TV dramas about the Second Sino-Japanese War (also referred to as ‘the War of Resistance against Japan’ 抗日战争) have been popular in China for years.
The Second Sino-Japanese War started in 1937, and merged into WWII in 1941. Although it has been seventy years since the war has ended, the topic is still very much alive on China’s TV screens. In 2012, seventy of China’s major 200 primetime TV shows revolved around this war (Lam 2013).
Recently, China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) announced a limit on TV dramas that sensationalize the history of war.
The critique is particularly directed at popular war dramas that are mockingly called ‘divine Anti-Japanese drama’ (抗日神剧) by Chinese netizens. These TV dramas generally depict the Japanese army as extremely weak and the Chinese protagonists as exceptionally strong.
In these series, the Chinese hero can cut a Japanese soldier in half by just using one hand. The fighting scenes are exaggerated; there is blood splattering everywhere while body parts are flying around.
These series are unacceptable, according to the SAPPRFT, because their mere goal is to entertain viewers. In doing so, they misrepresent history and disrespect the Chinese soldiers who fought to defend the nation. Examples of these TV series are The Wondrous Knight of the War of Resistance against Japan (抗日奇侠) or The Arrow in the Bow (剪在弦上) (Baidu 2015).
In response to the recent critique on China’s ‘Anti-Japanese divine drama’, various Chinese media have reported on another type of war drama: the life-like war play.
In Wuxiang, Shanxi Province, there is a theme park dedicated to the Second Sino-Japanese War (Eighth Route Army Park). This theme park harbours a group of 46 actors that perform different war plays on a daily basis. According to Sina News and China’s Lawcourt Evening News, the actors greatly disapprove of ‘divine drama’. Instead of distorting history, they claim to provide an accurate representation of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
The article in the Lawcourt Evening News interviews Yang Lei, a 27-year-old actor that has been playing a Japanese soldier (“a Japanese devil”) for over four years in the Eighth Route Army Park.
During the weekends or holidays, the park has hundreds of visitors who come to watch the performance. When it is very busy, Yang has to ‘die’ up to four times a day. “In the past few years, I have died over a 6000 times in total,” he says. The plays take about twenty minutes per show, and are focused on the events of 1943, the year that the Chinese Eighth Route Army fought against Japanese troops in Wuxiang.
One of the shows is about a small village in Anning that is invaded and occupied by Japanese troops. When a Chinese spy steals secret information from their camp, the whole village is held for questioning. A Chinese underground Party member sacrifices his life to protect the spy’s identity. Just when the Japanese general orders to have the entire village killed, China’s Eighth Route Army storms in and wipes out all the ‘Japanese devils.’
The Eighth Route Army Park performances are different from the ‘divine drama’, say the actors. In the theme park, they imitate reality as much as possible. The ‘Japanese devils’ wear the right yellow uniforms, caps, white gloves and boots. The actors use fake blood and cap guns that create a loud sound and a puff of smoke when the trigger is pulled – everything to make the scenes look real.
“You can play whatever you like, as long as you don’t play a Japanese person.”
It is not easy playing a Japanese devil. Throughout the years as a Japanese officer, Yang Lei has gone through four military uniforms, fifteen pairs of boots and hundred pairs of socks.
Some of his colleagues are afraid to talk about their job. “I don’t know how to tell my friends and family about my role as a devil,” Liu Chuan says. His grandfather used to be in the Chinese army, and he might not be too happy about his grandson playing a Japanese soldier. The fear of telling relatives is not unreasonable, according to the article, as it has happened before that actors were removed from the theme park by their parents. “You can play whatever you like,” said the parents of one 19-year-old actor: “As long as you don’t play a Japanese person.”
The actors greet the applauding audience after the performance (Sina 2015).
With all the critique concerning China’s war shows, many media sources report that this is the end for the “divine war drama.” Recent articles blame directors from Hong Kong and Taiwan for these kinds of exaggerated war plays.
The article on the Eighth Route Army Park suggests that this is a place where war is not “over-entertained.” The actors frown upon the “divine drama” because it is not about real history, but about commercial revenue. While saying so, the group of actors at the Eighth Route Army Park entertain their audiences every day. The park in Wuxiang is opened daily from 9.00 to 18.00. A single entrance costs 90 RMB (15 US dollar). Visitors can purchase an electronic ticket through text message and scan it at the entrance. The park, that opened in 2011, has not lost its appeal. While attracting more visitors, Yang Lei and his ‘devil’ colleagues can be expected to die a thousand times more.
– by Manya Koetse
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Curious about China’s “Anti-Japanese divine drama”? The video below is a compilation from The Wondrous Knight of the War of Resistance against Japan (抗日奇侠).
Baidu. 2015. 抗日神剧. Baidu Baike http://baike.baidu.com/view/10364874.htm [15.4.15].
