Research Scholar of Cultural Studies.
My work fits best within transnational American Studies and global Asias contexts. I focus on African American, Asian and Asian American cultures in popular culture and audience and reception studies.
Unless you have been under a rock, you are surely aware of the win by BTS for Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards. While the win shows the way K-pop fans can mobilize in the moment, the celebration of group anniversaries demonstrates the longevity of K-pop fandom.
Many have pondered what the win means. The BTS win comes in the wake of other instances where K-pop fans mobilize. In 2011, 2NE1 won the Best New Band award at the MTV Iggy Awards as a result of fan votes. In 2013, SNSD garnered the Video of the Year Award for “I Got A Boy.” These wins for BTS, 2NE1 and SNSD reflect the work that fans put in for the groups. It shows what K-pop fans already knew: K-pop fans are a force. Mainstream media outlets marvel at the win. However, some have also questioned the BTS win. Theo Howe argues that the win really reveals a “fetishisation” for Korean artists: “K-pop is a deeply visual genre, and the artists are made to look pretty, but there’s a danger among international K-pop fans that this can create an echo chamber for saying how BTS or Twice are that much more attractive than people of any other ethnicity.” Helen chalks up the win to marketing: “K-pop being recognised by big mainstream Western media sites doesn’t mean it’s somehow ‘made it’, and BTS winning an award at a music awards show that has nothing to do with music isn’t K-pop making it either. It means that mainstream Western sites have figure out that K-Pop is marketable, which of course it is.”
I argue that the win tells us something about K-pop fandom, but only half of the story. On one hand, it demonstrates, once again, that K-pop fans will mobilize for the opportunity to promote a K-pop group to the world. Such events work because for a brief, shining, moment, fans come together to achieve a task recognized by non-K-pop fans. But there are other measures of the global impact of K-pop on fans.
While many were fixated on BTS, Shawols were celebrating the 9th anniversary of SHINee, whose popularity points to the longevity of K-pop. J.K. of soompichronicled the way fans celebrated the anniversary, including a trending hashtag and Twitter posts. SHINee is not the only K-pop group celebrating multiple years of grouplife. 2PM also celebrates its 9-year anniversary this year, and F.T. Island celebrates its 10th. Shinhwa celebrated its 19th-year anniversary in March and Sechs Kies is currently promoting their 20th year (despite several years of inactivity). Even without the same level of fanfare and public recognition, these fans ensure that their groups can continue to have an audience and make music. This fanwork is more constant.
People have been declaring the death of K-pop for years. K-pop fans are both of the moment and here for the long haul. Even as newer fandoms groups like ARMYs break barriers, older fandoms like Shawols show the lasting power of K-pop.
The best romances are with people who are well-matched and help each other out. In General and I, somebody’s not pulling their weight, and everybody’s losing out.
A good couple in an Asian drama is when individuals are well-matched. In General and I, Chu Bei Jie (Wallace Chung) and Bai Ping Ting (Angelababy) are both clever and observant. Bei Jie is treasured general of the Jin state, valued by his emperor and beloved by his people. He also has a bit of an attitude due to his success on the battlefield, but in time you just let that slide. Bai Ping Ting was originally a maid in the Prince of Jing An’s household in the Yan state, but as one character observes, they never treated her that way. She’s often compared to the famed military strategist Zhuge Liang. Both Bei Jie and Ping Ting are loyal to their respective people.
So when these two get together, you expect them to take the world by storm. But wait! It wouldn’t be a Chinese drama if it were that easy. They face obstacles. Everybody in Jin is giving Ping Ting the side-eye because she’s from Yan. They don’t trust her and wonder how she’s got Bei Jie wrapped around her finger. Bei Jie can never be friends with the Prince of Jing An’s household. The young prince, He Xia (Sun Yi Zhou), is holding the mother of all grudges, which is exacerbated by the fact that he was planning on marrying Ping Ting (although she never looks all that thrilled at the prospect). Bei Jie and Ping Ting are not much different from other couples in Chinese dramas.
