Boys' Love, Cosplay and Chinese Fandom: An Interview

Throughout this academic year, I am trying to return this blog to its roots, showcasing emerging research in fandom studies, as the release of a significant number of new anthologies reflects the emergence of a new generation of scholars pushing our thinking in exciting new directions. Among a number of trends, this research is much more transnational than ever before as more translation is occurring across languages in this field. I know most of my own key works on fandom have now been translated for the Chinese market, and I am hearing from more emerging scholars there. 

Over the next few installments, I will be featuring an extended interview with Ling Yang and Jamie J. Zhao, the editors, with Maud Lavin, of Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017). They visited me at USC last fall, sharing the book as a gift, and I was so excited by what I read that I proposed this interview. Here, they offer an overview of how fandom fits into broader changes in Chinese culture, the specific forms that media fandom takes in different Chinese cultures, and the state of fandom studies in the region. I am certain that this exchange will be of interest to fandom scholars, not to mention fans, around the world.

Your opening sentence sets the stage for the book’s argument, “Chinese-speaking popular cultures have never been so queer as in this digital, globalist age.” How so? What factors have contributed to this change? What roles have digitization and globalization played in this process?

Ling Yang: As we have demonstrated in this book, there has been a proliferation of unconventional, non-heterosexual images, narratives, fantasies, and desires in Chinese-speaking popular cultures in the past two decades or so. As a person who works in the field of literary studies, I am often amazed by the tremendous amount of queer expressions in Chinese popular literary production in the new millennium.

Few canonical Chinese writers in the 20th century had ever dealt with queer sentiments or desires. Yet homosociality and same-sex attraction has become a prominent theme in contemporary popular literature that is produced by and for the younger generations. This kind of queer cultural production and consumption didn’t happen all at once. Some burst onto the scene by chance, like the androgynous idol Li Yuchun who took the Super Girl reality television show by surprise in 2005. Others, such as Boys’ Love (BL), or danmei, as it is commonly known in the Chinese-speaking world, has gradually made inroads into mainstream culture through decade-long expansion. This volume intends to offer a glimpse of this growing trend in the Chinese-speaking world and pull some of the related cultural issues together.

As implied in your question, digitization and globalization have been two of the key players in this process and they converge and contribute to each other. The development of the Internet, mobile technology, and social media have greatly facilitated cultural flows to bypass legal restrictions and freely cross national and linguistic boundaries. In China, for example, the distribution of foreign cultural products is all subject to government regulations and censorship. Without grassroots distribution of transnational cultural content on the Internet, it would be impossible for Chinese youth to access queer media products from overseas.

The Internet has also facilitated the building of fan communities and the emergence of new glocalized and hybridized expressions. For instance, early online Chinese BL forums were established to share Taiwanese BL stories and translated Japanese BL manga and novels. It is through consuming and imitating these cross-border BL works that Chinese BL fans learned the trick of the genre and embarked on creating their own stories.

Today, original Chinese BL novels and their spinoffs have won followers from all over the world. The low-budget, based-on-a-novel BL drama Addicted, briefly mentioned in our book’s introduction, is even one of the highest-rating Chinese dramas on the multi-lingual video streaming website 

The human flows brought by globalization has also been instrumental in the diffusion of queer popular cultures in the Chinese-speaking world. Chinese students who study abroad usually continue to engage with their fan communities back home and make use of their access to information outside the Great Firewall to bring new ideas back to China. Those overseas fans are particularly useful in Chinese slash fandoms of Western media, as they are more skillful at reading the gay subtext of Western shows and could translate Western fans’ reading on Tumblr or Twitter into Chinese. The rapid growth of slash fandom in China owes much to those fan cultural brokers.

Another factor I’d like to mention is the LGBTQ movement. The development of queer popular culture in the Chinese-speaking world cannot be separated from the local and global LGBTQ movement. While progress made by the movement in the real world, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in the U.S. and Taiwan, has often been discussed in queer fan communities and bestowed more legitimacy on the production and consumption of queer fantasies, the iteration of queer fantasy has also enabled thinking outside the heterosexual matrix and fostered more acceptance of nonnormative sexuality.   

To what degree does this popular culture (and the fandoms that have grown up around it) contribute to shifts in social attitudes towards homosexuality in the Chinese-speaking world?

