In the fantastical world of ancient China, two handsome, superpower-wielding men find soulmates in each other. They flirt with ancient love poems, enjoy the moonlight on a romantic rooftop, raise an apprentice together, and come to each other’s rescue at life-and-death moments.
The stirring scenes are from the Chinese fantasy period series Word of Honor, the latest hit in the gay romance genre that has exploded in popularity in China: boys’ love. Well, not “love,” exactly. In a particularly emotional scene, one of the two male leads hugs his grieving companion, only to affectionately call him a “brother.”
Subtle gay dramas, adapted from boys’ love webnovels, has become a lucrative business in China, where censorship of anything LGBTQ-related is tight. But the appetite for queer content is just too big to ignore, a demand that comes not from gay men, but mostly straight women.
At least eight shows adapted from novels with boys’ love romances are expected to premiere this year across China’s major streaming platforms, including Alibaba’s Youku, Tencent Video, Mango TV, and iQIYI. The stories range from historical-fantasy action flicks to modern mystery thrillers and teenage melodramas.
The trend is a double-edged sword for China’s sexual minorities, providing a rare positive portrayal of queerness on mass media, but also perpetuating stereotypes for profit.
“This type of queer, more fantastic than real, does little justice to the gay community,” said Zhange Ni, a professor at Virginia Tech who studies Chinese webnovels. “Its social impact is largely under the control of digital capitalism. Only the ‘homonormative’ gay characters, men who are handsome, wealthy, with exceptional qualities, are liked by consumers. It is disconnected from the experiences of the LGBTQ population.”
“This type of queer, more fantastic than real, does little justice to the gay community.”
High risk, high returns
Making and showing boys’ love dramas in China is a cat-and-mouse game between the profit-driven entertainment industry and the homophobic censorship regime.
In 2016, the hit teen series Addicted (also known as Heroin), a drama with explicit gay scenes, was pulled from online streaming platform iQIYI before it could release its last three episodes. In 2018, the sci-fi drama Guardian went offline on video hosting site Youku two months after its release, even though the original gay romance storyline was rewritten as friendship. But the demand for boys’ love was clearly insatiable — before it was banned from Youku, Guardian had already racked up over a billion views.
The potential for serious profits encourages companies to continue queerbaiting while trying to please censors by incorporating elements from official state ideology. The 2019 fantasy series The Untamed, featuring an unlikely bond between a cheeky magic-wielder and a stoic ice prince, started an online craze over the pair’s implicit romance. But the show’s promotion focused on its portrayal of Chinese traditional culture — a push consistent with Chinese Communist Party propaganda.
“By showing the beauty of Chinese culture, The Untamed has conveyed our cultural confidence and established positive values,” communist mouthpiece People’s Daily wrote at the time, in a surreal piece tying President Xi Jinping’s political buzzword to a boys’ love show.
And so, boys’ love period dramas seem to have nestled into official endorsement as a mascot of Chinese soft power. The overseas popularity of these romantic sword-wielding heroes is often highlighted in Chinese media coverage of boys’ love period dramas, zooming in on epic overseas streaming numbers and the charm of Chinese culture.
The Untamed, with a viewership of more than 9 billion in China, remains popular today. Some diehard fans are still fantasizing about an actual relationship between the two actors — currently one of the hottest fandom topics on microblogging site Weibo.
Meanwhile, production houses and streaming sites have snapped up the adaptation rights of other popular boys’ love novels. Priest, author of Guardian and Word of Honor, will see at least four more of her novels adapted into dramas.
Just as the genre thrives, homosexuality remains taboo in China. While Word of Honor was praised for telling a moving love story, its production team was careful to avoid explicit mentions of homosexuality during the show’s promotion.
One production company initially agreed to talk to VICE about their boys’ love dramas but canceled the interview after learning that the questions will touch on the homosexuality implied in their works.
Knowing viewers jokingly call homoerotic relationships in these dramas “socialist brotherhood,” a reference to how on-screen homosexuality has to be disguised as bromances in line with official state ideology.
While the two protagonists of Youku’s Word of Honor shared intense kisses in the original novel, producers of the drama adaptation had to resort to microexpressions and symbolism to convey the pair’s feelings for each other. Viewers, however, revel in the thrill of discovering these tiny hints of romance that scriptwriters have managed to slip in.
“Everything besides sex and kissing is there,” said Amber Du, a 27-year-old tech worker in Shenzhen, who was obsessively watching Word of Honor. “The drama is not allowed to show explicit love, so everyone has to look for the hints. It’s really entertaining.”
While explicit mentions of homosexuality are banned, its millions of fans had no problem inferring sexual tension between the two leads, from their poetic flirting and lingering eye contact, in almost every episode. One commentator on Weibo even exclaimed, “They are almost doing it with their eyes!”
One needs detectives’ eyes and a great deal of knowledge in traditional Chinese culture in order to get every single hint. For example, the two characters use their swords to cut off each other’s sleeves, a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty reference to gay love. Fans even study the actors’ lip movements, in search of signs that these lines have been re-dubbed to pass censorship.
“Those more erotic shows are cheesy, while this leaves us space for imagination,” said Du, the viewer from Shenzhen. She frequents Word of Honor discussion forums where there are heated discussions over fan theories, a process known as “eat sugar” in Chinese fan circles. Some fans even sexualize the drama scenes through skilled editing.
“I can feel a sort of love that does not exist in the real world,” Du said.
While Chinese boys’ love dramas are a recent phenomenon, boys’ love culture has been around since Japanese yaoi (boys’ love) comics arrived in China in the 90s. In the past two decades, boys’ love literature that began primarily as fan fiction has expanded into original webnovels, many of which have been adapted into audio dramas, animation, and web series.
