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TFBoys to Men: Pop Propaganda and the Growing Pains of China’s Biggest Boy Band

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With their bubblegum beats and boy-next-door personalities, three mop-haired boys have become China’s most influential stars — and they haven’t even hit 20 yet. Meet The Fighting Boys, more commonly referred to as TFBoys.

tfboys jackson karry roy mandopop china boyband

Household names on the mainland, 19-year-old Wang Junkai (Karry), 19-year-old Wang Yuan (Roy), and 18-year-old Yi Yangqianxi (Jackson) are some of the biggest names in Mandarin-language pop worldwide. As the first homegrown Chinese boy band to reach and sustain global popularity, the young artists have been called many things: a cultural phenomenon, the fresh faces of Beijing’s soft power, or even, by critics, instruments of a government-sponsored agenda.

What is the TFBoys’ mark on Mando-pop? Are they anything more than pop propaganda? And as they age, how are they managing the transition from fresh-faced child stars to teen idols? We’ve got the answers.

BOYS WITH DREAMS

The TFBoys skyrocketed to fame when their cover of “Onion” by Mayday, a Taiwanese rock band, went viral in June 2013. Within weeks, their management company Time Fengjun Entertainment, which had been training the boys since 2010, officially launched the group. The then 13- and 14-year-olds subsequently released a series of hits, including “Magic Castle,” “For Dreams, Always Be Ready,” and “Manual of Youth,” the latter taking No. 1 on Yin Yue Tai, China’s Billboard, for five consecutive weeks and cementing their A-list status.

Over the next few years, they amassed a legion of fans — from tweens to thirty-something “mother fans” 妈妈粉 — with lyrics about young love, winning a Nobel Prize, and being the heirs to communism. To get a sense of their star power, just check out their social media stats: as of 2019, Karry and Roy each have 72 million followers on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, and Jackson boasts 73 million. They have so much clout, in fact, that Karry’s 15th birthday post set a Guinness World Record for most reposts on Weibo, shared over 42 million times in 2015.

GOOD TOGETHER, STRONGER APART

While the TFBoys proved themselves to be a powerful team in the music sphere, the three also needed space to grow as solo artists. In 2017, the members set up personal studios and have since ventured into other realms of entertainment. Here’s a rundown on their recent moves:

When Karry isn’t interviewing Stephen Hawking on alien immigration or becoming the youngest male celebrity to grace to cover of Harper’s Bazaar, you might find him on a film set: in 2016, he had a supporting role alongside Matt Damon in Zhang Yimou’s action flick, The Great Wall.

Roy also has a few accolades under his belt, from throwing the first pitch at a Met’s game to being named one of Time’s most influential teens of 2017. However, the only thing people seem to care about lately is his internet-breaking scandal. After being photographed smoking illegally indoors, the hashtag “Roy Wang smoking” #王源抽烟# gained over two billion views on Weibo and generated a story in BBC News.

While the whole situation seems silly, it raises the question of whether celebrities can bounce back from controversy in the age of cancel culture (i.e. spurning public figures after they make a mistake or commit a crime) and also whether certain sections of TFBoys’ fan base are ready for the boys to grow up.

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Roy also looked to expand his repertoire beyond cutesy pop singles recently by appearing in acclaimed (and somewhat controversial within China) director Wang Xiaoshuai’s film So Long, My Son, which dealt with issues surrounding the One Child Policy and scooped two awards at this year’s Berlinale.

Finally, there’s Jackson, the youngest of the trio. He too has gone into on-screen work, snagging lead roles in dramas like The Longest Day in Chang’an. Like Roy, he has also sought to attach his name to grittier projects — he also plays a prominent role in the movie Better Days, which focuses on bullying and was this week pulled from cinemas just days before it was due to be released amid rumors it had run into trouble with China’s censorship apparatus.

tfboys china propaganda pop boyband roy wang jackson yee karry wangNamed Admaster’s most commercially valuable star of 2018, Jackson has also made a name for himself by becoming the spokesperson for big brands like Givenchy and Tmall, and rocking an impressive glow up. And he’s put his dance training to good use by delivering some sweet moves on Youku’s dance survival show, Street Dance of China.

Does their solo success spell an end to the band? It’s too soon to say — the trio are only halfway through their 10-year contract with TF Entertainment — but at least the side projects will prepare them for the inevitable breakup.

