Along with the popularization of Internet use in Mainland China since 2001, writings about gender and sexual minorities by women and for women have flourished in Chinese cyberspace. Thanks to the relatively loosened and decentralized online content censorship system, the articulation of previously silenced, marginalized voices and desires of Chinese women in the print media age has been largely enabled and encouraged through online production, circulation, and consumption of novels with unconventionally gendered and sexualized portrayals. Femslash, a subgenre of queer fan writings prevalent in Chinese cyberspace, is a case in point. It refers to female homoerotic/homosocial narratives and imageries produced and consumed by predominantly self-identified female fans. In online Chinese femslash literature, sexually graphic narratives have been common and celebrated for over a decade. Particularly, between 2005 and 2007 on a number of Chinese queer fan sites, the self-identified queer female fan writer Clockwork Orange 521 (Fatiaocheng521; CO521 hereafter) was actively writing and circulating femslash that queers Chinese androgynous female celebrities. Many of CO521’s fictions are famous for their dark-romance style and overwhelmingly erotic portrayals of lesbian sexual encounters, including scenes of BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism), incest, and sexual violence. A good example is one of her major works that sensationalized the Chinese Internet in 2006, Pink Affairs (Feiseshi; FSS hereafter), which is a long, incomplete fiction (Shenkeng) published in several large-scale Chinese queer fandoms built on the popular Chinese cyber communicative platform, Baidu Post Bar (Baidu Tieba).
CO521’s writing showcases a queer version of écriture féminine (feminine writing, termed by French feminist writer Hélène Cixous). It evidences the transgressive essence of contemporary web-based Chinese female fan writers’ homoerotic imaginings. In this form of imaginations, lesbian jouissance (female sexual pleasure) is reclaimed in extreme, utopian ways. The heavily eroticized lesbian romance achieved in CO521’s graphic portrayal of lesbian sex powerfully denounces the heteropatriarchal erasure of feminine subjectivity and sexual desires.
Almost all of CO521’s femslash narratives belong to a fan literature subgenre, “‘abuse fiction’ … [which] features physical and mental abuse.” For instance, in FSS, two androgynous female celebrities Liu Liyang and Shang Wenjie are depicted as half-sisters who do not know they share the same biological father. They are raised together and fall in love when they are teenagers. As noted by the American cultural anthropologist Gayle Rubin, the incest taboo scripted in the Western phallocentric symbolic order implies a heterosexual, feminine sexual passivity. It rejects the diversity and other possibilities of female sexuality by reinforcing the idea of “‘feminine’ vaginal passivity,” as discussed by French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray in her influential book The Sex Which Is Not One. Yet, when delving into the prevalent incestuous plots in queer fan literature, Chinese queer fan scholars Yanrui Xu and Ling Yang also reveal that the word “incest” (luanlun) in Chinese,
has richer connotations than its English equivalent. The word luan denotes confusion and disorder, while the word lun refers to kinship, human relations, order and meaning. The primary function of the incest taboo in feudal China was to prevent the disruption of both family and social order.
According to Xu and Yang, the act of incestuous sex in lesbian romance can also be understood as “a display of power.” It threatens contemporary Chinese heteropatriarchal morality and eventually helps articulate female subjectivity and sexuality in nonnormative sexual fantasies. The fiction FSS contains lengthy, graphic scenes of the two female characters’ numerous incestuous sexual encounters. By this means, it further amplifies a non-phallocentric expression of active, feminine sexual pleasure and fantasy. The BDSM plots FSS is saturated with helps substantiate this point.
BDSM is often associated with sexual pleasure, dissidence, escapism, and transcendence. However, instead of a simple escapist practice, the explicitly erotic and sexually violent scenes in FSS showcase female homoerotic writings as a location for a queer disruption of real-world heteronormativity and patriarchy. For instance, there is a clear power hierarchy in the gender roles played by the two female characters during their frequent sexual encounters. Especially in the BDSM scenes, the butch lesbian Liu always performs the dominant sex role. She expresses her anger and frustration at the sociocultural pressure on their incestuous lesbian relationship through her sexual abuse of the femme Shang. Shang plays the seemingly submissive, feminine, sexually passive role, enduring Liu’s abuse in silence. Yet, the reflection of the dominant gendered hierarchy between lesbian masculine and feminine identities/sex roles in FSS’s BDSM plots can also be viewed as an ultimate queer power play with the invisibility and unthinkability of lesbian gender identities. According to the theory of gender performativity, cross-gender imitations, such as cross-dressing butches acting and passing as straight men in public spaces and/or cultural fantasies, help challenge heteronormative gender binaries and ideals. CO521’s employment of BDSM and her reconstruction of the normatively gendered power hierarchy between butch masculinity (a nontraditional form of female gender embodiment) and femme femininity (a traditionally defined form of female gender identity) in an incestuous lesbian sex relationship, in this sense, radicalize female sexual expressions and represent alternative lesbian genders and sexualities. By so doing, the author dismantles not only heteronormative ideals about sexuality but also mainstream culture’s expunging of the diversity of female sexual desires.
Take, for example, the ways the fiction portrays Shang’s lesbian sexuality. Although most of the time she is portrayed as the powerless, traditionally feminine one in the relationship, later in the story she roughly takes Liu (a stone butch)’s virginity through vaginal penetration. In addition, although Shang is portrayed as having been an innocent virgin before she had sex with Liu, the fiction also presents detailed, intense portrayals of Shang’s multiple orgasms and even her female ejaculation during their BDSM sex. These vivid depictions of a variety of lesbian sexual practices and forms of pleasure that mock “the opposition between ‘masculine’ clitoral activity and ‘feminine’ vaginal passivity … in the development of a sexually ‘normal’ woman” defined by phallocentrism.
As Hélène Cixous once remarked in her famous essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” “writing is precisely the very possibility of change.” Indeed, in recent years, Chinese female writers have seized the opportunity made possible by digital media to “write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” due to the repression of feminine jouissance in offline, mainstream society. The sexualized female homoerotic fantasy that has emerged through producing and consuming online femslash points to a promising queer dimension of Chinese women’s writing. It not only highlights the multiplicity of female gender and sexuality but also demonstrates the potential of a fictive, homo-romantic space. This space has been made possible by the rise of Chinese cyberculture. It co-exists with, yet is also separate from, Chinese orthodox cultural production and official/commercial public discourses. Within this queer space, Chinese female writers’ disruption to heteronormativity allows room for the emergence of an independent female gender and sexual economy in China. Seen from this angle, online femslash serves as a good illustration of female subjectivity and agency in today’s Chinese women’s writing.
Jamie J. Zhao is a PhD candidate in Film and TV Studies at the University of Warwick. She completed a PhD in gender studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2016. She is co-editor (with Maud Lavin and Ling Yang) of Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Hong Kong University Press, 2017). Image credit: Dennis Danen/Flicker.