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Why Chinese women are falling for 'boys love' fiction

Fiction written by straight women, for straight women, has Beijing worried

While male-male romance might be taboo, danmei fiction, movies and web series offer Chinese women a place to escape the male gaze and forget about the duties expected of them in China's deeply patriarchal society.

NEW YORK -- "Oh my God, this is too sweet!" screamed Claire Liu, 27, both hands squishing her cheeks, her sparkling eyes fixated on a compilation video of actors Gong Jun and Zhang Zhehan from the hit Chinese series "Word of Honor."

Adapted from the novel Faraway Wanderers, a danmei ("boys love") genre story where the male leads are romantically involved with each other, Liu has joined several WeChat fan groups that require passing an entrance exam establishing would-be members' knowledge of the finer details of the show's plot and characters.

"I like that both of [their characters] are very powerful and intelligent, both are top Wugong (Kung-Fu) masters," Liu, a New York finance professional, told Nikkei Asia. "They both experienced the dark side of the world but they tried to save each other and see the better side of humanity."

Liu offered no such praise for television dramas featuring heterosexual romance, known in China as "boy-girl" or BG shows.

"Every one [of the female leads] is sweet, cute, but they just don't have any logic, and that's the whole problem," said Liu. "In the real world, especially after I started working, most of the problems have to be solved by yourself, you're not a princess waiting for someone to save you. [In the shows,] you want it to be romantic but you don't want them to lose the human spirit. They don't resemble the women in China nowadays."

Danmei novels have gained huge popularity in China over the past decade, with some being adapted into successful web series. Even though the actual romance between the characters can only be hinted at and never displayed due to censorship, fans code the hidden romance as "socialist brotherhood."

Popular recent series include "Guardian" in 2018, "The Untamed" in 2019, and this year's "Word of Honor," all making stars of otherwise lesser-known actors such Xiao Zhan, Wang Yibo, Bai Yu and Zhu Yilong. More than anything, what these series have revealed is the massive appetite for danmei stories in China, driven mostly by female audiences.

Top: The Boys Love genre has become so popular that China's alarmed censors have started to clamp down, canceling several danmei shows already in production this year such as "Immortality." Bottom: From right, Chen Zihan, Ma Wenyuan, Zhou Ye, Zhang Zhehan, Gong Jun and Sun Xilun attend the Word of Honor concert on May 4 in Suzhou. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)   © Getty Images

"I think danmei adapted shows connected fans of the original novels and fans of the actors in the show," said one Chinese professor of media and gender studies who wished to remain anonymous.

"The scriptwriters have to think about how to hint the romance without letting them out of the closet, the ambiguity actually engages with the fans very well, where they are playing detective on finding clues of their love. By constantly discussing what roles each character has in the relationship, fan fictions are also created," he said.

Because danmei shows are vulnerable to government intervention, fans tend to invest a lot more in the career paths of the actors than the stars of BG genre productions, the professor added.

But the genre has become so popular that China's alarmed censors have started to clamp down, canceling several danmei shows already in production this year such as "Immortality" and "Shapolang."

Even "Word of Honor" has been taken down from several streaming platforms after right-wing netizens 'canceled' Zhang Zhehan after he posted a travel photo unintentionally taken in front of Tokyo's controversial Yasukuni Shrine. The commemorates Japan's war dead, including soldiers convicted of war crimes against China.

Danmei culture has also become a target of China's state-controlled media. The Guangming Daily recently accused danmei series of "misleading" and "confusing" teens. By depicting men flirting with each other, these shows have "the tendency to be vulgar," the newspaper thundered.

With no formal ban in place as yet, state media criticism of the genre -- especially its "sissy pants" actors -- has prompted many streaming platforms to remove such content altogether.

Still, what China's censors don't appear to understand is that the rise of danmei culture has its roots in far more than just investors' greed and women's "curiosity." Behind the fangirling at the subtle romantic hints and the eager replaying of coded scenes, is a well of frustration over China's traditional gender roles. 

As a genre, Boys Love (BL) has its roots in 1970s Japan manga culture where it was created by female manga artists rebelling against a male-dominated industry. It has since grown into a massive global community of female fans who -- especially in Asia -- call themselves "rotten women."

Not considered LGBTQ literature, BL fiction is often written by straight women for straight women. The link between the genre itself and Asia's feminist awakening is undeniable.

"[The creators] were the people who were really frustrated or in despair that they couldn't change the Confucius-based Japanese society," said Suzuki Kazuko, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University.

"So they escaped to the discourse. BL is an artistic and creative way to deconstruct the gender [rules] in a performative manner, especially in a very sexist society," said Kazuko. "They wanted to convey that gender is not something essential, even in a single person, both femininity and masculinity can coexist. They wanted to rebel against the binary understanding [of gender]."

