As of August 2019, over 200 million under-educated and previously voiceless Chinese grassroots, largely country folks, have joined the Internet via user-generated video-sharing apps such as Kuaishou, a social video unicorn of over 200 million daily active users. They form a fragmented and sometimes marginalized online community that is yet to be explored.
This study investigates how these grassroots interact through social videos and live-streaming channels with a case study of top Kuaishou influencer Simba Youzhi Xin and his fans group. Xin (37 million followers) is the fastest-growing Kuaishou influencer and a typical representative of his rank. We conduct multi-phased content and thematic analysis of Xin’s video transcripts, 1,500 profiles of Xin’s followers, 71,214 user comments and 50 hours of live-streaming with the purpose of identifying the most frequently-used words and most discussed themes.
Our findings demonstrate that not all notions of network society consider sufficient geographical breadth and sociocultural underpinnings of the Chinese grassroots context, therefore propose a new term, ‘network jianghu’, to refer to the organization and practices of such participatory processes.
Our analyses indicate characteristic mentalities of positive energy and money worship among the grassroots as they engage in an ambiguous power struggle with the higher ranks of society. The grassroots frequently use positive words such as grace and diligence, following the government’s long-lasting campaign of keeping up the positive energy after a devastating crackdown on influencers who produce controversial videos. Meanwhile, the grassroots show fanatical money worship towards the wealthy, especially the new rich who strive to achieve social mobility. They also indulge in shopping frenzies of bargain products in the live-streaming channels.
Finally, Kuaishou users form distinctive and closed communities surrounding influencers, creating a network jianghu. A concept originated from Taoism and Chinese literature, jianghu (literarily translated as ‘rivers and lakes’) is an underground world where grassroots make their livings and often encounter power struggles with the officials. Jianghu spirits include brotherhood, heroism, chivalry, rebellion, equality and freedom (Du, 2011; Wang, 2008). These spirits preserve in the Kuaishou jianghu.
The article documents alternative ways of participatory communication and develops new knowledge about the interaction and practice of grassroots internet users in Chinese digital society.