Survival and migration patterns of Chinese online media fandoms

Xiqing Zheng

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China

[0.1] Abstract—Chinese online media fandoms over the past two decades have been shaped and erased by natural website deaths and data loss, but also by governmental censorship, especially under the pressure of three major censorship campaigns that targeted pornographic and copyright-infringing publications. The preservation of this history, although necessary, also leads to ethical debates regarding exposing fandoms to censors.

[0.2] Keywords—Archive; Censorship; China; Ethical dilemma; Fan history

Zheng, Xiqing. 2019. "Survival and Migration Patterns of Chinese Online Media Fandoms." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 30.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Being a fan signifies two different cultural identities and practices in the current Chinese cultural environment. Voluntarily engaging in the celebrity economy and star system, actively purchasing everything related to the celebrities, and voluntarily supporting and publicizing beloved celebrity and media products are not only tolerated but welcomed by the industry, and sometimes even the government. However, if fans commits their time to writing fan fiction, creating fan art, and editing fan videos—that is, if they engage in secondary creations that do not generate visible revenue for either the industry or the government—such fans will too often be ignored, marginalized, and erased. Here I discuss this second group of fans, the ones whose interest and pleasure lies in producing and consuming fan works that mainly circulate inside the fan community. Although this group of fans in China is not necessarily identical with media fans in the English-speaking world, I nonetheless refer to them as media fans who work inside Chinese online media fandoms.

[1.2] Chinese online media fandom started about twenty years ago, but its history has been so fraught with conflicts and interruptions that it cannot be approached through empirical data and evidence directly drawn from websites. The first generation of Chinese online media fans emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century, which coincided with the coming of age of the first generation of young enthusiasts of Japanese anime and manga after complete marketization of the Chinese mainland in 1992. Blockbuster English-language fantasy media franchises, such as The Lord of the Rings film franchise (2001–3) and the Harry Potter books and films (1997–), also greatly influenced Chinese media fandom. Indigenous Chinese media products also had their share of fans in the culturescape, but their portion was comparatively marginal until around 2005. Therefore, Chinese online media fandom is in itself a product of translation, intercultural communication, and negotiation among communities with distinctive rules and conventions.

[1.3] Although I call it Chinese media fandom, it has never been a national category that exists only within the borders of the Chinese mainland; rather, it is a virtual cultural space that extends its influence to all Chinese-speaking individuals, and it permeates media products originating in other languages, especially English and Japanese. It is difficult for even participants to provide a general history of this community; nor could a signature fandom be presented as an example, as English-language fan studies does with the Star Trek (1966–) or Harry Potter fandoms. To make the situation even more complicated, Chinese media fandom suffers not only from the natural death of websites as their creators move on but also, and more seriously, from censorship campaigns that sift through the internet to strike anything deemed inappropriate.

[1.4] Chinese media fandom is a product of Chinese fans' efforts to establish communities that are based on taste and interest, and it reflects on and reacts to glocal political and cultural shifts. Scholars and fans must attempt to understand this unique history, record the memories of its participants, and analyze its significance as a mode of cultural interaction and cultural formation.

2. The history of Chinese media fandom

[2.1] My colleague, Hanning Gao, and I started a project to record Chinese media fandom's history in 2018. We sought to recover the early stages of development and historical shifts in Chinese online fan fiction through surveys, interviews, and textual analysis of both written historical records of debates and negotiations within the fan community. We wrote a short survey and distributed it on the Chinese SNS website Weibo to recruit interviewees with interesting and representative memories about Chinese media fandom and how it has operated and shifted (note 1). We received more than 3,300 responses to this preliminary survey. Even though we asked only a few simple-to-answer questions, such as, "What significant events can you recall that happened in your fandom?," we discovered that Chinese media fandoms, although comparatively secluded and requiring adequate knowledge of the source texts (thereby making it difficult to enter into wider social discussion and consumption), were extremely dependent on the sociocultural environment as well as sensitive to policy changes and censorship enforcement.

