Censorship and Chinese slash fans

Yudan Pang

School of Management, Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin, Heilongjiang, China

[0.1] Abstract—After the Archive of Our Own (AO3), which housed many Chinese fan works, was blocked in China in February 2020, Chinese slash fans had to decide what to do. Uses and gratification theory helps explain why Chinese slashers chose quite different paths after AO3 was blocked, with three main tendencies observed: creating culture islands on foreign platforms, creating in a foreign language, and staying on domestic platforms but self-censoring to stay within the rules. Each option provides a different balance of affordances, depending on what trade-offs readers and writers are willing to make.

[0.2] Keywords—AO3; Fan community; Online platform; Uses and gratification theory

Pang, Yudan. 2021. "Censorship and Chinese Slash Fans." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 36.

1. Introduction

[1.1] On February 29, 2020, the Archive of Our Own (AO3), a popular fan archive that hosts transformative works, was blocked by the Chinese Great Firewall (GFW), mainland China's effort to enforce strict internet censorship (Ensafi et al. 2015). Slash fans, aka slashers, in mainland China thus lost yet another platform on which to post their works, but the loss of the AO3 in particular was a blow because nearly 250,000 works in Chinese had been posted to the website (note 1). Now none of these works could be accessed. Further, an online translating service provider, ColorfulClouds, followed suit by blocking Chinese-language translations from the site, with a decline in translated words of over a hundred million characters per day, according to their official SinaWeibo account ( This translation tool permitted Chinese-speaking fans to cross language barriers and engage in fan activities administered by AO3. Unsurprisingly, after the GFW's block and the withdrawal of translation services, the number of Chinese-language works being posted dropped significantly. Figure 1 shows the number of Chinese- and English-language works posted daily on AO3 from January to March 2020; the number of new Chinese works peaked on February 1, 2020.

Graph showing increase in number of posted English fics and decrease in Chinese fics

Figure 1. Numbers of Chinese and English works posted daily on AO3 from January to March 2020, showing a decrease in the number of new Chinese works appearing on the platform after AO3 was blocked in China.

[1.2] Although Chinese fans have domestic options for posting fan works, slash content in particular is strictly censored because of slash's homoerotic content and themes. Domestic slashers therefore must self-censor by blocking access to sensitive work or removing content altogether. For those who do not want to accept abridgment of their works, foreign platforms are used to circumvent censorship. The loss of AO3 was the loss of the biggest fan site that welcomed their work.

[1.3] After AO3 was blocked, Chinese fans had to choose how to react. Uses and gratification theory (UGT) may be applied to this case to explain Chinese slashers' motivations for choosing various paths after AO3's loss, which in turn provides insight more generally into the trade-offs that Chinese slashers must make as they seek to build a community and exchange artifacts like fan fiction. UGT is an approach that attempts to figure out how and why people seek out certain media to gratify certain needs. Previous research on Chinese internet users' motivations for bypassing the GFW has shown that the three main aims are searching for information, engaging in socialization, and seeking entertainment (Yang and Liu 2014). Generally speaking, individual motivation regarding media usage is categorized into process gratification, content gratification, and social gratification (Svennevig 2000). Although Chinese slashers are a niche group of media users, their behavior and choices seek to satisfy their needs along these lines. With AO3 blocked, mainland China's slashers must choose to preserve Chinese customs on foreign platforms, to write in a foreign language, or to stay on domestic platforms but self-censor. As I describe below, UGT shows us how each choice provides a way that might satisfy slashers' various needs.

2. Building old homes in a new land

[2.1] Media consumers have strong motivations to seek social gratification through differentiated media products (Stafford, Stafford, and Schkade 2004). Slashers' social gratification is tightly linked to their peers, and Chinese slashers share a common identity that enforces social gratification through communication. Chinese slashers use foreign platforms like AO3 to host and archive their works in order to avoid censorship. On these platforms, people can easily find a large number of Chinese-language works and comments. Chinese slashers use domestic manners and the Chinese language to communicate with their fellow fans. They create cyber-Chinatowns in these platforms. Enforcing domestic social norms provides them with a sense of belonging and safety.

[2.2] Further, Chinese slashers may store Chinese works and follow Chinese domestic social norms on foreign platforms because, as UGT tells us, they need entertainment and stimulation (Svennevig 2000). These foreign platforms keep uncensored work safe even as the content provides slashers with stimulation and entertainment—especially content that the GFW might consider forbidden. From the aspect of social gratification, previous research has indicated that creators of online fan works are first identified as fans, then as creators producing transformative works (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2017). The initial impetus of creating a fan work is the passion to communicate with other fans about the fandom. Communication with fans who use a familiar language and follow the same social norms increases trust and enhances shared identity and a sense of belonging.

