OTW Guest Post: Zhuwen Zhang

Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.

Zhuwen Zhang (she/her) is a PhD candidate at Texas A&M University. Her interest and area of research are in fandom culture, specifically Chinese media fandoms and Kpop fandoms, and the construction of fan identity through reading and producing fanworks as a participant of fandom. Today, Zhuwen talks about navigating the intersections of cultural identity and fandom, shedding light on the transformative power of fanworks in shaping personal narratives within diverse communities as she discussed in Transformative Works and Cultures.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

I first came upon fandom and fanworks by total accident as a kid in middle school. I read my first fanfiction as a result of exploring different areas of GaiaOnline about two decades ago, but didn’t really understand (or had any idea of) fandom until much later. In fact, I don’t think I really understood what fandom was until I entered the world of Jrock and Kpop years later. Since then I’ve been in and out of various fandoms; I would say I’m actually still relatively new to the Chinese media fandoms as a whole.

How does the consumption and production of fan fiction contribute to the sense of community and identity among Chinese Americans who are fans of Chinese media?

I think there is a sense of connection with parts of ourselves that is—lacking isn’t the correct word—missing (perhaps) when Chinese Americans consume and produce fanworks as part of Chinese media fandoms. Especially growing up in America, the majority of media consumed are very Western, from music to tv shows to movies, and while those are entertaining, there is a distinct lack of representation—rather “accurate” representation might be a better turn of phrase—in those productions.

Although there has been a shifting of the tides in recent years, it is still different than what one finds in Chinese media. Consuming Chinese media, and later producing fanworks, certainly helps Chinese American fans feel closer to the parts of their identity they can’t see reflected in non-Chinese media productions. There are traditions, sartorial styles, and much more that may not all seem super important, but all contribute to build a connection for Chinese Americans to part of their Chinese cultural selves.

Can you discuss any challenges or opportunities that arise when Chinese Americans engage with Chinese media and participate in fan culture within the context of cultural exchanges?

As stated previously, I think Chinese American fan participation in Chinese media fandoms is a great opportunity for fans to find a deeper connection with their Chinese cultural sides. However, one of the challenges that I see arise is sometimes the lack of understanding that Chinese culture is very different than Chinese American culture and that sometimes the values and ways of doing things don’t always make sense to each other. I think an easy example would be the whitewashing of pictures and colorism that exists within Chinese culture (particularly in the Chinese entertainment industry) that is often easily misunderstood by Chinese American fans.

In American culture, colorism is heavily connected to racism, and the assumption is the same for the colorism that exists in Chinese culture. I often see online fan exchanges and discussions over this topic, with many Chinese American fans attributing the filtering of pictures by Chinese celebrities (to show paler skin) as China being racist against darker skin color, when in reality it actually comes down to classism (paler skin equals richer, higher class, and darker skin is equated to working outside in the fields, in the sun), not racism—that is not to say racism doesn’t exist, just not necessarily in this context.

But, more frequent exchanges between fans and more engagement with Chinese media will help Chinese American fans understand these cultural differences some more, and also vice versa (as sometimes portrayal of Chinese Americans in Chinese media aren’t always the best either).

How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

I’ve probably known the OTW longer than I can remember, and likely spent years not even knowing that sites I used were connected to the OTW. The first time I really learned about the OTW and looked into what it actually was came years after I’d already been an active user of AO3; likely around when I actively started reading and learning about fandom culture and the academic interest surrounding it, is when I really got to know the OTW (and happily found that AO3 belonged in that family.

For me, I think the OTW is very important in getting more people to understand fandom and fan culture as more than just maniacal fangirls writing porn/smut about their favorite shows/characters. And in turn, it also is a trove of information for those who want to more seriously understand trends, fanfiction, fanworks, and fandom culture in general.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

As a frequent reader (and occasional writer) of fanfiction, nothing inspires me more than when I am finding and reading new fics. Fanfiction has been a much longer (and larger) part of my life than fandom itself has overall—I’ve been reading fanfiction for longer than I have known the word “fandom.” Whenever I see new stories about my favorite ship or character, I am inspired anew by the innovative ideas fan authors have been able to come up with and then make into something substantial through their writing efforts.

And even when I see fanfiction that may not be as polished or well written as many others, I feel a sense of pride (as a fan) that people are not only brave for posting their writing, but also happy to see the encouragement they receive from others in the comments. There’s nothing more inspiring than the sense of community that exists within fandom—despite the occasional bad apples.

We encourage suggestions from fans for future guest posts, so contact us if you have someone in mind! Or you can visit our Pinboard account to catch up on earlier guest posts.

Guest Post
  1. Gioia commented:

    This was really interesting,talking about different points of view of a culture according to where we grew up from.
    And I love when she says “brave for posting their writing” , this is so important and part of the magic.
    Thank you!

  2. XUXUE commented: