Love is at the core

Updated: 2014-06-25 07:03

By Sun Ye (China Daily)

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Tanbi is a form of Japanese literature depicting love between men that its hardcore following of young, heterosexual women can't get enough of. Sun Ye reports on the growing phenomenon.

In the literary world of tanbi, a Japanese term meaning "the pursuit of beauty" and often used to refer to two good-looking men in a romantic relationship, there are answers to what a heterosexual woman wants in love and life.

At least, this is the case for Cici Zhou, a 25-year-old real estate agent who has devoured 1,200 tanbi books over the past 10 years, drawn to them by the strong characters and their fighting spirit.

Zhou's favorite, Tianxiadiyi (translated to English means "No 1 in the world"), is the story of two opposing majestic kings who are mutually attracted but have to fight against each other and their desire.

"You can't find these characters in normal chick-lit," she says. "They're both strong, outstanding men. There are dramatic ups and downs and greater obstacles to overcome."

There is no official tally, but there are an estimated one million readers of tanbi stories in China, according to Yang Ling, associate professor with Xiamen University who studies tanbi sub-culture.

The scene is dominated by work from Japan and China's Taiwan, but tanbi lovers are also putting out original stories in forums, podcasts, custom-made books and other items that target hardcore fans.

Jinjiang Literature, one of the more popular websites that features original tanbi stories, clocks two million log-ins a day. Ninety percent of its users are female, and 80 percent are in the 18 to 35 age group, according to a report the company provided to China Daily.

Tanbi borders on gay fiction, but the readership is predominantly heterosexual women.

"I never thought it strange when two men become a couple," Zhou says. "We are reading about two guys together exactly because we like boys."

"They're reading for the variety tanbi offers," Yang says.

The genre is broken down into a gamut of sub genres, that touch on a wide variety of themes from apocalyptic tales, star wars, martial arts, and fan fiction. The stories can be "clear-water" (platonic) or x-rated. Tanbi is written in so many styles that there are stories told in dialects from northeastern China to Cantonese.

"Whatever subject you like, you can find it there," Yang says. "It's like a small literary kingdom."

And then there is the love story at the core.

"In tanbi, love and relationships have no set patterns like in Cinderella, where a hero rescues a beauty in danger," Yang says. "Both sides can be strong. Or they can take different roles in different circumstances. There are many more possibilities to explore."

That is perhaps one of the reasons why these readers are more open-minded when setting their own terms, and more understanding to others, Yang says, who has interviewed many tanbi fans in recent years.

"These are definitely positive influences. When they are open to different types of relationships, they are also open to other discussions, such as staying single for longer, or raising a child on their own," Yang says.

According to Ducky, another seasoned reader of 10 years, who will only reveal the name she uses online, "I'm an independent woman, I get to make my own decisions in work as well as in life." She says she prefers stories where both members of the couple are standing on their own two feet and fighting for what they want in love.

"However, we still like alpha males better," she says. "When there are two of them, there is the tension we want. Especially now that boys are becoming feminine and girls have somehow turned aggressive."

In the strong male characters, the female readers find their most desired kind of romance.

"I believe tanbi describes the purest kind of love," says Jodie Cheng, who first discovered tanbi when looking for news of her idols, the Korean pop group Super Junior, in 2010. In a fictional account, written by tanbi fans, band members become lovers.

"But as long as a story has a modicum of realism, two men together means trouble, and giving up everything for love," Cheng says. "That's rare in our real life, therefore, we look for it."

With the rise of Sina Weibo and Wechat, two major instant messaging platforms in China, tanbi is no longer the cult genre it was a decade ago. There has been a growing number of girls, or fojoshi (a Japanese term for girls who endorse male homosexual love), who have started to write fan fiction that moves tanbi into the world of mainstream literature.

A recent work pairs two X-men, Magneto and Professor X, powerful opponents who care about each other, at least in the Hollywood megahit X-Men: Days of Future Past.

"There are so many fojoshi that it's almost a selling point now," Yang, the researcher says.

"But whatever the girls are attracted to, they are after the true, good, beautiful human feelings that have always been at the center of literature."

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 Love is at the core

Cards feature tanbi-themed paintings. Photos by Wei Xiaohao / China Daily

 Love is at the core

A reader of the Tanbi stories uses her smartphone in Beijing to zoom in on a painting of a character from an original tanbi book.

 Love is at the core

A painting on a tanbi story depicts the romance between two good-looking men.

(China Daily 06/25/2014 page19)