Danmei, a genre of Chinese erotic fiction, goes global

Society & Culture

Centered around romantic and sexual relationships between men, "danmei" is wildly popular in China. It's been a hit abroad, too, with three books recently receiving an authorized English translation — and all three making it to the New York Times's bestsellers list.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

One afternoon in August, Lee Mandelo, a writer and critic, was hit by what he described as an “avalanche of messages and Twitter alerts” on his phone.

“Generally, you can get the sense sometimes when some big piece of news or announcement hits because it reveals who in your community is also a fan of this thing,” he told me as he revisited the excitement among his online and real-life friends, authors, and those in the mainstream publishing world of science fiction and fantasy.

“This thing” was danmei fiction, in particular three fantasy novels by one of the most popular authors of the genre, Mò Xiāng Tóng Xiù 墨香铜臭, known by her fans as MXTX. The big news was the books’ acquisition by Seven Seas Entertainment, a leading independent publisher of manga and light novels in North America; these novels — Heaven Official’s Blessing (天官赐福 tiān guān cì fú), Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (魔道祖师 módào zǔshī), and The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System (人渣反派之自救行动 rén zhā fǎnpài zhī zìjiù xíngdòng) — were going to get an authorized English-language release.

When the first volumes came out in December, English-speaking fans, many of whom had read the novels’ fan translations online and/or watched their animated or live-action TV adaptations, raved about getting their pre-ordered copies of the licensed translation in the mail. “I waited from August and now it’s mine,” a reader wrote in their review of Heaven Official’s Blessing on Amazon. The subject line: “New bible just dropped.”

At the turn of the new year, the titles — all three of them — were on the New York Times’s Paperback Trade Fiction Bestsellers list.

This thing was indeed a big deal.

Inspired by Japanese yaoi, translated as “boys’ love” (BL), danmei is a genre of fiction produced in China that centers around male-male romantic and sexual relationships. It started as a niche genre in the 1990s. In recent years, with the growth of online literature publishing, now a 25 billion yuan ($4 billion) business with around 460 million readers in China, danmei has inspired an explosion of adaptations into graphic novels, animation, live-action dramas, and audio dramas, and made its way into mainstream culture despite China’s ever-tightening state censorship.

And now it’s making its way beyond China’s borders.

“The New York Times list is…curated, and queer books are often curated off the New York Times list,” said Mandelo, who picked the three novels for his Queering SFF reading series and wrote glowing reviews for two of them on Tor.com. “Seeing that no one did that curating off, that all three of the books made the list, felt pretty significant in terms of really valuing what queer audiences want to read, and the fact that we do care about these texts, and that transnational texts like this in translation also have that ability to be consumed popularly and be enjoyed by audiences in the Anglophone world.”

The first print run for the series totaled half a million copies, according to Seven Seas. Four- and five-star ratings piled up on Amazon and its affiliated Goodreads. At the time of this writing, the first volume of Heaven Official’s Blessing is on the editors’ pick list on Amazon for Best Science Fiction and Fantasy.

It would probably be overly ambitious to think that a danmei novel will become a Three-Body Problem kind of phenomenon, but danmei fiction and media just may be one of the few examples of contemporary Chinese culture to achieve a significant following abroad.

Danmei, a new indulgence for “boys’ love” fans

For Anglophone audiences, danmei (literally meaning “obsession with beauty” in Chinese) is a relatively new addition to queer popular content such as slash, a genre of fanfiction featuring male-male romance that initially grew out of fandom for Star Trek: The Original Series in the late 1970s, Japan’s yaoi imports from the 1980s and other yaoi-influenced transnational BL media, and LGBTQ romance.

Before Seven Seas’s translations, there were already many vibrant transnational fan communities for danmei fiction and media. A couple of very niche independent publishers, Peach Flowers and Via Lactea, have published licensed English translations of some lesser-known titles, but most danmei translations were online, done by fans without official licensing from the authors or their Chinese publishers. Readers can find translations on websites like Exiled Rebels and Chrysanthemum Garden, or by using portal websites like Novel Updates, which archives and provides links to translations by individuals or groups. Some translators also post their translations as “Carrds” — a type of one-page website — on social media. Danmei fanfiction also has proliferated on websites such as Archive of Our Own. In true subculture manner, almost all the online content is non-commercial.

