Earlier this year, during a nationwide clampdown on online pornography, some 20 writers, allegedly under contract with "illegal erotic novel Web sites," were arrested in Henan province, China, and numerous Web sites with explicit written and visual content were shut down. Most of these writers were young women, many of whom, according to footage from Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong broadcaster, were in their 20s, oblivious to the fact that they were breaking the law. The incident followed a similar spate of arrests in 2011 -- again of young female writers.
The women were all writers of gay fiction, known as dan mei, which over the past two decades has gained a vast and dedicated following in China, a country where homosexuality is still heavily stigmatized. A form of slash fiction, a genre that first appeared in America in the '70s and paired male characters from popular TV shows like Star Trek in unauthorized gay romances, it spread to China in the '90s from a type of Japanese manga known as "boys' love" (BL). Focusing on male-to-male romance, dan mei (which may be literally translated as "indulgence in beauty") has surprisingly spawned an exclusive fan base: Its readers and writers are nearly all straight young women and girls.
Additionally, both dan mei's readers and writers view the genre as separate from mainstream gay fiction.
"Dan mei depicts the perfection of romance between beautiful young men," explains 25-year-old Zhang Lu, who has been reading the genre since she was 18 years old. "It's all about conveying the aesthetic appeal of its male characters through the writing," Lu says, adding that dan mei is a woman's romanticized fantasy of men -- the reason for its success -- rather than a man's idea of homosexuality."
There's even a strong degree of gender elitism involved in its creation. According to one male author of dan mei who did not wish to be named, "The dan mei circle" simply does not accept that male authors are capable of writing it. He says that writers and fans "believe that it requires a complete detachment from reality and the male view of sex and homosexuality."
At right: Copies of Japanese boys' love novels seized during the raid in Henan Province.
A female former writer says, "Dan mei is a girl's fantasy of gorgeous guys, often with feminine traits. It's very naive in its depiction and does not feign realism."
Andy, a 32-year-old gay man living in Shanghai, thinks these stories offer little appeal to male readers because their story lines and characters are too idealized. "Gay men in China read gay erotic fiction or go directly to gay videos, not dan mei," he explains.
Beyond the literature itself, dan mei may be having some influence on attitudes toward homosexuality in China, among its legion of female followers at least. "Dan mei and homosexuality are completely separate ideas, but people who read dan mei will be liberal-minded towards the gay community," says Lu.
In recent years, with the influx of Western TV and film into China, Benedict Cumberbatch, in his role as the title character in Sherlock, the popular BBC TV series, has gained cult status in dan mei circles, spawning countless depictions of gay romance between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, including explicit sexual content, such as this passage (translated from Mandarin) from a slash Web site currently accessible in China:
With three strokes [Sherlock] clawed opened John's shirt, lowering his head to kiss his Adam's apple, and then worked all the way down: the clavicle, nipples, navel. He deftly untied his belt, taking out John's blood-pumped penis. Although it wasn't large, it was beautifully formed, and a sudden idea flashed across his mind: Maybe he would like to taste it.
At left: Depictions of male-to-male romance from the dan mei novel Delayed Love
In addition to Sherlock, other characters from British dramas including Downton Abbey and Dr. Who have received similar treatment, causing the United Kingdom to be nicknamed the "Gay Kingdom" by dan mei fans. Literary content sites such as Jinjiang Literature City, as well as fan forums, have parts dedicated to the form. But despite its rather "soft" reputation, dan mei -- like all other forms of art, literature, and film in China -- must contend with state censorship. The narratives can be purely romantic or explicitly sexual, and depending on their content, can be treated in the eyes of the law as pornography, which is banned in mainland China.
At left: Severus, Harry Potter by Yukipon
"The law doesn't differentiate between dan mei and gay fiction in any way," says a 28-year-old writer who asked not to be identified by name. In his view, crackdowns are a function of political whims, "so if the government decides it's going to crack down on gay-related content, it'll just cast a wide net and go for dan mei, too."
For this writer, who in the past has received police warnings for his work, these episodes affect how far he is willing to push his writing. "Since the warnings, I've been much more restrained in what and how I write," he says, equating the entire process to "a game of cat and mouse" and a search for "loopholes" to get around state laws.
For many readers and writers who see dan mei as a distinct literary field that deserves greater recognition in mainstream culture, such a development might not be possible until more freedoms are awarded to its writers and readers.
"Currently, dan mei is seen merely as an amusing category of fiction in terms of cultural and literary significance. Unless the bigger picture changes regarding freedoms and rights of homosexuality, it's difficult to see a promising future for the genre," the writer adds.
With state censors keeping an eye on the genre, some of the most explicit forms of dan mei may continue to thrive only on foreign Web sites, accessible through a VPN (virtual private network) -- the way some people reach blocked sites like Facebook and Twitter in China. Others may be willing to tread the fine line of judgment, and take their chances with the law.