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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Still, it was his blog posts that had originally made Han Han a celebrity.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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