Reconfiguring Class, Gender, Ethnicity and Ethics in Chinese Internet Culture

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Jamie J. Zhao’s review of Reconfiguring Class, Gender, Ethnicity and Ethics in Chinese Internet Culture (Routledge, 2017), by Haomin Gong and Xin Yang. The review appears below, but is best read at: http://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/jamie-zhao/. My thanks to MCLC book review editor Nicholas Kaldis for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk A. Denton, editor

Reconfiguring Class, Gender, Ethnicity and 
Ethics in Chinese Internet Culture

By Haoming Gong and Xin Yang 


Reviewed by Jamie J. Zhao
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2017)


Haomin Gong and Xin Yang. Reconfiguring Class, Gender, Ethnicity and Ethics in Chinese Internet Culture. London and New York: Routledge, 2017. viii, 175 pp. ISBN: 978-1-138-95153-2 (Hardback: $145).

China’s online population has gone through exponential growth in the past several decades since the country gained Internet access in the early 1990s. In 2016, the number of its Internet users reached 713 million, nearly one half of its total population.[1] Thanks to increasingly easy, cheap access to the Internet, as well as to the “decentralized” online censorship system enforced by the government since the 2000s,[2] numerous intriguing digital phenomena, such as e-governance, e-commerce, microblogging/Weibo (微博), online literature (网络文学), online celebrity culture (网红文化), and online live streaming (线上直播), have emerged and transformed Chinese cyberspace into a pluralistic, embattled social-political landscape.[3] The challenges and transformations generated by the diversification of Chinese Internet user groups and activities have attracted a significant amount of scholarly attention.[4] Nevertheless, this body of scholarship mostly centers on “the technologicality and mediality of the Internet” (original emphasis, 5) and overstresses its “social and political” potential (original emphasis, 2), as the authors of Reconfiguring Class, Gender, Ethnicity and Ethics in Chinese Internet Culture put it.

Written against this backdrop, this book is long overdue work. It offers up-to-date case studies of the literary, visual, and sociocultural dimensions of the Chinese Internet from “a humanist perspective” (5). Coauthors Haomin Gong and Xin Yang are both well-trained scholars in the related fields of Chinese literature, media, and communication studies. In the book, taking advantage of their academic training in the humanities and rich knowledge of Chinese literature and pop culture, they present critical analysis of a number of sensational Chinese Internet cultural phenomena from the early 2000s to the mid-2010s. These include incidents of egao (恶搞; online spoofing), micro-narratives presented on different platforms, gendered narratives in web fiction and adapted dramas, the online self-performance of ethnic identity, and literary and cinematic representations of the RRSS, short for renrou sousuo (人肉搜索), or Human Flesh Search Engine. Gong and Yang’s skillful exploration of these topics demystifies the ubiquitous transgressiveness, heterogeneity, and contentiousness of the Chinese Internet that are often intertwined with issues of class, gender, ethnicity, and ethics within the context of Internet-ization, neoliberalism, and postsocialism (6).China’s online population has gone through exponential growth in the past several decades since the country gained Internet access in the early 1990s. In 2016, the number of its Internet users reached 713 million, nearly one half of its total population.[1] Thanks to increasingly easy, cheap access to the Internet, as well as to the “decentralized” online censorship system enforced by the government since the 2000s,[2] numerous intriguing digital phenomena, such as e-governance, e-commerce, microblogging/Weibo (微博), online literature (网络文学), online celebrity culture (网红文化), and online live streaming (线上直播), have emerged and transformed Chinese cyberspace into a pluralistic, embattled social-political landscape.[3] The challenges and transformations generated by the diversification of Chinese Internet user groups and activities have attracted a significant amount of scholarly attention.[4] Nevertheless, this body of scholarship mostly centers on “the technologicality and mediality of the Internet” (original emphasis, 5) and overstresses its “social and political” potential (original emphasis, 2), as the authors of Reconfiguring Class, Gender, Ethnicity and Ethics in Chinese Internet Culture put it.

The book opens with a terse theoretical introduction, followed by five main chapters. It concludes with a concise postscript that provides a useful backward overview of the writing and research routes of the book, as well as its inevitable knowledge gaps and inconsistencies resulting from new technological developments, sociocultural progress, and policy changes in China.

