In this age of addictive smartphone apps and contentious social media feuds, I sometimes reminisce about my time as a high school student in Shanghai in the late 2000s. Back then, my digital life was structured not around breaking news, thought leaders, or trending topics, but the writing of a group of women not much older than myself.
Even then, web fiction was a booming industry in China, but these women wrote for free, pitched in on each other’s stories, and occasionally collaborated on shared projects. The sub-forum we used was shrouded in secrecy: Sometimes it would disappear from the site that hosted it altogether, becoming accessible only if you knew the code. That’s because it was one of the only major platforms on the Chinese mainland focused exclusively on stories about homosexual relationships, a taboo topic even in that relatively more permissive era.
We were China’s “rotten women.” A literal translation of the Japanese term fujoshi, the term refers to women who enjoy stories of homoromantic or homosexual relationships. It was a community in which the lines between creation and consumption were blurred: After spending years reading danmei, a Chinese genre equivalent to “slash” or boys’ love, I decided to try my hand in the genre: I wrote a 200,000-word melodrama centered on two male musicians living at the time of the French Revolution.
That work, which was serialized online in 2016, was also my last foray into writing danmei. But the genre has only become more mainstream in recent years. Drama series adapted from danmei novels are a popular source for hit films and television shows like “Word of Honor” — albeit with their homosexual elements played down as mere “brotherly friendship.” Some of the country’s most popular danmei novels are getting an official English release later this year.
My understanding of danmei will always be colored by my early experiences online: It was a community of people with similar interests, many of them women, who made writing seem like a possibility rather than a lonely pursuit. In Japan, a number of successful female artists, including members of the famous CLAMP group, first honed their craft through boys’ love manga; similarly, former danmei authors in China like E Bojue have gone on to earn critical acclaim after applying the plotting and writing skills they learned in danmei circles to more “mainstream” subjects.
In particular, danmei has a way of challenging authors like me to move beyond traditional binary gender stereotypes. It felt liberating to write about a relationship that didn’t have to follow the cliché of the strong male savior rescuing a weaker female love interest. Both male protagonists can be breadwinners, for example; both can have ambitions and vulnerabilities; and the list of possible professions is endless. While some non-danmei web novels now feature independent, career-driven women, their authors often feel the need to first justify their “bold” decisions, or to create an even stronger man to match their heroines.
And yet, even as I was writing my first danmei novel, I had already begun to feel uneasy about the genre. To begin with, depicting a love between two men often led straight into the “women in refrigerators” trope, in which supporting female characters were deprived of their voices and, in some cases, their lives. When one of my protagonists was trapped in a bland heterosexual relationship, I felt I had no choice but to portray his fiancée as a nice but increasingly boring woman and to eventually “fridge” her to make room for the far more dramatic homosexual relationship. Indeed, few memorable female characters have emerged from the recent danmei boom. Worse, when screen adaptations of danmei like “The Untamed” give more airtime to female characters in an effort to downplay the stories’ gay elements, the production team and actresses often face misogynistic attacks from loyal fans for threatening their preferred pairing.
Readers’ obsession with intense drama also leaves the genre prone to normalizing rape culture. Too often, I see stories where one character is forced into gay sex, after which he “turns gay” and even falls in love with his rapist. I admit I was guilty of using the same trope in a bid to inject conflict into the relationship between my protagonists. This plot device isn’t unique to danmei novels: The actions of plenty of famous male literary characters might land them in jail if they took place in real life. But while the brutality and aftermath of sexual violence are valid topics that should be explored in literature, glossing over or romanticizing them to create more drama risks misleading readers into thinking of rape as an expression of love.
A still from “Lan Yu.” From Douban
Despite the genre’s subject matter, the popularity of danmei novels has not necessarily led to greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community, either. Stories of homosexual romance can be a gateway, capable of opening readers’ eyes to LGBTQ issues that are often ignored in mainstream media. In my case, my initial interest in danmei novels led me to more realistic portrayals of homosexuality like the films “Lan Yu” or “Brokeback Mountain” and literary works by Pai Hsien-yung and Sarah Waters. There were also the requisite moments of self-doubt: “Does liking gay novels mean I’m gay?” The answer can go either way, depending on the reader, but even for heterosexuals, just being aware of different sexual orientations can help foster inclusiveness. Many of my fellow forum members cheer whenever same-sex marriage gets legalized in a new part of the world; danmei, despite its often inaccurate portrayal of LGBTQ life, deserves credit for getting them to that point.
Yet danmei is distinct from queer literature. In line with their Japanese predecessors, most Chinese danmei stories distinguish between the gong, “attack” role and the shou, “receive” role. Consequently, despite the possibility of subverting gender norms, one protagonist is still typically portrayed as more masculine, and the other more feminine, and their interactions often mirror those of a heterosexual couple. There is even the “childbirth” subgenre in which the shou character gets pregnant like a woman. Of course, this is not how a homosexual relationship works and these portrayals can negatively impact readers’ understanding of the LGBTQ community. In my years on danmei forums, I have seen girls bounce between different extremes: wanting more men to “turn gay” and conform to the gong-shou ideal — or becoming disillusioned and even homophobic when they realize this stereotype has little relation to real life.
Finally, the dominant position of danmei within same-sex literature leads to an over-representation of male-male stories. The absence of lesbians or other sexual minorities from these communities is glaring. Female-female relationships fall into the baihe, or “lilies” genre. Though not without dedicated authors and avid fans, the number of such stories and the interest they get lags far behind those of danmei novels, and none have ever received a mainstream screen adaptation. Transgender stories are hidden in even deeper corners of the internet and are highly stigmatized. Last year, when fans of the idol and “Untamed” star Xiao Zhan came across a gender-bent fan-fiction of the show on the major hosting site Archive of Our Own, they organized a successful campaign to get the site blocked on the Chinese mainland, before in turn being counterattacked by furious fan-fiction fans.
In the end, danmei novels aren’t really about LGBTQ representation. Much like real life, in danmei writers’ literary imagination, men are dominant.
That’s one reason I chose to leave it behind. My writing journey wouldn’t have started without danmei: the camaraderie among authors, the peer pressure to hone one’s craft, and the focus on minority groups all taught me valuable lessons. But as I outgrow my teenage self, I realize that these lessons can be applied to any subject matter. Personally, I am now seeking to write stories where the male and the female protagonists are more equal; I also hope to show the repercussions of urgent problems faced overwhelmingly by women, such as discrimination and assault.
That said, while homosexuality is no longer a focus of my own writing, I look forward to seeing other authors move beyond the traditional confines of danmei to depict the true lived experiences of LGBTQ people. Friendship and love between two human beings, regardless of their genders, is a worthy subject, whether you’re a daydreaming teenager or a mature novelist.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still from the series “The Untamed.” From Douban)