Why Is Eileen Gu the New Poster Child in China?
What is “binary nationalism” and what has it got to do with free-style skiing? The explosive popularity of Eileen Gu’s is an excellent case for understanding the common Chinese mindset. In this conversation, Professor Julie Yu-Wen Chen is joined by Professor Jiang Chang to discuss the wide popularity of freestyle skier Eileen Gu during and after the 2022 Winter Olympics. Jiang Chang will share his unique insight into Gu’s rise to a new kind of poster child in China, while at the same time, he cautions us to be mindful of the invisible hand (i.e., Chinese propaganda) in shaping Gu’s popularity.
For most Chinese people, the primary framework for their perception and interpretation of the world is what Chang terms “binary nationalism.” It is nationalism, but it is very simple and is intended to be simple. In that framework, the US is the default opposite of China. Meanwhile, there has been an astonishing rise of a kind of “hero-worshiping” social atmosphere since Xi Jinping rose to power in China, where common people tend to resent elites but look up to those whom they know they could never ever surpass in status. This weird contradiction somehow paves the way for Gu’s popularity: She grew up in the US but chose to play for China in the Winter Olympics. Besides excelling in sports, she performs well educationally (which many Chinese people consider criteria for judging a person’s success in life), and she is beautiful by appearance. Gu has achieved so much that most Chinese people “heroize” her.
Prof. Jiang Chang is a visiting professor of Chinese studies at the University of Helsinki. Chang is a famous media scholar and observer. He is widely published in English, Chinese, and French on topics that include journalism and propaganda, digital media cultures, and digital feminism in contemporary China. His representative works are published in leading journals such as International Journal of Cultural Studies, European Journal of Cultural Studies, and Journal of Contemporary China.
Julie Yu-Wen Chen is professor of Chinese studies at the Department of Cultures at the University of Helsinki (Finland). Dr. Chen serves as one of the editors of the Journal of Chinese Political Science (Springer, SSCI). Formerly, she was chair of the Nordic Association of China Studies (NACS) and editor-in-chief of Asian Ethnicity (Taylor & Francis). You can find her on the University of Helsinki Chinese Studies’ website, Youtube and Facebook, and her personal Twitter.