Romancing the Internet:
Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance

By Jin Feng

Reviewed by Heather Inwood
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2014)

Book cover for Romancing the Internet

Jin Feng
Romancing the Internet:
Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance.
Leiden: Brill, 2013. 193 pp. Contents; Acknowledgments; Appendix: Glossary of Chinese and Japanese Characters; Bibliography; Index
ISBN-13: 9789004222052;
E-ISBN: 9789004259720

Internet literature (网络文学)—typically taken to mean popular fiction—is a big deal in China, generating large sums of money and giving rise to seemingly countless new genres and texts, the most successful of which are adapted into computer games, TV dramas, and films, in the hope of reaping greater economic rewards. According to the figures released in July 2014, literature is the tenth most prevalent activity on the mainland Chinese Internet, with over 289 million people, or 45.8% of China’s online population, using the web to satisfy their literary cravings. Yet, despite the undeniable cultural influence and financial clout of web-based literature, it is only with the 2013 publication of Jin Feng’s Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance, that we have the first English-language book dedicated to a major genre within this hugely significant—as well as simply huge—area of cultural production. Feng offers a fascinating exploration of several sub-genres of romance fiction on the Chinese web, adopting an audience-centered approach to examine how interactive modes of online literary production are shaping the contents of romance fiction as well its reception in the minds of its predominantly female fans. Her focus is on sub-genres of romance fiction that populate her chosen websites Jinjiang Literature City (晋江文学城) and Yaya Bay (丫丫的港湾), from danmei (耽美) and matriarchal (女尊) narratives to fanfic and time-traveling heterosexual love stories. By describing in detail these texts and the desires of those who create and consume them, Feng has opened up a world of literary aesthetics, private aspirations, and social concerns that would otherwise likely remain unknown to anyone who is not already well versed in the modes of Chinese-language online literary production and an avid reader of these texts him- or herself.

Romancing the Internet is shaped by Feng’s decision to concentrate on textual details and audience reception rather than the theoretical questions that her case studies might bring to mind, although conceptual issues related to the interplay of participatory media and literary production are dealt with at times throughout the book, most notably in the Introduction and Chapter 1. Such a textual approach provides a corrective to what she identifies as the overly theoretical bent exhibited by much existing Chinese-language research on the topic, as well as the proclivity of Western scholars to focus on government censorship and civil liberties at the expense of the people involved in producing culture, the texts they produce, and those who consume them.[1] Feng’s source materials, accordingly, give precedence to the literary tastes of the Chinese women who dedicate much of their time to writing and critiquing web-based romance fiction. They include works of fiction, commentaries and verbal exchanges that surround them, multimedia elements such as video clips and cartoons created by fans to supplement their favorite texts, interviews with readers of romance fiction in China and the United States, as well as (most unique of all) Feng’s ethnographic accounts of her own experiences as a participant-observer—or scholar-fan[2]—on literature websites since the late 2000s. Although she modestly describes this approach as “interdisciplinary improvisation,” by combining thick description of fictional texts and audience interactions with observations drawn from literary, media, and sociological studies, Feng not only contextualizes and gives added depth to the genres of writing under investigation, but arguably helps bring scholarship on contemporary Chinese literature in line with developments in cultural and fan studies around the world.

To what extent the kinds of fiction that Romancing the Internet explores can be considered “literature,” or at least creative writings worthy of serious academic enquiry, is a question that is answered implicitly in this book, not least by Feng’s thoughtful attention to what the less knowledgeable reader might view as minor differences in plot and mindset among texts and sub-genres that fall within the broader category of romance fiction. Feng sees her texts as evidence of the abundant creative energies of their female authors as well as the ways in which writers and audiences handle the multiple demands placed on them within a rapidly-changing postsocialist Chinese society. The much-maligned status of romance fiction in China is a recurring theme. As Feng notes early on, the lack of prior scholarship on this topic can be attributed in part to a widespread assumption that such texts are little more than “banal entertainment produced for female consumers” (8) that fail to adhere to the longstanding expectation in China that literature should participate in civil education and nation building. If romance fiction occupies a marginal space within the academy, its value is no less assured among Chinese media consumers; Feng reports how her interview subjects were often reluctant to discuss their online literary activities in person, preferring to disclose their tastes within the anonymous environment of online discussion boards and comments sections. Revealingly, fans have devised a number of justifications for their love of romance fiction, ranging from “maintaining mental and psychological well-being” to “acquiring tips for managing their personal life and relationships” and finding ways of connecting with others online (90). The achievements of Feng’s research lie as much in revealing the validity behind these justifications as in demonstrating how the works of romance fiction she describes deserve to be read and studied on their own merit. Not only do they reflect the many contradictions inherent in contemporary Chinese society, they also perform a number of important functions for their authors and audiences that include appropriating and subverting the more “masculine” cultural products that dominate China’s public sphere and, in doing so, exposing patriarchal oppression and gesturing toward a “different structure of feelings” (108).

