Sophia Larigakis talks to Xin Chen about the hugely popular phenomenon of “Boys’ Love” in China – a genre of fiction that features sex and romance between gay men, created primarily by and for a community of heterosexual women known as “rotten girls.”
In 1997, the government of the People’s Republic of China decriminalized homosexuality. It wasn’t until four years later, in 2001, that homosexuality was officially declassified as a mental illness. Today, mainstream society in mainland China is still ambivalent – but more often than not, hostile – towards non-normative sexualities. In 2017, China is a conservative culture with deeply ingrained social and gendered hierarchies and a highly regulated (read: censored) internet. So, how does a form of (mostly online) gay erotica consumed primarily by straight women come to flourish into a major industry?
Boys’ Love is a genre of fiction – it takes the form of films, TV series, internet forums, literature, and manga – primarily written by and marketed towards heterosexual women, that features stories of erotic and romantic relationships between (beautiful, often androgynous) men. Boys’ Love is a mammoth phenomenon and highly profitable industry—in other words, far from a fledgling subculture. It originated in Japan, where it’s known as yaoi (やおい), and is now highly popular in mainland China, where it’s referred to as danmei (耽美). Boys’ Love has a robust and enthusiastic fan base, known as Fu Nü, or “rotten girls.” The term “rotten girls,” adapted from the Japanese, is a deliberate subversion of the fetishized idea of Chinese femininity as girlish, pretty, and innocent. Rotten girls’ creation, consumption, and extra-textual interaction with danmei is undoubtedly a form of empowerment, as well as a reclamation of (virtual) space. Their use of the internet – a tool of surveillance and control employed by the Chinese government – as a primary platform is a radical act of resistance to a deeply restrictive and heteronormative society.
Chen Xin, who did her MA dissertation on Chinese incarnations of Boys’ Love at the University of British Columbia, talked to me about the power of slash fiction, gay male eroticism, and what the phenomenon means for notions of gender and sexuality in China.
Sophia: The literary genre of Boys’ Love, yaoi, originated in Japan. How is the mainland Chinese iteration of the genre – danmei – different than Japan’s?
Xin: That’s a hard question. Despite having read academic writing on Japan’s BL, I think I haven’t read enough actual Japanese BL (especially not the manga genre) to comment. What I can say is that in China’s internet literature, danmei has been popularized within other genres – a danmei novel could also be a detective novel, or a mystery novel… the same way a detective novel could contain heterosexual romance. The fantasized homosexual relationship is not necessarily the sole focus of the story – which makes the potential scope of a danmei story much wider, and not necessarily restricted to homosexual romance/sex. I consider this important to the vitality of the danmei genre – women don’t necessarily want to just read romance (be it heterosexual or homosexual).
Do you think the popularity of Danmei speaks to a cultural shift in mainland China more generally, specifically within the context of sex and gender?
There’s been a definite cultural shift that came with the recent influx of Western TV and film into China. I also think that an openness towards non-normative sexualities correlates with many factors such as education, geography, and economic development. China is generally conservative when it comes to sex and sexuality, but my generation (children of the 80s/90s, a.k.a. millennials) aren’t necessarily so – as can be seen from the sheer popularity of BL. My observation is that readers and writers of danmei (at least some of them) are comfortable discussing sex within the context of danmei novels. I also think danmei adds to its readers’ appreciation or understanding of gender fluidity, and challenges traditional gender stereotypes. However, as liberating in terms of sexuality and gender fluidity as BL is, not all BL rigorously challenges stereotypes – some works depict problematic gender norms and relationship dynamics.
Why do you think women love writing, watching and reading about love and sex between men?
Western slash fiction readers have offered many answers to this question themselves. One reader noted that she (presumably a she) reads danmei because she is heterosexual, and when there are two men, the pleasure doubles. There is a theory of intimatopia (Woledge) about how some of the slash fiction’s attraction lies in the intimacy, not the sex. I agree with previous scholars’ opinions that the sex is in some sense safe, because it is divorced from the readers’ own romantic lives (as primarily straight women). The uke/seme [bottom/top] structure – taken on from Japanese BL – both enforces a sense of orderliness onto the relationship, and also plays with its subversion. I also think that being able to speak about desires and fantasize about male beauty is one of the attractions of Boys’ Love – some danmei novels are highly erotic. As the meaning* of the word danmei – addicted to, or indulging in beauty – suggests, danmei is a fantasy of a male or androgynous beauty.
Who are Fu Nü (“rotten girls”) and what do they have in common other than loving Boys’ Love? Do the writers/creators of Danmei consider themselves “rotten girls”?
Writers and readers are not all heterosexual females. There are some (often highly successful) male danmei writers, and some gay men read danmei for pleasure as well. But as for “rotten girls,” I guess we are just normal people. Some say rotten girls grow out of the rottenness as they mature (in the sense that they become less enthusiastic or avid readers, rather than ceasing to consume BL materials or fantasize altogether) – and I don’t know if this is true. I want to say that “rotten girls” don’t necessarily have anything in common besides BL – they may not even like the same kind of BL novels. But BL has a close connection to slash fiction, so some are slash fans. Female Danmei writers must be rotten – or it would be hard to produce rotten materials whilst enjoying the writing process and the reader-writer interaction (if any). Many are prosumers (readers turned writers).
*As translated by Jin Feng and Zheng Xiqing.
English translations of BL novels can be found at Chinese BL Translations
Sophia Larigakis is a Canadian writer living in New York City, and an editor at Slutever.