Course:ASIA319/2022/"Circle" (圈)

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圈 (Pinyin: quān) is a term prominently used in contemporary Chinese culture, describing a group of individuals with similar interests or mutual relationships. The term’s initial definition is to describe a circle, or circular objects[1]. However, modern culture has extended its meaning, and the term has been used to describe different communities within society and online communities[2]. 圈 (quān) is generally distinguished by interest or means of interaction, such as 饭圈 (fàn quān) and 生活圈 (shēng huó quān), which is respectively defined as fan community and life community[2]. Through examining the usage of the term 圈 (quān) within Chinese popular media, this page analyzes the variation of meanings and implications, highlighting underlying social and cultural significance in Chinese communities.

The genesis of the 圈

The term 圈 (quān) has long existed in Chinese society. It has firstly been recorded in 《礼记》(lǐ jì), Book of Rites, during the Zhou dynasty, to describe a circular object[1]. It has also been recorded in 《文选·张衡·西京赋》(wén xuǎn·zhāng héng·xī jīng fù), literature written during Eastern Han Dynasty, to describe the encircling of animals[1]. The usage of the term has similarly been recorded throughout the Han and Song dynasty[1]. In the famous novel, 《红楼梦》(Dream of the Red Chamber), written in Qing dynasty, 圈described the confinement of oneself at home[1]. 圈 gradually extends its meaning in modern day society, prominently describing groups of individuals with common interest or interactions[2]. Terms such as 生活圈 (shēng huó quān) and 社交圈 (shè jiāo quān) were commonly used in daily communications when referring to a group. The development of social media and digital media further enhanced the usage of the term, as 圈 (quān) was not limited to describe groups in real life[2]. Terms including 娱乐圈 (yú lè quān) and 饭圈 (fàn quān) were developed to describe the entertainment group and fan group on the online community[2]. The term 圈 (quān) has existed long throughout history, and has been used to denote various meanings. The introduction of entertainment and social media plays a prominent role in the emergence of the term 圈 (quān) in Chinese popular culture, to describe various groups of people that share anything in common.

Glossary of its explicit dictionary meanings

Etymology of 圈

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The word 圈, is a type of phono-semantic character 形声字 (xíng shēng zì)[3]. Phono-semantic character 形声字 (xíng shēng zì) directly translates into shape and sound character[4]. The term can be decomposed into two characters, 口(kǒu) and 卷 (juǎn). The semantic compound is 口(kǒu), and the phonetic compound is 卷 (juǎn)[3]. Semantic compound represents the meaning through the shape, while phonetic compound refers to the sound of the character[3]. Therefore, the character 口(kǒu)’s shape illustrate the meaning of the character, while the character 卷 (juǎn) represents the sound of the term. The semantic compound, 口(kǒu)’s shares a similar shape to a circle, and the phonetic compound, pronounced as 卷 (juǎn) is similar to the pronunciation of 圈 (quān).

Dictionary Meaning of 圈

The term, 圈, according to 汉典 (hàn diǎn) can be used as a verb, noun, or quantifier. While sharing the same character, 圈, could connote differing meanings[1].

圈(quān), pronounced as quān, has five meanings[1]:

  1. Circle, or circular objects (noun), such as 花圈 (huā quān), meaning wreath
  2. Cycle/ loops (quantifier), such as 走了一圈 (zǒu le yī quān), meaning walked a cycle
  3. Scope or range (noun), such as 势力圈 (shì lì quān), meaning scope of influence
  4. Describing the motion of circling (verb), such as 圈点 (quān diǎn), meaning drawing a circle
  5. Boundary or to surround (verb), such as 圈地 (quān dì), meaning enclosing an area of land

圈(juàn), pronounced as juàn has two meanings[1]:

  1. fence/ pen for animals (noun), such as 羊圈 (yáng juàn), meaning sheep pen
  2. Nickname

圈(juān), pronounced as juān means[1]:

  1. Enclose (verb), such as 把羊圈起来 (bǎ yáng juān qǐ lái), meaning surround and enclose the sheep

圈 in Contemporary Chinese popular culture

Circle culture and favor

圈, also called 圈子, always refers to the circle formed by gangs or groups that have anything in common. There is a saying that "birds of a feather flock together" (物以类聚,人以群分). What circle a person is in is determined by who he knows. In Chinese culture, it emphasizes that 圈 significantly affect one's decisions, characteristics, and even life[5]. 圈 implicitly reflects how Chinese people interact with each other and understand social occasions (人情世故). Favor (人情) plays a significant role in Chinese society, and it is more convenient for people to dealing with issues with those who are in the same 圈 than strangers, so building up good interpersonal network with own 圈 is not only for making friends, but also for selves to be better treated and helped when meeting trouble.

