Why is China banning Boys' Love (BL) and why should we care? - SOAS China Institute

//Why is China banning Boys’ Love (BL) and why should we care?

Why is China banning Boys’ Love (BL) and why should we care?

Promotional poster for The Untamed (2019). ‒ Image credit: Tencent Penguin Pictures

By Chi Zhang and Ming Zhang | 14 October 2022

China’s continued repression of online literature that portrays bromance reflects a distorted rationale that forbidding such themes will ‘correct’ women’s sexual orientation and save them from the ‘toxic’ Japanese cultural invasion, so that they will be more willing to have children. This desperate attempt to save China from the impending demographic crisis got everything wrong. The censorship of literature and its derivative work goes beyond content moderation, and reflects entrenched misogyny and laziness or incompetence in addressing the real causes of women’s declining willingness to have children.


We argue that banning BL and its derivative works will have no positive consequences on women’s willingness to have children. On the contrary, it will force women to search for alternative ways to express their discontent, one of which is to refuse to have children.


What is BL?


Boys’ Love (BL), also known as danmei in the Chinese context, is a genre of male-male romance produced and consumed by mostly women. First introduced into China in the early 1990s, BL proliferated in Chinese online literature market, it became a stand-alone category in the largest women’s online literature platform Jinjiang Literature City (晋江文学城). With the emergence and popularity of danmei-adapted drama and TV series adapted from danmei novels, BL fandom expanded and has been exposed to the mainstream, authorities, and hence censorship.


Ling Yang and Yanrui Xu identify three overlapping circles in this community, including 1) the original circle focusing on the production, consumption, and adaption of original Chinese-language BL novels; 2) the Japanese circle associated with Japanese BL culture; 3) the Euro-American circle dedicated to creating, consuming, and translating slash fan fiction based on Euro-American media products. The boundaries of these circles coincide with national/regional boundaries, and thus rising nationalism and the accompanying anti-West and anti-Japanese sentiments gave the Chinese circle a particular nationalist undertone. The later widely known label ‘little pink’ (小粉红) – those who blindly support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – initially appeared in the Jinjiang Literature City as the background of its forum is pink.


China has imposed several bans on BL and danmei-adapted dramas as the state considers the genre and its derivative works as having “deformed tastes”, a “malevolent culture” that is “wrong”, “erotic and violent”, even though danmei-adapted dramas have replaced explicit homosexual relationships with bromance, or ‘socialist brotherhood’ in fan slang. In September 2021, the Publicity Department issued the Notice on Carrying Out Comprehensive Management Work in the Field of Entertainment, denouncing danmei-adapted dramas and “sissy-boys” as “abnormal aesthetics” and “harmful” for morals and art, indicating a high level of intolerance of certain subcultures in the patriarchal mainstream society.


The development of the BL community has been entangled with the growing tensions between cultural affinities with Japan and anti-Japanese nationalism, and likewise between cultural connections with the West and anti-Western nationalism. The resulting contradictions are seen both within the BL community itself, and between the BL community and the state which has perceived the genre as a cultural invasion. Portraying young women as agentless reproductive tools whose minds can be easily ‘poisoned’ by such cultural products, the state continues limiting the public space for women to creatively engage in discussions of social events and circumvent censorship.


Why should we care?


China is in the middle of a demographic crisis that is threatening its economic growth. The declining population growth rate contributed to a potential total collapse of the housing market, which could lead to a global economic crash. China has made various efforts to incentivise women to have more children such as the three-child policy, after the failure of two-child policy. Prevalent misogyny exacerbated other factors such as high housing costs and rising domestic violence in the context of COVID-19, making women more vulnerable to existing societal problems. The demographic crisis is a political threat that caused the regime to disproportionately target women to increase birth rate.


“The government may put our unwillingness to have children down to the impact of the popularity of BL culture. In fact, the reason why we do not want to have children is that we have neither money nor time. Work is so stressful that I am not even interested in having sex, let alone having a baby,” Xi Yu, a BL reader says.


While not allowing women to write and read BL seems to be a trivial matter, the ongoing crackdown of the genre reflects a disconnection between the state’s perceived cause of low birth rate and the realities of widening gender inequality.


The female gaze in the online literature that portrays love between men is politically important because it facilitates a quiet form of resistance against the male gaze and a way to negotiate with gender inequality and patriarchal gender norms. “This sort of gender inversion may not fundamentally change gender stereotypes, but I find some progressive aspects in the public forums offered by the Internet in which women can freely express and exchange their sexual fantasies, speak of their sexual desires and perversions, and discuss what turns them on or off, in a generally supportive and sympathetic environment,” Xiaofei Tian, a professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University says.


Currently, danmei-adapted dramas are completely banned to “create a clean and healthy cyberspace” in China. Online BL fictions are facing increasingly tight censorship, ranging from banning sub-genres (such as gaogan fiction (高干文), a genre portraying the romantic/erotic relationship between male Chinese political leaders), to castrating content (such as forbidding any sexual content under the rule “no description of anything below the neck”.) Given the growing hostile political atmosphere in China, the space for female BL fans and their cultural products will be increasingly narrow in the foreseeable future.

Dr Chi Zhang is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of St Andrews and an Associate Member of the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. She has published in journals Terrorism and Political Violence, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Politics and Religion and Asian Security.

Dr Ming Zhang is a feminist scholar and digital media ethnographer specialising in media fandom studies and transcultural communication. She is currently serving as the director of UK-China Media and Cultural Association (UCMeCSA), after receiving a PhD in Media and Communication at Bournemouth University. Her research interests include BL/danmei fandom, Chinese online literature, and fan and folk cultures. Her previous work can be found in Celebrity Studies, Communication, Culture and Critique, and Feminist Media Studies.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.