S01 Episode 5: How Idol Fans are Made / King of Fairy Tales, King of Posts

Big Yoghurt conspiracy theories + Throw a ko-fi to your fansubber + Adorable boomer emojis 👍

[In the house this week: Yan, Sridala, Tianyu, Light, Simon, Jaime, Yi-Ling, Caiwei, Xuandi, Krish, Boyuan, and Henry.]

Krish: Welcome to Episode 5. This one is our most ambitious yet—three stories swirling around the themes of fandom, legacy, and strong poster’s energy. 

Tianyu: A reminder that we are now open for pitches! Two parts of this episode—Light’s illustration and Sridala’s story—came out of our open call. As always, email us at hello AT chaoy.ng for questions, ideas, and hot takes.  


Krish: Our first story this week takes a sub-cultural look at a dom-cultural phenomenon. 

Our subject is CHUANG aka “Produce Camp 2021” (创造营 2021), a Tencent-produced reality show that is reportedly China’s most watched program this year. The premise is simple: gather 90 aspiring boy-band idols on a controversial artificial island off the coast of Hainan to select a final “group of 11” through audience voting after song and dance challenges. 

The hyper-capitalism and intense online infighting over the show’s participants was expected. The vague gesture at “internationalism”—this would be China’s first boy band group with non-Chinese members—was surprising. Then Yoghurt Speculation Markets start getting involved. 

My archness of tone is perhaps indicative of how the uninvested might dismiss shows like CHUANG as merely repositories for Cringe and Weird. It’s what almost all media coverage of the show has been, so far. But the show is an intricate masterwork of narrative, editing and community engagement. It demolishes Weibo’s trending topics every day. It’s both insidious and genius. How they sustain (and monetize) obsession is important to analyze, as Yan explains below in her journey from casual cringe watcher to invested fan.


“ZQSG for YYDS”: How Idol Fans are Made

By Yan Cong

Yan: I’ve never followed an idol reality show closely until this year’s CHUANG 2021. 

Out of the show’s 90 participants, competing to be part of an eventual 11-member boy band idol group, there were more than 20 from Japan, Thailand, Russia, Ukraine and America—all of them somewhere at the intersection of “Asian” and “Caucasian.” It’s apparent that Tencent’s international ambitions extend just to diaspora and China’s immediate neighborhood, but to call a show that has zero South Asian, African or Latin American presence “international” is both 1) a stretch and 2) dangerously unimaginative. This narrowness comes hand in hand with the pervasive cringe of “promoting Chinese culture,” which in the show’s telling is a series of out-dated stereotypes like Tang poems, hanfu and Kung Fu.

What really piqued my interest was an improvised dance battle from the first episode featuring Japanese street dancer Santa and classical Chinese dancer Liu Yu. I did not have high hopes for the show’s obvious spin on the so-called “international idol group,” but watching the dance battle (and reading Weibo posts from excited fans shipping Santa with Liu Yu), I thought the show might actually have something to say about cross-cultural interaction than the usual clichés.

Narrator: It didn’t.

Yan: The rest of episode one, to my disappointment, was a simmering hot pot of stereotypes. Patrick, a Thai participant, recites a schoolboy-level Tang poem, “登鹳雀楼.” When the Cuba-born Caelan sees a dance performance in hanfu, he gets excited and says, “This is what I came to China for! Embrace that Chinese culture!”

But I kept watching. The show approached “worldbuilding” like a sprawling manga series. So, like with Naruto or OnePiece, week by week, I grew more invested in the characters—fighting for their dreams through challenges, forming friendships along the way. 

The storylines, built through both the show’s omnipresent cameras and fan hyper-vigilance to tiny moments of interaction, were so well constructed and edited that I felt connected to many participants as human beings, rather than as one-dimensional idol trainees. I used to think that the idol industry had a template for success, and that everyone was interchangeable. CHUANG 2021 proved otherwise. Hu Yetao (胡烨韬), an androgynous, long-haired participant, said that he wanted to challenge people’s pre-existing ideas of what made a boy idol. During the show, he experienced ups and downs that were relatable to “misfits” everywhere. In a segment to reinterpret the show’s theme song, a team made a parody version which jokes that “idol dreams” are in fact “nightmares.” Oscar, a participant whose arrogance made him a goldmine for WeChat sticker packs, showed his vulnerable side in later episodes that brought many fans (and even former haters) to tears.

