- Cultural Performance and the Ethnography of Ku in China
In the summer of 2005, we returned to Beijing, a city where we had studied and lived for nearly seven years in the 1990s, in the wake of the prodemocracy movement. It was also where we conducted fieldwork for the next two years, on issues of urban youth culture. These issues included aggressive young people, intimate violence, computer-mediated relationship, and subcultural practices. Our friends urged us to watch the television show Chaoji nüsheng (Super Girls) and the nationwide electronic voting (through cell phone or the Internet) for the show’s competitors. We were struck by the scenes of group weeping in this show. Our friends and other young people whom we met in Beijing also responded to these scenes, usually with unexpected outbursts of tears.
Super Girls was launched by Hunan Satellite Television in 2004, the year after the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic. [End Page 409] Its popularity greatly increased during its second season. According to CVSC-Sopres Media Research’s reports on television audiences, during the 2005 summer season more than 20 million people watched the program every Friday.1 This was more than 10 percent of China’s television viewers. China’s major Internet portals, such as Sohu, Sina, and Netease, provided online spaces for dialogues between television audiences and Internet users. Many blogs and virtual communities in the bulletin board system discussed the Super Girls show and mass-mediated subculture. Many critics claimed that Super Girls “sparked a nationwide mania” by creating “a reflection of reality and of the situation of ordinary people, which [provided] emotional satisfaction for the viewers.”2
Although Super Girls was not filmed in Beijing (the show was produced mainly in Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province), nonetheless, we clearly felt that viewers in Beijing went through an uneasy, emotional chaos. It underpinned the testimonies connected to the social imagination of performative tears and imagined youth communities, interplaying with the entertainment marketplace.
Super Girls was transparently manipulative and emotionally crass. Yet it did succeed in moving national audiences to tears. To a certain extent, the nationwide participation in crying, both in public in front of strangers, and in the privacy of the living room, underlined the ambivalence of emotional expressions. This raises many questions: Why did people feel so touched, to the point of tears, by a commercially contrived and shallow television show? Did this mediated performance function as a possible narrative for the individual history that had been trapped in the superficialities of media culture? Did it reach new heights in a range of neoliberal collectivities carried out in the postsocialist media that were directed at the deconstruction of emotion in the political discourse of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)? Was there any intimate linkage between the ever-present concept of crying and women’s tears in Chinese culture? As we stood gazing at these far-off crying faces, or walked by Super Girls volunteer groups who paraded around the Xidan Cultural Plaza nearby the Tiananmen Square to convince strangers to vote for their favorite Super Girls contestant, or even as we finished collecting data and analyzed Super Girls footage in order to write a paper on [End Page 410] memories of national history that we went through personally, we were still so confused by the emotional moment that, eventually, our academic rationality collapsed and we shed tears for Super Girls. Also, we could not help but notice that the most significant selling points of Super Girls, the haixuan (village election) and PK (player killing) were obviously political cultural parodies. They recaptured a sense of entertainment-masked democracy in response to young people’s desire, commodified daily experience, and the invisible trajectory of crying that we could own as basic individual rights.
Haixuan, borrowed from political vocabulary, refers to voting by direct ballot at the village level, which is the only democratic poll in the Chinese countryside. Haixuan was the primary method for selecting participants for Super Girls. Five cities were established as preselection sites for five geographic areas: Changsha (mid-South China), Hangzhou (East China), Chengdu (Southwest...