Boy’s Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer
Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan

Edited by Maud Lavin, Ling Yang, and Jing Jamie Zhao

Reviewed by Shana Ye
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2019)

Maud Lavin, Ling Yang, and Jing Jamie Zhao, eds Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2017. 292 pp. ISBN 978-9888390809 (hardback $60).

Many students in my Gender and East Asian Culture class are amazed by the almost omnipresent representation of androgynous pop idols, sexually ambiguous celebrities, and gender-bending TV shows in both Chinese mainstream media and fan communities. These cultural proliferations seem to contradict what they have in mind of what China is like from the perspective of their everyday North American lives. Some of the students, especially those with a feminist background who are concerned with the relationships between new forms of queer desire and transnational digital capitalism ironically reinscribe queer transgression into stereotypes of “Asian gender/sexual transitions.” For those who themselves are practitioners of boy’s love, cosplay, and queer cultural production, different media industries and grassroots fandom culture provide new windows through which to reflect on questions of nationality, belonging, cosmopolitan identity, and heteropatriarchy. Yet, a large number of the students still have trouble distinguishing China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea from one another.

The recent volume edited by Maud Lavin, Ling Yang, and Jing Jamie Zhao provides prismatic vantage points on some important questions my students are grappling with: self-identification, racialization, fluidity, hybridity, border transgressing, cross-cultural imagination, agency and resistance in the age of global media, cyber activism, and advanced digital communication. As the editors of the volume state in their opening pages, Chinese-speaking queer fandom culture is shaped by “complex transregional, cross-cultural, and transnational cultural flows among East Asian cultures and between the East and the West” (xii). Exploring queer fandoms in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan “helps to illuminate cultural differences among locations and the competing forces and factors influencing geocultural dissimilarities” (xiii). It is an ambitious study poised to become an important addition to the Anglo-American tradition of media fan research, celebrity fandom studies, and the “origin story” of Japan-focused boys-love (BL) cultures (xiv). A first of its kind in examining Chinese queer fan culture, the volume nevertheless by no means assumes Chinese-centric exceptionalism; rather, it places local specificity, transnationality, and a “non-hegemonic subversive definition of Chineseness” (xix), quoting Howard Chiang, at the center of its intellectual and empirical inquiries.

What I want to highlight first is how the study of Sinophone queer fan culture in the volume provides refreshing insights and analytical tools with which to contemplate the intersections among gender, sexuality, and geopolitics at the present moment of cosmopolitan world making and globalization. It locates creative fan practices and queer desires within the political and social structures that give rise to such BL cultural products and highlights the complexity of gendered, sexual, racial, and political identities. Unlike works that study cultural differences for the sake of cultural differences, essays in this volume employ queer fandom as a lens through which to inquire into the norms and ideals in contemporary public cultural and scholarly discourses surrounding nation states, linguistics, geopolitics, ethnicities, genders, and sexualities (xii), an objective that resonates with those of us who work on transnational queer cultures.

Chapters by Ling Yang, Weijung Chang, and Egret Lulu Zhou serve as excellent examples. Examining the online Chinese fandom formed around a Japanese anime that anthropomorphizes nations and world histories into BL characters, Yang sees Chinese fans’ creation of allegories of world politics—including World War II, the Cold War rivalry, US globalism, and Sino-African relations, just to mention few—as a “vehicle for political expression” (46). She argues that flexible gender formation in fan production coincides with trans/national visions, border crossing, and intercultural dialogues (58). Similarly, Weijung Chang’s chapter explores the intricate relation between Japanophilia and Taiwanese BL fan culture. Engaging with the work of Fran Martin, another contributor to the volume, Chang investigates the ways in which Taiwanese fans negotiate the contradictory image of Japan as something both familiar and foreign (xxvi). Both Martin and Chang emphasize the role Japan plays in facilitating BL fantasies and a sense of national belonging in postcolonial Taiwan through a romanticized Japanese modernity (188), but carefully avoid the trap of conceiving Japanese BL as original and authentic. They stress autonomy and agency as well as cultural and racial anxiety, and they ask questions about how increasing cross-regional mobility will shift the affective topography of such an imagination (189). Analyzing creative queer readings of Dongfang Bubai, a classic character of martial arts novelist Jin Yong, as gay, heterosexual, and lesbian, respectively, Zhou’s research connects online fan cultural practice to the history of the Cultural Revolution, postcolonial experiences, and the post-Mao rise of the television industry. The chapter also provides insights into China’s LGBT and feminist movements by comparing different adaptations of the fictional character.

