网红Wang Hong: A Report on China’s Social Media Microcelebrities

Final Research Essay.

To people outside China, the pop word 网红(Wang Hong) has little meaning. Indeed, even in China it has no direct English translation. A highly cultural-specific term with layered narratives, the word used to refer to both men and women famous online. According to the wanghong timeline in the “2016 E-Commerce Big Data Report” by CBNData, the official business database affiliated with Alibaba, from 1997 to 2003 wanghong germinated in China with the advent of the internet. Online writers were the most popular online celebrities up till 2003. Video bloggers developed their lasting online impacts from 2003 to 2008, and internet celebrities have had their crescendo since late 2008 till today. The term “wanghong” has a different connotation in everyday conversations since 2014. Nowadays the word most commonly refers to a small crowd of young women, who have been attracting and retaining a phenomenal number of followers with the attractive appearances they present online.

This report is a critical study of three generations of these female celebrities from 2014 to 2017, during which time this cultural group has grown in visibility. The report will hereafter address the subject, the female micro-celebrities described above, as wanghong. Due to the nature of wanghong as a developing socioeconomic phenomenon, this contextualized examination remains theoretically incomplete. At the risk of oversimplification, this analysis shall give a contextualized account of wanghong through a holistic approach to its social genealogy as well as it cultural ramifications. The narrative follows the phenomenon itself, beginning with the practices of branding and forms of expression through various web 2.0 sites and ending with the new forms of identity being articulated through live-streaming platforms and mobile applications such as Instagram.

The Antithesis of Bloggers

As I mentioned above, wanghong differ from bloggers both in the manifestations of their internet personas and in their strengths. According to WGSN Insider, Bloggers and broadcasters like Papi酱谷阿莫 and 回忆专用小马甲 create a strong influence online because they are knowledgeable in their specific area, and they are good at styling or known for their writing flair. These bloggers started to exist long before the rise of wanghong and strictly belong to the category of online micro-celebrities in the western context. These self-made “conventional” micro-celebrities are caught in the moment of the wild popularity of WeChat and Weibo (the Chinese Twitter to put it briefly). Highly participatory media platforms like WeChat and Weibo provide these bloggers shortcuts to popularize their original, creative contents. Papi酱 and 谷阿莫 adopt the practice of the western digital media micro-celebrities like Honest Trailer, PewDiePie or Jenna Marbles.

Wanghong are not bloggers since their fame is not substantiated by their knowledge in any particular field, but they also rely on participatory social media to create an impression of “direct, unfettered access” (Marwick 2015). They are also different from the “camgirls” in the western digital media sphere. Theresa Senft describes the generation of camgirls from 2000 to 2004 as diverse in forms of gender performativity (Senft 34-51). Though any kind of identity is performative, as Judith Butler would say,  Senft points out that an identity is hardly natural, and identity is only the end-result of a series of practices. Senft illustrates that Camgirls’ identity play in cyberspace is not subject to the gaze of others in the sense as in physical space. More than often, the identity play on webcam is a progressive exercise of power that would not necessarily be admitted as gender-appropriate off-camera. Their roles in cyberspace are either intentionally subservient or overaggressive, yet all these performances come down to an attempt at validating certain personal traits that will contribute to build an identity that is a political manifestation in itself, or brings the practitioner financial benefits. Senft prudently suggests that we define camgirls as emotional laborers who are responsible for managing their feelings of others, either through surface acting or deep acting when they service their specific crowds (Senft 50).

Though some of Senft’s observations of camgirls can aptly apply to wanghong, the latter fundamentally differs from the former because the telepresence of wanghong is not the fascinating and confounding mixture of deep and surface acting. The essence of wanghong reside in its superficiality. There are three groups of wanghong, dividing into three different ecosystems.

The Material Girl: Taobao Wanghong

Since late 2015, the first generation have been acquiring an astounding fortune from their fame on Weibo, selling clothes and cosmetics on Taobao, China’s leading online shopping site. According to BBC, some of the most well-known wanghong reportedly earn more than the most favorable Chinese actresses. The rise of the first kind of wanghong is conditioned by China’s prevailing socioeconomic climate, with the young generation of female consumers being the ones defraying the costs and risks of these girls’ telepresence. Ling Ling and Zhang Dayi are representative of the first type of wanghong, who promote their attractive makeups and outfits to evoke in their audience a desire to be like them by purchasing the identical products. The audiences are primarily young women who regard Taobao wanghong as go-to references for fashion tips.

