Slashing the Three Kingdoms:
A Case Study of Fan Production on the Chinese Web

By Xiaofei Tian

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 27, no.1 (Spring 2015), pp. 224-277

In a long tradition of the construction of the Three Kingdoms imaginary, a new chapter has opened at the turn of the twenty-first century in cyberspace, as a group of young Chinese female fans have produced a body of works based on premodern historical and literary texts and on modern movies and TV series about the Three Kingdoms period. This essay explores interrelated issues of media, fandom, and gender in fan production on the Chinese Web by focusing on a particular subset of these fan works, namely male-homoerotic fiction and music videos (MVs), known in fandom slang as “slash” (danmei tongren in Chinese). Although Three Kingdoms slash is but a small part of a vast network of fan production, it nevertheless embodies certain issues that are of central importance for our understanding of contemporary Chinese society: the interface of tradition and postmodernity, the classical literary canon and contemporary popular culture, a super-macho world with traditional patriarchal values and an ultra-female world with bourgeoisie urban sentiments, and, last but not the least, the market economy and state ideology. I argue that the larger scope and impact of cultural change in contemporary China are comparable to the watershed changes that happened in the much-discussed Tang-Song transition in Chinese history, and with its diversity and multiplicity, complications and contradictions, conservatisms and progressiveness, the Three Kingdoms fandom and fan production are like a prism that refracts the dazzling light of these immense sea changes.

The essay opens with a brief survey of Three Kingdoms slash, followed by discussions of their cultural and literary significance through an analysis of specific examples of both. In the last part of the essay, I contextualize such fan production by examining fan activities both within and outside of the fan community, exploring the communal space in which fan productions are posted and received, and offering some general observations on the complex economy of fans, actors, and media producers. I conclude with some preliminary remarks on the larger changes in contemporary Chinese society embodied in this complicated, multifaceted, and multidimensional cultural phenomenon, as well as on the methodologies that enable us to better appreciate it. I argue that, though slash is a global phenomenon, Three Kingdoms slash offers a special Chinese twist by adhering and yet departing from the cultural tradition; and that pleasure, especially the sexual pleasure that binds slash authors and readers together, plays a powerful role that must not be underestimated in our evaluation of slash fandom. Ultimately, writers, producers, actors, and fans are together enacting “a social performance” complicated by the ever-watchful Chinese state, and the authoritative ideological discourse and its contestation both play a prominent part and are inseparably intertwined in fan production based on literary and media fandom.