As a visual storyteller, I’m well aware that stories are “constructed” and that they only represent a version of reality, one that the show wants me to see. I’m also aware that all reality shows have pre-written scripts. However, for a show like CHUANG, with so many cameras on set, many of them rolling 24/7 (multiple participants have said the only place they had privacy was the bathrooms, where they spent hours chatting to avoid being filmed), it’s hard for someone to consistently take on a fake, scripted personality. Convinced by the authenticity and invested in the participants’ stories, my relationship with the show evolved into “zqsg,” fan lingo for 真情实感 (zhenqing shigan), a kind of non-ironic emotional investment. 

What really moved me was the genuine connection between participants, especially between Chinese and foreign ones who have to cross severe language barriers. My personal favorites: 

  • Yu Yang and Santa teach each other dancing and singing through a mix of sign/ body language and facial expressions. This friendship has an emotional payoff all the way till the final episode, where Santa dances to a song Yu Yang made.

  • Zeng Hanjiang explaining to Mika a comedy of errors involving a hidden cellphone (which is forbidden in CHUANG).

It made me realize that for a show to actually, in good faith, promote cross-cultural interaction, it has to happen on an individual level without the baggage of stereotypical cultural symbols. As participants got to know each other, their imagination of China grew, becoming more concrete and contemporary. Participants want to visit Chengdu for its underground rap scene and go to Chongqing for its spicy hot pot. They picked up internet slang like “真香” from their friends. And the “cultural exchange” between participants was never one-directional. Born in the era of the internet and globalization, this generation shared a range of different cultural references, from “Batman vs Spiderman” to Nina Simone, from Dragon Ball Z to The Titanic.

Of course, friendship is merely tangential to the main “competition” part of CHUANG, where only 11 out of 90 participants will eventually “debut,” solely decided by fans’ votes at eliminations. 

There are two main channels to vote: through heavily-gamified Tencent apps styled to look like 16-bit video games (votes themselves are called 撑腰, “buffs”), and by purchasing products from the sponsor, a yoghurt brand called Chunzhen.

I am what in show lingo would be called 散粉—a “free-range” fan—meaning I didn’t participate in any organized activities to campaign for an idol. All I did was contribute a little bit of digital labor every day to cast “buffs” on Tencent Video’s app. I also bought roughly 250 RMB worth of yoghurt for extra votes. 

This led me into the world of organized CHUANG fandom, where Big Yoghurt can sway elections.  

(Surprisingly, the yoghurt was not bad.)

████: NEED picture of yoghurt/Yan drinking yoghurt.

Yan: Me, casual yoghurt buyer:

Big Yoghurt:

Tianyu: Ok, I actually went to buy and try it, and...it's pretty bad.

Henry: omg Yan hahahaha. Then again I "paid" a far steeper price in GameStop stock to LARP Robin Hood—if only idol fans' devotion could be harnessed to manipulate financial markets. 

Yan: CT’s own Caiwei has written about idol fans organizing supplies and donations during the early days of COVID in China! 

Krish: That said, we are one supply chain hiccup away from Yoghurt Speculation Markets.


Yan: Organized fan groups, as opposed to free-range fans, are crucial to idols’ victories. They collect donations and channel them into elaborate ad campaigns, including purchasing billboard space in cities. A huge chunk of the money goes into buying yoghurt, to maximize the number of votes. Voting through Tencent’s apps will grant a person 4 ”buffs” per day at most, but paying 149 yuan for a box of yoghurt from the sponsor can grant 100. So fan groups run an intricate operation in which they use fan donations to buy yoghurt in bulk, and organize volunteers to scan the QR codes on the bottle labels to vote. For an average 打投女工 “voting laborer,” they can cast 2000 votes per day. Compared to the work fans were putting in for their YYDS (永远的神, aka their personal GOAT or “forever god”), my pitiful two votes per day meant almost nothing. 

Krish: It’s worth mentioning here that a “second-hand” yoghurt market popped up almost immediately on Taobao/Xianyu: “I will buy all your (unopened) yoghurt after you’ve farmed them for votes.”

Jaime: What has been the most striking to me so far is how CHUANG seems to reach a new height of fan mobilization that resembles a similar fanaticism and media tendency in (certain Western) electoral politics as sports AND a highly covert form of sports betting. So it makes me think what is the deeper-seated mass psychology that is being satiated, besides individual audience connections to things like archetypes (misfits, etc.), belonging, and cross-cultural chemistry like the ones Yan mentioned?

