+ Fluid Heritage
Coded Writing: The struggles of queer literature creations in Chinese internet community
by Zhixi (Bonnie) Chen

Some people now believe that the Holocaust is a vile propaganda, and more people are seeing this point of view to be understandable. What we are understanding is the virtual network of information building a facade and veiling the reality away. Turning real people into names and numbers, that is one kind of common ground with the Holocaust and the Internet. It is hard to find out when nowadays Chinese queer literature writers, which are chiefly women, started to resonate with the European Jewish communities during World War II, or when they started to use related metaphors to describe their own current situations. Under certain unspoken regulations and laws in China, queer culture and LGBT+ relationships demonstrations in art and cultural performances are labeled as innormal, pornographic or vulgar contents, therefore indicated to be censored. This is a story of how the Chinese female writers see their creating career in the fate of exile. This nation has a future, and what are considered barriers to this future need to be abandoned.

In May 2018 when there was another wave of tightening censorship, I posted an article Ben Hur: A Gay Movie Under the Regulations of Hays Code on Weibo, one of the biggest social media platform in China, and received over 10,000 views in one week. I was inspired by the documentary film The Celluloid Closet (Epstein, 1995) on how the filmmakers portrayed sexual minorities characters against the Hollywood Production Code[1], and how it encouraged later film creators and audiences to reach freer gender and sexuality expressions. In the mentioned case of producing the epic historical drama film Ben Hur in 1958, one of the screenwriters Gore Vidal added a lovers’ relationship between the two male leads in the context of character settings. Without any specific indications on the scenes, he led the audience to the hidden text by liberating their interpretations. I wrote down Vidal’s creation story and hoped to encourage more people who read it, as long as the article survives.

Censored Article on Weibo
Censored Picture on Weibo
Existing Records on a Banned Post of Weibo

Only several months later in October, a Chinese writer Tianyi was reported for her homosexual novel publications, soon arrested, and then sentenced to 10 years and 6 months in first instance, for the crime of making and selling pornographic materials for profit. Tianyi’s incident was like the first received letter to the concentration camp; it planted terror in most witnesses’ hearts. She was reported by a customer of her book, and located by a tracking device in the return package. On the website of a mainstream newspaper, it is described poetically, «A small tracker, laid quietly in the package» (Du, 2019); and the novel authored as “Tianyi” (pen name) was described as “a book without an author name”, in another word the writer identity of Tianyi wasn’t accepted in the news report. In a more plain style of journalism she is merely called «the female criminal» (Wen, 2018). But in the end none of these wider-spread media reports has mentioned the life or creating career of Tianyi before the sentence. I have to try inquiring about it in the online writers community and catch some uncensored memories.
«I believe Tianyi’s case is genuinely an act of harm, not to one individual, but to all the women engaged in writing. I don’t think we can’t talk about even what-they-called pornography. We are merely not allowed to talk about it. And it’s becoming common sense that things not allowed are things not correct» interviewed writer Ann gave a long reply «I read her novels earlier. From the content to her writing style it’s obvious to find that she’s not someone with much cultural capital. Her works show utterly poor imaginations of the elite life that she could hardly reach in reality. In many of her interviews, I remember she’s in a creating circumstance with severe poverty. Eating only fruits when she couldn’t afford a proper meal, or her fingers were too frozen to type in winter. But she forced herself to produce because it’s the bridge to a tough breakthrough of her life. It’s almost an intuitive demonstration of the difficulties of contemporary women’s creation».
The records of Tianyi’s complete interviews are no longer within my reach anymore. Countless posts of appeals and discussions disappeared on social media, involving accounts forced to cancel. But only in the memories of Tianyi from the interviewed writers, I found the compassion to her as a human in life, and the realization of shared destiny to her as a writer in creation, which have been lost on public media. Even the article I posted appeared to be privileged with ivory tower idealism, when her experience quaked the tragic reality. Legally Tianyi is seen as a victim of an undeveloped rating system for adult contents, and of an outdated publishing law for profit from independent publishing, yet morally she is accused of expressing her sexual fantasies, and by the homosexual romances between men, too. Without a tolerant and open social environment, she can only be listed to hunt down.

