Time Out explore the world of gay erotic manga and discovers why it’s become so popular among straight women in China
Given the unfortunate taboo that still persists around homosexuality in China, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that gay fiction and media are often consumed surreptitiously here. Perhaps more surprising though, is the growing fascination with such products among Chinese women. Yet watching and drawing yaoi – Japanese gay manga – has experienced something of a boom among Mainland Chinese women in recent years.
Yaoi first reached Hong Kong from Japan back in the 1970s before it rose in popularity in the ’90s among high school girls, according to research from June Yu of Hong Kong Baptist University. It then spread to the Mainland where it gained traction despite being illegal.
Recently, associate professor Katrien Jacobs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong participated in a sex-themed exhibition called Ten Million Rooms of Yearning, with her collection of yaoi-zines and a talk called ‘Chinese Women in Love with Gay Sex Scenes’. ‘Yaoi... is at its crucial peak,’ says Jacobs. ‘It is very influential, and plays a part for female sexuality in this city. You couldn’t have a sex-themed exhibition without it.’ According to Jacobs, there are two main reasons why women love watching and recreating their own stories of yaoi: the removal of sexual identity, which Jacobs calls the ‘cross gender identification’, and getting a sense of escapism from a society deemed to be stifiling.
Yu argues that women look at these man-on-man relationships from a safe and comfortable distance, creating a guilt-free comfort zone. ‘Women feel guilty about identifying with female characters in pornography, who exhibit sexual satisfaction by means of male penetration,’ she says. ‘To escape the complicity within this sexual dilemma, women thereby created the world of yaoi, where female readers are not required to consider the disadvantages of exposing their eroticism.’
As a result, many BL artists (who are often straight women) have been able to portray an idealised form of the male body and of homosexual male relationships to reflect the tastes of the female sexual palate. There is usually a sweet and caring relationship between the boy-next-door type of characters, although this regularly shifts quickly into extremely graphic sexual scenes. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a diversification, according to Jacobs, because ‘female sexuality is fluid in nature, and the varied tastes have led to different yaoi genres’. These sub-genres feature a broader spectrum of male body types and relationships.
Yaoi has been popular among straight Japanese women for decades; there’s even an ironic term to describe women fascinated by homosexual displays in Japan: fujoshi – literally meaning ‘rotten women’. The market there has thus matured to meet this need, but trends specific to Chinese yaoi readers are starting to emerge, too. Imperial Chinese themes, where an emperor has fallen in love with a eunuch and finds the genital scarring area to be an attractive erogenous zone, are increasingly prevalent for example.
For many women, yaoi appeals due to its subversion of societal strictures. ‘That’s especially so now in China and in Hong Kong where censorship is an issue of the highest concern,’ says Jacobs. Just last April, 20 women from Anhui province were arrested for writing and uploading yaoi. And in August 2013 at Comic World 36, held in Hong Kong, police officers entered the event and seized yaoi content, charging the artists and distributors with violations of obscenity laws.
‘Yaoi represents a sense of rebellion,’ says Jacobs. ‘It is a way for women to have their own erotica, which they didn’t have before, and then share it with the wider international community. It’s an escape from the type of local culture which usually dictates that women have to be obedient.’
What may be obscene and debased for some is a sexually and socially liberating experience for others. And for Chinese women, yaoi can also satisfy a cheap and guilt-free sexual thrill. Though on the Mainland this comes at a price, and that’s breaking the law.
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