Gender bending in China, in fiction and real life

Society & Culture

We asked journalist and culture writer Jin Zhao all about Chinese queer radio plays and homoerotic fiction, genres that have a surprisingly large fan base in China.

Illustration by Alex Santafé.

China is not a progressive country when it comes to LGBTQ rights and social acceptance. But it’s not all heteronormative: The country is, in some ways, surprisingly tolerant of non-binary ideas about gender, and one of the most vibrant and popular genres of Chinese fiction is danmei (耽美 dānměi), stories of gay male romances.

To help us understand what is going on, I spoke to Jin Zhao. We talked last week by video chat. This is an abridged, edited transcript of our conversation, part of my Invited to Tea interview series.

—Jeremy Goldkorn


You’ve recently written about danmei for SupChina. What is danmei? Who writes it and who reads it?

Danmei is a genre of fiction in China that features male protagonists, who over the course of the story will develop romantic or sexual relationships. It’s a kind of fiction that features a same-sex male romantic relationship. And…

But it’s not necessarily gay men who are the most avid consumers of it, right?

Not really. I mean, at least in China, they are most popular among women readers. Data from one of the most prominent websites that publishes danmei fiction, Jinjiang Literature City, indicates that 93% of their users are women. And they tend to be young women as well, because 84% of these readers are aged 18 to 35. So they are most likely young women in China who are reading these novels.

Why?

I think, from conversations that I had with these fans, these readers, most say that because they are unsatisfied with heterosexual romantic stories, romances, because the female characters are not portrayed as full human beings who go about doing things.

So they’re unsatisfied and they think that same-sex romantic stories are more…the relationship between the two protagonists is more of an equal kind of relationship…Well, it’s understandable because when you take gender out of this kind of relationship, then I think women have a lot of freedom to kind of imagine, to fantasize how pure love can be. I think that is very appealing to a lot of women.

Also, specifically in China. This genre is called boys love in other places in Asia. In Japan, it is called yaoi, and it is very popular. But in China, this generation of young women, they grew up mostly as only children. They’re well educated. And women actually in China have very high standards, a very high economic status, and they are independent in many respects.

But then at the same time, I think they’re frustrated that sometimes they feel that the culture still sees them, especially in the context of romantic relationships, as child bearers or…

Or as flower vases?

Yeah. I think that culture hasn’t caught up with their expectations and ideals. And so I think they’re unsatisfied. And this genre of fiction really just fills this sort of need for them to imagine what love can be, pure love can be, if gender is taken out of it.

So it’s sometimes characterized as sort of gay erotic fiction, but it’s not really the erotic side of it that’s the attraction, it’s the romance? From what you’re saying, it’s not a sort of sexual stimulation that women are getting out of it so much as a romantic story where the characters are fully human. Is that right?

I think it’s both. I think it’s both. And women in China are also not expected to express their sexual desire. And I think for the creators, for writers, when you write about romance, it’s really hard to write female characters who can fully express their sexual desires because these characters will probably be considered not as ideal female characters in this culture. So women are expected to be naive sexually and to not have the agency they really want, sexually.

They’re not supposed to articulate desire?

Yeah, so you are expected to be more passive, otherwise, you are not a good woman. So I think it’s both. I think it’s both expression and enjoyment of the sexual tension in a story and also the kind of relationship that’s more equal and based on mutual respect, based on individuals themselves instead of their gender roles.

In some of these danmei stories, of course, the relationships might be unequal, one person might be more dominant than the other one. But it’s not because of gender. The roles they play are not based on gender, but their personalities, their choices, their personal choices.

So although you might say that they’re modeled like heterosexual relationships, still they’re based on their choices, individuals and individual couples, their relationship instead of based on gender.

What does the word danmei mean, exactly? What’s the origin of the word?

Dan means “to be obsessed with and appreciate.” Mei is “beauty.” So danmei means “being obsessed with beauty.” And because these protagonists are men and there’s also the element of appreciation of male beauty, and often these characters have good looks, they are attractive, they’re appealing, sexually appealing to women. So that’s where that word is from.

But now, some also call this genre pure love. Because I think danmei is sort of a little bit of a sensitive word. I think the government is paying a little more attention to this genre, so they call it pure love and it’s understood it’s actually danmei, that it’s the same thing.

What is the word in Chinese?

Chún ài 纯爱.

Can we talk about sex and gender and identity in China more broadly? From the existence of eunuchs in relatively recent history to the old tradition in many Chinese opera forms that male actors play female roles, there seems to have been a strain of Chinese culture that somehow seems less binary than Western culture.

Or maybe not. The Communist Party of China likes things to be quite binary. You can change your sex legally in China, for example, but you have to have sexual reassignment surgery to do that if you want to change your legal documents. The government still does see gender as a binary concept.

That’s a big question. I’m going to start with maybe the traditional Chinese culture, how we see gender and sex. Arguably there could be what you are talking about these elements that seem less binary than Western culture. But I think we really can’t romanticize that because to begin with, Chinese culture is full of binaries.

We have yin and yang, and everything is yin and yang in [the] Chinese understanding of the universe. Including gender. But I think those things, like eunuchs or male actors playing female roles, those are elements in the culture that were not challenging the male-dominant, patriarchal male-dominant power.

For instance, the existence of eunuchs was because these were basically male servants serving the emperor in the palace. And they have had their male status taken away violently. Physically. So that they can serve the emperor and not threaten this utmost power as the patriarch.

As for the actors, that’s also not unique to Chinese culture. Shakespeare’s plays had male actors playing female roles as well. Same in ballet. And we have opera singers, castrati, those Italian opera singers. So I don’t think that’s unique to Chinese culture. And also traditionally arts, especially performing arts, in Chinese culture was not considered a very high, respected profession.

