For many young Chinese, the two-dimensional world — or erciyuan — can feel more real than our own, three-dimensional one. An umbrella term for a wide range of Japanese-influenced media, from manga and anime to video games, Chinese erciyuan fans now number in the hundreds of millions. And while their preferred art may be two-dimensional, their feelings for it are anything but.
Erciyuan has struck a chord with Chinese audiences at a time when the sweeping meta-narratives and all-consuming “–isms” of the 20th century increasingly feel out-of-date and out-of-tune with contemporary life. As the French postmodernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard once wrote, postmodern society is at least partly defined by the collapse of “grand narratives,” such as the belief that absolute subjectivity is possible; that human history moves according to certain knowable rules; and that it’s possible to build a perfect society for everyone.
Today’s dislocated, atomized, and lonely young Chinese aren’t craving ideology; grandiose, utopian promises about the future; or any of the other animating beliefs from the last century. They want something more primordial and affective: stories of heroes triumphing over evil and the tight-knit, loyal groups of friends they make along the way. And that’s exactly what erciyuan gives them.
A Chinese transliteration of the Japanese word nijigen, or “two-dimensional space,” the term erciyuan became popular in the mid-1990s, when it appeared on the sci-fi anime series “Martian Successor Nadesico.” The show’s Jupiter-based characters are fans of a fictional anime called “Gekiganger III,” in particular its female protagonist, Nanako. Swept up in their fandom, Nadesico’s characters constantly remind each other of the insurmountable physical boundary that separates them from their idol: “Nanako may be a great woman, but she belongs to the two-dimensional world!”
The line struck a chord with many die-hard anime fans, and erciyuan has since become a succinct way of lamenting the boundaries that separate “our” world from “theirs.” While it’s been around for years, the term came into broader use in China after 2008, when the country’s first erciyuan-themed magazine came out.
But what makes the two-dimensional world so appealing? After the chaos of the 20th century, the stories found in erciyuan can be a relief. One massive tragedy after another has shaken the current generation's collective faith in humanistic values, the ideals of the Enlightenment, and the myth of inevitable historical progress — even as the failures of passionate, idealist-led social experiments have all but exhausted hope for a utopia. The rapid evolution of technology and the free market’s ceaseless demands for innovation have made possible the free flow of people and capital, but have also fostered insecurity and yawning wealth gaps, leaving the previous social compact in tatters.
Much like how the Jupiter-based characters of “Martian Successor Nadesico” feel disconnected from civilization back on Earth, Chinese who came of age in this postmodern era feel at odds with the grand narratives of modern civilization. Erciyuan’s narratives are grand in a different sense than Lyotard’s. Rather than posit some meta-arc of history toward which all things bend, it offers today’s alienated and confused youth an alternative world of heroes and villains; good and evil; friends and enemies; crises and solutions. They can not only find their convictions reflected in this world, but have them validated, too.
The focus on world-threatening crises in erciyuan media also serves another purpose: It lets writers foreground the “bonds” between characters — jiban in Chinese, or kizuna in Japanese — one of the most effective and resonant elements in the two-dimensional world.
The majority of Chinese erciyuan fans grew up without siblings. The result was cohort after cohort of competitive but lonely children. Add to this the decay of the socialist revolutionary ethic and class consciousness, along with China’s breakneck urbanization process over the past few decades, and it’s no wonder so many feel lost or alienated from those around them.
Erciyuan offers this group a heightened version of the intimate relationships and friendships in the three-dimensional world. Jiban refers to some of the most valuable and positive emotional ties people can make. They are bonds forged under the most difficult circumstances, and all the harder to break for it. And a common narrative trope in erciyuan is to confront the heroes with a threat so dire, so existential, that they have no choice but to band together in this way — drawing on their strength as individuals and as partners to save the greater universe.
Immersive erciyuan products — ones that are capable of drawing readers, watchers, or players into their two-dimensional worlds — do so by providing them with an emotional hit unlike anything they can find in real life. In a sense, the way fans of erciyuan obsess over these two-dimensional bonds can be read as their way of compensating for the lack of these ties in their own lives. And given just how many members of China’s one-child generation feel this lack, it’s no surprise erciyuan has been so successful in connecting with Chinese readers, viewers, and gamers.
After the collapse of modernity’s grand narratives and social promises, society has been left with a values vacuum. People today have more space to express themselves than ever before, but paradoxically, new emotional holes to fill as well. Whether it’s anime, manga, or video games, erciyuan has stepped up to patch this gap with a narrative of its own — one perfectly calibrated to reassure today’s isolated young people and provide a refuge from both postmodern nihilism and cynicism.
Taking this even further, I’d argue that some outstanding contemporary erciyuan recall a different kind of narrative. With their emphasis on bonds between heroes, on sacrifice, and on fate and justice, they put a postmodern spin on the heroic epics of millennia past. And by speaking to our twin desires of extending our talents and abilities for the good of the world, and not having to bear these burdens alone, these stories give us what we need.
Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhang Zeqin.
(Header image: Young cosplayers attend an anime expo in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Dec. 31, 2018. VCG)