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    This Valentine’s Is for (Fake) Lovers

    What’s behind the rise of shipping culture in China? It’s complicated.

    When Liu Qing joined the cast of the popular talk show “I Can I BB” late last year, the 58-year-old political scientist had a lofty goal: To inject a bit of learning and theory into a top entertainment program known for its levity. Or, as he puts it, to give regular viewers a display of what the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas termed “communicative rationality.”

    It didn’t take long for things to go awry. The season had only just started to air when Liu became one of the show’s hottest new contestants: Not for his reasoned, measured arguments, but for the chemistry, both real and imagined, he supposedly shared with another cast member, the 53-year-old economist Xue Zhaofeng. Fans of this unlikely pairing of middle-aged minds even gave the “couple” their own nickname: “Feng/Liu,” a pun on their names and a literary term that can mean both “distinguished” and “sexually loose.”

    Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love in all its forms, but what about love that exists only in the minds of others? Like much of the rest of the world, China has experienced the rise of “shipping” over the past two decades, as the country’s young people grow increasingly enamored with imagined pairings between their favorite stars, to the point where some become more invested in these fake couplings then their own real relationships. Known in Chinese as ke CP — roughly, “to compulsively consume” or “do a hit of” a couple — shipping has made the leap from marginal subculture to the cultural and commercial mainstream over the past 10 years or so. In the process, it appears to have lost much of its transgressive meaning, even if it’s still a way for simultaneously intimacy-starved and intimacy-averse young Chinese to release some of their pent-up feelings.

    As is the case with so many Chinese subcultures, the term “CP,” for “coupling,” originated in Japan: specifically in fan fiction produced by lovers of Japanese anime, comics, and games (ACG) culture. Beginning in the late 1990s, Japanese anime grew increasingly popular in China, and CP fandom followed in its wake, with CP stories and art becoming some of the most popular offerings on online literature sites like Wenxuecity and Jinjiang Literature City in this period.

    This early CP scene overlapped heavily with danmei — slash fiction centering on imagining romantic or sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex. Although CP has always been a more expansive subculture than the more explicitly homosexuality-focused danmei — just about any pairing could be a CP, regardless of gender — both subcultures involve fans reinterpreting and reimagining the relationships between characters in their favorite anime, literature, film, or other works. Usually this involves matching characters who were never romantically involved in the original text. If the work is good, or a pairing particularly inspired, it can achieve a sort of semi-canon status in a fan community and be recreated and reinterpreted again and again by other fan fiction authors.

    For all its popularity in fandom circles, CP culture wouldn’t enter the mainstream public consciousness until the turn of the last decade, with the rise of video-streaming sites and social media. The 2009 TV series “Chinese Paladin 3,” for instance, enjoyed a notable boost from vocal fans of the chemistry between its two male lead actors, Hu Ge and Wallace Huo. That particular pairing would climax in a 2016 Valentine’s Day Harper’s Bazaar photoshoot of the two cavorting across a snowy landscape. The images sent ripples through not just that particular CP fandom, but the public at large, ultimately racking up more than 400 million hits on microblogging platform Weibo.

    The Harper’s photoshoot marked the moment CP culture became mainstream — and commercially viable. By 2018, the Hunan TV singing competition “Super-Vocal” was making hay with its 36 young, talented male singers, presenting a near-infinite array of choices for thirsty shippers. The show, and in particular the “relationship” between performers A Yunga and Zheng Yunlong, quickly became a rallying cry for CP fans. In turn, their support turned these two previously unknown young men into some of China’s most marketable stars, performing in commercials together and winning endorsements from brands like Head & Shoulders and Olay.

    By 2019, CP culture had become a nearly unstoppable commercial force, and producers were going out of their way to play to the crowd. Arguably the peak of the current wave came last June, with the release of the drama “The Untamed.” Produced by Tencent Video and starring “little fresh meat” icons Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan, “The Untamed” was an adaptation of a fantasy danmei novel series published on Jinjiang Literature City. The Weibo page dedicated to its two stars garnered tens of billions of views, confirming their status at the top of the current crop of male idols.

    Unsurprisingly, as CP culture went mainstream, much of what had set it apart began to change. The first of these changes involved what could be called the “normalization” of imagined couplings. During its first decade, CP pairings could be just about anything. A couple might be drawn from texts both ancient and modern, Chinese and foreign; they could even span dimensions. As in danmei, male-male couples were commonplace, though so were those between real people and fictional characters. One of the more inventive CP pairings matched Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series and Lin Daiyu, the famously emotional female protagonist of the classic Chinese novel “Dream of the Red Chamber.”

    Such outside-the-box thinking has been marginalized in recent years, however, as newer, more casual fans demand more logical matches. Take the couple at the heart of “The Untamed” for example: They’re both men, they’re roughly the same age, and they have compatible personalities. They even look the same.

    Then came what I call “traditionalization.” In his “Textual Poachers: Television Fans & Participatory Culture,” the scholar Henry Jenkins argued that slash fiction like that of danmei or male-male CP fandoms represents a liberating disobedience on the part of women against the existing gender order. In the process, slash gestures toward a new way of constructing gender roles and expressing sexuality.

    Now, however, while male-male couplings remain popular in CP circles, male-female pairs are also on the rise. Oftentimes, these couplings are directly linked to socially normative institutions like partnership and marriage, with fans calling on the two characters to do things like “get together!” or “put a ring on it!”

    Meanwhile, and not unrelatedly, CP texts have become increasingly dull, saccharine affairs: Their depictions of love — this complex and layered emotion, the most profound feeling that humans can experience — indistinguishable from the merely “sweet.”

    In short, the transgressive, unorthodox qualities that once defined CP culture are slowly being replaced by notions of love that conform to traditional gender identities and order.

    How are we to understand this shift? Well, it isn’t unexpected. The marginalization and rebelliousness of the CP fandom was always going to wane as it shifted from subculture to mainstream. Still, it can be seen as yet another indicator of the growing social conservatism and traditionalism of many young Chinese. At its core, this trend — and the concurrent rise to prominence of traditional-values grumps like the “Three Outlooks Party” — reflects a need for stability in an era of upheaval and uncertainty.

    There is another factor worth noting here, though: China’s singles boom. According to data from the Ministry of Civil Affairs, China was home to more than 240 million singles in 2018, and the number of people living alone is expected to grow from 77 million that same year to 92 million this year. There’s a bevy of factors behind this expansion, from anxieties about getting married and having kids among urban women to the rising cost of child care and education. And despite all the trappings of Valentine’s Day and romance, some people are simply comfortable being single.

    Whatever the cause, more and more young Chinese people are choosing to stay single and live alone. Yet, if the popularity of CP is any indication, many still recognize the value of intimacy. On its own, there nothing wrong with deriving a vicarious sense of comfort and fulfillment from other people’s love and interactions, but as CP fans demand more beautiful, sugary love from their favorite couplings, there’s a chance it’ll become harder for them to form and maintain intimate relationships in real life, driving them further into their digital cocoons.

    Back in the day, danmei writers turned to fan fiction to describe an ideal of love that was otherwise invisible or inaccessible in a largely patriarchal society: one predicated on equality, intense passion, and mutual sexual fulfillment. CP fans today are likewise expressing their deepest yearnings through their fandom. Only instead of great, mutually fulfilling sex, many just want to experience the sweet, simple affection of a relationship — albeit one abstracted from all the turmoil that generally occurs between that first fluttering feeling of love and a walk down the aisle.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Celebrities Xiao Zhan (left) and Wang Yibo attend an event in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, 2019. IC)