogames is also worth noting. Although gufeng is largely a set of aesthetic traits, it also has ahistorical implications, or at least uses in which it emanates the distancing of what is considered as historical canon. Games considered to be gufeng usually depict an unspecified Chinese past or a highly imaginative and fantasized time period in which history only serves as a temporal framework and a source of background information. The existence of History Games further consolidates this distinction, in which the game depicts the stories of imaginary or insignificant figures which sometimes can also be customized by the players. Gufeng in this sense is also a site where fans have the agency to reconstruct cultural significance and even history itself to any allegedly "Chinese" element, which illuminates the tensions in relation to the implications of gufeng to a cohesive and shared notion of Chineseness and Chinese traditionality.

Danmei Webnovels, Dramas, and Adaptations

An official title poster from the donghua adaptation of Heaven’s Official Blessing (Tianguan cifu 天官赐福), which was initially a webnovel uploaded on Jinjiang Literature City by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu.

Although one early form of fan production within gufeng music communities includes video game fanfiction (youxi tongren 游戏同人), another important aspect of gufeng involves its relationship to danmei 耽美 (indulge in the beautiful), specifically through the category of historical fanfiction (lishi tongren 历史同人). Originating from Japan and initially popularized through non-commercial dōjinshi circles (Welker, 2016: 43),[33] danmei was first imported to Taiwan and Hong Kong from Japan in the late 1970s before expansion into mainland China in 1991, with its dissemination heavily facilitated by the Internet (Zhang, 2016: 121).[34] Danmei is "a transnational subculture in which young women create, distribute and appreciate stories of male-male relationships in various media, ranging from fiction, comics, music, video films, cosplays, to computer games" (Liu 2009).[35] While liable to different forms of legislation and policing across the world (Mclelland, 2005),[36] the significance of danmei has been extensively studied in relation to party-state censorship restrictions and pornographic laws (Liu, 2009; Zhang, 2016: 123; Ling & Xu, 2017: 4)[37] and as a site where discourses of sexuality, authority, and ideology are negotiated and mediated (Wood, 2006: 395; Lavin et al., 2017: xiii; Zhang, 2017: 125; Zhou, 2017: 92; Wang, 2019: 48; Baudinette, 2019: 131).[38][39][40][41][42][43]

In relation to gufeng, fans often recombine footage from historical Chinese TV dramas and music with lyrics narrating a danmei romance, so as to depict homoerotic love between historical figures who are usually heterosexual males (Wang, 2020: 16).[44] Yiwen Wang illustrates one specific example in which fans engage in Jenkins’ elaboration of textual poaching, specifically in order to take clips of emperor Liu Che and the general Wei Qing from the TV series Emperor Wu of Han (Hanwu dadi 汉武大帝), which "blatantly opposes the intention of the original text" (Wang, 2020: 20).[45] Other popular renditions also demonstrate the blurring of both the source material and fanwork, but also the remixing of zhongguofeng and gufeng, as well as what is constituted as the real and the historical. For example, one of the first gufeng bands includes Moming Qimiao 墨明棋妙 (MMQMusic), of which several members such as Yan31 has self-described herself as a rotten girl (funu 腐女) and danmei enthusiast. Yan31 combined Jay Chou’s track Blue and White Porcelain (qinghua ci 青花瓷) with clips that depicted the homoerotic subtext between the bonding of the Chinese warlords Cao Cao and Guan Yu (Tian, 2015: 273).[46] In other words, gufeng is also site where fans explicitly de-contextualize source texts, so as to reconstruct such stories and legends with the implications of a phantasmagorical past and homoerotic narrative distant from both reality and history (Wang, 2020: 23).[47]

