Ah, homoerotic love, that most forbidden of fruits; the love that dare-not-speak it’s name; that highest of loves; is there anything more noble than two (or three) men defying the petty wishes of conventional society in acts of pure homosexual love? Such divine acts were once known to be the preserve of the ancient Greeks, but now there are some new men in town: the Brits, at least that is what the Chinese think anyway.
When Thor 2 opened in China, a theater in Shanghai put up a poster of Thor and Loki getting cozy, very cozy indeed. The poster was probably the work of a 腐女 fǔ nǚ, who fantasized about the Asgaardian brothers’ enjoying a steamy 基情 (gay romance). If your knowledge of the Chinese character 腐 is limited to 豆腐 tofu, then you are out of date with Chinese popular culture. 腐 has acquired a new meaning in Chinese, deviating tremendously from its original usage: it is the new word for fans of gay culture, and specifically the British.
Given the rise of Japanese otaku fandom in China, 腐女 have been taking over Chinese popular culture. The term 腐女 itself comes from the Japanese, whose full name is 腐女子(ふじょし，fujoshi). Mostly fǔ nǚ are girls who fantasize about man-on-man romance, or BL – Boys’ Love. Although BL material originated from a specific branch of Japanese comics, novels, and games, the term now applies to works of many different media. Mostly, the term – which may come as a surprise to many readers – has come to refer to British popular culture. In fact, the country of England itself has acquired a new name: 腐国, or Boy’s Love (gay) Nation.
Like this fan on deviantart, many Chinese Whovians still wish the Master could be brought back to keep the Doctor company
Readers (especially British readers) might just wonder: “How on earth did we become a gay nation? Us Brit’s are firm, upright men, soldiers and sailors who win wars against the Germans. What’s gay about that?”
In China at least, Britain and homosexuality are now indeed synonymous. Millions of teenage Chinese girls across the nation are believed to be breaking-out in hot flushes, at the thought of decadent, British man-love. But why? The reason, is not that the Chinese believe that all British men are homosexuals running amok in the land of England, though there is no doubt an element of that. But, rather, it is the projection of seemingly homoerotic, and ever-popular, modern British culture on Chinese audiences.
British TV shows have a nickname all of their own: 腐剧, or fu TV shows. Admittedly, none of the most popular British shows in China, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, and Doctor Who, feature any obvious romance between two men. At most you could say there is a certain camaraderie, or a knowing closeness between Sherlock and Watson, but certainly no outright buggery or anything like that. But, well, for fan girls however – they like to get a bit carried away – any slight indication of two men’s affection for each other and it is suddenly erotically heightened via 脑补 nǎo bǔ i.e. the re-imagining of plots and sequences in their mind (usually the addition of overt homosexual subtexts and lashings of sex). Everybody needs a hobby I guess. And you could do worse than imagining, perfectly innocent British men engaging in burly, bearish acts.
Doctor Who gets a similar treatment too. It would be all too easy for a Chinese girl to imagine the 10th or 11th Doctor reuniting with Rose Tyler ( a woman!) but, oh no, that is not enough; instead these fan girls imagine the Doctor and the Master getting it on, reinterpreting each and every small gestures as a constrained and unspoken act of love between two closeted protagonists.
This photoshopped image of Potter and Malfoy went viral amongst Chinese girls
One could argue “you only see what your heart desires”, or 腐者见腐 (the fu people only sees fu elements), but the plots and performances in British TV shows and movies have undeniably promoted this “gayness”, as perceived by numerous Chinese female fans of gay fiction. American pop culture is famous for its obvious displays of heterosexual attraction, but British pop culture, given its tradition of subtlety, allows more room for reinterpretation. Other examples where they seem to be a scent of lavender amongst the actors include: Maxxie and Anwar from Skins, Roy and Moss from the IT Crowd, Merlin and Arthur, and even those archenemies Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy have won a special place in gay fiction amongst certain Chinese girls.
