September 21, 2014, by Tony Hong
How one Japanese subculture has evolved in China
By Flair Shi,
Graduate of the School of English University of Nottingham Ningbo,
BA in English Language and Literature.
The Yaoi, or the Fushoji (rotten), subculture in Japan has generated a lot of popularity domestically and internationally since it emerged from the 1970s. Yaoi refers to the male homosexual themed manga or animation products originated in Japan and consumed in many other Asian countries like China and Korea or even America, mainly by young female populations. It is a fascinating phenomenon in Japan because in spite of still being officially identified as a subculture, Yaoi has obviously penetrated into the mainstream manga market and possesses its own sub-genres. It is not rare for tourists and readers to walk into one of the anime buildings in Ikebuguro in Tokyo and find entire floors dedicated to Yaoi products. As Yaoi spread through the Internet to an increasingly liberal China, it was appropriated by the Chinese prosumers and has mutated into something called danmei (耽美), under which numerous online forums and sites flourished and some of them as specific as being dedicated to a pair of male characters in a particular drama, manga or anime.
But different from Japan, the danmei subculture and its main participants in China, nicknamed “rotten girls” (despite a small presence of some “rotten boys” who are usually gay), are still quite marginalized and stigmatized in society. Although it is not difficult at all to meet such people in a university setting, as an online survey has declared that on average there must be at least one rotten girl in every dormitory in universities located in coastal provinces, it is not some “productive/beneficial” extra-curricular hobby they would proudly share with their family, boyfriends or friends that do not belong to this subculture, and they certainly do not enjoy the market dominance and public visibility as their Japanese counterparts do. However, regardless of its ontological liminality in fictive space, it is worth vouching for the important recognition of Danmei as a form of political dissent against the dominant patriarchal gender constructions in contemporary Chinese society. While the socioeconomic/socio-historical reasons behind the rise of Yaoi/Danmei in Japan and China may be similar, the Chinese mutation has also been influenced by a set of unique factors from the legacy of communism to the tightened political control over popular culture in today’s China, all of which have determined that Danmei is certainly much more than just an international epiphenomenon of Yaoi.
The fact that a large number of female population are consuming fictional materials built on male homoeroticism and homosexual romance definitely indicates that there are disruptions and mismatches of gender relations in Japanese and Chinese societies. At least three possible reasons can be found to explain the rise of Yaoi/Danmei in contemporary Japan/China: first, the dominant patriarchal culture of both countries; second,women’s increasing socioeconomic power in both countries; third, Danmei/Yaoi’s unique characteristics, especially its desexualization of both women and men. To shortly illustrate how these reasons work in both countries in one sentence: women’s increasing socioeconomic power after the economic takeoffs in both countries has naturally led them to become more and more dissatisfied with the dominant patriarchal culture, especially with the ways it has been distributing entertainment resources unequally to cater to the “male gaze”, so in this background, homoerotic cultural products projecting male sensitivities, gentilities, emotionalities have come in to fill the market.
However, all these still cannot explain the relatively weak subcultural force of Danmei in China in comparison to that of the Japanese Yaoi, and this is where the two aforementioned unique Chinese factors come in. Firstly, contrary to many Western commentators’ imagination, the “all-evil” communist era of the People’s Republic did generate some effects that have proved to be positive for the later development of Chinese society, especially in terms of gender relations. In intercultural communication theories, especially the school led by Geert Hofstede, Japan is almost always ranked much ahead of China in masculinist/patriarchal indexes, which indicates that Chinese women nowadays at least enjoy more equal social treatment than their Japanese counterparts. This may sound quite counter-intuitive to people who are more familiar with Japan’s political history than culture, since Japan is Asia’s modernization leader, and with its American-implanted constitutional democracy and Per Capita richness it has been constantly claiming itself as part of the West. However, while neo-liberal economic order and democratic freedom certainly are helpful for generating the social ethos towards gender equality, the residue of traditional Confucian interpretation of gender division and hierarchy nonetheless drag on: on top of their domesticity and submissiveness, Japanese women are also expected to conform to a definition of “appropriate” femininity based on passivity and less expressive sexuality. When Japan was rising from the ashes in the 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile in China Mao was destroying Confucian books, statues, temples and everything associated with “the old way of thinking”, and to smash down Confucius’ “Only women and flunkies are hard to live in peace with (唯女子与小人难养也)”, he put up his own saying “women hold half of the sky (妇女能顶半边天)”. Of course, just like the Maoist economic equality means everyone became equally poor, the Maoist gender equality was tied to standardized conformism to dull party dressings, rules and rituals. But objectively the gender revolution did bring large amounts of female population into the work force and did offer a concrete ideological preparation for the return of the market brought by Deng.
So on the positive side of things the weakness of the Danmei subculture is possibly due to the less extent of masculinist oppression Chinese young women now suffer compared to their Japanese counterparts. But what is more likely to be the real cause is the authoritarian regime’s tighter political censorship against cultural materials deemed deviational and subversive. In other words, it is not that China does not possess enough market potential for Danmei products to flourish like in Japan, but because the demand for market is not the only prerequisite for businesses to sprout and grow in China. China’s state media CCTV did broadcast Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain before, but except in such rare occasions where the cultural product is internationally famous and helps boosting Chinese nationalism, TV channels in mainland China would not disseminate any materials associated with homosexuality or homoeroticism at all. One Danmei light-novel writer recently told me her career had just ended since the magazine she wrote for was banned for “inappropriate” content, just like the increasing number of Danmei websites being shut down these days.
But at least there seems to be a nice side effect of such political control and the shortage of cultural products it has generated: with less fantastical materials to indulge themselves into, rotten girls tend to be more socially interactive with the gay community in China than the Japanese fujoshi do in their country. Rather than projecting the fictive gay man as an ideal partner as Yaoi does in Japan, Danmei has generated in a lot of rotten girls the desire to know real gay men and to form friendships with them. Their limited socio-cultural space for activities has pushed them to explore that of the LGBT communities: large percentages of female participants in LGBT activities like the pride in Shanghai are from the rotten community and it is not rare to run into one or two in the gay bars in the big cities. Though Yaoi and Danmei were started by women’s capitalistic agency to find alternative ways of entertaining their romantic and sexual desires through homoerotic homosociality, rather than a true interest in advocating for the LGBT communities’ social recognition and movements, at least in China the former seems to be gradually translating into the latter.