The celebrity invasion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 July, 2006, 12:00am

These are hard times for the mainland's intellectuals. According to a recent report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, no less than 70 per cent of the country's academics are suffering from stress-related health problems. That's because their teaching burdens have increased so much.

Perhaps that is why magazines like Shu Cheng (Book Town) and Wan Xiang (Panorama Monthly) - long the standard-bearers for high culture in the mainland media - have only just published their first editions of the year: the intellectuals no longer have time to write.

But the magazines' falling circulations and financial problems are also a sign of how the mainland media market has changed since the heady days of the 1980s. That's when highbrow publications were at their most popular, and widely read by graduates.

More people than ever before are graduating from China's universities - 4.1 million this year. But few seem excited by the mix of lofty discussions of politics and China's cultural heritage that make up the content of Shu Cheng and Wan Xiang. These days, the mainland's brightest are more interested in lifestyles than the musings of intellectuals. No wonder, then, that the media is turning to celebrities, rather than professors, to capture readers. And while the famous used to be merely the subject of stories, now they're writing them as well.

During the recent World Cup soccer tournament, Super Girl talent show winner Li Yuchun was paid a reported 200,000 yuan to write a series of columns about the matches, which were syndicated and published in 26 newspapers across the country. There's a long tradition of celebrity columnists in the west, but in the mainland it's a new phenomenon. Maybe that's why Li's column outraged a number of football fans, who wondered in their blogs just what qualifications she had for analysing soccer matches.

But the newspapers involved certainly weren't complaining: the on-line forums at papers like Xiaoxiang Chenbao of Changsha , in Hunan province, and the Jinan Times of Shandong province were flooded with messages in praise of Li.

Similar adoration can be found on the message boards of blogs written by celebrities. Ever since the web portal Sina launched its Chinese Blog Competition at the end of last year, a motley crew of actresses, tycoons, entrepreneurs and TV personalities have become some of the most-read bloggers in China. Actress Xu Jinglei's blog became so popular so quickly that, by May, she was asking for a share of the advertising revenue being generated for Sina by her blog.

But less exalted bloggers are unhappy that the rich and famous have muscled in on a world that was once dominated by the anonymous. 'Their presence is unfair,' noted one disgruntled blogger recently. 'Blogging used to be a level playing field, but once the celebrities take over that won't be the case.'

Wang Xiaofeng , the editor of the weekly current affairs magazine Sanlian Life - but who's better known as the blogger Massage Milk - is even more caustic about the rise of the celebrity bloggers and Sina's use of the competition to boost the company's profile. 'I believe one day they'll invite Saddam Hussein to join Sina just because he's a celebrity,' he said. Xu Zidong, a Phoenix TV talk-show host and blogger, even described celebrity bloggers as 'prostitutes'. Mainland intellectuals might be stressed-out wrecks, but at least they haven't resorted to selling themselves online yet.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist