Chinese pop star phenom Xiao Zhan

Chinese pop star phenon Xiao Zhan

Each time I lived in China, for a stretch in 2008 and again in 2015, I felt alone and disconnected. I grew up in Boston, but am Chinese by blood. I shared the same skin, eyes and hair color as the masses in China. I celebrated the Lunar New Year and shared some central values, like maintaining strong ties to family. But there were cultural phenomena I couldn’t understand and, honestly, judged: Cleaning street signs with rags; an obsession with astrological signs — also popular in the U.S., but I still just don’t get it; always drinking hot water, even in summer.

Each of my judgments put distance between me and the people I was visiting.

Given my own biases, I can hardly imagine how the average American — non-Chinese and who likely has never spent time in Asia — views Chinese culture. A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center, called “In their own words: What Americans think about China,” found that Americans hardly mentioned the country’s people or its lengthy history. Respondents focused instead on the “Chinese government — including its policies or how it behaves internationally — as well as its economy.” It seems, in the U.S. at least, we are deeply disconnected from the world’s most populous body of people.

I deeply appreciate work that focuses on and creates connections to the country’s people. That’s why I loved “Dream Boy And The Poison Fans,” a 2020 podcast episode by NPR correspondent Emily Feng. The story was part of “Rough Translation,” a series hosted by Gregory Warner that is designed to take people out of their “echo chambers and (leading) us to question the way we talk about the world.”

Universal lessons from a surprising story

By American standards, the “Poison Fans” story is ridiculous. You have Xiao Zhan, a massive pop star at the height of his career who gets canceled after a scandal caused by his fans. That’s right: Xiao didn’t do or say anything. But when some fans perceived a threat to his image from what others said about him, they reported them to the government. Various fan factions formed among high school girls. The story included anonymous sources who now fear for their lives over what happened.

As I listened,  the podcast delivered one surprise after another. But what makes it so good is the relatability of the characters and their ability to contextualize the sequence of events in China’s current political, social and cultural norms. As foreign as some parts of the saga are, it is reported in a way that is so universally human that I felt sad at the end. I came to understand it as a fight that everyone, except for the Chinese government, lost. To me, it was a perfect “rough translation” of people we hardly think about.

Take the way they start the reporting with Feng describing Xiao Zhan in an Estée Lauder commercial: (audio excerpt of 5:09 – 6:15). It captured Xiao’s image as “someone who helps others and who is a helper of beauty,” and foreshadowed why fans took such extreme actions. The ending was cute and unexpected, adding a touch of fun. That set-up pulled me into the story, set me up for the scandal, and added color and visual detail to an online narrative.

Feng and Warner also did great reporting on the fans, whose actions might seem extreme. Right away, Warner informs us that fan culture in China is different (excerpt: 7:41 – 7:58). As Feng says, “Xiao Zhan is portrayed as such a sweet person (that) he also needs protection because that gentleness can be taken advantage of. And his fans need to be the ones who stand up for him.” Even if we can’t relate to anything else the fans do, whether it’s spending money on products or reporting other people to the government to ensure their idol’s success, we can all relate to the need to protect someone we care about from danger, which provides the context for everything that happens next.

Throughout, the podcast connected the scandal over one super-star to Chinese history. It explained why this story needed to be told now (excerpt 26:40 – 27:38). Rather than some pop culture one-off, this is history repeating itself. Reporting culture in China started in the 1950s, when the Communist Party took power, and was a way for people to get revenge. Feng and Warner get to the heart that link (excerpt 31:40 – 31:59). You really get how resigned, frustrated, and hopeless people feel as a result. And that, again, as unimaginable as the scandal was, it’s grounded in the basic societal phenomenon of censorship and its impact on people’s lives.

Finding the common human condition

What I was reminded of most by this piece, which I think is true of my favorite journalism, is that we’re not so different, country to country and culture to culture. We may differ in customs, governments and societal norms, but at our core, we are all people who share many of the same basic motivations and want many of the same things. It’s in listening to Feng and Warner’s piece that I’m reminded of people’s humanity, no matter how far away they feel or actually are.


Kristen Chin is a recent graduate journalism student at Boston University, documentary filmmaker, and writer.

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