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On ‘Sharp Power’ & the China Threat 3.0: “The West Is Mentally Stuck in Cold War Era”

Chinese authorities respond to allegations of China meddling in foreign affairs through its ‘sharp power.’

Manya Koetse

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Over the past few months, ‘sharp power’ has become a buzzword to describe new ways in which the Chinese government allegedly meddles in foreign affairs. China’s top political advisory body has struck back in a press conference on Friday which caused somewhat of a stir both in- and outside China. Western views on China are biased and unrealistic, Chinese netizens respond.

“It is not the first time that new expressions have been concocted [by the West] to vilify China, and I believe it won’t be the last time. Some Westerners may have physically entered the 21st century, but are mentally stuck in the Cold War era,” said Wang Guoqing, the spokesperson for China’s top advisory body, during a press conference on March 2nd.

The press conference, which has been making headlines both in- and outside China, precedes the annual parliamentary and consultative sessions which open on Monday (March 5). An important part of the press conference focused on the idea of China’s ‘sharp power’ (锐实力), an American concept that refers to the new ways in which China and Russia allegedly meddle in the internal affairs of foreign countries.

Wang Guoqing responded to the claims that China “infiltrates” in the political and information environments of other nations, saying that the accusations are “filled with prejudice, discrimination, and hostility.”

 
Sharp Power
 

The term ‘sharp power’ has become somewhat of a buzzword since it was first coined by Christopher Walker (@Walker_CT) and Jessica Ludwig (@JesLudwig) in a Foreign Affairs article in November 2017.

The concept was also explained in the December 2017 New Forum Report Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence published by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Washington-based think tank funded largely by the US Congress. Walker and Ludwig both work for NED. The term was also featured on the frontpage of The Economist in December ’17.

In their report and article, Walker and Ludwig argue that China and Russia influence in foreign countries’ spheres of media, culture, and academia in “malign and aggressive” ways, using “modern and sophisticated tools” (Walker & Ludwig 2017b, 9-13).

In the NED report, Walker and Ludwig write: “In the case of China, (..), educational and cultural initiatives are accompanied by an authoritarian determination to monopolize ideas, suppress alternative narratives, and exploit partner institutions” (2017b, 13). In this way, the Chinese government allegedly is able to suppress the overseas voices that are critical of the Party.

The authors call this international influence “sharp power” to distinguish it from the term “soft power,” introduced by Joseph Nye, which describes the kinds of influence which are not “hard” military forces, but more economic or cultural influence. Also, the authors argue, authoritarian influence efforts are ‘sharp’ in the sense that they “pierce, penetrate, or perforate the political and information environments in the targeted countries” (2017a).

Nye recently published an article titled “China’s Soft and Sharp Power” (2018), in which he notes that “sharp power” is actually a “type of hard power” that can come from “soft power”.

He writes:

The United States has long had programs enabling visits by young foreign leaders, and now China is successfully following suit. That is a smart exercise of soft power. But when visas are manipulated or access is limited to restrain criticism and encourage self-censorship, even such exchange programs can shade into sharp power.”

 
“New Edition of the China Threat Theory”
 

While media outlets such as The Economist treat the “sharp power” term as a new type of behavior in international relations, Chinese state media regard it as a novel way to frame old biases, writing: “One may find that the term is no more than a language trap, coined and manipulated by some Western countries with ‘zero-sum’ mentality and cultural hegemony” (Liu 2018).

On March 2nd, the spokesperson for China’s parliament’s advisory body also said that “sharp power” was just a new version of the old “China threat” rhetoric.

Wang Guoqing, spokesperson of the CPPCC, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, during the press conference in Beijing on Friday, March 2.

Wang Guoqing quoted Martin Luther King Jr in making clear that, in Beijing’s official view, the accusations against China come from fear and misunderstanding, saying:

“Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they cannot communicate; they cannot communicate because they are separated” (O’Connor 2018).

Although news sites such as Reuters interpreted the press conference as an aggressive move against Western countries (see: “China kicks off parliament season with attack on the West” by Ben Blanchard), Chinese media described it as a response to efforts to smear China (see: China News).

 
China Threat 3.0
 

On Weibo, the issue of “sharp power” and the “new edition of the China threat” has become a topic of some discussions over the past few days. Lu Ge, an international relations scholar at Tsinghua University with a following of 1.7 million on Weibo (@北京鲁戈), writes that countries such as the US and Australia fear that China is aiming to spread communist ideologies, and is connivingly finding ways to dominate the world.

The majority of commenters responding to the news opposed the idea that China posed a threat to the ‘Western world.’ “Good friends come with good wine [spirits], bad people come with shot guns,” one popular comment to the press conference segment said.

“There will always be some Western countries meddling with others, although they don’t even understand what’s going on in their own country,” another netizen writes: “It’s better to make sure things are okay in your own country before smearing China, it won’t help.”

