The wild, wonderful (and very queer) world of Chinese radio dramas

Society & Culture

In China, overt depictions of same-sex relationships are banned from mainstream media platforms. But there’s one space where these stories are allowed to be told.

Chinese radio dramas provide safe space for LGBTQ content
Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

After Officer Li bugs the home of a homicide suspect, Lei Zi, and his same-sex partner Guan Huiliang, he goes to another building and listens in. But instead of useful information related to the case, the couple starts to discuss the finer points of lubrication. Emotionally drained by their hours-long lovemaking session, Li takes a cold shower, smokes a few cigarettes, and falls asleep while still eavesdropping. When he wakes up, it is early morning. “One last time,” Guan whispers on the transistor. Li explodes in frustration and smashes something. “I love you, Guan Huiliang,” Lei Zi’s voice comes through the device. “Guan Huiliang, I love you.”

This was the final scene of Passage d’Enfer (冥府之路 míngfǔ zhī lù), a Chinese radio drama that ran from 2019 to 2020 in which a kidnapper and his hostage fall in love and become each other’s savior. The drama is available for free on MissEvan, a Chinese audio streaming platform and mobile app known for its large selection of radio dramas.

In China, depictions of homosexual relationships are banned from TV and films. For instance, the hit television series Word of Honor (山河令 shān hé lìng), adapted from a dānměi 耽美, or “boys love” (BL), webnovel, became a phenomenon within and beyond the borders of China earlier this year. (It has since been removed from all video platforms in China for reasons unrelated to its content.) But the same-sex romance central to the original text, though insinuated through poetic dialogue and the characters’ subtle body movements, was overtly presented as a platonic friendship to circumvent China’s censors. This practice of changing homosexual relationships into platonic ones is common enough in such TV adaptations of danmei webnovels — dāngǎijù 耽改剧 — that Chinese viewers gave it a name slathered with satire: “socialist brotherly love.”

Radio dramas, however, have so far escaped these restrictions. Instead of “socialist brotherly love,” unflinching portrayals of romantic love and sex between men are the norm. While male characters on the screen aren’t allowed to share a kiss, in radio dramas they can fall in love, have sex, get married, and even have children together. As unlikely as it seems, this space that offers considerable freedom for creativity, expression, and depictions of alternative lifestyles does exist in China. But for how long?

The origins of “zhongzhua”

“I’ve listened to radio dramas in the past…the kind from radio stations. They were very different from our radio dramas,” says the voice actor who goes by Yǎcèjūn 雅策君, one of the stars in Passage d’Enfer. In the world of radio drama, Yacejun is a heartthrob to tens of thousands fans, and has appeared in more than 300 episodes since 2012 as a character voice (CV); in real life, he is a 34-year-old architect from the eastern city of Qingdao. Like many in the circle, he does not mix the two worlds.

“(Radio dramas in the past) were more like audio books with multiple character voices, heavily relying on voiceover narration to tell the story,” he explains. But zhōngzhuā 中抓, a linguistic hybrid of Chinese and Japanese English that means “Chinese radio drama,” is more dynamic. “The less voiceover narration there is, the better, and the scenes are constructed with post-production sound effects and voice acting,” Yacejun says. When it is done well, the effects can deliver a rich, immersive auditory experience.

This new form of radio drama emerged online in China in the early 2000s, when fans of Japanese anime, manga, and video games started to dub Japanese anime into Chinese and make dramatic audio presentations of scripted stories. These communities grew into a full-fledged subculture around 2005, when online radio drama “societies” organized by enthusiasts appeared and quickly grew in numbers.

These societies recruited their own production staff and talent, who collaborated to produce radio dramas and release them online for free. These are known as “web dramas” (网配剧 wǎng pèijù), in contrast with the professionally-produced “commercial dramas” (商配剧 shāng pèijù) that came later. These creators spent time, labor, and often cash on recording equipment, studio time, music, and other services, and made no money from their productions. What they did was, as they like to say, “generate power out of love.”

As the quantity and quality of production improved and its loyal fanbase grew, danmei radio dramas began attracting investment from audio platforms and commercial voiceover studios that previously only serviced TV and film. In 2017, MissEvan ushered in the era of paid radio dramas with Shā Pò Láng 杀破狼 (2017-2019), Xiāng Jiàn Huān 相见欢 (2017-2021), and Sā Yě 撒野 (2017-2021), all co-produced with professional voice studios. In 2018, MissEvan was bought by Bilibili, one of the biggest video streaming platforms in China, for more than 1 billion yuan ($154 million). The same year, the company released The Founder of Diabolism (魔道祖师 módào zǔshī, 2018-2019), which, merely two months into streaming, attracted 53,000 paid listeners, grossing over $2 million.

