Doing feminism through Chinese online fiction fandom

Yijia Du

University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia

[0.1] Abstract—To explore the connections between Chinese online fiction fandom and feminism, in-depth interviews were conducted with thirty-two Chinese women and nonbinary fans of online fiction. Online fiction fandom is both a counterpublic and an intimate public in which women and nonbinary fans are connected by a common interest, their feminist identities are formed through or emerge through participation in such a public, and their shared values and understanding of feminism create a closer sense of belonging and affective solidarity. Engaging with feminism through online fiction is a form of digital feminism, creating feminist consciousness among online fiction fans through literary and discursive constructs. Women-oriented online fiction has become a space for many young Chinese women and nonbinary people to criticize and challenge patriarchal gender norms and reflect on mainstream gender relations. This space continues to produce educational cultural resources that make feminist learning and practice a work in progress.

[0.2] Keywords—Counterpublic; Digital feminism; Intimate public; Women-oriented online fiction

Du, Yijia. 2023. "Doing Feminism through Chinese Online Fiction Fandom." In "Chinese Fandoms," edited by Zhen Troy Chen and Celia Lam, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 41.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In March 2022, Ailan, a famous Chinese woman author, posted a long article on Weibo reflecting on her unconscious misogynistic behaviors during her long years of writing online fiction: "From now on, I will no longer write fiction from a male perspective. I will strive to face and correct my misogynistic behaviors, continue to learn, and improve. I wish all readers can be brave, independent, and free" (

[1.2] What Ailan meant by "from a male perspective" was that she had become aware of her past tendency to objectify women characters in her writing. Her self-reflexivity is not unique. In fact, women and nonbinary fans in the Chinese online fiction community have started to reflect on and criticize online fiction that demeans, disregards, and demonizes women. They have begun to call for more writing that challenges misogynistic tendencies. These reflections from online fiction fans reveal a tight linkage between feminism, online fiction, and fandom. In this respect, criticism of online fiction with misogynistic content and advocacy of writing from a feminist perspective not only represent an innovative form of feminist internet content but also reveal fans' construction of a larger feminist-identified network connecting through their interest in online fiction.

[1.3] How exactly does online fiction connect fans to feminism? Here I draw on insights from ethnographic data gathered from thirty-two fans who self-identify as either women or nonbinary people, aged twenty to thirty-three, to explore how online fiction fans become feminists and how they perform feminism through their engagement with online fiction (note 1). Engaging with feminism through online fiction is a form of digital feminism; the texts of online fiction and the paratexts circulating around online fiction provide an interpretive framework for fans to build their feminist identity and engage in feminist practices. I consider such feminist online fiction fandom as both a counterpublic (Fraser 1990; Warner 2002) and an intimate public (Berlant 2008). In such a public, women and nonbinary fans constantly rethink and disrupt existing gender relations and sexual discourses. Their participation in online fiction creates a space where changes can occur and becomes one of the ways in which their feminist identities are formed. Fans also gain a sense of community and solidarity in the process of change. Their connections are formed not only through their common passion for online fiction but also through the belief in feminism as a further shared worldview and affective solidarity (Hemmings 2012; Sweetman 2013).

2. Online fiction, gender, and genre

[2.1] Online fiction in China emerged in the 1990s as a form of Chinese-language genre fiction published on interactive online platforms by Chinese authors. It involves both grassroots and commercial forms of participatory culture (Jenkins 2006, 2009). Online fiction first emerged as an alternative to print fiction for personal expression with noncommercial purposes (Tian and Adorjan 2016). However, with the rise of commercial online genre fiction websites, a part of online genre fiction has been gradually transformed into a form of consumer culture. Fans of online fiction are prosumers who integrate production, consumption, and evaluation (Toffler 1981; Jenkins 2013; Chao 2013). Fans can post their responses to fiction as readers. These responses are seen as "viewer-created paratext" (Gray 2010, 143). Online fiction platforms, such as Qidian's Chinese platform (hereafter Qidian) and Jinjiang Literature City (hereafter Jinjiang), encourage readers to comment and interact with authors and each other, building a community around texts and influencing interpretation (Birke and Christ 2013).(note 2) In some cases, this interaction makes online fiction writing a collaborative process.

[2.2] Online genre fiction is also a highly gendered field. Online genre fiction is divided into women-oriented fiction and men-oriented fiction by commercial platforms. Women-oriented fiction targets women readers and is dominated by women authors, with genres such as romance, boys' love, and fan fiction (Feng 2013). The emergence of women-oriented fiction in turn defined men-oriented fiction (note 3). Platforms like Qidian have separate sites for each, while others like Jinjiang focus solely on women-oriented fiction.

