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July 7, 2011

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Craze for cosplay

COSPLAY fever has swept China as young people escape reality and switch personas to become ancient heroes, superheroes, legendary beauties and other figures of fantasy. Xu Wei reads the script.Despite scorching heat, Snow Zhao, a 22-year-old fresh college graduate, puts on heavy costume armor, adjusts her helmet and hefts her heavy warrior's ax.

She's getting ready to play her part in an extravagant cosplay (costume play) scene from a comic book version of the classic novel "Three Kingdoms," one in which all the characters, notably powerful men, are depicted as women.

The attractive young woman finds this kind of dress-up exciting, probably empowering, and just plain fun. She likes her bulky armor, specially made of thick, shaped and decorated padding.

She plays warrior Xu Huang, a hero in the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280), who was famous for wielding a giant ax.

Zhao is one of many young people across China who, like others around the world (with Japan in the vanguard), are acting out fantasies and having fun playing dress-up in cosplay scenes from animation, comics, gaming, films and other media.

Though people who deck themselves out as vampires, sci-fi creatures or superheroes might initially seem to be eccentric or yearning for a different reality, most of the young people at an ongoing high-profile competition in Shanghai seem perfectly ordinary.

Psychologists say it can be healthy play, an escape from high-stress work and study, a way to stand out and get attention in a world that doesn't usually pay too much attention, and a way to indulge their imagination and become someone else.

"There's always distance between dreams and reality," says sociology professor Gu Xiaoming of Fudan University. "But during the cosplay process, a lot of young people manage to redefine their identity and achieve a sense of existence and fulfillment."

Cosplay has become an important part of China's anime scene. There are many cosplay communities, social networking sites, events and competitions. Cafes and restaurants catering to cosplay and anime fans are springing up and expected to flourish.

Zhao spent around 800 yuan (US$124) on fabric and props. "I bought the fabric and asked a tailor to make armor and garments based on the comic book image," she says.

Zhao and around 20 members of her cosplay community prepared for several weeks for finals of a national cosplay contest beginning today at the China Pavilion, part of the 2011 Cartoons, Comics and Games Expo. It runs through Saturday.

They were a big hit, employing martial arts postures and traditional dance, accompanied by traditional Chinese folk music. Kung fu combat episodes were projected on the background.

To be really convincing cosplayer and bring their character to life, one must first become character, says Zhao, an arts major in college who has loved animation since childhood. She took up cosplay three years ago. She expects to work for an animation company and hopes to create more original Chinese cartoon images.

"I have been discussing with my friends how a warrior walks, talks and thinks for a long time. We have been learning some basic martial arts poses," she says. "You need to present something distinctive about your character on stage, such as voice, posture or special habits."

Zhao and others were part of a college cosplay community, every year taking part in six competitions and shows. They have an online chat group and there's a wealth of cosplay information online.


Not everyone can understand Zhao's mania for cosplay, including her parents. She gets a lot of strange looks.

"I seldom try weird and exaggerated images in front of my parents," she says. "Some people may think we're insane, but I clearly know what I want. Every time I receive applause, I remind myself not to be complacent because what they like is not you, but a dressed-up you - the character."

Ge Hanqing, a student from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, was the champion in last year's contest. This time she is cosplaying Diao Chan, one of China's four ancient beauties and also a Japanese cyber game character.

Ge, wearing a long, lovely purple dress, says cosplay is fulfilling and she has learned how to put on makeup, how to make and dye clothes and how to design complicated props and sets.

"I used to be a very shy girl," she says. "Cosplaying has helped me get over my fear of performing and talking in public. It has strengthened my confidence in life. And I have gained a lot of skills in getting along with different people."

Although most cosplayers in China are young women, many young men are enthusiastic about what they consider performance art. Cute Miaomiao (a nickname) is one of them.

Cute is a fresh college grad and director of a 60-member cosplay community. He enjoys cross-dressing and cross-playing female comic book and animation characters. His favorite character is the female warrior in the hit Japanese animation series "Orient."

Cute says it's exciting to turn a fictional character into a real, living person. Plus, the fantasy cosplay world has more pure emotions and less complicated interpersonal relationships, he says.

There are dozens of big cosplay communities and social networking sites focusing on cosplay in Shanghai. Many people are eager to show off their latest creations, and cosplay big part of anime events.

The contest at the Cartoons, Comics and Games Expo is in its third year and has attracted several hundred groups and individuals from around China. Thirty will enter the finals to be held from today to Saturday; the awards ceremony is held on Sunday at the China Pavilion.

According to Minako Wu, a contest organizer, cosplay has become an integral part of China's anime scene.

"This art form is vibrant and promising because of its flexible and grassroots nature," Wu says. "Cosplay is actually a bridge connecting the fantasy virtual world with reality. Teenagers can get out of the comics world of book and television and find their new passion in this anime-related activity."

Experts' views

Yang Mu, a psychologist at the Shanghai Renxin Counseling Center, attributes the cosplay's popularity to the emotional and psychological needs of children and teenagers - most of them the only child in their families.

"Attention-getting and teen rebellion are the nature of adolescence," she says. "Many teenage cosplayers think it's pretty cool to get so much attention from others. It's a way for them to know about and interact with the world."

The young generation is exposed to all kinds of information and diverse cultures and lives a very different kind life from their parents, she adds, urging more tolerance for this particular stage of development.

Still, obsession with cosplay can blur the lines between reality and fantasy.

Professor Gu from Fudan University says that cosplay satisfies young people's desire to express themselves and show off - something basic to human beings.

"There's always distance between dreams and reality," he notes. "But during the cosplay process, a lot of young people manage to redefine their identity and achieve a sense of existence and fulfillment."


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