Some of the big radio drama societies are known in the circle as “danmei societies,” predominantly — if not exclusively — producing gay-themed content.

The success of MissEvan caught the attention of other established players like Ximalaya, China’s largest online audio platform. The platform opened a module specifically for radio dramas in 2017, and later began producing non-danmei programs that cater to a general audience, such as Liú Cíxīn’s 刘慈欣 The Three-Body Problem (三体 sān tǐ, 2019-). HongdouFM, an audio livestreaming platform, launched audio streaming app Manbo in 2020 with radio dramas as its main content, in direct competition with MissEvan.

Despite this move toward a more general taste, danmei remains the most popular genre in radio dramas. At the time of this writing, danmei seasons account for 19 of the top 20 most-followed list on MissEvan. Seventy-one danmei seasons, compared to only four “boy-girl” (BG) romance seasons, have more than 10 million plays. Topping the most-played list is The Founder of Diabolism (魔道祖师 módào zǔshī), with each season exceeding 100 million plays. The phenomenon seems exclusive to boys love dramas; bǎihé 百合, a genre that depicts romances between two women, is even less popular than BG romances. The most popular baihe drama on MissEvan is Miss Gu and Miss Qu (顾小姐和曲小姐 gù xiǎojiě hé qū xiǎojiě, 2018-2021), which has 3.6 million plays. Even on Ximalaya — which has a much broader audience than MissEvan’s younger, more female-dominant audience to whom danmei content most appeals — six of the 10 most popular radio dramas are of the danmei genre.

Today, 6,061 radio drama societies are listed on chinadra.com, a website dedicated to collecting and archiving information related to Chinese radio dramas. The majority of the creations are of the danmei variety. Some of the big societies, such as Juéyìtóngrén 决意同人, Jiandao Society (剪刀剧团 jiǎndāo jùtuán), and Shuǐànlíngyīn 水岸聆音, are known in the circle as danmei societies, predominantly — if not exclusively — producing gay-themed content.

Insatiable demand for danmei

Ironically, censorship has played an important role in this development.

Danmei radio dramas were able to grow 10 years ago because there was no such content on television or in movies,” says a script writer known as Yúxián 余弦, a thirtysomething who works a finance job in Shanghai. She identifies herself as a fǔnǚ 腐女 — literally, “rotten woman,” slang for a straight woman who is a danmei fan — and a “senior” one at that.

“Now, a lot of television adaptations of danmei novels are being produced, but not many have been shown,” she says. “This is still a controlled area.”

Dangaiju have become hugely successful since they began popping up in 2015. These shows have “played the boundary ball” by replacing depictions of same-sex relations with “socialist brotherly love” while preserving homoerotic undertones to attract danmei fans.

In the past two years, hit series like The Untamed (陈情令 chén qíng lìng, 2019), based on the same novel as The Founder of Diabolism, and Word of Honor (山河令 shān hé lìng, 2021) have propelled the dangaiju genre to the top of profit-making web television genres, and the year 2021 had been called the “inaugurating year of dangaiju,” with at least 80 dangaiju in production or set to stream. In September, however, in a dramatic turn of events, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) called to “reject the trend of adapting danmei novels to television,” among other “pan-entertainment phenomena,” which has led to concern that a ban of dangaiju may follow.

For now, the popularity of dangaiju, even as the watered down versions of the danmei novels they are based on, is a testament of the public’s appetite for danmei content. Radio dramas have filled the void left by TV for many danmei fans who want more sensory representations of the stories they love.

Meanwhile, radio dramas have always been allowed considerably more creative freedom than TV or web streaming. Part of the reason is because it’s believed to be a niche form of media. According to BigData-Research, a Chinese consulting firm based in Beijing, Ximalaya, the biggest audio platform, has about 172 million monthly active users (as of March), and MissEvan, the eighth biggest audio platform, has about 1.6 million. In comparison, as of January 2021, iQiYi, one of the largest video streaming services in China, has 569 million monthly active users.

Authorities are not directly involved in the production process of radio dramas, unlike in broadcasting, publishing, and now web video streaming. However, the onus is on the platforms and shows themselves; if they are reported for inappropriate content, the platforms can get in trouble. In 2018, a group of video/audio streaming sites including Bilibili and MissEvan were “invited for tea” — a euphemism for being questioned by authorities — with the Office of National Anti-Piracy and Pornography Working Committee for hosting “pornographic and vulgar” ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) content. Afterwards, videos of people whispering into a camera were banned on these platforms.

