restricted access “Are you still Chinese?”: Negotiations of Cultural Identity in the Yang Lijuan Affair
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“Are you still Chinese?”
Negotiations of Cultural Identity in the Yang Lijuan Affair

In the spring of 2007, the Sinophone media world was captivated by the saga of Yang Lijuan, a twenty-eight-year-old Mainland Chinese woman whose adulation of Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau had reached extremes.1 Extensively covered in print and on television, the story attained its greatest pitch and notoriety on the Sinophone Internet, featuring prominently in the news sections of Baidu, QQ, Sina, and all other major Internet portals.2 Although Yang was not the first Chinese “star-chaser,” the affair is widely remembered because its tale ended, unthinkably, with the suicide of her father. The episode has become a touchstone for discussion of the moral responsibilities of media in the Chinese context, as well as the possible dangers of obsessive fan culture. When China Daily, a state publication introduced the case to its English-language readership, it summarized it as follows: “The most famous star-chaser, no doubt, was Yang Lijuan, whose desire to meet Lau in private led to one of the biggest—and saddest—melodramas in star-fan relationships, complete with her father’s suicide and her story becoming a cautionary tale about everything that’s wrong with relentless ‘star-chasing.’”3

The affair was characterized by the contrast between the two main actors. In mainstream Chinese media, a sentimental narrative was initially constructed around [End Page 41] this unemployed, uneducated woman from a remote and underdeveloped region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).4 Neither young nor beautiful by media standards, she had developed an obsessive devotion for one of the Sinophone world’s wealthiest, most iconic music and film stars. There was also a wild disproportion between the desired end—personal contact with Lau—and the means undertaken to achieve it, which included incurring debts, the sale of the family house, and finally her father’s suicide. The death of Yang’s father turned the affair from a human-interest item about an improbable dream into a sensationalist media free-for-all, feeding on a misfortune that was itself media generated. The case provoked finger pointing and soul searching about the relationship between media and celebrity in China. It also provoked extensive commentary in academic publications, as well as in the blogs of public intellectuals and pop-culture figures.

Although domestically the debate considered questions of China’s moral fiber and media responsibilities, this essay is concerned with how definitions of “Chineseness” operated as a crucial point of contention for the Yangs, Lau, and the media. Yang Lijuan’s pleas and demands for a one-on-one meeting with Lau, and those made by her parents on her behalf, were voiced in cultural and politically nationalistic terms. They were also decried, described, and responded to on the same grounds. Since the major actors in this affair shared vocabulary as well as presumptions of Chineseness, the texts of the Yang Lijuan affair show how the construction of fandom and celebrity in the Sinophone world involves negotiating a definition of Chineseness along political and cultural lines.

The Media Creation of Yang Lijuan

Yang Lijuan first came into the public eye in the pages of the Lanzhou Morning Post in March and April of 2006, a year before the affair’s grim conclusion. With titles such as “I Will Marry No One If I Cannot Meet Andy Lau” and “A Loving Father Tearfully Petitions Andy Lau,” a series of articles described how Yang’s parents had sold their house and contracted debts in order to allow their daughter to chase this star.5

To see Lau in concert or attend fan events, Yang Lijuan had traveled six times to Beijing and three to Hong Kong. Her father, the retired schoolteacher Yang Qinji, had even attempted to sell one of his kidneys to raise money. Though this circumstance provided many of the early headlines, he was prevented from carrying out his plan, the procedure being illegal. The Lanzhou Morning Post, which openly espoused the daughter’s efforts to “make her dream come true,” continued coverage of the affair, trumpeting its success in engaging the nation’s interest in...