Reflection on Chinese boys' love fans: An insider's view

Erika Junhui Yi

University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, United States

[0.1] Abstract—The fandom of BL, as it is known in China, celebrates explicit homoerotic relationships between boys or men—fictional characters taken from mainstream media, real-life celebrities, and male personifications of day-to-day objects and animals, as well as original characters. Mainstream media reports on BL fandom and BL fan girls in China have never been favorable; this subculture and the fans within it are constantly represented in a negative and biased light. But because I am a BL fan girl myself, I can offer an insider's perspective. This essay is a reflection on my personal experiences and observations as a member of BL fandom, and a response to erroneous, stigmatizing claims and moral panic about this community in China.

[0.2] Keywords—BL; Ethnography; Fan practice; Interpersonal relationships

Yi, Erika Junhui. 2013. "Reflection on Chinese Boys' Love Fans: An Insider's View." In "Transnational Boys' Love Fan Studies," edited by Kazumi Nagaike and Katsuhiko Suganuma, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 12. doi:10.3983/twc.2013.0424.

[1] Their names are strange to the outsiders—slashers, BL (boys' love) fan girls, or fujoshi (rotten girls). Their fandom practice is associated with obscure jargon—terms such as slash, BL, tanbi, uke, and seme, to name a few. The fandom of BL, as it is known in China, celebrates explicit homoerotic relationships between boys or men—fictional characters taken from mainstream media, real-life celebrities, and male personifications of day-to-day objects and animals, as well as original characters. BL culture is surprisingly dominated by women, most of whom are heterosexual. No current data indicate the number of BL fan girls in China, but their activity in this taboo fandom is significant enough to catch the media's attention—and not in a good way. Mainstream media reports on BL fandom and BL fan girls in China have never been favorable; this subculture and the fans within it are constantly represented in a negative and biased light. Articles are written by outsiders who speculate about and oversimplify this mature and sophisticated fandom. But because I am a BL fan girl myself, I can offer an insider's perspective. This essay is a reflection on my personal experiences and observations as a member of BL fandom, and a response to erroneous, stigmatizing claims and moral panic about this community in China.

[2] Several factors contribute to the stigmatization of Chinese BL fan girls. First of all, homosexual voices among the general public remain silenced because homosexuality is still taboo in China's highly heterosexual, patriarchal society. Second, BL fan fiction and fan artwork sometimes contain explicit depictions of sexual behavior, and such depictions are criticized as obscene and unhealthy, damaging to Chinese tradition and culture. Though its standards are vague, this criticism is one of the guiding criteria in China's censorship of the Internet. Thus, in the massive censorship crackdown launched in 2010, thousands of BL fan forums, Web sites, and personal blogs were censored, along with pornography. The forum I used to visit regularly was shut down during that operation; its administrator tried and failed multiple times to rebuild it, and the community collapsed. Yet the most important factor that led to moral panic about BL fan girls was the media. News articles on BL fan girls have been published since 2006, and the Internet crackdown once again brought media attention to them. In 2010, criticisms of BL fan girls by high-profile reporters appeared in major newspapers (figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Dou Wentao, a noted Xinhua News columnist, attacks BL fan girls in a November 23, 2010, blog post. [View larger image.]

Figure 2. An August 7, 2010, article in the Psychology section of Guangzhou Daily suggests that BL fan girls need psychiatric help. [View larger image.]

[3] These articles suggested that the BL fan girls needed psychiatric help because their interests were abnormal and a sign of mental problems. Some also argued that they might cause societal harm because of the antimainstream, rebellious nature of their practice, or might be used by antigovernmental and antisocial forces to threaten social stability.

[4] These media reports, along with the Internet censorship, made BL fandom a target of attack. Perhaps the most outrageous action taken against BL fan girls happened in 2011. The police in Zhengzhou Province arrested 32 slash fiction writers whose work had appeared on a Web site specializing in homoerotic content. The arrested writers were all women, and most were in their 20s (Xin Kuai Bao, March 22, 2011, This news caught the attention of other BL fan girls, most of whom had also created some kind of fan work, making them vulnerable to legal action. The Chinese microblogging service Sina Weibo had recently become popular, and satirical comics about the arrest were posted and reposted there by millions of BL fan girls. Some joked that prisons would not have enough space to hold all these writers and illustrators. Others jokingly suggested to police that they could house the imprisoned girls according to popular BL genres in order to facilitate communication among them. One post entertained the idea that men might have to have romantic relationships with other men because so few Chinese women would remain free (figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3. In a fan comic, an imprisoned fan girl can't decide which genre-specific prison cell to enter. [View larger image.]