The cultural impacts of these fashionistas can be compared to the western It girls like Olivia Palermo or Alexa Chung, who primarily attract female fans with their outstanding tastes for fashion trends. Yet none of these wanghong comes from exceptionally well-off households, and only very few took a career path in modeling and other aspects of the fashion industry. Their instantaneous aura makes a lucrative business. The ecosystem of these first generation wanghong has thrived in 2015 till today because of China’s particular socioeconomic moment. The bulging middle class fosters China’s consumer boom, while the digital habit of the 90s generation starts to dominate the society’s consumption pattern.

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Lisa A. Lewis describes the fandom of internet celebrities as socially symptomatic and an act of psychological compensation (Lewis 1-21). Lewis’s analysis provides a well supported psychoanalysis of the young female fans. The online fashionistas acquire their incomes by leading online sales of their personal businesses. Lewis’s view of the fan as the admirer of an idol is entirely applicable to explaining the presumed media influences of these fashionistas. In a media-addicted age, microcelebrities function as role models for fans who engage in artificial social relations with them (Lewis 11). Via Weibo Zhang Dayi posts pictures of her leisure, luxurious lifestyle. Female consumers who follow Zhang on Weibo might not be socially symptomatic as Lewis prescribed, but there is an undeniable degree of psychological compensation in tracking down her posts, and the psychological transportation thereof—the desire to become as glamorous, by having the same material items.

As Web 2.0 breached the line between the real and the virtual spheres, the widely distributed anxiety among the middle class in reality has entered the digital sphere. The public is both the virtual and the physical. The insecurity of social comparison and the desire to become a higher class than the current strata where one belongs drive the young women in their 20s to online binge-shopping behaviors. Compared to their predecessors, the generation born in late 80s and early 90s are more imprudent, consumption-oriented spenders. According to BBC and Forbes, this digital naive generation with increasing buying powers constitute the major portion Zhang and Ling Ling’s millions of followers. As the 20- to 30-year old demographic matures into the mainstream consumer category, it is highly likely that wanghong and the culture of internet fame will continue to grow in the years to come. For the likes of Zhang Dayi, Ling Ling and thousands of Taobao wanghong, this can only be a good thing.

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Tophot, China’s most famous wanghong incubator. According to BBC, wanghong incubators select potential online stars from their candidates, tune them with etiquette and model trainings, nurture them with opportunities from advertising agencies, live streaming sites and e-commerce platforms. Despite the high risk of failure, the few successful examples like Ling Ling and Zhang propel young girls to flock into agencies like tophot.

The Sensual Girl: Wanghong on Cam

In 2016, the second type of wanghong rose to fame by tapping into the volatile environment of China’s live streaming platforms. Though these platforms like 花椒Huajiao, 熊猫Panda, 战旗Zhanqi and 斗鱼Douyu initially featured competent gamers who broadcast their video gaming strategies, the unprecedented intimacy, immediacy and immersive nature of live streaming media provides wanghong an efficient means to entertain their audience. Since live-streaming sites provide a one-way communication mode that is one person broadcasting to many, ordinary girls groping for a means of immediate popularity can easily be celebrificated as soon as they get a grasp of the audiences’ needs.

All these platforms allow viewers to send instantaneous comments that fly across the screen during live streaming programs. Different from the live streaming platforms in the US, all of China’s live streaming platforms allow viewers to send tokens to hosts as virtual gifts. The viewer would send tokens with the expectation that the wanghong will read his comments or address his request. This mechanism largely shortens the cash conversion cycle, the time lapse it takes for wanghong to convert resource inputs into cash flows. Live streaming platforms enable wanghong to become rich overnight, yet almost all of these platforms release rankings of its hosts by popularity daily, weekly and also monthly. The contested nature of this media space adds to the insecurity and risks of wanghong who acquire their popularity through live streaming.

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The weekly “beauty” ranking on 斗鱼 as of April 25, 1:25 AM. On top of the screenshot it says “6 day, 2 hours, 51 minutes and 14 seconds till the deadline of weekly ranking. Ranking is reset every week.”
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The “goddess” ranking on 花椒 as of April 25, 1:25 AM. The ranking was reordered only several minutes after.

