From Cinderella to i-woman: Web novels, fandom, and feminist politics in China

Meihua Lu

University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

[0.1] Abstract—i-Woman is a new genre of female-oriented web novel that emerged in China after 2020. By intentionally reversing the Cinderella story pattern of the classic romance, the i-woman genre and its feminist fans challenge patriarchal discourse and explore a new feminist way of writing. More than just a fandom of a popular literature form, i-woman is also a feminist mobilization strategy in contemporary Chinese online feminist activism. A textual analysis of i-woman novels and a digital ethnography of its communities suggest that by incorporating separatist feminist ideologies into novels and trying to build solidarity in fandom communities, digital feminists are conducting feminist activism in the form of fantagonism. Building an ideal feminist solidarity is performed as an exclusion of certain types of novel genres and their readers. Operating feminism through fandom opens new online spaces for feminist activists while affecting and restricting its operation. This developing fandom form shows potential for fandom culture to turn into political participation and offers insights into how to operate digital feminism in contemporary China.

[0.2] Keywords—Chinese digital feminism; Fandom; Fantagonism; Female literature

Lu, Meihua. 2023. "From Cinderella to i-Woman: Web Novels, Fandom, and Feminist Politics in China." In "Chinese Fandoms," edited by Zhen Troy Chen and Celia Lam, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 41.

1. Introduction

[1.1] i-Woman is a recently emerging web novel genre in post-2020 China. The term is translated from the Mandarin ai nü (爱女), "love women." Its fans sometimes use the abbreviation i nü, using the homophonic English alphabet "i" to replace the Chinese character ai (爱; love). i-Woman novels do not emerge as lesbian stories—although they can be—but as profoundly feminist stories. To avoid potential misunderstanding from the direct translation of "love women," I use the English translation "i-woman" to better convey the essence of this term. The invention of this term was initially an attempt to indicate the opposite of "misogyny," which is translated in a simplified way as yan nü (厌女; hate women) in Mandarin.

[1.2] Although the genre is only in its initial stage, it has already exhibited a strong connection to Chinese local digital feminist movements. The i-woman genre emerged against a background of increased accessibility to feminist discourses because of the influence of Chinese digital feminist movements since the late 2010s (Liao 2020; Chang and Tian 2021; Wang and Driscoll 2019). With the increasing distaste for misogynistic culture, some female readers of Chinese web novels seek more satisfying stories that align with their feminist beliefs. When they realize that existing web novel genres do not meet their expectations, they demand a more feminist-friendly reading experience. The i-woman genre emerged in response to these needs.

[1.3] While its emergence is heavily influenced by Chinese digital feminist movements, the genre and the online community of its readers now also constitute an important part of the movement. Many online web novel fandom communities are places not only to discuss and promote i-woman novels but also to spread feminist ideas to more readers. As fans actively discuss how to read, write, and evaluate feminist elements in i-woman novels, these places also become important spaces for feminist discussions. The genre and its readers do not simply take popular feminist discourse from social media. They also critically rethink and evaluate feminist ideas and even create their own feminist discourses. As a result of these discussions, a relatively consistent set of feminist discourses has developed.

[1.4] The fandom community of i-woman novels thus becomes an interesting case where web novel fan discussions also carry the mission of feminist political discussion. I approach the i-woman genre and the fandom community with three research concerns: (1) how i-woman novels, as a new form of feminist writing in contemporary China, are different from classic romance novels; (2) what feminist ideologies are embedded and conveyed in i-woman works; and (3) how fans of i-woman novels use web novels to participate in digital feminist politics. My methodology is a combination of the textual analysis of two i-woman novels and a digital ethnography of Novel Rater (小说打分器; xiaoshuo da fen qi), one of the largest female web novel fandom communities in China.

[1.5] i-Woman novels intentionally reverse the classic Cinderella story pattern in romance narratives. In a new subversive discourse, i-woman stories become a channel to explain and promote feminist ideologies—especially separatist feminism that desires an all-women/girl world—to a nonfeminist public. Derek Johnson's (2017) concept of fantagonism informs my argument that conflicts in i-woman fandom communities are attempts to achieve a feminist political solidarity that take the shape of fandom debates. In this feminist strategy, solidarity is understood and practiced as a process of banishing specific genres and their readers from the fandom community.