3. Digital feminism in China

[3.1] According to Lixian Hou (2020), the beginning of digital feminism in China came after 2010, when an increasing number of young women started using social media to engage in widespread discussions about gender inequality. However, the term "feminism" has been stigmatized and silenced. For instance, women who express critiques of patriarchy and gender issues in Chinese social media have been given a stigmatized name: Chinese pastoral feminist (tianyuan nüquan). The word "pastoral" refers to Chinese indigenous rural dogs (tianyuan quan). In Chinese, "feminism" (nüquan) and "female dogs" (nüquan) are homophonic. Calling feminists "Chinese pastoral feminists" disparages Chinese digital feminists as naive and unsophisticated compared to their Western counterparts (Yang 2021). As the term spread, it evolved from referring to a certain type of feminist in China to referring to every Chinese digital feminist (Li 2022). "Chinese pastoral feminist" is now used to criticize anyone who expresses feminist views on the internet. These digital feminists are accused of being selfish women who only ask for rights, not obligations, and spread radical hatred of men (Mao 2020).

[3.2] Chinese pastoral feminism is denigrated as being unauthentic and unorthodox. Chinese authorities responded to the rising of digital feminism in China and criticized these online feminism discussions on gender inequality as "creating chaos" (Central Committee of Communist Youth League of China 2019). Chinese authorities do not see digital feminism as real feminism. Digital feminists who speak out online are accused of being troublemakers. Similarly, many studies on Chinese pastoral feminism also share a negative interpretation of Chinese pastoral feminists. For example, Yin (2021) points out that pastoral feminists are people who accuse men of their privilege and blame women for being housewives. Likewise, Mao (2020) states that pastoral feminists often have limited formal education about feminism and that their understandings of gender issues are problematic. For Mao, pastoral feminists are not feminists who "fight for the legitimate rights and interests of women in a rational way" (255). Such an interpretation fails to recognize that the term is a confining discourse used by its detractors to discredit Chinese digital feminist actions.

[3.3] Both Chinese authorities and some academics imply that there are some purer, rational, more correct feminisms; however, I believe "more correct feminisms" is actually a pseudoproposition. My concern is not to assess whether digital feminist action is rational and correct; rather, my intention is to acknowledge the value of ordinary netizens' participation in digital feminist action. Halberstam's (2011) concept of low theory is useful to acknowledge the importance of popular cultural spaces for feminism in this case. For Halberstam, low theory is used to describe knowledge obtained from cultural products that are outside the academy. In this respect, acquiring feminist knowledge through the academy should not be a condition of being a feminist. While many Chinese women and nonbinary people might have not systematically studied feminist theory, they constantly reflect on and critique patriarchy and gender inequality as a result of the influence of digital feminism. Their involvement in digital feminism should be recognized.

[3.4] Scholarship has demonstrated that digital feminism through social media enables people to explore feminism, connect with feminists' ideas and notions, and engage in feminist action (Baer 2016; Turley and Fisher 2018; Jackson 2018). However, there is a lack of research that touches on the links between digital feminism and online fiction. I argue that engaging with feminism through online fiction is a form of digital feminism. Fans raise feminist awareness from online fiction fandom, not from the academy. They also engage in feminist practices through online fiction. Online fiction is not only a site of cultural production but also a site of knowledge production of feminisms.

4. Digital media and feminism

[4.1] Feminist media studies and cultural studies scholars examine how feminist concepts, expressions, practices, and sentiments have circulated in popular and media culture. Many of these studies emphasize the tensions between individual, empowered neoliberal subjects and the collective politics of feminism. For example, Rosalind Gill (2007) claims that postfeminism is a distinctive sensibility, which includes "an emphasis upon self-surveillance, monitoring and self-discipline; a focus on individualism, choice and empowerment" (147). Catherine Rottenberg's (2018) concept of neoliberal feminism also emphasizes that neoliberal feminism produces a "new feminist subject" who pursues "savvy self-investment and entrepreneurial strategies of self-care" (143). All these studies present a dichotomy between the subject and the collective politics of feminism.

[4.2] Engaging with feminism through online fiction permits us to think beyond the binary of individual versus collective. The presence of the feminist collective is felt through individual reading, writing, and discussing. The affective solidarity is the "collective association and sharing of experience" that "challenges women's isolation, 'outs' women's sense of injustice, and raises hopes that gender relations can, and should, change" (Sweetman 2013, 218, citing Baxter 2021, 901). Zizi Papacharissi (2014) also argues that "affect is inherently political. It provides a way of understanding humans as collective and emotional, as well as individual and rational, by presenting these states as confluent rather than opposite" (16). Hence, engaging with feminism through online fiction is not only about online fiction fans' self-expression and a continuous process of learning; it is also about collective reinterpretations of gender politics. Online fiction fans share their personal understandings and discussions of gender issues through online fiction fandom. These individual engagements converge into a collective sharing experience. The collective feelings are shared through reading, writing, and discussion, suggesting a vibrant and powerful new digital feminism in which the empowered subject and the collective politics of feminism are not in conflict.

5. Research design

[5.1] In early 2021, I advertised for interviewees on Weibo and received over two hundred responses. I randomly chose thirty-five participants. In the end, thirty-two participants were confirmed. While I did not specify gender or age requirements in my recruitment, all my participants were either women or nonbinary people in their twenties or thirties. All participants were Chinese living in China or overseas. All of them have had at least seven years of reading experience, and none of them read one kind of genre fiction exclusively. Twenty-nine participants wrote or are still writing online genre fiction, with one participant earning a living as a full-time author and five participants having contracts with online fiction platforms. All participants were simultaneously readers and reviewers of online fiction. All participants either self-identified as feminists or claimed that they support feminism.

[5.2] The online audio interviews (note 4), conducted from January to March 2021, were semistructured and focused on (1) their experiences and motivations for engaging with online fiction, (2) their understanding of feminism, and (3) whether and/or how engaging with online fiction had influenced their understanding and perceptions of gender, sexuality, and feminism. In addition to in-depth interview data, the data also includes online observation of multiple online spaces (forums, microblogs, online fiction platforms, etc.) and textual analysis of online content. I used thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke 2012) to explore the latent content (underlying concepts, assumptions, and ideologies) of how women and nonbinary fans participate in online fiction and to track patterns of the shared meaning. I paid close attention to the potential regularities in each interview that represented common ways in which my participants engage with online fiction.

6. Findings: Becoming feminist

[6.1] Drawing from the interviews, I surmise that the connections between online fiction and feminism are built up through two ways. The first is becoming feminist—that is, fans undergoing a process of consciousness raising and building their feminist identity through engaging with online fiction. The second is doing feminism—that is, feminist fans engaging in feminist practices through participation in online fiction. Their feminist practices influence more fans to raise feminist consciousness, fostering a positive feedback loop that spreads feminist ideals and encourages other fans to join the feminist journey.

[6.2] An examination of participants' self-narratives of becoming feminists helps explore how online fiction connects fans to feminism. I identified two patterns in which online fiction connects fans to feminism. The first is that through online fiction fandom, fans are constantly exposed to feminist discourses, concepts, and frameworks. They use such feminist frameworks to recognize and understand preexisting feminist narratives about themselves. The other way is that online fiction fandom can be seen as consciousness raising (Campbell 1999; Sowards and Renegar 2004; Gleeson and Turner 2019). Fans raise feminist awareness through their engagement with online fiction, and such engagement played a key role in the formation of fans' feminist identities.

[6.3] Cheryl Hercus (2004) describes three patterns of becoming feminist in her research, one of which is that people do not experience dramatic changes in values, beliefs, or self-awareness. In other words, people simply become aware that feminist discourse could express beliefs they already hold about the world and themselves. This pattern clearly appears in my participants' experience. One typical example is that early perceptions of social injustices, especially gender-based injustice experiences, had a huge impact on many of my participants' feminist tendencies. For instance, Harriet (21, W), who started to read online fiction in middle school, said,

[6.4] I have always identified myself as a feminist…Because it was a natural thing…My dad always said things based on my gender, like you are a girl, and you cannot do anything. At that time, I did not know what feminism was, but I could feel from these words that I was degraded as if I were always a second sex being. After I read online fiction, I have slowly learnt that these ideas of mine are called feminism.

[6.5] What Harriet described was a dissonance between how she ought to be treated by others and her lived experiences (Hemmings 2012). Such a feeling was also common for my other participants. After being exposed to feminism through online fiction, these participants began to use feminist discourse to express and explain their beliefs and feelings. Hemmings (2012) emphasizes the concept of affective solidarity as a necessity for feminist transformation. She develops Elspeth Probyn's (1993) understanding of feminist reflexivity, emphasizing that "affective dissonance" is an experience that is rooted in a troublesome relationship "between an embodied sense of self and the self we are expected to be in social terms, between the experience of ourselves over time and the experience of possibilities and limits to how we may act or be" (Hemmings 2012, 149).

[6.6] Harriet found profound differences between the "sense of self" and "the social expectations" she occupied with respect to gender and sexuality (150). She used feminist discourse that she learned from online fiction fandom to explain such experiences. Feminism provided a language that she could use to express preexisting thoughts and feelings about how gender constrains social possibilities.