At the same time, however, elements of gufeng are not only limited to circulation within fanwork across online communities, but also are subject to extensive commercialization. Following the domestic and international success of Tencent in adapting the xianxia danmei series The Untamed, the purchasing of multiple danmei IPs such as Sha Po Lang (Shapo lang 杀破狼) by Priest, The Husky and His White Cat Shizun (Erha he tade maimao shizun 二哈和他的白猫师尊), and The Case of Master Zhang (Zhanggong an 张公案) by Dafeng Guaguo have also followed despite how BL products are often at risk of takedowns in China such as in the case of the 2018 BL web series Guardian (Zhenhun 镇魂) (Wang, 2020: 48)[48]. Many of these products are increasingly being transmediated across multiple media products, with one example being Heaven’s Official Blessing (Tianguan cifu 天官赐福), which originated as a danmei web novel by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu on Jinjiang Literature City before eventually becoming released as an animation by Bili Bili, as merchandise by the Japanese corporation Good Smile Company Inc., and is slated to become a TV drama next year under Huanrui Entertainment. Given the sophisticated and fluid ways in which censorship restrictions operate, and the tension between homosexuality and homosociality in adaptations, clips from commercialized products are often remixed with gufeng music on social media sites to highlight homoerotic subtext and create interpretations expurgated from the source material. Ultimately, as danmei is increasingly being circulated across an international audience, the reconstruction and reappropriation of gufeng also increasingly subject to dissemination across transcultural and transnational lines.

Animations and Industrial Revival

A screenshot of Big Fish and Begonia (2016), with elements associated with and evocative of the notion of Chineseness incorporated into a style similar to that of the Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli and of famed director Hayao Miyazaki.

Similar to the case of videogames, gufeng is not a category that is frequently associated with Chinese animations in the public discourse, despite the fact that many Chinese animations excel in depicting visually stunning traditional Chinese aesthetics that are often reconstructed and remixed in combination with gufeng songs. On one hand, the growth of Chinese animations through danmei titles like Mo Dao Zu Shi 魔道祖师 further illuminate the relationship popularization of gufeng in the commercial sector, especially given the fact that many of these works are adapted from web novels, in which the boundaries of subculture and the mainstream continue to be blurred, shifted, and continuously reconstructed.

On the other hand, the continuous market successes found by animation films such as Monkey King: Hero is Back 西游记之大圣归来 (2015), Big Fish & Begonia 大鱼海棠 (2016) and Ne Zha 哪吒之魔童降世 (2019) are also situated in the discourse of the rise or ascendance of Chinese animations as a whole. These films represent the highest level of Chinese animation industry today and can be seen vis-à-vis a ‘dark age’ of Chinese animations, during which Chinese works could not compete with those of Disney or Japanese anime studios in story or quality of production (Accented Cinema, 2019).[49] These successful works therefore are hailed as examples of a revived Chinese animation industry. At the same time, however, they arguably share a habit of picking elements from Chinese legends and mythologies similar to that of gufeng, and their visual clips may be reconstructed for fan MVs and videos with gufeng music. Given the claims of such animated films as being constitutive of the broader phenomenon of zhongguofeng as well, such delineations between gufeng and zhongguofeng animations ambiguous, and less relevant as an indicator of style and instead in relation to its larger implications regarding the emergence of Chinese animation industry especially to an increasingly global audience.

Sociopolitical and Cultural Implications

The reemergence of gufeng culture from the dawn of the new millennium in mainland China cannot be separated from the globalized era when the media revolution and Internet culture transforms the young generation’s lifestyle with unprecedented impacts. As the above case studies examined, gufeng culture and its subcategories, including gufeng music, web novels, animations, and video games, all rooted in cyberspace and are nourished by Internet culture, especially its effects in transforming the way in which modern netzines acquire, exchange, and (re)produce digital resources and internet information. In spite of this, gufeng culture’s revival not only lay to the credits of Internet culture and media platforms, but also influenced by many other sociopolitical factors and state policies in post-socialist China. Indeed, gufeng culture provides an advantaged visual angle for modern scholars to (re)gaze at the post-socialist China’s sociopolitical milieu, as well as its cultural ideologies and state policies that more or less accelerate today’s cult of gufeng culture.