An elaboration of its actual usages


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Friend圈 (Friend Circle, 朋友圈) is one of the most well-known and complex form of 圈, almost involving everyone in society. It means that people who have the same friends can form a Friend圈. When the internet was not as developed as today, people’s Friend圈 was mostly facing-to-facing offline. The scale of it was limited because of physical distance and time cost. While as cyber communication has connected the whole world, and people can contacting each other very fast, the scale of Friend圈 become much bigger and diverse. Wechat, the most common communication app in China today, has built up the online system of Moments (朋友圈)[6], which is a platform for users to share their life with their own 圈. One special function of Moments is that the users can only see the likes and comments of their conjunct friends with the authors, but cannot see the expressions from those who are not in their Wechat contacts lists under the author’s posts. This function reflects the properties of linkage, diversity, and excludability of Friend圈.

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Entertainment圈 (Entertainment Circle,娱乐圈) is a social scale of 圈 which is popular topic of public. In China, it is also called 演艺圈 where includes the artists and actors[7]. Entertainment圈 is typically classified by industry and having big social influence. Entertainment industry basically preforms the culture and art. Nowadays it is always concerned by society because it can affect the social fashion trends and provide fun to public. The commercial value of celebrities in Entertainment圈 is not only decided by their own performing work, but also depending on their influence on brands, audience’s reflection, and social contributions, so Entertainment圈 is not purely cultural performance, but a complex market with business power and capital manipulation. The participation of a large amount of capital makes the Entertainment圈 more feculent because the lure from more fame and wealth lead some celebrities to touch the boundaries of the law. The hidden rules (潜规则), tax evation and tax avoidance are representative law problems happened in Entertainment圈, while it is a gray zone of Entertainment圈 culture.

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When it comes to Entertainment圈, Fans圈 (Fans Circle, 饭圈 in Chinese), which is derived from entertainment industry has to be mentioned. It is formed by the young generations (mostly girls) who extremely adore the superstars and spend a lot of time and money supporting their idols[8]. The birth of Fans圈 in China can be traced back to the popular TV show "Super Girl" in 2005, allowing fans to gather together to support the contestant and vote for their idol to win the competition[9]. Later, the popularity of the Internet and new media brought much more convenience for fans to support their idols. The form of fan circle gradually shifted from offline to online, expanding the influence on the Internet. In recent years, the culture of Fans圈 (饭圈文化) is abnormal and nearly crazy in China because it encourages the phenomenon that too many youth dream to be famous idols because the fans would spend love and money on them even though they have poor ability. Fans圈 misleads an ideology to young generation that being a celebrity is more worth than getting education, studying professional knowledge, and improving own ability. As a derivative product of Entertainment圈, Fans圈 make the entertainment market more unhealthy. To earn more profit from fans, the directors and film production companies are more likely to choose the actors with more net popularity and less professional acting experience instead of those who have better acting skills but less fans. More and more terrible dramas or films (烂片) have been produced these years. Fans圈 culture has also worsen the online environment as fans from different idols argue and abuse with each other. Chinese government has been aware of the issue that the conduct of Fans圈challenge the political and social fairness, so it implements Clear Action (清朗行动)[10] to manage the order of net communication, crack down those who spread false information, and promote the healthy development of the website platform. Entertainment圈 and Fans圈 display the correlation between big scale 圈 as well as 圈 culture’s influence on society.

Different classifications of 圈

Different 圈 have different circle cultures and rules, determined by how the 圈 is formed and which group of people form this 圈. Its formation has many kinds of classifications. 圈 can be formed either in real life with the same industry, friends, hobbies, or on the social media that provides an online platform for people to meet up with those who share the same beliefs, opinions, or concerns. 圈 can also be divided by class and social status because people with similar economic strength and knowledge level can have more common interests and concerns. 圈 can happen in a small scale like a group of several people, or a big scale that attracts public attention from the whole society.