THE FANS: A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH

The group’s combination of boyish charm and talent has helped them to not only stand alone as individuals, but succeed where many Chinese artists have failed: abroad. As SCMP reports:

“In South Korea, emojis of the trio are shared on smartphones; in Vietnam and the Philippines they are credited with an upswing in youths learning Chinese; in Thailand and beyond their every move is documented on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and video-sharing site YouTube – avenues to modern-day fame that are all but shut off to many Chinese acts by the Great Firewall.”

But more interesting than where the TFBoys’ fans reside are the lengths to which they are willing to go to support their idols. From sponsoring LED screens at LA Live and Times Square, to securing lifetime rights for Jackson to stay at a country manor in the UK, the TFBoys’ die-hard supporters are known to splurge on the boys’ birthdays. Some tech-savvy fans even spearheaded the “world’s first blockchain-based fandom token” in the name of their young heartthrobs.

Yet more proof that China’s fan economy should not be overlooked, especially when youth purchasing power can have a significant impact on an artist’s overseas promotion.

LEVERAGING CLOUT FOR CHANGE

There are more perks to having a massive, mobilized fan base than outlandish advertisements however. Staying true to their “good boy” brand, the three TFBoys have utilized their stardom to shine a spotlight on various causes, acting as advocates to get young people involved. In fact, all three were individually recognized among China’s top 10 most charitable stars by the magazine China Philanthropist in 2018.

Each tackles a different problem: Karry is a UN Environment National Goodwill Ambassador; Roy is UNICEF’s Special Advocate for Education; and Jackson serves as a special envoy for the World Health Organization in China. In addition to speaking at youth forums and engaging followers on social media, they each have a charity foundation: Karry’s focuses on improving rural education, Roy’s raises money for people with medical issues; and Jackson’s supports left-behind children.

Karry partners with UN Environment to raise awareness and funds for China’s endangered tigers. | Source: UN Environment

Social responsibility is quickly becoming integrated into the expectations of the modern Chinese idol. In the era of hip hop bans and celebrity crackdowns, it’s proving more important than ever to not just look the part of the perfect idol but to perform as such — at least, if you want to stay on the Party’s good side.

PROPAGANDA IN A PRETTY PACKAGE

Their positive vibes have also helped them win over a much more important fan: China’s ruling Communist Party. While many celebrities have been featured in patriotic pieces at one time or another, the TFBoys’ large, young, and international demographic uniquely positions them for promoting Party values. They’ve been featured in the CCTV New Year’s Gala, the nation’s most watched television event, for four consecutive years and are, unsurprisingly, the stars of several Communist Youth League music videos.

The TFBoys perform at the 2019 CCTV Spring Festival Gala. | Source: Weibo

Not to say that songs about serving the collective or defeating one’s enemies are bad. If anything, tapping into the boys’ musical talent is a step up from the mind-numbing Belt and Road beats the Party typically produces. As Qiao Mu, a media researcher and former professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University, told Fortune, “This kind of propaganda is a step forward that better suits the demands of its audience […] Ordinary people are now rejecting the old preaching ways of the People’s Daily newspaper and CCTV News.”

However, being the purveyors of communism also means propagating some of the Party’s more eyebrow-raising policies. In April, Roy was featured in a music video titled “Be as Good as Your Word” (说到做到), which was launched as part of a larger initiative to promote the social credit system. With the hashtag “Honesty lights up China” #诚信点亮中国# racking up 350 million views on Weibo, the popularity of the campaign shows that anything — even a song alluding to a controversial reputation scoring system — can go viral with the right names attached.

Many have tried and failed to make it in the fickle, oversaturated world of pop — just look at all the hopefuls on China’s never-ending parade of talent shows — and those who do debut often have trouble succeeding beyond China’s borders. As the first domestic boyband to achieve some form of success overseas, the TFBoys play a key role in Beijing’s soft power development, for better or for worse. But, if the Party insists on pushing their lingo too hard, it may undercut what the TFBoys have been doing all along: promoting Chinese pop culture in a fun, relatable way.

Julienna Law
    Julienna Law is a recent graduate of the University of Southern California. In her free time, she likes designing graphics, studying Chinese, and listening to the seven loves of her life, K-pop group BTS.