Boys Love media in China
November 12, 2019 11:41 AM   Subscribe

After watching Nirvana in Fire (at Mefi's recommendation!) I've been looking up other Chinese shows and came across a genre of media known there as BL, or Boys Love. As I understand it BL involves gay male protagonists and ranges from the implied to the erotic. It's apparently popular enough that huge, expensive, popular historical romances are being made — e.g. The Untamed. My question is: wait, what? Isn't mainland China famously restrictive, especially lately, of LGBTQ+ representation in media? How is it possible that BL is essentially mainstream there?

It's possible that this is all less popular than I think and perhaps the BL fans have mobbed reviews sites in their enthusiasm. But I've seen other shows and media and read a few (very few) posts and articles indicating that it's actually a pretty big thing (as one might imagine anything beloved by the necessarily large queer community over there must be).

I know in Japan there are the yuri and yaoi genres, but I don't think they're comparable? I'm just really interested in how this all sort of works and there's not a lot that I can see online that puts it in context.
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
China is still considers content like this to be obscene. Here is a recent news story about a female author sentenced to 10 years in prison for creating this kind of content.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 12:29 PM on November 12, 2019

Chinese BL definitely shares a lot of tropes with Japanese yaoi (and western slash to a lesser degree). Enforcement seems intermittent, but some fiction sites are periodically purged, leading to an influx of Chinese fans at AO3. Visual media enforcement is much stricter - see The Untamed removing all kissing and graphic sex scenes.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:18 PM on November 12, 2019

As someone who's a fan of danmei (the Chinese equivalent of BL), the situation, as I understand it, is that you can get away with different levels of explicitness in the depiction of gay romance depending on the medium you're working in.

Let's take The Untamed as an example. The original novel on which it is based, Mo Dao Zu Shi/Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (MDZS) is centered around the explicitly romantic relationship between the two male leads: they get married, (sort of) adopt a kid together, and there are multiple graphic sexual scenes of them together. The audio drama adaptation of MDZS stays very close to the novel, with the only real change being that any sex scenes are implied/glossed over; otherwise, everything else is the same. The donghua/animated adaptation (which is still incomplete) keeps a lot of the same story beats, but so far has focused on the flashback storyline, which isn't explicitly romantic because the leads at the time were dumb teenagers, and the romance only really gets developed in the present storyline, which the donghua hasn't really gotten to yet.

The Untamed is definitely the most loose adaptation; there are still plenty of Significant Looks and close interactions between the two leads, but everything stays within the realm of vaguely plausible "brotherhood" - though, props to the production team, they tried to sneak in as many nudges to the original novel and the true nature of the relationship as much as they can. I'll note that The Untamed also had to change a lot of other, non-LGBT elements that are currently anathema to Chinese government censors: the name of the show was changed to remove any reference to demonic powers, certain plotlines were tweaked so that the lead character was no longer morally ambiguous, and all the zombies are now...things that look and act like, but are definitely not, zombies.

tl;dr you can get away with implied gay romance on tv if on some level it can be handwaved as "brotherhood" or "camaraderie"; you can definitely get away with it in webnovels (though there's been a recent crackdown on explicit sex scenes and authors are encouraged to write "wholesome" characters); the standards are always changing, but gay relationships are definitely not the only thing the censors care about so maybe if you throw in a few zombies for them to zero in on you can get away with as much as The Untamed did.
posted by Dante Riordan at 1:24 PM on November 12, 2019 [12 favorites]

How interesting, thanks for such a detailed answer. I would never have guessed that something even loosely based on an explicitly gay romance would get greenlit at all while people are going to jail for writing things like that. I guess it's a very "letter of the law" situation.

Goes to show how little I know about this whole topic!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 1:47 PM on November 12, 2019

I would never have guessed that something even loosely based on an explicitly gay romance would get greenlit at all while people are going to jail for writing things like that. I guess it's a very "letter of the law" situation.

Another thing to consider is that The Untamed is produced by Tencent, which is a giant company with powerful, well-connected executives, and the author who was sentenced to prison was just one random person. Frequently what you'll see in China is that rule of law is very unevenly applied, and is mostly levied on those without power and who don't have the right connections. That's why The Untamed, and many other dramas based on danmei source material, can be made, while individual authors can arbitrarily have their novels locked away from public access (like MDZS currently is) or get arrested.
posted by Dante Riordan at 2:32 PM on November 12, 2019 [7 favorites]

Thanks again for this context. What a world.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:28 AM on November 13, 2019

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