圈 in Other Cultural Contexts

“Circle” in Western Culture

Terms such as “social circle” similarly exist in the Western culture[11]. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term “circle” is defined as a group of individuals that share “a common interest or revolving about a common center”[12]. In the West, terms including “political circle,” and “social circle” parallel the Chinese term 政治圈 (zhèng zhì quān) and 社交圈 (shè jiāo quān)[12]. The circle culture therefore is equally present in the Western culture. However, the term 娱乐圈 (yú lè quān), entertainment circle, and 饭圈 (fàn quān) fan circle are absent in Western popular culture. Although the term “circle” is used in a similar way compared to Chinese popular culture, some prevalent terms in Chinese media were unfound in Western contemporary culture.

“집단” (jibdan) in Korean Culture

The term, “집단” is a Korean term that translates to “circle, “group,” or “community”[13]. The Korean term for circle is also used to describe individuals that form a group together due to similar interests, profession, or friendship[13]. However, the term is mostly used to describe “a group” or a “collective mass,” which displays considerable difference compared to the 圈 (quān) culture in Chinese popular culture[14]. Terms including entertainment circle and fan circle were also not utilized in Korean popular culture.

“サークル” (sākuru) in Japanese Culture

“サークル” is translated into “circle” or “club”[15]. Although “サークル” is translated into the English word, “club,” it is vastly different compared to the Chinese term 圈 (quān). The Japanese term is mainly used to describe “college clubs” and “club activities,” instead of the circle culture in China, which can be used to define any group that shares similar interests or has a mutual relationship[16]. In general, the term “サークル” and 圈 (quān) is not interchangeable.

Distorted Dictionary Definition of 圈 (quān)

The term “circle” in Western culture directly parallels the definition of 圈 (quān) in Chinese popular culture[12]. Both terms share the similar definition of describing a group of individuals that have similar interests or have mutual interactions[17]. However, “circle” is not used in the same way as in Chinese popular culture, which further describes groups formed on online platforms[18]. Additionally, the English dictionary definition of “circle” is relatively similar to the Chinese dictionary definition of 圈 (quān). “Circle” and 圈 (quān),  similarly cover the meaning of circular objects, boundaries, and can both be used as a quantifier[17].

The Korean term “집단” (jibdan), which also is directly translated from 圈 (quān), primarily means circle[13]. However, its extended definition is “group” and “community”[14]. While it shares a somewhat common definition with the circle culture in Chinese culture, the usage of the term is subverted. The Korean term “집단” (jibdan) is mostly used to describe the “collective mass,” and fails to cover the definition that 圈 (quān) stems from similar interest or mutual interaction between individuals[19].

The Japanese term “サークル” (sākuru), while can also be translated into “circle,” is used immensely different compared to how 圈 (quān) is used in Chinese media[15].  “サークル” (sākuru) is mostly used to describe “college clubs,” or “club activities” in Japanese society[16]. Its definition is distorted in its translation, as it does not carry the same meaning. The term “circle,” in Japanese culture, proves different from 圈 (quān) culture in China, as one is defined as “club” and the other refers to groups with similar interest[16].

Social and Political Issue of 圈 culture

Compared with Westerners, the Chinese have their own unique “circle” culture, and they are more inclined and keener to engage in various small circles. Whether in the past or now, this kind of circle culture is loved and respected by people because it can meet the social; political and entertainment need of people and is beneficial to personal development. However, the misleading development of the “circle” could lead to serious social and political issue.

Internet Violence

The social significance of “circle” culture is conducive to the satisfaction of the members’ emotional needs such as belonging, care, and warmth[20]. However, egoism and self-isolation of the “circle” may influence the formation of good social morals. For example, “Fan circle”(饭圈) refers to the group of fans of certain celebrities, whereas each fan group may verbally attack each other on the internet if there is a fraction occur between their idol. The friendship, ethics, and care it emphasizes are all set in a small circle, with a sense of the relationship between inside and outside[21]. This kind of awareness makes people generally biased and favor their own people. If a social individual in the “circle” is justice or critical thinking, it will be considered unrighteous, unscrupulous, and unreasonable, and they will be condemned by public opinion and judged morally. This has formed a bad social moral value orientation. At the same time, this kind of “biased” ethics will form a double moral standard. When dealing with insiders and outsiders, they will use very different moral standards to treat them differently[22]. The circle culture also leads to the weakening of public awareness and public morality. The egoistic circle culture has only the concept of a small circle and lacks public awareness and social justice. It drives individuals in public places to show distrust, disrespect, and lack of due care and help when facing strangers or outsider of the circle. Because the individual in the “circle” may lack acquaintances and empathy between them and strangers. Thus, the circle culture would deconstruct social moral development.

