Reimagining queer Asias: Performativity, censorship, and queer kinship in the fandoms of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation and The Untamed

Dania Shaikh

Independent Scholar

[0.1] Abstract—Online queer fan spaces around dangai (Chinese television drama adaptations of danmei, or Chinese novels centering homosexual content) have emerged as places of debate and dialogue as well as a counterpublic to the hegemony of Western media representations of same-sex relationships. I analyze queer fan spaces and responses to the danmei Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation and its dangai adaptation The Untamed to showcase how queer Asia has emerged as a radical reimagining of generalizations made in favor of a single global queer voice. I explore how the novel and the drama subvert heterogendered stereotypes and highlight both the dynamic nature of political censorship and the subversive power of queer Asian communities. Placing queer kinship in online fan spaces at the forefront, I present a radical rereading of existing stereotypes associated with danmei and dangai, offering alternate possibilities to the terms "queer" and "Asian."

[0.2] Keywords—BL in Asia; Dangai; Danmei; Fan communities; Fan survey; Transcultural fandoms

Shaikh, Dania. 2023. "Reimagining Queer Asias: Performativity, Censorship, and Queer Kinship in the Fandoms of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation and The Untamed." In "Chinese Fandoms," edited by Zhen Troy Chen and Celia Lam, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 41.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In the last decade, the democratization of the internet and the rise of self-publishing websites and social media platforms as central sources of entertainment have contributed to a substantial increase in Asian dramas on international platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Moreover, platforms like WeTv and Viki, originally intended for local audiences, have expanded globally. During the Covid-19 pandemic, interest in East Asian web dramas increased. The phenomenon of boys' love (BL) fiction and dramas reverberated across Asia and globally. But while danmei fiction (Chinese novels centering homosexual content that emerged at the turn of the century) and dangai dramas (Chinese television drama adaptations of danmei that emerged in the last decade) have given a voice to queer Asian youth, a transnational counterpublic has problematized certain tropes to the extent that their queerness is being questioned.

[1.2] The terms "queer" and "Asia," when mingled, offer myriad possible ways to think about our bodies and our societies. As terms caught in "an endless chain of signification," these words "share an acute sense of ambiguity, playfulness and non-determinism" (Chiang and Wong 2016, 2). I extend this understanding to queer fandoms. I focus specifically on the fandoms associated with the danmei Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (MXTX 2016) and its dangai adaptation, The Untamed (Weiwen and Jialin 2019). I highlight the transformative potential that Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, The Untamed, and the fan practices in the English-speaking transnational fandom in Asia provide to the ways in which we think about queer and Asian identities.

[1.3] To define Asian fandoms—that is, fandoms for which the text was conceived and is fictionally set in Asia and in which the fan demographic for the study is limited to Asia as well—is an incredibly tricky tightrope to walk in the light of the knowledge that Asia was historically constituted as Europe's Other. Given the immense cultural and linguistic diversity of the continent, to attempt to propose a theory of Asian fandom would require oversimplification and bears the risk of presenting Asia as monolithic. In short, it would uphold what it attempts to combat. However, as Chen argues, while the West has been a constituting foil for the rest of the world, it is imperative that we move beyond our anxieties and instead "multiply frames of reference in our subjectivity and worldview" in regard to Asia to overcome our anxieties about the colonial gaze (2010, 224). I argue that fandoms provide another frame of reference for achieving this in contemporary times due both to their accessibility and to their wide-ranging diversities, which allow an interplay of diverging and sometimes contradictory loyalties.

[1.4] Furthermore, I extend the understanding of what Chiang and Wong call "queer regionalism" (2016, 3) and a "queering of transnationalism" (2016, 12) to fandoms to reveal how queerness underpins fandoms in Asia. Queer regionalism can help us forge identities based on a greater understanding of specific cultural nuances rather than viewing fandoms as devoid of their social and political contexts and as a "global counterpublic" (Wood 2006, 409). The intention is not to homogenize Asia but consider "other Asias" (Spivak 2003). While for Chiang and Wong these Asias are defined by national borders, I understand these Asias as located online, while contesting national and cultural ideologies play a hand. As such, I argue, transnational fandoms command equal loyalty to more traditionally defined cultural or social identities. I aim to understand how the overlapping loyalties of fandom and nation play out within fan spaces and how these fandoms collectively undermine the perception that meaningful queer works cannot emerge under censorship in Asian economies.

[1.5] As Chen (2010) argues, using the term "Asia" is not meant to suggest that I aim to develop theoretical concepts which are true for "all events and in all contexts" but rather to "generate historically grounded explanations so that specific interventions can be waged more effectively" (xi). Conceiving fandoms as primary spaces in which cultural interventions are waged today allows us to reconsider what Asia and queer can mean.

