Late last week, a popular lesbian discussion forum on social media site Douban suddenly disappeared. On Friday, a “supertopic” thread on microblogging platform Weibo under the tag “les” was also blocked. After social media users complained — with some protesting the moves by posting images to Weibo with their mouths taped shut — the former forum came back online earlier this week, but the Weibo topic remains offline. The moves were another reminder of the difficulties faced by China’s LGBTQ+ community.
Unsurprisingly given this backdrop, it’s nearly impossible to find gay-themed TV series aired in China today, especially since authorities carried out a clear-cut restriction on queer content in 2016. But the yuri, or “Girl’s Love” genre, is very much alive and well among China’s online audiences, both within and outside the queer community.
Dating back to the 1970s, yuri is a Japanese term for content centered on lesbian relationships in anime, novels, comics and video games. China’s take on it is pronounced “baihe” (百合), which like its Japanese counterpart means “lily flowers.”
Chinese social media users turned their backgrounds to rainbows in solidarity this week after popular lesbian forums were blocked
As early as 2016, China’s obsession with Girl’s Love started taking on new life outside of anime and gaming circles, idolizing and pairing up female celebrities who have independent appeal, strong personalities, verbalized stances against marriage and/or those who have (vaguely) come out.
This new subculture is called “Ji Quan” (姬圈). Rather than using the Chinese character 基 (“ji”) that typically denotes “gay,” Ji Quan uses a homophone, 姬（“ji”); 圈 “quan” relates to a circle or community. On Chinese social media, Ji Quan fans exchange news and gossip, reinterpret Chinese classic novels and the newest American TV shows, and upload remixed versions of their favorite films, variety shows and interviews that romantically highlight their female stars.
So which celebrities currently find favor among young Chinese women? A recent poll on Weibo account “Ji Quan Pedia” helps us get a clearer picture.
The December 2018 poll, titled “Queens of Ji Quan,” received over 9,000 responses from the online community.
While overseas LGBTQ+ icons Lady Gaga and Ellen De Generes made the list, at 88th and 152nd respectively, they’re some way down it. But sitting pretty in 1st place is Amy Acker, who together with Sarah Shahi (16th) became popular due to the onscreen romance depicted in sci-fi show Person of Interest.
Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi in Person of Interest
Regardless of some bad reviews for Ocean’s Eight, there is seemingly no knocking the popularity of Cate Blanchett, who Chinese fans have lovingly nicknamed “queen majesty” and “big devil.” Blanchett came in at number two on the Ji Quan list, 100 votes behind Acker but more than 100 ahead of the third placed figure.
Among Chinese celebrities on the list is actress Yu “Faye” Feihong (4th on the list), best known to overseas audiences for 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. Long viewed by fans as an “intellectual goddess,” she’s gained following among Ji Quan fans and wider social media with her publicized attitudes towards life and relationships. Even seeing pictures of her smoking, wrote one user, “tempted her to be interested in girls.”
Often female celebrities who keep a low profile in their personal lives spark Ji Quan curiosity. This is the case with Dong Qing (10th), one of CCTV’s most famous female hosts who has presented the annual Spring Festival gala for the past 13 years.
CCTV and Spring Festival Gala host Dong Qing
Netizens crowned rising musician Leah Dou (12th) — daughter of Chinese “diva” Faye Wong and legendary musician Dou Wei — their “national husband” for her tomboy-ish appearance and music talent, as well as her statements such as, “It doesn’t matter if you like boys or girls.”
“Tomboy-ish” singer Leah Dou
Singer Hebe Tien, former member of popular Taiwanese girl group S.H.E., is the most-watched Chinese-language female singer on YouTube since going solo in 2011 and makes 3rd place on the list. To date her personal life remains mysterious, and the Ji Quan community never tires of coupling her with former group mate Selina Ren as part of a lively fan fiction production line among Ji Quan followers.
For example, Ji Quan circles have been hotly anticipating the possibility of writers giving Elsa a girlfriend in the upcoming Disney sequel to Frozen.
Like other communities that produce queer fan fiction, the celebrities’ — or in some cases their characters’ — sexual orientation doesn’t actually matter. In Ji Quan, it’s more about whether or not their persona allows room to create a “Girls’ Love” story and fan-made spin-offs about them.
On Chinese video-streaming site Bilibili, we can find fan-edited videos of contestants in last year’s Produce 101 TV show, and for the two leading female roles in the period drama Story of Yanxi Palace, sans emperor (see the cover photo up top here).
Though fans are from a spectrum of sexual orientations, Ji Quan content naturally has close ties with the lesbian community.
So are there cultural differences between Ji Quan and the wider lesbian community? A user on Chinese Quora-esque Q&A website Zhihu, named “Xia Wai Long Dou Liu,” argues:
“Ji Quan is more younger, liberal and feminist than other lesbian circles. The latter’s lifestyle and the relationship pattern is a copy of two gender stereotypes in a patriarchal society, but Ji Quan ignores those. From a patriarchal perspective, older women who don’t have the value of fertility have no charm at all, whereas Ji Quan believe women’s charm comes from time.”
Perhaps this is something the rest of the world should take note of.
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