Which in some ways is exactly the same as it was in Shakespeare’s day, when actors and prostitutes were kind of the same class. It wasn’t something a respectable upper-class person would do. Right?

Yeah. In China also, performing artists were classified really the same as prostitutes. They were just selling arts instead of their bodies, but basically considered the same, similar class. But at the same time, I think they were…Because we don’t have a Christian tradition where even heterosexual sex that’s not for reproductive purposes is considered a sin.

China doesn’t have that tradition. I think sex traditionally in Chinese culture wasn’t considered anything too different from any other human behavior. It’s not that special. And homosexuality as well. In traditional Chinese literature, we see a lot of same-sex sex and homosexual relationships.

Even in the [classic Chinese novel] Dream of the Red Chamber (Honglou Meng 红楼梦), [the protagonist] Baoyu had same-sex relationships with several men. And one of them was an actor, an opera singer, but then Baoyu’s dad scolded him not because he was having sex with him, but because this actor was also the lover of a higher official who was the protector of this actor, a patron, or whatever you call that.

Basically, nobody cares whom you have sex with, as long as you reproduce and have children and you don’t mess with the social order?

Yeah. The social order is the concern. It’s not who you have sex with. These aristocrats would have sex with their servants, in the classic work Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase 金瓶梅) as well. And there’s a lot of sex in Liaozhai Zhiyi (Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊齋誌異).

There are also same-sex relationships in those stories as well. Both heterosexual and homosexual sex is allowed to exist. These women characters in Liaozhai Zhiyi, they enjoy sex, they express their sexual desires, but I think they can do that because they’re not human beings. Because they’re ghosts, or they’re fox spirits.

They are ghosts. So they…

They belong to a different social order. They don’t violate the human social order. I think these things were allowed to exist because they didn’t threaten male dominance and patriarchal power.

That is still very much the case in China now under the Communist Party, because nobody’s going door-to-door checking up if somebody’s having sex with a person of the same sex. Nobody cares about that. You can have sex with whomever you want. But what they don’t like about the sort of international, I guess you could call it LGBTQ movement, is they don’t like any hint of social activism or ideology that could challenge the current social order. It’s not that anybody in the government cares about who’s having sex with whom.

Yeah, exactly. And I don’t think that these groups, these sexual minority groups are anything different from any minority groups. I think the government treats them the same. It’s not because they’re having sex with whoever they want to, but because they are marginalized minority groups and the government doesn’t want them to organize, to fight for their rights as a group…I think that’s the problem.

As for the transgender community, I think it’s the same. They’re such a small group of people and I think the government, the official rhetoric doesn’t even address them that often. The law is there. If they want to change their gender marker on official documents, they have to have sexual reassignment surgery.

I think it would be very hard to challenge that. To organize and challenge that. And I think the Communist Party does have a scientific ethos. They consider their ideology a “social science,” and their methods “scientific.”

So I think biological basis will be seen as very important when they make laws regarding transgender people. I think that will stay for a long time, especially considering there’s no social movement allowed, really.

So what I was saying previously is romanticizing! The non-binary nature of Chinese thinking. It’s funny, though, because I think when I was first introduced to the idea of yin-yang, the yin-yang symbol, as it was explained to me by Western hippies, was that the male and the female, and the positive and the negative, are part of one whole as opposed to us Westerners, who are always separating male and female, and positive from negative.

But in some ways you’re saying to me, “Well, in fact, the yin and yang shows you that China is a very binary culture.”

Yeah. Well, I think there can be different interpretations. But I feel like that’s my intuition as a Chinese person.

One last question then. Aside from danmei and some of the queer radio dramas that you’ve written about, what is the type of literature that most excites you that’s coming out of China today?

I’m really excited about some younger writers. I think Yán Gē 颜歌 is one of them. Actually, she has a bunch of books that have been translated into English. I think the latest one is called Strange Beasts of China. I’m not a literary scholar, but as a reader, I think she has her own voice. And I really like [how] she’s from Sichuan [and] wrote some of her books in Sichuan dialect. I think that’s interesting.

She is part of this generation of Chinese writers who assert their identities. Their local identities. But she also studied in the U.S., and so she’s transnational, but also local. And another young writer, maybe not familiar to English-speaking readers, whom I recently just came across [is] Sūn Yīshèng 孙一圣. Both of them were born about in 1985, I guess. Sun Yisheng also wrote about life as this generation of Chinese experience it. I think that can be something very new to Western readers, because I think a lot of people are more familiar with the writing of older generations. But these are people who grew up in the opening and reform era.

They have very different experiences. They have very different sets of anxieties, and frustrations, and trauma, I would say. So yeah, these younger writers I’m really looking forward to reading more, and maybe even some younger than them, those born in the 90s.

Another type of literature I’m pretty excited about is workers’ literature. There are a lot of migrant workers in China, and now they are writing. A few years ago, there was this one writer, Fàn Yǔsù 范雨素. She is a middle-aged woman who is, I think, still a domestic worker in Beijing, in the outskirts of Beijing. And also a single mom. And she wrote an essay called, I am Fan Yusu, talking about her experiences.

It’s not just what she talks about, but I think she has a very unique style that I really like. And then she talks about class in a very subtle way. Talks about her working class experience because she’s living with her employer. So she’s up-close to witness how the other half live.


Invited to Tea with Jeremy Goldkorn is a weekly interview series. Previously:

We ask Tom Orlik: Can China’s economy really grow at 5.5% this year?