By Danni Zhu and Beiyi Seow

Two men exchange longing glances, a frisson of sexual tension in an on-screen relationship which must otherwise go unspoken — China’s “boys’ love” phenomenon is gripping video streamers, slipping by censors of LGBTQ themes with their subtlety. 

The genre rose to prominence in 2018, as adaptations of web novels about same-sex couples, known as “dangaiju”, were increasingly picked up by on-demand services, propelling Chinese actors to stardom.

People looking at posters laid out as fans gather before a concert with the theme of the Chinese television drama ‘Word of Honor’, in Suzhou in China’s eastern Jiangsu province. Photo: STR/AFP.

In “Word of Honor”, a blockbusting adventure from video platform Youku, two handsome martial arts heroes develop a close bond, but refer to each other only as “brothers” as the heavily-insinuated romance between protagonists fails to emerge.

Although China decriminalised homosexuality in 1997, same-sex marriage is illegal and taboo trails LGBTQ issues. 

The community is facing renewed pressure, with web content censored and depictions of gay romance in films banned.

Yet “boys’ love” adaptations are booming, screened by streaming giants like Youku and Tencent Video, mostly fuelled by demand from straight women and their growing interest in a more delicate form of masculinity.

Tickets for a Word of Honor themed concert in Suzhou sold out in seconds earlier this month, as hundreds of thousands rushed for a spot.

The series quickly racked up millions of views after it was released in February, while Tencent Video reportedly made 156 million yuan ($24.1 million) from advance viewings of a similar show.

For video platforms in China’s boisterous, hyper-competitive streaming sphere, changing social mores means one thing: money.

“In pop culture, creators look to subcultures for new stories or original material,” said Liaoning University lecturer Bai Meijiadai, an expert in fan culture.

“The rise of ‘boys’ love’ content suggests the on-screen industry is aware of young women’s consumption power.”

‘They break the mould’

The red pen of the state may have supported the video phenomenon.

Authorities have cracked down on “illegal” writing on the web, censoring content deemed too risque for Chinese readers. In 2018 a novelist was sentenced to 10 years’ jail for writing and selling “pornographic” books.

“Sexual content in (same-sex) web novels has reduced since authorities embarked on cyberspace clean-ups and platforms introduced review-and-report mechanisms,” said Bai.

This makes their storylines — many of grand, period adventures flecked with martial arts — easier to adapt for television, with more sexually explicit content removed, she added.

Around 60 TV adaptations are now underway.

But the genre attracts mixed reviews among China’s queer communities.

“They break the mould of heterosexual relationships being the norm on screen,” said a gay civil society worker who wanted to be known only as Shuai.

“But they do not reflect the LGBT community’s struggles and difficulties.”

Once lead actors attain fame, they also avoid suggestions of gay identity to maintain popularity, he added, doing little to counter the airbrushing out of LGBTQ lives.

Appeal to women

The television adaptations mainly appeal to women.

An e-commerce worker surnamed Xu said “boys’ love” allowed her a precious escape, unlike many other TV shows in China which serve a barrage of stereotypes in their depictions of women’s gender roles.

“It allows me to think about fewer things and relax,” the 29-year-old added.

Handsome boyish young men, including those from the TV serials, have also become a preferred fantasy love interest.

“That’s been influenced by boyband success from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, since even the 1980s,” said Derek Hird, a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at Lancaster University.

To surf the wave of popularity more people — mostly amateur scribes — are writing “boys’ love” stories for web in the hope they may be adapted for TV.

While authors are mostly part-timers who write for spare cash, “popular writers can earn more than 10,000 yuan a month via subscriptions and rewards from readers”, said a fiction editor who gave her name only as Chu.

Up to 40 million yuan was paid for rights to a novel in the genre, official periodical Banyuetan said.

Experts say the genre could prove useful to China’s soft power ambitions.

The country so far lacks a breakout entertainment product matching the global popularity of South Korea’s entertainment industry or Japan’s anime and manga.

Martial arts and period dramas are “really marketable aspects for China,” said Hird.

But there is tension between explorations on gender and the “fear of a masculinity crisis”, he added.

In January, China’s education ministry pledged to improve physical education and “pay more attention to cultivating” masculinity.

For now, the “boys’ love” industry has steered clear of regulators through subtle portrayals of same-sex moments or “normalising” shows’ endings.

“For example, you may have deviations in your teenage years, but once you grow up, you still go back to reproductive ‘normalcy’,” explained Bai of Liaoning University.

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