2. Finding political potential in fandom communities: The case of Novel Rater

[2.1] I approach Novel Rater as a fandom community. Novel Rater was established in 2019 on a Chinese social platform called Douban (豆瓣). The initial members were groups of women who love reading web novels. As its name suggests, the main aim of the forum is to allow readers to share their evaluations and comments on web novels. By 2022, Novel Rater already had more than 200,000 registered members. Similar to the online soap opera fandom community r.a.t.s. (Baym 1993), Novel Rater remains a relatively conventional standard forum in which members participate by publishing posts on forum dashboards following a list of strict forum regulations.

[2.2] The political potential of fandom has always been a key concern in fandom studies. Early studies discussed whether fans have the ability to conduct critical interpretation of fandom objects, addressing the progressive potential in fandom communities to resist social hegemony and contribute to democracy (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2017). In this incorporation/resistance paradigm, fandom was interpreted as comprising either passive victims controlled by texts (Adorno 2001; Horkheimer and Adorno 1947 [2002]) or resistive audiences that can actively make meanings (Fiske 2013). The dichotomy paradigm was challenged by the second wave of fandom studies, which came to view fandom not as an independent, ideal field of resistance but as a duplication of existing social power (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2017). In the third wave of fandom studies, more attention has been directed toward individual fan identity, pleasure, and experiences (Gray, Sandvoss, and Harrington 2017; Thompson 1995; Abercrombie and Longhurst 1998). With the increasing prevalence of fan practices in various cultural and political spheres in the digital era, fandom has become tightly engaged with modern society. Fandom is not just a place where political progression could happen; it is also an important way for us to understand how people engage in modern society in their everyday lives, including how they engage in political activities.

[2.3] In line with this third-wave turn, recent contributions to Chinese fandom studies have paid more attention to political participation in fandom communities. Fandom nationalism, for example, is a significant case that has received much academic attention (Cui 2020; Liu 2019; Wang, Li, and Wu 2016). One representative event of Chinese fandom nationalism is the "Expenditure of Fandom Girls" (饭圈女孩出征; fanquan nü hai chu zheng) in 2019. Female fans in multiple celebrity fandom communities were mobilized to organize internet bombings on overseas social media platforms to oppose Hong Kong's independence. The potential political power in fandom communities has been noticed by the state government. In recent years, the CCP government has been observed to be increasingly skilled in utilizing social media to effectively monitor and guide the online public sphere. This includes using public opinion and social media functions to build positive public images, or even branding itself as a national idol (Yang 2022; Schlæger and Jiang 2014; Benney 2013). However, both the expenditure movement and national idol promotion were not turned into fandoms; fandom communities were only utilized as an operational method, and these loose connections among fans were dissolved soon after the temporal events.

[2.4] In the case of Novel Rater, one distinct feature is that its feminist political engagement seems to sit well with its fandom interactions. Unlike the nationalism mobilization, feminism does not appear as an outside interrupter or manipulator of the community. On the contrary, using feminist criteria to evaluate web novels was a spontaneous behavior of female readers. In its forum regulations in April 2022, Novel Rater announced that the i-woman genre is the main theme of its forum discussions around web novels. This announcement affirms the forum's self-position as a feminist reader community. It is worth noting that the exact term nü quan (女权; feminism) does not appear in this announcement. In fact, using the term "feminism" directly in the forum is rare. Because the word nü quan could be detected as a sensitive word and censored by the platform, members in the forum first use abbreviations and homophonic combining words to refer to feminism in their web novel discussions. In a certain sense, the term "i-woman" makes up for this loss of terminology. The creation of this term is also rooted in the fandom function of the community. The term "i-woman" was initially brought up as a criterion to evaluate whether the novel contains misogynistic elements. The term soon developed into a specific genre, so the term started to carry more feminist meanings, referring to a series of specific separatist feminist arguments.

