The Cultural Context of Chinese Fandom: An Interview with Xiqing Zheng(Part Three)

You suggest that Chinese fans often see themselves as belonging to an elite group. In some other parts of the world, fans are considered anything but because of the low cultural status of the materials they embrace. In what ways have Chinese Otaku sought to legitimate their interests and activities through appeals to elite cultural status?

This situation is resulted from the specific history of current fan culture in China. This fan culture, however hard people try to make a connection with the older “rewriting” fiction tradition, or older tradition of appreciating a fiction on a community level, is for its majority, an import from Japan. This fact has two results: first, Chinese fan culture was at first highly restricted to a group of comparatively well-educated people, but second, the Japanese heritage of this culture is often neglected, replaced by a lineage reconstructed by Chinese fans between Chinese fandoms and canonical high art literature.

When fandoms began to emerge at the end of the 20th century in China, people having access to such cultural environment and cultural practices are highly restricted to the young, urban, highly-educated and well-informed people such as college students, or young urbanites that were at least wealthy enough to afford a computer and internet surfing fees when both of them were comparatively difficult to have in the 1990s China. Of course, universities usually have better technological condition than other places, and young students were the major target consumers of the internet cafes when they were in a fad at the turn of the century. Such condition put a restriction on the people who were able to access fandom. Comparing to the condition right now, the major difference was that the hardware difficulty stopped most young teenagers and children from entering the fandoms. And the content centered on Japanese anime further restricted the age of participants to the urbanites who were born after the late 1970s. Fan fiction created during this period is of good quality both in content and style, while many fan authors paid close attention in making their products fit the elite image. Both the age span and the social origin of the fans have enlarged in fandoms now, but the early elitism still continues.

The other aspect that I mentioned above is the self-constructed lineage of the fandoms to the elite, avant-garde literature. This is exceptionally observable in the case of slash fiction, in which fangirls try to establish a lineage between their writings with traditional Chinese literature with homoerotic contents, and also, between slash fiction and avant-garde literature with queer materials. Even though in fact Chinese slash fiction / yaoi culture has little to do with either the pre-modern homoerotic novels, nor does it bear many resemblances with avant-garde literature except both of them are standing on a marginal position in the society, and both of them present something taboo of the mainstream society. Yet still, such a self-claimed lineage constitutes a good position of self-defending, and a good way of self-disciplining.

I think the elitism of Chinese fans, and the generally mild reaction towards the fan culture from the public has another crucial reason. In both pre-modern and modern Chinese literature, there are various types and forms of fan-fiction-like literary products. For example, there were dozens of sequels dedicated to The Dream of Red Chambers 红楼梦, usually considered the greatest traditional Chinese colloquial novels, which was written in the 18th century. The novel Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅 (written around the 16th century) can be considered as an elaboration of a comparatively small segment in another great novel Water Margins 水浒传 (possibly written in the 14th century). Indeed, such rewritten stories and sequels can be seen as the remnant of the folk literature tradition in pre-modern Chinese literature, but similar things happened in the 20th century also. At the turning of the 19th and the 20th century, when the first wave of translation of Western literature into Chinese started, genre literature such as detective fiction and science fiction attracted much attention from the translators and readers. And the first wave of “new fiction” writing in the genre of science fiction, which directly imitated the Western sci-fi, often presents a science Utopia through rewriting old novels. For example, Wu Jianren 吴趼人, in his New Tale of Stones 新石头记, puts the protagonist from Dreams of Red Chambers into the contemporary Chinese society as an observer and commentator. During the 1920s to the 1940s, many authors created so-called “re-written fiction,” including the single most important writer in modern Chinese literature, Lu Xun 鲁迅. His Old Tales Retold 故事新编 is a collection of parody of various old Chinese legends. Other similar stories involve, for example, Shi Zhecun’s 施蛰存 “Shi Xiu” 石秀, a short story in which the author retells the story of the character Shi Xiu from The Water Margins, using psychoanalysis to explain his motivation.

I am not claiming that the present Chinese fan fiction has a direct relationship with this trend, yet after some fan fiction stories started to become famous in the 21st century, many people explains the idea of “fan culture” to their curious friends by using the example of canonical literature. I have seen several cases in which people explain the definition of “fan fiction” with the example of Lu Xun’s Old Tales Retold. Even though the current fan culture does not have a directly heritage from this tradition, this “rewriting of old canon” tradition is in the large social background both for the creation and for the circulation of Chinese fan fiction. I also want to add, that such “rewritten” stories are widely seen around the world; it is never a China-only phenomenon. But I haven’t seen any scholarship trying to establish this literary tradition with popular fan culture.

One last issue I have to stress here is: there hasn’t been a hierarchy that clearly distinguishes “high culture” and “popular culture” in Chinese fiction; fiction was considered low-brow in general before the end of 19th century, when a group of literati called on a literary revolution. The historical reasons for this condition are complicated, which I will not explain in detail here. Even the word “genre literature” has only existed in Chinese language for less than two decades. Consumers of media products such as Japanese anime, especially those who are no longer young enough to be considered an appropriate consumer for anime, are generally viewed in a biased perspective. And people who love Hollywood blockbusters are despised by those who love European art films. But the bias has not yet supported a deep grained stereotype for popular fans. These might be the ultimate reason for the comparatively high status for fans in China.