Lam, Oiwan. 2013. “China’s Anti-Japanese TV War Dramas Knocked for Vulgarity.” Global Voices, April 2014 http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/04/14/chinas-anti-japanese-war-films-knocked-for-vugarity/ [15.4.15].
Fawan. 2015. “红色景区里的“鬼子兵.” Fazhi Wanbao 法制晚报 [Lawcourt Evening News], April 14 http://www.fawan.com.cn/html/2015-04/14/content_547245.htm [15.4.15].
Sina. 2015. “日本兵演员:演戏追求严谨不会演抗日神剧.” April 14 http://news.sina.com.cn/s/p/2015-04-14/151731716471.shtml [15.4.15].
Sina 2015. “抗日神剧”活跃荧屏怎能只怪港台导演?” Sina News, April 11 http://ent.sina.com.cn/v/m/2015-04-11/doc-iawzuney3057210.shtml [15.4.15].
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[box type=”bio”] About the Author: Manya Koetse is the editor of What’s on Weibo. She’s a Sinologist who splits her time between the Netherlands and China. She earned her bachelor’s degrees in Literary Studies, Japanese & China Studies and completed her MPhil in Asian Studies. Contact: email@example.com, or follow on Twitter.[/box]
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Oh, the Drama! Chinese Opera Performance Turns into Stage Fight as Drunken Man Attacks Actors
This local traditional opera performance unexpectedly turned into a stage fight.
On October 9 in Zhejiang’s Lishui city (Laozhu Town), a theatrical performance unexpectedly turned very dramatic when a drunken man stormed on stage to fight with the performers.
A video showing the Chinese opera performance being disturbed by the drunkard, turning it into a chaotic stage scene, is gaining major attention on Chinese social media.
The incident occurred Friday night around 9 pm, when the Laozhu Theatrical Troupe was performing.
Videos of the incident that are circulating online show how one man comes on stage, attacking one of the actors. The scene escalates into a big fight when others try to intervene. The police were quick to arrive at the scene.
Oh, the drama! A Peking Opera performance turned into an explosive fight this weekend when a drunken village chief's son stormed on stage. He was allegedly rejected by one of the (Huadan) actresses.
Can't help but think the audience still got a spectacular show. pic.twitter.com/DPg3Q6QGOh
— Manya Koetse (@manyapan) October 11, 2020
Various news reports suggest the man started to act out after getting into an argument with one of the ‘Huadan’ (花旦) performers of the troupe. In traditional Chinese opera, the Huadan characters are young female roles, often seductive in appearance and quick with their words.
Local police posted on Weibo that the chaos was caused by a 33-year-old local who started to become aggressive after he had too much to drink. The man is charged with disorderly conduct and is currently detained.
The case received even more attention on social media when it turned out that the 33-year old troublemaker is the son of the head of a neighboring village.
Many Chinese netizens feel that the man is spared by Chinese news media outlets, which only report about a “drunken man” who was “causing trouble.” They insist that the real story should be properly reported.
“The son of the village chief took liberties with a huadan actress who rejected him, and then he kicked her, causing her to lose consciousness. He then beat up other actors,” some commenters explain.
“He is not just a ‘drunkard’, he’s the son of the village secretary.”
“What an explosive performance it was!” one Weibo blogger writes.
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Rotten Girls: China’s Thriving Online Boys’ Love Culture
It is an online subculture that has been around for more than a decade, and it is not likely to die out any time soon.
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China (forthcoming), see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
China’s ever-buzzing social media sphere sees trends, topics, and movements pop up every single day and then fade away quickly when their novelty is gone. But there are some trends that turn into something bigger, bringing forth communities and online subcultures that keep on thriving for years, with the participants building their own spaces in the online environment.
One such space belongs to those who, with some self-mockery, define as “Rotten Girls” (fǔnǚ 腐女), derived from the Japanese fujoshi. In the Chinese context, ‘Rotten Girls’ are young women with a passion for fictional stories, drama series, and manga (comic books) featuring gay male erotica and romantic relationships called ‘yaoi.’
‘Rotten girls’ do not just consume these stories, primarily written by and for women, they also create and share them with others to discuss.
In Chinese, the gay erotica known as yaoi is also called ‘danmei’ (耽美) or ‘BL’ (for ‘Boys’ Love’) – all umbrella terms for contents of male-male homoerotic fiction. The genre plays a major role in various corners of the Chinese internet. It is an online subculture that has been around for more than a decade, and it is not likely to die out any time soon.
Media and technology both play a big part in the sharing of fǔnǚ fantasies. These fantasies can range from boys holding hands to more pornographic ones, but the main point of the imaginary is love and intimacy (Galbraith 2011, 213).