[2.3] Data from SimilarWeb ( indicate that AO3 received 19.15 percent of referrals from Lofter, a popular Chinese slash platform. Lofter's data indicate that the platform receives access mainly from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, all of which fall within the Chinese cultural circle. The top Lofter destination site is AO3, at 18.65 percent of referrals ( The number of Chinese works updated per day on AO3 reached a peak of over 1,700 on February 1, 2020 (note 2). This referral information indicates the presence of a tight link between Chinese domestic and foreign platforms. Chinese slashers are clearly using AO3 to evade censorship from domestic platforms. Moreover, setting up these cyber-Chinatowns has allowed fans to safely store uncensored work or fragments. Such content can provide stimulation for Chinese slashers; further, domestic social norms are satisfied, as fans feel a sense of belonging and social gratification in a familiar environment, but one without strict regulation.

[2.4] Yet these solutions have their own problems. One is that fragments posted on foreign platforms cause confusion, because some slashers post content domestically that is unlikely to be censored but put sensitive material on a foreign platform, making it hard to arrange the parts into a coherent whole. Another is that slashers in mainland China may have a biased impression about AO3 in particular, stigmatizing it as a place that houses mostly explicit, mature, or pornographic content. A third is that some works lack tags or ratings but have explicit content, a phenomenon that is common for fan-created artwork—and that might shock or surprise the unwary fan who clicks through. Finally, the exclusive nature of cyber-Chinatowns makes it hard for non-Chinese slashers interested in the same fandom to engage.

[2.5] Chinese slashers move their cyber-Chinatown any time the GFW blocks a preferred site. They pull up stakes and settle down in a new home on a new platform, where they set up another cyber-Chinatown to fulfill their needs for entertainment, stimulation, and social interaction with familiar peers.

3. De-Sinicized Chinese slashers on foreign platforms

[3.1] Some slashers choose to move to foreign platforms and create works in foreign languages. These de-Sinicized slashers fit a general profile: fluent in foreign-language communication and creative writing skills; well adapted to the rules of the game while posting on foreign platforms; strong global self-identification; and multicultural acceptance in terms of the creation of transformative works. These slashers' motivation is quite different from the fans who like the domestic social norms in their cyber-Chinatowns. These two kinds of Chinese slashers have distinct group identities and different senses of belonging. Slashers in cyber-Chinatowns have a stronger sense of having a common identity with peers who share the same social norms and language; they are less interested in a broader multicultural community organized around a fandom. De-Sinicized slashers have a stronger sense of belonging with peers who share the same fandom community yet come from diverse cultural backgrounds. Their common identity circles around the fandom; they do not wish to be labeled as "Chinese slashers." Slashers who choose to create in a foreign language are more interested in satisfying the needs of their fellow (international) slashers; they gain emotional satisfaction when their work is accepted by fans in an environment that welcomes language diversity.

[3.2] Chinese slashers' creating in a foreign language expands their external social circle and garners attention in online fan communities. Their work has a better reputation and is more popular with online fan communities, thus satisfying their sense of belonging and resulting in the social gratification inherent in such communications. Indeed, in some fandoms, particular languages may be identified as the prestige language for fan artworks: Japanese is the prestige language for anime and manga fandoms, English is the prestige language for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Comics fandoms, and Chinese is the prestige language for internationally popular Chinese web dramas like The Untamed (2019) and Guardian (2018). Using the prestige language increases the creators' content gratification. Indeed, fandom studies has shown that creators gain personal emotional satisfaction when they participate in creating transformative works, and the sense of participating is the origin of satisfaction (Navar-Gill 2018). For Chinese slashers, the satisfaction of creating a personal identity in the context of culturally acceptable transformative works also effectively motivates them, particularly among slashers engaged in a fandom for which Chinese is the prestige language. Chinese slashers' construction of a positive self-image on a foreign platform helps them proficiently navigate a multicultural aesthetic, but it reduces their connection with domestic slashers, who may trash them on domestic platforms.

[3.3] In terms of UGT, Chinese slashers' use of foreign languages permits process gratification through the creative process and social gratification through communication with diverse fans and popularity on foreign platforms. However, the social gratification gained by creating in a foreign language differs from the social gratification experienced by slashers in cyber-Chinatowns and on domestic platforms. The social satisfaction inherent in the former can be seen as more of a multicultural satisfaction, with the sense of belonging bound to the fandom.

4. Self-censorship and abridgment of works posted on domestic platforms

[4.1] Faced with intense scrutiny from domestic platforms and the GFW's powerful content blocking, the third option for Chinese slashers is to delete their works' sensitive content, thereby permitting the texts to pass muster. This is the opposite of the content gratification in UGT because the resulting abridgments contain no sensitive content, which can trouble slashers who wish to explore these topics. Self-censoring reduces the reader's stimulation—an important motivation in UGT (Svennevig 2000). The process gratification that slashers gain from posting fan works on domestic platforms partly counteracts the loss of content gratification. Yet creators fulfill readers' need to be diverted, which can partially counteract the creators' loss of stimulation.

[4.2] Slashers who obey the rules identify themselves as law-abiding cybercitizens and label slashers using foreign platforms as defectors. Even though some slashers follow domestic social norms, fans' use of foreign versus domestic platforms separates them into one of two camps, as I have described. With some foreign platforms blocked by the GFW, conflicts and arguments between different platform users frequently appear. The stigma of posting on a foreign platform increases the self-identity and satisfaction of domestic platform users, thereby transferring contradictions to those between fans, not between fans and censorship bodies. Fans turning on each other would surely be harmful to the whole fandom environment, making it more difficult to create fan works overall.

[4.3] Slashers who post content on domestic platforms experience great social gratification and enjoy a sense of belonging. The technology gap inherent in those who can and cannot bypass the GFW raises the social cost of fans who use foreign platforms and communicate with foreign fans. It is easier for slashers to engage in social communication on domestic platforms. Domestic platforms also provide easier access to fans who share the same interests, as well as to new fans, whose first impulse when looking for slash works is to query the domestic platform, without censoring and without any technology barrier. In terms of UGT, under such a circumstance, slashers gain more attention from readers, and readers pay a lower communication cost when exploring these creations with others, resulting in higher satisfaction and more social gratification. Staying on domestic platforms while self-censoring is the choice of risk-averse Chinese slashers. The content gratification of creators and readers is lower, but social and process gratification make up for it.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] Institutional and self-censorship from platforms and creators greatly affect Chinese slashers, their work, and their communities. Although I use the AO3 as an example here, it is of course not the only content platform being blocked, and access to newly settled places may be shut down just as abruptly. Analysis via UGT indicates that Chinese fans weigh their options as they are displaced by the GFW, forming new online coalitions in various spaces according to their needs. Chinese slashers can create culture islands on foreign platforms, write in a foreign language, or stay on domestic platforms while following the rules and self-censoring. They weigh one affordance against another, then make their choice. Choosing a foreign platform may keep the content safe, but choosing a domestic platform keeps the regulations safe. With transformative works subject to strict censorship, the dilemma will continue to exist for fandom creators: should they accept censorship or migrate to a foreign platform?

6. Notes

1. The exact number of Chinese-language works on AO3 was 242,728 as of March 3, 2020.

2. The number of Chinese-language works updated on February 1, 2020, was 1,711 as of March 13, 2020, and was 1,619 as of February 3, 2021. The reason for the number changes may be some authors' deleting old fic.

7. References

Ensafi, Roya, Philipp Winter, Abdullah Mueen, and Jedidiah R. Crandall. 2015. "Analyzing the Great Firewall of China over Space and Time." Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies 1:61–76.

Gray, Jonathan, Cornel Sandvoss, and C. Lee Harrington, eds. 2017. Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World. 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press.

Navar-Gill, Annemarie. 2018. "Fandom as Symbolic Patronage: Expanding Understanding of Fan Relationships with Industry through the Veronica Mars Kickstarter Campaign." Popular Communication 16:211–24.

Stafford, Thomas F., Marla Royne Stafford, and Lawrence L. Schkade. 2004. "Determining Uses and Gratifications for the Internet." Decision Sciences 35:259–88.

Svennevig, Michael. 2000. "Needs, Not Nerds: Researching Technological Change." International Journal of Advertising 19:645–63.

Yang, Qinghua, and Yu Liu. 2014. "What's on the Other Side of the Great Firewall? Chinese Web Users' Motivations for Bypassing the Internet Censorship." Computers in Human Behavior 37:249–57.