What is the meaning of cut sleeve?
Cut Sleeve” (Chinese: 黄九郎; pinyin: Huáng Jiǔláng) is a short story by Pu Songling first published in the third volume of Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.
How is male-male romance inexplicitly depicted in Chinese TV series?
Male-male romance is a genre created by and for women and sexual minorities. It’s also called Danmei(耽美) or BL(boys’ love) in China1. The emphasis of this genre is not on the format of literature delivery but the theme of “bromance.” Danmei can come in various formats such as fiction, audio drama, TV series, manga, or other derivative work. Many of the work was created in one form and later recomposed into another for commercial reasons. The origin of the concept of Danmei is from Japan, but it has developed tremendous popularity in Asia or even in the whole world2.
In China, Danmei has merged into a fan-based, female-dominated pop culture that’s fueled by the enthusiasm of Danmei lovers. One of the most prevalent formats of Danmei creation is internet fiction, and in the past ten years, multiple online fictions have been adapted into TV series. In this paper, I will explore how the male-male romance is adapted and inexplicably depicted in the TV series while LGBTQ relationships or characters are not allowed on the big screen.
Danmei internet fiction
Online fiction is a big part of popular culture in the Chinese-speaking world. Till the end of 2019, the customers of internet fiction have grown to a scale of 460 million, showing an increase of 5.3% compared to 2018. The industry has grown on a scale of 19.5 billion RMB, showing a rise of 27.1% compared to 20183. The expansion of the online fiction industry has quickly attracted both attention and hot money. According to the iResearch consulting institute, over 40 online fictions were adapted into films and TV series in 2017 in China. Among all the popular categories of online fiction, one of the most popular themes is Danmei. Over 60 online Danmei fiction has been adapted or is undergoing adaptation into the film industry or TV industry4.
Before we get into the adaptation of Danmei in the film and TV industry, I must first introduce the history of Danmei internet fiction.
Back in the 2000s, Danmei was still considered a subculture for BL lovers. At that time, Danmei creation mainly was taking the format of writing derivative work for some already existing characters from other literature work or films5. This type of re-creation is called Tongren(同人), which means “the same character.” Most of the Danmei writers on the internet were not professional writers, and they write Tongren out of personal affection toward the characters they chose.
Usually, Danmei writers would pick two male characters to write the main romance part of the story and keep only the personality of the two characters in their work. They call such pairing “CP,” which is short for “couple.” The plot or story of their work does not have to be related to the original story that the two characters came from. This type of literary creation was informal at the time and mainly existed on various forums.
The Tongren writers would usually start and upload only a section of their work and update their forum as the audience increases.
The environment dynamic they created was responsive as audiences join the forum and leave their comments. Due to such responsiveness, writers could soon realize the preference of the audience and quickly adapt their work6. In this process, some of the writers gained a large fan base and started their original work for the original characters they created. The theme of BL stayed. At the same time, online fiction platforms quickly merged in China, and some of the platforms were specialized in creating an environment for original or Tongren Danmei creation. One of the examples is called Jinjiang literature city(晋江文学城). They offer a stable platform with features of subscription, commenting, and rewarding, and they also created the rudiment business model for Danmei writers and the platform.
In 2008, Jinjiang literature city officially announced commercial operations.
Similar cases marked that volunteering Danmei creation has transformed into commercial behavior. The transition of commercial writing stimulated the industry and demanded higher quality of the writing7. The length and depth of the Danmei work changed accordingly. The new commercial environment challenged the Danmei writers to put more effort into plot designing and story-telling in their work, which contrasts the early Danmei Tongren stories’ focus on romance and dynamics between characters. In the 2010s, the Chinese online fiction platforms grew dramatically into a larger size along with the Danmei category. It settles the background needed to bring the Danmei culture into show business and the big screen.
Adaptation into TV series
Since 2015, the rapid development and enormous audience has caught the eyes of film and TV companies in China. The rapid growth of Danmei also attracted their attention. Hoping to appeal to the sizable female audience of Danmei, several Danmei internet fictions were bought by large film and TV production companies. The first and largest challenge of such adaptation is not how to make fiction into a TV series but how to pass the censorship. The government or any official institutions never recognized BL and Danmei due to the conservative attitude of Chinese society toward homosexual relationships or any sexual minorities. The film and TV production companies had to balance the amount of Danmei elements and the risk of getting banned because of Danmei.
Such conflict is presented by the eventually inexplicit depiction of the male male relationship in the TV series. They cut off intimate behaviors such as kissing or having sex between the two main characters, and they don’t use the word “love” or “romance” to refer to the relationship depicted in the series. The scriptwriters deliberately make the relationship so ambiguous that it is impossible to identify whether the theme is romantic love or just brotherhood. They would cover their series with the name of brotherhood and just collectively pretend that they made a TV series about a pair of friends whose bond is groundbreakingly deep and touching.
One of the most frequently discussed questions about each Danmei TV series by the fans is how much of the original male-male romance is restored in the series. The discussion would usually end up with positive reviews on the adaptation because the fans know how hard it is to make such a series happen, and their expectation is so low that basically, they will accept everything as long as the dynamic between the two main characters stays. It might sound surprising, but almost every Danmei series gained terrific popularity, and it would put the leading actors trending on social media every time.
Danmei vs. LBGTQ+
It’s important to emphasize that even though Danmei is about male-male romance, it’s different from actual LGBTQ+ literature. As I mentioned above, Danmei is created mainly by females and primarily enjoyed by females. It is the creation of female imagination, and it would only serve for female imagination. In each Danmei relationship or CP, there is one top(攻) and one bottom(受), while such a setting is not accurate for gay couples. In the early work of Danmei, usually, the top would take a dominant/masculine role, and the bottom would be more girly8.
This is clearly a substitution for traditional male-female relationships. Even though as Danmei develops, the types of top and bottom become no longer limited to the imitation of the conventional male-female model, the term top and bottom stayed and became a vital element of every Danmei CP. Such a setting becomes a sign of the nature of Danmei culture. It’s an ideal fantasy of female desire projected onto male-male relationship9.
They created all kinds of Danmei characters gain the opportunities to “gaze at ” males and become the subject watching other objects. Danmei is different from gay literature as Danmei is the fantasy and imagination of heterosexual women, and it avoids direct discussion of the plight faced by women and sexual minorities. Danmei is still the most commonly known and closest genre to LBGTQ+ literature in China. At least Danmei has made male-male relationships familiar in the discussion of various online forums and social media.
Conclusively, I illustrated the history of Danmei online fiction and then explained how it got adapted to the big screen even under the conservation environment. I also discussed how Danmei is different from gay literature as Danmei only serves as imagination and fantasies.
1. L Yang, Y Xu, 2017, Chinese danmei fandom and cultural globalization from below, Hong Kong University Press
2. Alexander Lugg, 2011, Chinese online fiction: taste publics, entertainment, and Candle in the Tomb, Chinese Journal of Communication, 4:02, 121- 136, DOI: 10.1080/17544750.2011.565673
3. Yue Du, Yue Zhang, Ziting Yang, Xiejun Cheng, 2019, On the Theme of Online Literature and the Development Trend and Countermeasures of Film And Television Industry chain, Jiangsu Second Normal University
4. 2020 iResearch Consulting Institute Report