How the rise of “2D culture” helps Chinese teenagers escape pressure and find purpose – Tanner Greer
“Most people have no idea I do this,” said Wu Na, beaming, as costumed conference-goers stopped to take her picture. The 14-year-old was wearing a thin cotton cloak over a knee-length tunic. As I talked to her, a boy walked into the convention hall sporting spiked hair, a neon-purple trench coat, and a bare chest. Like the hundreds of other cosplaying teenagers in the convention hall, he was not going to allow Beijing’s frigid January temperatures to cramp his style. “I have trouble connecting with most other people at school,” Wu reflected. “But in the two-dimensional world there is a sense of community I can’t find anywhere else. My second-dimension friends mean so much more to me than my third-dimension friends do.”
Wu is just one of the hundreds of millions wrapped up in what young Chinese call the “second dimension” (二次元). The closest English parallel is the ACG, or animation-comic-gaming sector, the market’s favorite acronym for a certain class of Japanese pop culture exports: anime, manga, and the merchandise inspired by them. The two-dimensional world Chinese teenagers such as Wu Na live in includes all of these elements, but their self-styled “second dimension” extends further – and is not limited to Japanese ACG, also factoring in anime-styled cartoons drawn in Korea, China and the United States.
Chinese fans also include a wide variety of non-animated activities and productions as part of the second dimension: video games that embrace the anime aesthetic; music videos of computer generated, 2D-styled pop singers (known as Vocaloids); manga festivals; cosplay costumes and events; and web forums. As young Chinese use it, “2D” is not a genre or a type of product. It is not just something one watches or buys – it is a world one visits, lives in, and joins. It is both a culture and, in the minds of its inhabitants, a place. Fans such as Wu Na contrast their “2D life” – which takes place mostly on the internet, or at 2D/anime festivals (漫展) or conventions – with their “3D life” in the ordinary world.
My second-dimension friends mean so much more to me than my third-dimension friends” – Wu Na
The size of this two-dimensional world astounds. Consumers of this culture, broadly conceived, number 270 million in China, according to a March 2017 article on Sohu (with 90 million “core users” according to newer data). A 2018 report by the Ministry of Information and Technology estimated that there were 220 million Chinese who regularly streamed “2D” content online or played web-based “2D” games (out of close to 750 million Chinese internet users). These numbers include a wide range of content, and do not distinguish between cartoons aimed at children and the Japanese-style content consumed by teenagers and young adults, but the trend is clear enough. As an industry report by Qianzhan Intelligence remarked in 2017: “The 2nd dimension used to be referred to as a ‘marginal subculture.’ Now it is simply called ‘youth culture.’”
The video streaming site Bilibili – sometimes called “B-Station” by its Chinese users – is the central web hub for this culture. The broadcasting rights it has obtained for hundreds of anime programs is part of its success, but it is the millions of user-generated commentaries, reaction videos, cosplay guides and music videos that form the core of its appeal. According one recent quarterly report, 77.5 million unique users visit B-Station every month, each spending an average of 75 minutes every day on the site. Then there are the five million young fans who not only casually watch 2D shows or play the odd 2D game on the subway, but eagerly spend millions on 2D culture-themed merchandising, obsessively follow and comment on fan websites, and throw themselves into live events. An impressive display of the zeal and market power of this group is the China International Cartoon and Animation Festival, held each year in Hangzhou. In 2018 the festival pulled in 1.3 million attendees. (In contrast, last year’s New York Comic Con broke an American record with only 200,000 visitors.) Chinese tech giants Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu and Netease have been quick to jump in on the bonanza, investing millions on IP and distribution platforms to profit from a market expected to grow to $33 billion by 2020.
A 2018 market report conducted by iResearch laid out the demographic features of typical Chinese 2D fans: they are more likely to be female than male, and half are younger than 24. 2D culture is strongest in China’s megacities: over 60% of all 2D users live in major metropolitan areas ranked in the three largest tiers of Chinese cities, such as Nanjing or Shanghai. Only 14% come from the countryside or from cities too small to be included in national rankings. By and large, as indicated by my interviews, these kids finish high school. Many go to college. They are the hope of economists trying to push China towards a consumption-based economy, and of the industrialists who want to see China as the technological superpower of tomorrow. They are the journalists, artists, scientists, salespeople, programmers, stockjobbers and diplomats of China’s future. And they are totally obsessed with cartoons from Japan.
What is it that draws these overwhelmingly urban, educated, middle-class Chinese youth to the second dimension? Ask this question to them, and you will hear the same word again and again: meihao (美好) – a compound of the Chinese words for beautiful and good, used to describe not just physical beauty, but a sense of idyll, wonder or perfection.
“Our 3D world cannot compare to the meihao of the second dimension,” explained Sun Wei, a college freshman who volunteers her weekends managing booths at manga meetups. “Only in the second dimension you can see a truly meihao sort of life.”
Wei Junyi, a sophomore at Tsinghua University, echoed the idea: “I feel that Japanese animation uses real life as a blueprint for its characters – but their life is far more meihao than real life can be. For example, when I was young I used to watch the anime Cardcaptor Sakura. All the characters in that story are elementary school students. When I watched it I was also in elementary school. But school life in the anime was just so much more… meihao.”