Another comment says: “Some people in the West say things that are completely false and do not line up with reality at all. They are deliberately creating a hype.”

“Some foreigners who have nothing better to do have made us a target of criticism. Firstly, China is not exporting a revolution. Second, we’re not exporting hunger nor poverty. Third, we are not tormenting them. I don’t know what else is left to say,” one person wrote.

The ‘sharp power’ concept could perhaps be called the ‘China Threat theory 3.0’, since there is not just one “China Threat theory”; there have been many different perceptions of ways in which China could possibly pose a threat to the rest of the world since the early 1990s.

In The China Threat: Perceptions, Myths and Reality (2005), Storey and Yee call the ‘China Threat’ “one of the most significant debates since the end of the Cold War.” The authors describe various ways in which China is represented as a threat to the world. The background to the issue, they write, is China’s rapid economic growth in the 1990s, but contributing factors to the theory include the PRC’s socialist political system which rejects Western political values.

Fear of political and economic collapse in China, rising Chinese nationalism, increasing military capability, and impact on regional security, are all named as factors contributing to the ways in which China is constructed as a potential ideological, economic, military and ecological threat to the rest of the world. The ‘sharp power’ concept can now be added to this list of theories.

But while the international community is watching China’s every step, China also closely observes how it is viewed from outside.

“Western countries and Western people look at China with colored glasses, it has nothing to do with us, the normal persons in the street,” one Weibo commenter writes.

“Since when is protecting the normal interests of our country and participating in normal international exchange a sign of exercising power?”, another netizen writes.

Although some critical voices raise the topic of Chinese social media censorship, most voices on Weibo seem to agree with Wang Guoqing’s statements. One netizen by the name of Lu Xixin (@陆锡鑫) writes: “Regardless whether this [concept] could be prejudice or discrimination, the issue is that it is hostile in nature. It is not surprising that Western media are vilifying China, but they don’t only do it to denounce China – they also do it to create chaos in China, and to disturb the momentum of China’s development.”

By Manya Koetse

References

Blanchard, Ben. 2018. “China kicks off parliament season with attack on the West.” Reuters, March 2, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-parliament/china-kicks-off-parliament-season-with-attack-on-the-west-idUSKCN1GE1IP [4.3.18].

China News 中国新闻网. 2018. “王国庆回应“锐实力”说:炮制新词“黑”中国.” China News, March 2, 2018. http://www.chinanews.com/gn/2018/03-02/8458485.shtml [4.3.18].

Liu Si. 2018. “Spotlight: Who’s behind the term “Sharp power”?” Xinhua News, February 13, 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-02/13/c_136972986.htm [4.3.18].

Nye, Joseph S. 2018. “China’s Soft and Sharp Power.” Project Syndicate, Jan 4, 2018. https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-soft-and-sharp-power-by-joseph-s–nye-2018-01 [4.3.18].

O’Connor, Tom. 2018. “China quotes Martin Luther King Jr. to attack U.S. Cold War “discrimination”.” Newsweek, March 2, 2018. http://www.newsweek.com/china-attacks-us-cold-war-discrimination-using-martin-luther-king-jr-829073 [4.3.18].

Storey, Ian, and Herbert Yee (eds.). 2005 (2002). The China Threat : Perceptions, Myths and Reality. London, New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

The Economist. 2017. “What To Do About China’s “Sharp Power”.” The Economist, December 14, 2017. https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21732524-china-manipulating-decision-makers-western-democracies-best-defence [4.3.18].

Walker, Christoper, and Jessica Ludwig. 2017a. “The Meaning of Sharp Power –
How Authoritarian States Project Influence.” Foreign Affairs, November 16, 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2017-11-16/meaning-sharp-power?cid=int-fls&pgtype=hpg [4.3.18].

Walker, Christopher, and Jessica Ludwig. 2017b. “From ‘Soft Power’ to ‘Sharp Power’: Rising Authoritarian Influence in the Democratic World.” In Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence, National Endowment for Democracy New Forum Report, December 5, 2017. https://www.ned.org/sharp-power-rising-authoritarian-influence-forum-report/ [4.3.18].

Xinhua. 2018. “”Sharp power” a new version of “China threat” rhetoric: spokesperson.” Xinhua News, March 2, 2018. http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/02/c_137011743.htm [4.3.18].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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    China Insight

    Justice for Lamu: Death of Tibetan Vlogger Sparks Online Movement against Domestic Violence 

    The story of a Tibetan woman burnt by her ex-husband has triggered outrage on Chinese social media.

    Manya Koetse

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    The popular Tibetan vlogger Lamu recently died after her husband attacked her and set her on fire inside her own home. Chinese netizens now raise their voices against domestic violence and call on authorities to do more to protect and legally empower victims of domestic abuse.