The introductory chapter gives a brief overview of relevant academic debates in the field of Internet studies, a persuasive explication of the authors’ theoretical grounding, and a general description of the book’s structure. Gong and Yang emphasize that the book strives to challenge the “digital Orientalism” prevalent in Western-centric cyber research, on the one hand,[5] and to criticize the Chinese-language scholarship (and some work in English by Chinese speaking scholars) for its dismissal of textual analysis and low-brow culture, on the other. Throughout the book, the authors’ analysis highlights both online and offline sociocultural idiosyncrasies exemplified in online practices in a neoliberalist, postsocialist China. Theoretically, they refer to the Chinese cyberspace as an epitome of “heterotopic” spaces which, in Foucault’s words, are “counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (11–12).[6] Following this conceptualization, they argue that Chinese cyberspace is “concrete, real, and tangible, an ‘enacted’ utopia” (13). Meanwhile, it also manifests a “part of the online fantasy that is beyond the real” (13). This theory of the Chinese Internet as an ironic paradox simultaneously complicates and supplements previous understandings of the Internet as “both utopian and e-topian in nature” (13), which underpins their detailed case analyses in the rest of the book.

Chapter 1[7] explores a well-known case that marked the rise of egao culture in China—the widely circulated online short video, “A Bloody Case Caused by a Steamed Bun” (一个馒头引发的血案; dir. Hu Ge, 2006). The video was originally made to parody the 2005 Chinese blockbuster The Promise (无极; dir. Chen Kaige, 2005). Using it as an example, Gong and Yang deem egao a sociohistorically-situated form of cultural parody that

playfully subverts a range of authoritative discourses, be they political, commercial, or cultural ones, and provides a vehicle for both comic criticism and emotional catharsis, yet sometimes generates moral controversies. . .  [I]t also offers insight into the collective attitudes of the new tribe, if not class, of netizens towards the larger social condition and transformation. (22)

Following this definition, they outline several sociocultural conditions for the flourishing of egao since 2006: the digitization of contemporary Chinese society; the “postmodern, post-New Era, post-revolutionary, post-Reform, and postsocialist” (26) characteristics of China; “the large-scale social (re)stratification [and its embedded social inequalities and political ramifications]” (26); and a culturally rooted tradition of subversive and parodic spirit that can be traced back to popular 1990s’ novels, rock music, and TV dramas (28). Gong and Yang note that Chinese egao, as an imitative, self-reflexive, and participatory practice, is “a distinctively cooperative work of the spoofsters and their audiences” (29). Its satirical effect partially comes from the extreme incongruity “between the roles in different contexts—the real, the imaginary, and the stereotypical” (35). It thus functions as a self-contradictory ironic discourse: it not only showcases the cultural and ethical conflicts between grassroots netizens and the conventional elitism of the social-political systems, but also blurs, on multiple levels, the divides between commercialized on-screen narratives and offstage sociocultural and political realities (such as celebrities’ personal lives and the real-life struggles and social problems dealt with by the general public). Commercial media have tapped into this parodic cultural trend for profit. Moreover, the authors reveal that in recent years, as a part of Chinese egao discourse, the Party-state’s regulations have sometimes tamed grassroots spoofsters, turning them into “mainstream model citizen[s] promoting social cohesion and engagement” (37). These paradoxical features of egao enable the grassroots public to ridicule cultural and political authorities, even as those authorities are coopting egao for commercial purposes.

Chapter 2 considers the “micro-ness” of different forms of micro-narratives on the Chinese Internet that have been on the rise since 2000. The analysis concentrates on “the dialectics of smallness and largeness” demonstrated in this culture. As the authors explicate, micro-narratives are not only small in size and form—“microfiction” (微小说) on Sina Weibo, for example, denotes “fiction of 140 or fewer characters” (50)—they also, notably, “arise at the time when extremely grand national narratives dominate the theme of the age” and “signif[y] China’s national ambitions and confidence” (48). In sharp contrast to the hypocritical grand narratives promoted by mainstream and official media, these online, micro-cultural products provide slices of everyday reality that appeal to Chinese netizens. Yet, as the authors note, micro-narratives have a paradoxical relationship to the grand narratives they ostensibly stand in contrast to. Using three kinds of micro-narratives as examples—Weibo microfiction, microfilms (微电影), such as Life of Lowering Head (低头人生; dir. Xie Chenglin, 2014) and iPhone Age (爱疯时代; dir. Mai Tian, 2011), and the Chinese literary app ONE—the authors demonstrate that, although online micro-cultural productions do not necessarily reject conventional, elitist, social-political, and commercial forces, they nonetheless often help disrupt and reconfigure “the relation of the global and the local, the high-brow and the low-brow, the subculture and the mainstream, and the individual and the community” (64–65).

