Fen (粉) is a term for a type of person or group who shows passionate support and love for a certain pursuit, such as celebrities, famous groups, sports, and other activities. In recent years, social media and e-commerce has fully permeated the daily lives of Chinese people, creating an online space for fans of different interest groups to grow and develop. Paired with the rapidly rising popularity of Asian boy/girl groups and their fanbases, fan culture has become increasingly widespread, and the term, fen (粉) is continually evolving with new connotations and usages. This analysis and comparison of the origin of fen (粉) with its new variations and associated words provides insight into the continual and constant evolution of contemporary media culture in Chinese society. Furthermore, the study of the evolution of fen (粉) also evidently demonstrates the strong influence of fandoms in China as well as the reciprocal relationship between fandoms and Chinese society, commerce, and politics.
The Genesis of 粉
Although it is unclear when the term fen (粉) initially became associated with the meaning of fan, the term is said to be officially brought into the vocabulary of the general public in the early 2000s with the popularity of the reality talent show, Super Girl, which was the first of its kind to present a new form of commodity media where fans are closely intertwined with the selection and commercial processes. This hybrid of entertainment and commercial mode where the selection process involves a popularity poll where fans must vote to support their favorite contestant is also displayed in more recent shows such as Rap of China and Youth With You.
Other than being a term to refer to the supporters of a celebrity or subject in general, many Chinese fandoms will often make puns or wordplay using 粉 or 粉丝 for their fandom name. An iconic example of this is when the the word fen si (粉丝) makes an appearance on the popular 2006 comedy TV Show, My Own Swordsman (武林外传). In episode 23 the following dialogue ensues:
Da Zui: Ping Gu Yi Dian Hong (character name), Oh my Gosh, He's a real real hero, I'm a fan of his
Lao Bai: (sarcastically) No, you're tofu skin. Don't bother me.
Due to this play on words in the script, the supporters and fans of the show decided to name their fandom name as fu zhu 腐竹 which is means tofu skin which is associated with vermicelli, the alternate meaning of fen si 粉丝. The play on the word 粉丝 can also be seen in many other fandoms such as "钢丝“ (fans of Degang Guo) or guo fen “果粉” which are loyal supporters of Apple products. However, it's important to note that fandom names don't necessarily require the words 粉 or 丝 and are subject to the respective celebrity or interest.
Dictionary Definition and Etymology of 粉
Fen (粉) short for fen si (粉丝), is a term for a type of person or group who admires or passionately supports a celebrity or pursuit. It can also refer to an avid supporter or enthusiast of a performing art, sport, or other popular culture artifacts. Fen (粉) was originally a loanword from the English term, "fan" which is the shortened derivative of "fanatic". It replaced mi (迷）due to the grammatical rule to be combined with another contextual word in order to be semantically coherent. Instead of adding contextual information to words like mi (迷), as in the case of ge mi (歌迷) which translated to fan of a singer, people will often simply say they are the fen si (粉丝) of X which works for any pursuit, celebrity, or interest. Therefore, the noun, fen si (粉丝) is often used due to brevity, convenience, and the broader scope of meanings encompassed by the term. Although fen (粉) is often attached to the word -si (丝) to refer to a stand alone term that equates to the English "fan", fen (粉) can also be combined with other terms to convey a more specific interest in a particular subject.
Variegated Meanings, Usages, and Implications
Original Connotations of 粉
Originally, the term fen 粉 was associated with positive words such as loyalty, support, and love. This is expressed in the following associated words:
"Metal" Fan 铁粉/铁丝
tie fen (铁粉) which literally translates to metal fan and gang si (钢丝) which translated to steel wire, both encompass the notion of rock solid loyalty and extreme support for a particular subject or person.
Die Hard Fan 死忠粉
si zhong fen (死忠粉) which means die hard fan, also shares this positive association of extreme devotion and allegiance until death.
New Meanings and Associations of 粉
Due to online influences, the connotation of fen have drastically changed in line with the ever-evolving internet culture. New slang and meanings are always being created by netizens to define new concepts and terms.
Private Life Fan 私生饭
The literally meaning of 私生粉/饭 (sishengfen/fan) is “private life fan” and describes fans obsessed with the private lives of celebrities. Usage of the term is common in East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) because of the popularity of idol groups, as well as presence of stalkers. As a result of the constant cultural exchange between the countries, some 私生粉 (sishengfen) will travel internationally for the sole purpose of stalking idols. The Japanese and Korean equivalents for this term are 私生 (shisei) and 사생 (sasaeng); both are direct loan words from Chinese.
