Boys' love, cosplay, and androgynous idols: Queer fan cultures in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, edited by Maud Lavin, Ling Yang, and Jing Jamie Zhao

Erika Junhui Yi

[0.1] Keywords—Chinese queer fandom; Transcultural fandom studies; Transnational fandom studies

Yi, Erika Junhui. 2018. Boys' Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, edited by Maud Lavin, Ling Yang, and Jing Jamie Zhao [book review]. In "Fans of Color, Fandoms of Color," edited by Abigail De Kosnik and andré carrington, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 29.

Maud Lavin, Ling Yang, and Jing Jamie Zhao, eds. 2017. Boys' love, cosplay, and androgynous idols: Queer fan cultures in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. Hardback $60.00/£47.00 (256p), (ISBN 9789888390809).

[1] Boys' Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (QFC) is a collection of case studies focusing on Chinese-speaking queer fandom that aims to fill the gap of literature on queer fandom in a Chinese-speaking context, especially that of mainland China; bridge the traditional Anglo-American media fan studies with the transnational and transcultural Chinese-speaking fandom research; and provide cross-cultural comparison between mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The following sections will discuss the organization of the book in general and provide a chapter-by-chapter analysis, in order to illustrate how this volume addresses the three goals.

[2] This hardcover book consists of ten chapters with occasional pictures, photos, and charts embedded as supportive evidence. The book chapters are divided into three major sections based on the geographic region of the case studies. Echoing the geographic and cultural regions discussed in QFC, the book cover features a photo of four female cosplayers dressed/cross-dressed as characters from the Japanese manga and anime series Hetalia; the four characters are the personifications of Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Japan. Chapters 1 through 6 in the China section offer a collection of case studies of fandom in mainland China, while chapters 7 and 8 focus on Hong Kong and chapters 9 and 10 on Taiwan. With the China section taking up the largest portion of QFC, this book indeed contributes to the much-needed study of queer fandom in mainland China, while the Hong Kong and Taiwan sections serve as great comparison pieces to illustrate each region's uniqueness in queer fan culture due to their vastly different cultural, social, and political influences.

[3] Using the concept of queer as an overall analytical lens, this book unites the chapters as well as the discussion of a broad range of fannish activities under one umbrella, such as fan readings of transnational androgynous celebrities, BL (Boys' Love) fandom practices in various contexts, gender performance of cosplayers, and the fan readings of the transgender media character DongFang Bubai. Queer in this context "serves as an umbrella term used…to loosely refer to all kinds of nonnormative representations, viewing positions, identifications, structures of feelings, and ways of thinking" (xii). However, in each chapter the authors have a unique perspective on the interpretation of the queerness and the queering of Chinese-speaking fandom. For example, in chapter 3, Ling Yang connects the discourse of nationalism with the queer interpretations of Chinese Hetalia fandom; in chapter 5, Shuyan Zhou uses carnival theory to illustrate how a celebrity BL matchmaking incident escalated into an online carnival and the fallout afterwards; and in chapter 9, Weijung Chang frames the BL practice in Taiwan within a Japanophilia context. This book not only provides an extremely diverse array of topics but also transcends the study of queer culture above a "polarized resistance/capitulation model" (xxi), depicting a complex cultural ecosystem that is intricately connected with and influenced by technological advancement, local history, media policy, and cultural roots.

[4] One of the most notable features of QFC lies in how the authors negotiate a sense of cultural uniqueness via the purposeful use of Chinese pinyin and Cantonese romanization. The authors choose to use Chinese pinyin (romanized representation of Chinese words) instead of English or Japanese translation to refer to several fannish terms, the purpose of which is to emphasize some concepts that are unique to Chinese-speaking fan culture, such as feizhuliu (nonmainstream), weiniang (fake girls), leijü (shocking drama), shengnü (leftover women), and tongzhi (gay). The authors also opt to use Chinese pinyin to distinguish nuanced Chinese cultural concepts from the corresponding Western or Japanese translations. For example, the term danmei is used instead of tanbi (Japanese), ke'ai (cuteness) instead of kawaii (Japanese) or aegyo (Korean), zhongxing instead of neutrosexuality, and meili instead of beauty. Although this use of Chinese pinyin poses readability difficulties for a non-Chinese-speaking audience, some of the usages are indeed necessary. For example, in chapter 2, Shih-Chen Chao illustrates in detail the cultural differences between ke'ai, kawaii, and aegyo, even though on the surface all the terms mean cuteness. Eva Cheuk Yin Li and Maud Lavin explain in chapters 7 and 8 that the term zhongxing is often associated with ambiguous sexual orientation in a Chinese context, as opposed to the simple reference to a gender-neutral fashion style. Although some of the pinyin usages are unjustified due to the lack of discussion within the context of the articles, QFC remains one good example for non-Western cultural studies on the intentional usage of original terms to emphasize the contextual and cultural differences of certain terms and concepts even if terms of similar meaning exist in other languages.

