No Earrings, Tattoos or Cleavage: Inside China’s War on Fun

“If a male entertainer who chose to dye his hair and sport tattoos, earrings, a long ponytail … appears on a variety show, what will be left on the screen?” asked an entertainment blog named No. 3 Theater Inspector. Two years ago, the blog noted, that entertainer would have been considered normal.

The entertainment industry has no choice but to go along. Last year, regulators shut down over 6,000 websites and over two million online accounts and social media groups. When one short video app, Miaopai, was shut down and then reinstated, the founder promised to shake up the app by adhering to core socialist values and creating positive content, according to an internal letter that was published in Chinese media.

The dramatic loss of edge of China’s first hip-hop show, “The Rap of China,” offers another cautionary tale. It was by no means critical of society or current affairs. Still, rappers dissed each other and argued with the judges in its first season in 2017, giving Chinese viewers a glimpse of the swagger and rebelliousness of hip-hop.

Then came the crackdown. A co-champion of the show, Wang Hao, who raps under the name PG One, apologized last year after accusations from the state media and the Communist Party Youth League that lyrics in one of his older tracks encouraged drug use. When he was accused by entertainment blogs of having a relationship with a married actress, streaming services pulled his music.

When the second season of “The Rap of China” was aired, the tone of the show changed. The contestants rapped about love, dreams and family. IQiyi, the video platform that produced the show, changed the name to “China’s New Rap,” explaining that the new name nodded to a new era for China.

To Lippi Zhao, an engineer and a fan of hip-hop music in the city of Xi’an, the second season was both lame and ironic. Both finalists that season were Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. The authorities there have forced as many as one million Muslims, most of them Uighurs, into detention camps. “The Rap of China” didn’t touch the subject.

“They had to know what their own people were going through,” said Mr. Zhao. “But they had to do everything to avoid the elephant in the room while competing in the show.”

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