Always Another BL Trend
There is always something different trending in the world of Rotten Girls. This summer, for example, the release of the Japanese 18+ games ‘Lkyt’ by BL game brand Parade received a lot of attention. A previous game by Parade, ‘Room No. 9,’ is also still popular among BL fans in China. The game revolves around two young men, long-time friends, who get locked inside a room where they are subjected to a behavioral analysis experiment. The two have to make some taunting decisions, including possibly being forced into sexual activity with each other, in order to make it out alive.
Another major topic that went trending within the Rotten Girls community some years ago, even attracting the attention of western news media, was the British crime drama Sherlock. Many Chinese viewers in the BL scenes were convinced that detective Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his sidekick Watson (Martin Freeman) were not just professional partners, but a romantic couple. This practice of imagining a relationship between two characters is also known as ‘CP,’ an abbreviation for “coupling” or “character pairing.”
The ambiguous relationship between Holmes and Watson – and the very fact that they are not explicitly homosexual – suits the fantasies harbored by China’s fǔnǚ. There are countless examples of how BL fans photoshopped Sherlock images into homoerotic scenes, making up their own stories and endlessly discussing the relationship between Holmes and Watson.
BL fans are active in various online spaces. There are Rotten Girls communities on Chinese literature websites, discussion boards, and on ACG-focused platforms such as Bilibili (ACG is a popular abbreviation of “Anime, Comic and Games”). Boys’ Love is practically everywhere: short stories, web novels, manga, anime, games, and series are all actively created, consumed, and shared within the BL fandom.
The Chinese Jinjiang Literature City site (1998) is one of the earliest and most influential websites for the danmei genre, where some top channels receive millions of clicks. The Chinese web novel author ‘Priest’ is among one of the most successful authors (some translations in English can be found here).
But besides the special BL fiction forums, there are also many fǔnǚ accounts on the more mainstream social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. Under Weibo hashtags such as “Fǔnǚ Daily” (#腐女日常#), “BL Webtoons” (#bl条漫#), “BL Manga” (#bl漫画#), “Original Danmei” (#原创耽美#), and many more, Rotten Girls discuss their favorite danmei works and the latest news on a daily basis.
Although the Rotten Girls have been increasing their sphere of influence, it hasn’t been without controversy. Not only are they often looked down upon for their love for male homoeroticism, some LGBT people also criticize them for silencing the voices of actual gay men or erasing real-life gay experiences.
From Japanese Toy Boys to Chinese Danmei
Where did this all begin? China’s BL subculture finds it roots in Japan. The popularity of danmei came up with the growing influence of Japanese popular culture in China.
In the early 1990s, Japanese manga and anime titles started flooding the Chinese market, often as unauthorized (pirated) copies. With this wave of Japanese entertainment products hitting the Chinese market, there were also those belonging to the genre of BL.
In Japanese fiction and manga, the theme of male-male romance intended for a female audience emerged as early as the 1970s but did not really rise to popularity until the early 1990s, when Japanese mainstream media saw a ‘gay boom’ and representations of male homosexuality became in vogue.
The year 1993 truly was a ‘gay year’ in the Japanese media and entertainment industry. In “Producing Gayness” (1997), Sho Ogawa describes how one Japanese magazine even offered readers a “Gay Toybox”: full color paper gay dolls to cut out, including matching clothes from jackets to sports uniforms and even leather bondage gear. Instructions that came with the paper dolls encouraged readers to play with them, “give them a lovely name” and “imagine a campus love affair” between them.
It was also in this same year of 1993 that many Chinese young women first discovered the genre of Japanese Boys’ Love, mainly through the dissemination of pirate manga, novels, and magazines in Chinese bookstores.
Throughout the years, the Chinese genre of danmei has become much more than just an imported entertainment genre from Japan, and it is also somewhat different from the subgenre of ‘slash fiction’ in the West.
Danmei literally means “to indulge in beauty,” and it has developed its own characteristics, taking a predominantly literary form while also strongly resonating with Japanese visual culture (Madill et al 2018, 5). Since the first Chinese BL-focused monthly magazine appeared in 1999, the genre has mixed with various local and other foreign media and celebrity cultures (e.g. that of South Korean and Thailand), and has become a truly Chinese fan culture phenomenon (Chen 2017, 7; Yang & Xu 2017, 3).
Safe, Subversive, and Pure Love
Those outside the danmei subculture often wonder what makes ‘Boys’ Love’ so appealing to so many young women. There are various explanations and interpretations of why female fans enjoy writing and reading about male homoeroticism.
Chen Xin, who studied the topic of Boys’ Love at the University of British Columbia, offers “safety” as one explanation for the popularity of danmei, as it gives its readers, mostly straight women, the freedom to fantasize in a way that is removed from their own romantic lives. This is also reiterated by other scholars, who argue that BL provides a safe fantasy where female fans can avoid the objectification of women while exploring the boundaries of their own sexuality.
