Actor embroiled in an online fan fiction row

Tan Weiyun
Chinese actor Xiao Zhan has found himself being dragged through the mud of an unwanted spat between his fans and a popular online fan fiction site.
Tan Weiyun

Chinese actor Xiao Zhan has found himself being dragged through the mud of an unwanted spat between his fans and a popular online fan fiction site.

The star rose to fame last year by starring in “The Untamed,” a TV show based on a popular gay novel. But the actor has found himself in the center of a row after his fanatical fans ignited a social media firestorm against a fan-fiction site “Archive of Our Own” (AO3), one of the biggest online international LGBT literature communities.

Nationwide discussions, which soon developed into a slanging match, kicked off between Xiao’s fans and AO3 users. The argument was later joined by other netizens, key opinion leaders and even the state-run official newspaper Procuratorial Daily, which pushed the event onto various social media platforms, turning the 29-year-old actor into a “sitting duck.”

Xiao has remained silent while the fire of his fans’ fury rages online.

Actor embroiled in an online fan fiction row

Xiao Zhan rose to fame last year by starring in “The Untamed.”

Xiao’s supporters are unhappy by a piece of fan fiction posted on AO3 last month because he, or his character, has been portrayed as a male dressing up as a female prostitute with gender identity dysphoria. 

This roused great rage among Xiao’s fans, who criticized it as “obscene,” “nasty,” “a personal insult to Xiao” and “utterly degrading to women.”

Xiao’s fans reported the author to Beijing Public Security Bureau and notified Chinese online monitors about AO3 content.

The result of their actions caused the complete deletion of AO3’s site in China, while the “wives,” a nickname for Chinese authors on AO3, had to remove all of their work and “stop writing for safety reasons.”

Understandably, the deletion of all AO3 material caused a backlash from the LGBT community.

“I just don’t understand why the fans of a star, who gained his fame by a gay novel, would hate LGBT so much?” said AO3 user YOUR_NAME_IS_HOBBIT, on Weibo. “If you don’t like it, just get away from it. Why report it to the government and destroy other people’s food for the mind?”

As a consequence of Xiao’s fans’ victory, some LGBT platforms have been shut down, while you cannot access gay content on Lofter and Bilibili. 

“The most terrible thing is when civil rights are manipulated by a group of ignorant people,” netizen Tang Yue said. “To ruin other people’s hobbies just for their own benefits in the name of civil rights has gone too far.”

Fan fiction and boy’s love literature has developed slowly over the last decade. But it grew to attract a large number of loyal followers.

Largely because of the legal grey area, this “minority culture” was always hidden. It had its own rules and self-protection and governing mechanism, where the site’s authors and followers lived in peace with each other in their own community.

After the shutdown the argument spilled over and the row broadened. Questions were being asked and discussed over several platforms, such as, is there a boundary to creative freedom of literature? How do we protect the right of literature freedom and the right of reporting? Is it legal or not to create gay novels based on real-life celebrities? Should we have a novel-rating system for teenagers?

The Procuratorial Daily, hosted by China’s Supreme People’s Procuratorate, ran a full page on the subject on March 11 to elaborate on the legal implications behind the event.

“If the creation of fan fiction, which is not for profit, brings new information, new aesthetics and new insights, it can be regarded as a positive work to enrich the cultural market. Therefore, on the premise of meeting the legal regulations, the fan fiction should be a cultural phenomenon worth encouraging,” said Zheng Fan, First Prosecutor of Huangpu District People’s Procuratorate, Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

However, fan fiction might lead to copyright infringement and a violation of a legal person’s right of name, reputation and honor.

Zheng further pointed out that if Xiao’s right of name and reputation was violated, it was only Xiao who could safeguard his legal rights, not his fans. And the judging place should be in a court, not on the Internet.

“Although it is still controversial, in my opinion, most fan fictions can be classified as fair use because of their greater convertibility and lower commerciality,” said Wu Yixing, a Doctor of Law from the University of Munich. “In other words, fan fiction based on self-learning, appreciation, or simple communication can be attributed to fair use if without commercial distribution. Most works on AO3 and Lofter can be classified as fair use.”

According to AO3’s Terms of Service: “It’s an author’s responsibility to tag and rate and warn their fics appropriately. It’s a reader’s responsibility to read those tags and ratings and warnings and decide whether or not they want to read the fic. Anyone who isn’t willing to do their part probably shouldn’t be using the service.”

Doctor Wu went further to analyze the fanatical behavior of Xiao’s followers. 

“When they found their idol was created to be a prostitute working in a hair salon in the novel, they went mad, feeling like Xiao was defiled. The only thing they could do to protect their idol’s ‘pure image’ was to put on the hats of ‘infringement of reputation’ and ‘pornography’ on the controversial work, which made them mistakenly think they were doing the right thing,” he said.

The backlash did not end there. It eventually led to a section of AO3 supporters boycotting brands the idol campaigns for, including: OLAY, Crest, Estee Lauder, Piaget and Cartier. 

Angry crowds went even further by crashing Xiao-promoted brands’ customer service lines, and pressing those brands to end their collaborations with Xiao.

Xiao has remained silent and calm throughout the storm, although the actor’s studio issued a statement of apology to AO3. The apology wasn’t accepted by most people.

“Can you return AO3 to us? Can you?” netizen Chen Ci said, and received almost 700,000 thumbs-up. “He might be innocent, but sorry, I still cannot forgive him because as an idol, he has the responsibility to stand out and set up a good example for his more than 24 million fans on social media.” 

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