[2.5] This juxtaposition of being both a feminist and a reader suggests that the identity of a member in a fandom community is not singular. If fans can be students, middle class, men or women, and so on, then at the same time, they can also be feminists. The plural identities of members always have important roles in shaping the borders and internal interactions of fandom communities (Driscoll and Gregg 2011). Just like the importance of gender identity in women's fan fiction communities, political identity and stances could coexist, with being fans while at the same time influencing individual practice in fandom activities. This could be especially observed in game fandom studies, where some projects observe that in fandom communities dominated by players who advocate mainstream ideologies, those who argue against sexism and racism are excluded from being legitimate members of the community (Hemphill, Kocurek, and Rao 2017).

[2.6] However, not many fandom communities can actively incorporate political activism as well as Novel Rater does. This successful alliance is made possible for two main reasons: the historical critical reflective tradition in women's novels and their readership, and the distinct mode of operation of Chinese local digital feminist movements.

[2.7] Since the last century, feminists have raised multiple critical inquiries to question the gender ideology embedded in popular romance novels. Ann Douglas's (1980) critique of Harlequin novels as soft porn was founded on an argument that romance stories cultivate the dependency of women by encouraging them to enjoy being possessed in sexual bondage. Just as second-wave feminists criticized hard-core pornography (Dworkin 1981, 1985; MacKinnon 1985), Douglas claimed that romance novels are far from harmless; rather, these stories punish independent women and cause empathy toward men, so therefore should be counted as a backlash against the feminist movement. Her concerns are not unique. In the past decades, feminist critics have consistently indicated the difficulties in allying feminists with this voracious reading activity, one shared by millions of women. These readers declined feminism in the twentieth century (Crane 1994) and distanced themselves from feminism in the twenty-first century (McRobbie 2004; Gill and Herdieckerhoff 2006). However, studies with close engagements of reader communities often observe a vigorous, rough feminist consciousness among these female readers. In Janice Radway's (1991) pioneering work Reading the Romance, Radway interpreted the initiative of reading romance novels as a responsive solution to deal with the pain caused by patriarchy. Radway argues that reading romance novels can be seen as "an activity of mild protest and longing for reform necessitated by those institutions' failure to satisfy the emotional needs of women" (213). She suggests that this dissatisfaction might be able to transform into real actions if these female readers started to explore the root causes of their depression. This political potential is also observed by others as the genre has undergone continuous evolution in the past half century. Readers of romance novels are demanding more independent and strong female characters, and the heroines seem to be capable of expressing their affections and sexual desires more boldly (Gill and Herdieckerhoff 2006; Vivanco 2012). These changes may not necessarily suggest a solid feminist stance, but they are responses to feminist transformations and reflect how women define their gender identities in a developing capitalist society (Radford 1986; Johnson 2010).

[2.8] A similar trend is also evident in China. Although the majority of female-oriented web novels focus on conventional romance plots between a powerful hero and a powerless heroine (Feng 2013; Gu 2019), the constant adjustments of common story settings and the emergence of new genres in the market suggest that Chinese female readers are continuously searching for more satisfying gender narratives. For example, the emergence of danmei is a representative case (note 1). In these explorative narratives, danmei novels enable the readers to project a female gaze on male characters, let the female readers imagine the ultimate relationship, and challenge patriarchal ideologies in existing gender norms (Chang and Tian 2021; Xu and Yang 2017; Ying 2020; Zhang 2016). However, danmei novels are also criticized for their hidden misogyny and limited efforts in challenging dominant patriarchal values of heterosexuality (Feng 2009; Zhu and Zhao 2015; Ning 2014). Therefore, for many feminist readers, contemporary Chinese web novels are still far from being feminist texts. Instead of giving up on reading web novels, many of these readers demand the production of better stories. Similar to previous genres like danmei, the birth of the i-woman genre is also a result of the reading passion of these persistent female readers.