When Seven Seas recognized the transnational nature of danmei fandom, it sought out fan translators Suika and Faelicy to translate titles based on their prior translations. The demand in the international market has also been noted by Jinjiang Wenxuecheng (JJWXC), the most dominant literary website in China that publishes danmei webnovels, where MXTX, along with big-name authors such as Priest (Faraway Wanderers) and Meng Xi Shi (Thousand Autumns), is a contracted author. In January, JJWXC announced that it will launch an international site to publish crowd-sourced licensed translations — in English only for the beta version — of selected novels from its website. This move sent panic to danmei fan translators, many of whom are afraid that their translations might be stolen. Many translators have locked their content for now. For international danmei fans, how much this will affect their ability to access danmei content online is yet unknown.

Anglophone readers will be familiar with many of the tropes in danmei, such as found family, sibling relationships, enemies turning into friends into lovers, and long separations.

In the past few years, adaptations of danmei novels, most notably Chinese dramas The Untamed (2019) and Word of Honor (2020), and the animated series Heaven Official’s Blessing (2020), have streamed on Netflix, and shows such as The Guardian and Thousand Autumns have been posted on YouTube. To many Anglophone fans, these adaptations were their gateways to danmei fiction.

This was how Cecilia, a thirtysomething American fan of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation, got into it. She started by binge-watching The Untamed on Netflix when the pandemic started, all 50 episodes. Wanting more, she managed to find an uncensored copy of the novel in traditional Chinese from Taiwan. Now she not only does her own translations of danmei, but also writes and publishes fanfiction online.

“I like the romance,” Cecilia said, “but I think what makes Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation in particular really fascinating is that it has everything. It has the political drama, and it has the romance, it has the family part, which I find really interesting, like the sibling and parent-child dynamics. I do think that’s part of the reason why it became so popular, because a lot of people could find things outside the main relationship that they could relate to.”

What Cecilia described is quite common in popular danmei novels, which often spreads across multiple storylines with an expansive cast of characters. This is due, in part, to their origins as webnovels serialized on literature websites, where authors are financially incentivized, like Charles Dickens back in the day, to write longer stories with a long arc featuring complex, interwoven storylines, and many twists and turns to keep readers paying for new chapters.

Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation has 113 main chapters and another 14 “extra” chapters featuring side stories, released after the main story is finished. The whole thing spans across the protagonist’s two lifetimes. The longest of the three new translations by MXTX, Heaven Official’s Blessing, has 244 main chapters and eight extra chapters.

This form of danmei fiction gives ample room for developing stories that might not fit in a tight structure, which, to some readers, gives danmei a unique appeal. The sprawling narrative harkens back to some of the most well-known classics in Chinese fiction, such as Journey to the West (西游记 xīyóu jì), Outlaws of the Marsh (水浒 shuǐhǔ), or Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义 sānguó yǎnyì), many of which were based on the scripts, known as huàběn 话本, of serialized oral storytelling performances that were popular in the Song dynasty in the 10th century.

“I like that it’s not the three-act structure. It’s more whatever goes,” said Nicky, a 26-year old Latinx American reader. “In danmei, I’m getting the full story of almost every single person, the backstory and their life that I don’t know I’ll get in American novels. Even the extras and the miscellaneous information. I’m like, this so great.”

Lost and found in translation

Danmei stories often cut across genres and themes. Some of the most popular borrow from wǔxiá 武侠 and xiānxiá 仙侠, and draw heavily on China’s history and Buddhist, Daoist, or other Chinese cosmological mythologies. These may be some of the most difficult to translate across cultures with unfamiliar histories and philosophies, different tropes and conventions.

Encouragingly, danmei may have attracted a different generation of readers who grew up reading fantasies and who are willing to make a little effort to overcome the uncertainty and vertigo when entering an unfamiliar world. All three novels that Seven Seas picked to translate fall into the genre of xianxia fantasy, set in some fantastical version of ancient China, with characters — each often having two or three names — traversing multiple lifetimes and physical bodies. It sounds daunting, but readers do not seem to mind.

“It’s a fantasy,” Cecilia said about Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. “To me, it’s not that different from reading Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time or something, where they make up their own language. In these novels, they’re not even that made up. They’re actual terminologies. The Chinese tropes are more established. In theory, it should be easier than learning elfish or something.”

Danmei, a genre that centers on intimate personal relationships and sexual fantasy, seems at odds with what is generally associated with China.

