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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.

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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 Memes & Viral

Dutch Vlogger Discovers Her Boyfriend’s Photo on a Chinese TV Drama

Dutch vlogger Rianne Meijer was surprised to discover her boyfriend being somebody else’s lover in this Chinese television drama.

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The Dutch influencer Rianne Meijer has gone viral in the Netherlands and on Chinese social media after she posted a TikTok video in which she shared the discovery of her boyfriend’s photo in a Chinese TV drama.

“Remember this picture? This is a picture that I posted with my boyfriend a while ago,” Rianne says in the TikTok video, then showing a scene in Chinese TV drama in which a photoshopped photo of Rianne’s boyfriend is featured.

Although Rianne stood next to her boyfriend in the original photo, her face was replaced in the photoshopped edition featured on the Chinese TV drama.

“They look good together, it’s fine!” Rianne jokingly responded to the scene.

Rianne Meijer is an online influencer and YouTuber with some 1.5 million fans on her Instagram. She is known for often posting funny videos and photos, sometimes together with her boyfriend Roy.

The scene featuring Roy’s photo comes from the Chinese TV drama Summer Again (薄荷之夏), which premiered on iQiyi in the summer of 2021.

The scene shows a lady named Mi Ya (played by actress Li Borong 李柏蓉) talking about her relationship with a man named ‘Andre.’

On the Chinese social media site Weibo, many netizens found the incident “embarrassing” and did not understand why the staff would just steal someone’s portrait: “Couldn’t the production team even find a foreign guy to take a picture?”

Others also thought the incident was very funny: “This is the reality of our global village. You’d think nobody would find out, but it’s really not so secret.”

According to Rianne’s most recent Tiktok post update, the show’s production staff has since sent her an apology. She also writes it’s “all good,” adding: “They are so sweet and this gave us a good laugh.”

By Manya Koetse

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.

©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 Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Musician Song Dongye Canceled (Again) after Complaining about China’s Cancel Culture

Song Dongye was shut down by Weibo after airing his grievances at being shut out from China’s entertainment circles.

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Five years after being caught with drugs, Chinese singer Song Dongye went on Weibo to share his grievances on still being ‘canceled’ and asking for another chance to restart his career. Instead, he got criticized and blocked.

Chinese folk singer Song Dongye (宋冬野) has become a major topic on Chinese social media site Weibo this week after he posted a lengthy statement on his account airing his grievances regarding how he was shut out from China’s entertainment world after being caught with drugs.

In Song’s Weibo post of October 11 titled “I Need to Say Something” (“我需要说一些话”), the singer complained that one of his performances was canceled and that he has not been able to perform since he was detained for drug use five years ago.

The Beijing singer was scheduled to hold a concert in Chengdu on October 16th, but local authorities eventually canceled the show after receiving reports about Song being a drug addict.

According to Song, it is not the first time that one of his concerts is suddenly canceled for no apparent reason. In his post, the Beijing artist shared how disappointed he is that yet another performance was called off, even though it was previously approved and was organized in compliance with all strict regulations.

It seems that Song Dongye just cannot get rid of his tainted reputation.

Song Dongye

The 34-year-old Song Dongye started his career as a musician in 2009 and signed with the Modern Sky record label in 2012. One of his biggest hits is the 2013 song ‘Miss Dong’ (董小姐) (link), after which Song’s career further flourished.

Things went sour in 2016, when Song was arrested for smoking marijuana in Beijing after someone allegedly tipped off the police. Not long after news on his arrest made the rounds, Song himself posted a statement on his Weibo account on October 25th of 2016, apologizing to everyone for violating the law and promising to better himself.

Song is not the first Chinese celebrity to have been caught with drugs. There is an entire list of celebrities who were caught doing drugs, especially in the 2014-2016 years – including names such as Jaycee Chan, Kai Ko, and Zhang Mo.

In Song’s most recent Weibo post, the solo artist explains how his former drug abuse deeply affected him and his family, and that he has never touched drugs again since his ten-day prison sentence five years ago in 2016.

Song Donye’s lengthy Weibo post of October 11, in which he shared his grievances regarding still being ‘canceled’ five years after being arrested for drug use.

Despite the fact that Song complied with court orders and became an anti-drug advocate, he apparently is still not able to perform – even though the prescribed three-year ban on performing (in accordance with regulations provided by the Ministry of Culture) has officially ended two years ago.

The musician writes that he feels wronged. As a former drug abuser, he feels it was right for him to be punished, but he also says that drug users are actually the victims, claiming that drug trafficking is the real crime. Song argues that it is very difficult to be in the entertainment industry and that it is not easy to say no to drugs when you are down, depressed, and pressured.