Romancing the Internet consists of a short introduction, five main chapters, and a coda that revisits the central question of “What does Chinese Web romance do?” Readers less interested in the ins and outs of Chinese-language romance would at the very least benefit from a careful read of the Introduction and Chapter 1: A Short Genealogy, in which Feng provides a helpful overview of the historical development of romance fiction from premodern “scholar and beauty” (才子佳人) vernacular fiction and the “Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies” writings of the Republican era to the bestselling Taiwanese author Qiong Yao and beyond, contextualizing the genre within the commercialization of Internet literature, the emergence of a “distinct collective consciousness” (32) in China’s post-Reform era, and evolving social and political attitudes toward romantic love. This chapter also wrestles with some of the thornier questions facing scholars of popular fiction, such as: What value is there to be found in repeatedly reading and writing what appear to be slightly different versions of the same highly generic text (41)? And how can we make sense of the retrograde tendency evident in much Chinese Internet fiction, epitomized in the trope of backward-moving time-travel, especially in light of twentieth-century Chinese literature’s preference for the tropes of modernization and progress (35-38)?

Feng’s answers to these questions are outlined in Chapter 1 before being explored in detail in the four chapters that follow. One of the overarching arguments of this book is that online romance fiction is riddled with contradictions that reflect the position in which its female authors often find themselves in early twenty-first century China, pulled between, on the one hand, a growing feminist consciousness and desire for powerful heroines who excel within the public sphere and, on the other, a more traditional understanding of femininity that prioritizes domestic roles within the home and family. Ultimately, Feng finds that many works of romance fiction demonstrate an “inward turn” (40, 51, 135, 173, 175) or “inscape,” defined as a “retreat into the sanctity of the interior self” (40). Rather than a reflection of continued female subjugation, this can be considered a form of empowerment, as it encourages authors and readers to give creative expression to new kinds of gender identities and sexual relationships that, as subsequent chapters further illustrate, rewrite male-centered narratives and, at times, push the limits of social acceptability. Another feature of web-based romance noted by Feng is the tendency of its audiences to extrapolate from fiction to real life and vice versa, a style of reading that some scholars consider a “gender-specific approach to narrative comprehension” (45). Feng does not dispute the possible gendered nature of reading strategies that blur the lines between fact and fiction, noting that this, too, can be construed as a means of rewriting or reinterpreting existing male-centered narratives in a way that better suits the intentions of female authors and the interests of their fans. The degree to which readings of fictional texts are integrated into the lives of those who consume them, Feng adds, is related to the close-knit social interactions on literary websites, whereby participatory online reading practices possess a pleasure of their own and challenge the boundaries between the genre of romance and the lived experiences of its fans.