Scholars of Sinophone queer studies have long pointed out a homonationalist framework when studying transnational and non-Western queer cultures, in which locations such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan are regarded as queer-friendly as opposed to the backward, heteronormative, communist PRC. The volume cautiously tackles the issues of queer liberalism by making explicit the transregional, cross-cultural, and transnational cultural flows among East Asian cultures and between East and West. Lavin’s chapter, for instance, explores how Hong Kong-based, mainland-born fans of mainland idol Li Yuchun employ queer cultural consumption to negotiate prejudice and bigotry toward mainlanders and to search for a sense of belonging (157). Li’s gender and sexual ambiguity and cosmopolitan persona, Lavin tells us, allow her to be imagined by her fans as a fresh face of China that defies the image of the backward, non-Western/uncivilized “communist” mainland perpetuated by the legacy of the Cold War and of British colonialism (164). A provocative reading of queer gossip discourse surrounding the American popular TV show The L Word, Zhao’s chapter rejects the simple colonial and orientalist divide between the queer West and heterocentric China while still attending to heteropatriarchal realities in Chinese society. Rather than seeing Chinese fans as passively subjecting themselves to the imagination of a Western queer utopia, Zhao provides a nuanced view on queer Occidentalism as a tactic for online queer Chinese fans to carve out some public space offline and to “interrogate and remodify the current unsatisfactory queer realities” (72). When it comes to the topic of official censorship of BL content in the PRC, a topic that could easily fall into the trap of Cold War Orientalism, the editors instead challenge a polarized resistance/capitulation model and advocate for understanding these tensions in their specific contexts at moments of interaction between fans and officialdom (xxi).

Another important dimension of the volume is its critical engagement with questions of agency and normativity. Focusing on the grassroots danmei (the Chinese word for BL) distribution networks and fan communities, Yang and Yanrui Xu document the rise of a women-dominated online public sphere in the past two decades. This “unique transnational public space” (15) offers women opportunities to gather, break taboos, and share their social concerns, but the anonymity of online forums has also fueled a female aggressiveness that is simultaneously empowering and conducive to virulent nationalism and political conservatism. In a similar vein, Eva Cheuk Yi Li’s essay explores the tension between the desire to be queer and the struggle with normativity. As Li makes clear, fans’ queer readings of lesbian celebrity Denise Ho Wan-see (also known as HOCC) can coexist with homophobia, and producing queer fan culture does not necessarily challenge patriarchy and misogyny. In examining ideal queer consumption, the relationship between queer fan culture and LGBT rights-based activism, class mobility, and techno elitism, the book wrestles with the intricacies of agency and normativity, encouraging readers to further complicate the resistance/capitulation dichotomy, a dilemma shared by many scholars in the study of Asian queerness.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking question the book asks is what insights current studies of queerness and sexuality could gain if we considered BL (as well as other terms such as danmei, funü, fujoshi, yaoi otaku, etc.) as a distinct sexual orientation (xxvii). The chapters by Shih-chen Chao and Shuyan Zhou, among others, provide ample examples of new forms of queer sexuality that challenge the conventional notions of LGBTQ identities—forms of sexual being and experience primarily based on a Westernized history of sexuality. Does the “double performativity” (34) of male cosplayers or Chinese netizens’ parodies of subversive fantasies (106) render new forms of affective and sexual attachments? Does the pleasure queer fandom offers forge new types of sexual relationships that replace real persons with virtual ones?

A key strength of the volume comes from its determination to decenter “China” by both questioning a univocal Chinese identity, tradition, or culture (xix) and by emphasizing plurality, heterogeneity, transregionality, and location-specific understandings of cultures. To achieve such goals, however, I would have hesitated to divide the chapters into the sections “China,” “Hong Kong,” and “Taiwan,” which might reinforce the essentialist geopolitical division of these three. Instead, the volume would have benefited from stitching the chapters together more closely by their thematic threads as laid out in the introduction. The book also could have been balanced by including voices and experiences from queer fans and cultural producers from rural areas and with working-class backgrounds. A majority of examples showcased in the book feature cosmopolitan, urban, young, and perhaps middle-class consumer-citizens, who might not best embody the definition of “low-end globalization” (xxi) and “grassroots” (xxii) that the volume sets out to engage. Still, overall, Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols is an exemplary collection that brings readers closer to the transnational, hybrid, and contested Chinese-speaking queer world. The textual and discursive analyses of media and fan cultures are given life by engaged and situated ethnographies. It adds theoretical and empirical valences to current Japan-focused BL studies and Anglo-American media fan studies. This book should be on any undergraduate course syllabus about Asian or Chinese queer culture and media.

Shana Ye
University of Toronto