Slash fiction and Chinese fandom

August 20, 2014 by Yuen Sin

In April this year over 20 people were arrested for the production and distribution of “pornographic material” as part of China’s censorship crackdown, labeled by authorities as the jingwang 净网– or “cleansing the web” – movement. Their crime? Writing slash fiction (danmei 耽美) based on East Asian or Western celebrities and characters in popular culture that depicted them in overtly homosexual exchanges. What’s going on?

An interview with a Chinese official suggested that authorities found it appalling and surprising that a majority of those arrested were young females in their early twenties, some of them even fresh graduates from high school. Yet it was an entirely different story when reactions to jingwang surfaced on popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo or Internet forum Baidu, with netizens protesting that the shutdown of slash fiction websites like was a move that was utterly uncalled for. As one Weibo user, nandaozheshougeniyechang commented: “You can cleanse the web all you like, but why remove danmei? Must you treat culture in such a simplistic and brusque manner?”

Contrary to what the Chinese authorities are prone to believe, the production and circulation of slash fiction by Chinese fans is not so much about the increasing advocacy and acceptance of homosexuality in Chinese society, even if pro-LGBT views do surface more frequently among danmei writers. It is about something entirely different.

As an increasingly commonplace trend that allows young women to explore their sexual attraction to male celebrities without the intimidating presence of direct personal involvement in the story, the culture of writing danmei is also an indicator of the remarkable level of emotional investment that Chinese fans dedicate towards the consumption of foreign cultural products like pop groups, television series and movies – as well as a testament to the burgeoning size and power of the Chinese market for international entertainment companies looking to expand their reach.

The thriving Korean pop industry has already identified China as one of its biggest growth contributors for the next ten years. According to a November 2013 financial report by KDB Daewoo Securities on SM Entertainment, one of Korea’s most prominent entertainment companies, net profit for this financial year is expected to hit 64bn won (US$62m), almost four times that of 2010’s 17bn won (US$16m). China will become a major market for SM in this year, the report projects, due to the presence of multiple tie-ups with Chinese entertainment and media firms.

The K-Pop craze in China, or Hallyu Wave, is being bolstered by an influx of Chinese celebrities who have been taken under the wing of Korean entertainment companies like SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment and trained and primed to debut in Korean boy bands and girl bands in order to appeal to the Chinese market. The 12-member boy group EXO, for example, also includes four Chinese members who form a sub-unit EXO-M that performs music in Mandarin. Their first full-length album has broken the one million sales mark, making it the first domestic album to do so in Korea in the last 13 years.

Unlike Japan, which possesses the world’s second largest music market after the US due to an existing culture and willingness on the part of fans to purchase original copies of albums and singles, piracy and violations of copyright law are rife in China. What is it about Chinese fans, then, that makes them such a powerful consumer market?

Already China has beaten Japan to become the second largest box office market in the world. It is not just sheer size of the population in China, but also the distinctive way in which the internet functions as a platform for the dissemination of popular cultural products from foreign markets into China. Online fan communities in China engage and interact with news and multimedia from foreign shores in highly organized and unique ways.

Driving this culture from the early 2000s is Baidu Tieba, an online platform for fans to congregate and share news, media and general musings about celebrities or shows under a dedicated forum for each entertainment product. Also gaining prominence in recent years is microblogging platform Sina Weibo. A quick search for popular Korean pop groups, Japanese manga comics or American drama series comes up with results for pages that have large followings from a few hundred thousand users to over a million.

High-resolution photographs and video streams from variety shows featuring the celebrities in question are uploaded less than an hour, or in some cases within minutes from the time of the original broadcast by large, organized fanclubs and online users. The issue of language barriers is easily solved, for English and Korean shows or music videos are rapidly translated, encoded and uploaded within a day or two by professional, bilingual subtitling teams on a voluntary basis –all out of zealous dedication to their fandom.

As the Daewoo report notes, “there is almost no time lag between the production of music content in Korea, and consumption in China”. Furthermore, foreign dramas which are usually distributed and streamed online have an edge over Chinese dramas, as video websites are exempted from limits on foreign programming that are usually applied to traditional TV stations.

