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Politics of Censorship: China’s Dangai, A Promising Money-Maker

by Oshi Agarwal

In China, which has repeatedly been the site of surveillance and censorship, the Dangai genre of  dramas has been able to introduce a large viewership to the nation. This article brings up the inconsistent stance of censorship, with prospects of worldwide commercial success being the overarching goal challenged by orthodox values.

There has not been a day in the past few years when I have woken up to pleasant news related to China. The production giant has progressed and simultaneously brought turmoil to its people in terms of political, economic and social issues. The surveillance of the state has grown exponentially with every single move of the citizens being watched, assessed and controlled by the stakeholders of the nation. It has impacted crucial aspects of life like a person’s “trustworthiness” through the social credit system, creating the notion of an “ideal” citizen on hegemonic ideas. But beyond this, even the supposed mundane things like TV and visual media  have been affected by China’s outlook on creating that ideal citizen. But with conservative ideologies still holding the fort, what happens to the portrayal of marginal identities like queerness? What happens to representation and the way it is consumed? When there are limits to how creative one can be with the final goal being the “greater good” of the nation, how do creators tackle the barriers of censorship?

China’s road to “National Rejuvenation” 

China’s control over the media consumption of its citizens has been around for a long time. While the isolated state of social media in the country caters to the cultural differences established by the West’s dominance on the Internet, it is constantly disciplined for anti-national behaviour. During the recent protests against the Zero-Covid Policy, accounts were suspended for posting about the same on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media app of the country. In a controversial move made by the communist government of China, in 2021, the already strict TV censorship regulations became stricter under the National Rejuvenation campaign. Many of these regulations were to do with “healthier” media consumption (which, on the face of it, sounds extremely necessary). But one of these regulations was the ban on effeminate men from all forms of  media. This included portrayals in films, shows, reality TV and even video games. Traditional Chinese values encourage the orthodox idea of masculinity in men. TV in China before was never monitored at this level. While men have always been expected to fit into certain gender ideals, their expression was never regulated. There have never been any prohibitions on who can and cannot wear makeup or a particular kind of clothing. This campaign, therefore, threatened many productions and projects from making any kind of progress as the censorship board left a lot of questions unanswered. The projects that were worst hit by this campaign were the Dangai dramas or the C-Dramas that have queer male relationships at the centre of their plot. Shows that were in progress or were already ready to air had to face a sudden halt in their activities to save the immense costs incurred. Let’s dissect this a bit further.

Dangai and Censorship

Dangai is a genre of TV shows that originated from the heavy censorship China put into effect in 2016. This came to happen with the popularity of one of the first Chinese TV shows, Addicted, which portrayed an explicit queer relationship between two men. The censorship pretty much banned any live-action with “abnormal sexual relationships” amongst many other things. Now, while the country greatly suffers from homophobic ideologies, in hidden corners of the internet where nothing is really as monitored and constrained, aspiring and talented writers upload their web novels. Many of these web novels come to gain immense popularity not just within China but also internationally through fan translations from Mandarin to several other languages. These novels are, more often than not, of the fantasy genre called Wuxia (武俠) or Xianxia (仙俠) which is set in a world of the cultivation and martial heroes. With no heavy restrictions, authors are allowed to explore queer relationships freely, especially in fantasy texts where there are no rules or even the existence of gender and sexuality. Consequently, these web novels are the reason why dangai dramas or the last signs of queer media in China still exist. 

Full of rich writing, these web novels or danmei move forward to become scripts for dramas. As the authors are provided with little to no restrictions, they are able to write heavy text, rounding up to almost a book series worth of content. This makes them convenient for TV show adaptations. The pre-existing widespread popularity of these novels guarantees a decent and dedicated viewership for the producers of the dramas. Moreover, the central focus of these novels revolves around world-building and the journey of the hero like any other epic tale. Although this does not mean that the relationship between the male leads is sidelined, it becomes easier to put them in subtext. And that is exactly what the major drama producers would do following the censorship updations. 

The Rise of the Subtext

Guardian (2018) is one of the first shows in the series of fantasy epic tales with two male leads hinted at as each otr’s love interests. The Untamed came out in the year 2019 and has become the emblematic C-Drama or BL (Boys Love) for China. Many other dramas based on danmei novels followed these two and introduced many viewers to Chinese television. Several of these were eventually put up on Netflix which expanded the international viewership even further. The creators of these shows were able to get away with it with the power of subtext. The “it” factor of these shows is how carefully they treat this subtext. It shows how they are not merely capitalising on the heavy demand for queer media (although that is a big part of the whole shebang!), but still, manage to do a good job of delivering appealing chemistry between the male leads. I would like to mention here that these dramas should not be confused to have queer representation. The fantastical setting and elements along with the subtextual format hardly make them conveyors of queerness and its complicated nuances. 

With the rising popularity of these shows with queer-coded characters, many more web novels got into the process of adaptation when the communist party announced its rejuvenation campaign. But in recent production news about C-Dramas, it was revealed that China wants to catch up with its competitor, South Korea, in terms of TV Dramas. K-Dramas have remained undefeated in the production of TV shows, especially the romance genre including queer ones. It is also seeing a recent rise in female queer representation although it is still in its initial stages. C-Dramas, in comparison, have not seen that huge boom in viewership because of various issues including censorship, creative limitations, distribution restrictions and inadaptability to international viewers. One of the strategies that the production companies are planning on employing is digging out the buried dangai dramas which were much awaited by thousands of fans worldwide. This will, of course, involve negotiations and requiring green flags from the censorship board. It is clear that they wish to reconvene their previous advancements in the competition of East Asian dramas using the breakthrough provided by dangai

The way censorship works in all this is very interesting as they wish to balance profit-making and promoting Chinese “values” at the same time. Fans have started noticing updates about their favourite dramas on various websites. So, although nothing has been officially announced as of yet, it can be said that dangai will make a comeback in the world of drama. What this return will entail for the content of the dramas, whether they will stick to the original texts or completely alter them for the sake of uprooting progressive ideas from society are unanswered questions. But what cannot be ignored is the “thorn in the side” BL dramas have become for the people of power who have consistently tried to push them down. 

Author’s bio: – Oshi is in her third year at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, majoring in Literary Studies. Her interests include film and visual media studies, queer studies and learning languages. 

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