#15 China’s Underground Fanfiction Community is Snitching on Itself

Magpie Kingdom
Jul 6, 2018 · 6 min read

This is issue #15 of the Magpie Digest newsletter, originally sent on 7/6/2018

Examples of tongren novels featuring stories about Black Panther, Thor, and Dunkirk, respectively. Many tongren novels are produced as high quality collector items, with expensive details such as gold foil on the covers.

We’ve written about the Chinese internet’s deep fandom culture before, from the otaku (a subculture based on animation, comics, and games) bullet-commenters of Bilibili to online publishers of fanfiction, who’ve evolved clever tactics to continually evade censorship. For the post-90s generations, these subcultures represent the digital avant-garde, and are where the most internet savvy tend to play. Recently, troubling behaviors have been emerging in these communities, forecasting turmoil across the Chinese internet at large.

Chinese Fanfiction

The Chinese fanfiction ecosystem reflects its eclectic media diet: there are vibrant fan communities around movies, games, books, bands, and TV shows from Japan, Korea, the US, the UK, and China itself. Fanfiction is primarily distributed and consumed online, sometimes through evasive maneuvers to outsmart platforms that frown on their occasionally sexually explicit (and often queer) content. As in Japan, a huge amount of Chinese fanfiction features non-canonical gay romance (referred to as “BL,” short for “Boys’ Love”), often written by straight young women who self-identify as 腐女 (literally “rotten women,” taken from the Japanese fujoshi). And also as in Japan, there is a thriving cottage industry for printed copies of the most popular works.

The Chinese fan practice of creating and selling 同人本子 (literally “same people books”; we’ll use “tongren novel” for short) is a text-focused version of the Japanese doujinshi (同人誌) industry, in which anime and manga fans self-publish and sell comics starring popular characters. Tongren novels are usually created either by authors themselves, or by fan groups that buy the rights to publish a specific piece of fanfiction from its author and handle all design and logistics. They tend to be high-quality collector’s items, often with custom illustrated covers, bonus content not found online, and collectable extras like postcards.

Because of the attention to detail and the relatively small print runs, it is not unusual for tongren novels to sell for three times the cover price of a traditional novel.

A typical example of a tongren novel of homoerotic Dunkirk fanfiction, bonus postcard included.

Skirting Publishing Restrictions through Alternative Retail Pathways

Self-published fan work is a labor of love anywhere, but it is particularly so in China. Technically, any book sold in the country must be printed by one of a few hundred government-approved printers. These also act as gatekeepers for what books are even permitted to buy an official publication number (like an ISBN), which can range from 20 to 30,000 RMB. Since most tongren novels don’t have a prayer of getting a stamp of approval or raising that amount, fans must be discreet about distributing the goods.

Traditionally, it has been easiest to buy and sell tongren novels in person, at comic conventions such as Comicup in Shanghai. But fans have found online workarounds as well. These days, it is common for tongren novel publishers to announce new publications on Weibo and take pre-orders — with deposits! — to gauge interest. Publishers then order the appropriate number of books to be printed, and deliver the finished product to customers months later. In essence, these are manually-run crowdfunding campaigns.

An advertisement, posted on Weibo, for a pre-sale of a tongren novel about domestic hit 红海行动 (Operation Red Sea). The digital flyer includes information about the table of contents, the word count (70,000) and page count (128 pages), and the production team (pseudonyms). The pre-sale deposit for this novel was 5 RMB.

Particularly popular tongren novels may get multiple printings, and extras are sometimes sold on Taobao — but always marketed as merchandise or stationery to avoid being scrutinized as a book. True fans would know what they were looking at immediately, but no automated systems would be flagged.

A Taobao listing for a tongren novel about characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The listing describes the item as a day planner, but mentions that it is “fully authorized [by the author]” and “hand-bound in limited numbers.”

The Fandom Community Reports Itself

Though there have been sweeps of arrests for authors of homoerotic fanfiction in the past, the delicate alternative infrastructure for distributing tongren novels has been relatively unperturbed by authorities for years. Recently, however, this has started to change — not because of tightening restrictions from Beijing, for once, but rather due to interpersonal feuds within the community.

In 2017, a 26 year old graduate student with over 100,000 Weibo followers was arrested for “illegally selling published works” on Taobao. According to the letter of the law, which scales punishment based on sales volume, the 150,000 RMB pre-sales of her unauthorized tongren novels were enough to land her in jail for five years. Weibo posters were particularly shocked to learn that the arrest was triggered by a report to the Wuhan police by a fellow fanfiction writer who had been caught plagiarizing her work. Since then, several other tongren publishers have been reported over anything from inter-fandom feuds to disgruntled customers.

The tongren novel community has responded by circling their wagons. Some members of the community are urging more conservative print runs to sell only through pre-sales, while others have become even more tight-lipped in their customer service to avoid incriminating messaging transcripts.

The same Taobao listing as above includes this vague warning: “this store only offers pre-arranged, limited collectibles. If you don’t understand, don’t ask; we won’t answer questions like ‘what is this’ or ‘is this ___’, if you don’t know then these things will have no value to you. Thank you for your understanding.

That the younger generation is engaging in reporting on their own media for frivolous reasons is a troubling and surprising development, analogous to (though still not quite as dangerous as) the practice of swatting within online gaming and streaming communities in the US. To us, this behavior is a dark omen for the future of the Chinese internet. As one older poster put it:

People are always saying “it’ll get better when our generation grows up.” I used to believe in this, and thought that it meant the generation after us would be more progressive, more respectful of the generation after it. But the older I get, the more I realize that history is repeating itself. Many people don’t even realize when their attitudes turn into one of abusing their dominance, and what’s even more maddening is that their logic is exactly the same as the previous generation: it basically boils down to “your stuff is bad, our stuff is good.” The previous generation played Go and made fun of Super Mario; this generation plays Super Mario and makes fun of Arena of Valor… only the skin has changed, the flesh stays the same.

But when I hear that this new generation of anime fans are actually getting comfortable with reporting content? That really is new. My generation really wouldn’t do anything like that: honor among thieves — no one ever even considered snitching. I guess the next generation really is more capable…

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Magpie Digest is a project of Magpie Kingdom, a consultancy that provides analysis, business advisory services, and custom research to help businesses translate their value for the Chinese market. The Magpie team (Christina Xu, Tricia Wang, and Pheona Chen) is based in New York and Shanghai.

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Magpie Digest

Exploring contemporary China, one trending topic at a time. Sign up for the newsletter digest at magpiekingdom.com