Feng begins her examination of some of the major sub-genres of romance with a look at danmei fiction published on Jinjiang Literature City in Chapter 2: Addicted to Beauty (an earlier version of which was first published in MCLC). Not dissimilar to the average profile of readers of online fiction, the age of Jinjiang users tends to be in the 18 to 30 range and most of them possess the “three highs” of high social status, high educational level, and high salary (53). Feng outlines the introduction of the danmei genre into mainland China from Japan (where it is known as tanbi) via Taiwan in the early 1990s, suggesting that the relatively young age of its fans might help explain their acceptance of the textual features and themes that define the genre, most saliently its depictions of love and sex between men. Although Feng concedes that readers of danmei fiction include some gay men and women, her focus in this chapter is on heterosexual women who find in male same-sex romances evidence of a “romantic love that transcends mundane considerations” (72) and use the genre to impersonate a kind of “idealized masculinity,” even if only in an imagined, temporary form. Feng also explores the concept of the “androgynous reader,” put forward by the American romance writer Laura Kinsale, who hypothesizes that women readers use the female protagonist or “vapid heroine” in romance fiction to vicariously experience the fictional world, while actually identifying most strongly with the more powerful male hero. Similarly, Feng suggests that heterosexual female fans of danmei fiction relate to male characters as the “orienting force” of the narratives they consume at the same time as they fantasize about a kind of androgynous male beauty that might mitigate “the potential threat of aggressive masculinity” (80). Given the amount and variety of sex that takes place in Chinese danmei novels (see, for example, 75-76, and the reference to father-son incest, 81), Feng’s conclusion about the appeal of danmei fiction to its fans is curiously chaste: women use the genre to “explore their subjectivity, challenge dominant cultural norms, and cross gender and generic boundaries” (82). While this may well be true, one cannot help but wonder whether the aforementioned reticence of danmei fans—known pejoratively as “rotten women” (腐女), although they also claim this term as a positive identity label—to talk about the more taboo aspects of their online literary habits might be one factor behind this chapter’s lack of focus on sexual desire, heterosexual or otherwise.

Chapter 3: “Men Conquer the World and Women Save Mankind” explores what seems at first glance to be the most identifiably “feminist” of the romance genres under examination in this book: matriarchal fiction. As the name implies, these are novels set in a society ruled by supremely powerful women. In many instances, these women enjoy similar pleasures to the male protagonists in so-called “stud fiction,” achieving great success in the public arena and availing themselves of an unlimited number of heterosexual lovers. Somewhat predictably, what matriarchal fiction reveals about the inner lives of its female authors and readers is a yearning to free themselves from the limitations associated with their gender as well as to “participate in a communal life” online and “rewrite patriarchal narratives” (91). In a welcome discovery, Feng also observes that romantic relationships are less central to matriarchal fiction than to the other sub-genres explored in her book; the heroine has equal recourse to success in political, military, and business realms. While women take center stage, men—again, unsurprisingly—are relegated to domestic roles. The potentially subversive implications of this reversal of power structures are lessened, however, by the tendency of matriarchal fiction writers to submit their female protagonists to the hand of fate, attributing their power to hereditary factors such as a noble birth rather than to hard work or initiative (93). Equally suspect is the propensity of matriarchal fiction’s heroines to flee, often via the trope of time travel, to an imagined historical past that contains the promise of a “more satisfying emotional life” as well as an opportunity to achieve success despite often having failed to do so in the modern world from whence their travels began (94). Chapter 3 also includes summaries of three matriarchal novels, offering compelling textual analysis of their appeal to fans and using them as further evidence of the contradictions that characterize life for women in postsocialist China, torn between the pressures of procreation and the possibilities of an “expansionist, excessive female ambition” (107).

