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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.

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

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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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 Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Movie “Sister” Stirs Discussions on Traditional Family Values in China

The movie ‘Sister’ has sparked online discussions on whether or not personal values should be prioritized over traditional family values.

Manya Koetse

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Mainlaind Chinese drama My Sister (我的姐姐, also known as ‘Sister‘) was just released in theatres and is sparking online discussions on family relations and the role of women in China.

After the hit movie Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英) received praise earlier this year for focusing on the role of mothers within Chinese families, this film zooms in on the role of older sisters.

My Sister, directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), revolves around the story of An Ran, an 18-year-old daughter who is unexpectedly facing the major responsibility for her 6-year-old brother after the tragic loss of their parents. While trying to find her own path in life, she suddenly has to step into the role of caregiver for her younger sibling. But does she want to take on this role?

Actress Zhang Zifeng (张子枫) is playing the main lead in this movie, which touches upon the issue of dealing with traditional family values and personal dreams and ambitions. Sister reveals the difficulties women face within the traditional Chinese-style family structure and the sacrifices they make for their parents, their children, siblings, and their husbands; and how the roles and tasks that are expected of them also clash with their own ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

For An Ran, the relationship with her little brother is troublesome. As a young girl, she had to pretend to be disabled in order to allow her parents to have a second child, preferably a son (under the One Child Policy, families with children with disabilities were allowed to have more children). Now, as a young adult, she once again has to sacrifice her own individual freedom in order to let her brother thrive.

The renowned Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) dedicated a lengthy post to the movie on her Weibo account, where she called the film “fascinating” and “thought-provoking.”

Li suggests that multiple social issues play a role in this film. First, there is the conflict between individual-oriented values and traditional family-oriented ethics. While traditional Chinese ideas about family require An Ran to put her brother first and move personal self-fulfillment to the backseat, An Ran is a young woman who grew up in a rapidly modernizing China where women are more empowered and independent. Why should she sacrifice her personal education and career in order to devote herself to raising her brother?

Another social topic that plays a major role in this film is the deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. An Ran literally had to make herself weaker in order for her brother to be brought into this world – and in doing so limiting the possibilities for her future career, – with these patriarchal practices prioritizing the thriving of sons over the happiness of daughters. An Ran’s anger and resistance show that traditional ideas about male superiority clash with modern-day Chinese society, where profound changes within gender relations are already taking place.

“Sisters do not dislike their little brothers,” one Weibo commenter wrote: “What they dislike is the hidden meaning behind their brother.”

Another female blogger responded: “Within my family, from my grandpa’s generation up to myself, it is actually the women who discriminate against women. I think these are deeply rooted ideas that can’t be changed. Look at my second elder aunt; she had seven children, all girls, and only four were left. The others were given away. However, my grandfather has always been good to me, and has never made me feel any less than the boys. Yet my grandma and my mother sometimes make me doubt about my life.”

Under the hashtag “How to Evaluate the Movie My Sister” (#如何评价电影我的姐姐#), which attracted 150 million views on Weibo, many ask the question of what they would do if they were An Ran. Would you take care of your little brother? Or would you leave his care up to other family members and choose your own path in life?

“If it were me, I’d raise my brother. Although it’s actually the parents’ problem, the little brother is innocent.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t raise him,” another commenter writes: “Although the little brother is innocent, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my life for him. And it might be a better choice to leave him with other family members than with me.”

These discussions also triggered the hashtag “Should Personal Values Be More Important Than Family Values?” (#个人价值必须高于家庭价值吗#). One top commenter raised the issue of ‘what if this was about a little sister instead of about a little brother,’ again provoking the idea that existing gender roles and the preference over sons play a major part in these discussions.

“These traditions no longer suit this era of a developing society. Let me ask you this question: would the little brother also take care of his sister once she grows old?”

“Personal values should always have priority. If you are not happy yourself, how could you ever take care of your family?”

“I have the perception that the family-oriented concept is deep-rooted. Although there consistently are new values and personal-oriented viewpoints, when it comes to real problems, most people will still be family-oriented.”

