Boys' Love, Cosplay and Chinese Fandom: An Interview (Part 2)

Let’s work through some core terminology here. Otaku and Cosplay are increasingly well known in the west, but may need to be defined again. Fujoshi is a less well known term. What does it refer to and what are its implications in terms of attitudes towards fan women?

LY: Fujoshi is a term originated in Japan. Midori Suzuki has published an English article  that traces the origins of the term. It first appeared on 2chanel, a massive Japanese Internet forum around 2000 to refer to girls or women who have a “rotten” mindset and would read everything in a yaoi fashion. Since the word fujoshi is written in kanji characters, it was quickly adopted by Chinese BL fans. The term seems to be more accurate than the earlier moniker for female BL fans, tongrennü, literally meaning girls and women who are interested in fan works, because many BL readers are actually more interested in original BL works than derivative BL fan works. With its increased occurrences in mass and new media, fujoshi was officially acknowledged as a “new Chinese word” created between 2004-2006 by experts who work for the National Language Resource Monitoring and Research Center in China. The word currently refers to all female fans of male-male romantic stories.

While the word fujoshi is a self-deprecating label that involves a certain sense of shame in Japan, it often evokes pride, empowerment, and joyful defiance in the Chinese context. Similar to “gay pride,” some female BL fans have also cultivated “fujoshi pride” and turned a shameful label into something self-affirming. It is not unusual to hear the older generation of fujoshi complain on the Internet that young fujoshi today are too flashy and that they want the whole world to know that they are fujoshi. For those young fan girls, to claim the identity of fujoshi is to claim authority on forbidden sexual knowledge, to rebel against conventional gender roles, and to be a sophisticated, well-informed cosmopolitan, as BL is connected to fan cultures in both Japan and the West.     

Ting Liu published one of the first English articles on Chinese BL in 2009. She observes that Chinese media coverage of BL and fujoshi from 2001 to 2008 is quite ambivalent, oscillating between praising BL’s positive impact on gender equality and denouncing its corrupting influence on minors. The image of fujoshi also alternated between radicals and perverts.

Over the past decade, I personally feel that fujoshi has been treated with more respect and tolerance in mainstream media, partly because the media has been infiltrated by fujoshi journalists, and partly because fujoshi has become a remarkable economic force that the media entertainment industry is eager to court and exploit. Consequently, queer baiting in popular cultural production has become a wide concern in Chinese BL community and the subject of a number of journal articles. The coverage of Chinese fujoshi in foreign media, for instance, the media hype of Chinese fujoshi’s obsession with the gay subtext in BBC’s Sherlock around 2014, has also contributed to their visibility at home.

Break down the term, “Androgynous Idols”, for us, starting with idols. How might we distinguish Idols in the Chinese-language world from celebrities or pop stars as we understand them in the west? What forms does their androgyny take and how central are these gender identities to the ways such Idols are packaged and sold to their consumers?

JJZ: The Chinese translation of the English word “idol” is ou xiang, which means “copy-image.” As Taiwan Studies scholar Teri Silvio noticed, the practices of idol worship and idolizing public figures and media characters rising along the capitalist and consumer economies in East Asian China can be linked to local religious rituals that has been prevalent since the 17th century. There are many kinds of idols in contemporary Chinese-speaking societies, including but not limited to film and TV stars who rise to stardom for their roles in entertainment media, self-made (DIY) stars online who have large cyber fan bases for digitized self-representation and performances, grassroots celebrities manufactured through performances in reality TV, and public figures who became famous for their achievements and virtues, or unique styles/personality, or economic power and social-political statuses.

There are many similarities in the contemporary pop cultural discourses surrounding “idol” between Chinese-speaking societies and the West. Yet, the rise of grassroots celebrity culture, the trend of manufacturing stars and idolizing ordinary people in Chinese-speaking contexts are not new phenomena. In particular, in Maoist China, there were political and patriotic idols that were iconized through media propaganda. In a sense, the construction of stardom in Chinese-speaking societies has always been closely intertwined with context-specific political and ideological progress and related discourses. Star images and celebrity personas have long been loaded with complex social-political meanings and often become battlegrounds for cutting-edge sociocultural debates. For example, media commentaries and public debates surrounding the gender-nonnormative stars manufactured by a series of Chinese-version Idol shows quite often concentrate on discussions about feminism, individuality, and cosmopolitanism, all of which characterize today’s Chinese-speaking public cultures and market logic. In today’s Hong Kong and Taiwanese media industries, many idols have had to carefully and craftily frame their political stances toward the Chinese government in order to “survive” in the Mainland entertainment industry or to please their Mainland fans and media consumers. 

While our book title uses the term “androgynous idols,” androgyny, in fact, is a gendered continuum instead of one rigid gender identity category. In today’s Chinese-language pop culture, there has been a term used to describe a similar yet more complex gender-nonnormative state—zhongxing (neutral gender/sex). In both queer pop cultural and fannish discourses, this Chinese term has been constantly used to negotiate queer and normative identities. It refers to a kind of unique, gendered style that can manifest in the stars’ performances, personality, and fashion senses. It is also possible to construct the zhongxing celebrity persona through the industries’ intentional blurring of the boundaries between same-sex intimacies (homoeroticism) and same-sex friendship (homosociality) of stars.