While the first two chapters delve into the role of class in Chinese Internet culture, the third scrutinizes imaginaries of gender in web fiction and cross-media adapted dramas. It looks at four well-received Chinese TV dramas from the 2010s, which are all adapted from online novels—Nirvana in Fire (琅琊榜; 2015), The Biography of Zhen Huan (甄嬛传; 2011), Startling by Each Step (步步惊心; 2011), and Go Princess Go (太子妃升职记; 2015). The authors explain that they chose these dramas for analysis because they all have historical settings and are adapted from popular online novels written by female authors. On the one hand, these shared features help show how and why contemporary Chinese people respond to current, often dissatisfying sociocultural systems by projecting their gendered fantasies onto an imagined, or even escapist, past. On the other, the cross-media adaptation, production, and consumption of these shows bring to the fore cultural fantasies about masculinity, femininity, and sexuality, helping to make sense of the Chinese digital generation’s negotiation with both traditional gender ideals and contemporary hetero-patriarchal and capitalist reality. Drawing on previous studies of gender discourses in Chinese literature,[8] Gong and Yang find that gendered voices and images are disseminated, contested, and reconfigured by both creators and consumers across a variety of sociocultural spaces. The authors identify three unique features of these media narratives—their idealized masculine images, their fantasies of women’s rebellion and remaking of history, and their construction of gender and sexuality via transgender narratives. As they illustrate, the gendered imaginaries of these dramas and their adaptation and consumption seemingly “resist against the hegemonic narrative of the norms, yet [are also highly subject to] the conventional and institutionalized power structures” (85).

One of the wedding photos of a Tibetan couple that riveted the Chinese Internet world in 2015. From Xinhua

Chapter 4 offers the most thought-provoking discussion of this monograph. It shifts the focus to the self-performance of ethnicity on the Chinese Internet and explores the digital practices of Chinese ethnic minorities (non-Han Chinese people).[9] The authors begin their analysis with a useful discussion of the Chinese term minzu (ethnicity), which “incorporates and intermingles different levels of race, nationality, and ethnicity in different social, historical, and political contexts, [and thus] does not have an exact equivalent in English” (90). As they state, the Chinese minzu is a highly “definitive and performative” imagined identity closely linked to Chinese nationalism and other ideological projects (original emphasis, 92). At the same time, minzu is a volatile, contingent concept that is caught up in contestations between different sociocultural actors and forces. It is precisely the performative nature of Chinese minzu identity, together with its entanglement in political and legal discourses, that both enables and constrains the online self-exhibition and performance of non-Han Chinese citizens. While recognizing the hegemonic status of Mandarin in mainland China, Gong and Yang pay particular attention to online non-Han ethnic practices that are expressed in Mandarin Chinese (94). Various intriguing examples are examined: Tibetan writer Woeser’s online writing and her hybrid (ethnically mixed) Tibetan-ness; a set of self-exoticized Tibetan wedding photos that became a sensation on the Chinese Internet in 2015;[10] and an online-circulated ethnic flash mob at Tibet University, etc. The authors argue that the use of Internet and digital media plays a prominent role in complicating already self-conflicted non-Han ethnic cultures and voices. On the one hand, the performativity of minzu looms large online, which enables the subjective, mediated self-expression of ethnic minorities. On the other hand, it also reveals ethnic minorities’ (either willing or involuntary) assimilation into and compromise with postsocialist consumerist Han culture. Ultimately, this convergence of the Internet and minzu exposes the artificiality, contingency, and contradiction of the imagined, simplistic binary of modern Han Chinese and traditional, if not primitive, non-Han Chinese cultures.

The final chapter deals with the morality of Chinese Internet culture. The authors adroitly investigate the popular imagination of the RRSS—“a method of tracking down offline individuals by putting together pieces of information different netizens provide” (126–27)—in representative Chinese literary and cinematic works produced between 2008 and 2015. The RRSS originally started as a grassroots manifestation of the general public’s imagined “ethical (self-)regulation” (133) in response to dissatisfying and oppressive social-political conditions. Yet, through a careful reading of the discursive media framing of the RRSS, the authors touch on a few cutting-edge ethical concerns and controversies of Chinese Internet culture, such as the infringement of privacy, voyeurism, online bullying, and free speech. These issues bring to light some of the moral and democratic potential of Chinese Internet use being explored, critically reflected on, and contested by Chinese netizens. Connecting their study of the RRSS to the promises and problems of the Internet examined in previous chapters, Gong and Yang draw a powerful conclusion that the neoliberalist spirit of the Internet breaks and redefines the boundaries between the online and offline worlds in contemporary Chinese society. It certainly exposes the general public to mediated subjectivity, civic participation, introspection, self-reflection, and even ethical self-regulation. However, the authors are careful to point out, under the pressures and challenges of China’s postsocialist devolvement, the Chinese Internet is bound up in complex and contradictory ways with normative or even oppressive social-political discourses and structures regarding class, gender, ethnicity, and ethics.

