Why China Loves Underdogs?
Jackson Yee was recruited to as a member of TFBoys, currently the most popular boy bands in China, in 2013. Despite the popularity of the collective band, Yee was largely considered as the “third wheel” of the 3-membered boyband. It is considered the other two band members, Karry Wang and Roy Wang, amassed more attention and popularity. Aside from having lesser fans, in hundreds of thousands, on popular online platforms,, Yee was often attacked by criticizers who claimed the band would be better-off without him. Meanwhile, he was also occasionally neglected in in promotional announcements by his company.
However, as of 2018, Yee has become arguably the most popular member of the brand, amassing more than 49 million followers on Weibo alone. His enormous influence prompted various powerful groups such as Adidas, World Health Organization and even the Danish government to reach out to him, asking him to assume the role of their ambassador in order to reach Chinese base. Why has Yee’s popularity peaked so incredibly? The answer is China has a specific liking for underdogs, despite the initial backlash as well as the plateauing of other two members.
What won the public over is undoubtedly Yee’s hard work. Undoubtedly, Yee’s hard work has won the public over. Even when he was less popular, his persistence and involvement secured him with an extremely loyal and consistent fanbase Once, his fans had mistaken a stunt double who did a backflip in an ad as Jackson. Feeling compelled to satisfy his fans and unwilling to take someone else’s credit, he learnt it for hours. Eventually he performed it on one of his shows. A series of actions, formed his trait of determination, which represents him well.
Jackson's Single Album 'Nothing to Lose'
In fact, the story of underdogs rising to the top through hard work and or talent is ubiquitous in China. As a common theme in TV shows from historical fiction to modern tales of romance, it emerges repeatedly, taking various forms though preaching the same ideal: underdogs will succeed with efforts. Real life stories about powerful figures seem to collaborate with that idea. Jack Ma, arguably the most powerful man in China with a net worth of $42.7 billion, was said to be unsuccessful academically, failing three times to be accepted into a college, subsequently spending most of his 20s and 30s in debt. Regardless of their accuracy, these urban legends circulate through the internet and by the word of mouth, becoming common knowledge to millions of Chinese citizens.
China’s special appetite for the success stories of underdogs is perfectly explainable with its economic, social and historical contexts.
China possesses extremely severe wealth disparity and income inequality, with 1% of the population owning 1/3 of the country’s wealth, a gap that is still widening. This signifies that the vast majority of China’s gigantic population identify themselves as the “underdog” due to their lack of economic and political power. Like the protagonists of they see on TV, the most Chinese citizens were not born into riches and statuses, as a matter of fact, that was not even an acceptable concept as born with richness and status. Therefore, the tales of commoners’ success motivate and encourage the public, while China’s popular culture finds the less voiced and their daily struggles more sellable and relatable.
Figure: % of wealth owned by top percentile
Another underlying cause is the strained demographic make-up of China. With the single-child policy that was in place for almost 4 decades, the Chinese population is aging rapidly. Combined with the cultural rule of filial obligation, younger generations of China feel an immense pressure to succeed in order to support the older ones. The stories about successful underdogs comforts the youth. It provided the assurance that they would be able to do the same through persistence, determination and efforts. It is the hope that they are looking for.
Finally, a specific liking for rapid life-betterment and self-improvement traces back to a historical system that started about 1500 years ago in ancient China. Back then, the most promising method to escape poverty and gain a powerful life was to be employed by the emperor. One must studied really hard and travel to the capital to take the test. Three exams given to each candidate in the last three days and are extremely gruelling intellectually, mentally, and physically. However, if they were passed, the test-takers who had once been mired amidst poverty would completely change the trajectory of their lives and those around them. Even at present, China’s current educational system, although different, holds the same rapid life-changing proposition as it had been thousands of years ago. The college entrance exam is a fast lane for students, regardless of their backgrounds, to enter renowned schools located in the political and economic hotspots of China and to set foot in promising careers. Since every Chinese citizens who attended college had lived through the exam and understood its significance and the amount of effort that had to invest, stories about growth and self-betterment is highly relatable and palatable to them.
Imperial Examination System in Ancient China
Due to China’s liking for underdogs, many companies gravitate towards choosing celebrity ambassadors that appeal this preference. Adidas, for example, chose Jackson Yee as its first ever International Youth Creative Ambassador for its product line Adidas Neo, an excellent choice as his traits are both consistent with its brand image, and well liked by Chinese public. The advertisement’s slogan is “live restless,” also a match with Yee’s image. Aside from being recognized as a superb dancer, Jackson is also known for his restless self-improvement. This is not the first time Adidas has chosen a popular Chinese singer to represent its brand. In 2017, Adidas casts Lu Han from boyband EXO for Adidas Originals, the oldest and the most expensive series in the brand. In contrast, Adidas Neo is marketed towards younger people and one of Adidas’ cheaper series. Yee is an excellent as he projects youthfulness, growth, and passion. His identity as a former underdog and high involvement with his fanbase makes him seem more relatable and accessible to his fans, as Adidas wants to project for its series Neo. By choosing him for this campaign, Adidas was able to transfer what the Chinese audience thinks he represents, to the brand itself.
Similarly, electronic commerce giant Tmall enlisted Yee to be a part of its 21 day digital campaign, also changing its brand slogan from “Just Tmall is Enough” to “Tmall Ideal Life”. The upgrade from “Just Enough” to “Ideal” is consistent with the message that Yee as an individual conveys, shooting for perfection. In Yee’s documentary, he claims that despite the myriad of compliments he receives in everything he does, he always feels as if he hasn’t done enough, and always strives to improve even more. His pursuit of perfection as long as his willingness to explore unfamiliar fields such as acting are a good match for Tmall’s brand update from “Enough” to “Ideal”.
To most of his fans, Jackson Yee is more than a talented celebrity. He represents the need and will to persist even when facing external pressures and internal anxieties. For the salaried class that makes up most of urban China, stories and shows about underdogs play the role of well-received distractions and motivators in their monotonous lives.
“Most people say I am very successful for my age. But with everything I do, I feel like I didn’t do that well. I didn’t do enough”
Article by Tiffany Jiang
Cultural Content Editor