The dangling sword of censorship

To radio drama creators, especially non-commercial creators like Yuxian, it is important to stay up-to-date with the latest regulations. “We know the boundaries well,” Yuxian says. “You can’t touch politics, and the story can’t involve minors. That’s it. You can’t cross the red line, and if you’re not promoting justice, at least you can’t let bad guys win or be too negative.”

Standards vary across platforms. “For the platforms with large flows, like MissEvan and Manbo, or others like QQ Music and NetEase, it’s very hard to say who is the most lax, because they have different focuses,” Yuxian says. Sometimes the standard can seem arbitrary. “Take kissing for instance,” she says, “some may think eight seconds is okay and let you pass, but some others may think five seconds is too long and must be reduced to four seconds.”

The risk of being censored also varies depending on the source material. “If a drama is adapted from a webnovel, either through Jinjiang Literature (晋江文学 jìnjiāng wénxué) or Changpei Literature (长佩文学 cháng pèi wénxué), the story should have already been approved by these platforms and isn’t likely to have any principle issues. For an original script, one has to be careful what not to write,” Yuxian says.

But adaptations are not necessarily free of risks. Jinjiang Literature, a leading source of danmei webnovels for radio drama adaptation, was investigated by authorities and ordered to clean up its “pornographic content” multiple times in 2018 and 2019. In 2019, 15-day suspensions were levied on the website twice due to content deemed inappropriate.

The trend, as in many other media sectors, is toward increasingly tightening control. Abrupt removal of content has become more common. After an episode is removed, it is up to the production team to re-edit and re-upload — or not, in some cases. For Yuxian, it was devastating to see a large proportion of the shows she co-produced — 70% to 80% of them, she estimates — removed in the last three years. Or, as she and those in the circle prefer to say, “harmonized.”

“You make a show not just to entertain yourself. You hope more people can hear it.”
—Yacejun

Many of Yacejun’s older dramas have also been removed from MissEvan, Bilibili, and cloud servers. “I think (tighter censorship) is already happening,” he says, “and now when we make a show, we won’t make anything too risqué. I don’t know about others, but it was obvious to me these past few years, because a lot of my work is quite risqué.”

Yet even in shows that have been re-edited, bold erotic scenes still exist. The re-edited version of Passage d’Enfer, for instance, has allowed all the sex scenes to remain, just in shortened and less explicit (e.g., less moaning) forms. In Huáng Jīn Tái 黄金台 (2019-), a radio drama that Yacejun stars in on MissEvan, erotic scenes can be found in most of the episodes, including masturbation and intercourse. Artfully done, these scenes are able to pass censors while still creating the desired mental images for listeners.

Of course, nothing is certain and no drama is absolutely safe. There is no guarantee that shows like Huang Jin Tai will not be taken down in the future. But to media creators in China, that is part of the deal — forever testing boundaries and negotiating a creative space with their work.

Yacejun even sees the tightening standards for sexualized content as a positive development.

“Risqué content should be of service to the story,” he says. “It’s not that the listeners are here for this. If one only likes to listen to this, there are many other avenues for it and they don’t have to listen to radio dramas.” How true that actually is is debatable. In Huang Jin Tai, or instance, whenever an erotic scene comes on, there is a flurry of bullet comments — a feature MissEvan adapted from Bilibili’s video player — that fly across the audio player.

Despite the omnipresent specter of censorship, there is much optimism that a relatively free space for danmei radio dramas will be allowed to exist in the foreseeable future. “(The future of danmei radio dramas) depends on the government’s general policies on the LGBTQ+ community,” Yuxian says. “I think barring extreme cases, such as serious events that involve a lot of people in the community, the general trend will be open and relaxed.” Future regulations targeting dangaiju may affect danmei radio dramas, she believes, but so far, there has been no regulatory action to close up this space.

“This is such a heavy topic,” says Xiǎo (小) K, a 26-year old CV who works as a financial analyst in Kunming. Carefully choosing his words, he says, “Maybe when some things have grown too big, grown in influence, or touched certain major issues, they will be regulated.” Shifting tone, he continues, “Personally, I think as long as there’s a balance, it’s all good…Let people who are intellectually mature and open have access to (danmei content), but maybe put some restrictions on minors who are not as mature.”