A Disappeared Account
Notifications on Lofter
Blocked Chapter on Jinjiang Literature City Website

Before 1933
On the headlines of newspapers and media platforms, Tianyi was often titled as ‘Tanbi writer’. The term Tanbi (耽美) is considerably the only gay slang accepted by Chinese mainstream media. For a longer period of time, Tanbi enthusiasts were regarded no more curious than a group of social clubs; thus the term stayed neutral, that actually spared from smear by the luck of timing. It is before they have to mask this certain part of identity from accusations.
The etymology of Tanbi horizontally illustrates the history of queer culture and trends in modern China. The word literally means ‘to covert, enjoy or obsessed in beauty’, origins from Japanese as the translation of European Aestheticism. Since the 1970s it was applied to gay romance themed comics with oftenly aesthetic and romanticism art styles and were popular in female readers. When the word was introduced into modern Chinese, it narrowed to the later and newer meaning, as the collective name of gay literature and artworks especially created and received by females on the mutual sides. Even though from the late 1980s, Japanese Tanbi comics entering Chinese reader communities was an enlightening moment, many active writers refer their inspirations to contemporary English literature, from the established classics F. Scott Fitzgerald, Oscar Wilde or Louisa May Alcott, to new generations trend-setter Harry Potter, Marvel comics, Sherlock Holmes series and their varied adaptations. In Chinese cinema there are also remembered gay themed movies such as Lanyu in 2001, derived from online novel Beijing Story and featured two Chinese academic actors as the male leads; and Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together in 1997, featuring actor Leslie Chung, who later became a memorable gay icon and a famous case of depression and suicide death due to struggling with Hong Kong media and social prejudice on his homosexuality.
Tanbi, as the act of depicting male characters and their relationships by females, is changing the game of the male gaze. In the regions where women are shackled by patriarchy and traditional family values like Eastern Asia, tanbi became outstandingly phenomenal, even triggered market reaction to foster Yaoi [2], idol entertainment and queer-baiting plot on mainstream television. In core, it gifted females a new idea to experience playing with male characters, and expressing the desire to have different romantic relationships by projecting it on mens. It is a remote fantasy of equal relationship, for the women who tend to wonder if homosexuality could easilier break the social prejudice than the gender difference. Therefore the tanbi girls are equally desperate as gay men in wishing to find any possible representation of their love and desire on media. And even they can be more aggressive than the gay community on putting the prefered interpretation on various kinds of works.
When the idea was received by the Chinese fangirls, it encouraged their search for self-expression and richer identity in new communities. «I have many different interpretations of my life, the society I live in and the people I like». Writer name Lalacucumber explained her creating motivation in our talk, «The fictional nature in writing gives me a safe and harmless way of self-expression». And some other interviewees are interested in the power of effecting people with one’s creative works. Supportive responses from readers and new friends made with sharing hobbies are their pride badge.

In 1942
Unfortunately an identity badge can easily turn into a sign to target. The Internet is first a core impetus of the awakening of this sex liberation by offering freer access to alternative narratives of the same inherited culture history and art, but later it becomes a virtual courtroom adjudging for an imagined trail of the menaced authority of cultural heritage. The censorship systems might differ in social media platforms, but they are never clearly publicised. Trying to post a piece of work became a sport of walking across a minefield, towards one narrow door of the ‘send’ button. What is more, real-person reviewers and the increasing list of banned words can grab you back in bars even though you succeed in fooling artificial keywords filters. If one has offended the rules too many times, their personal account and all the records on the account history can be terminated completely, or in slang “get bombed”.
Like many online creators, I moved my first gay-pairing fiction from Weibo to a relatively obscure blogging platform Lofter a few years ago, and started more writings for the survived and classification-isolated communities. Earlier in this year of 2020, Lofter was no longer available in app stores for containing inappropriate contents. It was tackled through tags: its classification system, mostly used in pairings, character names, and themes. At this point, a unit that can get reported is larger as a whole discussion group under the same topic. Meanwhile standard literature websites such as Jinjiang Literature City and Changpei Literatures, even with established administrations of signing authors, are often criticized for not respecting the writers and their works. Or another option to choose an older form of Internet platforms, which are forums and posting boards. For example Mtslash, a fan fiction forum for English film and television, has a better reputation but also a closed environment facing only registered members.