[5] The China section starts with chapter 1, which provides an overview of the danmei fandom in mainland China. Yang and Yanrui Xu illustrate the danmei fandom from three aspects—infrastructures, danmei circles, and the online space for Chinese danmei fandom, presenting the readers with a technology-enabled transnational fandom sphere consisting of danmei content from both local and imported sources. This chapter gives readers a glimpse into the intricate fandom system in mainland China, where the local, the Japanese, and the Euro-American danmei materials coexist and mutually influence one another. Chapter 2 is a case study of the Alice Cos Group—an all-male cosplay group dedicated to cosplaying female characters in their girlish and cute gender performances. Chao draws a contrast between the group's feminine performance characterized by ke'ai (cuteness) and sajiao (coquettish) and the members' real-world heteronormative male identities, highlighting the inconsistency between group members' performed queerness in the public sphere and their assigned male social roles. In chapter 3, Yang illustrates beautifully the Chinese nationalism expressed in Chinese Hetalia fandom, as well as a transnational BL fantasy world of grand union—a clever Chinese word play on the double meaning of the word tong. The term grand union (datong) jokingly appropriates the Confucian idea of a utopian world to refer to a dream world for BL fan girls where same-sex relationships (tongxinglian) are widely celebrated. In chapter 4, Jing Jamie Zhao discusses transnational fan gossip regarding androgynous celebrity Katherine Moennig. Living in a censored and highly heteronormative media environment, Chinese fans use celebrity gossip to negotiate and explore their gender and sexuality while expressing a longing for an idealized fantasy Western world. Both chapters 3 and 4 discuss the national/transnational fandom practice and manage to go beyond a binary presentation of normality/resistance to present instead a hybrid queer culture with distinct Chinese flavors. In chapter 5, Shuyan Zhou leads the readers through the journey of an online carnival of a BL matchmaking between two Chinese male musicians, Wang Leehom and Li Yundi. Zhou characterizes this online media event as an online carnival and pinpoints the moment when a fan-constructed online carnival transgresses the boundary between reality and fantasy and between the homoerotic and the heteronormative. Chapter 6 showcases similar online fannish activities, wherein fannish products transform a shockingly bad TV drama featuring Dongfang Bubai, a long-standing fictional queer icon, into a precious cultural resource. Egret Lulu Zhao discusses three types of queer readings that empower both this tragic villain and the fans via their creative fannish interpretations. The China section of QFC collects a diverse range of topics, bringing some of the lesser-known Chinese queer culture aspects into international academia.

[6] The two chapters in the Hong Kong section present case studies of androgynous female idols. In chapter 7, Li compares the queer readings of Hong Kong star HOCC before and after her coming out. Similar to the argument in chapter 5, HOCC's coming-out event served as a pivotal point for her queer fans, where the boundaries between fantasy and reality were transgressed and merged. The fan discussion shifted from queer fantasy to the negotiation of an appropriate lesbian embodiment after HOCC's coming out. The queer desire of the fans is entangled with the heteronormative society, restraining their perception of queer performance. In the case study of chapter 8, Lavin takes a different approach to the Corns—fans of mainland star Li Yuchun, an androgynous female idol who achieved international fame and popularity in the music and fashion industries. Lavin explores the identity negotiation of Li Yuchun's mainland-born, Hong Kong-dwelling fans to find a sense of belonging in a city openly expressing bigotry towards mainland Chinese and how they form cross-regional friendships, bonding over the gossip of Li Yuchun's persona. With its focus on androgynous female idols, the Hong Kong section could offer more in terms of topic diversity; however, Li and Lavin contribute fresh perspectives to the study of androgynous idols that largely take into consideration the local culture and policies. Zhao also presents a similar discussion of the influence of local media policy on fans' queer reading of an androgynous idol in the China section. The comparison of three cases suggests that the relatively liberal policies of Hong Kong give fans a real-world footing in negotiating queerness, whereas queer fans of mainland China still long for a Garden of Eden in a fantasy West.