[2.9] In addition to the self-reflective tendency embedded in the history of female romance novels, the rise of the i-woman genre is also inseparable from the unique fact that local feminism is highly restricted within online spaces. Chinese digital feminist movements rely heavily on individual netizens and their influence on different social media platforms. By utilizing new internet technologies, feminist activists living in the digital age can forge connective actions to fight for social justice and challenge misogyny in everyday life (Munro 2013; Zeng 2020). Against this background, Douban, one of the largest female-oriented platforms in China, became one important space for digital feminist discussions. Feminists on Douban tend to set their objectives in the cultural field, trying to detect and revolt against patriarchal ideologies in daily life. However, in a large-scale online regulator action by the state government under the excuse of violating "relevant policies," almost all significant feminist Douban group forums were forced to shut down in 2021 (Pei 2021). Novel Rater survived this action and thus became one of the big forums on Douban to allow feminist discussions to continue. In this circumstance, when i-woman novels started to be published on Jinjiang (晋江) at the beginning of 2022, this genre and its discussion spaces became a substitute place for Douban feminists to inhabit. Many feminist discourses created by Douban feminists are preserved and embedded in i-woman texts; these texts also function to promote feminist languages and ideologies to others. For many Chinese feminist activists, i-woman novels started to become an increasingly important strategy for mobilization.

3. Methodology

[3.1] The research method in this project combines a virtual ethnography of a Chinese online fandom community of web novels and textual analysis of two selected i-woman novels.

[3.2] For the ethnographic method, I adopt the term used by Christine Hine (2000) in her influential book Virtual Ethnography and agree that the purpose of the method is to enable an investigation of "the Internet in order to conduct an empirically based exploration of its current uses" (2). The virtual ethnography in this research involved close observation of Novel Rater. As a female reader of Chinese web novels myself, I had occasionally visited Novel Rater since it was established in 2019. For the purpose of a larger research project, I started conducting regular research-aimed observations of the forum in mid-2021. During this time, I viewed the posts released on the board, especially the heated ones, and paid attention to how the posters interacted with each other in the comments and how they built opinions about certain feminist issues. Most of the posts on Novel Rater are personal reviews of a certain web novel. It is often hard for members to reach a consistent opinion on the same piece of work. Without using a specific grading rubric, the members of Novel Rater built a rough consensus that a good web novel must at least be free of misogyny and be as feminist as possible. But novel ratings still vary dramatically according to personal taste and individual understandings of feminism. In this case, when i-woman as a criterion and as a new genre rarely received full applause in Novel Rater, it caught my attention immediately. After browsing review posts in the forum, I decided to read several i-woman works that received highly favorable reviews. These works included The Real Woman Will Only Draw Her Sword (started releasing in January 2022), The Heroine Is Bored with This (started releasing in January 2022), The Spoiled Koi Is Three-and-a-Half Years Old (started releasing in March 2022), Iltarte's Farm (started releasing in May 2022), and The Heroine of Abuse Novels Refuses to Be Pretty (started releasing in July 2022) (note 2). For this research, I eventually chose two novels—The Real Woman Will Only Draw Her Sword (henceforth Sword) and The Heroine Is Bored with This (henceforth Bored)—as representative cases of i-woman literature. I conducted a textual analysis of these two stories.

4. Reversing the Cinderella pattern

[4.1] According to Anne Cranny-Francis (1990), classic romance novels often deploy "the characterization of a strong, male figure, the hero, and the romance and marriage between him and the heroine" (178). I refer to this story design as the Cinderella pattern: a heterosexual romance plot configuration with a power imbalance between a powerful hero and a less powerful heroine. Their marriage often leads to the heroine's class promotion (Cranny-Francis 1990). However, achieving a happy ending in the Cinderella pattern often requires the heroine to endure pain, suffering, and even physical violence directly or indirectly caused by the hero (Ke 2021; Bonomi, Altenburger, and Walton 2013; Reenen 2014). From fairy tales to modern romance novels, these stories teach women that "the girl who is singled out for rejection and bad treatment, and who submits to her lot, weeping but never running away, has a special compensatory destiny awaiting her" (Lieberman 2014, 194). Eventually the hero will realize how much he has hurt the heroine and beg for her forgiveness by pledging his loyal love (Radway 1991).

[4.2] Unlike Cinderella romance stories, the i-woman novel requires a clear expression of its feminist position. It is a form of feminist writing that positions itself in contrast to the dominant discourse in mainstream romance novels. The new narrative in i-woman novels focuses on the enlightenment of the heroine's feminist consciousness and reverses the Cinderella pattern. These stories often take the moment of removing or dumping harmful feminine clothes as a key turning point, as they imply a distortion of a woman's body to fit the male gaze. Stories often begin with the heroine's life after achieving a happy ending in classic romance stories. However, triggered by different reasons, she suddenly realizes her oppressed status as a woman. She decides to rebel (often by refusing to wear inconvenient dresses or makeup). With the help of magical powers, she successfully unites other women to launch a feminist revolution. Ultimately, by killing the symbolic father god or the male leader, these women achieve the revivification of the mother god and transform society into a real home for all women.

