Some of the biggest stars in China come from K-pop, including Blackpink’s Lisa, Exo’s Lay Zhang and Got7’s Jackson Wang
- Since Han Geng made his K-pop debut with Super Junior in 2005, it has become common for K-pop bands to include Chinese performers
- They have helped popularise K-pop in China, making it possible for some of the genre’s biggest stars, like Thai-born Lisa, to develop their own following there
For a sense of how big K-pop stars are in China, look no further than the entertainment shows that have gripped audiences since the start of 2021.
For example, between February and May, Blackpink’s Lisa appeared as a judge for the third season of the boy band competition show Youth with You on the Chinese streaming website iQiyi.
June saw the debut on Alibaba’s video channel Youku of Falling Into Your Smile in which Cheng Xiao, a member of Cosmic Girls (WJSN), stars opposite Xu Kai. The web drama’s soundtrack features songs by boy bands WayV and Seventeen. Alibaba is the owner of the South China Morning Post.
Appearing alongside Han will be Wang Yibo, who used to perform with K-pop group Uniq; Henry Lau, who was part of China-based Super Junior subgroup Super Junior-M; and Lay Zhang Yixing, a member of Exo.
Yet Korean entertainment companies have various means to tap the sizeable Chinese audience, including partnerships. In 2019, for example, tech giant Tencent entered a partnership with K-pop label SM Entertainment soon after boy band WayV made their debut.
“More interactions between two sides mean higher possibilities to generate conflicts; however, it does not mean that the two will stop if such interactions bring benefits to both,” says Sun Meicheng, a doctoral candidate in communication studies at Singapore’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University.
“Korean entertainment, including K-pop, is part of Chinese audiences’ popular content consumption, together with Chinese, Japanese, American and other content,” Sun says. “The market is segmented.”
Last year, she published a case study of K-pop group Got7’s Chinese fans in the peer-reviewed Global Media and China academic journal after spending time in China observing K-pop fan behaviour.
Sun says Chinese K-pop artists – who undergo years of training alongside their Korean counterparts – have an advantage in the Chinese entertainment industry because of their experience and performing skills.
When Kris Wu Yifan, Lu Han, and Huang Zitao quit K-pop group Exo in 2014 and 2015, it changed the relationship between Chinese and Korean entertainment, Sun says.
“They quickly became the top-tier young idols in the market, considering the popularity of Exo among Chinese K-pop fans and the lack of locally produced idols at that time,” she says.
“Current or former K-pop stars who join the Chinese entertainment scene have to quickly localise themselves and attract new fans, who start to know them from their appearance on Chinese screens,” she adds. “Very often, the new fans see these K-pop stars as just local stars. These fans may or may not go to find out how their idols look in their current or former K-pop idol groups.”
Following the Exo trio’s success in China, many other K-pop idols began working there, with some moving between the two markets and some leaving the Korean entertainment industry entirely – to the anger of Korean fans who accused Chinese stars of using K-pop as a launch pad for careers back home.
This led to K-pop labels recruiting Chinese stars from places other than mainland China. Nowadays, there are only a handful of stars from mainland China active in K-pop, but many from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, China-oriented Korean pop groups such as WayV – whose members come from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand – are intentionally not promoted as being K-pop acts, even though WayV is a subunit of NCT, which is a K-pop group.
At the same time, hardly any of the K-pop stars active in China are South Korean; it is easier for those of foreign origin, such as Blackpink’s Lisa and Ten from WayV – who are Thai – to be active there.
Some K-pop labels launch groups that explicitly target the Chinese market, such as JYP Entertainment’s Boy Story and upcoming Project C.
Other groups, including Seventeen, NCT Dream, Got7 and (G)I-dle, feature one or more members of Chinese descent and often release Chinese versions of their songs – as do K-pop groups that don’t have any Chinese members.
As more home-grown Chinese pop idols emerge, there is less opportunity for K-pop transfers. “Now, former K-pop trainees and K-pop idols have to try harder to position themselves and to be competitive in the market when the local idol industry has been developing rapidly,” Sun says.
According to Sun, it’s hard to gauge just how many people in China are K-pop fans. But from her perspective, there is a sizeable audience, especially among young people. She believes they are not that bothered whether the pop idols they follow are K-pop idols, Mando-pop idols or C-pop idols. Fans just want to enjoy their favourite stars.
“Chinese idol fans care about their idols and keep an eye on the competitors of their idols, [such as] the other idols who have similar celebrity images and capabilities,” she says. “They probably do not ... differentiate C-pop stars, K-pop stars, and C-pop stars who were formerly K-pop stars.”