You write particularly about female fans of slash or Yaoi. How might these young women use this genre to negotiate around tensions surrounding the status of women and female sexuality in China?

Another question that I am personally very interested in. Of course the popularity for slash or yaoi is a very complicated issue. But if we consider specifically the topic of gender and female sexuality, I want to stress the issue of gender equality. (The word choice between slash and yaoi is again a difficult one. In China the term for this genre has another name: danmei 耽美, also with a complicated history. It is originally the Japanese translation of the word “aestheticism,” yet after being imported to China, its meaning shifted. Only for the convenience, I will use the term yaoi here.)

To understand the rapid fad of yaoi culture, one has to understand the population that takes part in reading and writing yaoi fan fiction and original stories. In all of the three areas that I am examining, the rise of female created and female oriented homoerotic stories is directly associated with the issue of female autonomy and independency. In the US, the slash fiction reading and writing is not only a “women’s enterprise” outside the market economy, it also signals women’s rebellion against the dominant social norms of sexuality. In Japan, the emergence of yaoi culture eventually came from the female manga artists who was blocked out of the manga industry because of their gender, started their career in amateurish market of dōjin manga publication, which, ultimately led to their professional career as revolutionary shōjo manga artists. In China, however, the case is different. As I have already mentioned, Chinese contemporary fan culture was marked by its exceptionally elitism. In the case of yaoi culture, the case is more obvious. The first generation of Chinese fangirls, in this case the ones who are active around the year 2000, usually self-considered as the social elite. There was a very famous quote by a yaoi forum titled “Lucifer”: “Fangirls have the responsibility to be more civilized than others.” The claim holds true considering the situation that many fangirls of that age are the ones who go to good universities or high schools, well-educated in Chinese and Western literature, and have excess to the internet before many others in the country. Even though with the internet technology enters more and more people’s household, the existence of the fangirls community and yaoi culture is no longer a secret among young women students in a handful of best universities in China, the tradition of elitism still lingers.

For many girls of the one child generation, their family, especially their parents have exceptional expectation on them. The traditional patriarchy thoughts still persist in some way, especially the older tradition in a family that girls have to sacrifice for boys, that only sons are considered important, but these thoughts lose their meaning and survival environment in the generation when every family has only one child. A predictable consequence is that the only daughters are treated with all attention from their families. Some girls are raised as boys to earn fame and fortune for the family, especially to earn more success than their male cousins. To my own knowledge, most urban girls of my age have the experience of being educated that women are no worse than men, and what a man can do, can certainly be done by a woman. Being inculcated with such words, most girls of this generation, especially the ones that have gained their success according to the mainstream criteria, i.e. those who achieve high academic success and the ones who find well-paid jobs, will ultimately be forced to face with the still highly unequal gender relationship in China. Within the long tradition of women-oriented romance in Sinophone area persists, in which no matter how a woman character is successful, has to finally become an obedient daughter, a loyal wife and a responsible mother, and be restricted again into the family trivial, and to rely on the marriage to determine the success of one’s life. Then any attempt of creating a strong female character risks the danger of falling into the stereotypes of de-feminized female characters of Maoist Socialist Realism. The new possibility in recent popular fiction, though, is turning the female characters into those that encourage over identification and self-projection, i.e. Mary Sue. Mary Sue characters are too easy a role for female readers to identify with; the readymade identification choice is largely degraded in the fan community as an unhealthy indulgence. Many argue that Mary Sue as a fan fiction may not even invite female audience, because the character may bear too much characteristics of the fan fiction writer and as a consequence prevents a general identification. Recently, some new types of romance written for the young women audience and teenager girls, such as Twilight series in English speaking areas, and the time-travel fiction (chuanyue xiaoshuo 穿越小说) in China are considered Mary Sue, even if they do not necessarily fall in the category of fan fiction.

Considering the easy pitfalls for the original female characters, the retreat into yaoi material for the female readers of this generation is a logical result: if you cannot find a solution to the current male-female relationship, then get rid of the female characters all together. At least in between male characters, there can be the possibility of an equal love relationship, in which there is no such thing as one has to subject to the other. This is a temporary and escapist retreat, and probably not a healthy one, because in one way or another, one has to come back to the reality to deal with the male-female relationship. Yet still, the popularity of the yaoi material, from a special perspective, shows the current crisis in gender relationship in Chinese society.

Yet the tendency of surpassing the issue of male-female gender relationship sometimes ends in misogyny in yaoi writings online. While celebrating the pure love between two male characters, the female characters who develops a romantic relationship with one of the male lovers in yaoi materials usually have very tragic ending: for the sake of the two male characters who love each other, female characters have to get away ultimately, so they either die or being tragically dumped by the male character, and also, should never has the importance of the other male character to her ex-husband or boyfriend. I will explain this situation with the reason of jealousy, but I also want to point to the complexity and ambiguity of ideology expressions in Chinese yaoi culture. Even though the explanation of gender equality issue holds true to me and many of my friends around, it might not work on every fangirl. Even if fangirls are attracted to the gender equal expression in certain slash fiction, they might not always stick to this norm when reading other pieces of slash fiction.

