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The evolution of iconic figures in China
By Lu Chang (Shanghai Star)
Updated: 2004-04-21 08:47

Chinese people in their 50s or older probably remember all the "Labour Models" from past decades, people who were once their heroes and examples for them to follow. For those in their 20s, however, impressions of these "models" are based on little more than pictures seen in their school textbooks.

The outdated national icon, Lei Feng, who was devoted to serving the people. [file photo]
During the years in which this generation grew up, people have begun to prefer pop songs to speeches about the stories of "Labour Models" or heroes who fight against villains. They have also started to stick pictures of movie stars on their notebooks and hang posters of them in their rooms.

The evolution of icon figures in Chinese society after 1949 - from labour models to entertainment stars - has developed drastically, especially after 1978 when the country started its economic reforms.

As with many other countries in the world, "celebrity culture" has swept across the community, greatly influencing people's systems of values.

People today are not unfamiliar with scenes of zealous fans chasing after stars at concerts or at airports.

Celebrity worship

Yet until recently, regulations forbade governmental units from using public funds to invite famous stars to attend provincial promotions or festivals.

How things have changed! CCTV reporters have covered the stories from a number of provinces where millions of yuan have been spent inviting stars to perform at peach blossom or persimmon festivals, for example.

F4, a Taiwan popular band, is the smash hit among the young people nowadays. [file photo]
The price list of popular stars has also been exposed, with the payment for one performance by a top star reaching 300,000 yuan (US$36,000).

"China is in the process of a change from advocating heroism to secularization or rationalization," said Yu Hai, associate professor in the Sociology Department of Fudan University. "Western societies began this evolution in the 18th century, alongside urbanization and industrialization."

Yu said China's economic reforms since 1978, led by Deng Xiaoping, had actually helped to change and reinforce the Chinese recognition of individual happiness, including such aspects as health, family and personal success.

Zhao Wei rose to a super star overnight as playing in a TV series "Pearl-Returned Princess." [file photo]
"In the past, people were respected depending on their contributions to the country and their loyalty to the Party, while now in the country, the more wealthy someone is, the more respect they can obtain," Yu said.

As Max Weber, founder of modern sociology, said, the three main principles of social stratifications are money, fame and power.

"Entertainment stars are favourably placed on at least two of these three indexes. They would certainly be focused upon and envied," he said.

The group of people considered to be celebrities is expanding in China. Ever more people have begun to take an interest in various "Chinese richest" lists.

Yu said in China wealthy people, such as successful entrepreneurs, might also easily gain political power.

"If they have succeeded in their chosen business, they may also be themselves chosen as representatives of the People's Congress," he said.

In this process, the media in China now plays an important role.

"In the 1950s or 1960s, there were also plenty of movie stars who people loved. However, they didn't have any commercial status at that time. Therefore, the media were just focused on their films, performances and acting," Yu said.

But nowadays, much media coverage strays into the area of celebrities' private lives, since this is what the audience is increasingly interested in.

Out of consideration for profits, the media tries to meet the audience's needs. Yet this is now overdone and has negatively influenced the community, according to Yu.

Too much attention to celebrity lives plays up the importance of money, fame and power in a person's life, even those these are only enjoyed by a minority of people.

"China is confronting a situations of extreme polarization between rich and the poor, over-exposure of celebrities could easily cause conflicts between the two groups," Yu said. "That could also encourage corruption among officials and other crimes."

The mandatory subscriptions to some Party newspapers have been stopped. In order to earn profits, newspaper groups have set up tabloids full of stories covering various aspect of celebrities' lives.

In some Western countries, Yu said, churches had a great influence on people's morality and values, yet China does not have the same institutions to guide people.

"Chinese people should know that money, fame and power are important, but not the only things people should chase after. Therefore, the media, education departments and social organizations should play correct roles," he said.

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