Boys’ love brings edgy drama to China, and a backlash

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01/18/2021

For years, Chinese television dramas were the poor cousins of Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese soap operas. A 2018 Chinese remake of the Taiwanese show Meteor Garden is a good example. Following the tensions between a poor girl and four rich boys, the mainland version was unwatchable. A drama about class divisions set in present-day China – where class divisions aren’t up for discussion – was never going to work. Yet just a year later, Chinese TV hit on the secret sauce: take out the women, set it in a fantasy world, and ramp up the sexual tension between the boys. Boys’ love, or BL, is the new black, and Chinese audiences and readers can’t get enough of it. While a decade ago this genre was bubbling away in the quietest corners of the Chinese internet, a series of hit online and TV dramas mean BL is now big business. Boys’ love isn’t new, dating back to 1960s fan fiction that saw Captain Kirk and Doctor Spock finally acting on the sexual tension between the characters portrayed by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. It’s a genre that’s still going strong. Known as danmei (耽美 – indulging beauty) in Chinese, the tradition has strong roots in Korea and Japan. While the writing feels thoroughly queer, there’s a twist. Boys’ love is largely written by women, for women, and has little connection to gay fiction and even less with the often-grim reality of gay life in China.

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