Han Han Is Back: The Real Meaning Of China's Pop Culture King

Han Han back on stage.
Han Han back on stage.
Zhang Ming

BEIJING — Han Han, China's most famous online star, is back in the spotlight.

The young race car driver turned blogger/author accepted a public challenge from Guo Jingming, another former teen idol and best-selling young adult literature author and filmmaker, who said it was time for Han Han to direct his first movie. Not surprisingly, the film has been warmly received.

But what explains Han Han's virtual icon status in China? For starters, his debut novel, Triple Door, became China's bestselling literary work of the past 20 years. To sear his cool status in the public mind, the high-school dropout was subsequently offered admission to Shanghai's Fudan University, one of China's most prestigious universities — though he turned down the offer.

Still, it was his blog posts that had originally made Han Han a celebrity. In China's nascent blogging era last decade, before longer posts were taken over by Twitteresque microblogging (weibo) sites, millions in China considered themselves bloggers. But it was rare to see one person's writings break through — which Han Han did, becoming the unrivaled Chinese master of the direct, informal blogging style of writing.

Which doesn't mean Han Han is a consciously anti-establishment person. He doesn't have a rebellious nature. Instead, in today's world where absurdity reigns, his mix of heart and aura, smarts and sarcasm, make him stand out.

Han Han has risen by testing the boundaries of China's gradually loosening Internet controls, and his blog's popularity ensured a lasting level of fame, even as he and the wider public have moved on from blogging.

Trailer for Han Han's first movie "The Continent"

Compared to his online posts, his novels and films, to be frank, are just free-riders on his online fame. His writing continues to need improvement. To a large extent, readers buy his books to get a piece of his personal appeal and charisma.

Though blogging has gone out of favor in China, Han Han's fame is made. At no time in Chinese history has any writer attracted so many readers and fans in such a short period. In 2010 he was listed as one of the world's 100 most influential figures by Time magazine — he was not even 30. He was the only Chinese hailed that year by the American weekly, and seemingly without actually achieving anything extraordinary.

A metaphorical hero

In a market economy, fame means money. Even notoriety and infamy can bring money. This is not to say that Han Han's reputation isn’t very positive and healthy. But it is inevitable that others are going to try to take advantage of him and his reputation. Even if they don't produce advertisements or commercial events, they exploit Han Han through the packaging of an image. Call it the making of a "metaphorical hero." And by taking advantage of this hero, the media has stories to tell, one after another.

Han has shown an ability to both criticize and defend public institutions, and yet maintain his aura of non-conformist.

Of course, it is a fine line, and the hero can quickly become a target of the state. The more praised he is, the more arrows are aimed his way — including a recent criticism, with echoes of the Cultural Revolution propaganda, written by a Tsinghua University professor.

When the microblogging era arrived, and Han Han could have gotten even bigger on such a platform, he instead switched his interests elsewhere: to writing novels to prove he is a real author, and now, directing movies.

Han Han is not as sophisticated as he is made out to be. Instead, he can be seen ever more as the product of modern China's deformed politics, deformed society and deformed market.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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