Student Research Partnership in Chinese: Chinese Popular Culture: Constructing a Self Online Amid Urban-Rural Divides, Consumerism, and Social Upheavals

4 October 2021

In the summer of 2021 David Ahrens ’22 and Marianne Gunnarsson ’22 worked with Associate Professor Shaohua Guo on a research project which investigates the questions “What is popular culture?” and “How does it grow along with the Internet?” The research explored different aspects of Chinese popular culture while examining consumerism, the urban-rural divide in content creation, and how individuals craft star personae online. By looking at livestreaming and WeChat and reading scholarly articles on Chinese popular culture, they found creators varied in socioeconomic status, geographic location, and gender who find meaning and earn money and societal acceptance on these platforms, their lives defined to varying degrees by their chosen method of content dissemination. They also found that Chinese popular culture involves public conception of/relation to international politics and social upheavals. David and Marianne shared their experiences as SRPs with the Humanities Center.

Marianne: One of the most beautiful experiences I had was following a WeChat account called 小林漫画, which is replete with colorful illustrations by the artist of nature, animals, and cute abstractions. One of my favorite images was a cerulean teardrop filled with a blue whale on the inside, with the caption: “一滴眼泪/是世界上最小的海” which means “a teardrop is the world’s smallest ocean.” I just thought it was beautiful and profound. This was used in our observational research of WeChat public accounts.

Also of note were the documentaries I watched on live-streaming in China. It is a strange phenomenon to me, and gives off a lonely impression. I remember that one of the live-streaming micro celebrities profiled was asked by the interviewer what her dreams are, and she said  “我没有梦想,” or, “I don’t have any dreams.” It seems that this virtual world comes together from a place of sadness and to fill a void in one’s heart created by a poor childhood or lack of love. It seems unnatural, like it violates my conception of humanity in a way.

David: Due to the nature of internet and media related popular culture studies, there were multiple times where my research actively changed my own taste in popular culture. While watching one of the countless music performances that I viewed on YY, I heard a song that I really enjoyed and quickly googled the lyrics to find the name of the song. I played it non-stop throughout the summer! A smaller but more constant experience was my reflection on how my own experiences as a livestream watcher on an American platform (Twitch) varied from my experience on Chinese platforms. Often in my writings, I was able to share my own experiences with such internet trends and popular culture!

I furthered my ability to search databases, I learned more colloquial Chinese, I discovered how to navigate new websites, and I strengthened my ability to synthesize information and pull out poignant research information from simple livestreams. Working with Guo laoshi over the summer was so fun! It felt like a natural progression as I was her research assistant during the school year. Being able to dedicate more time to research allowed us to cover more ground, and explore many more topics. Despite the apparently disparate nature of all of Guo laoshi’s research interests (of which there are a lot), it was so wonderful to work with her in the process to narrow down and find commonalities between various aspects of internet and popular culture.