Fervent fan posts professing words of admiration with homoerotic overtones in popular foreign TV dramas like Sherlock Holmes are commonplace on Sina Weibo and Baidu. A typical comment, such as this one by user KuChuanXiongHui, would read: “No matter whether it is John or Sherlock, they are obviously in love with each other but simply unwilling to admit the truth.”

A BBC News blog detailing how Chinese fans have established “gay love theories” in the massively popular BBC Sherlock Holmes series raised more than a few eyebrows across the Western world when it was first published in January this year.

On the other hand, Korean entertainment companies, aware of the propensity for danmei spin-offs among East Asian fans under the influence of Japanese yaoi comics (which have been featuring slash pairings since the early 90s), have been deliberately cashing in on the trend through what has been commonly referred to as “fanservice”.

Members of pop groups would behave affectionately at live concerts and public appearances in a bid to cater to fans’ tendencies for “shipping” – or coupling them into imaginative subplots – and SM Entertainment even went so far as to create a mini-drama series titled “Dangerous Love” (2006) that featured two members of the group Dong Bang Shin Ki misinterpreting each other’s brotherly actions as sexual attraction.

In this way then, fanservice encourages shipping, which leads to the proliferation of slash fiction, or danmei, thus producing returns in terms of a fan’s emotional investment in the group or celebrity that she is supporting. It is this depth of personal engagement that would prompt a Chinese fan to ardently support a celebrity or artiste at all costs, attending fan-meetings, travelling to concerts and purchasing original albums and DVDs in the knowledge that commercial support would contribute towards the earnings of the artiste under the entertainment company’s charge.

In an extreme instance, a Chinese fan even slashed her wrist in a bid to combat online criticisms leveled against the Korean pop group EXO for attempting to celebrate a member’s birthday on the anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake. Such a reaction occurred in response to a netizen’s comment that their fans “would only care about issues like death and tragedy if all the EXO members died”. In return, this particular fan declared that she would “rather cut her wrist than see all EXO members die” and posted a photo of her injury online.

Hollywood and Western entertainment industries have been experimenting with ways to cater to and capture the Chinese market. Chinese-oriented films, like blockbuster Pacific Rim that featured scenes shot in Hong Kong and earned $111m in China alone, could be a successful strategy. Following in the footsteps of Korea’s entertainment companies by featuring Chinese celebrities in its films and shows seems to be another developing trend.

Han Geng, a Chinese member from Korean boyband Super Junior, will be starring in the upcoming Transformers 4, while Chinese actress Fan Bingbing has appeared in the latest installation of the X-Men movie franchise. While only 34 international films are permitted in the Chinese market every year, studios have a better shot at being included in the annual quota if movies featuring Chinese actors or scenes in China are featured. The quota is also due to be raised in four years’ time.

Forays are also being made into social media in growing recognition that online communities play a key role in determining the success of entertainment products in China. The Shanghai-based company Fanstang, for example, arranges endorsement deals with Hollywood celebrities and Western athletes in China and promotes them on Sina Weibo, complete with fully translated terms from shows and events in Chinese.

Robert Downey Jr, for example, joined Weibo in April last year, and now has an amazing 1.7m followers. All of his posts, originally made by him in English, have been meticulously translated into Mandarin for increased accessibility – a formula that clearly seems to have worked.

Dealing with the proliferation of foreign entertainment products and Chinese fans’ voracious appetites for engaging with them via the Internet proves to be a difficult task for the Chinese authorities, who continue to view such influences with suspicion. The Global Times stated in June that the movies like Cloud Atlas and Batman: The Dark Knight package their ideology into cultural products that are unconsciously consumed by Chinese people.

At the same time, censorship and arrests of a few offending individuals as in the case of danmei does not offer a complete solution for them to address these misgivings towards foreign cultural products. While slash fiction on Baidu Tieba is subject to the filtering of blacklisted words with pornographic or erotic overtones such as the words for “rape” 强奸 and “prostitute” 妓, these restrictions can be easily circumvented through the use of random Chinese characters to confuse filters.

Whether the Party likes it or not, the cosmopolitan and widely varied tastes of Chinese fans continue to generate demand for celebrity and entertainment products that hail from beyond China’s domestic shores, and the deeply entrenched culture of dedicated, passionate fandom in China will not be easily removed by censorship laws or new restrictions.

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