Chinese Gay Lit: What is Danmei?

Danmei (耽美) is something that always seems to make readers shriek and fangirl online. Especially with recent mega-hits from MXTX, images of flowery elegant gentlemen have captured the imagination and made girls swoon.

Modaozushi written by MXTX

In a nutshell, danmei is a genre that is written by, consumed by, and targeted for a female audience. It’s wildly popular in online Chinese literature, with adaptations for the big or small screen mostly scrubbed of overt homosexualism. The term itself translates to “indulgence in beauty” and symbolizes the (over)romanticizing of male-male relationships, sometimes to the point where aesthetics overcome the importance of plot and character development.

There are a few speculations as to why this phenomenon came to be and how they might be compared to its Western equivalent: slash fiction.

  1. The systematic ban and the socially taboo nature of homosexual/homoerotic content in China
  2. Gender inequality and inequity in society where women feel oppressed and objectified
  3. Inevitable ties and constraints in a conventional romance, which end in marriage and childbirth – and ultimately interfere with an idealized concept of love

The first two points aren’t unique to China and apply to most of Asia, where civil rights haven’t transformed as they have in most of the West. The emergence of slash fiction coincided with the gay rights movement, although it tends to be more centered on fan fiction.

Therefore, it doesn’t come as a surprise to find that danmei or yaoi (Japanese term for boy love, whereas yuri is the term for girl love) is very popular with female audiences in those places, as well. Just as pornography set in a classroom or a religious facility invokes naughtiness, danmei provide readers with the rush of witnessing something taboo and forbidden – and the forbidden fruit is sweet.

Along with that comes the freedom and privilege that a male-submissive character represents, because men can often continue their lives without any fallout (or so the female writers think) that might otherwise affect women, such as slut shaming, virginity complexes, and pregnancy.

This leads to the third point, which suggests that in danmei, the characters aren’t as concerned with marriage and children. Same-sex marriage isn’t allowed in Asia except in Taiwan (where it was recently legalized), and children don’t have to be involved in the couple’s lives (no shotgun weddings!). This allows “pure love” to exist in the danmei world, where two characters stay together solely because of love, and not because of societal expectations or social responsibility.

Without a widely observable homosexual community in China, life as a homosexual man was both mysterious and romanticized. At the same time, it served as a blank canvas for writers hoping to create a form of “pure” romance without the conventional restrictions. However, this same lack of understanding also brings an interesting pattern found in danmei – the submissive partner is often portrayed like a woman with feminine exterior and interior traits, only she has junk in her trunks. This is probably the most obvious difference between danmei and slash fiction.

Slash, on the other hand, grew out of fan dissatisfaction with canon relationships. For instance, in the Star Trek fanfiction circle, stories are written about Kirk and Spock because fans felt that canon lore served the two short.

The genre name comes from the practice of putting a slash between the names of two characters that are “shipped.” This often involves romantic or erotic elements that extend from friendship and companionship. Subplots from canon are elaborated, and darker themes are explored such as domination and violence. In other words, it’s often whatever fans wanted to see happen, but the original writers didn’t make happen.

For more about danmei, and English translations of these novels, please visit Chaleuria.com.