Female voyeuristic literature on male homoerotic themes

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When I first heard of this phenomenon about three years ago, I could scarcely believe my ears.  I was told in no uncertain terms that, by and large, Chinese women (especially in their 20s and 30s, but even in their teens) much more enjoy watching or reading about men making out than engaging in hetero- or homosexual love themselves.  I know of several Chinese women who write such literature and supplement their income with it.

The genre is explored in considerable depth by Helen Sullivan in this Guardian article (3/12/23):

China’s ‘rotten girls’ are escaping into erotic fiction about gay men

Danmei is by some measures the most popular genre of fiction for women in China, and its popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Communist party

The key term for the genre is "dānměi 耽美", where the dān 耽 morpheme in Chinese meant "to delay, to indulge; negligent"):

Originally coined in Japanese [VHM:  pron. tanbi] as a translation of “aestheticism” (equivalent Chinese term: wéiměi zhǔyì 唯美主義 [lit. "only beauty -ism"]), and was applied in the description of BL-themed comics since the 1970s which at the time were mostly aesthetic and romantic. The latter meaning was later reintroduced into Chinese (as wasei kango 和製漢語 [Japanese-made Chinese word]).  (source)

In Japanese, "An artistic approach that identifies beauty as the highest value, which is to be absorbed in the world."  (source)

Wasei-kango (Japanese: 和製漢語, "Japanese-made Chinese words") are those words in the Japanese language composed of Chinese morphemes but invented in Japan rather than borrowed from China. Such terms are generally written using kanji and read according to the on'yomi pronunciations of the characters. While many words belong to the shared Sino-Japanese vocabulary, some kango do not exist in Chinese while others have a substantially different meaning from Chinese; however some words have been borrowed back to Chinese. (source)

The female fans of the Chinese danmei subgenre are called fǔnǚ 腐女 ("rotten girls").

One of the famous writers of danmei literature is Mòxiāng Tóngchòu 墨香銅臭 ("fragrance of Ink, odor of money").  They spent some time in prison for "running an illegal business operation" — a convenient charge the CCP brings against practically anyone they don't like who is making money by intellectual, literary, or media means.

Danmei (Chinese: 耽美; pinyin: dānměi; lit. 'indulging beauty') is a Chinese genre of literature and other fictional media that features romantic relationships between male characters. Danmei is typically created by and targeted towards a heterosexual female audience. While danmei works and their adaptations have achieved widespread popularity in China and globally, their legal status remains murky due to Chinese censorship policies. The female same-sex counterpart to danmei is known as bǎihé (Chinese: 百合; lit. 'lilies'), which is an orthographic reborrowing of the Japanese word yuri, but it is not as well known or popular as danmei.

The male same-sex romance genre of "boys' love", or BL, originated in Japanese manga in the early 1970s, and was introduced to mainland China via pirated Taiwanese translations of Japanese comics in the early 1990s. The term danmei is reborrowed from the Japanese word tanbi (耽美, "aestheticism"), and Chinese fans often use danmei and BL interchangeably.


If you want to learn more about this fascinating genre of socioliterary practice and production, including whether it is a type of feminist-utopian pornographic fantasy, I warmly recommend that you read Helen Sullivan's broadly inquisitive article in the Guardian.


Selected readings

  • "Plum > apricot and wine > brew: the language of poetry and painting" (7/14/17)
  • If you do a web search on tanbi literature (no quotes), you will find that it was already noticed by the official PRC press and its spinoffs (e.g., China Daily, ChinaCulture — "Chinese women crave Tanbi lit") by no later than June 25, 2014: "Tanbi is a form of Japanese literature depicting love between men that its hardcore following of young, heterosexual women can't get enough of."  Two years later, some academic outlets (e.g., Atlantis Press) were talking about "The Ethical Dilemma of Tanbi Culture in New Media Age").



There is also a strange genre of internet fiction that seems to have split off from "wǔxiá 武俠" ("martial hero; roving paladin") fiction. It's called "xiānxiá 仙俠" ("immortal / transcendent paladin") or  "xuánhuàn 玄幻" ("fantasy") fiction. Some of the works appear to have an element of heterosexual romance.


[Thanks to Denis Mair]


  1. mozzerb said,

    March 14, 2023 @ 6:29 pm

    I saw that article, and was surprised not to see a comparison with "slash fiction" that's been part of Western media fandom since … well, before my time but at least the 1960s, and the "yaoi" in manga fandom that was mentioned above. "Danmei" sounds like basically exactly the same thing, except in Chinese. "Two guys together" clearly strikes chords for women across cultures!

    Then again, the writer was apparently unaware of these other fandom genres. There was a reference to "a website called Ao3" — presumably this meant the fan-run "Archive Of Our Own", commonly abbreviated AO3, which was founded to cover fan works in general.