One commenter wrote: “What are ‘values’? What is the family in modern-day society? What does it mean to prioritize something? If we don’t first clarify this, the discussion becomes meaningless.”

Meanwhile, all the online discussions on Sister have boosted the film. By now, the movie has already become a box office hit and defeated the American Godzilla vs. Kong.

By Manya Koetse

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Celebs

Female Comedian Yang Li and the Intel Controversy

A decision that backfired: Intel’s act of supposed ‘inclusion’ caused the exclusion of female comedian Yang Li.

Manya Koetse

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“How to look at the boycott of Yang Li?” (#如何看待抵制杨笠#) became a top trending topic on social media site Weibo on Monday after female comedian Yang Li was dismissed as the spokesperson for American tech company Intel over a controversial ad campaign.

On March 18, Intel released an ad on its Weibo account in which Yang says “Intel has a taste [for laptops] that is higher than my taste for men” (“英特尔的眼光太高了,比我挑对象的眼光都高.”)

The ad drew complaints for allegedly insulting men, with some social media users vowing to boycott the tech brand. On Sunday, Intel deleted the ad in question from its social media page and reportedly also removed Yang from her position as their brand ambassador.

The commotion over the ad had more to do with Chinese comedian Yang Li (杨笠) than with the specific lines that were featured in it.

Yang Li is controversial for her jokes mocking men (“men are adorable, but mysterious. After all, they can look so average and yet be so full of confidence“), with some blaming her for being “sexist” and “promoting hatred against all men.”

Since she appeared on the stand-up comedy TV competition Rock and Roast (脱口秀大会) last year, she was nicknamed the the “punchline queen” and became one of the more influential comedians in present-day China. Yang now has nearly 1,5 million fans on Weibo (@-杨笠-).

Yang Li’s bold jokes and sharp way of talking about gender roles and differences between men and women in Chinese society is one of the main reasons she became so famous. Intel surely knew this when asking Yang to be their brand ambassador.

In light of the controversy, the fact that Intel was so quick to remove Yang also triggered criticism. Some (male) netizens felt that Intel, a company that sells laptops, could not be represented by a woman who makes fun of men, while these men are a supposed target audience for Intel products.

But after Yang was removed, many (female) netizens also felt offended, suggesting that in the 21st century, Intel couldn’t possibly believe that their products were mainly intended for men (“以男性用户为主”)? Wasn’t their female customer base just as important?

According to online reports, Intel responded by saying: “We noted that the content [we] spread relating to Yang Li caused controversy, and this is not what we had anticipated. We place great importance on diversity and inclusion. We fully recognize and value the diverse world we live in, and are committed to working with partners from all walks of life to create an inclusive workplace and social environment.”

However, Intel’s decision backfired, as many wondered why having Yang as their brand ambassador would not go hand in hand with ‘promoting an inclusive social environment.’

“Who are you being ‘inclusive’ too? Common ‘confident’ men?”, one person wrote, with others saying: “Why can so many beauty and cosmetic brands be represented by male idols and celebrities? I loathe these double standards.”

“As a Chinese guy, I really think Yang Li is funny. I didn’t realize Chinese men had such a lack of humor!” another Weibo user writes.

There are also people raising the issue of Yang’s position and how people are confusing her performative work with her actual character. One popular law blogger wrote: “Really, boycotting Yang Li is meaningless. Stand-up comedy is a performance, just as the roles people play in a TV drama.”

Just a month ago, another Chinese comedian also came under fire for his work as a brand ambassador for female underwear brand Ubras.

It is extremely common in China for celebrities to be brand ambassadors; virtually every big celebrity is tied to one or more brands. Signing male celebrities to promote female-targeted products is also a popular trend (Li 2020). Apparently, there is still a long way to go when the tables are turned – especially when it is about female celebrities with a sharp tongue.

By Manya Koetse

Li, Xiaomeng. 2020. “How powerful is the female gaze? The implication of using male celebrities for promoting female cosmetics in China.” Global Media and China, Vol.5 (1), p.55-68.

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©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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