The Representation of the Russia-Ukraine War in Chinese Hetalia Fan Culture
#WR2050 12 / December 2022
- Dr Ming Zhang, Researcher in Media and Communication at Bournemouth University
- Dr Oscar Zhou, Lecturer in Media Studies at University of Kent
One of the key debates in International Relations and Conflict Studies is the representation of war. From a post-structuralist perspective, the public does not have direct access to the reality of war but the discourses and representations of war, which are constructed by different power structures. From poetry, novel, painting and architecture to television, film, documentary and personal blog on social media, scholars have broadened the scope of inquiry of war-representations. However, the representation of war in fan culture and production is rarely examined because fans seem to be irrelevant to international politics and war that is always associated with pain, suffering, and trauma.
If a critical investigation of war and conflict requires a close reading of how a war is represented by different stakeholders and what kind of representations attract more public attention, then how the audience read, decode, and interpret these representations cannot be ignored. Fans tend to be the most active and creative group of audiences, who often express their understandings and reflections on wars through their own cultural productions. In this vein, Chinese Hetalia fan productions yield evidence of how fans can appropriate popular culture to respond to and reflect on the Russia-Ukraine war.
Hetalia, including Hetalia: Axis Powers (2006-2013) and Hetalia: World Stars (2014-present), is a Japanese manga and animation series, which features an allegorical interpretation of political, historical, and military relations between more than sixty countries and areas. Each nation is personified through a human body, whose personality consists of the nation’s cultural stereotypes. In Hetalia, Ukraine is portrayed as the oldest sister of Russia and Belarus, who is warm-hearted and motherly but can also stand her ground. Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Chinese Hetalia fan productions surrounding Ukraine always focused on her relationship with her younger brother Russia and sister Belarus, which is conflicted but emotional. Beyond merely appropriating the original animation, Chinese fans enriched their own creations by actively researching the history and culture of Ukraine as well as ‘her’ relationship with neighbouring countries, especially Russia and Belarus, from relevant materials, including books, novels, films, television, pop music, and other mediated sources.
Chinese Hetalia fans seem to fall into two camps after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While some pro-Russian fans portrayed Ukraine as a ‘derelict’ older sister who had betrayed her younger brother and sister under the lure of America in their fan writings and fan arts, other pro-Ukrainian fans praised Ukraine’s strength, bravery, and yearning for freedom under her seemingly frail appearance. Regardless of political stance, Chinese Hetalia fans in general show sympathy and a desire for peace, presenting the damage and pain caused by the Russia-Ukraine war through their own cultural productions. As of December 2022, both sides are still tirelessly searching for the latest political news or historical traces to support their creations, ranging from TikTok videos by people living in Ukarine right now to different news sources from around the world. Despite the government’s strict media censorship, Chinese Hetalia fans actively use Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to break through online censorship and find alternative information. What these fans want is not the Chinese official version of the Russia-Ukraine war, but different stories and experiences of the war told by different individuals and organisations, which are embodied in their fan productions. Just like what they always say, “we hope everyone can be happy in our fan works”.