In a recent article (found here) about the SNH48 4th General Elections, the English version of Global Times makes a bold statement: “SNH48, Shanghai’s own girl idol group, fueling China’s keai culture.”
What is “keai culture” anyway?
With a few exceptions, China has not really had an “idol culture” of its own in the past. Fans have cheered for idol groups from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea but the Chinese mainland remained the domain of mostly older soloists.
The Korean wave (read: K-pop) pushed into China at the end of the last decade and, with it, came the sexualized younger idols. Those groups were mostly left to their own devices by the Chinese authorities who were in full “demonstrate openness to the world” mode at the time. But, as each new group tried to outdo the sexiness of their predecessors, it started to create discomfort with those concerned about preserving the morals of the nation.
Looking elsewhere, those same people were not too excited about the prospect of opening wide the doors to the Japanese kawaii idol who many on the mainland see as being just short of child pornography only attractive to stay-at-home otakus and weeaboos.
KEAI IS ALL ABOUT PROJECTING THE IMAGE OF THE LOVELY, SWEET, WHOLESOME IDOL.
Chinese television and internet dramas started to push a narrative of the lovely/cute youth (16 to 25) who was somewhere in between the styles of K-pop and J-pop. Sweet and attractive but certainly not a child (read: girl in this case as young boys are looked at differently) or oversexualized. This quickly worked its way down in all different aspects of entertainment including idols.
But doesn’t “keai” mean “cute” just like “kawaii” in Japanese? Yes, in the sense of “lovely” and “sweet” which is somewhat different than the definition of “kawaii” in the idol industry context.
How does SNH48 fit into all this?
Born at the turn of the decade (2013), SNH48 was created with the purpose of reaching the already established fan base of AKB48 in China. This meant it started out pretty much as a cookie cutter product.
As time passed and SNH48 failed to gain traction outside of the very small (in China) AKB48 niche, it became clear that they would have to create themselves a more mainstream image if they had any hope of survival.
To do that, they would have to sing modern Western style songs like South Koreans while having a more “adult” look than their Japanese counterparts without giving up on the sweet and wholesome aspects.
Quite a balancing act!
SNH48 management has plowed resolutely in that direction ever since even after the controversial split (no matter which side initiated it) from the Japanese 48 Group.
Part of a movement
Interestingly enough China is not the only country going through this phase. South Korea is also experiencing the growth of the “sweet idols” in a way that is very similar to SNH48 (although in the opposite direction) with recent GFriend, Produce 101, and Idol School being good examples.
Everyone will have an opinion in regards to what version of SNH48 they prefer but, I for one, believe they made the right decision both in regards to style and music… and their growing fandom seems to agree.