One of our contributors, Eva Li, has dedicated some of her major works to exploring the zhongxing style in Hong Kong pop culture. Meanwhile, there were numerous reality singing competition shows in Mainland China and Taiwan that exploited the zhongxing style of their participants to attract audience attention and make profits. For instance, in Ling’s, Maud’s, and my own publications on the Mainland reality show Super Girl, we explored the great number of visibly masculine female finalists of the show since 2005. These gender-nonnormative participants usually wore spiky hair, loose jeans, and large-size T-shirts. Their public personas were often characterized by normatively defined masculine or defeminized qualities, such as straightforwardness, innocence, intellect, and toughness. These qualities associated with the zhongxing style often help them accumulate more fans, both heterosexual and lesbian ones. Yet, after the end of the shows, some of the zhongxing idols went back to their “normal,” feminine gender style. A few even publicly admitted that they were asked by the show’s producers and directors to deliberately perform “androgynous” or “zhongxing” on stage. Some, though, continue to personify a zhongxing style—and we explore facets of this, too.

In particular, in some chapters of our book (e.g., Chapter 7), the term zhongxing and its social and political implications in Hong Kong are discussed in depth. Yet, here I would like to add that the zhongxing pop culture cannot be understood or generalized as a Chinese-speaking queer framework that can transgress the geocultural boundaries of diverse Chinese-speaking societies. For example, in Mainland Chinese industries, the term seems to have different meanings and implications when being used to denote androgynous idols. In my forthcoming publication in the journal of Celebrity Studies, I argue that when using zhongxing to describe Hong Kong and Taiwanese androgynous female celebrities in mainstream media and fandom, it implicates a close association of these Hong Kong and Taiwanese idols’ gender and sexual identities with female homosexuality, as, for example, in the cases of the Hong Kong zhongxing singer Denise Ho Wan-see who came out as lesbian in 2012, and Jin Dai, the famous 2007 zhongxing contestant in the Taiwanese reality singing competition show, One Million Star, who self-identifies as a T/tomboy (young, masculine lesbian). 

Though, zhongxing carries less stigmatized meanings than lesbianism or butchness does in Hong Kong and Taiwanese contexts. Many Hong Kong and Taiwanese zhongxing celebrities acknowledged that their “androgynous” personas aim to attract a wider range of fans, including those self-identified lesbian and gay fans. Yet, the zhongxing style of androgynous idols in Mainland China, such as the 2006 Super Girl contestants Liu Liyang, Xu Fei, and Fu Jing who were rumored to be butch lesbians, is a strategy sometimes deployed to “cover up” the potential non-heterosexual identities of these stars while packaging (or “arbitrarily explaining”) their gender nonnormativity as a form of fashion or star quality. In other words, the homosexual undertone of this style is mostly silenced, if not completely erased, in this discourse.

Jin Dai

Jin Dai

Denise Ho Wan-see

Denise Ho Wan-see


LY: One way to distinguish idols in the Chinese-speaking world from celebrities or pop stars in the West is to look at their relationships with fans. Chinese idols, especially those who gain their fame through fan voting in reality talents shows or fan promotion, tend to have a strong symbiotic relationship with their fans. Some Chinese fans like to imagine their idols as talented but vulnerable children who need steadfast nurturing from fan-parents. Like hardworking Chinese parents, those fans would do all they can to support their idols and take great pride in their idols’ success. Because of their extensive involvement in idols’ career, fans often run into conflict with the idol managers. Such conflicts often make headlines in Chinese entertainment news. 

Finally, talk a bit about “boys’ love”. How does it relate to, say, slash fan fiction as we know it in the west or for that matter, the Japanese traditions around similar themes? The Chinese world seems situated alongside popular culture influences from the west (especially the United States and the United Kingdom), Japan, and Korea. To what degree are fans absorbing these traditions and to what degree are they reworking them in ways that are specific to the Chinese speaking world?

LY: Thank you for this great question. This is an issue my research partner and co-author Yanrui Xu and I have been working on recently. We have contributed a conference paper on the impact of slash fanfic on original Chinese BL fiction to Queer Transfigurations: International Symposium on Boys Love Media in Asia organized by James Welker. In this paper we argue that Chinese BL has functioned as a productive contact zone where Japanese BL and Western slash fanfic interact. Chinese fans have appropriated useful elements from both genres and creatively mixed them to suit the needs of local readers. 

Briefly speaking, there are two major differences between BL and slash fanfic. First, in BL one partner is assigned the role of seme (top), the other, uke (bottom), and the roles are usually fixed. This top/bottom trope, however, is less prevalent in slash fanfic. Second, BL tends to portray the relationship between a strong and dominant seme and a weak and submissive uke, whereas slash fanfic often favors the relationship between two equally strong men.