  2. TK-421 said,

    March 14, 2023 @ 7:31 pm

    See also fujoshi 腐女子 in Japanese, which I'm guessing is the counterpart to Chinese fǔnǚ 腐女

  3. Terry said,

    March 15, 2023 @ 12:49 am

    As for these kind of genres being specifically for straight women, from what I recall of an ao3 readership survey, a large proportion of readers were bi or otherwise queer.

    About why it's popular, I haven't seen "lesbian" sex scenes in pornography viewed as needing a similarly complex analysis.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    March 15, 2023 @ 5:08 am

    From Denis Mair:

    I had a friend in the Tiandi Jiao temple. When I visited back there in around 2014, my friend told me about the 仙俠 / 玄幻 genre, which he was immersed in. It's not particularly voyeuristic, but the plots sometimes have a thread of romance. Only a special member of the opposite sex is worthy of (or capable of appreciating) someone who can cultivate the highest level powers, which are somehow cultivated on a "spiritual" level. Such powers make the hero able to defeat villains/opponents who have supernatural powers or a magical weapon.

    There are lots of fans of these novels on the Web. I think they probably have as many readers as the "danmei" genre, but the latter has gotten attention because of the transgressive aspect and the fact that a couple of the well-known writers were put in jail.

    I think 仙俠 /玄幻 material is also found in Japanese genre fiction, but the Chinese readers do not seek out Japanese sources. The genre has taken on a life of its own in Chinese popular fiction. After 2010 I started seeing 仙俠 /玄幻 books (some as big as telephone books) in bookstalls at outdoor markets in the suburbs of Beijing.

    The themes in 仙俠 /玄幻 fiction also seem to come up on computer games. I've seen Teryn (my grandson) playing games in which the Ninja warriors obtain special gems that enable them to put up a force field around themselves, or emit powerful energy rays from their hands. Teryn seems very knowledgeable about the different levels of special powers that his avatar gets in games like Ninjago.

    The two subgenres 仙俠 and 玄幻 are often lumped together, but this article says there is a distinction.

  5. David Li said,

    March 15, 2023 @ 7:27 am

    It's not a particularly Chinese or Japanese phenomenon anymore. 'Danmei' and BL media are translated into English and displayed in bookstores, and terms like danmei and fujoshi are used by the English fandom.

  6. GH said,

    March 15, 2023 @ 7:56 am

    Xiānxiá (and, I am sure, these other genres as well) is also translated into or even originally written in English, particularly the popular subgenre Cultivation. As I understand it, it's a kind of fantasy novel where the protagonist achieves greatness in a way similar to "leveling up" in a video game, but wrapped up in Daodist concepts and often involving achieving mastery of "mana" or "qi." Some of these books also have romance or erotic elements.

    With online hubs for free fiction and self-published e-books, there is a huge amount of this kind of fiction being produced. Other often overlapping genres include Isekai (about people transported to other worlds) and LitRPG/GameLit (stories that take place in worlds that follow rules of RPGs or video games, usually featuring interminable recitations of stats).

  7. nicoleandmaggie said,

    March 15, 2023 @ 9:25 am

    This is an occidental thing too.. more universal than Chinese or Japanese. I mean, I just finished KJ Charles' latest. The last anime I watched all the way through was Yuri on Ice. Love is Love and Love is universal.

  8. Lea said,

    March 15, 2023 @ 10:35 am

    As others have said, the article cited overall was not the best, as the author didn't seem to have any real familiarity with the topic and in the circles I run in it was largely panned as falling into a number of analytical traps that have been eating up distant observers since the 80s.

    However the language part is interesting of course. The importation of Danmei and Xianxia into the west is also an interesting story. Fans were often ill equipped to translate works in Chinese and relied heavily on machine translation to do it (sometimes without disclosing this). There is sometimes jostling and debate about who is translating what, what translations are superior, whether the official translations are any good, etc. I don't follow the scene myself so I don't know the details, but there's a little info on the translation history of one of the more popular titles here:


  9. Chris Barts said,

    March 15, 2023 @ 6:33 pm

    Even Wikipedia has an article on this as it applies to Western fanfiction:


    > It is commonly believed that slash fan fiction originated during the late 1970s, within the Star Trek: The Original Series fan fiction fandom, starting with "Kirk/Spock" stories generally authored by female fans of the series.[1][5] The name arises from the use of the slash symbol (/) in mentions in the late '70s of K/S (meaning stories where Kirk and Spock had a romantic [and often sexual] relationship), as compared to the ampersand (&) conventionally used for K&S or Kirk and Spock friendship fiction. For a time, both slash and K/S (for "Kirk/Spock") were used interchangeably. Slash later spread to other fan groups, first Starsky and Hutch, Blake's 7, and The Professionals,[4] then many others, eventually creating a fandom based on the concept of slash.[6][7] Many early slash stories were based on a pairing of two close friends, a "hero dyad", or "One True Pairing", such as Kirk/Spock or Starsky/Hutch; conversely, a classic pairing between foils was that of Blake/Avon from Blake's 7.[8]

    The article goes on at fascinating length.

