Entertainment in an Age of Ambition: A Thought Experiment in the Future Histories of the Chinese Entertainment Industry

In the likely event that you have been detained with more serious matters, you might have missed all the celebrity scandals and other news in the Chinese entertainment industry during the first part of this year.  Even if you keep track of it, there was still a lot to digest.

First came the news that actor Wen Zhang cheated on his actress wife, Ma Yili, with one of his former co-stars for the show Naked Marriage (裸婚时代), Yao Di.  Wen, who co-starred in several shows with his wife, usually plays the role of the struggling youngster on the make. His apology on Weibo and his wife’s response was shared so many times that it made it into the international news.  The architects of China’s push to increase its soft power through movies, television and journalism likely did not envision Chinese celebrities making overseas news outlets due to marital issues.

A few weeks ago, the actor from last fall’s hit show Let’s Get Married (咋们结婚吧), Huang Haibo, was arrested for soliciting prostitution and detained for more than a week. The whole episode ignited another firestorm on Weibo and Wechat as Huang’s defenders said that he had not really done anything wrong since he was not married, did not have a girlfriend and was not taking advantage of his position of power in the entertainment industry to practice any “unwritten rules” i.e. promising to secure roles for young actresses in return for certain favors. His detractors, of course, stressed the simple fact that what he did was against the law.

Outside the realm of celebrity scandal, China announced that it would stop allowing websites to stream “The Big Bang Theory” and several other shows; Zhang Yimou released his most recent move “Coming Home” and the Shanghai and Beijing held their annual film festivals which continue to grow year after year.

Though it seems trivial, it is important to take the Chinese entertainment industry seriously, if only because the government does. In fact, the study of Chinese film is well-established in the academy and a number of interesting and informative works on the TV continue to emerge (See, for example, books by Ying Zhu). Chinese film, television and entertainment looks like a growth field now—for anthropologists, sociologists and media studies scholars—and in the future for historians. An interesting thought experiment is to brainstorm potential projects that might be written about the current period in the Chinese entertainment industry.

An important topic that stands out immediately is the waves of anxiety that generally fall under the question: “Why can’t we think of that?” This type of sentiment came to the fore with the King Fu panda movies and emerged again thanks to the recent popularity of the show “Dad, Where are we going?” that followed five celebrity dads and their kids as they traveled together in remote areas of China without computers, cell phone or their wives.   The show, whose first season was a surprise smash hit for Hunan Weishi and turned a bunch of five-year-olds into overnight celebrities, was not actually created in China. Instead, Hunan Weishi bought the rights to the original South Korean version. Here there are several potential research questions: How did people diagnose this problem? What prescriptions did they offer? Was the problem eventually solved?

Another worthwhile investigation might look at the relationship between celebrity scandals and politically sensitive stories.  For example, the arrest of the actor Huang Haibo for soliciting prostitution occurred at the same time as the anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. On Weixin and Weibo, a common line of thinking held that these types of scandals always pop-up when censors want to distract people from more serious news stories. Here the research question is a simple but tricky: Does the government use the entertainment industry as a distraction? This project would be a tough one to carry out and would require the collaboration of scholars with different skill sets and interests but might uncover some interesting correlations, though getting at causation might be difficult.

A slightly more abstract but still worthwhile topic might be a study of masculinity in the early 20th century in terms of the rise and fall of certain male actors through an analysis of the characters they play and their personal scandals. For example, what will happen to the careers of Wen Jiang and Huang Haibo who before their recent incidents were both described as “中国好男人”? What is the social discourse about being a “good man”? How do these ideas get established? How do they change? How are they embodied in the lives and careers of certain actors?

Even though the gossip magazines that surround serious publications like “Southern Weekend,” at local newspaper stands look silly and unworthy of attention, they might actually be significant sources for present and future research on the Chinese entertainment industry in an Age of Ambition.

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