[6.7] Online fiction also enables a specific process of consciousness raising for fans who have never had feminist awareness. Consciousness raising is a form of activism that aims to inform women about patriarchy as a system of domination, to "explore women's common gender experiences" (Ryan 1992, 46) and to "vent about sexism and social inequalities" (Blevins 2018, 92). Karlyn Kohrs Campbell (1999) notes that consciousness raising is "characterized by rhetorical interactions that emphasize affective proofs and personal testimony, participation and dialogue, self-revelation and self-criticism, the goal of autonomous decision making through self-persuasion, and the strategic use of techniques for 'violating the reality structure'" (83). Stacey K. Sowards and Valerie Renegar (2004) further emphasize that by engaging with popular culture, individuals can raise consciousness by engaging in moments of identification and private reflection. In recent research, feminist actions and discussions in social media have been identified as a valid and valuable form of consciousness raising (Gleeson and Turner 2019; Dudney 2014; Anderson and Grace 2015).

[6.8] Drawing from my participants' self-narrative of becoming feminists, I consider that both texts and paratexts of online fiction are important in their process of raising consciousness toward feminism. The concept of the paratext was originally developed by Gérard Genette. Genette (1997) explains that the paratext is "a threshold…that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back. It is an 'undefined zone' between the inside and the outside, a zone without any hard and fast boundary" (2). Jonathan Gray (2010) applies Genette's term and claims that paratexts play a crucial role in how texts are perceived. According to Gray, paratexts construct and direct the reception of media texts that surround the text, the audience, and the industry, and then fill the space between them. For online fiction, the paratexts that extend or surround the text—like the comments, reviews, and recommendations from fans—are also an important part of fan participation. The paratexts of online fiction are an important complement to the text and create a great deal of potential meaning and direction (Busse and Hellekson 2006). Some of my participants learned about feminist practice and discourse by engaging with either texts or paratexts of online fiction; others developed feminist consciousness from their engagement with both.

[6.9] Fans' feminist awareness can be developed through texts. For example, Katniss (29, W) mentioned that online fiction written by a woman author named Woxiangchirou helped her learn about feminism and eventually identify as a feminist: "Her writing focuses not only on the heroine but also on many subaltern women. Inspired by the heroine, those women also try to do something to change their situation. A large part of my understanding of feminism is because of her fiction. Through her fiction, I realize that women can be powerful."

[6.10] Katniss is a part-time online fiction author and has been engaging with online fiction since high school. Through reading Woxiangchirou's writings, Katniss became enlightened in her comprehension of both women's representation in texts and women's empowerment in real life. She discovered that she likes heroines to have certain feminist characteristics. In the interview, many participants explicitly mentioned the influence of specific authors' fiction or specific subgenres of fiction on their pathway to becoming feminists. In general, women-oriented fiction had the deepest influence on participants.

[6.11] The distinction between women-oriented and men-oriented fiction was frequently brought up by my participants during the interviews. Men-oriented fiction mainly deals with the adventures of male protagonists who conquer women, gain power, and succeed (Wang 2017). In such fiction, women characters and gender relations are depicted with stereotypical gender assumptions. While some early women-oriented fiction also depicted traditional gender roles in romantic relationships, it has since become more progressive with the emergence of different subgenres. Much women-oriented fiction steps out of traditional gender relations and power structures to create richer, more diverse characters.

[6.12] The stark contrast between men- and women-oriented fiction, or the contrast between fiction that depicts traditional gender roles and fiction that attempts to break gender stereotypes, has led fans to gradually reflect on the expression of gender relations and gender roles that were once overlooked in their reading. For example, Louisa (24, W), who has been reading online fiction since primary school, claimed that her feminist awareness came from the comparison between men- and women-oriented fiction. Her reading journey of online fiction started with men-oriented fiction, but she later realized that such fiction presented various forms of misogyny. After she read fiction in the strong heroine subgenre (note 5) written by Tianxiaguiyuan, she felt uncomfortable going back to reading men-oriented fiction. "In the beginning, I did not have a clear clue why I could not stand such fiction. I just followed my mind and slowly favored women-oriented fiction. During my reading, I began to know what feminism is, and I become a feminist soon after. I do not read any men-oriented fiction anymore." Louisa's experience indicates that reading women-oriented fiction with feminist perspectives could lead participants to start questioning visible forms of misogyny in fiction. Online fiction that embodies a feminist nature breaks through traditional gender relations and gender roles, giving participants more room to imagine and think about gender relations and gender roles.

[6.13] While the distinction between women- and men-oriented fiction is a commercial division and is problematic in its binary gender division, it allows women and nonbinary fans to distance themselves from male authors and readers and to express their own desires and demands in a women-oriented online space—a public space for them in which they do not need to consider male aesthetic interests or value standards. In such a space, women and nonbinary fans can break gender stereotypes, subvert traditional gender roles in their engagement with online fiction, and become aware of sexism, gender stereotypes, and misogyny. Nancy Fraser (1990) uses the concept of "subaltern counterpublics," which refers to "parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs" (67). In line with Fraser's arguments, Warner (2002) also notes that the counterpublic is "a scene where a dominated group aspires to re-create itself as a public and in doing so finds itself in conflict not only with the dominant social group but with the norms that constitute the dominant culture as a public" (112). For Warner, "participation in such a public is one of the ways in which members' identities are formed and transformed" (57). The counterpublic is "counter" in the way it is aware of its subordinate status and in the way it attempts to provide critical alternatives to the dominant public but also seeks to disrupt and change the dominant discourse.