I described the environment as volatile because live streaming is a double-edged sword for these adored eye candies. Wanghong who decide to live stream sustain their popularity by catering to the dominantly male fan base. The fact that this used to be a cyberspace for video gamers determines that the audience, compared to the consumer fan base of the first type of wanghong, exert different expectations onto these females broadcasters. The implication is threefold. First of all, viewers anticipate a set of aesthetics pleasing to the male gaze. Secondly, in this more intimate, immediate, highly accessible form of communication that is also “exitable” at any moment, fans anticipate a consistent “branding” that promises the return of attention. Thirdly, the power to decide wanghong’s popularity and to not send a token entitles the viewers to expect a sexual visual experience. The image exhibited must be graphic enough to retain their attention and deem a virtual rewarding. Comments for the programs featuring these young women can be highly pornographic. Hence at least some viewers certainly expect wanghong to act in a way that is consistent with what we consider as online pornography.

Given the penalties that might be levied against users who violate China’s rigorous cyberspace decency regulations, wanghong on live streaming platforms have to tiptoe around the fine line between the legitimate and the illegal. To gratify the sexualizing gaze of their financial source, wanghong on live streaming sites divide between a binary of moe萌 (which tunes into the otaku sentiments of some gamers) and extremely prudent soft-core erotic (usually means hot dancing in front the camera, which could be too tame compared to its American counterpart). At least to some extent the Taobao wanghong are volitional practitioners consuming their fandom as a lucrative start-up business with fairly low risk and high return; while the wanghong on cam is explicitly a sex object at service of their male viewers. Senft argues that the American camgirls use webcamming as a form of expression and their exhibitionism a subversion of the male dominance. The gender performativity of wanghong on cam, in comparison, is only circumspect to the crowds to be pleased and lacks the self-conscious purpose.

网红 active on live streaming platforms usually also maintain an active Weibo account, sharing and displaying glamorous bits of their offline “life,” which is a continuation of the practices by Taobao wanghong, to enhance their bonding with fans through the online interactions that almost feel interpersonal.

The Rich Girl: China’s New Breed of Superrich

China reportedly has a million millionaires now, while in early 1990s there were only three billionaires in the country. 富二代(Fu Er Dai), like wanghong, is a new Chinese word that remains esoteric to any other culture. Fuerdai means “the second generation of the rich.” Dubbed as fuerdai are the offsprings of those entrepreneurs like Wang Jianlin and others who took advantage of the privatisation of real estate in China during the 1990s. BBC, in an article on fuerdai, comments that fuerdai’s parental generation is following the current shift in the economy toward consumerism. Since CPC radically obliterated all the wealth gaps through “Land Reform” and “Cleansing the Class Ranks” campaigns around the time of Cultural Revolution, fuerdai’s parents built their fortune from scratch. Different from their parents, who made their money through their own business efforts, fuerdai crave for a carefully crafted impression of opulence. This absence of heritage and the need for compensation thereof, as Bourdieu points out, drive many new breeds of the superrich to a pursuit after luxury goods, especially European legacy brands with a historical lineage of class.

A new subgroup of fuerdai wanghong surfaced in recent years, as a manifestation of the celebritization of the wanghong phenomenon. Quite many fuerdai studying abroad in North America, New Zealand and Australia managed to attract thousands of followers on Instagram with often outrageously edited selfies. The numbers of followers are usually incomparable to those of domestic wanghong on Weibo and live-streaming sites, but the purpose of fuerdai wanghong is a different one.

The rise of fuerdai wanghong comes as a byproduct of the social comparison drive within China’s new middle class, and resides only in a fetishism for luxury items. A predictable collection of It products of the year (certain Dior stilettos and handbags, Chanel low-heel pumps and flap-bags, preppy Gucci loafers and bags and the like from exclusive luxury brands) frequently appears on Instagram accounts of fuerdai wanghong. There is a clubbiness about these inner circles, achieved through tagging each other in posts wearing the same items or attending a glamorous event. This is a practice learned from American Instagram celebrities like the Victoria’s Secret supermodels who have millions and billions of followers. The bigger-than-life aura, as Marwick puts it, along with the clique logic exhibits a contrived attempt at creating an imagined class.

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“Lulu” and “Paris Zhou,” two Emory wanghong wearing the Jadior heels, hot item of 2016.
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The Emory inner circle.