2. Methodology

[2.1] In "The Ethics of Exposure: Navigating Fannish Ethics, Industrial Agents, and Responsible Research Design," Willard and Scott (2021) argue that employing a mixed-methods approach combining analyses of media production and fan reception can provide greater nuances in fan scholarship. As an extension of the same thought, I apply literary and media theories in analyses in close conjunction with data from a fan survey. The survey documents and analyzes fan responses to danmei tropes and ideas along with close readings of the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation and Untamed texts.

[2.2] The survey included nineteen questions, out of which three were close-ended and sixteen were open-ended. These questions aimed to collect qualitative data. There were forty respondents. The participants were shortlisted on the basis of the criteria that either they lived in Asia or belonged to the Asian diaspora and that they identified as queer or were currently questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. My access to online fandom spaces helped me recruit the participants, as I posted messages in fan spaces asking for volunteers for participation.

[2.3] As this study primarily focuses on dynamism and the transformative potential of online queer communities, to an extent, it overlooks toxic fan cultures and some assumptions often promoted within fan spaces. This may lead to essentialist understandings of a complex series of networks. Given that this study is based in Asia, it is implicit that themes like nationalism and regionalism, among other factors, are at play and may often lead to overarching criticisms of Western discourses.

3. Ethical considerations

[3.1] The project was granted university ethics approval at St. Xavier's College, Gujarat University. The questionnaire contained a full disclosure statement about the aims of the study and information about the author. Participation was voluntary, and the participants consented to anonymous evaluations of their answers for the purposes of this study. No identifying information was collected from participants to enable greater participation and maintain participants' anonymity.

4. Performativity in the depiction of gong/shou

[4.1] Danmei is a genre heavily influenced by Japanese BL fiction. As such, it contains two vital character roles or archetypes, gong and shou, which derive from the tropes of seme and uke in Japanese manga (Yang and Xu 2017, 9). The gong, literally "the attacker/aggressor," is usually the sexual instigator, while the shou is usually characterized as the "receiver" or "bottom." As vital character prototypes in danmei, the gong/shou dichotomy pervades different levels in the story; it is not limited to sexual acts. Scholars have often attributed this phenomenon of "hetero-gendered dichotomy" in danmei to the assumption that the genre is "created mostly by and for women" (Yang and Xu 2018, 164). This assumption underpins claims that danmei articulates the desires of cisgender heterosexual women rather than those of young queer people.

[4.2] As established earlier, while the gong and shou are often defined in terms of their sexual roles, the roles often extend to other character traits. The gong are often depicted as "older, mature, decisive" which leads to the belief that they are a stand-in for male–female roles in a heterosexual partnership (Zhou, Paul, and Sherman 2017, 108). In Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, the gong and the shou roles are assigned to Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian respectively. While Lan Wangji has a cool demeanor paired with a strict adherence to rules, Wei Wuxian is a playful troublemaker, infamous for flouting rules. As a result, they fit stereotypical depictions of gong and shou.

[4.3] Often, danmei novels are criticized in academic and popular discourse for their portrayal of consent. At the heart of this criticism is the belief that the gong/shou roles adhere to a masculine/feminine and active/passive dichotomy. For example, Zhao and Madill (2018) highlight how most interviewees preferred stories including a gong who was powerful and exerted complete control over the shou's life (11). This reinforces the idea of the gong and shou as the masculine and feminine subjects in the heterosexual matrix (Chao 2016). Similarly, while decrying the influence of danmei on Thai BL stories, Junqi Zhang (2021) argues the hegemony of the gay archetype "alienates and marginalizes a great number of members within the gay community" and "forces them to accept the unequal power relations and internalize the suppressions" (emphasis mine). For Zhang, these archetypes must be deconstructed, as they will "always yield the unequal power relations" (95). Similarly, a Reddit discussion post about consent within danmei novels equates the gong/shou archetypes with power imbalance (AshawoAshawo). This power imbalance is further linked to the patriarchal societies in which these texts are produced, as compared to Western texts, which are described as progressive. Within this discourse, the power dynamics imply a relationship where the gong is a provider in every sense to the extent that the shou cannot refuse his affections.

[4.4] In Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (MXTX 2016), Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji travel together to investigate a corpse hand. On their travels, in their shared room at an inn, Wei Wuxian, the shou, kisses Lan Wangji while he is drunk. On another night, Lan Wangji, while drunk, initiates sexual contact. While both these acts are clearly nonconsensual, at a later point, Wei Wuxian realizes that he "shouldn't have done something so outrageous…It's too disrespectful to him [Lan Wangji]" (ch. 42). In the second instance, Wei Wuxian concludes that his actions, given that he violated Lan Wangji's trust, were "cruel" (ch. 94). Not only does Wei Wuxian realize that Lan Wangji could not properly consent when drunk, but these instances also demonstrate that his subjugated shou assignment is misplaced, since both Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian actively instigate sexual contact.

[4.5] This showcases that the idea that the shou's consent, actions, and desires must always be subjugated to those of the gong (Yu 2021, 40–44) is not universally true. Shou Wei Wuxian undermines the conceptualization of the gong as the sole instigator of sex. Against popular perception of the gong/shou roles, Wei Wuxian's consent is the clearest in both scenes, while Lan Wangji's is not. By highlighting the absurdity of the set expectations the use of the gong/shou archetypes bring, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation ridicules the artificiality of sexual dynamics in danmei but also highlights the dangers of blindly stereotyping communities on the basis of these assumptions.

[4.6] Six out of thirty-one respondents in the survey highlighted how identities are much more fixed in Western media in response to a question "If you were to draw a difference between Western media's representation of queerness as against the one seen in The Untamed or Mo Dao Zu Shi, what would it be?" Labels do not form a core part of the narrative in danmei, unlike in Western queer media. This need to clearly demarcate identities, that is, top/bottom, gay/straight, arises from being conditioned to do so as a result of precedents. This extends to a strict categorization of the audiences who consume the genre. Eight respondents to the same question believed that physicality forms a central role in representing queerness for Western media. Hence, the need to depict intimacies correctly in danmei stems from audiences' interactions with Western queer media. In fact, in relation to the question regarding the problematization of consent within the novel, twenty-eight out of thirty respondents insisted that fictional relationships are not a playbook for real life events. For some of these respondents, seemingly unhealthy relationships in fiction do not correlate with the same in real life. No correlation exists between the media these fans consume and their personal beliefs and practices. However, the majority of respondents insisted that consent is negotiated off-screen rather than absent, as presumed. For others, "dubious consent" is a part of the sexual dynamic. Dubious consent, or "dubcon," as it is popularly known in fan circles, includes situations in which the consent status is "unknown" ("Dub-con," Fanlore wiki, Originating from fan fiction tags, dubcon is mired in debate in fan circles, as consent is not clearly spelled out. However, some fans read dubcon as a kink rather than a complete absence or lack of negotiation of consent.

[4.7] With reference to consent in the novel, while invalidating the accusations that Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation portrays unequal power dynamics, two respondents called critics of the novel "purity police" who were attempting to enforce "purity culture." This highlights that fans of danmei feel that Western queer media and its fan cultures perpetuate certain purity taboos and uphold certain kinds of queerness over others. Ironically, fans of danmei feel that such policing upholds heterosexual dynamics. For example, two respondents emphasized that Western queer media fans tend to believe that the Western representation of queer people is the standard even when it is not necessarily progressive or upholds stereotypes. They expressed a belief that danmei and dangai, along with their queer fan communities, create opportunities for oppositional ways of seeing queer bodies and practices.

[4.8] The gong/shou dichotomy is at the center of what Andrea Wood calls an "attempt to 'read' heterosexuality into BL texts in a manner that resists thinking about them in queer terms" (2013, 45). Reiterating that danmei texts are "heterosexual fantasies at their core"—validated through varied assumptions that their creators, as well as the target audience, are cisgender heterosexual women who fetishize gay men—overlooks the ways in which gong and shou roles are employed to question the heterosexual matrix. In a world where "the heterosexual couple is no longer the referent" (Berlant and Warner 1998, 548), to force seemingly heterocentrist roles on the protagonists is a playful rebuke of heteronormativity as well as a nod toward the performativity of gender.

[4.9] Later in Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (MXTX 2016), when Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are happily married, they discover a mysterious incense burner that allows them to enter each other's dreams and fantasies (ch. 118). With the help of this device, Wei Wuxian is transported back to Lan Wangji's teenage days. In this dream, Lan Wangji is a teenager, while Wei Wuxian is his current adult age. Driven by his "desire to make mischief" (ch.118), Wei Wuxian teases and prods at Lan Wangji. This attempt at role reversal as gong and shou between the couple creates both "humor and…sexual excitement" (Wood 2006, 401). Hence, the novel highlights the fluidity of sexual relations rather than arguing in favor of fixities, as some critics of danmei claim. Instead, as pointed out earlier, these fixities are a result of the set terms through which audiences interact with the media. In reality, gong/shou identities and those of danmei consumers are much more fluid.

[4.10] In danmei, the older character is often characterized as the gong. Wei Wuxian, as the older character in this dream fantasy, tries to perform the role of the gong. He adopts Lan Wangji's entire demeanor. When he acts as the sexual instigator, he utters Lan Wangji's signature dialogue, "mark your words," multiple times throughout the chapter. Ultimately, Lan Wangji reclaims his character role of the gong, however, his age does not hinder him from expressing his desires. This playful reversal of their roles demonstrates how gong/shou roles (determined by physical characteristics) are culturally constructed, and it highlights that "neither power nor sex is static" (Bao 2020, 118).

[4.11] By underlining both the rigidity as well as the fluidity of power, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation demonstrates the fluidity of sexual roles. As Judith Butler argues, performativity is implicated in the heterosexual matrix, insinuating the "turning of power against itself to produce alternative modalities of power, to establish a kind of political contestation that is not a 'pure' opposition, a 'transcendence' of contemporary relations of power, [is] a difficult labor of forging a future from resources inevitably impure" (1993, 184). By performing their roles in ways that highlight their roles' fluidity, Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian's relationship resists monolithic definitions, which in the words of Andrea Wood is "at the very heart of queerness" (2006, 397). The novel thus transcends binary understandings of queer relationships.

[4.12] For twenty-three out of thirty respondents to the question about ignorant perceptions of danmei and dangai that particularly bother them as queer people, the lack of cultural and historical sensitivity to the danmei and dangai forms is the central point of difference. The fixities of identities pointed out earlier also extend to fan communities: for one respondent, disallowing "straight Asian people" from participating in fan communities, that is, the belief that queer media should be limited to queer people, is severely restricting and furthers stereotypes about the community more than danmei or dangai themselves do. This demand to exclude cisgender and heterosexual allies from fan spaces, while an emerging topic of debate in virtual fan communities, hinges on a strict adherence to labels and compartmentalizes identities. Furthermore, to the respondents, it also disregards the role that cisgender heterosexual allies have played in creating and normalizing BL narratives in Asia.

[4.13] Within the heterosexual matrix where "normative gender fortifies normative sexuality" (Butler 1993, xi), the construction of gender and sexuality is interdependent. Danmei novels are assumed to continue a regime of power that reaffirms patriarchal practices. But at the root of patriarchal power are the unequal power relations that constitute the worlds depicted in danmei. When danmei novels reconfigure sexual roles, they do not reproduce these same inequalities. As Ling Yang argues, the gong/shou dichotomy "does not operate in the same way in the BL world as it does in the 'straight' world" (2017, 49). With its eroticization of power play in terms of gendered identities, sexual relations in Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation do not lean toward archetypal depictions of gong/shou but instead reimagine them.

[4.14] To a degree, the assumption of inequality within the gong/shou dynamic is triggered by the heterosexist understanding that to be penetrated (as the shou is) is inherently feminizing and an affirmation of the gong's dominance (Wood 2006, 401). The novel goes a step further and uses gendered terms within the sexual act to depict the instability of gender itself. At various points in the novel, Wei Wuxian refers to himself as the "wife" in the relationship. Although this may appear disempowering out of context, throughout the novel, it is emphasized that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are each other's equals in all aspects, from swordsmanship to integrity. When Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian encounter one another for the first time, it is their equal cultivation skills that further the course of their friendship. Furthermore, throughout the novel they share similar ideas about various issues in the aftermath of war and political violence; that is, they share central political beliefs and are equally willing to express them. This extends to their romantic and sexual dynamic. In that vein, the use of the word "wife" within the sexual act furthers a play on power rather than reaffirming heterocentrist power structures. The characters associate themselves with the emotions or images linked with gendered words rather than with the genders the words imply.

[4.15] It would be an oversimplification to label Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji as archetypal gong/shou characters. They constantly challenge and reconstitute simplistic notions of both their sexual roles and the use of gendered language. Bodies are penetrated, but as Hongwei Bao argues in relation to the seme/uke dichotomy in Japanese BL, it would be "simplistic to assume that [penetrated] bodies are passive recipients of love" (2020, 117–18). The same bodies are also active participants in lovemaking. The gong and shou dichotomy is thus inherently queer and not a continuation of heterosexist stereotypes, as the roles are "open to resignification: signifying in ways and in places that exceed its proper structural place…and contest the necessity of that place" (Butler 1993, 55, emphasis mine). The gong and shou roles in Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation undermine the heterosexual matrix rather than being constituted through it.

5. Censorship: Perception and biases

[5.1] Government censorship often depicts itself as paternal protection. From the depiction of heterosexuality as a national duty to calls to protect children from homosexuals, queer people lead precarious, liminal lives in many nations. Taking Chinese censorship as an example, I highlight the ambivalent nature of political censorship and how young queer fans speak back to power.

[5.2] The Untamed—the dangai based on Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation—aired in an uncertain atmosphere. The show originally aired from June 27 to August 20, 2019, on Tencent's The drama was filmed between April 2018 and August 2018. In August 2018, another BL drama, Guardian, a dangai adapted from Priest's danmai of the same name, aired on Youku. Like The Untamed, Guardian avoided depicting intimate scenes between the two protagonists, unlike the source danmai. Nevertheless, it was pulled off air in August 2018 without any explanation and returned in November 2018 with several scenes deleted (Wang 2019, 46). Hence, The Untamed risked either a ban or censorship before it even aired. Locating The Untamed in the wider context of incessant antiporn campaigns in China can help us to understand the ambiguous nature of political censorship and the politics of representation.

[5.3] Although homosexuality was officially decriminalized in China in 1997, depictions of same-sex love remain outlawed. Section 9 of the Criminal Law outlines "The Crime of Producing, Selling, or Disseminating Obscene Materials" ("Criminal Law"). Punishments for doing so range from being fined to serving prison terms. This is the law often invoked in China's various antiporn campaigns. Notably, as Pengli Huang argues, a "possible logic" for the censorship of danmei and dangai is "homosexuality = abnormality = pornography" (2010, 79); as such, both fall under the purview of censorship regardless of whether they include explicit sexual content. However, as Yang Ling and Xu Yanrui point out, the vagueness of the Criminal Law has given rise to many contesting agencies that enforce this law, namely the National Office against Pornographic and Illegal Publications and the State Administration of Press and Publication (SAPP, now part of the National Radio and Television Administration, NRTA) (2018, 169). Although the NRTA has recently risen as the premier agency to regulate television content, the ambiguities arising from previously having multiple regulatory agencies and inconsistencies within their functioning allowed a rare platform for queer representation (Bao 2020; Zhou 2017; Yang and Xu 2017).

[5.4] Danmei communities are not passive recipients of censorship laws. That some believe they are passive recipients stems from the perception that danmei fan communities are built solely upon the female fetishization of male-male relationships and the complete disregard of the nuances associated with queer identities. In terms of site traffic and profitability, heterosexual romance surpasses same-sex fiction. As Yang and Xu (2017) emphasize, danmei writers also place themselves in a difficult position artistically, as they have no intellectual property rights. As such, danmei plots have been appropriated by heterosexual writers, but danmei writers cannot file a complaint because the law regards depictions of homosexuality as obscene (Yang and Xu 2017, 179). Furthermore, published danmei authors like MXTX and Priest run the risk of being arrested under Section 9, as happened both in 2011, when thirty-two young female BL writers were arrested, and in 2014, when over twenty BL authors were arrested for disseminating obscene materials during the Clean the Web campaign (Zhao, Yang, and Lavin 2018; Romano 2014). In situations like these, it would be absurd to claim that heterosexual women are so driven to consume and produce fetishized male bodies that they are willing to risk arrest and stigmatization, while for someone driven solely by economic motivations, it would be easier to switch to writing heterosexual fiction.

[5.5] Furthermore, the producers of danmei dramas, although primarily driven by economic motivations, understand the risks of producing BL shows. In the case of The Untamed, after the removal of Guardian from Youku, there were widespread rumors that Wei Wuxian and female character Wen Qing would be romantically paired. This led to a widespread backlash, to the extent that the producers of the show publicly acknowledged that the audience's views would be considered (Song 2021, 10). Instead of being turned into a heterosexual romance, then, The Untamed conformed with Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation in all major aspects—apart from displaying explicit sexual intimacy onscreen. For example, in the danmei, Lan Wangji brands himself with the same Wen mark Wei Wuxian is branded with (note 1). The Wen brand also appears on the show but without any context. Moreover, in accordance with the danmei, Lan Wangji is whipped for supporting Wei Wuxian during the bloodbath at Nightless City in the dangai, although the context is slightly altered. Multiple contextual and cultural clues affirm a romantic relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian: from Lan Wangji's grieving Wei Wuxian after his death as a lover would to his exhibiting possessiveness when Wei Wuxian is flirted with or to camera placements that compare them to heterosexual couples in the dangai.

[5.6] These instances showcase the power of fan-driven campaigns and the degree to which popular culture speaks back to political power. As noted, it is precisely because of the backlash faced by the makers once fans heard they might alter the queer identities depicted in the danmei that the dangai emphasizes the devotion between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. This affirms Marielle Stigum Gleiss's view of the Chinese internet as a contested site rather than either a site upholding censorship or one upholding resistance and subversion (2015, 515–18). It is especially important to be culturally sensitive, then, when viewing varied queer media, as it is only when we consider queer Asia, queer Asian texts, and fans of these texts carefully that we can begin to understand the community's struggles.

[5.7] In response to the question about whether they felt that Western criticisms of Chinese censorship hinted at Sinophobia, twenty out of thirty-one respondents agreed that they felt Western criticisms of Chinese censorship othered Asian queer narratives. Western assumptions equate Chinese laws with the Chinese society; that is, entire populations are condemned as homophobic and queer Asian texts and their fandoms maligned without consideration for sociocultural context. Furthermore, as one respondent feels, these assumptions find their roots in the belief that "meaningful queer works" cannot originate in countries and cultures where queer characters cannot be freely depicted; that is, Chinese censorship is used to mock and degrade Asian queer people, and their narratives are delegitimized. For other respondents, such assumptions are a by-product of a lack of historical and cultural awareness within the transnational fandom. As such, twenty-seven out of thirty-one respondents found Western reviewers of the dangai to be inherently biased. The other four respondents reported that they felt a lack of cultural and social understanding caused such misunderstandings. At the core of these criticisms is the sense that there is a refusal, deliberate or accidental, to accord danmei and dangai the respect they deserve.

[5.8] Additionally, respondents equated queerness as presented in the show with a diverse set of feelings. While for one respondent the war crimes and massacres are deemed to reflect the general project of patriarchal heteronormative society, that is, to resist it is to resist heteropatriarchy, for another respondent, in both the danmei and dangai, queerness acts as a middle ground to reconcile the two extremes of power-driven greed and complete isolation. Queerness is associated with openness and flexibility and pervades all levels of discourse rather than being limited to the romantic element of the story. For multiple respondents, while queerness, as depicted in the danmei and dangai, is unique, for some, it represents yearning, while for others, it represents questioning set practices and ideas not limited to sexual dynamics.

[5.9] Another point of differentiation and contention is the "pure" depiction of queer relationships. Ling Yang and Xu Yanrui point out that in the aftermath of the 2014 antiporn campaign, Jinjiang Literature City changed the name of its danmei subsite to chun'ai or "pure love" (2017, 173). Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, serialized on Jinjiang Literature City between October 2015 and September 2016, officially falls under the category of chun'ai. Fran Martin understands chun'ai as a "refined appreciation of young men's aesthetic beauty without necessary recourse to explicitly sexual imagery" (2017, 199). Although the danmei explicitly depicts sexual acts between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, the dangai, The Untamed, completely focuses on the pure depiction of the romantic relationship espoused by chun'ai.

[5.10] In The Untamed, the relationship between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian centers on an oath they swore when they were teenagers: to stand with justice and live with no regrets. When Wei Wuxian breaks from orthodoxy at Qiongqi Path, he gives this oath as his reason to walk away. Moreover, when Wei Wuxian reunites with Lan Wangji after their resurrection, Lan Wangji reaffirms his faith in Wei Wuxian's righteousness during his first life. The protagonists are each other's only equals in their integrity. Lan Wangji's unquestionable faith in Wei Wuxian's motivations, dating back to the beginning of their friendship, is a testimony to his devotion to him. As Baecker and Hao put it, they "express their sense of justice and chivalry primarily through their devotion to one another" (2021, 18), showcasing how romantic feelings lie at the core of their motivations.

[5.11] Their complete trust in one another emphasizes how their pure emotions function to shift focus from the carnal nature of their relationship while still emphasizing their queer bond. As noted earlier, the shift from danmei to chun'ai is a result of censorship. This shift allows creators to circumvent censorship while representing queer intimacies on a more emotional level, reversing the association of queerness with pornography. While it would be naive to downplay censorship's effects on queer people, it is also important to focus on the resistance offered by these narratives.

[5.12] In his study, Geng Song (2021) situates the xiao xian rou (little fresh meat), or, more insultingly, niangpao (sissy pants) aesthetic in contemporary Chinese media and advertisements in popular anxieties over nationhood. His primary argument revolves around the idea that effeminate men threaten masculine nations. In the Chinese context, there is worry that overt effeminacy weakens China in the eyes of its diplomatic rivals. With the example of Mei Lanfang, an effeminate early twentieth-century Peking opera actor, Song discusses the social, cultural, and political backlash against effeminate male actors in contemporary China. Domestic praise of The Untamed, however, emphasizes that even this backlash is contested. The People's Daily praised the drama for its "wonderful presentation of Chinese characteristics," while an article in Global Times insisted that the drama upholds "positive values such as courage and love for one's country" (Leng and Xu 2019). This contests the notion that effeminate men cannot correspond with idealized masculinity and nationalism.

[5.13] Far from devolving into homonationalism, the drama was marketed through its visibly Chinese characteristics (note 2): Wei Wuxian plays the old Chinese instrument the dizi, while Lan Wangji is distinguished in the Four Arts—he plays the guqin, a traditional stringed instrument; has mastered weiqi, known as Go in the Western world; and is both a talented calligraphist and Chinese brush painter. Throughout the web drama, he has a docile appearance and is driven by his sense of justice. Lan Wangji's effeminacy is not associated with sissiness but is rather presented as related to his pride in moral dignity as associated with his junzi (gentlemanliness). His presentation as a traditionally accomplished gentleman-scholar creates new possibilities for queer people. Because he is upheld as an example of Chinese morality, as defined by official discourse, his gentlemanliness produces new spaces in which queer people can visualize themselves. Rather than being completely divorced from tradition, Lan Wangji stands as an example of how tradition and queerness are not mutually exclusive; their characteristics and codes are ambivalent.

6. Queer structures and fan kinship

[6.1] There is a wide gulf in the way queerness is understood and depicted in most Western media and dangai like The Untamed. Respondents to the survey argue that the more mellow version of queerness portrayed in The Untamed has helped them better understand the nuances of being queer. Moreover, they mention that they find the emphasis on loud proclamations of queerness in many Western texts to be unrealistic within their own societal and cultural contexts. In Western dramas, queer characters usually come out to reaffirm their queerness. Such loud declarations of queerness are grounded in a specific history of resilience against a Western heteronormative model, but this model cannot be applied to Asian queer milieus.

[6.2] The Untamed demonstrates that contemporary Asian queerness does not have to be loud to be proud. Rather, queerness is a personal journey: it is not a hidden personality trait nor is it the singular focus of the storyline as often seen in the dominant strand of queer media. At no point do Lan Wangji or Wei Wuxian proudly declare their queerness; their relationship with their queerness is private, and their association with Chinese gentlemanly traditions aligns queerness with morality and dignity. This highlights that for young queer Asians, queerness is a personal journey: their queerness and access to the queer community is not defined by whether they have come out but rather by queer kinship networks.

[6.3] Online fan spaces are a testimony to this idea of new forms of queer kinship. Such spaces do not demand that queer people risk their health, safety, or lives to feel a sense of kinship. In response to the question about the role online queer spaces play in their personal lives, survey respondents expressed a sense of attachment and vulnerability. For all respondents, these spaces have emerged as safe places where they can discuss ideas and concepts that are considered taboo by the societies they live in. These online communities discuss ideas which are exclusively queer. However, these respondents also understand the precarity of existing in such spaces: they are anxious that they could be deplatformed due to governmental regulations or ridiculed by the growing Western fanbase. Interestingly, as pointed out earlier, even as these respondents combat the idea that danmei media promotes the fetishization of male bodies, they often inadvertently use the same terms to categorize other people; that is, they accuse Western fans and Western media of furthering stereotypes given their lack of social and cultural understanding of Asian societies. This showcases how fandoms are an extremely complex phenomenon full of a diverse set of identities and ideas. Often, fans uphold biases they intend to deconstruct. However, fandoms are not monoliths. These communities signify, to borrow from Eve Sedgwick's definition of queerness, an "open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically" (1993, 7).

[6.4] The Western model of pride equates queerness with nonnormativity. It calls attention to itself. Chinese models, however, focus more on normalizing queerness. The relationship between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji is private and does not impact how they behave otherwise. Indeed, in the dangai The Untamed, they are equated with gentlemanliness. Moreover, absence of loud proclamations also allows enough ambivalence that the show can air without being subject to censorship for obscenity. With reference to societal pressure and censorship, all respondents place the ambivalence to deny queerness between 5 to 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. This ambivalence provides safety for queer subjects in politically volatile environments. As Judith Butler argues, when we think about outness, it is important to think for whom "outness [is] a historically available and affordable option" (1993, 173). Young queer Asian fan spaces are formed by people who lack legal protections. They live often in highly militarized economies where to affirm queerness publicly is equivalent to risking their bodily safety, their freedom, or even their lives. Within this context, it is also important to note that none of the thirty respondents agreed with the popular belief that censoring the explicit sexual depictions between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji in The Untamed has damaged the young queer fanbase of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation and its dangai adaptation. Instead, respondents insisted that the absence of sexual content provided audiences with the opportunity to examine their queerness from a different lens as compared to Western queer media, as well as freedom to consume the dangai.

[6.5] The absence of personal conflict regarding queerness, given the removal of outness as a queer necessity, presents queerness itself in a new light. In the danmei, while Mo Xuanyu's homosexuality is at times looked down upon, it is not a defining point of his personality. Instead, Wei Wuxian (in Mo Xuanyu's body) talks back and owns up to his queerness. In the dangai, queerness is not hidden; it simply appears differently. In a world ravaged by war and political manipulation, queerness is a source of comfort rather than conflict. The use of the term zhiji in the dangai, often used for platonic relationships, further normalizes the characters' queerness.

[6.6] Given the absence of physical intimacy between Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian in The Untamed, Western viewership has often accused it of queerbaiting. Judith Fathallah (2014) defines queerbaiting as a technique where queer relationships are hinted at but emphatically denied or laughed at. Western audiences have thus accused show producers of including queer subtexts that are never actualized in order to gain queer viewership. This can be seen through responses of the makers of Supernatural (2005–2020) and Sherlock (2010–2017) when asked about the relationships between two male characters in their show (Fathallah 2014, 3–7; Gennis 2014).

[6.7] According to Fathallah, contempt for queerness forms the core of queerbaiting. For Nordin, queerbaiting is a "crime in the light of history" and "always wrong no matter the circumstances" (2015, 63, my emphasis). In comparison, queerness is subtextual in The Untamed out of necessity—it could not otherwise be streamed. It is important to note, too, that xiao xian rou effeminacy is a form of identity representation that young people strive for, even if it is frowned upon in official discourses (Song 2021, 4–5). Hence, when the term is applied to both Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo after the release of The Untamed, it is often a positive term.

[6.8] Moreover, accusations of queer baiting are dependent on how satisfied the viewers are with how a relationship is depicted (Ng 2017). Thus, queerbaiting is inherently subjective: Western audiences may consider The Untamed to queerbait, while Chinese audiences understand that censorship disallows explicit mentions of a romantic relationship (Ng and Li 2020, 487–88). Additionally, Asian viewers' expectations of The Untamed are different from Western audiences. In the survey, 86 percent of respondents believed that the subtle version of queerness depicted in The Untamed was not solely a product of censorship, as the driving force of the plot in the danmei was not the queer romantic relationship. Other respondents believed that political censorship was the core cause for the lack of explicit sexual depictions in The Untamed, and as such, viewers did not expect the dangai to be as explicit as the danmei. Most respondents believed that showcasing any form of sexual depiction onscreen would divert attention from other central themes the dangai deals with. As a result, claims about queerbaiting, or using queerness as a plot device rather than acknowledging the full humanity of queer people, fall short. The Untamed showcases how political censorship cannot completely hinder the way queerness is understood and felt.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] Over the last decade, the crosscultural transmission of dangai adapted from danmei has increased. Their increasingly global popularity has led to its own set of problems; namely, danmei fiction and dangai dramas have been accused of perpetuating gay archetypes that harm members of the queer community. However, the denouncement of danmei and dangai's archetypes overlooks the contexts and lived realities of the queer Asians who relate to these archetypes. Enforcing strict ideas about what queerness ought to look and feels like thus alienates a group of people under the claim of helping them. Furthermore, the claim that censorship has completely erased any form of queer resistance belittles the struggles of young queer Asians, whose very existence invokes both societal and biopolitical wrath.

[7.2] Under such conditions, to deny the queerness of queer Asian texts is to abandon the community in its struggle. After years of relative openness during which dramas like The Untamed and Word of Honor flourished, in September 2021, the Global Times reported that the NRTA was urging the television industry to boycott BL novel adaptations ("Chinese Television Regulators" 2021). This emphasizes that these adaptations are queer enough to invoke biopolitical wrath, and it demonstrates that to refuse their queerness is to abandon young queer creators to the hands of state violence. In doing so, I invoke solidarity that goes beyond localized understandings of what queerness looks like. Online queer communities have emerged as places of debate and dialogue, united by young Asians advocating for change: constantly challenging their oppressed status within the larger queer community while at the same time offering resistance to their biopolitical states.

[7.3] The transnational lens in fandom studies advocated a radical change in the understanding of fan practices and behaviors. However, over time, it has upheld a specific form of reading that views texts as devoid of their sociopolitical and at times even textual contexts. Viewing young queer Asians as the primary consumers of danmei restores a sense of hybridity to the way we understand the queer bodies represented within danmei. It reiterates that fandom communities work through extremely intricate networks, occasionally upholding certain biases but nevertheless ever ready to examine their practices and behaviors and to reform them in light of new knowledge. Hence, danmei and their fandoms work in tandem with one another, transforming popular perceptions of a myriad assumptions: from queerness in Asia to fans' perceptions of queer, transcultural danmei fandom.

[7.4] Online fandoms, as places of expressing queer desires, expanded and refashioned themselves to find common ground during the pandemic, when The Untamed and its source text, Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, were popularized. While this study does not explore the widening fandom, it locates itself within this widening to understand how concepts like performativity, bodies, and queerness are understood and reiterated within fandoms to begin to propose a theory that would allow for a more specific focus on differences within fandoms and the creation of subfandoms. This study doesn't aim to make overarching claims or upholding fixities but is rather grounded in the understanding that the respondents, given their personal readings of transcultural fan networks, may overemphasize certain aspects of the fandom, leading to a creation of false binaries. For future studies, limiting the scope, both nationally and sectionally, within fandoms would help us understand how local traditions, cultural traditions, and fan traditions can mingle; how they can contribute to creating a pan-Asian identity; and how fan biases differ regionally. This can further multiply our frames of reference for understanding fandoms.

8. Notes

1. When young, Wei Wuxian saves a maiden from being branded with the Wen symbol for opposing authority and is branded with it instead. Years later, Lan Wangji brands himself with the Wen symbol to feel closer to Wei Wuxian after Wei's death.

2. Their characterizations exemplify the concept of a Confucian gentleman (junzi).

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