Notifications on Jinjiang Literature City Website
A Failed Access to a Novel on Jinjiang Literature City

Like the stories in camps and prisons of how people smuggle soap bars or radios, the writers shared their particular experiences in escaping from the censorship. Based on the special characteristic of written Chinese, censored terms can be written in their Roman alphabet spellings, or replaced with another term but in the same or similar pronunciations. Apart from the basic level of a trained sense to spot possibly banned words, a long screenshot of the texts is usually used. For smarter artificial scans, try spin the screenshot picture upside down, adding blank space on the cover, or scribble some random patterns to obstruct the mechanism identifying the words. With some programming skills it’s also possible to post contents on other platforms and use hyperlinks, even double-layered hyperlinks; but note that: An IP address in mainland China can not visit WordPress, Archive of Our Own, Tumblr, Facebook or Twitter.
Due to the restrictions on accessing many popular international websites, Chinese creators have to face more checkpoints if they want to migrate their works abroad. Since the sentence in the first email sent out from the Chinese Internet reads, «Across the Great Wall we can reach every corner in the world» (Zhang, 2003), today’s Internet restrictions in China is called the Wall in Chinese online slang, and furtherly “climbing the wall”, which means to use VPN (virtual private network) services to change into IP addresses in other countries. Interviewee of pseudonym Aminophen argues, «I support more people to climb over the wall, and form a new community outside the wall. I can tell that a lot of people have negative opinions on it, for Chinese works exling in an English-dominated world, always being identified as foreigners, or language barriers. I understand deeply as an international student abroad. But I think staying stagnant would be a worse choice».
Other than a stagnation to share ideas and creations, the writers are also worried about the decreasing tolerance of cultural differences and social diversities in the existing audience. Creators can be trained to fight against the censorship, but readers can lose their acceptance that should have been naturally nourished in rich and varied works. Tianyi’s case is also an evidence of such tendency, when the focus of the discussion fell on whether she has her own blame. Still there is more sympathy than hostility to people who inherited the custom of self-censorship, and the hope to light their eyes again with vast and colourful creations. Even when a Jew said «I have to cooperate with the police because I’m not ready for the fate of the gas chamber yet», it would never be other Jews who blame them. «Our fate shouldn’t have been the gas chamber from the beginning» other Jews said «No police can design our own fate».
Early as teenagers in school education in China, we were taught to wind up a writing piece with a conclusion and a constructive idea for the future. And my conclusion to this is another ignored and disappearing story of oppressing women’s liberty to free self-expression. As one of the crowds involved in this situation inevitably, I feel too difficult to be a calm observer and analyse out a clear direction we can confidently walk on. When James Baldwin was asked about his point of view on the future of America, he answered: «I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter, so I’m forced to be an optimist. I’m forced to believe that we can survive whatever we must survive» (Baldwin, 1963). With his wisdom I will be more assured to say that, like the future of the black people in America is «precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country», the future of women in China is also, precisely as bright or as dark as the future of China.

[1] Motion Picture Production Code, a set of guidelines for content censorship to motion pictures in the United States, applied in the years of 1934 to 1968. It is broadly known as the Hays Code after William H. Hays, the responsible establisher of the code.
[2] Similar genre of media as Tanbi.

Baldwin J., Interview, The Negro and the American Promise, 1963. Documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, Velvet Film, 2016.
Du W., Crime and Punishment in the Case of Tanbi Writer “Tianyi”. The Beijing News, January 4, 2019.
Epstein R., Friedman J., The Celluloid Closet. Sony Pictures Classics, 1996.
Kwan S., Lanyu. Yongning Creative Workshop, 2001.
Wen C., The Second Instance of Web Writer Tianyi: Sentenced to 10 and a half years for selling pornographic publications. Original title, 10-year sentence for selling pornographic publications, female criminal unconvinced and cried for justice at the scene. ThePaper.cn., December 18, 2018.
Wiktionary, “耽美” retrieved August 20, 2020.
Wong K., Happy Together. Kino International, 1997.
Wyler W., Ben Hur. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., 1959.
Zhang J., CNNIC discloses the original text of the first email sent by China. Beijing Times, July 17, 2003.

Zhixi (Bonnie) Chen is a freelance art history and museology researcher and advertisement creative worker residing in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She holds a Master’s degree of Applied Museum and Heritage Studies in Reinwardt Academy, and memberships of several cultural organizations, including ICOM (International Council of Museums) and OTW (Organization for Transformative Works). Now she devotes her practices to both fields of advertisement and humanities topics.