The rise of gay erotic manga in China

Yaoi or ‘boys’ love’ has become hugely popular with straight Chinese women

There’s a growing fascination among Chinese women for watching and drawing yaoi: Japanese gay manga. Most of us have probably heard of hentai, which is Japanese comic pornography. Yaoi or ‘boys’ love’ (known as BL) is its homosexual counterpart, and it may come as a surprise but many of the artists and consumers of yaoi are actually straight women. Yaoi first reached Hong Kong from Japan back in the 1970s. It rose in popularity in the 1990s among high school girls, according to data from researcher June Yu of Hong Kong Baptist University. It then spread to the Mainland where it is gaining traction despite being illegal. Since then, the birth of the pejorative term fujoshi– literally meaning ‘rotten women’ – emerged to characterise women fascinated by depictions of homosexuality in media and art.

In July, 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 big and 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 versions of yaoi. The first reason is the escape and removal of sexual identity, which Jacobs calls ‘cross gender identification’.

Women are looking at these man-on-man relationships from a safe and comfortable distance, creating a guilt-free comfort zone. Yu agrees. ‘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 in this sexual dilemma, women 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 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 chemistry between the boy-next-door type of character that then shifts into extremely graphic sexual scenes. Though in recent years, according to Jacobs, there has been a diversification because ‘female sexuality is fluid in nature, and the varied tastes have led to different yaoi genres’ featuring a broader spectrum of male body types and relationships.

There are a few trends specific to Chinese yaoi readers, such as when one character is sick, disabled or mentally unwell and the other has to take care of him. ‘It’s a juxtaposition of sex and taking care of people, which has a sweet element to it,’ says Jacobs. Another trend is of imperial Chinese themes, where an emperor has fallen in love with a young eunuch and finds the genitally scarred area to be an attractive erogenous zone. It’s odd, we know, but these storylines have become a huge hit.

Another reason for women’s interest in yaoi is because it provides a sense of social freedom in a stifling society. ‘That’s especially so now in Mainland 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 and seized yaoi content, charging the artists and distributors under obscenity laws.

Yaoi represents rebellion,’ says Jacobs. ‘It is a way for women to have their own erotica, which they didn’t have before, and share it with the international community. It’s an escape from the type of local culture that usually dictates that women have to be obedient.’

What may be obscene and debased for some is sexually and socially liberating for others. For Chinese women, yaoi is a form of art that satisfies more than some cheap sexual thrill. Though on the Mainland this comes at a price: that of breaking the law.

For more on Professor Jacobs, go to Check out June Yu’s study at
  • 4 out of 5 stars