Low point to new heights: Chinese idol Zhang Zhehan thrives after career-derailing controversy, Latest Music News - The New Paper

Low point to new heights: Chinese idol Zhang Zhehan thrives after career-derailing controversy

When a sudden spate of rumours triggered severe cyberviolence and derailed his acting career in 2021, Chinese star Zhang Zhehan contemplated ending his life amid other extreme actions, but came to the realisation that he “must first live on so there can be possibilities”.

Fast-forward to the present, and those possibilities have materialised.

Best known for his roles in period dramas such as Legend Of Yunxi (2018) and Word Of Honor (2021), the actor relaunched his career as a singer-songwriter in December 2022 and remains as popular as ever outside China.

Since then, he has released 14 singles – from the albums Deep Blue (2022 to 2023) and Datura (2023) – and some have topped the global iTunes chart and radio charts in countries like Singapore and Malaysia. He held concerts in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur earlier in 2023 and a fan meeting in Singapore on Nov 26, and will return to Thailand to perform at the end of the year.

Zhang, 32, even bagged a double win at the Yes 933 Hits Fest 2023, a concert-cum-awards show organised by local radio station Yes 933, on Nov 25 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. He was one of 10 winners of the Artiste Of The Year award, alongside Mandopop acts Jay Chou, JJ Lin and Accusefive. His self-penned song Magnificent Life was crowned Hit Of The Year.

Such new heights of success are a far cry from his low point just two years ago, when he was “cancelled” in his home country.

Over three days in August 2021, state media and netizens panned him after an old travel photo of him, allegedly taken at a controversial shrine, circulated on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. This came under dispute later, but at the time, international brands terminated their partnerships with him, and his works and social media accounts were swiftly removed from the domestic market.

Although he later released an audio recording and video clarification stating it was not true and pointed to a shadowy public relations campaign waged against him, the damage to his image and reputation in China appeared irreversible. 

In an interview with The Straits Times when he was in town on Nov 24, Zhang is candid about the fallout, and focuses on looking forward and letting his actions speak for themselves.

“I feel that I live a righteous life. I don’t need to punish myself for others’ mistakes,” he says in Mandarin.

“A lot of the information was false. (But) at that point, I had no time to clarify the matter. And then I disappeared in front of everyone. I have thought about clarifications. But would people have been willing to listen?”

He added: “What I can do is do my best to live my life well... Slowly, people will come to realise the truth.”

Zhang says he worked through his nadir by consulting a mental health professional, exercising and journalling.

He recalls: “When I was running in the stadium, I felt very down because I wasn’t sure what to do. I just had that one belief: I cannot be beaten. I have to stand up again. I cannot stop. So I kept on running.”

Asked how he now deals with online negativity and trolling, the Jiangxi-born idol says he laughs off absurd comments. But the topic of cyberviolence still strikes a chord.

He says: “I feel sad when people end their lives because of it. All the more I must live well, to tell those who experienced cyberviolence in the past and experience it now and in the future – you must continue to live on. Only when you live on can there be hope and change.”

His music career taking off within a year is a testament to his motto. He modestly says he is a newcomer and not fully deserving of his accolades, adding: “I have to keep working hard as I started a little late on this track.”

Zhang has released three English songs – pop-rock tune Believer, romantic ballad Moonlight and retro track Pressure. While a full English album is not in the works, he believes English to be the bridge to the world.

He says: “I hope more people can hear my music, even those who don’t understand Mandarin.”

He also lets on that he is planning a return to acting in 2024.

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