[7] The Taiwan section includes chapters 9 and 10, both of which address the Boys' Love fandom scene in Taiwan. In chapter 9, Chang explores the heavy Japanese influence on the BL fandom practice in Taiwan. Contextualizing Taiwanese fujoshi (rotten girls, female BL fans) culture as a form of Japanophilia, Chang pictures the Taiwanese fujoshi's BL fandom practice as facilitated and enchanted by Japaneseness and fueled by desiring Japaneseness. In chapter 10, Fran Martin further illuminates this Japanese influence in a historical context, connecting the policy changes in book publication with the transnational distribution of BL texts. Martin also dwells on BL genres and the readers' exploration into their own sexuality and desires by consuming such texts. The term worlding was coined to refer to Taiwanese BL readers' imagined Japan as a BL fantasy land as well as the social bonding among Taiwanese female readers inside "a social subworld at a local level" (211). The BL fandom scene in Taiwan features an intense Japanese influence while mainland China's danmei communities consist of circles of Japanese fandom, Euro-American fandom, and local fandom as described in chapter 1. In chapter 3, Yang articulates how the relationship between China and Japan is reflected in the Hetalia fandom, and these complicated feelings of mainlanders toward Japan are sharply contrasted with the Japanophilia BL fandom in Taiwan. Meanwhile, the censorship policy in Taiwan puts the region somewhere in between mainland China and Hong Kong, and Taiwanese fans both express a longing for a fantasy Japan like mainland Chinese and use BL fandom as a means to form friendships and social bonding similar to fans in Hong Kong.

[8] In addition to the queer analysis, all ten chapters address in one way or another the essential roles that government policy and censorship play in forming local queer fan cultures. Mainland China arguably has the most heavy-handed censorship policy, and this heavy state control of mainstream media interacts with queer fans in different ways. On one hand, media censorship represses the queer expression in mainstream media and encourages self-censorship of fans, resulting in queer readings restrained by heteronormative social norms (chapters 2 and 4); on the other hand, heavy censorship in a way inspires fans to explore their sexuality and gender performance in a creative and innovative way (chapters 5 and 6). The tongzhi (gay) activism in Hong Kong not only redirects the fan gossip of HOCC but also provides queer fans in Hong Kong hope for "emerging homonormative codes" (148) to normalize queer culture. In Taiwan, the policy changes since the 1950s instigated several different phases of the distribution and consumption of BL texts in the local market, until the rise of the internet reduced the impact of ambiguous policies. Contextualizing the queer fan culture within the local history, government policy, and media censorship proves to be a fruitful approach in the study of non-Western queer cultures. Understanding the context of these cases is essential for transnational and cross-cultural studies in that the development of local queer fan culture is implicitly intertwined with the local traditions. The Chinese-speaking context also sets QFC apart from the pan-Asian queer studies, illustrating the local cultural nuances in more detail and presenting the queer fan culture with much more vibrant fibers.

[9] In conclusion, this book achieves its goals of filling the literature gap of mainland Chinese queer studies and contextualizing the Chinese-speaking fandom research that connects with yet differs from the traditional Western media fan studies. However, the cross comparison among mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan is relatively weak and mostly implied, and the chapters do not elaborate or provide sophisticated comparative readings. Another arguable shortcoming for QFC lies in some of the seemingly broad claims by the authors. Because of the low number of existing Chinese-speaking queer fan culture studies, it is understandable that the authors have made observations as cultural insiders and used such observations as supportive materials in their research. Some of the arguments do not specify whether the data came from personal observation or other sources, which could potentially discredit the arguments. Overall, QFC is a valuable addition to current queer fan culture studies, especially for the Chinese-speaking fandom. The book approaches queer studies with a complex nonbinary analytical lens and greatly improves the theoretical diversity of queer fandom studies. QFC will be a great read for those who are interested in Chinese fan culture and in transnational and transcultural media fandom studies, as well as in non-Western queer studies.