Yi-Ling: To answer Jaime’s question—I think that people need idols. They need something to anchor themselves to, somebody to worship. They need a concrete reason to feel joy and anticipation when they come home from their 996 jobs in the day, and scroll through their phones at night. CHUANG provides idols, and a virtual temple to make pilgrimage to—in a safe, institutionalized form. I use the word “safe” because the idols have shelf lives. They are disposable. No idol lives beyond five years; there will always be someone new. 

Yan: The seemingly democratic voting system is supposed to make fans feel powerful—their votes solely decide the fates of their idol. An extreme example of this power is Lelush, the Russian man “held hostage” by winning through votes despite pleading with fans to let him lose. 

Simon: I wasn't following CHUANG to a high degree, though when Lelush kind of became an international news story, I started to notice a lot of my friends had, slightly surprisingly, been talking about him. One thing the whole affair made me think about is how there are occasionally figures who aggressively attack the structures of celebrity culture, while at the same time using those same structures to make themselves more famous—I’m thinking about punk as media outrage in late 70s Britain, or for a more contemporary example, someone like Kanye West. This kind of nihilistic stance is usually more than a bit immature, but might be sometimes necessary as a reset. Perhaps this is part of what made Lelush such a phenomenon. I’m hard pressed to think of another context in China where someone could have a public platform to say “What I’m doing right now is stupid and I hate it.”

Yan: My own participation, though, was fraught with powerlessness. Like pre-election polls, there are apps where the amount each fan group has raised is made public. Fan groups would constantly fret over the numbers, a kind of fan group self-inflicted “PUA” gaslighting—in making you feel unsafe about your idol’s ranking, they make you contribute whatever you have to safeguard your idol’s ranking. I intentionally stayed away from organized fan groups because it took away the fun of watching the show. 

By the end of CHUANG, the total raised by all fan groups exceeded 150 million yuan. Although there are doubts whether this unthinkable number is real, it demonstrates how the hyper consumer-driven structure works. Fans, ultimately just sources of money in the eyes of the show, spend for their idols to prove both their idol’s star power and their own “commercial value” as a base to be pandered to. If this is an election, it’s a rigged one—neither fair nor democratic—as whoever manages to mobilize the most capital gets the biggest chance to win. Once the top-ranking idols debut, fans continue to support everything they do—from boosting their idol's album ranking on iTunes by buying multiple copies through shell accounts, to ensuring every single product the idol represents is “sold out”—all just to maintain their commercial value. 

The loop goes on till fans’ enthusiasm dies, everyone moves on to the new idol, and the old one is forgotten. Of course, no fan was forced to contribute money or labor, and everyone gets what they think they want, be it a sense of purpose or belonging. At the end of the day, it’s the companies behind the reality show, the talent agencies (including the idol) and sponsors that take all of the profits. 

The final group, INTO1, is roughly evenly split between international and Chinese members. Having foreigners as group members, though, may pose unique political challenges. Idols in China are obligated to toe the party line, with both top-down pressure, and scrutiny from an increasingly nationalistic fanbase. For instance, some fan groups dug up an old article on its website to prove that Avex, a Japanese talent agency with 4 participants in the show, had once mentioned Taiwan as an independent country. The intention was to mobilize public sentiment, sabotaging the Japanese participants’ chances to debut. 

Narrator: They didn’t. 

Yan: Now that the show is over, I find myself dealing with withdrawal syndrome, obsessed with following the participants on social media. All the participants who didn’t debut finally got their phones (and their lives) back, and now post constantly. More than 30 participants living in Beijing attended Yu Gengyin’s birthday party. Another group recorded a TikTok video promoting Jing Long’s new song. What’s more fulfilling than to see the friendships you’ve invested ZQSG in for 2 months remain strong IRL? 

Participants who cried on the final night after elimination are now happy and relaxed with their friends. Meanwhile, INTO1 is kept busy with secret photoshoots and commercial events, and the fishbowl view into the minutiae of their daily lives is gone, and with it, part of the appeal to fans like me. 

Weibo user @电皮卡不断电 put it best: “People out of the loop might think this show just picks 11 people to be disappeared.”