"Brainless" Fan 脑残粉
nao can fen (脑残粉) are fans who have gone insane with their obsession with celebrities. Associated behaviours include violent reactions towards any negative remarks of a celebrity. Though this term is derogatory, it can also be used within fan communities as a form of sarcastic self-deprecation.
hei fen (黑粉) are fans who deliberate cause harm to a celebrity's life or public image because of their devotion to another celebrity. Anti-fans most commonly spread false rumours or deliberately cause arguments between fan communities in order to negatively affect a certain celebrity's public image. Most see their target celebrity as a threat to their own idol, either in terms of fame, popularity, or physical attractiveness.
Equivalents in Other Languages
As the Korean and Japanese languages are heavily influenced by Chinese, there are many loan words between the three languages. In Korean, the word 팬 (paen) is similar to 粉 (fen) in that both derived from the English word "fan". For Japanese, there is no direct English language, but the word 愛好者 (Aiko-sha) describes an enthusiast or a devotee. In the English language, the closest equivalent for 私生粉 (si sheng fen) would be the word "stan".
Originating from Eminem's 2000 song "Stan", the word is a portmanteau of "stalker" and "fan". However, the word is also used to label any fan who declares themselves to be more involved with a certain celebrity or group than the average person.
Similarly, the word "groupie" emerged in the later 20th century as a derogatory term for a person, usually a young woman, who followed any celebrity for the purpose of establishing a personal relationship with them. The term was also commonly used to shame any woman who was interested in music made by male celebrities and reduced their interest as merely a sexual attraction to a male celebrity.
The word "sheep" or "sheeple" (a portmanteau of "sheep" and "people") is used to describe someone who blindly follows all the actions of a particular group, corporation, or government. "Sheep" is more commonly used for political reasons, and is used to discredit an opposition party's followers. The term is often used when discussing politics for people who blindly believe the ideas of a political party, but was later extended to any kind of popular subject with followers of its own. In some circumstances, the usages of "stan" and "sheep" will overlap. "Sheeple" was used strictly as slang, but was later added to Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017.
Social, Cultural, and Political Implications
A serious social problem of the word ’Sasaengfan 私生饭’ is that it has allowed admirers of celebrities to chase them incessantly to the point of irrationality. While doing so, individuality is lost and the fan group becomes a single entity and form a ‘mental community’. The people from a fandom could be very different from another however what unites them is love for their celebrity. This leads to all their thoughts and emotions being different from people who aren’t fans.
The word ‘fan’ also invites a concept called the ‘herd effect’. The herd effect can be see in ‘Fan reading’, a trend in modern day China where people choose to read certain books not because they want to, but because other people are interested in them. While this may be beneficial for the celebrity as they would be making a profit, the herd effect pushes people to take extreme sides, get in to emotionally-charged arguments. This unnecessarily creates a serious divide between people. The large amounts of love and support provided by fans often tend to overshadow the weaknesses of the famous person. A perfect example of this situation is the Chinese-Canadian rapper, Kris Wu. In 2021, he was accused of rape and sexual assault by multiple women. Yet, his fans were blindsided and automatically believed he was innocent, with some joking that they will help to get him out of prison
In Chinese fan culture, famous people are often used by the government to promote socialist and traditional values because of their influence . This puts unnecessary pressure on celebrities to behave a certain way. If celebrities present ideals to the public that don’t align with the government, then they are "immoral" and their reputation is tarnished.
When fan groups started to form in the 20th century, only the rich, young and well-educated had access to such activities . Naturally, this excluded those who didn’t have the privilege of owning a computer, or the money to pay internet browsing fees to participate in activities with other fans. Japanese anime was most frequently discussed, limiting socialising with other fans to people born after the 1970’s when Astro Boy, the first Japanese anime, was imported. Give the exclusivity of fan behaviour, this created a wave of elitism in Chinese fan culture. Elitism and exclusivity are bound to create a sense of animosity towards those people who were a part of the fan culture.
Sina Weibo is the main contributor to China’s fan culture. Unlike other social media platforms where communication with celebrities is strictly one-way, Sina Weibo brings celebrities and fans much closer by allowing two-way communication . While this is exciting for supporters, it can create unhealthy levels of co-dependency with the celebrity, and can encourage parasocial relationships online. This can sometimes also lead to abusive fights between fan communities, which can financially affect the celebrity and their public image.
