BEIJING, May 28 – Two men exchange wistful glances, a thrill of sexual tension in an on-screen relationship that must otherwise go silent – Chinese ‘boy love’ phenomenon grabs video streamers, slipping through censors 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 actors Chinese to fame.
In Word of honor, a successful adventure of the Youku video platform, two handsome martial arts heroes develop a close bond, but refer to each other only as “brothers” because the strongly insinuated romance between the protagonists fails to emerge.
Although China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997, same-sex marriage is illegal and taboo on LGBTQ issues.
The community faces renewed pressure, with censored web content and depictions of gay romance in movies banned.
Still, boy’s love adaptations are on the rise, projected by streaming giants like Youku and Tencent Video, fueled primarily by demand from straight women and their growing interest in a more delicate form of masculinity.
Tickets for a Word of honor The themed concert in Suzhou sold out in seconds earlier this month, as hundreds of thousands of people rushed for a seat.
The series quickly racked up millions of views after its February release, while Tencent Video reportedly grossed 156 million yuan (RM 101 million) from early views of a similar show.
For video platforms in China’s noisy and hyper-competitive streaming world, changing social mores means one thing: money.
“In pop culture, creators look to subcultures for new stories or original material,” said Bai Meijiadai, a professor at Liaoning University, an expert in fan culture.
“The rise of ‘boys’ love’ content suggests that the on-screen industry is aware of the consumer power of young women. “
“They break the mold”
The state’s red pen may have supported the video phenomenon.
Authorities cracked down on “illegal” writing on the Web, censoring content deemed too risky for Chinese readers. In 2018, a novelist was sentenced to 10 years in prison for writing and selling “pornographic” books.
“Sexual content in (same-sex) web novels has declined since authorities embarked on cyberspace clean-up and platforms introduced review and reporting mechanisms,” Bai said.
This makes their storylines – lots of grandiose period adventures studded with martial arts – easier to adapt for TV, with the removal of more sexually explicit content, she added.
About sixty television adaptations are currently underway.
But the genre attracts mixed reviews among Chinese queer communities.
“They are breaking the mold 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 struggles and difficulties of the LGBT community.”
Once the main actors get famous, they also eschew gay identity suggestions to maintain their popularity, he added, doing little to counter the airbrushing of LGBTQ lives.
Appeal to women
TV adaptations are aimed primarily at women.
An e-commerce employee surnamed Xu said that “love of boys” has given her a valuable escape, unlike many other TV shows in China that serve a barrage of stereotypes in their portrayals of women’s gender roles.
“It allows me to think of less things and to relax,” added the 29-year-old.
Handsome young boys, including those from TV series, have also become a favorite fancy love interest.
“It has been influenced by the success of boy bands from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, even since the 1980s,” said Derek Hird, senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Lancaster University.
To ride the wave of popularity, more and more people – mostly amateur scribes – are writing boy love stories for the web in the hopes that they can be adapted for television.
While the authors are mostly part-time workers who write for money, “popular writers can earn over 10,000 yuan per month through subscriptions and reader rewards,” said an editor at fiction which only gave its name to Chu.
Up to 40 million yuan has been paid for the rights to such a novel, official periodical Banyuetan said.
Experts say the genre could prove useful to China’s soft power ambitions.
The country so far lacks a leading entertainment product that matches the worldwide popularity of South Korea’s entertainment industry or Japan’s anime and manga.
Martial arts and period drama are “really marketable aspects for China,” Hird said.
But there is a tension between gender explorations 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 the cultivation” of masculinity.
For now, the “boy love” industry has moved away from regulators through subtle portrayals of homosexual moments or “normalizing” endings.
“For example, you may have deviations during your teenage years, but once you grow older you always come back to reproductive ‘normalcy’,” explained Bai of Liaoning University. – AFP