Chapter 4: Rewriting Classics, Righting Wrongs, examines in more detail the ways in which authors and fans of online romance appropriate the contents of existing texts and media in writing and responding to works of fiction, a tendency already noted in earlier chapters. This is the part of the book that draws most directly on Feng’s ethnographic experiences as a scholar-fan as well as on fan studies scholarship, opening with John Fiske’s definition of fandom as “a peculiar mix of cultural determinations” that reworks values from the official culture at the same time as it is formed “outside and against” that culture (109). Chinese fanfic (同人小说) finds its inspiration in a familiar set of sources: popular TV dramas (especially Chinese and Korean soap operas), martial arts novels by contemporary authors such as Jin Yong, Japanese manga and anime, Western bestsellers ranging from Jane Eyre to Harry Potter, and the Five Masterpieces of premodern Chinese vernacular fiction (117). Missing from this list are any works or genres of modern and contemporary Chinese literary fiction, which presumably could be explained by their lack of visibility online, general unpopularity among young readers today, as well as the relative difficulties in adapting them into the commercial, world-expanding media of television dramas and computer games. Feng makes the intriguing suggestion that premodern vernacular novels are especially amenable to rewriting online because they themselves drew upon many (in some cases, hundreds of) years of theatrical and storytelling folk traditions (118). Thus, not only do writers of web-based fanfic avoid potential allegations of plagiarism, they too participate in the continued circulation and evolution of narratives that have always been molded to fit differing audiences and historical eras. One author who has come in for some of the most pointed parodies and rewritings in the hands of her online “fans” is Qiong Yao, whose romance novels and their television and film adaptations are subverted into “anti-Qiong Yao fanfic” that denigrates the original hero/heroine and improves the lot of “unfortunate minor characters” in the source text (128). Again, Feng finds that the reception of anti-Qiong Yao fanfic reveals both feminist attitudes and a subconscious acceptance of traditional beliefs about femininity. Such contradictions lie at the heart of fan fiction, supporting theoretical conceptualizations of the genre as an “open archive” or “open canon” of texts (136) that is always being changed, rewritten, added to, and appropriated by other works.

In Chapter 5: How to Make Mr. Right, Feng turns her attentions to the genre-defining proclivity of female audiences to read romance fiction with the goal of identifying the intended hero, or the most suitable coupling of love interests (aka the “official coupling” or 官配), of these texts. This is the most notable of a series of interpretive strategies under examination here; others include incorporating elements from international current affairs into readers’ comments, privileging a biographical or autobiographical mode of meaning-making, using one’s imagination to fill in any gaps in the narrative (a phenomenon known as 脑补), and bringing in discussion of other texts and media when responding to a particular work (148). A large part of the chapter is concerned with describing and making sense of idealized depictions of men in texts written by women. Feng makes a debatable distinction between the tendency of male-oriented literature to depict women as “objects of men’s delectation” and the desire of female authors to “compare, critique, and mold male figures to their hearts’ content” (146); I for one do not see these two tendencies as so different from one another. The wanton fictional exploitation of the opposite sex that seems to be so prevalent in online popular fiction is doubtless related to the gender divide that is a big part of the marketing and publishing of Chinese Internet literature (more on this below).

One question that arises from Feng’s examination of “Mr. Right” in this chapter relates, yet again, to the potentially contradictory combination of modern and traditional traits with which female authors and readers imbue their heroes. As she observes, although the desired mixture of characteristics such as “monogamy, reserve, intellectual power, practical skills, and physical strength” may not chime with earlier representations of male characters in premodern or modern Chinese fiction, who tended more toward the “delicate, sensitive, and frequently polygamous and effusive” (145), contemporary online romance authors nonetheless demonstrate an overwhelming preference for setting their stories in the historical past. Feng’s explanation for this is two-fold: not only does a premodern background offer “easier access to fantasy” than a modern setting, allowing female authors and readers to overlook the complete lack of any such perfect men in contemporary China, it also creates greater opportunities for “role-playing and playacting” (146). There is potential to take this observation further by drawing upon theories of world-building put forward by scholars of literary, game, and media studies.[3] For many authors of genre fiction, premodern China serves as a kind of transfictional “persistent world” that nonetheless possesses a flexible relationship with the actual historical past.[4] Online popular fiction’s reluctance to do away with recognizable historical settings coexists with its fantastical cravings: works are often labeled as jiakong (架空) or “built upon air,” yet are anchored in historical “reality” through references to verifiable dates, dynasties, figures, religions, social traditions, and so on. Fantasies thus seem born not so much from the building of (more or less) wholly fictional worlds, à la Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, but from online collective reimaginings of the premodern Chinese world, into which diverse contemporary subjectivities are transposed. In one sense, then, authors of romance fiction and other similarly fantastical genres that can be found on the Internet are participating in the rewriting of history that has always accompanied each new dynasty or political era in China, one key difference being that the level of artistic license claimed by these writers has exponentially increased.