On Zhihu, the Chinese equivalent of ask.com, a user provided an additional reason for the audience’s tendency to fantasize about two men, giving a probing analysis, she said: “because in British television, there are always plot lines where the male lead and male supporting role are intimate, engaging in activities that border on gay romance; the female lead usually looks ugly, as ugly as a toad.” Justified or not, for the Chinese, the actors in British shows are usually more attractive, gentle, elegant, and adorable than their rather bland actresses. A Douban user, 盐lynn‘s analysis points out that there is more to being fu than merely good looks:
“English actors are not all astonishingly handsome or pretty, their receding hairlines is another tucao (吐槽) point, but fortunately they don’t affect their handsomeness… Some say, in England, as an actor, especially a male actor, he would be embarrassed to say hi if he hadn’t done a gay performance. Others say, British actors have three treasures: nakedness, cross-dressing, and pretending to be gay. The two jokes actually expressively explain a bold tendency in British actors – going all the way to having no low, taking care of both 被腐 (being fu-ed) and 自腐 (self-fuing).”
Chinese fan girls are in love with fantasizing about Sherlock and Watson’s romance
Sherlock is a delightful example. During the third season, actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were asked to read out gay erotic fan fiction, based on their characters Sherlock and Watson, at a preview screening. Although the host of the screening was later criticized for being inconsiderate and inappropriate, Chinese fans were in a state of near spiritual-orgasm that their deepest gay fantasies had finally been addressed. The bromance in Sherlock is so paramount that Cumberbatch has achieved the status of an erotic gay god in China (so has Tom Hiddleston , due to Thor, The Avengers, and of course being British). Although writer Steven Moffat has dispelled rumors of Holmes and Watson being gay, the new season has undoubtedly played-up to the audience’s fetish for gay romance. Not only does the first episode show a kiss between Homes and Moriarty, it also highlights the sort of forbidden love that seems to transcend earthly friendship.
Another Chinese netizen, Dr.黄兔君 wrote a long review of the mini-episode and the first episode, detailing what she thought of the mutual attraction and intense love between Holmes and Watson. On Holmes’s return, she wrote:
“At first he wanted return like nothing has happened, because he did not yet know that he was no longer the only one in Watson’s life. He thought… his Watson would forgive him in an instant and the two of them would be as intimate as they were. But he was wrong, people change, the only things that don’t are scientific theories. Without him, Watson still has lucky encounters in life – Mary.”
The audience’s preference for interpreting performances within terms of homosexuality is not just restricted to the screen. Kat, a Chinese student studying at a university in Beijing, is proud to be labeled a 腐女. In many cases, these 腐女 even encourage or fantasize about their boyfriends getting together with another good looking friend, perhaps with the female joining in, in a gay heavy threesome. When asked why she is a 腐女, Kat explained: “You know, if the handsome guy has a girlfriend, maybe I’d feel jealous. If the handsome guy is intimate with another guy, then I can only give them blessings.”
For these lovers of gay love, British culture has always and will always provide the most room for the erotic imagination. 盐lynn argues that 腐 has had a long history in Britain, which can be traced back to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and even before that; it’s in Shakespeare; it’s Chaucer; the Brit’s obsession with gay love, be it deifying, smutty or frowning, is almost as old as Britain itself. She does admit that nowadays in popular culture, incorporating tell-tale signs of fu-ness (gay romance) is a tool that writers use more humorously than erotically. Whether or not it is intended, British pop culture loves its little hints of homosexuality, bromanticism, and male rivalry. All of which, have contributed to England’s new reputation as being 腐国 (a gay nation). In China at least, Britain as a “Gay Nation” is no longer merely circumscribed to the annals of homosexuality, but it s a genuine descriptive term for all things British. The terms Britain and “Gay Nation” are now completely interchangeable. If I were to ask my best friend if she wanted to go on a holiday to the ‘Gay Nation’ she would not think I was suggesting we have a gay love affair in a foreign clime, nor that I wanted a weekend away in San Francisco, but, simply, that I fancied visiting the UK. For Chinese Fan girls, homosexuality and Britain are as one.