Figure 4. In a fan comic, a man despairs after all the women have been imprisoned for BL activities. [View larger image.]

[5] However, behind each self-mocking, humorous post was another stigmatized Chinese BL fan girl trying to get over the fear of going to jail. The attacks and arrests felt very personal to me. Although my slash fiction blog had little traffic, I still felt the threat was big enough to justify moving it to a server outside of China.

[6] Misunderstanding from outsiders has kept the fandom community fairly closed. The increasing moral panic in China has caused BL fans to adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude toward outsiders. Closet BL fan girls must manage a constant tension. On the one hand, with other fans they can openly celebrate homosexuality; on the other hand, they must hide their love for these relationships from outsiders, just as most homosexuals must hide in China. Their reticence is understandable. Outsiders feel confused by and contemptuous of the girls' interest in homosexual romantic relationships. Some even assume they must be lesbians. This happened to me when I tried to explain BL to a colleague. After a lengthy explanation, he looked enlightened and said, "I see, so you're gay." It was not the assumption that offended me, but the fact that a well-educated person would jump to such a conclusion without a second thought. Sexuality in China is a clear-cut concept: anything that deviates from heterosexuality is considered gay. So BL fan girls, who celebrate homosexuality between boys, are excluded from the heterosexual realm and alienated. Some BL fan girls try to react to the stigmatization with nonchalance. Fandom is a personal hobby, they maintain; outsiders' opinions should not matter. However, when the outsiders are friends and family, their criticisms can be harder to brush off.

[7] The closed nature of the community contributes to a strong in-group bond. By in-group, I mean both the close friends of fan girls, who may not be BL fans themselves, and the BL fan community itself. Those who believe BL fan girls lack proper social ties might find it surprising that most have close friends who respect their interests even if they do not share them. Some slash fans indicated they were the only fan girl in their close circle of friends. The most important criterion for friendship, according to the fan girls, is not an interest in BL, but shared ideologies and attitudes toward social problems. The Chinese media's assumption that BL fan girls are only able to make friends among themselves does not align with accounts given by the girls themselves. They gave these accounts in a survey I conducted of Chinese BL fan girls. Their answers also resonated with me personally, as I am a Chinese BL fan girl myself.

[8] The deep bond between BL fan girls continues to impress me after years of involvement in slash fandom. I am a cautious person when it comes to communicating with strangers, especially via the Internet. When I register on a Web site I provide as little personal information as possible, and in posts and conversations I remain vague about personal details. However, my indistinct online image does not hinder other fan girls from commenting on my posts and sending me private messages about the fandom we all love. Eventually, I added several people to my IM program's buddy list so we could chat more easily. Our conversations gradually shifted from discussion of fandom to other fields, such as interesting things we saw that day, funny things our pets did, and sometimes even details of our personal lives. They were teenagers just becoming involved in BL fandom, college students who were active authors of BL fan works, and working women, but our age differences did not keep us from growing close. We sent each other small gifts from time to time, both domestically and internationally: travel souvenirs and local specialties, action figures and signed posters. The fact that we haven't met each other off-line is a minor issue in the building of a friendship.

[9] Some online friends do meet face to face. In the summer of 2012 I visited the city where one of my BL fan friends lived, and I enjoyed meeting and spending time with her. She even offered me a place to stay during my visit, and I would have accepted her offer gladly if I had been traveling alone. This is not a rare occurrence in BL fandom. Often I have seen tweets about fan girls traveling to different regions and even countries to meet their best friends in BL fandom. Some fan girls also like to announce their itineraries on their microblogs, hoping that friends along their route will be able to meet up with them. Needless to say, passion for BL motivates them to spend time and effort staying involved with the community. Building and maintaining friendships is a natural part of the fandom.

