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Once a fringe subculture, shipping – where fans obsess online over imaginary romances between two fictional characters or real-life celebrities – has gone mainstream as an unstoppable pop cultural and commercial force

By NewsChina Updated Aug.1

On April 2, 2016, fans surround actors Wang Qing and Feng Jianyu at the airport in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. The two actors shot to overnight fame after starring in the eight-episode boys‘ love web series Falling in Love with a Rival (2015) as a gay couple

Life is bitter, but my ‘shipped’ couple is as sweet as strawberries,” said Xiao Yu, a 20-year-old student at Shanghai International Studies University. For many teenagers and young adults in China like her, having a romantic relationship does not feel like a realistic option. Whether for societal or personal reasons, or simply an unwillingness to invest to the time, energy and emotion, an increasing number are turning what they consider a safer alternative: shipping.  

A term originating in the hardcore online fandoms of movies, books and TV in the mid-1990s, to “ship” involves coupling two people, either famous or fictitious, in a fabricated romance. “Shippers,” which is short for “relationshippers,” are deeply invested in their created couples, living vicariously through their fictional intimacy.  

While also popular in the West, shippers in China have mainly been influenced by Japanese ACG (anime, comics and games) culture. In particular, they are drawn to stories of same-sex couples known as boys’ love (danmei in Chinese), an established ACG genre featuring relationships between young males that largely caters to heterosexual women. 

Shippers produce extensive bodies of fan fiction, art and videos about their favorite shipped couples, called “CPs” in Chinese internet slang. For millions of young Chinese, particularly women, shipping has provided the experience of the highly idealized love they long for but have low expectations of ever achieving.  

Once an obscure subculture, shipping has grown immensely over the past two decades.  

It reached the mainstream in the mid-2010s when studios and companies began courting the phenomenon’s seemingly unlimited market potential.  

More than 1,000 fans wait in a shopping mall in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, for an appearance by Xiao Zhan, December 12, 2019. Xiao Zhan became one of the hottest stars in China after the fantasy web series The Untamed (2019) was broadcast, in which he and actor Wang Yibo had a close friendship

Sugar Diggers 
“There are three things you can’t hide: coughing, poverty and love,” said Xiao Yu, adding she believes that her love for her favorite shipped couple, male actors Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan, is so apparent that anyone can see it.  

Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan first starred side-by-side in The Untamed, a 2019 martial arts fantasy (wuxia) TV series adapted from the boys’ online love novel Mo Dao Zu Shi. Following its release on June 27, The Untamed went on to become one of the year’s most popular series. Millions were moved by the platonic bromance between the two main characters and the on-screen chemistry between Wang and Xiao.  

Dubbed “Bojun Yixiao,” akin to the celebrity portmanteau names of Brangelina or Bennifer, the shipped couple has by far the largest fandom in China. On Sina Weibo’s Super Topics, which are interestbased community forums on Weibo, “Bojun Yixiao” has 3.4 million followers and 8.1 million posts. On Lofter, China’s equivalent to Tumblr where shippers post fan fiction and art, the hashtag “Bojun Yixiao” has over 82,400 posts and 208 million views.  

Unlike fans of an individual, shippers are more focused on the relationship between two fictional characters or real-life celebrities, termed “RPS” (real-person shipping).  

RPSers imagine actors playing a couple on-screen to be romantically involved in real life. They go to painstaking lengths to find evidence of their “love” by scrutinizing everything from their interactions to their social media posts and other coincidences.  

In China’s shipping fandoms, this is called “sugar digging” (ketang). Whenever shippers post “sugar” – what they believe to be evidence of real love – they often punctuate it with “kswl” – an abbreviation for “ke si wo le,” which means “so sweet I can’t stand it.”  

Shipper Xiao Yu recalled the night the cast of The Untamed appeared on variety show Happy Camp on August 10, 2019. She and several other shippers watched the program over group video chat.  