Political Corruption

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The circle culture in China may generate political corruption and demolish the authoritativeness of law and regulation. The circle culture is conducive to circle members having more opportunities to obtain social capital, and realize economic cooperation and mutual assistance[22]. The moral obligation of the circle culture of emphasizing mutual goal and the common good which requires members of the circle to care and take care of each other. The circle culture is a culture of human relationsa , which lead to “cut corner” and corruption when people encounter difficulties. When there is a legal or processive problem the first thing that comes to mind is to find trust relationships and eager for short cut. For example, “find connection” (托关系,找人)[23] and “protection umbrella”(保护伞)[23] are two common feature in the circle culture that individual seeking for short cut or shield through interests exchange of power, money, convenience and even sex[22]. It is this kind of feature that seriously inhibits or stifles the formation of indivdual’s legal consciousness and legal thinking. When people generally realize that as long as they have a relationship, they can get special treatment. Especially when the closer and deeper the connection, the more help and care they can get. Therefore, the corrupt political atmosphere will generated in the Chinese circle culture.

New media Influence of 圈

With the development of new media technology, the interaction mode of the Internet “circle” is constantly evolving, from online interpersonal communication separated from traditional face-to-face communication. Online circles and offline circles emerge and influence each other[24]. Although the Internet has broken the limitations of time and space, it also relies on the existence of both. Furthermore, global and local temporal relationships become both joint and conflict. Traditional distinctions between the public and private spheres are disappearing and re-emerging in new ways. From the perspective of the depth of interpersonal communication, the Internet circle transcends the limitations of geography and blood relationship, breaks the class-structured of traditional society, and continuously expands the scope of interpersonal communication. The reconstruction of traditional interpersonal relationships is mainly reflected in two aspects: reconstruction of relationships and new media virtual friend zone.

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The reconstruction of the relationship mainly refers to the defamiliarization of the relative relationship and the familiarization of the strange relationship[21]. Individuals build different circles of connection based on blood, region, occupation, and hobbies, and have in-depth interpersonal contacts. However, when their interpersonal communication shifted to online, on the one hand, offline communication with each other met the communication needs of both parties, and the topics that can be discussed in depth have also been exchanged[20]. Online communication between offline familiar people is not as good as offline communication and in-depth; on the other hand, when people are used to online communication, they also send WeChat when they are face-to-face (especially relatives), resulting in a lack of real communication and even loneliness[20]. Familiarization with unfamiliar relationships means that people who do not know each other offline gather in the same "circle" because of the same needs, concerns or hobbies. The anonymity of the network avoids the risk of exposure to the real identity of members of the group. Therefore, members of the group are in a relatively equal state of mind when interacting with each other. It is easier to be honest when communicating, and it is easier to establish loose interpersonal relationships. Therefore, unfamiliar interpersonal relationships offline are online. can be restructured into familiar human relationships.

The new media virtual friend zone refers to the virtualization of offline circles and the realization of the online circle. When offline interpersonal relationships are settled in social media "circles" such as QQ groups and WeChat groups[24], the virtualization of each other's identities enables them to break through various restrictions in real society, and topics that are difficult to touch on and in-depth in offline interpersonal communication can be discussed online. mentioned[21]. However, topics that can be discussed in depth in offline interpersonal communication are often not repeatedly discussed online. Therefore, in the "circle" of the Internet, offline interpersonal relationships will be virtualized to a certain extent, and online virtual interpersonal relationships are also often realized. When people reach a certain level of intimacy with others in the online virtual space, they will transform online communication into offline interpersonal communication, and it is possible to realize the connection and reconstruction of online and offline interpersonal communication[24]. When people's communication expands from the real space to the virtual space, real and virtual interpersonal relationships overlap, acquaintances and strangers, intertwine, and the real social circle deepens communication in the interactive response virtual space, the "time and space" of people's communication is redefined, becoming a new type of interpersonal relationship.


In conclusion, there is multi-level communication inside the "circle". The flow of information inside and outside the various "circles" is also multi-level. The flow of information between outer and inner circles not only reflects the interpersonal relationship between individuals but also reflects the change of psychological distance after people interact. Through communication and participation, a community and sense of identity is obtained. With the development of new media uprising and globalization, the "circle society" has risen. The "circle" of the Internet Re-establishing a new interpersonal communication model has triggered psychological and emotional resonance. Chinese individuals circles have become an "imagined community" in the virtual space through the internet, shouting for the construction of national public services. The study found that the empathy communication of the Internet "circle" in crisis events shows periodic changes, and it shows differentiated characteristics among people of different ages and different knowledge structures.


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