Social comparison makes a show case in these strife for “beauty” and attention online. These fuerdai would launch their popularity by buying several thousands of followers first, so that their posts would appear as Instagram recommendations to more users than before. Then the follower base will grow exponentially as a snowball effect. The dominant popularity of wanghong across multiple platforms institutes a homogeneous, standardized aesthetics for female beauty. As Bourdieu wrote in Masculine Domination, “femininity is imposed for the most part through an unremitting discipline that concerns every part of the body and is continuously recalled through the constraints of clothing or hairstyle.” As Marwick suggests, the logical conclusion of all the theories is to look at micro-celebrity as a learned practice rather than an inborn trait (Marwick 2011). The wanghong logic has consolidated to a presentation of twisted femininity attentive to every part of the body. According to BBC, a report by iiMedia Research shows about 10% of China’s internet celebrities as having admitted that they had undergone plastic surgery. Through extensive plastic surgery, cosmetic makeover, and Photoshop retouching, wanghong try to attain an unanimous set of rigid aesthetics that boils down to fair skin, pointy chin, big eyes, an exquisite nose, emaciated body stature and expensive-at-first-glance outfits. (I demonstrated how to achieve these criteria through Photoshop body makeover in my creative project.) Not every Instagram wanghong comes from a rich out-of-sight background. Purchase of counterfeit luxury goods is made convenient by Taobao, which offers global shipping.

Fuerdai wanghong sometimes list their contact information as a public profile. Not fashion professionals themselves, the act manifests not a desire for attention but an intention that falls into line with the feudal concept of good marriage. Coming from affluent families, Instagram wanghong pose as a certain attraction to fuerdai sons. Wang Jianlin is the richest man in China, a real estate tycoon and the owner of AMC Theatres. The dating history of his single son, Wang Sicong, makes a harem of most popular wanghong over the past few years.

The picture that made Zhang Zetian famous in 2009.

Another example that may substantiate my argument above is Zhang Zetian. A picture of a high school girl called Zhang Zetian holding a cup of milk tea went viral online in 2009. Then known as “milk tea girl,” now wife of the leading e-commerce industry founder Liu Qiangdong, Zhang Zetian’s monumental fame marked a new chapter in the chronology of wanghong, according to CBN Data. As I visited Columbia University in the summer of 2014, I passed by Zhang outside the main library. She was then an exchange student at Barnard College taking ballet courses, allegedly because her improficiency in English prevented her from the academic curriculum, which casts doubt on how she acquired the limited, paid study-abroad opportunities at Tsinghua University in the first place. One month before I encountered Zhang at Columbia, Liu Qiangdong, the e-commerce tycoon who were attending Columbia 2013-2014, announced on Weibo that the two were officially dating. Liu, twice divorced, married Zhang in 2015, who is 19 years his junior.

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The “Richkids_English_Police.”
A few more posts by Richkids_English_Police.

The Instagram account named Richkids_English_Police features preposterous grammatical errors of many fuerdai wanghong. Though the attitude is confrontational, the argument is on point. On display here is some fuerdai’s blatant ignorance of their elementary incompetence in English. The secret Instagramer also operates two other account, “Richkids_Surgery_Police” and “Richkids_Fashion_Police.” Richkids_Surgery_Police was closed by Instagram on April 28, the date this article was published, on account of anonymous reports. Several days before that the Instagramer disclosed allegedly before-and-after pictures of Lulu, thus induced rantings from Lulu’s personal friends, who insisted that Lulu has never undergone a plastic surgery. Yet the extent to which Lulu recreates her image in the virtual sphere through facial reconstruction in Photoshop almost justifies as an astoundingly thorough digital surgery.

Lulu’s before-and-after comparisons posted by Richkids_Surgery_Police.

Taobao wanghong is tip of the iceberg of the streamline commercial chain that incubates them. Wanghong on cam serve as a purveyor of satisfaction for their male viewers in the rigid climate of cyberspace cleansing. The lasting success of the two former wanghong ecosystems triggered the vanity of some wanghong wannabes belonging to the new breed of superrich, who seek for attention online as a justification of their socioeconomic strata. Through grouping with their likes and branding themselves with items symbolizing legacy, the subgroup of wanghong primarily scattered across North America strive to create an upper-class aura. China’s blooming economy fostered many phenomenon that are no less than magic realism, and wanghong is one of them.

Creative part: pop quiz

“Wang Hong Prosopagnosia.” This pop quiz is designed as a visual illustration of the monotonous beauty criteria the wanghong phenomenon has instilled. All pictures were taken from the public Instagram accounts of Emory’s wanghong.

This is a timed quiz of 14 questions, with up to 10 seconds each question, so don’t be tempted to go through each choice too carefully. Click the picture below to take the quiz. Don’t be alarmed if you score too low. The average score by April 21 was 3.87/14.

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All pictures taken from Instagram accounts of 网红 at Emory, whose Instagram accounts are set public.
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Test results by April 21, two weeks after the quiz was generated.


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