Deliberating fandom with introverted tendency: An ethnographic study of transnational waves of Korean culture in contemporary China


In terms of transnational cultural flows, hallyu has been characterised as one of the most successful cases all over the world. This article examines this phenomenon through the prism of the K-pop fan communities in contemporary China, which originated from fans interested in K-pop celebrities and other cultural productions. Drawing on evidence collected through ethnography together with 27 in-depth interviews with the Chinese fan community of the Korean boy band, BTS, one of the most successful K-pop groups hit on the international fandom since the year 2017, this study maps out how K-pop fandom works as an online carnival despite the national anti-hallyu sentiments, how social media works as its context and the structural layout of the community.

Putting aside the overly discussed Korean culture proximity underlying the K-pop’s popularity within Asia, this paper focuses on the context of hallyu by tracing the fan activities of K-pop star in contemporary China and how the fandom community evolves into an introverted carnival despite the pressures from the outside. The tracing of fan behaviour online confirms centralisation, self-isolation and internal development of the whole K-pop fan community. Specifically, BTS fandom interactions have witnessed introversive elaborations of details, while debates with other social groups or over larger social issues are nearly muted.

Social media platforms, especially Weibo, are considered as a carnivalesque playground for all fans to get together, on which there are productive user-generated contents with rapid speed of information circulation. Due to the polyphonic nature of online carnival, in which it is flooded with conflicting perspectives and emotive outbursts, the traditional knowledge on fandom which predicts a transition from participatory media culture to participatory civic culture is not easy to confirm in this study. However, nationalistic discourses, as one major manifestation of anti-hallyu sentiments, constitute the biggest threat that undermines the integrity and legitimacy of K-pop fandom community. Although some Chinese youth fans would proactively reject the official patriotic discourses in some cases, most respondents in this study have chosen to stay in silence especially when there were trade or other social and political disputes between the two countries.

The current case of hallyu development in contemporary China brings contradictory voices to existing academic discussions on fandom studies, which have taken place on how active fans can propel the flourishing of creative industry and participatory media and civic culture. This can be partially explained by the fact that the Internet, instead of helping to pluralising public discourse, can also be an efficient tool by authoritarian regimes to facilitate the state’s propaganda and handicap spaces for public opinion and civic participation. Also, loose structures within the fandom community can also be one factor, since distinctive personal preference with a polyphony of ideas also causes inexorably conflicts among fans.

Keywords: hallyu, BTS, fandom, online carnival