[4.3] This summary shows that similarities to i-woman novels can be found in feminist utopias such as The Female Man (1975) by Joanna Russ and Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas, both published during second-wave feminism. These stories often depict an ideal women's world that is distinct from the one we are currently living in. According to Carol Pearson (1977), "authors of feminist utopian fiction usually begin by showing how women are profoundly alienated and limited by patriarchal society; they then go on to acquaint the reader with an alternative society in which women could feel at home and manifest their potential" (50). This description generally applies to Sword and Bored. However, while feminist utopian writers tend to imagine a well-established new world, these impassioned Chinese stories are more organized around a journey of revolution and close the story when the new world has been achieved. For example, the heroine of Sword gradually recalls that she was killed again and again by her husbands in her previous lives and finally decides to rebel:

[4.4] My first husband, who was the Divine Ruler of the Nine Heavens, killed me. My second husband, the Heaven Emperor who dominates the three worlds, also killed me. My third husband was a devil with the power to destroy the world. He also killed me. Now my fourth husband was the prodigy of the Qing Yun Guild, the Lord of the Nine Worlds. This time, before he killed me, I killed him first. And the subversion of my destiny engraved on the heaven book, has just begun. (abstract)

[4.5] The husbands listed here represent a popular type of hero in Chinese web romance novels: powerful but cruel men. Importantly, this implies that the authors of these i-woman novels are not amateur activists who suddenly decided to use web novels to promote their political ideas. Instead, they are very familiar with products in the Chinese female-oriented web novel market. The i-woman texts are profoundly intertextual as they absorb and divert the discourse shaped by the traditions of romance web novels and also popular feminist discourses. However, the combination and reconfiguration of these discourses happen in relatively closed feminist fandom communities like Novel Rater. As a result, it is difficult for readers without contextual knowledge to understand the final texts. For example, in one i-woman novel, The Heroine of Abuse Novels Refuses to Be Pretty, when the heroine, Jiu Xiang, first meets the handsome hero, she immediately orders her maid to cut his face and castrate him—even though the hero has not done anything. This deliberate vengeance points to texts outside of this novel: the popular romance novels that let the heroine earn the affection of the handsome hero by enduring mental and physical suffering. If readers do not have previous knowledge of these types of novels, then the degree of sarcasm and rebellion could not be successfully communicated. Many authors of these i-woman novels also have a close connection with Novel Rater: according to public announcements made in 2022, some of them are experienced members of Novel Rater, or at least visit the forum frequently. Indeed, the author of Iltarte's Farm once explained that she turned into a writer after being a reader and a member of Novel Rater for a long time. In a way, her feminist rewriting could be seen as another form of fan production, triggered by fans' dissatisfaction with the quality of existing web novels and eventually deciding to write their own. Although this may not suggest that all i-woman texts are fan productions, the relationship between this novel production activity and the fandom community is profound.

5. Questioning i-woman novels and feminism

[5.1] Readers of an i-woman novel can immediately realize that they are reading a special piece of work because of the unique way of writing, which may first be identified by the vigilance used when writing the Chinese language. As a digital movement that relies on social media, questioning embedded linguistic sexism is a frequent feminist topic in China. Implicit gender discrimination lies in the grammar and even the written structures of written Chinese characters (Tan 1990). The authors of i-woman novels thus refuse to use certain problematic Chinese characters and phrases. They are skillful in using alternative new feminist expressions that emerge from online feminist discussions. The basic requirement is that all sexist interjections in Chinese, such as "fuck," are forbidden. Meanwhile, the intentional reversal of certain phrases and characters has led to tactical neologisms. For example, the phrase ying xiong (英雄), which means "hero" in Chinese, is abandoned because the character xiong also means "men." Refusing to use nü ying xiong (女英雄; female hero), they rewrite the phrase as ying ci (英雌), in which ci refers to "women."