In his Weibo post, the artist actually suggests he has been victimized in two ways: firstly, as a depressed artist lured into taking drugs, and second, as a canceled celebrity who keeps on being shut out from China’s entertainment circles.

“I can’t understand it, I’m confused,” Song writes: “I’ve violated the law, but I’ve been punished! I’ve been detained and then I also received five years of verbal abuse! I’ve been educated! I understand! I never messed up again! I got up again, and I changed! I became a better person! Is that still not enough for me to be able to make a living? Why? I’m not doing anything but playing some small offline gigs in order to get by! I’m just a singer-songwriter! What else do you want me to do? (..) Shouldn’t society give people who have broken the law another chance?”

Song concludes his post by saying that, regardless of the challenges he is facing, he will not give up on his work.

Song’s Post Backfires

Soon after Song Dongye posted his short essay on Weibo, thousands of reactions started flooding in. Many netizens did not feel sorry for the artist, but instead blamed him for “playing the victim.”

The issue triggered a major discussion on Chinese social media on whether or not artists with a bad reputation should be allowed back into the limelight.

A recent article by What’s on Weibo on 25 ‘tainted celebrities’ in China (25 ‘Tainted Celebrities’: What Happens When Chinese Entertainers Get Canceled?) shows that Chinese entertainers who previously got ‘canceled’ generally do not return to the big stage, either because they have simply fallen out of favor with most people or because they are being shunned and sidelined in the entertainment industry (or a combination of both).

Many people felt that Song Dongye was being a hypocrite, not just because they felt he was excusing his former drug use by saying drug traffickers are the real offenders, but also because Song allegedly did do multiple commercial shows over the past five years and has been actively setting up new businesses since his 2016 arrest.

For official media accounts, in the meantime, this apparently seemed to be a good moment to highlight their anti-drug informational posts.

State newspaper People’s Daily posted a series of photographs on October 12th featuring police officers who got injured while doing their work combating drug trafficking and drug use, stating that over thirty staff members of the law enforcement against drugs were killed since 2017.

The post’s message was clear: these Chinese officers in drug law enforcement were unable to get a second chance in life – why would Song, as a drug abuser, be allowed to get another chance to restart his career as a performer?

That idea resonated with many, who wrote: “We should have a zero-tolerance policy [towards drugs]. We can’t ever revive these police officers!”

Another image circulated on social media with the tagline “taking drugs and selling drugs is the same crime,” showing a musician offering money for drugs and a law enforcement officer being shot on the job (image below).

On that same day, Song’s Weibo account was temporarily suspended. The hashtag “Song Dongye’s Weibo Suspended” (#宋冬野微博被禁言#) received over 620 million views in the days following the ban.

Many people on Weibo share the view that those who chose to take illegal drugs for their own pleasure can never be a public figure again, earning money from commercial appearances.

Others wrote that Song should have never posted his essay at all since it only caused him to be labeled as a ‘tainted celebrity’ again, even though many people had already forgotten about his former drug use. They think that Song’s real problem hindering his future career now is not his 2016 offense, but his 2021 Weibo post.

Song Dongye’s post did not just affect him, it indirectly also affected other Chinese ‘tainted celebrities.’

A planned concert by Chinese singer Li Daimo (李代沫), a previous contestant of The Voice of China (中国好声音), was also canceled this week following the Song Dongye controversy.

Li Daimo continued his music career after his 2014 drug offense.

Li Daimo was arrested in 2014 for possession of drugs and was later sentenced to a fine and nine months in prison. After being released from prison, Li resumed his music career. Although his tainted past was still sometimes discussed on social media, he was one of the few artists who seemed to have made some sort of a comeback to the entertainment industry after such a major controversy.

The Song Dongye situation, however, also made people (and authorities) reflect on Li’s current career.

Over the past year, Chinese celebrities have become a target of authorities and state media have consistently been reporting on the importance of Chinese stars setting a good example for their fans.

But amid all controversy, there are also people who come to Song’s defense: “If an artist has been punished for three years, we should give people the opportunity to reappear. It might [even] be more beneficial to the anti-drug campaign.”

“I really like his songs,” one person wrote about Song: “But he did drugs, and I can’t forgive him for that.”

At this time, it is not clear when or if Song Dongye will be allowed to post on his Weibo account again. Although his Weibo page is still there, it currently says: “This account has temporarily been suspended for violating Weibo guidelines.” It is not clarified which specific guidelines Song violated with his post.

By Manya Koetse

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.

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

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