Actors Wang and Xiao did not disappoint Xiao Yu and her friends who examined the two stars’ interactions frame by frame, from their eye contact and expressions to their body language. “We screamed and yelled ‘kswl, kswl’ like mad. We were all so excited. They were so sweet together,” she said.  

“Shipping really makes me happy. It makes me feel like I’m in love as well, and the love is so pure and sweet it can hardly be real. Believe me, it really can cause the brain to release more dopamine. Since real life is too stressful, shipping has become the source of my happiness,” Xiao Yu said.  

Shipping does not always have a storybook ending. Nothing is worse for shippers than when a couple has a “BE” (bad ending). This happens when the on-screen couple ceases working or appearing in public together, or when there is irrefutable evidence they are not romantically involved.  

“Shipping always gives me a thrill like I’m gambling. It’s a guessing game of ‘are they for real?’ said Xia Li, a 20-year-old college student in Shenzhen. “You draw a poker card, you feel it, and with certain tingling excitement and nervousness you peek at the corner of the card bit by bit to see the what you drew. If you win, you feel like a king. But if you lose, you lose money and all those good feelings,” she said.  

Xia is taking her chances on three shipped male couples: Wang Junkai and Wang Yuan from the boy group “TFBoys,” actor Huang Jingyu and singer Xu Weizhou, and the fictional male characters Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.  

“When shipping a couple, like many fans I become completely invested. It’s a very emotionally charged experience. Your emotions are strongly affected every time your couple interacts. If they collaborate often and interact intimately, you’ll be ravished with joy. The happiness you feel is beyond words. But once your couple has a BE, you’re completely heartbroken as if you had gone through a breakup yourself,” Xia said.  

Power Couples 
Shipping in China began in the late 1990s on online sites such as Jinjiang Literature City, China’s equivalent to fandom site Archive of Our Own. It remained a small subculture through the early 2010s. Similar to those in the West and Japan, shippers in China focused on fan fiction and art based on fictional characters from popular ACG, books, film and TV. 

Shipping hit the mainstream with the 2016 web drama Addicted, an adaptation of a popular boys’ love novel depicting the romance between a gay couple in high school. Released on January 29, 2016, it went viral overnight. Actors Huang Jingyu and Xu Weizhou shot to stardom for their portrayal as a leading gay couple. Fans celebrated their performances and some were even convinced they were a couple in real life. Shippers dubbed them “Yuzhou,” a combination of the actors’ names.  

Huang would go on to become one of China’s most popular young actors, starring in big-budget films such as Operation Red Sea (2018) and Pegasus (2019). In 2020, he was ranked 36th on Forbes China Celebrities List. Xu made a career as a singer-songwriter.  

However, with the three episodes yet to broadcast, regulators forced video streaming sites to take down Addicted in late February 2016. The sudden cancelation came just days before regulators officially banned depictions of gay people in TV shows as part of a larger crackdown on media content.  

The new rules, released on March 2, 2016 by the State-backed TV Production Committee of the China Alliance of Radio, Film and Television, banned shows from including “abnormal sexual relationships and behaviors,” grouping “same-sex relationships” with “incest” and “sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse and sexual violence.”  

Despite the fate of Addicted, China’s entertainment industry not only saw huge market potential in shipping culture, but a surefire way to create a hit show and make two unknown actors famous overnight.  

A slew of series based on boys’ love fiction followed, such as Guardian (2018), The Untamed (2019) and Word of Honor (2021), all adapted from the work of popular danmei writers. To skirt censorship, producers strategically changed the explicit gay romance depicted in the original novels into ambiguous bromances or platonic friendships. Netizens have mocked these reworked relationships as “socialist brotherhoods” or “brotherhoods with Chinese characteristics.”  

Talent shows became another major avenue for shipping. Hunan TV’s Super Vocal (2018), which featured 36 competing male singers, was a smorgasbord for shipping fans. Any pair of the 36 singers that showed chemistry were prime candidates.  