Perhaps underneath the differences, danmei has more in common with English genre fiction than it seems. There are many tropes familiar to Anglophone readers in these new English danmei titles, said Cecilia, such as found family — which especially strikes a chord with LGBTQ audiences — sibling relationships, enemies turning into friends into lovers, and long separations. “People really enjoy them,” she said.

The difficulty posed by these culturally unfamiliar texts can also be, in critic Lee Mandelo’s words, “a fun kind of difficulty.” “All genres have that barrier of entry, no matter what,” he said. “I think there can be a real pleasure in coming to a genre and place you didn’t know before and taking a moment to figure out what are the tropes of this space, what are the histories of it, where is this coming from.”

Counterintuitively, it is subtle cultural differences in contemporary contexts that may pose a bigger barrier to appreciating danmei fiction for Anglophone audiences.

“I suspect we’ll see maybe more translations of more contemporary drama. We do tend to love a story about a mobster or a police officer, that sort of thing,” said Mandelo, who mentioned a novel he had in mind, Silent Reading by Priest, a crossover of a crime thriller and a romance between a cop and an antihero type of genius. “I also do wonder how much the North American audience will follow along a contemporary setting that’s less familiar to them, whereas I feel we’re trained to read across cultures into fantastical settings or science fiction.”

Queer eroticism, censorship, and making it to the mainstream

In addition to fantasy, many Anglophone danmei fans come from the established yaoi and yaoi-inspired boys’ love (BL) media fanbase, who are drawn to queer romance in spite of — or often in addition to — the cultural unfamiliarity.

In China and other Asian countries, BL has a reputation for being produced by straight women for straight women. Some have attributed this, in part, to women’s status in these cultures where strong heteropatriarchal traditions discourage women from expressing and enjoying sexual desires. BL is a “perfect fantasy” for women in East Asia who are expected to be “ignorant of sex and sexuality,” wrote Dr. Jungmin Kwon, professor of digital culture and film studies at Portland University, in which they “become acquainted with men and the male body” and “flesh out their ideal men, who do not exist in the real world.”

BL’s appeal to straight women also goes beyond Asia. Romantic sexual relationships between men featured in BL “kind of in a way take gender out of it because there you have two people who are relating, romantically engaged and sexually engaged, so the kind of cultural power differences that play out between men and women in these situations just doesn’t exist,” said psychologist professor Anna Madill of the University of Leeds, who enjoys BL herself. “I find that very attractive and I think a lot of women equally find that attractive.”

Yet research seems to suggest that Western audiences of danmei content are more queer than those in China. Since 2014, Madill and her colleague Yao Zhao have been collecting and analyzing data of BL fans through online surveys in English and Chinese, and found that while Chinese danmei fans are more likely to be straight women, the community engaging with queer and BL fiction in the Anglophone world has a broader range of sexual and/or gender identification.

Mandelo, who is a member of the queer community and a Ph.D. candidate in gender studies at the University of Kentucky, also questioned the idea that danmei is consumed mostly by straight women. “There’s a sort of flattening that occurs,” he said. “People say just ‘straight women.’ A, even if it was, that’s fine, but B, it doesn’t seem accurate to any observed field of BL fandom or danmei fandom that I see. I think there’s a great deal, almost entirely queer audience. There’s a very interesting mix of genders.”

He cited a study done in Hungary on yaoi consumption where 58% of the participants who had consumed yaoi materials within a year were men. “Which makes sense when you think about it,” he said. “I have encountered a lot of transmen, transmasculine people, cis men also, who are fans. One of my academic advisers is a cis gay man who’s also a big fan of BL culture and writes about it.”

Danmei has revived, after nearly a century of suppression, the writing of eroticism, especially same-sex eroticism, that was integral in China’s classics.

Despite the differences in the audiences across cultures, queer eroticism is the one defining element in the genre that attracts its core fans, no matter if they speak Chinese or English.

“The avid fans, those people who engage with BL a lot, who really like it, are more engaged with the sexual content,” said Madill, whose research suggests that with some subtle differences, Chinese and Anglophone BL fans share very similar tastes in eroticism. “Some of it is just really kinky pornography, but there’s usually a sense that these are people who are enjoying a sexual relationship.”

There is a wide range of eroticism in danmei, from love stories that stop at the bedroom door to straight-up pornography. But while enjoyed by its core fans, the depiction of queer sex might also stand in the way of danmei making its way to the mainstream market.