[5.2] Aside from these basic challenges in the use of language, the ideologies behind what feminist activism is and how feminist activism should be organized are elaborately woven into the stories. Because the stories usually center on the long journeys of feminist revolutions, they showcase how these authors understand feminism and feminist strategies. Eventually stepping on the path of separatism is a choice of the heroines in both Bored and Sword. The texts suggest the perpetual conflicts of interest between men and women. All male characters are depicted as hateful oppressors, consciously or unconsciously. Even for the Mr. Right character, who is usually depicted as a perfect hero in a Cinderella romance, mistreatments of women will eventually be revealed. This implies that all men are advocates or accomplices of patriarchy and therefore could never be trusted as women's companions. A representative example is in one story of Sword. To save a girl sold by her father, the heroine, Nüluo (女萝), dresses up as a prostitute and enters the Bu Ye Cheng (不夜城; City of No Night), a huge, strictly regulated brothel. She manages to make other prostitutes aware of gender injustice and the possibility of rebellion. Together, they eventually kill the Lord of the City, the supreme master of the brothel, and in an even more rebellious move, they kill all men in the brothel. When a male worker prays to Nüluo for his life, she kills him anyway: "She does not want to think for men anymore: whether they are innocent, whether they have a will but fail to act, whether they have reasons, whether they can be forgiven—Nüluo no longer wants to do that anymore. Her love, her kindness, her compassion, her mercy, should never be given to men, because countless other women had not been free." Statements like this reaffirm the political goal of an ideal feminist movement for the readers: it should always be a movement for women's interests.

[5.3] The legitimacy of such feminist revolutions is not only based on the feeling of being unfairly mistreated. Feminists in the stories attempt to reconstruct the supremacy of women over men by looking to nature, especially matrilineal species and matriarchal human societies. Drawing on the famous term coined by Simone de Beauvoir (1949 [1989]), these stories reclaim women as the first sex, while men are originally born inferior. The gender hierarchy today, these texts argue, has been distorted by patriarchy. For example, in Sword, the heroine learns how to live as a woman by observing and making friends with strong female magic beasts. During this process, she begins to wonder why female humans have become so weak compared to female wild animals. These narratives legitimize the struggle of women because their innate supremacy was taken from them by men.

[5.4] The binary understanding of gender leads to the assumption of a universal women's league. Sisterhood becomes a core subject in these novels. The isolated status among women is explained as a conspiracy by patriarchy to prevent them from uniting their powers to revolt. Once they are reunited, they become faithful, loyal, and strong companions. In both Bored and Sword, the heroines develop their sisterhood group during their adventures. Similar to early feminist utopian novels like Gilman's (1979) Herland, the bonds among women are developed into a relationship that is similar to sisters or to mother–daughter relations. Sometimes this supportive relationship might transform into homosexual love. But despite the solidarity built inside these feminist groups, the question of whether all women deserve to be united is another issue. In the story of Bu Ye Cheng in Sword, Nüluo and her female companions rebuild their new base, Nüer Cheng (女儿城; City of Daughters), on top of the ruins of the brothel. A rule is made that not only men but also women who have sons and those who are not awakened are not allowed to enter the city. The criteria for awakened women might sound vague, as they sometimes also exclude all other feminists, including feminists who disagree with a separatism strategy. However, the City of Daughters does not set a series of political questionnaires before they accept newcomers. The author avoids internal feminist disagreements by introducing the magical elements in the story. The heroine, Nüluo, learns how to use the magical essence of sheng xi (生息; the breath of living) after she becomes a feminist. She then teaches her female comrades how to use this magic and realizes that only those women who have realized men's exploitation over women and decided to rebel can use this magic. This is explained in the story when the heroine meets a woman who fights for the Lord of the City. Nüluo explains to this woman why she cannot use the magic: "Because only except for your body, you are no longer a woman. You have been assimilated by men. And you don't deserve to be with us." Examining one's feminist stance therefore becomes much easier in the story, as this setting defines feminism with a natural separatist stance without question.