It may be hard for those on the outside to see where this optimism comes from, but it would be a hasty assumption that it is disingenuous and not from a sincere sense of social responsibility and trust in the government.

Regardless of how other creators view censorship, no one has a choice but to comply, because the price of doing otherwise is simply too high. “When you make a show, it’s not great if you get a call from the police inviting you to have tea,” Yacejun says. “You probably wouldn’t even be able to release a show if it is too risqué. You make a show not just to entertain yourself. You hope more people can hear it.”

As to his shows that have been taken down, Yacejun says with a kind of calm acceptance, “Some of them might have been too risqué, but some really were okay. It’s just every editor has a different standard. The production teams didn’t re-edit them, so they’re gone.”

Danmei and Chinese radio dramas
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Questions about representation

In Japan, where the boys love (BL) genre originated, there was a fierce debate among feminists in the early 1990s about the genre’s treatment of same-sex relationships. BL stories “were treating gay sex frivolously, fetishizing gay people, and fantasizing about and imposing aesthetic norms upon them,” wrote Fujimoto Yukari, a Japanese professor who studies gender and representation in manga.

This disconnect between the BL genre, mostly created and consumed by straight cis women, and the lived reality of the LGBTQ+ community has also been scrutinized by Chinese scholars and activists. Distinguished from queer literature (yet not mutually exclusive), danmei fiction is often seen as perpetuating a patriarchal structure and heteronormative gender roles. Dangaiju are viewed by many critics and LGBTQ+ activists as queerbaiting — hinting at queer relationships without actually portraying them so as to bring in viewers and profits while complying with both government censorship and mainstream culture.

Danmei radio dramas have certainly inherited some of these issues. The main characters in these shows are often beautiful, wealthy, and powerful men, such as generals in period shows and CEOs in modern shows. Their relationships are often idealized without addressing the real-life struggles of the LGBTQ+ community. On the darker side, sexual and domestic violence and disregard of consent are often normalized in portrayals of relationships characterized as romantic, which is particularly discomfiting in a post-MeToo world. Stories with a “happy ending” are the norm, though in some cases it means that a couple has to stay in an abusive relationship.

On the other hand, danmei radio dramas involve a more diverse group of people in its production — out of necessity, if not anything else. Even though the behind-the-scenes production staff largely consists of straight women, the majority of CVs are men. In fact, the popularity of danmei radio dramas has prompted concerns about the lack of job opportunities and unequal pay for women CVs in a field where women have long faced educational and employment discrimination.

Asked what he thinks about straight people telling gay people’s stories, Yacejun, who is straight, takes a moment to think before answering. “We should focus on the story itself. This theme happens to be romance between two men. There is no need for us to identify who we do this for. I think to do that actually shows disrespect to the gay community.”

His attitude is echoed by others interviewed for this story, some of whom seemed genuinely surprised by the question. “Would you expect a criminal to play a criminal?” one asked rhetorically.

An escape from reality

As a teen and into his young adult years, Xiao K, who is gay, consumed a lot of danmei fiction and anime. He started voice acting in danmei radio dramas in 2013 when he was in college, and since then, he has done more than 200 episodes. It comes “natural” to him, he says.

With a clear boyish voice, Xiao K often plays sweet, upbeat, and sometimes clueless “sunny boys” on radio dramas. “I am a sunny boy,” he says, cheerfully, and then adds a caveat: “That is, when I’m with my friends. I’m more professional when I’m at work.”

One of the recent dramas that Xiao K starred in is called The Days When I’m Married to the Boss (与老总结婚的日子 yǔ lǎozǒng jiéhūn de rìzi). The main character is a young boss in charge of a family business who marries his same-sex assistant in a ploy to fend off pressure from his family; the couple fall in love and live happily ever after. “If it’s too realistic, no one will want to listen,” Xiao K says. “I agree that most dramas are too idealistic compared to real life, but dramas are ‘elevated above real life’…to become creative artifacts.”

Of course, The Days When I’m Married to the Boss doesn’t represent all danmei radio dramas, or even necessarily Xiao K’s work. Notes from Hengjiang (横江记事 héng jiāng jìshì, 2017), of which he is the writer, producer, director, and star, is a more realistic story of two young men who meet and fall in love in Xiao K’s hometown in Sichuan province. Happy New Year, Ziqingzhou (新年快乐, 自青州 xīnnián kuàilè, zì qīngzhōu, 2019), produced and adapted by Xiao K from a webnovel, tells the story of two young men from very different backgrounds in a fictional town wedged between two powerful states, a political allegory of some sort. He’s proud of both dramas, but the number of plays they get is a fraction of The Days When I’m Married to the Boss. “The original novel might be too deep,” Xiao K says about Happy New Year, Ziqingzhou, “and some listeners might not understand it.”