Except…they are not contributing equally to the romance. Early on, Bei Jie throws down the gauntlet, defying even the Emperor on numerous occasions for his wife. What I like about Bei Jie is that he’s not shy about it. He tells his army, he tells the Emperor, he tells his nemesis He Xia: Ping Ting is his girl, and it’s his duty to protect her, always. It doesn’t matter what she’s done, what it looks like she’s done, what she might think about doing. That’s his girl. However, Ping Ting apparently did not get this memo. Her actions constantly show that she questions Bei Jie’s devotion to her. She claims that she doesn’t want to cause him trouble, but it’s actually her actions that cause the majority of trouble for Bei Jie by running away, constantly. Yet through it all, Bei Jie is constant. Dude is going above and beyond his duty in his devotion to her. Ping Ting also seems to forget that Chu Bei Jie is no dumb bunny; he can get himself out of predicaments without her help, even ones she accidentally has a hand in.
One of the biggest problems is that Ping Ting tries to change Bei Jie and deny their responsibility to the people. Ping Ting seemed content to run around the country to try to protect He Xia, but once she acknowledges her feelings for Bei Jie, she’s all ready to retire to the country. YOU CAN’T LEAVE! Bei Jie was a general for a reason: he feels a duty to his people. He was a general when Ping Ting met him: that’s who he is. But Ping Ting thinks it’s ok for them to peace out once they get married (formally). She’s no stranger to the battlefield. Heck, that’s where we first see her. Rather than avoiding the obvious, namely, that people as talented as they are should use their talents to help others, Ping Ting wants to live a quiet life and leave the people hanging. And trying to be out of the affairs of state does not work: problems will just come knocking on your door (literally).
But it’s not the actors fault, and here’s where the writing comes into play. Not a stranger to Chinese drama, high episode counts do not faze me. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the coincidences and chance meetings and implausible scenarios. But the writers of General and I tested my patience with an unnecessary and unprecedented separation of the leads that lasts nearly 20 episodes. That was ridiculous! Moreover, the actions of Ping Ting after the separation made no sense. There were lapses in logic that, quite frankly, insulted the viewer. Bei Jie is doing his job as a devoted husband, and Ping Ting is acting like a fool. She’s making unilateral decisions and not even giving Bei Jie a chance to respond to their changing circumstances. For 20 episodes, it’s all about Ping Ting. So when they reunite, it’s kind of a let-down. There’s no discussion about what caused the separation in the first place. They just kinda pick up where they left off, which makes you wonder about the whole separation in the first place.
So why did I stick with General and I? Three words: Chu. Bei. Jie. You know your character is strong to overcome my initial wariness. At first, I thought Bei Jie was arrogant and a bit hands-y. But dude is devoted, not just to Ping Ting, but to his army. He appreciates loyalty and gives it in return, especially to his right-hand man, Mo Ran. He’s truly picking up the slack in this Chinese drama.
Fan hierarchy, which use criteria to declare some fans “better” than other fans, is not unique to K-pop. Nevertheless, it distorts the realities of fan dynamics in K-pop.
It is no secret that Korean fans feel some type of way about global fans, and vice versa. For example, many global fans are multi-fandom, which means they are fans of multiple K-pop groups. This differs from Korean fans, who tend to support only one K-pop group. harmonicar suggests that domestic fans are justified in their approach to fan activity: “Seeing idols and supporting their group is a normal part of daily life, and as it is, it[sic] many Korean fans feel like international fans don’t “support” their groups as much as domestic fans do; and it only makes matters worse if one is seen jumping group to group during active promotions. With the competition being so cutthroat, it’s understandable that domestic fans feel salty when they see temporary visitors spreading their loyalty so thin, but reaping all the benefits” (soompi).
While it seems that the writer is merely comparing two different approaches to fan activity, the comparison actually implies a fan hierarchy that places domestic fans at the top. Kristina Busse argues that fan hierarchies are in part based on the idea “that one could fail to be a . . . a good-enough representative to the outside” (73-4). This type of hierarchy places emphasis on “their particular modes of engagement” (74). In the domestic vs. global fan comparison, the behavior of global fans is questioned because it does not conform to the behavior of domestic fans. The piece implies that the concerns of domestic fans are valid: Korean fans do more, so they are the better fans AND can dictate proper fan behavior. This suggests a degree of policing motivated by “a clear sense of protecting one’s own sense of fan community and ascribing positive values to it while trying to exclude others” (Busse, 75).
In the case of global fans and domestic fans, the issue of “support” is used in an exclusionary way. harmonicar implies that the kind of support that domestic fans render is “better” than the support of global fans because it is directed towards only one group:
Domestic fans are expected to invest, both with time and money, heavily into their idols. A CD, concert, random festival, or musical announced? Fans buy or attend every single one. A member gets casted for a drama? Fans watch every single episode. A new album, title track, or OST is released? Fans stream nonstop. Your group is actively promoting on music shows? Fans wake up at 4 a.m. and stand in line for hours, just so someone will cheer for their group at recordings. Because of the level of active involvement required to properly [italics mine] support one group, many fans don’t have resources to support more than one; and loyalty towards a single group is valued in fan culture.
