China’s pop culture scene: Zhang Yixing

Zhang Yixing's new memoir, 《而立24》(Photo: Blogger's own)
Zhang Yixing’s new memoir, 《而立24》(Photo: Blogger’s own)

Wandering into a local bookshop early one morning, my eyes fell on a copy of《而立24》, the debut autobiography/memoir of rising Chinese superstar Zhang Yixing (张艺兴). If you’d have asked me three years ago who he was, I admit I wouldn’t have had the foggiest, yet before I knew it, I was dutifully handing over the money to the cashier and tucking my new purchase into my bag. After all, having read reports that the book was sold out in many parts of China, as well as the book’s pride-of-place display next under a shining spotlight, I thought I had better take my chance. According to an article in the International Business Times (links below), 《而立24》 has broken records by selling over 68,000 copies within the first half hour of its release.* Its title, 《而立24》 (“Standing firmly on the ground at 24”) presumably derives from the Confucian verse of “三十而立” interpreted to mean “at thirty, I planted my feet firm upon the ground,”** ascertaining your goals and aspirations. As will be discussed, Zhang Yixing may be a pop star in South Korea, but his roots in China are easy to see.

My motivations to read the book weren’t the result of the fancy displays and free fold-out posters, and this isn’t (yet) another book review post. Instead, I’m aiming to explore my interest in Zhang Yixing as a performer, his comparatively modern journey to Chinese stardom, as well as his subsequent career in China and abroad.

The fact that Zhang Yixing is able to release a fast-selling book covering his own rise to fame (as well as several fancy monochrome photocards) isn’t the only indication of his expanding presence in China’s show-business world. As Weibo’s trending topics list reminded me, his birthday was recently celebrated with an exclusive concert in Shanghai, complete with personalised balloons and purple glowsticks to complete the lilac-themed bonanaza.***

So why should personalised celebrations matter in the case of one popstar? The answer is simply that Zhang Yixing’s recent career has not been an exclusively solo journey.

Those familiar to kpop will undoubtedly know Zhang Yixing under the guise of his EXO pseudonym, ‘Lay’. Since their debut in 2012, Lay/Zhang Yixing has been a consistent member of the enormously popular and slickly-dressed Korean-Chinese boyband EXO, fiercely adored by millions of fans (EXO-L’s) across Asia and worldwide. However, after a series of highly publicised departures he remains as the only Chinese member to date from an original four. Becoming the sole native speaker of Chinese in a 9-man performance act has undoubtedly caused a bit of a spotlight to be cast upon him.

Interestingly, while his former bandmates from China, namely Huang Zitao (黄子韬), Wu Yifan (吴亦凡), and Lu Han (鹿晗) have embarked on solo projects after departing from EXO, Zhang Yixing appears to be doing likewise whilst also maintaining a strict schedule of rehearsals, appearances and performances with EXO in South Korea. It is this demanding split work schedule that can be argued to be setting him apart in the pop world.

His solo projects in China have included regular television appearances, a handful of upcoming feature length films, as well as solo music projects regularly documented on his social media accounts and in press interviews.

The natural popularity of smartly-dressed pop stars aside, Zhang Yixing seems to epitomise the favourable aspects of showbusiness, that being hard work and perseverance. His own Weibo name is @努力努力再努力x (‘work hard, work hard, and work hard again’), whilst the tagline of his book reads ‘strive to be better’ and ‘never give up’. I’m intrigued as to whether this strong sense of discipline is merely personal character or a natural reaction to the constant hailstorm of pressures and demands as an increasingly international celebrity.

Back in China, I am surprised at how many people are familiar with and even hold opinions on Zhang Yixing, even in smaller cities away from China’s bustling East coast. No matter the age or occupation, many people were happy to recount the date of his birthday, his television show appearances, all with smiles and smatterings of praise. Of course, that is not to say that I have formulated any kind of average or statistic. Rather, I have merely been surprised that my assumptions of Zhang Yixing as popular with a younger, kpop-loving crowd aren’t entirely accurate. Even for those who haven’t been familiar with his career, they claim to recognise him from media, posters, and television spots.

It is little wonder that this is the case, considering the huge amounts of domestic exposure afforded to Zhang Yixing. Besides maintaining a firm fan-base in South Korea and abroad with bi-lingual Instagram posts and EXO media coverage, Mr Zhang is also seen to regularly post on China’s social-media hub Weibo, often composing long, thoughtful expressions of thanks in Mandarin to fans, as well as reaching out to other mainland Chinese celebrities and participating in online trending topics.**** It is these interactions that can be argued to solidify his popularity both abroad and at home in simultaneously being in touch with various fan bases, rather than compromising one over the other as can happen with other performers.

This widely spread fanbase brings me to the point of my post, being that Zhang Yixing is worth following not only for his performing prowess but also for his unique journey to fame. I am keen to observe how he maintains his multiple fan bases and whether these are set to grow elsewhere. Furthermore, over the coming weeks I will be reading through 《而立24》 and hopefully gaining further insight into how Zhang Yixing prefers to present and interpret his career and the accompanying successes and anxieties. In the meantime, I’ll be watching out whatever projects he may have on the horizon, but at 22, not quite yet standing firm.

Links, quotes and references:






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