[2.2] One question in the survey asked responders to identify major events that they experienced in online fandoms; 1,106 (48.9 percent) of 2,260 of effective responses directly identified various censorship campaigns that restricted the surviving environment of online fandom. We found that many fans used the keywords hexie, "forum shutdown," and mentioned the sensational cases of Dahuilang, Tianyi, and Shenhai Xiansheng (note 2).

[2.3] Through the migration routes that the respondents identified in the survey, we learned that over the last two decades, media fandoms in general migrated in the following order: separately operated online forums, larger forums, archival systems, SNS miniblogs, and lightblogs (figure 1). This migration pattern is almost identical to what happened to English-language online media fandom. New technologies and modes of communication change and shape online media fandom in any language. Smartphones and the increasing availability of fast internet connections have led to social networking websites' (Weibo in China, Twitter and Tumblr in the English-speaking world) replacing blogs and forums after 2010. However, in China, censorship has been an influential factor in fandom's migration, as most mass migrations took place during or after large censorship campaigns. A typical case is that of Lofter.

1998–2003—Independent small forums: sunsunplus, Lucifer; 2000–2005—Major forum systems: Xilu, Netsh; 2003–2015—Fandom based forums: Suiyuanju; 2003–Present—Major professional Internet Literature websites: Jinjiang Literature; 2004–Present—Forum system based on a search engine: Baidu Tieba; 2010–Present—Social Network Miniblog System: Weibo; 2014–Present—Lightblog System: Lofter; Additional sites chosen for posting explicit sexual contents, nicknamed 'Parking Lot' in fandoms: bulaoge, jianshu, shimo etc.

Figure 1. A simple genealogy of the websites that Chinese media fandoms have migrated through since 1998. Dates denote only the general time period that media fandoms used the websites as the major socializing and exchanging platform, not the websites' dates of launching and closing.

[2.4] Lofter, a lightblogging system operated by NetEase, which originally targeted the community of photography fans and artists (including but not limited to fan artists), has gradually developed into the major publishing and sharing platform in Chinese fan fiction writing communities since its establishment in 2011. The rise of Lofter as a platform that permits exchange of fan fiction is the direct result of a major online censorship campaign that targeted pornographic topics in 2014, thus driving fan users to Lofter as they sought a new forum. Two major venues of Chinese fan fiction publication platform forum websites in the previous decade, Baidu Tieba and Jinjiang Literature, both promptly gave into political coercion and moved to shut down fan fiction publication forums without notice in about May 2014—likely also a result of fan fiction's being probably the least lucrative of the online communities that depend on commercial websites. The fan fiction section of Jinjiang Literature was made available again after about six months, but the censored stories were never recovered. Our respondents also reported that many Baidu Tieba forums dedicated to male-male couples were never again available.

3. Three waves of censorship campaigns

[3.1] In the survey, respondents identified three significant waves of censorship campaigns. The first lasted from 2007 to 2008, the second lasted from 2014 to 2015, and the third started in about 2018 and at the time of writing was still in progress. People's anxiety is most acute when campaigns that target pornographic content and illegal publications result in arrests of online danmei (that is, homosexual and homoerotic writings created and consumed by women) writers; such cases have occurred at least three times.

[3.2] The first censorship campaign, although the least intense, resulted in the closure of various fan fiction forums and websites. This campaign started an online carnival in which netizens actively expressed their discontent through memes that alluded to vulgarity, pornography, and other censored or forbidden words. For instance, the "grass mud horse" meme has become a symbol of popular resistance online; the sounds are similar to the curse "fuck your mother" in Chinese (figure 2). This meme has been discussed both in mass media and in scholarly research (Meng 2011). However, such lighthearted mockery and fun were no longer possible during the next two waves of censorship.

Color screenshot of a white llama; a human hand in the frame proffers some sort of tasty green vegetation. Chinese-language characters appear at the bottom.