I argue that fan support is used to exclude and police in this instance. Who expects fans to “invest, both with time and money?” I offer that it is fans themselves that have this expectations. More and more artists are asking fans to cut back on their material support of groups. JYP Entertainment recently limited fan gifts to “birthday and anniversary banners/ letters/ message books/ documentation of donation/ meals and snacks.” EXO‘s Lay is quoted as saying: “We don’t care if you aren’t able to buy our albums, it’s not something you are forced to do. When you have money to spare, that’s when you can purchase them. Just because you don’t buy our albums doesn’t mean you are not our fan. If you like us, you’re our fan. Spending more money does not mean you love us more.” There are other ways to support a K-pop group.
In actually, K-pop artists actually need both domestic and global fans to be successful. K-pop artists come from Korea, where they make the music. They are expected to do promotions in their own country, which domestic fans support. Global fans love to see their appearances on the music shows too. However, groups are increasingly making fan support available for global fans. For example, Shinhwa recently promised a dance version if views on the MV “Touch” reached over 5 million views on YouTube. Many global fans have access to YouTube and could certainly view the video, as well as appreciate the dance version when made available. One only needs to look at the increased efforts by K-pop groups and solo artists to appeal to and develop fanbases in other countries. Groups are increasingly more international, featuring non-Korean members and having other members know other languages. They are making content available to more platforms accessed by global fans. They are performing in more global locations.
Realistically, K-pop, which is a form of popular music defined by its outreach to global audiences, cannot sustain itself solely by relying on the South Korean market, no matter how much fan support domestic fans give. Implying a fan hierarchy only plays into the stereotype of strife and conflict between K-pop fans and overlooks the realities of K-pop fan culture.
“JYPE’s New Policy Regarding to Support Items.” 2PMEDIA. http://2pmedia.blogspot.com/2016/03/jypes-new-policy-regarding-to-support.html?m=1, (16 Jan 2017).
Kristina Busse. “Geek Hierarchies, Boundary Policing, and the Gendering of the Good Fan.” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. 10.1 (2013): 73-91. http://www.participations.org/Volume%2010/Issue%201/6%20Busse%2010.1.pdf, (16 Jan 2017).
I’m not going to lie. When I started General and I, I was not all that enthusiastic about the male lead character, Chu Bei Jie (Wallace Chung). Although I know he’s supposed to be our hero, he starts out doing some HIGHLY QUESTIONABLE things: his interaction with the Prince of Jing An’s family, the way he rolls up on Bai Ping Ting (rude!), and his overall smug attitude. And I know this is petty, but there was way to little warrior hair. He completely lacked the charm of Tuoba Jun in The Princess Weiyoung, which I just finished. However, with just one speech to his army sticking up for his girl, I like him! No matter what she does, he’s committed to her. He doesn’t care what his own king, the king of Yan or pouty Prince He Xia thinks. Plus, he’s got problems of his own in the palace in Jin. I got my eye on you, Bei Jie!
While this C-drama revolves around the titular princess (Tiffany Tang), it’s really the relationships that drive the narrative. The relationship between Weiyoung and Tuoba Jun (Luo Jin) is unbreakable, while other couples fail miserably.
One of the things that makes the Weiyoung and Tuoba Jun’s relationship so strong is that they are individuals in their own right. Weiyoung starts out as a princess, a little willful, but with a strong sense of justice and personal loyalty. She never talks down to the servants and respects her father and grandmother. She’s been educated, and this will come in handy after her family is murdered and she finds herself in The Great Wei, seeking justice for her family and her people. Even under these circumstances, Weiyoung is shrewd yet kind. She treats her servants like sisters, and stands up for others.
Most importantly, she’s not just a pretty face. Weiyoung is smart. She’s like Sherlock in her ability to unravel the complicated schemes against her. They come fast and furious; it’s like, “It’s Tuesday, someone must be trying to kill me.” She’s also brave, talking back to the Emperor on the regular, especially when wrongs have been committed. She takes all of the negative insults people hurl at her and remains her own person.