[10] For some, maintaining friendship matters more than pursuing romantic relationships. A popular saying among BL fan girls is "Being with other good fan girl friends, I am not longing for romantic love." This comment, which positions fan friendships as equal to romantic relationships, is partly a justification for the fact that many BL fan girls are single into their 20s—which is considered unusual in Chinese culture—and partly a humorous allusion to their presumed lesbian tendencies. BL fandom does not actually create lesbians, though it does enable fans to have a more open attitude toward sexuality, letting them joke about outsiders' assumptions rather than taking offense. However, some people consider BL fan girls' failure to prioritize romantic interests to be a social problem because not doing so goes against traditional Chinese culture. Traditional Chinese ideology regarding women's social place can be summed up in the ancient idea of the three obediences and the four virtues: women must obey their fathers, husbands, and sons; and polite speech, humility, morality, and housekeeping skills are considered virtues. All seven qualities are no longer rigidly demanded, but the expectation that a woman should find a suitable man and settle down as soon as possible remains intact. The concern about single fan girls is patriarchal, with little attention paid to the fact that these women are happy to be single at this stage of their lives.

[11] However, not all BL fan girls are single. Their romantic interests fluctuate depending on their level of fannish activity and the demands of their nonfannish lives. A subforum of the biggest Chinese BL community is exclusively devoted to discussion of fan girls' romantic relationships. People post questions to the forum to get support and advice. They also share good news, as an encouragement to those BL fan girls who are still in the process of searching for love. BL fan practice probably contributes to two characteristics of the forum. The first is an open attitude in discussing heterosexuality and topics related to sex, ranging from basic sex education to details of recent sexual encounters. The second is that some BL fan girls clearly have an all-or-nothing mentality, and their fictional work often promotes an idealized notion of romance. Many fan girls will cheerfully agree that the good guys exist not in this dimension, but in a fictional world. Some are cautious about romance because they embrace the belief that romantic relationships and marriage are lifelong; people should not play with them. Relationship advice given to the posters is thus often black and white. For example, if one aspect of a partner's behavior does not match the commonly held image of an ideal life partner, commenters will most likely tell the poster to break up.

[12] The media portrays Chinese BL fan girls in a negative light—as a group of lonely and antisocial females who have dubious sexual identities and abnormal interests. Even though we, the fan girls, know that these portraits do not hold much truth, we are prone to withdraw into a closed community partially because of the negative influence of these articles. We also cannot deny the influence of BL fandom on our views on friendships and romantic relationships. Perhaps as a group BL fans are somewhat different from our peers—just like sports fans are somewhat different from non–sports fans.

[13] Interestingly, although the voices against BL fandom still dominate media portrayals, a subtle change is underway. A growing number of recent media productions seem to be catering to fan girls' interests in homosexual relationships. For instance, the CCTV Spring Festival Gala is a live production that almost every Chinese person watches on the eve of the new lunar year. In the 2012 production, the hosts joked multiple times that some pairs of male performers looked like couples (video 1, figures 5 and 6). Needless to say, these seemingly offhand comments immediately spurred some fan girls to ship those pairs—that is, to speculate and create fan work about romances between them.

Video 1. "Pianists Li Yundi and Wang Leehom perform in the 2012 CCTV Spring Festival Gala," posted by Chansonboy.

Figure 5. Pianist Li Yundi's Weibo tweet about his performance with Wang Leehom was retweeted millions of times, with many retweets wishing the two artists a happily ever after. [View larger image.]

Figure 6. A newspaper article notes that Li Yundi and Wang Leehom are being "paired up" in the CCTV production. [View larger image.]

[14] Other recent media productions in China purposefully hint at romantic or sexual relationships between men to exploit the popularity of BL (figures 7 and 8).

Figure 7. A screen cap from the blockbuster movie Let the Bullets Fly (2010, dir. Wen Jiang). [View larger image.]

Figure 8. A fan artist's appreciation of the same scene depicted in figure 7. [View larger image.]

[15] Perhaps exploitation is better than moral panic, but neither does much good for BL fan girls in China.