Danmei is one of the terms used to describe male/male romantic fiction written in Chinese for Chinese readers. Non-Chinese fans have regularly used the word for the past few years due to the increasing popularity of danmei fiction outside the Chinese-speaking community. Here, we will explore the evolution of the word “danmei.”
Danmei (耽美) was initially adopted from the Japanese word “tanbi,” written with the same character as the Chinese one. Tanbi can be translated as “aesthetic” or “the pursuit of aesthetic.” When used in the context of Japanese BL-related media around the 1980-90s, tanbi can be interpreted as work, according to James Welker, “fusing beauty, romance, and eroticism along with at least a dash of decadence.”
Tanbi puts extra emphasis on the beauty of the bishounen characters more than shounen-ai does. However, beauty is not limited to the characters; the background, time setting, description, character’s relationship, or well, the whole universe of the work must be beautiful.
The use of tanbi was not limited to conventional BL at that time. It primarily applied to works by female authors for audiences but also covered highly revered literature such as Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata, and Junichiro Tanizaki. Tanbi generally referred to prose fiction but later applied to a wide range of media such as manga and visual arts. Unlike Yaoi and BL, which separated amateur and professional works, tanbi could be used to talk about any work by any author, whether they were Japanese or non-Japanese (Like Oscar Wilde), so long as the work was significantly about male homosexuality.
Tanbi manga was first introduced to mainland China through Taiwan from Japanese manga imported from 1991 to 1992. The tanbi culture, spelled as danmei, started spreading among Chinese websites and fan circles dominated by young women. Danmei became one of the most used terms to refer male-male romantic fiction in China and was not limited to Chinese-origin works, similar to the Japanese usage of tanbi. It could be used to describe male/male romance literature, comic, and visual arts.
In the 2000s, danmei as a genre was slowly introduced to non-Chinese speaking fans around the world. Instead of being written in Chinese characters, most of the time danmei was written in romaji (romanized Japanese) or English, which led to its separation from the cultural context of tanbi. For international fans, danmei became another word to replace BL or to signify another category within BL, specifically for works written by Chinese authors originally in Chinese. While many danmei works focus on historical themes, it can also be applied to non-historical works. With the increasing popularity of danmei in the global sphere, it is interesting to see how the term and meaning will complement the BL industry’s current development.
Feng, J. (2009). ” Addicted to Beauty”: Consuming and Producing Web-based Chinese” Danmei” Fiction at Jinjiang. Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 21(2), 1-41.
James Welker (2015). A brief history of Shōnen’ai, Yaoi, and boys love. McLelland, Nagaike, Suganuma, and Welker, Boys Love Manga and Beyond, 42-75.
Yang, L., & Xu, Y. (2017). Chinese danmei fandom and cultural globalization from below. Boys’ Love, Cosplay, and Androgynous Idols: Queer Fan Cultures in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, 3-19.
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