——

Sridala: As very much an outsider to fan culture in China, the thing I still can’t get over the levels of access that subscription and other possibly dairy-based methods of payment get you in reality TV. In SDC3 [Street Dance of China S3], if you paid for it, you could choose specific camera angles from which to view performances. It makes me wonder if fans are just very wealthy?

How are they able to do so much for free, and spend all the time and money they do in pursuit of their idols?

The other interesting thing about fans, their purchasing power, and their chosen idols—at least on CHUANG—is that it seems to be a speculative investment. These aren’t, I think, established idols, but potential ones; they could be throwing their yoghurt money at a boyband that, like Rocket 101, won’t last half a decade, and probably even less if any one of the international contingent by mistake wears, I don’t know, H&M or Nike. 

Yan: That’s a good point—paying for content is so normalized now. Most of the daily updates on CHUANG are only available for VIP members who pay about 15 RMB/month. When certain videos or outtakes make it out into the wild, fans say jokingly, “这是我不花钱能看的吗” (“This is...free?”)

On the second point, fans know that most of these groups are 限定团, active only for two years. R1SE, the boy group coming out of CHUANG 2019, will disband this month now that INTO1 exists. My biggest question is how many fans are in fact fans of the “group,” aka 团粉? There’s no chance that all the 11 people who debut happen to be the participants you like in the show, and rivalries are rife. Their commercial value, and fans’ purchasing power, is still evaluated by individuals in the group. INTO1’s Liu Yu, for instance, already appeared on a L’Oréal livestream by himself. So what’s the point of having a group besides giving the reality show a narrative arc?

——

Krish: One of the overlooked aspects of CHUANG is its “formalization” of the show’s international viewership. What used to be fan-organized, community-driven efforts at translation is now, with CHUANG, a corporate target. We’ve gone from reddit threads and MEGA links to verified YouTube channels.  

Translating a fandom-driven “transmedia” phenomenon like CHUANG requires more than just subtitling, and fan communities have been building that skill since 2019, when the first Chinese crossover hits started producing a demand for more than just a show’s canonical episodes. 

With CHUANG, there’s additional complicated tension—Tencent’s one official translation travels outwards, is refracted through different audiences/languages (among them Thai and Russian),  before being morphed by (many) unofficial fan derivations that are more responsive to the thirsts of a show’s new audience. 

Sridala explains what this “cfan-ifan” divide looks like. 


Two-Way Mirror

by Sridala Swami

Sridala: After Chinese TV drama The Untamed (陈情令, “CQL”) took the world by storm in 2019, international fans clamored for all kinds of adjacent media: the original novel and all its adaptations, endless thirst-feeding interviews, and reality show appearances by actors promoting a drama. 

International fans—ifans—who speak not just Japanese, Korean, Thai, or English, but also Portuguese, Spanish, German, or Tamil want to know a lot of things: what the actors in a behind-the-scenes were giggling about; what this or that slang means; what kinds of adaptation censorship allows. Enter the Chinese fan—the cfan—who is not just a translator, but a virtual cultural guide.

Fan translations are nothing new, of course, but the popularity of CQL meant cfans were generating a lot more material for ifans: drama meta, yes; but also translations of audio dramas and even the rare interview with authors. A committed fan, could even find AO3 translations of fanfiction published on Lofter (乐乎).

Industrious cfans don’t just subtitle and translate, they also help ifans navigate the complicated media environment in China. If, say, an ifan wants to watch episodes of a drama as soon as it airs, she may have to subscribe on platforms like Youku (优酷) and pay for VIP access. Helpful cfans will provide guides on how to do this.

The relationship between cfans and ifans is unidirectional, though, and cfans probably know this better than ifans. As Tumblr blogger Big Red Panda said in a post, “It’s more a unilateral transfer than a conversation between different cultures.”

Cfans can offer ifans an entire chunk of the media experience in China, while ifans in return can offer…to open their wallets and consume a lot of this media legally—an aspect that’s pretty unquestioned by fandom, even as another subsection of it uploads drama episodes onto pirate sites.

The irony can’t be lost on anyone involved. A lot of the labour that cfans do is free, and completely unofficial. Yes, sometimes aspects of their translation may find their way into official subs, but the work they do is entirely separate from official media channels (although Bilibili just announced a dedicated site for their manhuas in English translation, where they credit teams that have worked to fan-translate works).

