Eileen Chang, the influential 20th-century Chinese writer, once wrote, “To be famous, one must not wait.” The iconic writer certainly walked the walk, herself rising to fame in her early 20s in the 1940s’ Shanghai. Nowadays, even the 20s look old–very old–to Chinese aspiring to be young and famous, and those in doubt need look no further than TFBOYS.
You might have already guessed, TFBOYS, short for “The Fighting Boys,” is a Chinese boy band. Its three members, Wang Junkai, Yi Yangqianxi, and Wang Yuan, are middle school and high school students, whose ages averaging between 14 and 15. The group just celebrated their second anniversary this month, and yes, when they started in 2013, they still had the kind of preteen high-pitched girlie voices. There’s a term in Chinese recently coined by netizens specifically for young celebrities like them, “young fresh meat.” You read it right. “Young fresh meat” is a thing in China. I feel like a child molester just typing it.
[VIDEO: “Heart” by TFBOYS, released in September 2013]
But TFBOYS is not just a YFM boy band. They are in fact the YFM boy band du jour in the People’s Republic, enjoying popularity comparable to hot K-pop idols like EXO and chic pop stars from other Chinese-speaking regions in Asia, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, where pop music has a much longer history than that in the Mainland which was nonexistent before the late 1980s.
Manufactured by Beijing Shidai Junfeng Media Co., who copied Japan’s idol training programs,TFBOYS became known to a cult fan base through their music videos and reality show-like shows distributed online. Before long–in fact, as if overnight–the three boys, or the “Three Little Ones” as dubbed by their fans, not just penetrated the mainstream media, but literally conquered them. They are simply everywhere. Since 2014, TFBOYS have won numerous pop music awards, many of which were voted by fans, made regular appearances on popular TV shows and in glossy magazines, and signed million-dollar advertising deals with several household brands such as Coca-Cola’s Fanta and BBK, a popular educational electronic brand.
Since then, TFBOYS’s fan base has kept growing. On the Chinese social media Sina Weibo, each TFBOYS member has about ten millions followers. In June, Guinness World Records verified that a Weibo post by the band leader Wang Junkai on his birthday last year is the most reposted Weibo post, with 42,776,438 reposts. Actually, TFBOYS’s stardom has transcended their native Mainland China and gone global. On social media such as Facebook and Twitter, countless fan pages and accounts have been created for TFBOYS fans across the world, and some of their fans such as those from Southeast Asia don’t even speak Chinese.
One thing about TFBOYS fan base that might seem bewildering to anyone who is not a TFBOYS fan, is that it consists of not just preteens and teenagers, who are mostly girls, of course, but also their moms and everyone in between–college students, young professionals, etcetera. It’s one thing when teenage girls scream at these boys when they spot them in a crowd at an event or an airport after hours of waiting with their posters, cameras, and gifts. It’s another thing that moms in their late thirties do it as well–okay, maybe not screaming, but all these other things, plus licking their screens on which these boys’ photos are displayed and their videos played.
Actually, I might have gone a bit too creative in the last imagery. Although it does seem a bit pervy for older women to be obsessed with these adorable boys, most of these moms are perfectly harmless. Different from western boy bands and young pop stars, these young Chinese idols are expected by tens of millions of fans to fulfill various fantastic roles–they are handsome boyfriends to preteens and teenager girls, they are sweet little brothers to college students and young adults, and, finally, they are outstanding academically successful sons to young moms. Fans are obsessed with their homework, their tests scores, their high school entrance exams, how much they’ve grown since last month, if they have enough time to sleep, if they get along with their classmates in school, etcetera, etcetera. The boys are expected to be model students while dutifully entertaining the mass on stage or on camera, and yes, the fans are all tiger moms, and they want their idol sons to be study gods and the next Steve Jobs, and while doing that, they must learn to sing, to dance, and to play instruments, and stay adorable, fashionable, approachable, and, bottom line, lovable. Call it Chinese characteristics.
[“Cherish” (“宠爱”) by TFBOYS, released in June 2015.]
With their immense popularity, TFBOYS have also become targets of attacks from fans of other idols, especially those of the Korean-Chinese boy band EXO, who see them as inferior to their older counterparts. The attacks also come from those who don’t care much about their music or their “face value” (yanzhi, or 颜值, meaning physical attractiveness), and those who simply hate them for whatever reasons such as the fact that they are young and famous. From time to time, quarrels break out even among their own fans who favor a particular member in the group, which often leads to non-fans’ insults that theirs are “brain-dead fans” (naocanfen, or 脑残粉).
Despite all that, TFBOYS’s cultural significance is undeniable. Regardless their auto-tuned K-pop sounding dance or Hip Hop inspired cheesy music, namely, pop music, TFBOYS are the first truly successful pop group accepted not only in the People Republic but in the entire Chinese-speaking world, and beyond–they have a big fan base in Vietnam, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian non-Chinese speaking countries. And it is significant because this TFBOYS phenomenon marks a moment when China is truly starting to export its pop music after years of importing it from mostly Taiwan and Hong Kong, which, ironically, helps achieving the Chinese government’s goal of exerting China’s “soft power” overseas, where the official efforts have failed miserably.
TFBOYS’s success in Taiwan is especially remarkable in this regard. Unexpectedly, the Three Little Ones have taken Taiwan by storm like the Taiwanese boy band the “Young Tigers” (Xiaohudui, or 小虎队) conquered the hearts of Chinese youth in the late 1980s. This phenomenon even compelled some Taiwanese cultural commentators to ask what has happened to Taiwan’s music industry that such a Mainland pop “invasion” is even possible. Indeed, even only five years ago, it was utterly unthinkable that Taiwanese teenagers would be chasing pop stars from the Mainland China like they chase Korean, Japanese, or western pop stars like EXO or One Direction. As more and more young Taiwanese marvel about China’s economic development and job opportunities, they can also expect to be hooked by more pop culture produced in the Mainland as well. Maybe that’s the ultimate unifying force that will bond the two sides of the Taiwan Strait together despite their political differences.