Fandom beyond borders

China Daily Global | Updated: 2023-10-11 08:36
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The cosplayer Yunqi (pseudonym) creates various looks inspired by the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien's works. YUNQI/FOR CHINA DAILY

Around 70 years ago, the esteemed British writer J.R.R. Tolkien forged the enchanting realm of Middle-earth in his monumental masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Since its inception, this fantastical world has been captivating fans across the globe.

More than 200 fans of Tolkien's imaginary world recently convened in Beijing. They gathered to celebrate The Lord of the Rings, along with its companion works such as The Hobbit and The Silmarillion. Some dressed as characters from Middle-earth, while others showcased Tolkien-themed artwork and shared insights on the intricacies of Tolkien's invented languages — Quenya and Sindarin.

Notably, the entire event was conceived, arranged, and promoted by the fans themselves, a manifestation of their creativity and a complementary addition to the already vibrant Middle-earth fan culture.

AndreaW (pseudonym), a 26-year-old from South China's Guangdong province, served as one of the convention's organizers and is a fan herself. However, she doesn't feel right calling herself a "fan".

"Nowadays, the term 'fan' carries some negative connotations on social media, and I feel that being identified as a fan might lead to specific obligations, such as contributing digital labor to boost popularity or controlling commentary," she said. "But the truth is, many admirers, including myself, focus more on our creative works rather than highly organized groups."

When discussing fans, one might think of fanquan culture, which literally translates to "fan circles". These fans are typically dedicated supporters of emerging idols, actively contributing to their rising popularity. On the other hand, another category of fans exists, who, with less online visibility and influence, find solitary enjoyment. These fans are usually devoted to various media franchises, including books, games, comics, films, or TV shows.

Li Sixue, a 32-year-old from Northeast China's Jilin province, falls into the latter category.

Having been a fan of Star Trek, X-Men, and Tolkien's works since the release of the first The Lord of the Rings movie in Chinese theaters in 2002, Li turned this passion into a research topic for her PhD at Tsinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication.

Calling herself an "academic fan", Li aspires to document the development of media fan groups in China and dispel the stigma and misconceptions surrounding them.

"I accept a fan as one of my identities, and I want to let more people know that notorious labels shouldn't be placed on the fans as most of them are wonderful young people," she said.

Li emphasizes the value that fans place on privacy — sometimes a potential member needs to pass an exam or respond to cues correctly before joining a WeChat group for fans.

"Fans want platforms to be pure spaces for content rather than for social or commercial purposes. They prefer not to be observed or judged by outsiders," Li notes. But this doesn't mean that they are cohesive groups that are closely connected. Instead, these fans use online platforms to share their creations and show appreciation for others' works.

The internet has been playing a pivotal role in fostering communication and creation among fans. "As a fan, I haven't experienced the time before the internet. But I've read that fans used to make pen pals with each other and subscribe to 'fanzines' — magazines made by and for fans," Li said.

Early fan culture on the internet largely consisted of forums, chat rooms, and literary websites like Hongxiu and Jinjiang. In the 2010s, the advent of fan fiction website AO3 and social media apps like Sina Weibo and Lofter marked a significant shift, becoming central to the "digital fandom" era.

Li also observes a distinct trait among media fans — a strong desire for creation and a do-it-yourself attitude.

Creators typically share their original content through fan fiction, fan art, cosplays, and various fan-centric activities. Some take the initiative to create group chats, organize events, produce themed podcasts or video shows, and even translate products related to their fandom, such as Tolkien-themed board games. Those who immerse themselves in textual research and authentication are affectionately referred to as "Tolkien enthusiasts".

For fans who prefer to observe rather than create, participation in events like screening sessions, reading parties, and comprehensive conventions allows them to engage with the fan community.

Community contributions

AndreaW has a lot of experience arranging fan activities. "I'm not excellent at writing or painting, but quite good at planning and organizing. I find my way to express my affection and understanding of the Middle-earth and I view the events as my works of art, too."

She organized an online fan event called 'Funeral Celebrated' about one month ago, all on her own. This year marks the 50th death anniversary of Tolkien, and AndreaW invited admirers of the author's books to create fan literary and art pieces in his memory. One after another, they posted their works online every 15 or 30 minutes, building up a sequence from Aug 27 to Sept 2.Altogether, about 250 people participated in this activity, creating more than 300 fan works, including fiction, poems, illustrations, and mashup videos.

"The event is not held to bring greater attention to Tolkien's amazing works, but to show that the world he created has been expanding even to this day as our admirers keep adding to the glory of his themes. So he can rest in peace," AndreaW wrote on her Sina Weibo account.

