Jin Feng. Romancing the Internet: Producing and Consuming Chinese Web Romance. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013. 193pp. ISBN 9789004222052 (hardback).

Jin Feng’s highly readable monograph “Romancing the Internet” analyzes the production and consumption of Chinese web-based popular romance. Her study deals with the question of how the internet has contributed to the emergence of new forms of romance and how the production and consumption of romance function as tools for the reinvention of cultural and gender identities.

The reader-centered study follows an interdisciplinary approach. Textual analysis of the narrative patterns of literary works and of online discussions is supplemented by data drawn from offline interviews with mostly female readers of online romance. Thus, in terms of its methodology, Jin Feng ties in with an investigation of American romance readers by Janice Radway which emphasizes the active uses of romance by the recipients.1

The monograph is divided into five chapters plus introduction and conclusion. In the first chapter, Feng provides an excellent overview of the development of Chinese romance and internet literature. Chapters two to five each deal with one subgenre of online romance and discuss some hybrid forms. Generally speaking, Jin Feng observes a high degree of (self-)reflection in the literary activities of the mostly female producers and recipients of online romance, ranging from pondering the women’s “daily concerns in a patriarchal society” (p. 165) to the challenging of existing gender norms and inequalities. Chapter 2 focuses on danmei 耽美 fiction depicting homosexual love between men. Jin points out that in danmei, relationships between men are idealized as a pure and borderless form of love in contrast to heterosexual relationships which are associated with greed and extramarital affairs. Furthermore, authors of danmei fiction challenge common gender norms through the creation of heroes combining ideal masculinity (“thriving in his career” p. 79) with ideal femininity (“beautiful, gentle, and nurturing” p. 79).

Chapter 3 deals with nüzun 女尊, “matriarchal fiction”, primarily taking place in a female-dominated society, in which the heroines strive for and obtain power in the public realm. According to Jin Feng, these novels display “ideal femininity, or at least unrestrained superwomanhood” (p. 85) in contrast to weak male characters and express the readers’ and writers’ dissatisfaction with the constraints imposed on women in Chinese society.

Chapter 4 sheds light on fanfiction, (online) novels around popular characters already existing in the fictional world. For example, authors of fanfiction retell the stories of well-known premodern novels, modern fiction or soap operas. In Jin Feng’s view, fanfiction enables the “creative consumption” (p. 136) of literature and the reinterpretation of common stories. By this means, it is a tool of “righting wrongs” (p. 109) in the original plots which contradict the moral attitudes of the writers and readers. For instance, a female character starting a relationship with a married man in the source text has to undergo fictional punishment in fanfiction for her interference in a marriage. According to Jin Feng, these novels portray a rather “conservative attitude toward ideal femininity” (p. 136) and are a response to “the traumas brought about by rapid economic development” (p. 137) and the shaking of value systems in Chinese society.

Chapter 5 focuses on time-travel romances about heterosexual love which provide internet users with room to consider issues such as marital or family conflicts and the “path to happiness” (p. 165) within the framework of patriarchy. One of this chapter’s theses is that female readers reflect on the character of the male protagonists and the question of who might be the perfect match for the heroine and – one step ahead – for themselves. Hence, they create an image of ideal masculinity which is characterized by dedication to the spouse and absolute monogamy.

Feng’s study relies on two online platforms: Jinjiang Literature City (Jinjiang wenxue cheng 晋江文学城), the largest Chinese website dedicated to women’s literature, and Yaya Bay (Yaya wan 丫丫湾), an online forum located in the United States hosting a section on literature. Through these cases, Feng analyzes the system and opportunities of literary online platforms. For example, in Chapter 2, she deals with the characteristics of online literary websites, taking Jinjiang as an example, whereas in Chapter 4, Jin Feng offers a clear-cut description of the structure and functions of Yaya. In contrast to Jinjiang, Yaya is characterized as a space for “a more lively and reader-centered atmosphere” (p. 115) and thus forms an important source for Jin Feng’s analyses of literary online discussions, especially in Chapter 5. Because the novels analyzed in this chapter were originally published on other websites and later on copied to Yaya, the authors are not directly involved in the debates. Since direct author-reader interaction is an important characteristic of literary online activities, it would have been revealing to gain further insight into the authors’ role in the reader-reception of online novels, for example through an investigation of discussions on novels originally published on Yaya.

Since research in Western languages on Chinese internet literature is still rather limited, Feng’s monograph greatly contributes to the field. But it stands to reason that some questions have to be the subject of future research. For example, Jin Feng has not dealt with the subgenre百合 baihe, romance about female homosexual love. Since baihe is not as popular as its counterpart danmei, it is completely understandable that Feng has not considered it in her study. Nonetheless, the question of the role of baihe novels in the context of the construction of gender identities would be interesting.

All in all, “Romancing the Internet” is an extremely stimulating read for scholars of gender and women’s studies and for those interested in Chinese popular culture in general and internet literature in particular.

(Elisabeth Schleep, University of Freiburg)

1 Radway’s investigation was among the first reader-focused studies to follow an ethnographic approach and thus is a pioneering work in the history of audience research. Janice A. Radway. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.