This is not surprising. Most people listen to radio dramas to escape from reality, not to experience or understand it. A lot of these listeners, young people — 43% of MissEvan users are under 25, 65% under 30 — are perhaps less interested in serious social commentary than entertainment when they put on their headphones.

“If it’s too realistic, no one will want to listen.”
—Xiao K

Yacejun has starred in a series based on an autobiographical webnovel by an author whose pen name is Black-Di, Twelve Years of Us (我和他的十二年, 2013-2020). From the first to the sixth and final episode, the series took seven years to make, and at one point was at risk of being unfinished, which is quite common among free web radio dramas. “Not many people have listened to it,” Yacejun says, “but I’m pretty proud of it.”

Like Beijing Comrades (北京故事 běijīng gùshì) by Bei Tong in the 1990s, whose film adaptation Lán Yǔ 蓝宇 (2001) has never been shown in mainland theaters (though an unfinished radio drama adaptation is available on MissEvan), Twelve Years of Us blurs the boundary between danmei fiction and queer literature, touching on real issues such as sexual awakening, negotiating identities, cheating, and, most important perhaps to the Chinese gay community, the difficulty of coming out to families. The story is based on the author’s real experiences.

Unlike Beijing Comrades, however, Twelve Years of Us has a happy ending. In fact, the author, now an executive working in Beijing, still lives with his partner, who is the inspiration for one of the protagonists in his novel. He shares snippets of their daily life on Weibo, testimony that perhaps, after all, 21st-century China is not E. M. Forster’s Edwardian England.

Two very different worlds

On Weibo, in addition to posts about his work as a CV, Xiao K shares with his more than 100,000 followers a diary-like account of his daily life with his partner, often with photos with cute cliparts over their faces to protect their identities. In the zhongzhua circle, gay CVs who are as open about their sexual orientation as Xiao K are rare. “Of course I’m afraid that some family members and friends will see (my Weibo),” he says. He has come out to some family members and friends, but not all. “Some of their views can be too hard to change. You have to make choices. Coming out requires a lot of thinking.”

In real life, only a handful of people know that he is “CV Xiao K.” “Sometimes I’m worried that my cover will be blown,” he says with a laugh. “People I know, coworkers or family members, have low tolerance for danmei culture. (The radio drama circle and my social circle) are two very different worlds, and they have little overlap.”

Things can change though. Despite their limitations and flaws, danmei radio dramas are making sexual minorities more visible to the public, especially to young people. This can potentially encourage understanding and acceptance in the long run. “At least (radio dramas) send out a message,” says Xiao K. “It creates representations of the emotional life of those in this community, through various means, characters, stories, and so on, and makes (same-sex love) more concrete, turning it into something that can be heard, understood, felt, and amplified, so at least it won’t be strange or scary to others.”

But it is not just the stigma of homosexuality that keeps creators from using their real identities. Those who make danmei web dramas fear being judged harshly in a society as pragmatic as China’s. Because they often work out of passion instead of financial motive, family and friends may perceive them as frivolous and indulgent, instead of “useful” or “productive.” “Family members of an older generation would think of this as overly indulging in trivial pleasures instead of striving for lofty aspirations,” Xiao K says, using a Chinese idiom (玩物丧志 wán wù sàng zhì) that describes those who are considered failures.

“My parents know I do voice acting, but they don’t know exactly what,” says Yacejun. “They didn’t understand it until I did some paid gigs and made money. They certainly won’t approve of all my works.” Still, he prefers taking unpaid gigs because they put less pressure on his already busy work schedule. “I’m doing it for fun,” he says.

Many creators are concerned what their employers or coworkers would think of them spending so much time making homoerotic radio dramas instead of advancing their careers. “My coworkers or supervisor may think that, say, some night when I don’t respond to a work message, it’s because I’m busy doing this. It’d be hard to explain,” says Yuxian. “In China, the boundary between time for leisure and time for work is often not recognized.”

In a way, what these creators do adds another layer of queerness to radio dramas, as it defies society’s narrowly-defined idea of productivity. Whether they are gay or straight, these people are in it for the aesthetics and pleasure — of making something that they and their listeners enjoy. Like the radio dramas they create, at the center of it all is love. “People love stories that they can relate to, that can touch them and comfort them,” says Xiao K. “This makes me very happy.”