Political Love in the CCP’s China6 min read

How nationalistic ‘fan circles’ are redefining love of country – Ting Guo

Ed: This post was written as the third in a series of three posts about different conceptions of love in China through the ages; the first two were published at Sixth Tone. The first post draws out ancient and Confucian notions of ai 爱 as “benevolence,” as well as the coining of aiqing 爱情 as “romantic love” in the late Qing and aiguo 爱国 or “love of country” in the early Republic. The second post focuses on Christian and revolutionary notions of love, including a reprising of the ancient notion of bo’ai 博爱 or “universal love.” The third post, published below and not at Sixth Tone, continues the story after 1949…

The Italian historian Emilio Gentile observed that in modern politics, it’s possible for secular political entities to become objects of faith, love and loyalty. Love is an emotion in which bottom-up agency and top-down power can converge, even as political players seek to manipulate and monopolize its expression. The result is what a different scholar, William Reddy, calls an “emotional regime,” in which the state dominates the discourse of love.

It is generally believed that, after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, the relative social importance of romantic love diminished on the Chinese mainland. During the early Communist period, attaching value to any aspect of private life – much less personal or sexual relationships – was considered by the state to be “bourgeois,” and therefore antagonistic to socialist society. Nor were spontaneous expressions of individual emotions encouraged. In one example from 1972 from anthropologist Yan Yunxiang’s book Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999, a young man tries to express his feelings to a woman, but instead stammers, “Let me help you sharpen your sickle.”

That’s not to say love disappeared. Instead, these years saw the term transform into a key political language, one which the CCP continues to use today to shape the patriotic devotion of its citizens. As opposed to Sun Yat-sen’s bo’ai 博爱 or “universal love,” the mobilization of emotions in Chinese political discourse after 1949 – as well as the various ritual-like campaigns that reinforced the connection between passion and politics – are best expressed through a different term: re’ai 热爱 or “ardent love.” 

In the most vivid and direct sense, re’ai manifested in the personal cult of Mao himself. To take just one example, the “Four Boundlesses” expected of the Chinese people were: boundless ardent love, boundless faith, boundless adoration, and boundless loyalty to Chairman Mao, Mao Zedong Thought, and Chairman Mao’s proletarian revolutionary line.

Although the Mao cult was practiced in political form rather than through traditional religious observations like burning incense, the CCP nevertheless found ways to re-appropriate rituals, languages and images familiar to the masses to get its message across. In so doing, it was able to construct a new kind of political religion with language and symbols already known to the people.

After 1949, ‘love’ transformed into a key political language, one which the CCP continues to use today to shape the patriotic devotion of its citizens”

The White-Haired Girl, a popular revolutionary opera from the Mao era, is a good example. The drama, likely based on an earlier folktale, tells of a peasant girl who was abused by a landowner before retreating to a secluded life in the caves, where her hair turns white overnight. Admiring her tenacious strength and fearing her seemingly magical transformation, local peasants worship the white-haired girl as a deity.

A scene from ‘The White-Haired Girl’ (Wikicommons)

The ghostly features of the white-haired girl symbolize the feminized and victimized peasant class and the Chinese nation. Her salvation comes in the form of a male Communist soldier, who brings her back into the sun – a symbol closely linked to Chairman Mao at the time. As the CCP emerged as the liberator of the Chinese nation in the late 1940s, the highly gendered symbolism of the story served to establish the Party’s legitimacy as a new embodiment of heavenly order and justice. After 1949, it remained useful for strengthening the power of the CCP over its subjects and later directly contributed to the cult of Mao.

This discourse not not disappear after Mao’s death. Although private, sentimental love reemerged in the reform era, most visibly in pop music, ai has continued to be used to encourage and strengthen people’s devotion to the political regime. Now, with gender equality under increasing threat, a new conception of “love,” centered on the family and primarily concerned with social stability and national strength, offers cover for a resurgent patriarchy and the development of masculine nationalism. This can be seen in the rise of films that dramatize militant, macho, chauvinist male heroes, such as the Rambo-esque Wolf Warrior movies.

Then there is the younger generation. As the journalist Luwei Rose Luqiu has argued, the party’s tightening control over China’s education system and flow of information, combined with increasing repression, have contributed to an apparent rise of nationalist sentiment among younger Chinese. As a university student in China in the early 2000s, I remember watching documentaries about China’s political past on YouTube and connecting to people from other parts of the world through Facebook. Both platforms are inaccessible today.

Yet the digital era has also opened up new possibilities for combining private and public love. So-called fan circles (fanjuan 饭圈) – groups of mostly young female fans of a star or fictional character – have started to coalesce behind a new idol: China itself. Most of them appear to be young women motivated by a genuine embrace of state nationalism, as opposed to being government-backed propagandists (as was once the case when it came to visible nationalism online).

Building on this phenomenon, the state-run China Daily newspaper launched a trending ‘super-topic’ hashtag on the state-sanctioned microblogging platform Weibo: “#WeAllHaveAnIdolCalledChina.” The platform even gave rise to a personification of the nation known as azhong gege 阿中哥, or “brother China,” who needs to be protected, defended and unconditionally loved.

Young female fans have started to coalesce behind a new love idol: China itself”

The result has been the emergence of a new kind of cyber nationalism. In the words of one fan: “There’s no idol more important than my country.” These so-called fandom nationalists often take the initiative, launching campaigns including “online expeditions” against international social media platforms in defense of China.

At the same time, fan culture also implies a kind of submission by fans to their idol. Fandom nationalism can be easily mobilized by the state, which is happy to take advantage of fan circle culture by regulating, shaping and dominating the ways their nationalistic fervors are expressed. By giving nationalistic fan circles formal recognition and explicit endorsement, the state allows their members to feel acknowledged – indeed, loved.

Over the past hundred-plus years, the concept of “love” has been introduced, adapted and engineered in the process of building and rebuilding a modern China. Fan circle culture vividly illustrates how, even today, love remains a powerful political tool – one driven and shaped by top-down and bottom-up forces alike. ∎

This is the last post in a series; read the first and second posts at Sixth Tone.