Chinese BL: Of Soft Power and Censorship

Boys Love in China or Chinese BL dramas are so lucrative that the censors have begun to crack down on its ‘subversive non-traditional’ depiction of love and romance. But why curtail an industry that brings in the dollars and helps the economy?

The answer to that may not be as simple as some people think.

Background – Before the advent of BL

Among all BL contents, the Chinese offer the most relatable gay storylines that are reconciled with the BL theme of boy x boy relationships. Perhaps it has something to do with inspiration? Below are two top-tier gay movies before the rise of BL in China.

Farewell my Concubine

In 1993, Farewell My Concubine was shown outside mainland China. Adapted from the novel by Lilian Lee, it depicts a politically tumultuous 20th-century China, from the early days of the Republic of China to the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. It chronicles the troubled relationships between two Peking opera actors and lifelong friends, and one of the actor’s wife.

Farewell My Concubine (1993)
Farewell My Concubine (1993), Palme d’Or winner at 1993 Cannes Film Festival | Beijing Film Studio, Miramax Films

It won the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. It was heavily censored inside mainland China but was still released (after numerous cuts) in order to boost the Olympic games in Beijing in 2000.

Lan Yu

In 2001, Lan Yu was made. This gay-themed Hong Kong-Mainland Chinese film is set in Beijing by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan. The movie is based on a novel published anonymously on the Internet in 1998. It was filmed without the government’s permission. The anonymity and secrecy were the results of its depiction of Tiananmen Square and its feature of full frontal nudity. Both themes are taboo in China, for obvious reasons.

Lan Yu (2001)
Lan Yu premieres at Cannes Film Festival | Yongning Creative Workshop

While both films were shown in different timelines, it paved the way for the rise of BL and gay-related content – via web series since the internet has already advanced to the point where video shows can be released by streaming programs.

Chinese BL: Headliners

Chinese BL dramas started to sprout as early as 2013.

Notable BL titles include Like Love, Mr. X and I, A Round Trip to Love, and Advance Bravely. Unlike Thai BL, there is more fluidity in Chinese BL as far as boy x boy romance is concerned. There is an obvious blur between gay characters and BL’s persona in the way of depiction.

Addicted: Heroin (2016)

Chinese BL: Addicted (2016) poster

In 2016, Addicted, a 15-episode Chinese BL series about the love story of two young men who go to school together was taken off the air on the orders of the NRTA (a.k.a. Chinese censor agency). The last three episodes of the first season were uploaded a few days later to the official YouTube channel of Huace Film & TV, accessible to viewers outside of mainland China.

Despite the series’ cancellation, the two main actors (Huang Jingyu and Xu Weizhou) continue to gain in popularity. But on April 2016, it was reported that the second season was permanently shelved. A specific Chinese censor agency has also unofficially banned the two actors from appearing on television or at any event together.

The final directive: Ban productions that “show abnormal sexual relationships and behaviors, such as incest, same-sex relationships, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual violence.”

The Untamed (2019)

Chinese BL: The Untamed (2010) poster

Fast forward to 2019, Chinese BL standout The Untamed garnered up to 200 million views per day and over 70 million yuan (about US$9.6 M) in viewing fees on Tencent during the final months of its release in 2019.

Adapted from the novel “Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation” by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, The Untamed is a Chinese BL series that breaks plenty of boy x boy barriers. Utilizing the ‘smoldering stare’ and lack of physical intimacy, it remains quite effective in rendering the romantic relationship between the main protagonist Wei Wu Xian (Xiao Zhan), and Lan Wang Ji (Wang Yi Bo).

Gifted with acting skills and intense, believable on-screen chemistry, The Untamed never bores and always provides excitement when you least expected it. This is a historical romance BL of the highest caliber.

The Untamed is currently #6 in our Best Boys Love series hitlist.

Chinese BL has spread beyond its borders and is now considered one of the country’s soft power (compared to South Korea’s K-pop and K-drama). Accordingly, BL literature (known as Danmei) has also crept into mainstream culture.

Author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (who wrote Heaven Official’s Blessing, among others) landed on the New York Times bestseller list during the first week of his books’ release:

  • Heaven Official’s Blessing Vol. 1 debuted at #8
  • Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation Vol. 1 debuted at #9
  • The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System Vol. 1 debuted at #14

Why there’s Chinese BL Censorship?

Despite content alterations and edits, authorities still aim to choke the Chinese BL genre because it mainly targets teenagers and the youth. According to screenwriter Wang Hailin, gay love is sickening, and promoting it is tantamount to committing a crime. He expounds:

Danmei is a subculture. Commercializing it and selling it to children and youths is irresponsible, whether it’s the publishers, producers, or broadcast platforms. There are even fan clubs for male couples and celebrities doing charity in the form of male couples [even though they’re not homosexual], which has become a sickening trend.

China Moves to Kill Romantic Gay-Themed Boys Love | By Mandy Zou for SCMP

Rationale

Unlike in the early 2000s, the China of today is different – more powerful, more capable, and has perfected the spirit of entrepreneurship alongside its political ideology. The Communist government is not as affected by uproars from the West. In fact, a government spokesman on TV openly challenges negativity coming from anyone around the world – politics, culture, sports, and yes, Boys Love.