[6.14] Drawing from both Fraser's and Warner's ideas, I suggest that online fiction fandom, especially women-oriented fiction fandom, is a counterpublic in which women and nonbinary fans develop their feminist identities and their interests in online fiction through personal reflections and collective interactions. In today's China, where men-centered literary standards still dominate (Schaffer and Xianlin 2007; Zheng 2004), such a counterpublic provides a space for women and nonbinary fans to write from an alternative perspective, reflecting their desires and needs. It mediates the private and intimate meanings of gender and sexuality (Warner 2002), disrupts the hegemonic discourse in men-oriented fiction spaces, and creates the kind of space where change can occur.

[6.15] In addition to texts, paratexts of online fiction also provided a framework for many of my participants to understand feminism and shape them to become feminists. As Paul Booth (2015) points out, fandom can be seen as a space for "engag[ing] in a variety of issues and real-world problems" (¶ 1.7). Fan activities, like the discussion around fiction as well as other social interactions that emerge around the texts, influence fans to form a feminist consciousness and discover a feminist discourse to interpret both online fictive texts and their everyday experiences.

[6.16] The discussions about online fiction among fans give fans new insights about feminism. In the online fiction discussion section on Jinjiang, many fans recommended feminist theories and classic feminist works in their reviews, promoting other fans to criticize and analyze the texts of online fiction from a feminist perspective (Guzhi 2021). The discussions were further expanded from textual analysis of online fiction to reflections on their own experiences with oppressive structures in the real world (Naylor 2016). In this case, individual reading and writing connected with a broader discussion of feminism. Moreover, in a group called Online Fiction Rating on the Douban platform (note 6), fans also apply feminist criticism, collectively score the texts of online fictions (Bury 2005), and rate each work. They discuss issues around sexual violence, victim accusations, and internalized misogyny within the story line. Online fiction with a feminist perspective scores high and is recommended to other fans, while work that does not embrace a feminist perspective is scored low. Multiple participants stated that they are members of the group. Their reading choices are based on recommendations from other fans. Those ratings and discussions not only raise fans' feminist consciousness but also draw together collective feelings among fans, allowing for the possibility of solidarity.

[6.17] Online fiction fandom serves as a space to assess, negotiate, and understand feminist discourse, practice, and identity. Many participants emphasized that although participation in online fiction may have marked their first explicit encounter with feminism, their exposure to online fiction provided them with the right language to conceptualize preexisting feminist feelings. For many other participants, interactions with texts and paratexts of online fiction allowed fans to become aware of feminism and become feminists. Crucially, for many participants, the process of becoming a feminist was closely tied to interaction with other fans who shared the same feelings and stood alongside them. The interactions among fans around online fiction draw together collective feelings and allow for the possibility of affective solidarity. This has led many participants to consciously emphasize the importance of the community in disseminating and understanding feminism. They feel that it is their responsibility to influence other fans in online fiction fandom.

7. Doing feminism

[7.1] Chinese fans of online fiction have integrated their feminist identities into their engagement in online fiction. Fans change their consumption, production, and evaluation of online fiction to reflect their growing feminist beliefs. Being a feminist not only reshapes fans' reading strategies, interpretations, and assessments of texts but also brings feminist perspectives in their writings, which encourages more discussions relating to gender issues among fans.

[7.2] Although doing feminism and self-identifying as a feminist may not necessarily be fully connected (Bobel 2007, 148), many participants who self-identify as feminists emphasized that they do feminism through online fiction. For them, feminism is not only a set of beliefs and an epistemology but also a specific set of practices and a way of doing things. Participation in online fiction represents and constitutes a form of feminist practice and a site of feminist struggle. According to Carrie Rentschler (2019), doing feminism means two things: "both making things as feminists and making feminist things" (130). Feminist fans who engage in online fiction activity make feminist things by writing online fiction with a feminist perspective. Their fiction is not only textual expression but also connects specific ideologies and emotional affinities, allowing readers to engage in discussions around the fictional texts. In this context, I consider reading and discussing fiction as a form of making things as feminists. Feminist criticism through discussion not only plays a role in consciousness raising but also creates a sense of community and affective solidarity.