     
    By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Miranda Barnes
     

    The tragic story of a young Tibetan woman named Lamu (拉姆, Lhamo in Tibetan) is going insanely viral on Chinese social media these days, triggering massive outrage over the problem of domestic violence in China.

    Update: also listen to our podcast on this story here

    With over 700,000 followers on the Chinese video app Douyin, Lamu was popular for doing short videos about her life in the countryside since 2018. Singing, dancing, cooking, and showing fans the nature in her mountainous hometown, she was admired for her natural beauty and energetic attitude.

    The 30-year-old lived in the Guanyinqiao town of Jinchuan County, at the edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Living in poverty, Lamu worked hard to make some money. Her videos showed the dirt on her clothes and her poor living conditions. Fans praised her for showing the sunny side of her simple life.

    Lamu’s videos on Douyin (screenshot via whatsonweibo.com).

    But Lamu’s personal circumstances were nowhere near as sunny as they appeared in her videos. For years, the mother of two experienced severe domestic abuse by her husband, Tang X. (唐某).

    Lamu divorced Tang, after which they both gained custody over one child. But the abuse continued as the ex-husband threatened to kill one child if Lamu would not get back together with him.

    Several news sources describe how Lamu reported the abuse to the police multiple times, but that no action was taken – local officers deemed the case a ‘family matter.’

    Afraid for the safety of her child, Lamu was pressured into remarrying her ex-husband. But after recurring abuse and afraid for her own life, she again divorced him earlier this year. A local court ruled that Tang, who had more financial resources, would get custody over both children.

    Things took a turn for the worse in September of this year, when Tang burst into Lamu’s home. Lamu was stabbed, doused in gasoline, and set on fire by her ex-husband on the night of September 14, while she was trying to livestream from her home.

    With 90% of her body damaged by flames, she was transported to Sichuan People’s Hospital where she eventually succumbed to her injuries on September 30. Tang X. has since been detained while the case is under investigation.

    The story gained widespread attention on social media platforms Douyin and Weibo, and soon went viral, although some hashtags and topics related to the news were censored later on.

    One of the most-read in-depth online blogs about Lamu is that by ‘Guyu’ (谷雨) titled “Lamu, Burned by her Ex-Husband” (“被前夫烧毁的拉姆”). The article explains more about Lamu’s low-income, low-education background, her struggles to take care of her sick father, and her hard work to generate money for her family.

    Lamu’s sister Zhuoma (卓玛, Dolma in Tibetan) posted a social media video on October 1st in which she tearfully shared the tragic news: “Yesterday, my younger sister has left us forever, (..), but she will always remain in our hearts.”

    Lamu’s sister thanked Chinese netizens for their support.

    Zhuoma also thanked social media users for their support. In an effort to help pay for Lamu’s medical costs shortly after her hospitalization, fans set up an online crowdfunding campaign for her and were able to raise over 1 million yuan ($150,000) within a time frame of just seven hours.

    A memorial for Lamu after her death, posted on Weibo.

    Lamu’s funeral was held at a local temple on October 5. The hashtag “Lamu is Cremated Today” (#拉姆今日火化#) received over 310 million views on Weibo.

     

    “Domestic violence is not a family issue!”

     

    In the wake of Lamu’s death, and despite censorship, Chinese netizens started speaking out against domestic violence, advocating for better laws and support systems for domestic abuse victims in China.

    An online poster that was shared online by hundreds of netizens says:

    Vlogger Lamu suffered domestic abuse for over ten years. She reached out for help many times to no avail. She was burnt by her ex-husband and died on September 30th. We can’t let this kind of tragedy happen again! Let’s confront a lack of action in the face of domestic violence, inaction should be punished. Please forward and make women’s voices against domestic violence heard!

    Chinese actress Li Bingbing (李冰冰) also spoke out about the matter on Weibo, saying: “Don’t be indifferent, don’t stay silent, domestic violence is not a family matter, it is a crime!”

    Many raising their voice against domestic violence mention how Lamu’s case, unfortunately, is not unique. There have been similar cases before, and there are millions suffering behind closed doors. A 2016 survey by the All-China Women’s Federation estimated that 30% of married Chinese women had experienced some form of domestic violence.

    Domestic abuse was officially criminalized with China’s first national law against domestic violence in 2016, but it is still a widespread problem, partly due to a general lack of public awareness of domestic abuse and police officers regarding it as a private family matter, downplaying its severity.

    Another issue is how the legal repercussions for the perpetrators of domestic violence are often mild or even non-existent.

    As noted by author Hao Yang in this article, the Chinese law’s definition of domestic violence covers physical and psychological violence, yet does not explicitly include sexual violence such as marital rape. The law also does not include violence against former spouses or partners who do not live together.