The Coda to Romancing the Internet rearticulates many of Jin Feng’s earlier arguments in the five main chapters about identity creation, textual appropriation, conflicting notions of femininity, and the blurred boundaries between fiction and reality in online romance fiction, while offering some further thoughts regarding what the genre might tell us about Chinese modernity. Some of these claims are more persuasive than others. Feng suggests, for example, that Haiyan Lee’s conceptualization of the modern emotive self, particularly the Enlightenment structure of feelings favored during the May Fourth era, is “conspicuously absent from Web romances” (174). Instead, authors promote a version of the self that is at once heroic, extraordinary or even superhuman, resourceful, and powerful, while maintaining a belief both in traditional ethics and the importance of pursuing modern ideals such as “individual freedom, democracy, and wealth.” This may well point to what Feng terms a “peculiar form of hybrid and refurbished modern identity” that is holding sway in “postmodern Chinese cyberspace” (175).

Feng’s argument that female Chinese authors are not only using romance fiction to destigmatize “everything feminine” but also to guard against the threat of the market economy is less persuasive. While she devotes plenty of attention to the sociological aspects of online community-based interactions, the commercial features of literature websites are largely taken for granted in this study, dealt with only briefly in the Introduction and then left unaddressed. So many of the ways in which literature is written, shared, critiqued, adapted, tweaked, responded to, endorsed, and, yes, sold for money on the Chinese Internet are deeply shaped by the principles of a market economy that it would be naïve to suggest (and I don’t think this is Feng’s intention) that authors of romance fiction are any less interested in promoting or selling their works than other writers of online fiction. How to simultaneously entertain, convince, and keep enthralled an anonymous mass audience who may bear only a passing resemblance to oneself is another of the challenges that female authors of romance fiction confront on a daily basis. It is, moreover, a challenge shared by any cultural producers who rely on their art to make or supplement their living, pulled between what often seem to be the conflicting needs to maintain integrity to oneself (or any number of social identities) and achieve commercial viability.

In concluding, I would like to mention a few points that strike me as worthy of further attention and/or debate, points that by no means take away from the achievements of this trail-blazing book. I personally find some of Feng’s gender-based assumptions and generalizations to be questionable; she seems to accept as fact female writers’ depictions of male-authored fiction as sexist and misogynistic across the board, using terms such as “male-oriented,” “male-centered,” or “stud” to justify the existence of a contrasting set of texts created by women to mitigate the threat of living in a male-dominated world both in fiction and in “real life.” While there doubtless exists a need for popular fiction written by and for women that champions women’s rights and gives creative expression to “female” viewpoints and aesthetics, that is not to say that such fiction cannot be, and is not, also read and enjoyed by men. The same can be said of “male-oriented” fiction, which by Feng’s deductions seems to refer to everything apart from romance. Not only can male-authored fiction include romantic (and not just sex-focused) elements, but women, too, can and do read and enjoy fiction that places male protagonists at its center and disregards the potential for romantic love. Unless careful ethnographic surveys are completed and corroborated with offline data, moreover, it is almost impossible to ascertain the gender identities or sexualities of the writers and readers who occupy the anonymous/pseudonymous spaces of literature websites. Doubtless plenty of women would rather immerse themselves in the so-called “male-oriented” genres mentioned in Chapter 1 (for example doomsday fiction or 末世小说, web-game fiction or 网游小说, or even male-centered time travel fiction 穿越小说) than many of the novels and genres described in these chapters: not all popular fiction written by men is unbearably sexist, just as not all women read popular fiction in search of the ideal man or hero, another point that is left out of this book (what about the tastes of gay men and women, for example?). At the risk of taking this point too far, I wonder whether such a gender-focused approach to web romance, while useful in certain respects, also runs the risk of reifying the very same binary gender divisions and stereotypes that apparently motivate many female authors of romance fiction (these divisions are encouraged, not incidentally, by the clear separation of most literature websites into a “women’s web” 女生网 or “women’s fiction” 女生小说 and all remaining, by default “male-oriented” genres of fiction). It will be interesting to read future scholarship on Chinese Internet fiction that deals with the issue of gender in different ways and from different theoretical perspectives; there is clearly much more to be said on this topic.