6. Building feminist solidarity through fantagonism

[6.1] Feminist members of Novel Rater use conflicts in this fandom community to build feminist solidarity. Throughout feminist political struggles in history, solidarity has always been a key concept (hooks 1986; Bartky 2002; Heyes 2003). After being criticized in theories of intersectionality, feminist solidarity moved in a more inclusive direction that sought internal differences and diversities (Littler and Rottenberg 2021). However, as has been suggested in i-woman novels, advocates of this genre tend to understand feminist solidarity as a more homogeneous group of companions, leading to ambivalence regarding its solidarity strategy. On the one hand, i-woman novels are seen as feminist mobilization tools used to promote feminist ideologies to nonfeminist web novel readers. On the other hand, feminist solidarity is believed to be achieved through exclusive struggles to keep the purity of the community.

[6.2] In Novel Rater, supporting feminist movements can be put into practice by evaluating web novels with feminist standards and promoting i-woman texts. The production of i-woman novels is believed to be a contribution to correcting misogyny in popular culture and an effective method of promoting feminism. Unlike the Novel Rater forum that strictly restricts membership registration, many i-woman works are published on Jinjiang, a public web novel platform that also publishes many other romance web novel genres. This allows other readers on the platform to access i-woman novels, which is considered a good opportunity to educate readers. To achieve this purpose, some authors also use tactics to deliberately draw the attention of nonfeminist readers. For example, the author of The Spoiled Koi Is Three-and-a-Half Years Old has given her novel a name that has a similar style to popular romance web novels to seduce nonfeminist readers to click on the link; and the author of Bored has explained her determination to produce texts even without payment (note 3). Practices like this show us that the advocates of i-woman novels understand these works to be more than leisure products.

[6.3] However, the emphasis on realistic gender problems in i-woman novels also pushes the genre further from a leisure function for web novel readers. If classic romance novels, as Radway (1991) argues, attempt to provide an escape for female readers and reassure them that they can safely overcome all injustice caused by gender inequality, then these i-woman novels, in contrast, disturbingly throw these realities directly at their readers. This implies that female readers can never escape such tragic fates unless they are determined to fight back. In the comments, readers frequently express their anxious feelings and even fear to keep reading the stories because of the cruel iterance of gender inequality. The realistic political function of the genre prevents some readers from approaching the texts.

[6.4] At the same time, adopting a feminist standard to evaluate web novels results in more complicated consequences in a fandom community like Novel Rater; it also means promoting certain types of works, like i-woman novels, and despising some others. Fandom community members do not like to see the novels they like being fiercely criticized by others. Unfortunately, this is a situation that happens often. At the management level, Novel Rater first forbade recommending any male-oriented web novels in December 2021. It then forbade recommending danmei novels in March 2022. The exclusion of danmei novels is a noticeable feature because the genre was initially created by women and is still popular among female readers (Feng 2009; Zhang 2016). Still, members of Novel Rater achieved a consensus that danmei novels are naturally misogynistic because they require women to imagine abandoning their female bodies and pretending to be men. The decision to ban danmei led to a fierce dispute among its members. Fans of danmei novels denied that these stories are misogynistic and toxic. This led to a flame war and trolling on Douban, with both sides arguing for protecting women's interests in reading web novels. The fights resulted in a wave of quitting and immigration. Danmei novels are now marked as antifeminist in Novel Rater, with all writers and readers of danmei novels being accused of standing on the side of patriarchy and betraying women's interests. After this split, Novel Rater maintains its status as one of the largest fandom communities for female web novel readers. Discussions around web novel works are still rich, although constrained by fewer choices of genre.

[6.5] From a fan studies perspective, fantagonism is an approach that researches fandom through antagonism (Johnson 2017). By asking the field to abandon utopian imaginations of fan production, Derek Johnson argues that the struggle over hegemony is not a moment of aberration. Rather, it is one key component of fandom. In Johnson's work, conflicts are centered on the internal interpretations of the original work, such as disputes around relationshippers and external challenges to the production of the texts. But in the case of Novel Rater, in line with Antonio Gramsci's (1971) theoretical framework of hegemony, fantagonism is a more explicit political struggle over the dominant discourse in how to do feminism. Johnson (2017) argues, "Fan activity is discursively dominated, disciplined, and defined to preserve hegemonies of cultural power at the local or institutional level" (384). It is through these struggles that the hierarchy of power is reestablished within the field. In Novel Rater, feminist readers successfully achieved hegemony in the community during this fighting process, after the dissidents and their beloved web novel genres were banished from the community. The hegemony of certain dominant feminist political ideologies is gradually confirmed inside the community, represented by confirming certain types of novels, story plots, and authors.