Most boys’ love content producers and consumers are women. They call themselves funü, literally “rotten women,” the Chinese equivalent of Japan’s fujoshi (the original term for avid boys’ love fans). Some academic studies attribute women’s interest in boys’ love to their suppressed sexuality and a desire to see male characters in a less masculine context. Meanwhile, Chinese fans told VICE that, unlike marriage-driven heterosexual romances, boys’ love stories demonstrate greater equality and purity of love.
Britney Chen, a 20-year-old university student in Hong Kong, from China’s southeastern province of Fujian, said she has read about 2,000 boys’ love webnovels since junior high school. She doesn’t like heterosexual romance novels because they tend to focus on the appearance of women while glossing over their career achievements.
“Reading boys’ love is more enjoyable,” Chen said. “Two people are on equal grounds. They respect each other, fight shoulder to shoulder, and spend their lives together. That’s the kind of love I’m longing for.”
“Reading boys’ love is more enjoyable. … Two people are on equal grounds. They respect each other, fight shoulder to shoulder, and spend their lives together. That’s the kind of love I’m longing for.”
Queerbaiting for cash
For all its appeal to homoeroticism, the boys’ love business in China survives by avoiding any discussion of LGBTQ rights while focusing on the physical attractiveness of its male characters — a combination academics say has contributed to the silencing of sexual minorities in Chinese society.
“By hinting at male homoerotic love, the directors and actors are appropriating the interest of funü and gay life, trying to turn these into cash and traffic,” said Ge Liang, a researcher at King’s College London who studies boys’ love literature in China. “But instead of speaking up for the LGBTQ community, they stay in line with China’s official policy on gay people: keep silent and keep them sinful.”
Most gay people in China still face prevalent discrimination in households, schools, and workplaces. But these struggles are invisible to the public eye, as state censors ban almost all representation of homosexuality in mass media. In 2018, a writer was sentenced to more than 10 years in jail for writing and selling a gay porn novel; months later, when the film Bohemian Rhapsody was released in China, parts depicting Freddie Mercury’s relationships with men were unceremoniously cut.
Gay people in China have pointed out how different boys’ love stories are from their real-life experiences — these characters in dramas are often depicted as young, urbanized, handsome, and wealthy, and rarely come across the hostility that gay people actually face.
Daniel Hsu, a 31-year-old gay man working as a teacher in Beijing, said while many people enjoy watching boys’ love dramas, they may not be interested in the problems confronting gay people in the real world.
“People tend to idealize gay relationships,” he said. “A lot of people don’t try to really understand the LGBTQ community. They simply see LGBTQ-related content as a form of entertainment and eye candy, but do not really pay attention to the LGBTQ community at a societal level.”
“[Boys’ love] does not bring much progress, because it does not touch on real-world problems,” said Yang Yi, a program officer with Guangzhou-based LGBT Rights Advocacy China. “It is using the gay community, but not giving anything compatible in return to the community.”
Best we’ve got
However, some members of the gay community see boys’ love dramas as a precious platform for queer stories. Where Chinese state media often portrays gay men as victims of crime, enemies to traditional values, and sources of social instability, subtle boys’ love dramas have perhaps become the best form of queer representation in China’s state-sanctioned pop culture.
Considering the dismal visibility of the LGBTQ community in Chinese media, some think that any LGBTQ representation is good representation right now.
“The worst thing for the minority is not being consumed; it’s being ignored. But now, even if people can see some subtle [LGBTQ representation] on screen, it’s good,” said Shawn Shao from the Chinese Rainbow Network, a non-profit organization for the members of the Chinese LGBTQ community.
Anthony Shen, a 24-year-old gay man in Beijing and an avid viewer of boys’ love dramas, said that boys’ love dramas, as subtle as their homoerotic undertones may be, could lead to wider public acceptance of the LGBTQ community. These dramas also offer gay people in China “vicarious mental satisfaction,” he said, by seeing their sexuality represented in a repressive environment.
Yang from LGBT Rights Advocacy China said that while he wished gay actors would be given the opportunity to portray same-sex love on screen, it was nonetheless interesting to see straight men trying to act gay. “Sexual minorities are forced to act straight all the time,” Yang said. “Now capitalism is pressuring straight actors to play down their heterosexuality.”
Ge said many viewers, under the influences of longstanding state censorship and society’s heteronormativity, have accepted boys’ love as a subculture that ought to stay on the fringes of the mainstream. “They think it’s precious enough that they get to see it on mainstream platforms,” Ge said.
With tightening control on public discourse in China, few boys’ love fans openly question why they are not allowed to watch two men falling in love. Instead, they marvel at every intimate moment that made it on screen. “How did that pass censorship!” Word of Honor viewers would comment.
But as Chinese censorship goes, the red line is vague and constantly shifting. In March, just as Word of Honor earned an impressive score of 8.6 out of 10 on review site Douban, an op-ed published on state-run Xinhua News Agency warned against the “negative influence” of boys’ love dramas on impressionable teenagers. Many fear this signals an imminent crackdown on the boys’ love genre.
Having overcome injuries and completed their plans for revenge, the two protagonists in Word of Honor spent the rest of their lives together in an ethereal frozen land. Shen, the fan from Beijing, said that while many boys’ love stories end with two men living happily ever after, it is a tough journey for two men to spend their life together in reality. Coming out to their family is the biggest challenge, he said.
“Well, a show is a show, right?” he said. “These shows would always have happy endings. But it's not the same when you go back to reality.”