Chinese BL used to be heavily influenced by Japanese BL during its early stage of development, that is, between late 1990s and the first half of 2000s. Early original BL stories often feature the combination of a strong seme and a weak uke and use rape as a common plot device. Later, influenced by the relationship pattern in slash writings, the strong-seme-with-strong-uke pairing has gradually become the mainstream coupling pattern in original BL works, and non-consensual sex scenes have also become less common. It is even impossible for readers to distinguish the seme from the uke in some works. For instance, in Running Wild (Saye), one of the most popular BL novels in 2017, the two male protagonists are equally tough and rebellious young men and they constantly switch sex roles in their lovemaking. Chinese BL writers have also borrowed some news tropes from slash fanfic, most notably the Alpha/Beta/Omega dynamics, or A/B/O in short. The A/B/O universe has offered Chinese BL writers and readers a unique angle to reflect on women’s experience under patriarchy and to explore ways to create an equal society in the face of irreducible sex/gender differences.

Of course, it would be too simplistic to claim that the generic evolution of Chinese BL is all caused by cultural influences from abroad. The blurring distinction between seme and uke, for instance, is also a result of Chinese government’s anti-porn campaigns. Due to tightening control of the Internet and the economic imperative to stretch their works as much as possible, many commercial BL writers would rather focus on the development of plot than the relationship between the two male protagonists. As the narrative function of the seme/uke trope diminishes, the seme/uke coupling pattern also becomes less distinct, especially in works set in the modern world.

Yanrui and I are currently working towards a paper for the Crossroads 2018 cultural studies conference on transcultural and translated feminism in the global queer fandom of BBC’s Sherlock. We want to examine how Chinese fans translate English-language Sherlock slash fics into Chinese, how they discuss those translated works in specific online fan communities, and how they create their own Sherlock fanfics that speak to local cultural contexts and concerns. Hope this case study, once finished, can address your questions in more detail.

Chinese response to western media sometimes makes the news here, and you have some examples here, but it is also important for us to better understand what forms of Chinese popular media are inspiring fannish responses.

LY: The 2005 Super Girl show, an Idol-format reality talent show that witnessed the androgynous idol Li Yuchun’s rise to super stardom (see Maud Lavin’s chapter in our book), is a kind of turning point in Chinese media entertainment industry. Since then, domestically-produced media content has started to rival Japanese ACG (anime, comics, and games), the Korean Wave, and Hollywood in its capacity to inspire fannish responses. Internet literature for one has gained a huge following in China.

According to the statistics released by China Internet Network Information Center in 2017, China currently has 330 million Internet literature readers. This readership is larger than the total population of the United States. Similar to the Harry Potter phenomenon, a number of popular Internet novels have grown into profitable media franchises that encompass books, films, television series, comics, games, stage shows, merchandising, and theme parks because of strong fan support.

I’d like to mention one interesting example here, The Graver Robbers’ Chronicles (Daomu biji) by Nanpai Sanshu. A modern adventure thriller that first appeared on the Internet in 2006, this series is a favorite among Chinese fujoshi and has inspired numerous BL-style fan works. Starting from 2015, dedicated fans of the series, nicknamed “Rice” (daomi), have organized an annual Rice Festival on August 17, the date when the two male protagonists reunite in the novel after a decade-long separation. The festival is held at Changbai Mountain, the place of the reunion in the novel. The festival soon gained approval from Nanpai Sanshu’s company and was warmly welcomed by the local government of Changbai Mountain as a way to promote tourism through cultural activities.

Web television shows, another realm of cultural production related to the Internet, have also become increasingly popular among younger generations of viewers. We mentioned in our introduction the wild success of the web series Go Princess Go in 2015 and Addicted in 2016. In 2017, The Rap of China, a reality talent show produced by and broadcast on iQiyi, the leading online video portal, has converted many young audience members into hip hop fans. Besides, social media platforms like Sina Weibo and live streaming websites and apps in China have generated a legion of micro celebrities, so-called “wanghong” or “Internet Celebrities” in Chinese. Papi Jiang, “The No. 1 Internet Celebrity" in China in 2016, has over 260 million followers on her Weibo account. A film director by training, Papi Jiang earned her fame through uploading funny short videos on the Internet. Her first live broadcast in July 2016 was supported by eight major live streaming websites and attracted more than 74 million views in one day.

JJZ: I would like to add that, the relatively, although intermittently, loosened, less repressive censorship system of online TV broadcasting and live streaming in China might have also encouraged the formation of fan communities, especially the ones with queer foci. There have been many online TV dramas, talk shows, and variety programs, especially in the post-2010 years, that either explicitly portray (or speak to) lesbian and gay groups, such as the gay-themed TV show Addicted, or feature openly LGBTQ celebrities, such as the online talk show You Can You Bibi. Moreover, many cyber celebrities also incorporate cosplaying into their daily live-streaming activities. As some of our book chapters point out (Chapter 2), cosplay itself is a very queer fan-based practice that often involves cross-dressing impersonations. 

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.