To start with, gufeng fever embodies the sense of shuqing 抒情 (personal expressions of feelings and sentiments) of the young Chinese generations who live in the globalized era when cultural traditions and historical legacies are challenged by the post-modern social manners and globalized milieu. This sense of shuqing is a series of national sentiments, including nostalgia for the nation’s past cultural memory, self-reflexivity of current cultural performativity, and affective resistance in a rapidly modernized society when people. In The Lyrical in Epic Time, David Der-wei Wang recalls the lyrical tradition in ancient Chinese classics, and clarifies shuqing is a term not only used for lyrical poetry, but also appears in many literary and aesthetical genres. Meantime, Wang examines the way in which the mid-twentieth-century Chinese literati, intellectuals, and artists take lyricism and shuqing as the affective instruments in their discourse of the Chinese modernity (Wang, 2015).[50] We argue that after several decades of questing China’s cultural roots and being anxious of China’s future ideologies, this sense of shuqing revives via today’s gufeng fever with a gesture of both cultural nostalgias, as well as delightfuls spirit of redefining and reperforming China’s cultural legacy.

National Myth and Imagination

Furthermore, gufeng fever has received more and more attention in post-socialist China because of its significance in reconstructing historical memory and national myth and delivering a collective cultural ideology incorporating different ethnicities that are all categorized as part of China’s past.  In his Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations, modern political scientist Wang Zheng points out three major approaches to examining historical memory in identity formation, including primordialist, constructivist, and instrumentalist. According to his analysis, instrumentalists take history and memory as instruments to promote “the individual or collective interests of leaders,” and often take the ethnic difference to justify discrimination against other groups or generate ethnic hatred. Constructivists less emphasize ethnicity as socially constructed and interpret identity as the latter manufactured or reconstructed idea. Primordialist focus on the “primordial ties of blood, kinship, language, and common history” in promoting collective historical memory and cultural identity. (Wang, 2012: 21-22)[51]

Gufeng fever in the domain of popular culture in fact echoes the principles of history and memory demonstrated by both constructivists and primordialists. By looking back at the past cultural legacy and historical heritage, gufeng movement delivers a collective cultural imagination among today’s Chinese young generation and raises the sense of cultural pride by emphasizing their same identity as someone who shares the common cultural lineage and historical memory. Meantime, gufeng movement prettifies Chineseness through constructing a diverse but collective cultural landscape. Different dynasties, no matter established by Han or non-ethnically Han ruling houses, and various costumes, no matter Han-style cloth or Manchurians style cloth, all become one component of the collective gufeng culture in today’s China. This process of absorbing the diverse cultural memories, downplaying their ethnic difference, and emphasizing their commonality as part of China’s past undoubtedly corresponds to today’s China’s national myth.  

State-Sanctioned Nationalism and Culturalism

Finally, the popularity of gufeng culture in the last few years implies the revival of culturalism in post-socialist China, when the new social slogans, “Chinese Dream (Zhongguo meng 中国梦)” and “telling China stories well (jianghao Zhongguo gushi 讲好中国故事),” replace the old national narratives, the humiliation of China’s modern history and the ambition of achieving national rejuvenation. James Townsend (1932-2004) raised the “culturalism to nationalism thesis” proposition in his analysis of Chinese elites and intellectuals’ reflections of China’s cultural ideologies, state nationalism, and ethnic nationalism from the eve of the May Fourth Movement to the twilight of the twentieth century. His “cultural to nationalism thesis” proposition inspires our modern scholar to consider gufeng movements, especially its implications in deconstructing the past narrative of China’s humiliating modern history and reconstructing the current state policy of culturalism in today’s globalized era. Townsend argues that China’s imperial history used to be driven by the force of culturalism, which is a sense of cultural superiority of China’s ritual tradition and historical heritage. This cohesive force of the shared beliefs of great cultural heritage not only promoted the loyalty of subjects to state, but also often transformed the surrounding “cultural others” and promoted their submissions to Chinese cultural classics. However, this culturalism was challenged and ended during the late-Qing and early-Republican era when Chinese intellectuals suffered from the identity crisis during the humiliating period of imperialism (and Sino-Japanese war) From that on, China’s culturalism was penetrated and substituted by (both state and ethnic) nationalism until the twentieth century. (Townsend, 1992: 97-130)[52]

Following Townsend’s analysis, it is interesting to observe the way in which today’s gufeng fever recelebrates China’s cultural heritage after a long century of the ambiguity of national identity as well as cultural crisis, from the May Fourth Movement to the Cultural Revolution and June Fourth Movement. Also, in contrast to the past cultural policy that emphasized China’s humiliating history during the Sino-Japanese War era, as Wang Zheng discussed in his book, gufeng fever echoes today’s national narrative of the “Chinese Dream” and “telling China stories well,” which signifies a turning point when culturalism revives in post-socialist China during a globalized era. This is a specific historical moment when cultural ideologies and national identities are strengthened by advocating cultural superiority, as we see in Chinese imperial history, rather than by raising a sense of humiliation to the nation’s past and hostility toward the past imperialist invading powers. We believe this switch of national sentiment and cultural ideologies embodied by gufeng fever deserves further analysis.