[7.3] Feminism offers guidance to readers to actively participate in their cultural moment. Readers are not passive consumers (Sowards and Renegar 2004); rather, they critique and intervene in texts of online fiction. Many participants claimed that their reading preferences of online fiction changed dramatically after being exposed to feminism. For example, Ruth said, "In the past, I did not realize the lack of female perspectives in my reading. I remember I read a men-oriented fiction called Aoshijiutian…I thought it was okay at the time. But now it seems that the female characters are too simple and stereotypical…I realized that the female character in such fiction was problematic…Now, I choose to read other fiction instead of [men-oriented fiction]." Many participants, like Ruth, stated that before their feminist awareness was raised, they were not repulsed by men-oriented fiction and were even immersed in reading such works. However, they began to read selectively with a feminist consciousness and build their own unique reading preferences from a feminist viewpoint after being exposed to feminism.

[7.4] After fans encountered feminism, gender relations in online fiction became one of the aspects of their criteria in terms of choosing what to read. For example, Jane (24, W), who now lives in Fujian province, started reading online fiction in middle school. She talked about her reflections on reading romance fiction and boys' love fiction: "When I raised feminist consciousness, I started to realize that the story lines and the depictions of heroines in many romance fiction are very toxic. For example, many heroines' life goal is romantic relationships. Boys' love fiction is similar to romance fiction, in which uke is often placed in a sexual object position. It is still essentially a reproduction of the traditional men/women model. I rarely read romance fiction or boys' love fiction now" (note 7).

[7.5] Jane, who reads critically and judiciously in any genre of online fiction, realized that it is hard to find fiction or other cultural productions that are completely free from patriarchal influences in a patriarchal society. Her feeling was common among participants with feminist self-perceptions. Many participants also said it is important for women and nonbinary fans to write and read from a feminist perspective through constant reflection and critique. They hope their writings can gradually move away from the influence of misogynistic culture.

[7.6] Being a feminist not only reshapes fans' reading preference but also influences their evaluation of fiction. The Online Fiction Rating group was mentioned by participants several times. Ranking online fiction is common on many platforms, and many of my participants are highly active in such ranking and reviewing practice. They also consulted other fans' ratings and comments across different platforms to filter out the fiction they wanted to read. The Online Fiction Rating (2021) group rules clearly outline feminist aims of reviewing, reading, and writing online fiction:

[7.7] Since birth, we have been placed in a male perspective world, where men's eyes are the standard for judging everything. Suddenly one day we began to doubt and be dissatisfied with this standard, so we opened women's eyes, and our bright eyes saw a completely different world; slowly we grew women's ears and began to listen to women's voices; we grew women's mouths and began to speak about women's stories; now we expect women's hands to pick up the pen and write down women's stories.

[7.8] This statement also confirms that online fiction fandom is the counterpublic I mentioned earlier. The "counter" aspect of online fiction fandom is found in the way fans are not only aware of their subordinate status as people who are marginalized in a patriarchal society but also attempt to disrupt and change the dominant discourse through reading, reviewing, and writing. Therefore, for feminist fans, discussing, rating, and evaluating online fiction is not only an act of participating in online fiction but also an act of sharing their profound reflections on the gender relationship, gender representation, and gender roles in the text. Such an act is deeply political and important for them. It "connects not just the personal to the political, but the critical to the creative" (Chidgey 2014, 105). Through scoring and discussing, these reviews are circulated, the feminist reading perspective one upholds is disseminated and accepted by other fans, and these criteria for judging gain the approval of other fans. This is in fact an updated and expanded version of a consciousness-raising group where an individual can be politicized. Moreover, the connections formed among feminist fans through online fiction is affective solidarity that is rooted in emotional responses to shared oppressive experiences; they seek to create a space where men's eyes are no longer the standard for judging everything and where women write down their own stories.

[7.9] Doing feminism is not only reflected in fans' reading and discussing but also reflected in their writing. Women and nonbinary people are often seen as consumers rather than producers of culture. For example, Milestone and Meyer (2013) observe that "women continue to remain marginalized and distanced from…[a] production role" (73). However, most of my participants were active authors who constantly write and upload their own online fiction to online platforms. Among them, many reported that after becoming feminists, they actively expressed their attitudes toward gender issues in their writing and centered on women characters.

[7.10] Margaret (25, W) has been writing online fiction since middle school. After becoming a feminist, Margaret became particularly concerned with whether her writing could express her attitudes toward gender-related issues. She also mentioned an online discussion that is quite popular among online fiction fandom regarding tools to rethink women's characterization in online fiction:

[7.11] There was a popular online discussion about whether the female characters you write can pass specific tests. You know, like the Bechdel test, sexy lamp test, Mako Mori test…After I read it, I want to thank myself that the two female characters I wrote recently have their own consciousness and are not vases…I think if you are only capable of writing male characters with complex personalities who have depth of feelings and passions, but not female characters, essentially, you are a misogynist.