Reconfiguring Class, Gender, Ethnicity and Ethics in Chinese Internet Culture is a rigorous work that casts light on the promises and struggles the Internet has brought about in contemporary China. It deftly and compellingly unveils the heterogeneous world of Chinese cyberspace, where a plethora of sociocultural images and discourses proliferate and intersect. It provides readers with both an in-depth theorization of cyberspace and persuasive analyses of relevant Internet-related cultural and media events. Meanwhile, it impressively connects the fields of Chinese literature and history with new media research on online communication and the entertainment industry. Through well-researched case studies, the authors afford a comprehensive and sophisticated consideration of emerging pop cultural terms (e.g., “green tea whore” 绿茶婊 and “silly sweet girl” 傻白甜) and digital practices over the past decade. Both Chinese and Western scholars will find the rich, detailed information in the book fundamentally useful and stimulating.

Although well-written and easy to read, one possible weakness of the book lies in its failure to unpack certain theory-loaded concepts. For instance, one section of the book discusses Sinophone ethnic literature and culture without sufficiently addressing the meaning and origin of the term Sinophone, found in influential works by Shu-mei Shih and others.[11] Therefore, it might seem unclear to some readers how the authors understand, use, and differentiate it from the phrase Chinese-speaking or Chinese-language. Similar problems can be found in the authors’ use of the terms hybrid and creole in their consideration of non-Han ethnic identities. The book also contains some minor factual errors. For example, the Chinese actress Tong Liya is not an ethnically Han Xinjianger (新疆汉人), as the authors assume. Rather, she is of Sibe (xibo; 锡伯) descent. Nonetheless, taking into account the extensive information on the Chinese entertainment industry and pop culture included in the book, these slight slips are understandable. Overall, the book is a powerful, illuminating contribution to both Chinese Internet culture and media studies. Its dedicated engagement with China studies, literary studies, communication studies, and entertainment industry and celebrity studies in the context of an online mediated environment will be of great interest and use to both academics and the general public.

Jamie J. Zhao
University of Warwick

Notes:

[1] See the 39th survey report of the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).

[2] For a detailed discussion of China’s online censorship system, see Rebecca Mackinnon, “China’s Censorship 2.0: How Companies Censor Bloggers,” First Monday 14, no. 2 (2009).

[3] See Guobin Yang, “The Co-Evolution of the Internet and Civil Society in China,” Asian Survey 43, no. 3 (2003), 405–22; “The Internet and the Rise of a Transnational Chinese Cultural Sphere,” Media, Culture & Society 25, no. 4 (2003), 469–90; and The Power of the Internet in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[4] For existing research focusing on certain topics covered by this book, such as participatory culture and online literature in China, see, for example, Jin Feng, Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance (Boston, MA: Brill, 2013); Heather Inwood, Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014); Ying Jiang, Cyber-Nationalism in China: Challenging Western Media Portrayals of Internet Censorship in China (Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, 2012); David Kurt Herold, and Peter Marolt, eds., Online Society in China: Creating, Celebrating and Instrumentalizing the Online Carnival (London and New York: Routledge, 2011); Michel Hockx, Internet Literature in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); Peter Marolt, and David Kurt Herold, eds., China Online: Locating Society in Online Spaces (London: Routledge, 2015); Zixue Tai, The Internet in China: Cyberspace and Civil Society (London: Routledge, 2006); Guobin Yang, ed., China’s Contested Internet(Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2015); and Weiyu Zhang, The Internet and New Social Formation in China: Fandom Publics in the Making (London: Routledge, 2016)

[5] For a detailed discussion of the term digital Orientalism, see David Hurt Herold, “Users, Not Netizens: Spaces and Practices on the Chinese Internet,” in China Online: Locating Society in Online Spaces (London: Routledge, 2015), 20–30.

[6] See Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” trans. by Jay Miskowiec, Diacritics 16, no. 1 (1986), 24, doi:10.2307/464648.

[7] The first two chapters were previously published as journal articles in 2010 and 2014, respectively.

[8] See, for example, Feng, Romancing the Internet; Kam Louie, Theorizing Chinese Masculinity: Society and Gender in China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); and Geng Song, and Derek Hird, Men and Masculinities in Contemporary China (Leiden: Brill, 2014).

[9] As the authors note, the “Chinese” used in their discussions of this chapter does not narrowly refer to Mandarin-speaking cultures and groups. Rather, it denotes a form of “‘sinophone’ ethnic” cultures (93). For a detailed discussion of the concept of Sinophone, see, for example, Shu-mei Shih, Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulation across the Pacific (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[10] The wedding photos were of a Tibetan couple, Gerong Phuntsok and Dawa Drolma. Neither of them were celebrities before the circulation of their photos.

[11] See, for example, Shih, Visuality and Identity. 

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