Figure 2. Image of the fictional "grass mud horse," which is in fact a llama. The screenshot comes from a YouTube karaoke-style video featuring a song that celebrates the happy life of the grass mud horse (

[3.3] The second wave of online censorship campaign was much larger in scale. The internet population in China had increased from 162 million to 648 million from 2007 to 2014, so the population affected by this campaign also significantly increased (China Internet Network Information Center 2014). This 2014 censorship campaign is widely known in Chinese as Jingwang Xingdong (internet cleansing movement). Started in April and ending six months later, this government campaign targeted online pornography. In the government's words, the campaign sought to remove illegal content made and communicated online, including illegal publications, pornographic content, and false media (Central Propaganda Department Service Center 2014).

[3.4] Censorship of pornographic content has always been a much-tolerated type of censorship in China. Danmei are among the easiest targets for moral judgments. Before then, Jinjiang Literature, the largest female-oriented literature website, had hosted an enormous and influential group of danmei writings. Danmei was put side by side with heterosexual romance (yanqing) on the website's front page, although it maintained its own channel. After the Jingwang Xingdong, however, Jinjiang Literature created a euphemism to substitute for the easily targeted term danmei: chun'ai, "pure love." As if to demonstrate their sincerity in siding with pure love, Jinjiang Literature further enforced a strict self-censorship system that forbade any sexual content, presented in a widely circulated principle: "No description of anything below the neck" (Guanchazhe 2014). It also started a reporting system that encourages readers to flag anything on the website that they find transgresses the current rules and policies (figure 3).

Screenshot of text-heavy Chinese-language website with main content divided into four columns—each of them having two buttons on its ends—indicating the site's eight channels. Red banner shows image of people cheering next to a cityscape that includes both modern buildings and a castle, with the website title in stylized Chinese characters, celebrating International Labor Day. Red text appears centered at the bottom of the page.

Figure 3. Screenshot of the main page of Jinjiang Literature, May 7, 2019 ( The sentences in red at the bottom detail the procedure for reporting illegal content to governmental censors.

[3.5] However, the worst instance of censorship is that of the ongoing third wave. This censorship campaign relies on a large-scale, omnipresent reporting system. Many reports come from informants inside the community, especially antifans of a certain genre of writing, or even antifans of certain slash pairings. Using the power of governmental censorship to persecute people of a different fannish position has been a common practice since 2014, but it has reached new heights in the past year or so.

[3.6] A young amateur writer of danmei stories using the pen name Tianyi was sentenced to ten and a half years in prison for illegally disseminating pornographic materials in large quantities. Although she was arrested along with the publishers, editors, and printers in 2017, the case was only made public in November 2018, when Tianyi was sentenced (Shepherd 2018). Widespread anxiety and panic resulted, forcing many fan fiction editing and printing outfits to close down. Out of fear, many writers removed their stories from the internet altogether. As a result of strict censorship and control over publication, for decades, Chinese female fan communities relied on a shadow economy of Japanese-style dōjinshi publication—that is, custom printing via amateur self-publication. After the flourishing of websites for person-to-person sales, Chinese fan communities developed a highly efficient network of dōjinshi production and sales, which could have been an excellent example of women's enterprise. However, the lawsuit sent a chilling message to not only danmei writers but also to every online writer who does not seek formal publication.

[3.7] The case of Tianyi, the similar case of another female danmei writer, Shenhai Xiansheng (Yang 2019), and the overall tightening of censorship of all Chinese websites finally drove Chinese fans to take refuge at websites like the Archive of Our Own ( AO3 is luckily not targeted by the Chinese Great Fire Wall, which has blocked the majority of international large websites, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr. The year 2018 could mark the start of Chinese fandoms' migration out of their comfort zone of Chinese-language writing and websites and into participation in English-language fan forums—or it could end if AO3 is blocked by the Great Fire Wall.