Surely it is these characteristics that make her attractive to Tuoba Jun, who isn’t too shabby himself. Although he is a member of the imperial family, he lacks their ambition and violent tendencies. The year he spends roaming the world allows him to have more connection to regular people, and he feels for them. The Emperor talks about his people, but it’s Tuoba Jun who risks his own life to help them. Tuoba Jun is a cheery guy! He has a sense of humor, messing with his servants and Weiyoung. Most of all, he is consistent and persistent.
Admittedly, it takes what seems like forever for Weiyoung to recognize and respond to Tuoba Jun’s charms, but once they are a couple, they are ride-or-die. They work together. Tuoba Jun never belittles Weiyoung because she’s a woman, and Weiyoung never thinks that Tuoba Jun is weak because of his compassion. Tuoba Jun is vocal about his support and love of Weiyoung, and Weiyoung explains over and over again her loyalty to Tuoba Jun. They believe each other, and even when it looks like their love will fail, it comes back as strong as ever. They are committed to each other.
This is something TeamEvil fails to recognize, which is why their schemes always fail. The more they try to tear them apart, the stronger they get. Who is on TeamEvil in The Princess Weiyoung? Although they often act independently, there are several members who view Weiyoung as a threat or want to possess her.
First Lady of TeamEvil is Chang Le (Li Xin Ai). From birth, she’s been groomed to believe that she’s the best in the world. She cannot tolerate others even getting a little bit of attention. She is actively beating others down in the Li household, and her prime target is Weiyoung. It gets worse when Tuoba Jun returns from his year of living dangerously. While he’s been gone, she’s been fantasizing about marrying him and ingratiating herself with elders to look like the ideal wife for him. However, by the time Tuoba Jun returns, he’s not giving her the time of day and Chang Le blames Weiyoung. In truth, he was never interested in her. She lacks the confidence and compassion of Weiyoung, and uses her powers for evil. Chang Le goes to crazy lengths to get rid of Weiyoung and look innocent in front of Tuoba Jun, but he knows about her evil ways.
Second-in-command on TeamEvil is Chang Ru (Mao Xiao Tong). She looks like she’s just as sweet as Weiyoung, but she’s even more scheming than Chang Le! Working in the shadows, she initially manipulates others in order to be recognized by Tuoba Yu (Vanness Wu). That sometimes coincides with helping Weiyoung. But like Chang Le, Chang Ru comes to see Weiyoung as a threat, and as a result, targets her for her machinations. She blames Weiyoung, first for “bewitching” Tuoba Yu, then for rejecting him. In both scenarios, she fails to blame Tuoba Yu, who pursues Weiyoung in an extreme case of one-sided love.
In some ways, Chang Le and Chang Ru are different. Chang Le wants to marry Tuoba Jun as much for his power as for his personality. It’s about being gaining fame for herself and lording it over others. Chang Ru only wants to be recognized by Tuoba Yu. Her needs are few; she’ll settle for being a consort (maybe even side-consort?). But, both fail to recognize that they are the problem. Chang Le is an entitled wench. She doesn’t care about Tuoba Jun; she just wants him as a possession. Chang Ru blindly pursues Tuoba Yu based on an incident from their childhood. They also fail to define themselves outside of these men. This is why Tuoba Jun and Tuoba Yu don’t reciprocate their feelings, and why the schemes of Chang Le and Chang Ru often fail. Both Chang Le and Chang Ru pursue the wrong men for the wrong reasons.
A surprising member of TeamEvil is Tuoba Yu (ok, not so surprising, given that he’s evil). While the women are all in their feelings about the men, Tuoba Yu is the same way about Weiyoung. Even though Weiyoung makes it clear on multiple occasions that she has no interest in him, he continues to pursue her. While Tuoba Yu seems to care about Weiyoung on some level, he, like Chang Le and Chang Ru, only wants to possess her. He doesn’t care about her thoughts and feelings. He only continues to save her so that he can, at last, say that she is his.
Meanwhile, Tuoba Jun and Weiyoung’s relationship withstands everything TeamEvil throws at it. They continue to love each other through attempts to poison Weiyoung, implicate her in national scandal and reveal her true identity. Even when she loses her position, she rises from the ashes. And right beside her is Tuoba Jun, always. In one scheme where it really seems that Weiyoung is the culprit and done for, Tuoba Jun says, “Even if she did this, she has her reasons. I believer her.” They believe each other, through extreme circumstances, because they are two individuals in a relationship who respect and trust the opinion and intelligence of the other.
TeamEvil pursues the opposite of what Weiyoung and Tuoba Jun have: a relationship based on mutual respect.