Another cultural problem associated with fan behaviour is that elders in the community think the youth consume fan content in excessive and unhealthy amounts. A study by Xu et al (2021)., deduced that fan behaviour of fixating on something celebrity gossip is low culture and characteristic of youth behaviour. The respondents believe it the result of not having enough life experience. According to older generations, there is an apparent strain on the cultural values in China. The excessive consumption of fan culture has apparently caused ‘moral panic’ among adults because they think the youth are extremely gullible and think they need supervision. In Chinese culture, the concept of guanxi (relationships), brings the community together by sharing the same morals . Thus, when elders observe the younger generation emulating Western morals such as individuality or agency, it is seen as a threat to the culture.
In 2021, the Chinese Communist Party cracked down on idol activities and an overall regulation of the entertainment industry, which affected many fan communities. The CCP cited verbal abuse, smear campaigns, doxxing, and privacy violations as their reasons. Their main goal is to "cultivate a generation of young people who are more concerned with loving their country and the CCP than with celebrity culture"  This is in conjunction with "a growing emphasis on Socialist values and loyalty to the Communist Party"  Since idol culture and fan culture are closely intertwined in China, the ban on idol activities has resulted in the word Fen (粉) being associated with more negative connotations. As young fans are the ones inciting malicious online fan wars and doxxing rival fans, authorities have become concerned with future generations and thus regulated the Internet to control extreme behaviours.
Slash fiction are stories written about romance between characters of the same sex; in China, the genre is called ‘danmei 耽美’. This genre of fan fiction is often used as a way to challenge traditional gender norms. There are strict censorship laws surrounding homo-erotic fiction in China. The writers of such stories are mostly women in mainland China, who use it as a way to liberate themselves from the dominant culture. Socially, it is considered immoral for a woman to talk about sex, thus, women who write slash fiction are under a lot of scrutiny. In April of 2014, The Cyberspace Administration of China arrested writers from fan fiction websites. The jailing of women for writing homo-erotic fiction reflects the sexism and homophobia prevalent in Chinese society. It gives the message that women shouldn’t be writing about sex and that homo-erotic fiction is not normal. Passions and interests in fan culture have become unhealthily gendered. In a study conducted by Xu et al. (2021), it was found that male participants think that female fans are only interested in reading about celebrity gossip while men are interested in politics. This gendered understanding normalizes the idea that women don't have an interest in discussing current affairs.
Due to greater social mobility in recent years, the concept of "IP", "star", "icon" groups are increasingly influential and popular. At the same time, the ICONS for personal value change. Good quality stars can unite the fans together, but the blind worship of the fan itself is also significant. Fan culture is entertainment-oriented, and overindulgence can have negative physical and psychological effects. It is too flat, fixed, and a long-term investment; fans indulge in sensual pleasures but ignore the spiritual space. In the age of the internet, fans indulge in their online world and ignore the real world, therefore lacking depth of spirit. Moreover, the fan organization of domestic fan culture lacks moral self-discipline, and the bad behaviour of idols will affect the mind of tens of millions of fans, such as the messages of blind support and even the comments of "rationalization of drugs" posted by drug-taking star Ko Chentong on Weibo. Because the idol generalization trend has become more prevalent, the character of idols vary greatly. Some "idols" even use their fame to incite fans into cyberbullying or harassing a target for them. Fans then become weapons for celebrities (人肉搜索 ren rou sou suo human flesh) to harm those who they have conflicts with.
While fan culture is an active cultural market, the cultural market has begun to degrade. For example, the salary for hiring famous movie stars accounts for more than half of a film's total budget. The development of the film industry is limited greatly by the purchasing power of fans, causing film homogeneity. This model can also be applied to other types of media.
At the same time, fans squeeze other Internet users out of the cyberspace. For example, every micro-blog or topic involving celebrities, especially negative topics, will be met with organized comments from fans (controlled comments: Comments sorting mechanism, through the thumb up, etc will be a comment or a series of up to the front of the other comments), and through the brush hot search list, top trending topic, popular microblogging way to increase the visibility icon. This makes it hard for Internet users to obtain valuable information you need, and Sina Weibo is out with a list of questions by ministry questioning several.
Fan culture has many shortcomings, but its economic effect and icon guided by good effects should not be ignored. An increasing number of celebrities take part in philanthropy in order to show their good qualities to guide teenagers positively. The star effect under the education for teenagers effect is more than significant. Therefore, fan culture should be treated dialectically. We should not only see its disadvantages and ignore its advantages, or only see its advantages and ignore its disadvantages. At the same time, fans should choose their idols wisely and let them lead their common progress.
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