Finally, there is also more that can be written about the theoretical questions thrown up by the remediation of popular fiction on the Internet and the highly social, interactive modes of writing, sharing, and reading that accompany it.[5] Two of the questions I was left ruminating on after reading this book relate to the prevalence of appropriation and adaptation in online texts and, relatedly, to the definition of “the text itself” in this “age of limitless digital reproduction” (42). As Feng argues in Chapter 1, repetition and reduplication within and among texts need not diminish the Benjaminian aura of fiction as a work of art: instead of absence, these features convey the presence of the creators of fiction, whose unique styles of “repetitive production and consumption” offer meaning and pleasure in their own right.[6] These themes of appropriation and repetition could have been productively linked to Feng’s referencing elsewhere of scholarship in fan studies and the concept of the “open archive”; it is arguably not just fanfic that contributes to this, as discussed in Chapter 4, but any text that borrows from previous texts and is in turn the conscious or unconscious, acknowledged or unacknowledged inspiration for future acts of textual world-building and world-expansion. Neither is it just appropriation and repetition that challenge the boundaries of “the text” in the age of the Internet: the social interactions that surround online fiction, while typically treated as “paratext” or “metatext,” might equally be considered an integral part of the literary work, especially when it is often the possibility of dialogue with fellow readers rather than the novel per se that draws people to read online (156).

Secondly, Feng’s concluding remarks about the ethics of textual appropriation and value of these writings within the arts and humanities deserve further development. Her insightful suggestion that “to appropriate is to practice a unique form of empathy, for it requires imaginative reconstitution and recasting of the source on the part of the borrower” (173) could be more explicitly connected to an earlier supposition that developments in Internet literature might not just change fiction writing in China but have a wider effect on the “mores and sensibilities” of contemporary Chinese society at large (82). Needless to say, this kind of audience-focused genre study, on its own, cannot answer these questions; such a project would require examination of a range of materials, contexts, and people that far exceed two websites and the authors and audiences who populate them. It is to Jin Feng’s great credit, however, that this task has begun in earnest: if Chinese genre fiction proceeds at its current speed of growth and diversification both on- and off-line, Romancing the Internet will surely come to be known as one of the seminal texts that helped reconfigure scholarly understanding of what contemporary Chinese literature can be and the complex roles that it can play in the lives of those who produce and consume it.

Heather Inwood
University of Manchester


[1] This is a point first made by Michel Hockx in his pioneering work on Chinese Internet literature; for more, see his forthcoming monograph Internet Literature in China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

[2] Matthew Hills, Fan Cultures (London: Routledge, 2002).

[3] See, for example, Eric Hayot, On Literary Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); David Herman, Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013); Colin B. Harvey, Marie-Laure Ryan, and Jan-Noël Thon, eds., Storyworlds across Media: Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014); T. L. Taylor, Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009); Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[4] “Persistent world” is a term used in game studies to refer to a game world that continues to exist and evolve even when a player is not actively playing within it. Transfictionality, according to Marie-Laure Ryan, denotes “the migration of fictional entities across different texts.” Unlike a transmedial world, a transfictional world can exist across texts within the same medium. For online time-traveling narratives, premodern China continues to exist, and history continues to progress, regardless of when characters travel back in time and the historical eras they enter. As in a role-playing game, they can change the course of history—or alter the historical narrative—by becoming subjectively involved in the environment in which they find themselves. For more on transfictionality and persistent worlds see Marie-Laure Ryan, “Transfictionality across Media,” in Theorizing Narrativity (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), 385–418; Marie-Laure Ryan, “Transmedial Storytelling and Transfictionality,” Poetics Today 34, no. 3 (2013): 362–88.

[5] For more on the concept of remediation see, for example, J. David Bolter and Richard A Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000); J. David Bolter, Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print, 2nd ed (Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001); Astrid Erll and Ann Rigney, Mediation, Remediation, and the Dynamics of Cultural Memory (Walter de Gruyter, 2009).

[6] I have made a similar point in my own research on poetry communities in the age of the Internet, unfortunately before having read this book. See Heather Inwood, Verse Going Viral: China’s New Media Scenes (Seattle: University Of Washington Press, 2014), 41, 44, 194.