They are the journalists, artists, scientists and diplomats of China’s future. And they are totally obsessed with cartoons from Japan”
The 2D world appeals to a generation of young Chinese pining for a sense of beauty and wonder. It is not hard to understand why. Chinese cities are vasts sprawls of cement, asphalt and steel. The average Chinese teenager spends the greenest years of their youth shuttling between the small, cramped apartment they live in and the austere classrooms they are schooled in. Shows and computer games are often the only real refuge from the monotony and drabness.
The obvious unreality of the 2D world makes it an ideal place to escape to. Japanese animators excel at imbuing their creations with an otherworldly sense of color and vividness. The personalities of anime characters are larger than life, and their features are made graceful through impossible proportions. The universe created by 2D game designers, animators and artists is filled with a sense of elegance, meaning, and breathtaking beauty – in short, a sense of meihao – that cannot be found in any Chinese city. “I was a fan of Marvel movies before,” Guo Jinghua, an 18-year-old Beijinger majoring in art history, told me. “But they involve so many real actors – it is all just too much like real life. Japanese animation is less engaged with reality. The difference between it and normal life is so much clearer.”
The pampered selfishness of 21st-century youth is a common trope in Chinese media. A decade ago the phrase “little emperors” was the stock caricature of the Chinese child, meant to describe a generation of only children who had sole claim on the affections and attention of two parents and four grandparents. Yet as these children entered early adulthood, emperorhood came at the cost of strict control and a punishing daily study schedule. Wu Na, the cosplaying 14-year-old, framed her participation in terms of escape: “I originally started spending lots of time in the 2D world because my life had so much pressure. Before this,” she gestured to her outfit, “I didn’t know how to relax. It was just study, rules, study, and stress.”
At first glance, 2D culture does not seem optimized for relaxation. It demands an unusual commitment from even its most casual participants. User participation on Bilibili is an excellent example: stream an anime episode on Bilibili and your video screen will be flooded with hundreds of moving “bullet comments” zipping across the screen. But not just anyone can leave their bullets on Bilibili – to register, users are required to first ace a 100-question test on site etiquette and 2D culture trivia. If you cannot answer questions such as “The vocaloid singer Hatsune Miku is based on the voice of which Japanese voice actor?” (A: Fujita Aya) and “In the anime series Full Metal Alchemist, the character Xiao Mei is always accompanied by what animal?” (A: a pet panda) you cannot register. Even casual engagement with the 2D world requires mastery of an esoteric array of 2D themed slang, memes and trivia.
But the baroque nature of 2D culture has its benefits. With codewords and inside jokes, Chinese teenagers have built a sheltered space that lies beyond the eyes – or at least the understanding – of parents and teachers. Real life in cramped apartments, watched over by seniors, offer few such spaces. To live as a middle-class Chinese teenager is also to live under a deluge of inspirational platitudes, moralisms and admonitions to deny oneself frivolity, fun or boyfriends for the sake of a better future. Sentimental, jingoistic or slapstick Chinese television offers no escape, and online entertainment such as live-streaming is often glitzy, flashy and frivolous.
Between bland didactics and mindless spectacle, Chinese teenagers are eager to watch anything that encourages them to think deeply without hammering home a message”
Anime and other 2D media, however, is beautiful instead of loud. What it lacks in spectacle it makes up for in style. Married to its unique aesthetic is a willingness to wander into a world of moral grays. Popular anime shows, including Deathnote and Saga of Tanya the Evil, feature protagonists who walk the line between villainy and heroism. Films such as Your Name and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time delight in fusing romantic comedy with thoughtful fantasy. Even the sunniest and most innocent Studio Ghibli films present their lessons with a delicacy hard to find on Chinese television. Forced into a media environment that alternates between bland didactics and mindless spectacle, Chinese teenagers – especially more educated ones – are eager to watch anything that encourages them to think deeply without hammering home a message.
“Chinese schools discourage the development of individual personalities,” 17-year-old Song Xiuying told me in one of Beijing’s many cram schools. A longing for the distinctive and unique was what first sparked her interest in 2D culture. “One thing important in the 2D world is that every major character has their own theme color, their own personality. Even their hair color will be different. But most important of all, each of these characters has something special – a unique experience, or skill, or belief. Here in China students lack all of this. We want to be special. But the opportunities are so limited.”
Song has never cosplayed or bought 2D-themed merchandise. But despite her assurances that she was “not that much of a fan,” she admitted that every English name she had used since eighth grade had been inspired by characters in various anime sagas. “The 2D world lets us re-narrate our lives,” she explained. “From it we can borrow the personality that our real self lacks.”
It is telling that so many millions of young Chinese have entangled their identity with this world of 2D media and culture. In no other place has Japanese animation been so explosively popular: even in Japan, anime is perceived as “nerdy” (the realm of otaku) whereas in China it is mainstream, in the same way that in America sci-fi is seen as geeky but superhero movies are not. In China, the young generation suffers under so much pressure to sacrifice their youth for the expectations of their elders. The 2D revolution is a testament to a generation yearning for something more.
Song agreed that sounded about right. “This 2D stuff,” she said, “it’s a quest for meaning.” ∎