In China, where all cultural products are subject to state censorship, the genre is a double offender, for its presentation of same-sex romance and for its erotic content. Screen adaptations are not allowed to portray the main male characters in a same-sex romantic relationship. The rules are not as strict for audio drama adaptations, which is a relatively new market and generally caters to a less mainstream audience, but that space is tightening up as well.

In webnovels, erotic scenes and, increasingly, non-erotic scenes that suggest romantic intimacy between two men have to be cut out or edited when they are published in print. Even original webnovels are not spared from more recent, stricter regulations. JJWXC has been invited to “talks” with the regulating authorities numerous times in the past few years. The platform was also temporarily suspended a few times and had to take down or lock content — including two of MXTX’s three novels published in English, Heaven Official’s Blessing and The Scum Villain’s Self-Saving System — that was considered in violation of the publishing rules.

In the Anglophone world, although there is no state censorship, it is still common for queer erotic scenes to be edited out in visual productions to appeal to a more mainstream audience.

“The queer audience really, really wants and enjoys joyful erotic content,” said Mandelo. Critics, on the other hand, are a lot less willing to engage with these works. “I do wonder how much of it is the sort of unwillingness to talk openly about queer sexuality and texts that have sexual content that’s joyous, that’s fun, that’s horny. There’s a shyness, critically, about it, but I think audiences really want it.”

Danmei fiction may encounter a bigger challenge getting in the doors of big publishers like Tor Books, the publisher of The Three-Body Problem in North America. “There is still less of a readership for queer content in a lot of ways, particularly if it has sex in it,” Mandelo said. “I think people are willing to read maybe a queer romance as long as its straight audience doesn’t have to engage with the fact that it is queer on the page.”

How “Chinese” is danmei?

In an essay on Tor.com, Chinese science fiction writer Xia Jia wrote that “the Chinese science fiction of the era dating from the 1990s to the present can be read as a national allegory in the age of globalization.” The recent interest from the outside world in Chinese science fiction perfectly mirrors the growing fascination and anxiety about the ancient country, which is quickly becoming a powerful economic and technological engine, and, in the imaginations of many, a global rival.

Danmei, on the other hand, a genre that centers on intimate personal relationships and sexual fantasy, seems at odds with what is generally associated with China. Joyful queer sexuality is not an aspect of China that is usually thought to be relevant to the rest of the world, especially during these times besieged by anxieties about geopolitical competition, environmental and health crises, and a future that is increasingly uncertain despite or perhaps because of technological advancement.

If science fiction gives readers a sense of participating in history, with its predictions of the future and metaphors for the present, as science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has said, danmei does not pretend to achieve that, even though a generation of Chinese writers, many of them young women, find the freedom to express their views on history, politics, and culture within danmei.

Despite the influences from Japanese yaoi and Anglophone genre fiction, danmei is undeniably and intimately Chinese, tracing its DNA back to traditional Chinese literature. It has revived, after nearly a century of suppression, the writing of eroticism, especially same-sex eroticism, that was integral in classics like The Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦 hóng lóu mèng), Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (聊斋志异 liáo zhāi zhì yì), and The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅 jīn píng méi), and continued the aesthetics for male beauty celebrated in classical poems as old as those in The Book of Songs (诗经 shījīng), dating back to the 11th century BC.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to the genre making it big in the Anglophone world is the mainstream culture’s unwillingness to engage the Chinese on an intimate, personal level, and the culture on its own terms, as it still views China as an “other.”

But that does not mean the genre won’t grow. Danmei is still a very young genre, with about 30 years of history. Some of the most popular works were written by authors in their 20s. MXTX is only 36, and completed Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation at 29; Priest is 34 and completed Faraway Wanderers at 22; Tang Jiu Qing is 25 and completed Qiang Jin Jiu at 21. With time, more quality works will be produced and translated into English.

More quality media adaptations accessible to transnational audiences will continue to help popularize the genre. The animated show Heaven Official’s Blessing on Netflix, for instance, has drawn in a new, younger audience with a much more flexible attitude toward gender identities and sexuality. “A writer friend of mine, a couple of them, actually, who had older teenage children, got the first book to their kids who are also queer older teens,” Mandelo said.

Cecilia’s partner, an American film and TV aficionado with no background related to China except for Cecilia’s Chinese-Taiwanese American family, watched The Untamed and the animated Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation with her. “Coming from a white perspective, he was able to get into it, even with the subtitles being funky,” she said. “We read part of the English translation together.”