Most recent writings in English on Chinese fan communities have emphasized the phenomenon of fan subbing. What roles do fan subbing practices play in promoting other kinds of fan productivity?

I personally feel that fansubbing is the core and root for many fan activities in China, especially in media fandoms. And as you have mentioned in the question, it has become one of the most observable aspects of Chinese fan culture as a whole since more than six or seven years ago, both domestically and internationally, with little of other aspects of Chinese fan culture widely mentioned (I believe the earliest occasion that brought fansub to the foreground was the unintended popularity of the US series Prison Break in China, which was largely in debt to the online fansub groups. Even New York Times had this story covered.). A fansub group is not only a volunteer that translate certain foreign texts into Chinese; it plays the role of raw material selector, the role of linguistic translator, and at the same time, the role of cultural introducer. The final function usually cannot be served in the “official” translations of foreign materials. Because of the informal nature of fansubs, fansubbers are free to add notes, comments and detailed background information introduction for cultural details in order to facilitate the audience in understanding the media materials. Besides, since the fansubbers have a general idea of the identities of their audiences (usually young fans who stay online all the time), fansubbers are able to target the direct concerns and questions of their audiences more accurately.

Fansubs are sometimes the only choice for the Chinese audience to get access to foreign media products. Because Chinese government has a strong restriction on media product imports, and also because there is no rating system in China, imported media products are very limited in number, and even if they are imported, many of which have to go through a thorough censorship first. This censorship is much more on explicit reference to sex, than on politically sensitive issues. (A famous example would be the American sitcom Friends. Despite its tremendous popularity in China, it never was able to appear on TV in China. According to certain rumors—which I believe is true—it was only because there are so many sex-related jokes that after censorship, some episodes would have little left. And as we all know, Friends is so much milder than many US series). Then in order to get access to foreign media products, audiences are forced on to an illegal way. Therefore p2p download and online streaming becomes necessary. Even though students are required to learn English from a young age, the language barriers set by media products are daunting. Because “official subtitles” are usually hard to find for TV series, not to say Chinese dubbing, it is mainly the fansub groups that translate and introduce the foreign media products to the Chinese audience. Though I do not have too much information of the fansubs in English speaking countries, from what I read and heard from conferences on fan activities, fansubs in China have a surprisingly high quality. Many fansub groups require interviews and tests before accepting new members. Some fansub groups on Japanese materials even directly ask the prospective members for their levels and grades for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (is a standardized test to evaluate and certify Japanese language proficiency for non-native speakers, held internationally twice a year). Fansubs depend highly on reputation to thrive in a fandom. I have to emphasize that fansubbing is totally voluntary, not for profit, and open to the general public. But since fansubbers are doing this totally because of their love and interest for the original texts, they usually would do the translation with their best effort. Therefore once a fansub group has established its fame, people tend to believe in it even more than “official subtitles,” if there is any, because after all, fansubs are made “by people of our own community.”

Fan subbing is the starting point of every fan activities on certain media products, therefore it is very crucial. For example, it is not rare to see fan fiction written in Chinese that directly use dialogues in a media product translated by a favorite fansub group. Besides, since Chinese fan culture is especially open to foreign media materials, the role of fan subbing becomes even more significant under this condition.

Again, I am standing on the position of a “native informant” here. I have worked in various fansubbing and fan translation groups, including one on a Japanese radio program (named “Dear Girl~ Stories~,” hosted by two famous Japanese voice actors Kamiya Hiroshi and Ono Daisuke), another on the BBC TV series Sherlock, and I am still an active translator and subber of a fan group on J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings. The last fan translation group I am working in is based on a “little site” on a Chinese SNS website Douban (豆瓣, which is a very unique SNS site for people to exchange information on books, films, music, etc. and to post their reviews), called “Red Book of Middle Earth” 中土红皮书, a fan created and fan maintained site that introduces and updates everything about and around The Lord of the Rings trilogy and other Tolkien’s writings. If you have interest, here is the link to it: Right now we are working on news and videos on the Hobbit films. The collection and translations of related materials do require English proficiency (and good Chinese language skills also), and much time and effort. But besides a dozen central figures that participate in the actual translation process, the fans of the fan translation group actually are able to form a small and active fan community.


Author's Bio: As an academic fan from China, I entered the fandom around 2003 when I was still an undergraduate student of Chinese Literature at Peking University. I am currently a PhD candidate at the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Washington. My dissertation topic is Chinese online fan culture, as well as its relationship with the media and fandoms from Japan and the English speaking areas. I have done several presentations on Chinese fan fiction and fan culture in conferences, but up to now I do not have any publication in English. By the way, I am now translating Professor Jenkins's Textual Poachers into Chinese, not as a voluntary fan translator, though.