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IP boom reflects drastic shift in popular aesthetics
Author :  GAO XIANG Source : Chinese Social Sciences Today 2017-02-20
The popular fantasy drama Nirvana in Fire, set in a fictionalized dynasty around 1,600 years ago, is about a military strategist, played by Hu Ge, who is mistaken for a traitor and returns after 10 years in disguise to seek vengeance amid twisted internal court conflicts.
In recent years, intellectual property has become an extremely popular concept in China. Unlike in the West, where IP is a fairly dry legal term, in China, it is used to describe original online works suitable for adaptation into other forms of media, such as TV shows. The original works typically have a solid audience, which boosts the potential popularity of the adaptations. The hot fantasy TV series The Legend of Sword and Fairy was adapted from a video game of the same name while romantic series The Boss and Me brought overnight fame to its author. In the film industry, the conceptual My Old Classmate originated from a classic song with the same name. Other notable adaptions include You Are My Sunshine, The Lost Tomb, The Journey of Flower, Nirvana in Fire and the list goes on and on. Though thematically different, they were all adapted from widely known cyberliterature.
As a localized concept in China, IP dates back to 2013. The term IP in the Chinese context refers to the creative intellectual property that attracts wide attention, has huge impact and can be reproduced. Its emergence is closely associated with the spread of the Internet and the possibility of reproduction of original works.
Compared to classical literature, it is fairly easy to disseminate and attract an audience for cultural products, including literature, video games and music in the Internet era, which makes IP development like “standing on the shoulders of giants” as cultural practitioners would say.
In addition, as a production chain forms within the cultural industry, IP spawns derivative products. For example, the booming Chinese film industry, including emerging forms like micromovies and cybermovies, has brought classic IP, such as Journey to the West, repeatedly to the big screen. Also, the hot fantasy TV series The Journey of Flower was adapted from online literature, and its huge success has made eponymous video games a big hit, too. It is safe to say that high-quality IP is a gold mine for the whole industry chain.
If we agree that the business aspect is a prerequisite for the emergence of the IP concept in the new cultural ecology, then we must recognize that the explosive growth of cultural industry represented by films and TV dramas as well as the lack of original screenplays provide constant momentum for IP popularity.
With rising attendance at theaters domestically, the film industry takes a great leap forward. However, underneath the thriving prosperity, viewers are often let down by the low quality, especially in terms of rationality and completeness of the storyline, which can mainly be attributed to two reasons.
First of all, traditional literature and screenplay writing cannot meet the demand in the contemporary era. The belles-lettres once provided directors with a range of script prototypes, but commercialization of the industry objectively requires watchable movies with diverse themes. In particular, the demand for blockbusters with a strong visual impact is high, requiring deeper and more appealing storylines.
In the meantime, unlike in Hollywood, which has a mature and comprehensive screenwriting system, Chinese screenwriters are relatively green and sometimes cannot fulfill the basic requirement of storytelling. It is an embarrassment that haunts the film industry because telling a simple story is beyond the screenwriters’ capabilities at times.
In such circumstances, cyberliterature, video games and even unorthodox animations fill the void, catering to the aesthetic tastes of the masses. With the support of various sources of capital rushing to the market, the boom of the IP industry is to be expected.
In fact, though all original cultural production can be categorized as IP, the new model of popular culture, represented mainly by cyberliterature, video games and anime, has become undeniably the principal actor on the stage, taking the place of traditional literature.
On the other hand, IP popularity compensates for the lack of original stories, but from the perspective of viewers, it reflects a profound transformation in popular aesthetic sensibilities. At root, the two phenomena are intertwined—belles-lettres or even popular culture cannot cater to the tastes of the younger generation, making “good” stories hard to find. As shown by the movie Song of the Phoenix, the old aesthetics are gone, leaving just a breeze of sadness and emptiness.
In China, popular culture emerged in 1980s. Since then, it has undergone tremendous transformations even before the major impact of cyberliterature and MAG, which is short for manga, anime and games. Legendary historical dramas, such as Kangxi Dynasty and The Emperor in Han Dynasty, have been replaced by stories of palace intrigue, like The Legend of Zhen Huan and The Legend of Mi Yue. In kung fu series, heroes and heroines with a mastery of martial arts and a peerless sense of chivalry, have been taken over by fantasies and imaginative martial arts, while the teary men and women in romance writer Qiong Yao’s depictions have given way to over-idealist Mary Sue narratives. In general, three major shifts have occurred in popular aesthetics.
To start with, realism has been overtaken by imagination and fantasy. Cyberwriters are not confined by the old-fashioned realism. Rather, they embark on a pursuit of pure fantastical satisfaction to compensate for the stresses of everyday life. Vulgarized versions of history, stories of historical figures, time travel fiction, and martial arts fantasy novels are cyberwriters’ favorite subjects. The hit TV series Nirvana in Fire in 2015 is a historical drama but it also contained some creative license.
Next, feminist perspectives in aesthetics are widely displayed in IP production because women constitute a large portion of the audience. You Are My Sunshine, The Journey of Flower and The Legend of Mi Yue were created by female cyberwriters and the main characters are also women. Therefore, whether it is a perfect romance plot or a depiction of powerful women, these narratives are filled with feminist perspectives and aesthetics.
In addition, buzzwords such as “rotten women” who like gay stories and “fresh meat,” a common nickname of young good-looking men, are also formed in the discourse of feminist aesthetics.
Finally, instead of searching for meanings, the new round of popular culture prioritizes the idea of enjoying life and having fun. Online literature has a high-degree of freedom of expression and entertainment value, while anime and games are typical of amusement culture. They gather fans on a variety of public media platform, such as online forums, to share and recreate fun, forming a cultural community. Throughout the IP boom in 2015, comedies made more significant achievements, and the emerging MAG style also succeeded in steering cinema away from heavy undertakings and making films a source of relaxation and emotional comfort.
Through the rapid spread of information in the era of cyberculture, successful online works have been capable of bringing together a large number of fans, so the new cultural ecology is characterized by typical “fan culture.” Indeed, the IP boom is premised on investors’ assumptions that fans of the original IP can be converted into consumers of derivative works.
However, at the same time, investors are usually unaware of the shifting aesthetic paradigm in the IP era, leading to a serious lack of professionalism when adapting the original IP.
Thus, in many cases, development of IP has become a consumption of IP process. Take The Lost Tomb for example: The adaptation of the novel of the same name, which enjoyed wide readership, was criticized for its poor quality and weak storyline, scoring badly on major film-rating websites.
As we can see, famous IP does not necessarily translate into a successful adaptation, while in contrast, IP production that respects the original novel and shows impeccable directing, cinematography and acting can capture a wide following.
Overall, the success of IP adaptation into TV series and films is rare mainly because most storytelling fails to elicit emotion and amuse the audience.
Therefore, it is worth noting that the flood of money into the cyberliterature world brings profound changes to the aesthetic paradigm. Eventually, when the capital market cools down and appears to be more rational, the new cultural trends hidden behind the IP concept will be better revealed.
Gao Xiang is from the School of Literature at Nankai University.