    There is also no clear national implementation guideline for China’s Domestic Violence Law, and no standard procedure for protecting victims.

    Lamu’s death has stirred online discussions on the importance of addressing all of these aforementioned problems. These kinds of online discussions on domestic violence have risen before, but the voices have rarely been as loud as they are now.

    “Domestic violence is the most frightening and harmful type of violence since it comes from within one’s own family. If the police are useless, then how can women ever protect themselves?”, one Weibo commenter writes, with another person responding: “Domestic violence is not a family issue! I hope the relevant authorities will start paying more attention to this!”

     

    “We need a ‘Lamu Bill'”

     

    One popular Weibo user, a screenwriter from Beijing with approximately 240,000 followers, argues that the intervention of authorities in domestic abuse cases is sometimes literally a matter of life and death.

    “Women who are victims of domestic violence should not have only two destinies,”  the blogger writes: “..either being beaten to death or struggling to kill.”

    This blogger, along with other social media users, also mentions other cases where the non-intervention of local authorities in domestic abuse cases led to a tragic ending.

    Two of the cases often mentioned together with Lamu’s case are that of Dong Shanshan (董珊珊), Li Yan (李彦), and Ms. Liu (刘女士).

    Dong Shanshan was a 26-year-old woman from Beijing who suffered abuse from her husband shortly after getting married. Dong and her family reported the abuse to the police a total of 8 times, but the police allegedly were reluctant to intervene in something that was deemed a “family dispute.” After another beating by her husband, Dong died of internal organ failure in 2009. Her husband was sentenced to six years in prison.

    Dong Shanshan

    Li Yan suffered abuse by her husband Tan Yong ever since they got married in 2009. Although Li reported the abuse to the local justice department, police, and the All-China Women’s Federation, local authorities did not intervene. When the abuse got worse – including Tan hitting Li’s head against the wall, hacking off one of her fingers, and stubbing out cigarettes on her face and body, – Li (accidentally) killed her drunken husband with a gun barrel after he threatened to shoot her. Li was sentenced to death in 2011. The sentence was overturned in 2015 and commuted to life in prison.

    Ms. Liu‘s case made headlines after the woman from Henan jumped from a second-story window to escape domestic violence. Footage of Liu landing on the street – a fall that left her temporarily paralyzed – went viral earlier this year when it became known that Liu had filed for divorce but this was denied by a local court. The court reportedly denied Liu’s petition for divorce due to her husband’s unwillingness to separate, and because her claims of domestic violence could not be verified without a criminal complaint. In the summer of 2020, Liu was finally granted a divorce.

    A law that was released in 2020 introduced a mandatory “cooling off period” of thirty days after couples file for divorce. The law is allegedly intended to make people think twice before officially separating, but it also triggered public outrage for making victims of domestic violence even more vulnerable.

    Lamu

    In light of Lamu’s case, many people on Weibo and Douyin now support a so-called ‘Lamu Bill’ (拉姆法案), that should legally empower victims of domestic abuse, more so than the current law on domestic abuse does.

    Netizens suggest it should include the automatic dissolution of a marriage once one side wants a divorce for one’s own personal safety, and that it should criminalize marital rape.

    “We need the ‘Lamu Bill’, we can’t let these kinds of cases happen again,” multiple commenters say, with others also writing “if you don’t speak up, nothing will ever change.” One post on the issue received over 630,000 likes.

    On Weibo, the hashtag page for the topic has now been taken offline and many people note that the topic has been taken down from Weibo hot search lists.

    At the time of writing, the hashtag “Stop Nonfeasance” (#停止不作为#), that is also used to call for change and better enforcement of China’s domestic violence laws, is still open on Weibo and Douyin. On Douyin, many netizens speak out against domestic violence via video; on Weibo, they do so via posts and images.

    Multiple images and videos show that the online movement against domestic violence also takes place offline, with people creating small memorials outside and leaving the “Stop Inaction” posters outside the Sichuan hospital.

    Besides the censored hashtag and the “Stop Nonfeasance” hashtag, there are also other terms and hashtags used by Weibo and Douyin users to get their message across.

    Lamu’s story is passed on and has become much bigger than her tragic death alone. “I could be Lamu,” some female commenters say.

    “When people stay silent, women have no way to speak up,” one person writes. And so, through online and offline memorials, posters, hashtags, and photos, the calls for action against domestic violence are everywhere. Even in the face of censorship, many social media users seem determined to make their voices heard.

    By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

    Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

    ©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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    China Arts & Entertainment

    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.

    Manya Koetse

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    They are mocked, hated, and misunderstood, yet China’s so-called ‘Rotten Girls’ are at the core of an online subculture that has been thriving for years.

     
    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.

    Fanart: Holmes and Watson share a passionate kiss

    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.

    By Manya Koetse
    Follow @whatsonweibo

     
    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.
     

    References

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    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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