4. Chinese media fandoms' vulnerability

[4.1] Chinese media fandoms are sensitive to policy shifts for many reasons, but it boils down to the affect-driven nature of fandoms and the reciprocal gift economy of fan fiction circulation. Because fan fiction writing, especially slash fiction writing, is theoretically not for profit, it lacks the commercial power and representation that might enforce its legitimacy. Chinese media fandoms instead have to migrate through various host websites or host servers whenever a commercial or political decision affects the current host website, thereby leading to vast data loss and frequent negotiations of community decorum, which must be specifically tailored to the host server or website.

[4.2] Chinese media fandoms have never had a website like AO3 that serves solely as an archive for fan fiction creations. In recent years, because of the extremely successful commercialization of nontransformative writings online, most websites dedicated to internet literature attempt to monetize the fiction posted to them. Fannish sites thus become exposed to outside attention that could lead to copyright enforcement, further driving fan fiction outside these sites. In addition, the more commercialized and mainstream the internet literature websites become, the more surveillance from the government they will attract.

[4.3] The government's control and censorship of online writings come in various forms and approaches, but as the respondents to our survey express, the one that affects fan fiction websites the most is the censorship of perceived pornography, which comes in waves of campaigns and movements. Like English-language fan fiction writing communities, Chinese-language ones migrate to places where their cultural products and practices are generally tolerated, but Chinese fans must move content much more often—and in a much more desperate and slapdash fashion. Metaphorically speaking, Chinese online fan communities are tenants. They never own a home; they have to obey whatever rules that the landlord decides on; and they have to move whenever the landlord tells them to. They also have to move to places where their communities are tolerated, even if the houses that the tenants inhabit are less suitable for their living and socializing.

[4.4] Under these circumstance, academic studies on Chinese fandoms are an ethical dilemma. Fan fiction has affected the narratives of a vast number of online fictional writings in China, but fan fiction is also highly vulnerable to policy shifts and government-targeted attacks. It is important to record the memory and history of online fans, and it is important to destigmatize the female labor and desire involved in these writings. However, doing so would also cause the community to be examined by outsiders and censors. As the cultural and political atmosphere in China grows tighter, attention might lead to devastating consequences, such as what happened to writers Tianyi and Shenhai Xiansheng.

5. Acknowledgment

[5.1] I thank Hanning Gao, Institute of Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, for her contributions.

6. Notes

1. The short survey ( asked the following: Can you remember any important events that happened in fandoms that you took part in (e.g., the establishment of a certain important forum)? The influence of censorship? Famous works/events that extended their influence outside fandom? Please do not restrict your answers to the questions we suggest.

2. Hexie, "harmonious," is the keyword for Chinese ex-leader Hu Jintao's signature ideology. It has been used as a euphemism for internet censorship since 2004. The cases of Dahuilang, Tianyi, and Shenhai Xiansheng refer to three danmei writers who were arrested because of their "pornographic" writings or their unauthorized publications. Dahuilang was arrested in 2015, Tianyi and Shenhai Xiansheng in 2017.

7. References

Central Propaganda Department Service Center; National Office of Eradicating Pornography and Illegal Publications Working Group. 2014. "Jingwang Xingdong" [Internet cleansing movement].

China Internet Network Information Center. 2014. [The 35th statistical report for Chinese internet development]. January 2014.

Guanchazhe. 2014. [Jinjiang literature cooperates with antipornography movement, inviting netizens to censor novels]. Guanchazhe, July 24, 2014.

Meng, Bingchun. 2011. "From Steamed Bun to Grass Mud Horse: E Gao as Alternative Political Discourse on the Chinese Internet." Global Media and Communication 7 (1): 33–51.

Shepherd, Christian. 2018. "Ten Years' Jail Term for Chinese Author of Homoerotic Novel Sparks Outcry." Reuters, November 19, 2018.

Yang Rui. 2019. [Wuhan danmei writers involved in illegal business crimes: Where should the business of dōjinshi go?]. Caixin, April 22, 2019.