Top: Fans inspect bouquets of flowers as they wait outside the Suzhou Olympic Sports Centre Stadium ahead of a concert in May with the theme of the Chinese television drama 'Word of Honor'. Bottom: Tickets for the 'Word of Honor' themed concert sold out in seconds, slipping by censors of LGBTQ themes with its subtlety.   © AFP/Jiji

Boys Love offers a sanctuary for women to imagine a free and adventurous life without gender-based boundaries or social taboos.

"When I was small, I had a dream, what if I was born as a man? I could have more freedom and more opportunities," said Kazumi Nagaike, a cultural studies professor at Oita University.

"That's our desire for transformation, our desire for change. BL is usually characterized by sexually explicit presentations, and having a female figure is a taboo," said Nagaike. "By using the male body as a vessel, it's very effective to reduce the amount of the sense of shame and guilt for readers and artists."

In China, BL's rising popularity is following a similar pattern, where the standard for an ideal woman has long been someone "pale, young and skinny," who must be docile if she is to find a man to settle down with by the time she is 30. That explains why so many female Chinese celebrities portray themselves as innocent, cute young girls -- no matter what their age -- in order to stay popular with fans.

But modern Chinese women have increasingly lost interest in such standards, and are embracing body positivity and feminist values. This is a creed that sees women as diverse and beautiful no matter their age, size, shade, or relationship status. The idea of being a strong, confident, single, and career-driven woman has become an inspiration for many Chinese women on social media.

While shows depicting strong female leads such as the U.S. series "Why Women Kill" have become popular among Chinese audiences, with the first season landing a 9.4/10 score on Chinese rating platform Douban, there are still too few strong women characters appearing on Chinese screens.

In yanqing novels, a genre of Chinese romantic fiction featuring straight characters, women are mostly depicted as innocent damsels dependent on men. Where the man is strong and assertive, the woman is soft and emotional, a fixed dynamic that many young female readers now reject as patronizing.

"I didn't like the female portrayal in yanqing, they're more submissive and devoted to a heterosexual relationship, they're not independent," said Mo Yan, 25, a college student in Seattle, who got into danmei culture in middle school after losing interest in yanqing novels. "I searched on the internet and found that there are many rotten women like me, they formed a community very early on. I started to read fan fiction and then [discovered] original danmei novels."

In danmei, couples treat each other more as equals, sharing adventures that heterosexual couples can't due to stereotypes of female characters as "pale, sweet and naive," said the Chinese media professor, with the main characters in danmei stories often able to redeem themselves after a fall and become honorable again."

Danmei genre couples are also more diverse compared to those found in yanqing genre. "You can have one strong one soft like a traditional BG couple, you can also have many other combinations and varieties, such as both characters being strong," said Daisy, a danmei author and who preferred to only use her English name.

"Through danmei works, the female readers don't have to only imagine themselves in the shoes of the weaker role because of gender definition, they can live through the strong ones too. Many rotten women told me that they like to live through the sadistic character in a danmei couple that punishes the other character as a cathartic way to vent their anger in real life," Daisy chuckled.

For many women, it is so difficult to break ranks in their deeply patriarchal societies that danmei offers a place to escape the male gaze and actually forget about the duties expected of them in marriage and motherhood. And while male-male romance might be taboo, male characters still have more space to develop than female characters.

With many television shows already watered down during the script adaptation process, even danmei novels are now losing their essence due to censorship.

"As the fan base expanded, the danmei values have faded in danmei literature because now you can't write about sex or politics," said Daisy. "In early danmei works, there was a lot of writing about public discourse and politics from female perspectives."

Top: Ginnifer Goodwin attends the LA Premiere of CBS All Access' "Why Women Kill" at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images). Bottom: A woman watches the Chinese television drama 'Word of Honor' on her phone while traveling on the Beijing underground.   © AFP/Jiji

When BL culture reached China in the early 2000s, discreet online forums called Luxifu gave netizens space to discuss taboo topics as well as offering support and conferring acceptance.

"People would talk about social issues and problems in their real lives, they also expressed feminist views in the community because you couldn't express that anywhere else," said Daisy. "There was a lot of support in the community and often netizens became friends offline."

Perhaps the most unwitting revelation caused by increased censorship of danmei culture is how oppressive Chinese society feels for many women.

"Everyone in the Danmei community is baffled," said Daisy. "There is much energy and thoughts inside a woman that can't be expressed or put to use in her life. The society looks diverse, but the system is strict and you can only fall into a certain role or path."

Even though feminism is still considered taboo in China and feminists are often labeled "foreign agents," Chinese women have become much more aware of gender inequality, with gender-related discussions now flooding various social media platforms canvassing dating and marriage issues to more serious topics such as the #MeToo movement and domestic violence.

As the fate of danmei entertainment remains uncertain, viewers -- especially female audiences -- are left with less ways to escape from reality.

"People's emotions, entertainment needs and energy have nowhere to go," said the Chinese professor. "The authorities could act against capitalism but they haven't found a way to preserve diversity in cultures and entertainment while restricting the industry."

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