So, a cfan may translate a novel and expect only a tip via ko-fi, or provide a pay-what-you-can link to download the novel, but they will strongly recommend that ifans buy the original novel, from platforms such as JJWXC, to “support the author,” even though an ifan is clearly not going to be able to read what they’ve bought.

Both cfans and ifans navigate a narrow strait where they have some limited freedom to do certain things but absolutely must not trip any official alarms in c-media: they can provide translations on individual blogs, but not on a platform such as wuxiaworld; they can sub entire episodes of reality shows and allow private downloads, but absolutely must not upload them on YouTube. A cfan’s work might be un- or underpaid, but it remains independent of what a media conglomerate’s clout can do to the work.

Within these strictures, and standing on somewhat unequal ground, cfans and ifans come together, because fandom is fundamentally a labour of love that is driven by and paid for with enthusiasm.

——

Tianyu: The free labor done by cfans—translations, information sharing, and writings—reminds me of the many local volunteer translators who made Chinese subtitles for foreign, especially American, TV shows and films. Known as “subtitle teams” (字幕组), they’re highly organized and selective, emerging amid a media environment in which Chinese viewers couldn’t access the latest foreign shows due to both regulatory and language barriers. Most recently, however, the government has cracked down on Renren Yingshi, one of the largest subtitling sites, on charges of piracy—which would’ve been valid, as there’s almost no legal channel for anyone in China to access foreign shows that haven’t been formally imported and sanctioned by regulators. 


Krish: Where pop idols have short shelf lives, there are rare corners of the Chinese web where legacies last decades. One of those is the fascinating personal brand and cinematic universe of Zheng Yuanjie, the “King of Fairy Tales.” Zheng’s career charts a through-line into the history of the Chinese web itself. Since 2005, he’s been an early adopter blogger, social commentator, (harmless) edgelord and boomer Weibo king. 

That’s two whole decades of advanced poster’s brain. Tianyu asks what that looks like, and why his particular style of posting might be fading for good.   


King of Fairy Tales, King of Posts

By Tianyu Fang

Tianyu: Zheng Yuanjie (郑渊洁) is one of contemporary China’s earliest—and most famous—children’s book authors. A former factory worker, his Shuke and Beita (舒克和贝塔) and Pipi Lu and Lu Xixi (皮皮鲁和鲁西西) series were mainstays for school kids in the 80s up until the 2000s. Shuke and Beita are two adventurous mice, the former a pilot and the latter a tank driver. They’re both friends with Pipi Lu, the stereotypical street-smart troublemaker in school; he’s quite the perfect partner-in-crime with his more bookish sister Lu Xixi. 

Now 65 years old, Zheng still maintains an active online presence. On Weibo, he posts frequently about his many intellectual property infringement cases, and other legal violations he encounters in daily life. He’s accused a mall in Wangfujing of illegally occupying the tactile paving meant for the visually impaired. He occasionally goes on tirades against schools that ask students to buy children’s books for kickbacks from publishers. But he’s also known for interacting with his followers—a mix of adults who grew up reading his novels and younger fans of his online persona—and offering them life advice. 

As a poster, he’s approachable and sometimes too frank—no surprise to his readers, since Zheng was well known for writing back to children, even back in the time of envelopes and handwritten letters. His interactions are at times filled with absurdist humor, self-referential jokes and “punchline” responses. Mostly, though, he’s an adorable boomer, either sticking to the good old 👍 and 🤝 emojis or replying with “Happy Monday” greetings. 

▲ “Grandpa Zheng, I’m sitting the graduate school entrance exam on the 26th. I read your books as a child. Will you cheer for me?”

“I hope you’ll get the second highest score in the country. I’ve already wished another reader to rank number one on Douyin—my apologies.”

▲ “Grandpa Zheng, I’m memorizing an article you wrote. So tired!” 

“Sorry. You’re memorizing my article while I’m playing video games. That’s not right. I’m quitting the game now.” 

▲ “I’m doing reading comprehension for your article.” 

“Could you comprehend? If not, I’ll go rewrite it.”

Zheng’s Weibo followers love his sincerity and bluntness, a craft honed through an obsession with social media that dates back to his 2005 blog. One of his early blog posts was titled “I love playing computer games,” in which he writes: “I wonder why parents don’t play computer games? It’s fine that they don’t play themselves—but they also prevent their children from gaming. As a parent, if you equip yourself with a room dedicated to computer games, your child will definitely stop being obsessed with it.” 

