Vivian Zhu is a senior from Sydney, Australia majoring in East Asian Studies with a focus on Chinese culture and literature. Throughout her time at Stanford, she has been interested in exploring various subjects within East Asian Studies—from the political impact of Korean popular culture products, to the recent transformation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, to classical and contemporary Chinese literature. Beyond honors thesis research, she also works as a research assistant at the Freeman Spogli Institute, is a Chinese language conversation partner with the Center for Teaching and Learning, and is the President of the Stanford Debate Society. In her free time, Vivian loves to read serialized online fiction (the topic of her honors thesis project) uncritically as a fan.
Indulgence or Escape? Chinese Women Reading and Writing "Danmei" Fiction
Advisor: Haiyan Lee
What is the focus of your current research?
My project is a study of Danmei [耽美] literature, a genre of serialized Chinese-language online novels that depict male-male romantic relationships. Compared to the study of Anglophone “slash fiction,” which has accumulated a rich reservoir of scholarly literature since the 1970s, research on Danmei remains sparse. This sparseness is regrettable given the genre’s recent mainstreamization and the various controversies regarding gender, sexuality, and censorship it has inspired. My research begins with Danmei’s popularity and my attempts to understand why such a seemingly queer genre became so popular, in particular among its majority cisgender and heterosexual female authors and readers.
What drew you to this topic?
I came to the Danmei genre at first as a reader and fan rather than a critic or student. I have read over 200 texts spanning various genres, lengths, and styles—still only scratching the surface of the millions of texts published online. Yet after years of reading, I have found myself asking the same questions: Why do I, as a female (and feminist) reader, enjoy such idealized depictions of male romance? What is so attractive about fictionalized narratives that are far removed from the real experiences of LGBTQ+ people in China? My honors thesis project begins with these questions.
How are you conducting your research?
There are two ways I want to investigate Danmei : first, looking “within the world of the text,” conducting close readings and exploring the themes and textual features of the genre; and second, looking “outside the world of the text,” analyzing comments and discussions surrounding the genre by the community of writers and readers. One unifying research question informs my direction in both directions: How does the female (or feminist) consciousness of the Danmei fan community collide with the oftentimes male/masculine/traditional nature of Danmei storylines?
What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?
I am constantly surprised by the popular culture industrial complex that has been constructed around Danmei—thousands of authors make a living writing on online platforms, millions of novels have been produced, and billions of dollars are being made through the associated intellectual property such as television series and merchandise. Although the writer/reader community surrounding Danmei is constantly (and creatively) resisting censorship, it remains vibrant and has even expanded in recent years. This fact is particularly surprising given the genre's characterization as risqué by both the state and the relatively conservative society.
In your view, why is it valuable to study this topic?
After four years of studying China at Stanford, I have found myself constantly feeling like “Western” academia’s interest in the country often ignores the nuances of culture and individual experiences. Although Danmei is so popular, so interesting, and plays an important role in many Chinese women’s daily lives, many would rather construct totalizing narratives that conflate state and society than pay attention to the manifold implications of uniquely Chinese cultural phenomena such as Danmei. Perhaps this honors thesis project is my response to this sense of discomfort—I want to explore a topic that is both intensely personal and inherently political in a way that seeks to acknowledge yet not be dictated by contemporary politics. Many scholars whom I deeply respect does this so well, and I want to learn from them along this journey,
How is your honors thesis impacting you academically and/or personally?
My favorite classes at Stanford all share one feature: they allow students to design an individual research project and produce something at the end of the ten weeks. Although I have written many papers and made many presentations that I am proud of during my time at Stanford, the quarter system has meant that the research and writing process for these projects have always been rather rushed. I am particularly excited about my honors thesis project because this time I can let my thoughts sit for longer, read more, and have more inspiring conversations before I put pen to paper.
How do you anticipate the fellowship will be able to support your research?
I have never agreed with the characterization of research as a solitary process: my best ideas have come during seminars in which inspiration flows as freely as the debates are fierce. My impression of research as a journey best undertaken together was cemented during my Bing Honors College experience at the beginning of my senior year. Although I was with a group of eight students from five departments, each with very different research topics, every conversation led to revelations. This type of experience is exactly what I am looking forward to when it comes to the Hume Honors fellowship—I am looking forward to sharing a space (physically and metaphorically) with fellow thesis writers and letting ideas ferment in a diverse intellectual environment.