The concept of ‘pure love’ is one of the funü’s greatest attraction to BL. According to them, it is the most romantic type of love because it transcends the boundaries of gender. The male protagonists in these stories do not identify as gay, but fall in love with other men nevertheless. “It doesn’t matter if you are male or female, I just love you” and “It’s not that I am gay, I just love a man” are classic sentences within Rotten Girls’ fiction (Dai 2013, 34).
Zhang Chunyu (2016) also highlights the genre as an outlet for female writers and readers to explore sexuality and pleasure in a “subversive” way. Rotten girls position males as the objects of female desire, and in doing so, they challenge traditional gender stereotypes and appreciate gender fluidity.
China’s Rotten Girls subculture is also ‘subversive’ in another way. Because of its focus on homosexuality and eroticism, danmei fandom is subject to online censorship. According to China’s cyberspace regulations, online content should adhere to the “correct political direction” and “strive to disseminate contemporary Chinese values.” Over the past few years, there have been various moments when displays of homosexuality were targeted by censors.
An anti-pornography campaign of 2014 resulted in the shutdown of hundreds of websites and social media accounts. Throughout the years, dozens of danmei authors have been arrested and many sites were closed or deleted for creating and distributing homoerotic content (Chen 2017, 9; Madill et al 2018, 6; Zhang 2016, 250).
Despite the strict internet control, fǔnǚ and BL content are still going strong. In order to circumvent censorship, the words and images used are often coded or nuanced enough not to get deleted – but BL fans will still understand and enjoy the subtext.
Over the past years, China’s Rotten Girls have grown from a niche community to a force to reckon with on the Chinese internet. They have become a phenomenon that is often discussed in the media and is even researched by many academics.
“We’ve become professionals now,” one ‘Rotten Girl’ joked on Weibo recently.
Another commenter replied that the rise and possible fall of the danmei community is, eventually, intrinsically linked to how much room is given by China’s internet regulators. Although the past decade has demonstrated that Rotten Girls are not easily scared away by censorship and shutdowns, their future eventually does depend on the online accessibility to BL media and forums.
“If there is no relaxed online environment, it doesn’t matter how professional we are,” one commenter writes: “We might come to a standstill.”
What the future will hold for China’s Rotten Girls remains to be seen. Whether met with controversy or censorship, for now it seems impossible to put the Rotten Girls back into the closet they came from.
This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.
Chen, Xin. 2017. “Boys’ Love (Danmei) Fiction On The Chinese Internet: Wasabi Kun, The Bl Forum Young Nobleman Changpei, And The Development Of An Online Literary Phenomenon.” MA Thesis, University of British Colombia https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Boys%27-Love-(Danmei)-fiction-on-the-Chinese-internet-Chen/63e7b494653bc1d849461b7a8f3d57aad05be452 [Aug 30, 2020].
Cohane (阿扣-绝赞爬墙中). 2020. “第二章 中国内地BL文化发展历史整理 [Part Two: A History of Development of Mainland China BL Culture Development]” (In Chinese). Weibo Article, Aug 8, https://weibo.com/ttarticle/p/show?id=2309404536531036799045 [Aug 26 2020].
Dai, Fei 戴非. 2013. “腐女心理 [Funu Psychology]” (In Chinese). 大众心里学 Popular Psychology (12): 34-35.
Galbraith, Patrick W. 2011. “Fujoshi: Fantasy Play and Transgressive Intimacy among “Rotten Girls” in Contemporary Japan.” Signs 37 (1): 211-232.
Larigakis, Sophia. 2017. “Boys’ Love: The Gay Erotica Taking China by Storm.” Sophialarigakis.com, Nov 6 https://www.sophialarigakis.com/writing/boys-love-china [Aug 29, 2020].
Madill, A., Zhao, Y. and Fan, L. 2018. “Male-male marriage in Sinophone and Anglophone Harry Potter Danmei and Slash.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 9 (5): 418-434.
Ogawa, Sho. 2017. “Producing Gayness: The 1990s “Gay Boom” in Japanese Media.” PhD Dissertation, University of Kansas.
Yang, Ling and Yanrui Xi. 2016. “Danmei, Xianqing, and the making of a queer online public sphere in China.” Communication and the Public 1 (2): 251-256.
Yang, Ling and Yanrui Xu. 2017. “Chinese Danmei Fandom and Cultural Globalization from Below.” In: Lavin, Maud, Ling Yang, and Jing Jamie Zhao (eds). 2017. Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols – Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, page 3-20.
Zhang, Chunyu. 2016. “Loving Boys Twice as Much: Chinese Women’s Paradoxical Fandom of “Boys’ Love” Fiction.” Women’s Studies In Communication 39 (3): 249–267.
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