    The TV Tropes article has lots of specific examples and links to other, related topics:


    But the main article for our purposes is Yaoi Fangirl:


    > The Japanese name for Yaoi Fangirl is fujoshi (a pun that translates loosely as "rotten girl").

  10. Thomas said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 2:59 am

    As a gay man myself, I find the typical BL content even more dull and superficial than mainstream Asian TV shows (e.g. generic boy-meets-girl K-drama). I don't understand what the target demographic finds in this genre.

    On a different note, the tongzhimen of the CCP trying to suppress this kind of content is ridiculous. Imagine going to prison for writing gay dime novels. This is exactly why Chinese soft power will never work.

  11. SusanC said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 11:40 am

    A common remark made about the yaoi genre is that since it's mostly written by and for women, it's portrayal of gay male relationships is pretty inaccurate. But authenticity is probably not the objective here.

    One manga (I forget the title) has the opening scene being the gay male protagonist getting up his courage to buy a yaoi manga. Per genre convention, he is so embarassed to do something so obviously gay. And then two girls walk past him in the comic book shop and confidently buy a yaoi manga.

    Many levels of irony and self reference here.

  12. Doctor Science said,

    March 17, 2023 @ 10:59 pm

    I tried posting this comment earlier, but it had too many links.

    As others have said, the article is *remarkably* ignorant, especially "So danmei writers use a website called Ao3 to publish missing sex scenes."

    Ao3 is "AO3", or archiveofourown.org, which is pretty interesting for Language Log purposes. AO3 was started in 2007-09, when those of us creating fanfiction (& other works) in western media fandom realized that our work would never be truly safe from censorship or arbitrary deletion if it was hosted commercially: we, collectively, had to own the servers. So we created a 501c3 nonprofit, the Organization for Transformative Works, to own servers, host fanfiction, and defend its legal right to exist (under US law, at least).

    AO3 was always intended to be a safe haven for fan writing from anywhere in the world, though for the first decade, almost, the threats were almost entirely digital: DMCA takedown notices, arbitrary definitions of what counts as "pornography", that sort of thing.

    When the Chinese government cracked down hard on fanfiction in 2018, danmei fans in China found AO3 and realized they could use it to safely publish material that would be unacceptibly explicit on their side of the Great Wall. So Chinese fans started signing up and posting their material on a site that up until then had been almost all in English, the second language being Russian.

    Right now, there are over 10 million fanworks on AO3, of which over half a million are in Chinese, almost all Mandarin. AO3 had to gear up pretty quickly to handle the influx, and there have been many struggles relevant to LL–especially the question of whether to require tone markers in tags.

    LL users can have additional fun by picking a language to search on in AO3, that's how I found "We Didn't Start the Babylonian Fire"–in Sumerian. Sort by kudos, that will screen out the works where the language was chosen by mistake.

    Meanwhile, Chinese TV dramas were starting to become easier to find outside of China, and were developing Western-style fandoms. The big breakthrough (which Helen Sullivan doesn't mention because she really, truly doesn't know what she's talking about) was the Chinese TV drama "The Untamed", which started airing on Netflix in summer 2019. The Untamed is based on a web novel (魔道祖师 Mó Dào Zǔ Shī, or MDZS) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, and is what really rocketed her to international fame and bestsellerdom.

    Dr Mair talks a lot about cultural contact and transmission across Eurasia or the oceans in previous millennia. Right now there's a *fascinating* amount of cultural transmission going on in what you might call "international m/m or BL fandom", almost all of which is considered somewhere between laughable, disgraceful, and illegal–& which is mostly done by young women & queer people, *way* below the radar of Official Culture.

    So, for instance, the trope known as A/B/O or Omegaverse was picked up by Japanese fans and proved *incredibly* popular, and from Japan spread to China, where it is also extremely popular. And I was truly gobsmacked to discover that the Sentinel/Guide trope, which came out of the fandom for a TV show from the late 90s you probably never heard of, has also been picked up by Japanese & then Chinese fans with great glee.

    Those of you who teach Chinese language and culture in the Anglosphere may be starting to see an influx of a different type of student than you've had in the past, the same way manga & anime have driven a lot of interest in Japanese language and culture over the last several decades. If homoromantic Chinese TV dramas end up being a kind of Chinese cultural "soft power", I for one will find it *hilarious*–not least because the homophobia of the Xi regime has no deep roots in Chinese culture.

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