Even if BL projects are pulled out of streaming platforms, the actors remain in the spotlight. Some are, in fact, given high-profile roles to maintain their showbiz careers. Lucrative brand endorsements continue to be enjoyed by these actors too. The spotlight on 6 BL actors above is a testament to that.

Effects on the Chinese LGBTQ+ Community

The ban on popular BL dramas and the book The Secret Emotional Life of Zhou Enlai make it clear that China has yet to accept homosexuality or allow politically-charged writings.

The Chinese government did not decriminalize gay sex until 1997. Homosexuality is classified (until 2001) as a “psychiatric disorder.”

On August 13, 2021, the organizers of Shanghai’s long-running LGBT pride festival abruptly announced the event was being canceled indefinitely without explanation. The news came as a shock to many as the event had run successfully, albeit quietly, for 11 years.

Chinese BL Actors on Spotlight

Stars of Addicted: Xu Weizhou and Huang Jingyu
Stars of Addicted: Heroin (From left): Xu Weizhou and Huang Jingyu

Huang Jingyu

Huang Jingyu (a.k.a. Johnny Huang) gained prominence after the 2016 BL series ‘Addicted’. After the show was canceled, he went on to star in a diverse set of projects, including a zombie-themed film called ‘Guns and Kidneys’ and ‘Operation Red Sea’ the highest-grossing Chinese film in 2018. Forbes China listed Huang as the 28th-ranked Celebrity 100 from that country. He went on to endorse such brands as Dior, Elizabeth Arden, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Bally (the first Chinese brand ambassador of the brand).

Xu Weizhou

Xu Weizhou also known internationally as Timmy Xu is Huang’s co-lead star in ‘Addicted’. He’s the first solo artist from mainland China to hold a concert in South Korea and to be officially invited as a guest to the Billboard Music Awards in 2017.

Xiao Zhan

Xiao Zhan began his career in the entertainment industry when he participated in the idol survival show X-Fire and debuted as a member of the Chinese boy group X Nine. He released a digital single “Spotlight” (光点) at the end of April 2020 and sold over 25.48 million copies within 24 hours of release. It set the Guinness World Record for the fastest-selling digital track in China.

Xiao Zhan for Vogue ME, February 2020 Edition

The Untamed lead star’s social influence has led to lucrative ad deals. Ralph Lauren fragrances in China resulted in the sale of 40,000 units of a top-level fragrance from the designer house in 6 hours as a result of Zhan’s involvement. Zenith, a high-end watchmaker sold ‘more watches in 24 hours than in a whole month’ according to its CEO, while not revealing the total units sold. Their video announcement got 9 million views while mentioning Zhan as the endorser.

Wang Yibo

Wang Yibo debuted as a member of the South Korean-Chinese boyband Uniq in 2014. As The Untamed co-lead star, Yibo signed contracts including Chanel, G-shock, and Anta, and enters Forbes China’s Celebrity 100 and 30 under 30 lists. He is also known as one of the captains of the dance competition show Street Dance of China Season.

Gong Jun

Gong Jun of Word of Honor fame captured lucrative deals with Louis Vuitton, and Hogan and has become the face of Tiffany & Co right after the show garnered up to 1.2 billion views on Youku (for a period of one month).

Boy group R1SE's Zhai Xiaowen
Boy group R1SE’s Zhai Xiaowen

Zhai Xiaowen

Boy group R1SE’s Zhai Xiaowen stars in the live-action adaptation of Heaven Official’s Blessing which is now in post-production but has no release date yet. The anticipation for this series is quite heavy among BL chatrooms.

Chinese BL: The Future awaits!

A recent report says that more than 60 original danmei works have been purchased for live-action adaptation by various Chinese-owned content production companies. The ongoing creative trend is to produce these BL-themed series outside China, due to heavy scrutiny and the current policy of banning any BL or gay-related works.

Heaven Official’s Blessing – a live-action adaptation – starring Boy group R1SE’s Zhai Xiaowen, suffers from conflicting reports of either production shutdown or imminent release.

Recommendations

Heaven Official’s Blessing, a top-tier Chinese BL anime is worth looking into. Our hitlist of the 25 Best Yaoi anime series is also recommended.

On the Japanese Front: Takumi-Kun Series is back for a 6th movie. We also recommend the Essential Korean BL drama series hitlist.

← Previous post

Next post →

4 Comments

  1. I am surprised any Chinese BL made it on air. I recommend Dive from 2019. I loved all of it except the last 15 or so minutes that tried to suggest Wei Te liked some girl. He clearly rejected her throughout. You would have thought the two divers would end up together in the end. I guess they could not do that.

    • Thanks! And sorry for the late reply. We have an upcoming piece on Chinese BL anime from a very good writer who is quite into the anime thing for quite sometime.

  2. As of the end of 2022 The Untamed had hit 100 billion views on Netflix. It is still a big hit on Netflix with a high re-watch value. Check MyDramaList for the 119 BL’s and Bromance films China has censored. When I hear Xi talk about equality I choke with distaste for his concept of the word and that of the Chinese Communist Party he represents. They killed a huge part of the entertainment industry with their censorship. Wang Yibo now plays a support role in Faith Makes Great a story about the founding of the Communist Party.

Let us know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.