Jamie J. Zhao: Today’s Chinese-speaking queer pop culture and fandoms have very close yet extremely complicated relationships with the globalization, glocalization, and translinguistic and geoculturally crossing travelings of sex knowledge related to homosexuality. We actually used parts of the book’s introduction to explain the intricate connections between Chinese-speaking queer fan practices and the information flows within and about inter-Asian and global LGBTQ politics, subcultures, and movements.

For example, the English word “gay” was imported to Hong Kong in the 1970s and was later creatively reinvented and widely used in other Chinese-speaking societies. The commonly used term, “ji,” in Chinese-speaking BL fandoms to refer to queer reading positions or homosocial relationships, in fact, derived from the Cantonese (HONG KONG) transliteration of the English word “gay.”

We can also see a lot of “Chinglish” or “Sinophone” LGBT-related words being frequently used in today’s Chinese-speaking fan cultures, such as “zhai” and “fu,” which were appropriated from Japanese BL/GL fan cultures, and “les” or “lala” or “T,” which were “mutated” from the English terms “lesbian” and “tomboy.”

In addition, as some chapters in our book show, mainstream industries have been carefully tantalizing the audience’s queer desire by adding queer-loaded content in TV dramas or variety TV shows. Indeed, mainstream media practitioners, celebrities/performers, and media consumers and fans have either explicitly or implicitly explored LGBTQ cultures in these processes.

Yet, the flourishing of this pop culture does not necessarily indicate an enhanced public visibility or “acceptance” (or even “tolerance,” which might sound a bit like speaking from a heteronormative position) of LGBTQ communities in local societies and mainstream cultures. It also does not evidence a homosexuality-centered cultural imperialism or cultural homogenization. Instead, similar to the non-confrontational relationship between Chinese-speaking LGBTQ cultures and dominant, largely heteronormative societies, this queer-natured pop culture has always been in negotiation with mainstream capitalist logics and social-political powers on both local and global levels.

For one thing, while the scientific knowledge surrounding the term “homosexuality” and other related concepts and identity politics, such as “gayness” and “lesbianism,” was certainly imported from the West, there has been abundant evidence showing the wide existence of same-sex homoerotic and homosocial intimacies in traditional Chinese culture, even within heterosexual, polygamous familial-marital relationships during imperial China or in the gender-erasing, seemingly desexualizing period of the Cultural Revolution era of Modern China

 Although our book mainly focuses on the burgeoning digital (or cyber) Chinese-language queer fandoms, it should be noted here that in premodern and modern Chinese-speaking societies, literary and theatrical portrayals or connotations of same-sex homoeroticism and androgynous personas were quite common. The queer fan cultures rising along with these media representations back then were definitely not rare.

In this sense, there was a long tradition of queer culture and fan practices in Chinese-speaking societies before the rise of the Internet, yet I would not valorize this local tradition as a “homosexuality-friendly” or “queer-supportive” one either. More often than not, these queer cultures were highly class-based and the fans involved often belonged to the elitist groups. These same-sex fannish fantasies were certainly not labeled as homosexual but as “sentiments” or forms of artistic appreciation. They were “tolerated” or “ignored” by mainstream society and its heteropatriarchal familial system as long as the fantasies and intimacies did not disrupt dominant heteronormative structures at the time.

For another, during an era of new media and globalization, as some of the case studies in our book showcase, Chinese-speaking fans have been enabled to actively translate, revise, and recirculate Japanese and Western LGBT-themed media.

Moreover, there have been more and more Chinese-speaking androgynous celebrities manufactured in film, TV, and music industries, as well as a growing number of entertainment media texts that are queer in tone. In the meantime, homosexuality has been gradually depathologized and decriminalized in Chinese-speaking societies since the late 1990s. LGBT film festivals and gay parades have been held in major cities, while same-sex marriage has also become a possibility for some Chinese-speaking people. 

