Danmei – gay fiction – bears brunt of new regulations that espouse socialist values

By Bai Tiantian Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/6 18:03:39

Website rewards readers with digital coins for reporting harmful content

○ Strengthened supervision over online fiction and subsequent video adaptations have shaken market confidence in a booming industry and given investors cold feet

○ As homosexuality is deemed to be unacceptably 'vulgar' in new regulation, the genre of danmei  - gay fiction - is expected to take a hit

A poster of TV series Noble Aspirations, which was adapted from an online book. Photo: IC

Last week, regulators threw a wet blanket on the prospering online literature industry and its subsequent screen adaptations. Two regulations were released, introducing an evaluation system for online literature websites that demands fictional works "reflect core socialist values and abide by moral norms," and bans any online video that it deems "vulgar," including those which depict homosexuality, extramarital affairs or scenes of obvious "seductive behaviors."

The director of an Internet literature platform that features romantic and gay fictions, also known in China as danmei, told the Global Times that her business was booming but now the new regulations have shaken market confidence.

"I was in the process of selling the adaptation rights of some of our novels and even considered bringing in investors to expand the platform. The investors initially showed great interest but after the release of the two regulations last week, they got cold feet," said the director, who asked to remain anonymous.

"One of the investors immediately sent our team links to the regulations and asked us what we think of them. We tried to explain to him that the business is still sound. But he was already discouraged and decided to postpone the process and renegotiate the terms," she noted.

She admitted that the shift in government policy is currently the main source of risk in her line of work and the new regulations will probably hit the danmei genre, a key part of her business, especially hard.

Both of the new regulations have sparked controversy in China. Some Net users voiced concerns that the policies would hurt the creativity of the industry. Others criticized that the new terms discriminate against the LGBTQ community. 

"The regulations reflect a conservative and patriarchal view from these regulators on what constitutes a healthy reading. But the online backlash showed that Chinese youth's attitudes toward sex and homosexuality are slowly evolving," Peng Xiaohui, a sexology professor at Wuhan's Central China Normal University, told the Global Times.

Broader attempts

The stricter-than-ever regulations came amid broader attempts by China's media regulators to tighten supervision over online content and follows the closure of dozens of celebrity gossip social media accounts earlier in June.

On June 27 the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) made public a guideline that says all online literary platforms will be assessed annually on an 100-point scale, of which 30 points will be dedicated to "value guidance and style of thought."

The regulation demands that up to 20 points be attributed to whether the platform has provided enough literary works that reflect core socialist values. Websites can also lose points for hosting works that ignore "moral norms" or "reflect distorted values or ethics."

Meanwhile, a "correct understanding" of Party and military history is required. "Distortion" or "desecration" of such history will cost the websites up to 5 points per novel.

It further states that should a "serious political error" occur that causes "adverse social effects," the website will fail the evaluation outright.

In order to pass the evaluation, websites must score at least 60 points. Those with a lower score will be publicly criticized and their executives will be "invited for a talk" with regulators.

Two days after the SAPPRFT regulation, a set of new audit criteria for online programs was introduced by the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA), an organization under SAPPRFT with 604 members that include China Central Television and the Xinhua News Agency.

The new standards ban nine categories of content that were deemed to be of obscene or vulgar, including "abnormal" sexual relations such as incest, homosexuality, and sexual abuse, "unhealthy" views on marriage such as extramarital affairs, sexual freedom and wife swapping, as well as prostitution, rape, masturbation or anything that is "highly sexually stimulating."

Both regulations became effective by July 1, which has only given the literature websites a narrow window of three days to react.

Several websites approached by the Global Times said they are still studying the policies and have not yet received an official notice from the government.

"We have always known the day would come that the government further tightens its supervision. We just didn't think it would come so abruptly," said the director.


Indescribable act

Of all the fictional genres, danmei is expected to take the hardest hit.

Originally from Japan, erotic stories and manga that depict gay relationships have put down deep roots in China since the 2000s. Most Chinese danmei writers and readers are young, heterosexual women who sexologists say are using danmei to explore their long-repressed sexuality.

The anonymous literature platform director estimated the demand for danmei stories among Chinese female readers is neck to neck, if not greater, than that for heterosexual romance.  She said the market has not matured as it has in Japan because danmei has often been mistaken for pornography by the government and therefore has found itself in the regulators' crosshairs.

A danmei writer who has over 2,000 followers on Jinjiang, a top female-oriented literature website, told the Global Times that the policies have sparked quite a discussion among danmei writers and she expects her platform to implement stricter policies despite having already established a pretty effective system to identify and eliminate potentially risky content.

While processing an attempt to upload a new chapter, Jinjiang automatically screens and removes sensitive words, such as the names of human reproductive organs or verbs that describe sexual acts.

When the website became aware that computer screening alone was not enough, it began to award readers with digital coins to help the website eliminate sensitive content. These coins can be used to buy books on Jinjiang. Every new chapter will be cross-examined and approved by at least two people before being published on the platform. The website also encourages readers to report stories that violate the no-sex-scene rule.

"We've even got a nickname for sex. We call it 'the indescribable act below the neck.' When the plot comes to the point where sex is inevitable, we either tell our readers to use their wildest imagination or direct them to read the sex scenes on a different platform, an overseas website for example," said the writer, who also requested anonymity.

She noted that some danmei subgenres, such as brother-on-brother or father-son incest, have already been banned on Jinjiang.

"The supervision has had an impact. It has already driven some danmei writers to turn to romance. But I don't think the genre will be fully eliminated," she said.

True talent stands out

Since last week, the new regulations have drawn some criticism on social media platforms.

Li Yinhe, a renowned Chinese sexologist, openly criticized the new audit criteria, arguing it will stymie the creativity of artists. She said some of the terms are so rigid that even Shakespeare would fail the test. She also said the criteria have violated the rights of LGBTQ people to freely express their sexual orientation.

"Like food and shelter, sex is also a matter of daily life. Advocating abstinence is as ridiculous as subduing one's appetite," Li wrote on her Sina Weibo account.

Her comment has been shared over 280,000 times and liked by 190,000 Net users as of press time.

Meanwhile, some people in the online literature industry told the Global Times the regulations could help reshape the market for the better.

"You have to admit that sex sells. I have seen writers trying to compensate for their lack of imagination and writing skill with loads of sex scenes, and it worked with readers. Now with all the sex scenes being scrubbed away, those with true talent will stand out," said an editor of an online literature website who scouts talented unknown writers.

The anonymous director said smaller firms tend to suffer more under new regulations.

"But it doesn't mean the bigger firms are unaffected. Bigger firms are robust because they have a broader range of stories at their disposal but their old cash cows, such as horror or youth-themed stories, will find it more difficult to pass the inspection for screen adaptation," she noted.
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