In Praise of Chinese Gossip Rags

By Austin Dean

I really like reading Chinese gossip magazines. That is something few foreigners in China do, and even fewer admit to. Inspired by Liz Carter’s recent post about reading Chinese online forums and the importance of moving beyond “a diet of the classics,” I’ve decided to come clean.

When in China, I make regular trips to the local newsstand to buy an odd mix of publications: serious newspapers like Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) and The Economic Observer (Jingji guanchabao) as well as the Chinese equivalent to US magazine. As one guy at a newsstand remarked as he looked at my haul of reading material, “you have strange tastes.”

But it is reading with a purpose. At least, that’s my rationalization.

The chief benefit of reading Chinese gossip magazines is that it gives me a lot to talk about. Conversations with Chinese colleagues and acquaintances in big Chinese cities like Beijing or Shanghai tend to cycle back to the same themes: traffic, pollution, and real estate prices. That’s even more the case when your job is researching, writing, and teaching about Chinese history. When I reveal that information to a new acquaintance in China, the response I’m likely to get is along the lines of “China has 5,000 years of history….” When James Fallows, journalist for The Atlantic, was based in China and heard that phrase, he wondered, “Where is that auto-text key?” It’s an automatic response, and from that point forward, the conversation is unlikely to go in an interesting direction. I find that’s a good time to ask if my interlocutor is watching a current television show or has seen a new movie.

It also opens up an avenue for the unexpected, and it’s a way to build my street cred. These days a lot of foreigners have pretty good Chinese, but when I reveal that I can discuss actress Yao Chen’s divorce (her husband cheated); the seemingly endless shenanigans and feuds of Wang Sicong, son of the richest man in China; and the current crop of reality television shows, it sets me apart. Very few Chinese people expect to have in-depth discussions with foreigners about the parenting techniques of different fathers on the reality television show Dad! Where Are We Going? (For the record, in season three of the show I think boxer Zou Shiming is the best dad).

Of course, I faced an initial problem when I first started reading these magazines — I didn’t know who anyone was. The diet of Chinese gossip rags must be complemented with a committed course of television- and movie-watching. Embracing the “low-brow” is actually a great way to get to a high level of Chinese.

Reading these gossip rags and watching reality television shows also makes it harder to dismiss Chinese entertainment offerings. It is easy — and common — to do this: Chinese television series aren’t as good as Korean dramas, Chinese movies don’t do well overseas, everything always returns to the same topics of the war against Japan and conflict between a mother-in-law and a wife. All that may be true, but millions of people still enjoy it. We should take it seriously (but not too seriously).

At the most cynical level, an acquaintance with Chinese gossip magazines actually makes you quite skeptical of most attempts at “Pekingology” — trying to pin down what leaders in China think and do, and why they do it. Is person X out to get person Y? Do person A and person B get along? Did person C and person D have a feud? What is the exact relationship between person E and person F? Is person G the patron of person H? It doesn’t matter whether you fill in the blanks with the names of movie stars or Chinese Communist Party officials; they make sense either way. The similarities are even more evident with the recent corruption crackdown: the fall of an actor’s reputation and the end of a party official’s career always seem to come back to money and sex.

At a more sinister level, both gossip and Pekingology are liable to analytic pitfalls, chief of which is allowing preconceived notions and opinions to color new information. No, I thought, Yao Chen’s husband could not have cheated on her because I liked the one series he was in and during interviews he seemed like a good guy. But he did. Likewise, it looks like Chinese premier Li Keqiang is being frozen out of power and might even be replaced in 2017. New pieces of information tend to feed into this narrative. Seldom is the opposite question asked: What are the strengths of his position? Gossip and Pekingology suffer from a similar narrative fallacy: connecting disparate facts to form a coherent narrative when perhaps the points are unrelated.

My goal here is not to equate Pekingology with celebrity gossip, but only to point out they are more similar than they seem on the surface.

So, if you’re in China, don’t be afraid to pick up a gossip rag or two. Gossip, counterintuitively, is rather serious business.

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