[7.12] All these tests mentioned by Margaret are used to measure the representation of women in media (note 8). This type of test has received considerable attention in the online fiction community. Many fans ponder whether the fiction they write and read meet those standards. They not only reflect on their own reading and writing habits based on these tests but also extend their feminist perspective in evaluating women's agency and power and issues of gender and sexuality in fiction. Even though such tests have their limitations, the discussions around tests in online fiction fandom have inspired fans to rethink how to write and review a story from a feminist perspective.

[7.13] Online fiction writing is not only an individual act but also a collaborative, community-based practice. Fan interactions influence the process of feminist practice in writing. Lisa (29, W) is a full-time author with many years of writing experience. She worked on a three-million-word work of fiction for three years. Fans' interactions influenced her writing: "I did not think about it that much at first, but obviously because I am a feminist myself, it was hard for me not to put some of my feminist ideas into my fiction. These ideas provoked a greater discussion among readers. In this process, my readers and I are complementary and mutually reinforcing."

[7.14] Lisa interpreted gender issues artistically in her fiction. After reading her fiction, readers also discussed gender issues. The readers' positive response to her text also promoted Lisa's desire to write further in depth about feminism in her fiction, "even change the purpose of the book for the reader." The sense of affective solidarity formed among fans made Lisa feel her responsibility to influence more fans about feminism: "My readers just do not have that kind of environment to be exposed to feminist ideas. There is no one to guide them. I can use this channel to let them read their favorite fiction while exploring some new horizons and new perspectives." The interaction between authors and readers continues to extend, with more and more fans joining the discussion. Through an ongoing process of learning and discussing, a broad commitment to fandom and feminist practice happens in online fiction fandom.

[7.15] By engaging in feminist interactions through online fiction, fans achieve a sense of community and solidarity. Lauren Berlant's (2008) concept of an intimate public provides a useful framework for understanding fans' feminist practices through online fiction fandom. Berlant describes intimate public as "a porous, affective scene of identification among strangers that promises a certain experience of belonging and provides a complex consultation, confirmation, discipline, and discussion of how to live as an x" (viii). The x in this context refers to online fiction fans who self-identify as feminists. Berlant argues that the intimacy of an intimate public lies in the fact that "the expectation that consumers of its particular stuff already share a worldview and emotional knowledge that they have derived from a broadly common historical experience" (viii). For fans of online fiction, their feminist cognition is gained through their passion for online fiction; they gain an understanding of affective solidarity and cultural knowledge through shared experiences. Furthermore, the expectation of a shared worldview mirrors my participants' expectations of other feminist fans. They also feel their responsibility to influence other fans to reflect on gender issues.

8. Digital feminism: A work in progress

[8.1] It is important to note that participants who self-identified as feminists still occasionally exhibited the influence of gender stereotypes and even ignored structural gender issues during the interviews. For example, Rosa (31, W) stated, "I think gender difference is more relevant to whether you want to do it or not." Rosa ignored structural inequality and failed to recognize that disparities in every individual's personal achievement are not random. Rather, they are often rooted in deep structural inequalities in societies that determine the options of individuals. Because most participants did not receive formal feminist education, their understanding of feminism was primarily derived from discussions of gender issues on online fiction and other informal channels. Many participants' understandings of feminisms remain fluid, limited, and different. Some participants consider that feminism is singular rather than conjugated in the plural (Rofel 1999), while others believe that feminism has a broad definition that includes many things. My purpose here is not to evaluate my participants' perceptions of feminism. I treat feminism as a socially constructed category that has multiple meanings constructed in particular ways in particular contexts to serve particular purposes (Quinn and Radtke 2006). What I am trying to emphasize is that my participants' feminist identities have been always already shaped and reshaped. Thus, their feminist practice is continually being revised.

[8.2] There are also quite a few contradictory behaviors that can be observed when my participants described or explained being feminist and doing feminism. My participants did not always find a clear answer about feminism. However, the ambiguity of their understanding of feminism did not necessarily negate the effectiveness and effort of the participants in becoming feminists and doing feminism through online fiction. In fact, a collective struggle for a broader meaning of feminism within the online fiction community may itself be a part of the process of engaging with feminism. Online fiction provides them with opportunities to discuss and refine their understanding of feminism, both in theory and in practice. Fan studies scholars Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (2006) have proposed the concept of "work in progress" in fan studies. This concept may be extended. Fans' engagement with feminism through online fiction should be also understood as a work in progress, marked by constant growth and change.

[8.3] As fans' understandings and practices of feminism continue to deepen and change, their feminist identities also continue to change. The meanings of feminism are articulated and rearticulated through the process of producing, deploying, evaluating, and sharing online fiction in fandom. For example, Lisa admitted, "When I write fiction, sometimes I unconsciously had perspectives that deviate from the feminism that I uphold. It is very difficult to screen out these perspectives if I do not think them through. After you think about it and have criteria to criticize it, you will notice it." Lisa's experiences showed a continuous process of learning about feminism and self-improvement (Jackson 2018; Ahmed 2017; Kanai 2020). Lisa kept reflecting on her unconscious perspectives and ideas through her writing. In the process, her perception and practice of feminism kept changing—and the process is continuing. Participants' various interpretations of feminism reflect not only their changing understanding of gender issues but also the instability and development of feminist thoughts and practices in contemporary China.