Gufeng Goes Transnational

Global Soft Power and International Dissemination

As we discussed in the previous section how gufeng music is a site for the embodiment of national sentiment and cultural ideology, attention must also be brought to how gufeng has not only acquired value in relation to its popularity in the mainland, but also increasingly as a site for global soft power and its transcultural and transnational dissemination overseas. In 2017, the official English-language newspaper affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party called Global Times emphasized how gufeng music has reached a global audience, from being played millions of times on Youtube to encouraging foreigners to learn Chinese in the hopes of eventually writing their own gufeng songs (Global Times, 2017).[53] The interest promoted in Global Times arguably still has yet to be fully realized, given how gufeng music is still highly restricted by its primarily circulation and reproduction within the Chinese cyberspace and media environment.

At the same time, however, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which the transmedia products we have outlined which are often inextricably connected with elements of gufeng music, including danmei, web series, and even reality and TV survival shows which recombine and reconstruct popular songs into renditions with elements of gufeng, have all acquired increasing international attention. Notably, there is also an influx of platforms that are targeted at international audiences made by media corporations such as Tencent and IQiyi, which have been particularly successful at bringing subcultural elements and communities into the mainstream (Flew, Ryan, & Sew, 2018).[54] It is no surprise then that social media sites popular in the West such as Tumblr have increasingly been used to create communities to generate posts and discussions about gufeng, with overseas fans streaming behind-the-scenes or fan-made clips of TV dramas and TV dramas which are often remixed with gufeng music on video sites and fan websites. However, given that subcultural popular culture elements have been successfully and compulsorily “incorporated into the ethno-nationalistic imagination of a cosmopolitan, culturally inclusive, racially diverse China,” it is also important to note how gufeng may not necessarily be transformative of elements pertaining to Chinese cultural production in terms of its subcultural genesis, but instead in its potential use to broadcast an essentialized imaginary of Chineseness on international lines (Zhao, 2020).[55] Ultimately this raises questions as to the ways in which further attention must be brought towards the transnational dissemination of gufeng, specifically its acceptability and congruence to the constructions of broader patriarchal and heternormative orthodoxies inherent in China’s mainstream commercial media productions, especially when transmitted on an increasingly global scale (Zhao, 2020).[56]

Neoliberal Anxieties, Subcultural Solutions

A cottagecore photoshoot for a fast-fashion women's clothing company. Note how the aesthetic is heavily digitally mediated (i.e. smartphones, social media) despite its attachment and nostalgia to an idealized and fictional historical past.

It is also notable to address how scholars have discussed the role of gufeng and notions of Chineseness not only as a site of identity formation, but also as means of resolving anxieties relating to the discontents emerging from the rapid modernization and economic development undertaken in post-reform China (Carrico, 2017: 205)[57] — sentiments of which also hold resonance across transcultural lines. Gufeng itself is notable for drawing on imagined notions of historical grandeur and splendor, including on imagery oriented around ancient cities of Luoyang and Chang’an as synecdoches of Chinese antiquity (Wang, 2020: 15).[58] Interestingly, similar references to a historically inaccurate past are also relevant to subcultures that are increasingly acquiring popularity in the West, specifically through the aesthetic category of cottagecore which also first developed in online Internet communities. Cottagecore differentiates from gufeng in that it is not a music category, but is rather an aesthetic that enshrines and idealizes agrarian and pastoral life. Considered to be a reaction to broader tensions surrounding capitalism and environmental degradation, despite the fact that cottagecore emerged on social networking sites such as Tumblr and Tiktok, the aesthetic eschews notions of digital technology and suburbia, while simultaneously valourizing an idealized notion of rural living.