Just eight minutes later he wrote another post, writing that he saw a middle schooler with a PlayStation Portable (PSP) at a fast food restaurant. When Zheng, an avid gamer, took out his own PSP, the student was so ashamed that he put his device away. “Since then, I’ve been afraid to play PSP in public places.” 

He published almost 2,000 posts on Sina from 2005 till 2017, until the platform (and blogging generally) faded from relevance and was replaced by Weibo. These posts range from random internet musings and excerpts from new stories to serious essays on education and writing (along with subtle references to sensitive political events: he wrote, in “Buying a Cellphone for the First Time,” that the first time he saw someone use a cellphone was a Japanese journalist at Tiananmen Square, in May 1989). 

Zheng was a maverick. Though he is often called China’s “king of fairy tales,” he doesn’t write much about unicorns and mermaids—rather, most of his writings are interspersed with social commentary and political critique, cleverly veiled for a young audience. My first Zheng Yuanjie book, which I read as an elementary school student in Beijing, was 2006’s Pipi Lu and 419 Crimes (皮皮鲁和419宗罪). (the story of Yuan Lielie, a bacterium, helping Pipi Lu’s uncle solve crimes by attaching himself to suspects and eavesdropping on their conversations.) Zheng wants children to be aware not just of right and wrong, but what is illegal and how the law protects people —the novel itself was written as a legal awareness textbook of sorts for his own son Yaqi (郑亚旗). In the process, he also brings forward conversations that were once considered taboo—this was the first time I’d read about rape and sexual harassment in a book; other stories involved bribery and abuse of power by government officials. 

Zheng is also known for his skepticism of China’s education system, often criticizing its test-centric nature. He was a grade school dropout - which he likes to highlight in interviews - and he decided to homeschool Yaqi. (Zheng gave signed copies of his books to every child in Yaqi’s class who got poor scores on exams, writing, “you will do great things in life.”) 

He wasn’t immune from criticism. In 2001, Zheng came under scrutiny after Benny Sa (撒贝宁), host of the CCTV program Legal Report (今日说法), said his books were “not suitable for children,” due to mentions of sexuality and sex. Facing public pressure, and in protest, Zheng said he would not publish his new series of novels until 100 years after his death.

Looking back, it was Zheng’s literature, with its clear-eyed acknowledgement of societal fault lines, that made me realize it was acceptable to talk publicly about justice, to challenge norms, and to question authorities. Yet Zheng is no longer the national best-selling author that he used to be, and his past work lives on largely due to a sense of nostalgia. While he remains a child at heart, accommodating young readers of different generations turned out to be difficult. His public image gradually transitioned from a children’s writer to an online writer during China’s blogging craze in the late 2000s, as he continued to engage with his earlier readers as they became grown-ups. A blunt discussion about sex in children’s books may have been taboo in China in the 1980s—but his readers from that era have now become parents, and there are now new norms to be questioned and progress to be made. 

But will there be another Zheng Yuanjie? 

Another rebel figure in China’s literary sphere was Han Han (韩寒), the rally driver who (also) dropped out of school to write novels. Like Zheng, he was a blunt writer, and popular blogger, unveiling the “dark side” of Chinese society. He pulled no punches, frequently raising socially and politically taboo topics, albeit to a different demographic from Zheng. 

Neither writer would be considered a dissident. While Han was a vocal critic of internet censorship in the early days of social media “management,” he wasn’t the kind of writer who called for drastic political changes—he was, for instance, for instance, skeptical of China’s democratic transition. But as public figures, both contributed to the liberalization of the Chinese discourse.

It’s almost unimaginable to think that his provocative literature would be published today. This rebel culture that Zheng and Han once represented—the constant pushing of boundaries and speaking truth to power—gradually faded away from the “mainstream” of the Chinese web in the second half of the last decade. And for better or worse, that’s something to be lamented.


Caiwei: I first read Zheng at age 7. My old, snappish, and pedantic father, who shared his contempt of authority and cynicism, but had that same heart of gold, recommended Zheng as a children’s author who “never talks down to kids.” It rings truer when I revisit Zheng’s work as an adult—his stories, packed with harsh tell-alls of the adult world, don’t shy away from topics like the bureaucracy, the stock market or sex, often cased in commentary and dripping with biting sarcasm.