[8.3] As fans' understandings and practices of feminism continue to deepen and change, their feminist identities also continue to change. The meanings of feminism are articulated and rearticulated through the process of producing, deploying, evaluating, and sharing online fiction in fandom. For example, Lisa admitted, "When I write fiction, sometimes I unconsciously had perspectives that deviate from the feminism that I uphold. It is very difficult to screen out these perspectives if I do not think them through. After you think about it and have criteria to criticize it, you will notice it." Lisa's experiences showed a continuous process of learning about feminism and self-improvement (Jackson 2018; Ahmed 2017; Kanai 2020). Lisa kept reflecting on her unconscious perspectives and ideas through her writing. In the process, her perception and practice of feminism kept changing—and the process is continuing. Participants' various interpretations of feminism reflect not only their changing understanding of gender issues but also the instability and development of feminist thoughts and practices in contemporary China.

9. Conclusion

[9.1] Through in-depth interviews with thirty-two Chinese women and nonbinary fans of online fiction, I explored the connections between online fiction fandom and feminism, where fans not only understand and perceive feminism through online fiction fandom but also integrate doing feminism into their participation in the production and consumption of online fiction. Engaging with feminism through online fiction is a form of digital feminism. Such digital feminism creates feminist consciousness among its fans through literary and discursive constructs.

[9.2] Further, online fiction fandom is both a counterpublic and intimate public. The "counter" aspects are reflected in that women and nonbinary fans are fully aware of their subordinate status in that men-centric literary standards and values still dominate in China. However, the separation between women- and men-oriented fiction unintentionally brings women and nonbinary fans together in the space of women-oriented fiction. In this space, fans collectively attempt to challenge the traditional romantic heteronormative discourse prevalent in old-fashioned romance fiction, as well as the gender structures and gender relations commonly identified with the men-oriented fiction. By constantly rethinking and attempting to change existing discourses of gender relations and sexuality, fans establish and propagate a more democratic model of romantic/sexual relationships. Their engagements in online fiction disrupt the hegemonic discourse in the men-oriented fiction space and create a kind of space where change can occur. Participating in online fiction has become one of the ways by which fans' feminist identities are formed.

[9.3] The intimate aspects of online fiction fandom are reflected in that Chinese women and nonbinary fans achieve a sense of community and solidarity in their engagement with feminism. Connections among fans in this intimate public are built up not only through their shared passion for online fiction but also through a belief in feminism as a further shared worldview. They develop a sense of belonging to the online fiction fandom community and consciously influence more people to get involved. Online fiction fandom has become an intimate space for young Chinese women and nonbinary people to criticize and challenge patriarchal gender norms and reflect on mainstream gender relations. This space continues to produce educational cultural resources that make feminist learning and practice a work in progress.

10. Acknowledgments

I express my gratitude for the kind support and generous feedback from my supervisory team, Anthea Taylor and Kane Race.

11. Notes

1. The interview data used here was collected in 2021 as part of my PhD research project.

2. Qidian is the biggest online fiction platform in China, whereas Jinjiang and its associated forum are the most representative women-oriented fiction platforms in China.

3. The division between men- and women-oriented fiction began in 2005, when Qidian set up a channel called "Girls' Channel" to publish online fiction written and read mainly by women. This fiction is called women-oriented fiction. In contrast, the fiction on the main website of Qidian is mainly written and read by men. Such fiction in turn is called men-oriented fiction. Various other online fiction platforms followed the same divisions.

4. I refer to all participants by pseudonyms. Ethics approval was granted for this research by the human research ethics committees at the University of Sydney.

5. Strong heroine fiction is a subgenre of women-oriented online fiction. These fiction works describe the growth of a woman protagonist who takes control of her own destiny and achieves success. The heroine is the central character of the entire work.

6. Douban is a social networking platform in China. Douban Group is a service that allows users to create and join interest groups.

7. "Uke" is a term referring to a character's role in a male/male sexual relationship used in the boys' love fiction community. "Uke" refers to the character who is the receiver or who follows the lead in the general relationship or in the sexual relationship.

8. The Bechdel test is a measure of women's representation in fiction. It asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The sexy lamp test is a test of women's relevance in media. If the woman character does nothing and says nothing that is relevant to the story except for existing as a motivating factor or quest object, then the story fails the test. The Mako Mori test is a test that analyzes a women's presence in a media work. To pass, there must be at least one woman character who has an independent plot arc.

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