Both gufeng and cottagecore therefore notably resonate with numerous contradictions inherent in their circulation, which illuminate their significance in light of broader sociopolitical issues and contentions. For example, cottagecore has also become popularized amongst right-wing nationalist movements and "traditional wife" (tradwife) communities, who frequently advocate a return to traditional gender roles vis-a-vis developments towards gender equality in the 21st century (Lithium Magazine, 2020).[59] At the same time, it is also a site of reclamation and reconstruction amongst LGBT+ communities, who also appropriate cottagecore as a means of belonging and community, demonstrating how aesthetics are also sites of political contestation. Such tensions are also visualized in the consumption of gufeng, in which gufeng is used to glorify a nationalist past that valourizes the notion of Han Chinese ethnocentrism. However, as we have also shown through our transmedia products, such elements are also simultaneously and paradoxically also deconstructed and metaphorically alter "the notion of Chineseness through temporal and gender tropes,” such as in the case of fan remixing of gufeng to de-contextualize and de-territorialize the meanings of Chinese antiquity and history (Wang, 2020: 22).[60] While much of this work is still yet to be conducted, this proves to be a productive site for analyzing the significance of gufeng, and how its value as an aesthetic category and the contradictions inherent in its consumption and reproduction is situated in relation to the broader anxieties it fundamentally is employed to resolve.


A gufeng-themed streetwear collaboration between People's Daily and Lining, a company that creates athletic shoes, sporting goods, and endorses athletes and teams. The increasing commercialization of gufeng elements ultimately invites greater scrutiny and consideration of how gufeng in relation to its original subcultural form is reappropriated for a multiplicity of purposes beyond its original genesis.

We have surveyed the genesis and dissemination of gufeng, specifically in order to make sense of the term’s employment in relation to its appropriation, adaptation and reinvention of Chinese traditionality and modernity. As a term that neither seeks to portray historical accuracy nor consistency, gufeng continues to be an identification with ambiguous connotations in its contemporary usage, which originated under its subcultural dissemination via fan-composed songs for video games before increasingly becoming commercialized for a mainstream audience. Although in relation to music, the authenticity of gufeng is often accredited to its subcultural and amateur origins, compared to the more professionally produced zhongguofeng songs, both categories are not always clearly defined in both public but also academic discourses. It is specifically this interchangeability and ambiguity that allows the incorporation of cultural products such as gufeng and zhongguofeng into the official narrative of “telling a good Chinese story” and “spreading the traditional Chinese culture” as digitally hybridized cultural commodities, especially under the broader neoliberal market ideology of the Chinese party-state.

However, official endorsement as well as commercialization in multiple industries does not solely define gufeng, and the term’s fluidity continues to be a space for fans to project, recirculate, and deconstruct their imaginations about an idealized past that is historically decontextualized and re-articulated. Moreover, the difference in media platforms also gradually ceases to easily categorize and discipline the meaning of gufeng, especially as successful franchises/IPs in recent years often have multiple works released in different forms. On one hand, this market capture of gufeng works speaks to guofeng 国风/guochao 国潮 (national trend) in the fashion industries as well as content-centric tourism, and as a valuable site for global soft power given its increasingly transnational dissemination. Yet at the same time, the fact that gufeng continues to flourish especially in the spaces of its subcultural origins illustrate how gufeng is not solely a site of co-optation, but instead must also be assessed for its subversive and productive potential. Based on these observations, greater attention must also be brought to the branding and mythologization of gufeng contents, its potential expansion to the international market across transnational and transcultural lines, and also how gufeng continues to be a site of contestation across multiple social actors and interests.

Although we have attempted to illustrate the contradictions and sites of contention relating to Chineseness in gufeng, our work also demonstrates how this is not a comprehensive study of the term itself. We have only begun to draw attention to the contestation relating to how gufeng is defined and constituted, and emphasize that the paradoxes articulated and reconstructed in the employment of gufeng continue to be a site necessary and fertile for future analysis. Ultimately, that gufeng can exist in relation to its conjuring of both a homogenous, seemingly continuous, and coherent Chinese identity, as well in its polysemic, rhizomatic, and re-contextualized adaptations of Chineseness, illustrate how the term itself must continue to be addressed in relation to its multiplicity of meanings and transmediated adaptations as part of contemporary Chinese popular culture.


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