Compared to other writers of his generation (including “China’s J.K Rowling” Yang Hongying (杨红樱), who sees children as reduced, "unfinished human beings", and Cao Wenxuan (曹文轩), who’s made a name for himself by personifying the innocence and beauty of children), Zheng doesn’t see children as “lesser” human beings, but rather as complete and untouched, crackling with powerful potential.

Echoing Chloé Zhao’s recent Oscar acceptance speech, in which she says that "people at birth are inherently good," I think Zheng is a true humanist. He has faith in the intelligence and heart of children, treats them with equal (if not more) respect and appreciation, and is thus welcomed in turn by young readers. I’ve been adulting for a while, but I still constantly think of Zheng’s reminders to not be corrupted by adulthood itself.

Xuandi: When I was little, Zheng’s books were among only a few 闲书 (books other than textbooks) that we were allowed to read in our spare time. And the knowledge in his writing was truly impactful. A friend told me that only after reading Zheng’s books did she realize that her elementary school teacher’s behavior was inappropriate and could constitute sexual harassment. 

Zheng writes intentionally for young readers, while Han, who is often brought up alongside “Hooligan Literature” writer Wang Shuo (王朔), has this untamed, sometimes vulgar tone in his work. However, they both share this literary tradition of expressing an idea through constructing a fable. I often think about how a Chinese journalist called his work “fable-writing” (寓言家式的写作)—in order to skirt censorship, you have to write in a discursive, metaphorical mode. Seen in that light, maybe the spirit of Zheng or Han never dies away. 

Boyuan: Zheng Yuanjie always had a big ego. He claimed that he could not tolerate his works being set beside other writers’, and that’s how his popular monthly publication, King of Fairy Tales (童话大王), came into being. Being the sole author of a decades-long literary magazine became another thing he loved to boast about.

I enjoyed Zheng’s work primarily in the late 90s and early 2000. That's when he had ambitions to pivot from kids-lit/YA to something resembling “modern fantasy”, some of which were intended solely for adults but still published under the King of Fairy Tales imprint.

And as Tianyu mentioned earlier, this new attempt received backlash from education experts and state media. His big ego allowed him to drop the plan, and Zheng went back to being the gentle grandpa.


Tianyu: That’s it for episode 5! If you enjoyed this, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, or forward it to a friend by hitting the shiny button below! Every fourth episode (like the last one, an interview with Beijing-based musician Bloodz Boi) will be for paying subscribers only, and all of our revenue will go towards paying contributors on time and supporting writers. We also welcome feedback, story ideas, and cute animal GIFs via email (hello [at] chaoya.ng) or Twitter (@ChaoyangTrap). 

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Krish: Next time: ~Masculinity~, dating advice and the Cold Showers Blockchain.

Outro music this week is the brilliant new album from the drunk-punk powerhouse that is Shanghai’s Dirty Fingers (脏手指). They’re China’s most interesting “DIY” band right now, worthy of a Chaoyang Trap feature somewhere down the line (please pitch us).  

Tianyu: Bye!


Yan Cong is a Beijing-based photographer. She is not the guy in Jilin who carries a rock on his head, despite Google’s insistence.  

Sridala is a poet and writer of books for very young children. She lives in Hyderabad and on Twitter.

Tianyu Fang is a writer who grew up in Beijing but is hardly ever in Beijing.

Light is a multimedia illustrator and designer based in Los Angeles. Find them on IG @liu.light

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Jaime (bot) is a critic and translator in Beijing who lives in Dongcheng and works in Chaoyang. She is also a contributing editor at Spike.

Krish Raghav is a comic-book artist in Beijing. He’s been watching a deranged Belgian reality show and highly recommends it.

Yi-Ling Liu is a writer in Beijing. She likes to wall-dance—both online and at the climbing gym. 

Henry Zhang is a writer and day trader who buys high and sells cheap. 

Simon Frank is a writer, editor, and musician based in Beijing who would be excited to visit an artificial island funded by shady yoghurt money.

Xuandi Wang is a writer who grew up in Zhejiang. His professional skills include, but are not limited to, lurking and gawking.

Caiwei Chen is a writer, journalist and podcaster. She cooks with boxed ingredients but tries to finish all her dishes with a gourmet touch.

Wang Boyuan is a writer at PingWest. He was born and raised in Xi’an—the “magically surreal” city acclaimed by Weibo folks—where he is now based.