Against this backdrop, some of the Chinese-speaking androgynous celebrities are also brave enough to publicly come out and stand up for LGBTQ and feminist movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I do not deny the fact that many LGBTQ-identified fans of these celebrities (and of queer media in general) have been encouraged by this phenomenon and have found their own social networking, emotional support, and desire-voicing spaces through these processes. Nevertheless, we can also see many media productions use stereotypical representations of LGBTQ people as effective ways to draw public attention and create public gimmick. Same-sex intimate behaviors and androgynous personas have also often been performed in public by heterosexual-identified celebrities for entertaining their fans. Similar practices can be found in K-pop as a fairly common element in what is referred to as “fan service.”

This commercialization and fetishization of queer images in Chinese-speaking media industries, on the one hand, seem to imply a relatively friendly gesture of mainstream public cultures toward homosexuality. On the other, it also points to an intentional “depoliticizing” and “fictionalization” of LGBTQ-related images and performances as pure amusement. The struggles, pains, and difficulties faced by LGBTQ people within a heteronormative society are rendered even more invisible. Even within queer fan communities, some fans tend to differentiate queer fantasies (which is believed to be fictional role-playing) from homosexuality (a form of nonfictional sexual identification that carries derogatory meanings in mainstream society).

I agree there has been a greater degree of social awareness and acceptance toward homosexuality in Chinese-speaking societies, though to varying degrees. The rise of Chinese-speaking queer pop culture and fandoms, facilitated by the wide use of the Internet and digital media, and these relatively improved sociocultural situations for the survival of LGBTQ people have been mutually shaping each other.

Nevertheless, I would caution against a hasty galvanization of the general public’s attitude toward homosexuality as friendly. In some of my journal publications, I have termed this pop culture that proliferates queer representations yet differentiates itself from LGBTQ identity politics and realities in Mainland China as a form of “queer sensationalism.”

LY: Peiti Wang of National Central University in Taiwan did an online survey in December 2016 about BL fans’ reaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. She collected a total of 4,050 responses and found out that over 90% of BL fans support same-sex marriage. In comparison, only 54.2% of Taiwanese citizens are in favor of same-sex marriage according to the results of 2015 Taiwan Social Change Survey conducted by Academia Sinica. Some smaller surveys conducted in Mainland China have produced similar findings. For example, in a survey of 240 female undergraduate students of Yangzhou University conducted by Dai Fei in 2013, 77.9% of the 86 self-identified fujoshi (female BL fans) accept homosexuality, whereas merely 5.2% of the 115 non-fujoshi share the same attitude.

There have been debates about who are true fujoshi and who are fake ones within Chinese BL community. The true fujoshi must meet two criteria. First instead of valorizing male homosexuality in the fantasy world, they must also accept real-world gay men. Second, apart from BL, they must also tolerate Girls’ Love (GL), or femslash, and accept real-world gay women. However, fan attitudes towards homosexuality vary from fandom to fandom. Surveys about queer celebrity fandoms have yielded less optimistic results. We may need to discuss this issue case by case. 

Ling YANG is Assistant Professor of Chinese at Xiamen University, P. R. China. She is the author of Entertaining the Transitional Era: Super Girl Fandom and the Consumption of Popular Culture (China Social Sciences Press, 2012) and the co-editor of Fan Cultures: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2009, with TAO Dongfeng), A New Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (Beijing Normal University Press, 2011, with ZHAO Yong), Celebrity Studies: A Reader (Peking University Press, 2013, with TAO Dongfeng), and Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017, with Maud Lavin and Jing Jamie Zhao). Yang has published extensively on Chinese fan culture, BL culture, Internet literature, and young adult fiction. She is also the chief translator of Stardom: Industry of Desire (Peking University Press, 2017).


Jamie J. ZHAO is a PhD candidate in Film and TV Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. She holds another PhD degree in Gender Studies from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her work examines queer-natured Chinese entertainment media, grassroots publics, and fan cultures in a digital age. Her academic writings can be found in a number of English-language journals, such as Feminist Media Studies, Intersections, Transformative Works and Cultures, Journal of Oriental Studies, The East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, Media Fields Journal, and MCLC. She is also a coeditor (with Prof. Maud Lavin and Dr. Ling Yang) of and a contributor to the anthology Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (HKUP, 2017). She is currently working on two English-language monograph manuscripts, tentatively titled From Super Voice Girl to The L Word: A Queer Occidentalism in Contemporary Chinese Pop Culture and A Queer Sensationalism of Post-2010 Chinese Formatted Variety TV.