She is also proud of another large-scale fan project called "Chinese Wiki: The Lord of the Rings". As one of the earliest creators of the Wikipedia-like website, AndreaW calls on all Tolkien admirers to contribute to the site's topics. Since 2015, they have been approaching the goal of 10,000 entries that introduce characters, history, geography, adaptations, and every other piece of information that could be linked to Tolkien's world.

"During my 12 years of experience as a Tolkien admirer, I've seen friends with the same taste and hobby come and go. As some grow older and withdraw from being a fan, younger devotees fill in, demonstrating the long-lasting charm of the content," said AndreaW. "As for me, I find the fandom a place to rest my heart and mind, where I hope to dwell forever."

Fandom to career

Writing fan fiction is a common starting point for being a fan, but Mia Mao (pseudonym) from Shenzhen, Guangdong province, has decided to make it her lifelong career.

Mao believes that reading stories is usually an enjoyable experience, but there are times when readers feel unsatisfied and are inspired to start writing their own fiction. Ever since she penned her first X-Men fan fiction at the age of 13, the now 19-year-old has continued to pursue her passion for writing. Two years ago, she began crafting fan fiction related to Middle-earth, which, in turn, led her to delve into medieval European history. This exploration prompted her to switch her university major from Chinese to English literature and apply to a UK school where Tolkien himself once taught.

"I want to become a professional writer in the future," she said.

Mao also believes that Tolkien's fantasies provide a good illustration of the "iceberg theory "put forth by US writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). Tolkien created a magnificent and expansive world, while also leaving much unsaid, allowing readers to infer.

This offers abundant opportunities for fan writers to fill the gap. Many of them write "crossover fiction", a term referring to fan creators merging two or more fictional universes into one — think of it as X-Men meeting Harry Potter.

Mao is now working on a full-length novel derived from Tolkien's series, which will comprise 30 chapters. The original works depict a timeline of seven ages, stretching from the birth of the imagined world to modern times. She aims to breathe life into untold stories and delve into the affection between her beloved characters in greater detail.

As Mao has pointed out, "shipping" fictional couples — meaning fans' desires for characters to be in romantic or other relationships-serves as a strong motivation for many fan fiction creators.

Bringing characters alive

While other fan creators express themselves through writing and art, cosplayers dress up as their favorite fictional characters and bring them to life.

There are mainly two kinds of cosplayers — one is made up of social media influencers who can earn clicks and money through cosplay, and the other consists of ordinary fans of certain content who do cosplay as a hobby.

Yunqi (pseudonym), 30, from Guangdong province, classifies herself in the second category. "I do cosplay out of pure admiration and fondness for the characters," she said. "Through disguising myself as the roles, I experience and taste other people's lives."

She has created six different looks from Tolkien's books and adaptations. She has also cosplayed as Zhang Qiling, Eryuehong, and other roles in Chinese novel series The Grave Robbers' Chronicles.

"In cosplay, not only do the costumes and stylings matter, but also the manners and performance," said Yunqi. According to her, acting out a character's nature is part of the fun of cosplay.

"Cosers voice out their understanding of the original works through their distinct designs and arrangements," she said.

Yunqi and five other cosplayers once combined Middle-earth characters with hanfu, or Chinese-style costumes from ancient times. "We found that the clothing in The Lord of the Rings movies is based on Celtic clothing, which shares many similarities with our hanfu. So we thought it might be interesting to bring in some oriental flavor to this Western fantasy," she said.

However, creating a cosplay look can be time-consuming and expensive. From designing and making costumes and wigs, doing makeup, shooting photos and videos, to post-production, one look can cost several months and thousands of yuan. Even if the cosplayer asks tailors, photographers, and other professionals to help, they usually try to do as much of the work on their own as they can.

Homura Yan (pseudonym), another cosplayer and fan of Tolkien's works, has become a skillful craftswoman through cosplaying.

When preparing the clothing and weapon of Sauron, a Dark Lord in The Lord of the Rings, she found that tailor-made products could cost as high as about 30,000 yuan, so she decided to make the armor and hammer by herself. For around two months, she spent over 10 hours every day learning 3D modeling, prop fabrication, and tailoring in order to complete her final look.

Cosplayers, activity planners, fan fiction writers... Fans have been continuously participating in constructing content and culture around their favorite franchises. Just as Tolkien himself stated in a letter in 1951, he would "draw some of the great tales in fullness and leave many only placed in the scheme and sketched".

"The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama," he wrote.


The cosplayer Yunqi (pseudonym) creates various looks inspired by the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien's works. YUNQI/FOR CHINA DAILY



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