[6.6] As we can observe from the texts of i-woman novels, when separatist feminists define "feminist" as an identity that is based on universal womanhood, giving so much effort to protect solidarity by checking the identities of forum members is not hard to understand. In fandom communities like Novel Rater, the identities of the members are mostly defined on the bases of their fandom practices, their tastes, and their preferences in reading web novels. As feminist activists started to equate feminist stances with the novels they read, the feminist struggle is actually simplified as fighting against the specific individual's consuming or reading behaviors. In this way, eliminating Cinderella fans from the community is interpreted as a success in a feminist political struggle.

[6.7] Meanwhile, this has put the separatist feminist readers in an awkward situation. On the one hand, they have feminist passions to help produce web novels with better feminist narratives; on the other hand, utilizing web novel fandom as a feminist strategy also limits their operation within the existing structure of the web novel industry, and their actions that might disrupt the production of web novels could be repelled by other fans. Although many advocates of i-woman novels are active fans in the forum, other readers and producers started to see them not just as picky consumers but as troublemakers who would bring harm to the entire market. Some readers also fear that their pleasure in reading web novels is devalued and destroyed, which might prompt them to leave the community. In another popular community formed by web novel writers, Novel Rater is already widely described as a crazy forum where the members are devastating the industry: they leave negative comments under novels, attack and abuse web novel writers, and can never be satisfied with any good stories. These complaints are sometimes incorporated into the increasing stigmatization of Chinese online feminism.

[6.8] Some feminist members in Novel Rater have already noticed that doing feminism in a fandom community seems to be more and more incompatible. In April 2022, another wide range of fights broke out in Novel Rater. This resulted in a walkout of many of its feminist members. These members rediscovered and shifted to another, smaller-scale online forum. After this event, the Novel Rater administrator published the newest forum regulations, indicating that "all ideological discussions that separate from the novels are forbidden." This post clearly intended to protect nonfeminist readers in the forum and to protect the forum itself from censorship. However, the i-woman genre and many feminist discussions have not been expelled from Novel Rater. The forum is still producing a lot of feminist discussions, although these discussions are more implicitly embedded in web novel discussions.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] The evolution of Chinese female-oriented web novels from the Cinderella pattern to the i-woman genre is a remarkable development. Cinderella stories are far from having been eliminated. At present, the classic heterosexual romance novel remains the largest mainstream market in China, becoming even more popular with the assistance of multiple forms of commercial adaptions ranging from mobile games to video adaptions. As a reversed Cinderella pattern, i-woman literature is a pioneering attempt in contemporary China that should not be seen as merely a mutated romance genre.

[7.2] The i-woman genre proves the political potential of Chinese fandom communities and exhibits the condition of a fandom political movement in its initial stage. Its political operation is deeply shaped as well as restricted by this form of fandom activity. The dilemma embedded in the i-woman genre is not only its separatist tendency but also its attempt to overthrow patriarchal ideologies. However, at the same time, it has to operate within existing systems, or selectively comply with them, in order to achieve its propaganda goals of reaching the common public. As just one active trend in contemporary Chinese digital feminist movements, it is hard to conclude whether the i-woman genre could be effective for feminist mobilization. What becomes important is whether online feminism in contemporary China should follow this strategy of using fandom culture and its products as a medium. The development of i-woman novels in female web novel fandom communities deserves our scrutiny.

8. Notes

1. Danmei is a popular female-oriented web novel genre in China. The genre originated from Japanese boys' love manga and entered mainland China in the 1980s. As a web novel genre, danmei started to become popular in 2005. The stories often depict romantic love stories between two good-looking men.

2. All titles and cited texts from i-woman novels are translated by me.

3. Writers on Jinjiang could only get money after signing a commercial contract with the website. The contract regulates a series of responsibilities of the writer for copyright protection, including not publishing any works on Jinjiang in other public places. However, the author of Bored decided not to sign a contract with Jinjiang, instead making all her book chapters available for free access by all readers.

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