Among them, A Yunga and Zheng Yunlong were the most popular. Fervent shippers were fascinated by their interactions. Dubbed “Double Yun,” the men were among China’s hottest shipped couples in 2018 and 2019. Shipping fan fiction and art abound on the internet, mostly portraying them as lovers. Leveraging this ardent fan base, the two previously unknown singers were soon swimming in endorsement deals.  

More brands are realizing the power of shipping marketing and signing two male stars as a team. This way, brands can mobilize both their individual fan bases and shippers, whose combined spending power is far greater. Also, shipping marketing can help brands align themselves with young consumers.  

In 2019 alone, “Double Yun” appeared in commercials, endorsed five brands including Head & Shoulders and Olay, and recorded the theme song for the 2019 film Midnight Dinner. Their promo video for the theme song grabbed one million views in 30 minutes.  

Fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar has the shrewdest sense of the shipping marketing. In the five years since 2016, the magazine’s digital version had nearly 30 popular shipped couples on its cover. Their best-selling digital issue featured Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan, which sold 1.27 million issues at US$1, generating $1.27 million.  

Anxiety over Intimacy 
Behind the boom in shipping culture is a bleak reality. According to China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, China’s single population reached 240 million in 2018, roughly the sum of the populations of Germany, France and the UK. More than 77 million adults in China live alone, as the data further shows, and the number is expected to rise to 92 million by the end of 2021. 
Facing unaffordable housing prices, work pressure and increased costs of living, more young people in China are choosing to stay single and live alone. Some studies revealed that women have more reservations concerning dating and marriage than men.  

In cooperation with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Chinese dating app Tantan surveyed the attitudes of Generation Z (those born after 1995) toward dating and marriage. According to the survey released in January, 70.7 percent of male respondents hoped to find a partner as soon as possible, compared to only 44.9 percent of women.  

As more young women in China become educated and achieve economic independence, they are in some ways growing more resistant to traditional mores of marriage than men. Seeking a more fulfilling relationship is becoming the norm, a shift not only evident in major cities but also in smaller cities and towns.  

Another survey by Tantan released on April 30, which interviewed over 3,000 millennials living in 68 towns and smaller cities across the country, reveals a stark difference between men and women in their attitudes toward dating and marriage.  

Sixty percent of men said they would marry an “OK match,” but 65 percent of female respondents said they were unwilling to compromise their pursuit of a “high-quality relationship” with the right partner. Also, 41 percent of women said they were fine with “dying alone,” compared to only 20 percent of male respondents.  

Shipping, to some extent, offers an alternative to young Chinese women looking to experience a “high-quality relationship.”  

According to an online survey of 4,521 shippers by entertainment industry database FUNJI released on May 26, 99.2 percent identified as female and 86 percent were under 25 years old. Also, 90.3 percent said they were single, while 48 percent had never been in a relationship.  

Shipping is a relatively safe way to enjoy the sweetness of love, according to Zou Qiyi, a 23-year-old graduate student at the Renmin University of China who is enamored with Gong Jun and Zhang Zhehan, the two leads in the 2021 web series Word of Honor, adapted from the boys’ love martial arts novel Tian Ya Ke by the web writer Priest.  

“I’ve never had a relationship but I’ve been hurt countless times over meaningless flirting and unrequited love. Deep down I have fears and anxieties over love and relationships. But I’m comforted by the couple I’m shipping. I feel like I can experience what love is like through their relationship,” Zou told NewsChina.  

Lin Xing, a young scholar researching pop culture at Fudan University, said shippers often refuse to face any reality that challenges these highly idealized intimate relationships.  

“Usually shippers don’t really care about whether the relationship of the pairing they like truly exists. They avoid the reality of it, because deep down they all know it’s not as rosy as the mirage in their minds,” Lin told NewsChina.  

Lin has learned that in many circumstances, shippers find emotional connections with one another in the world of fan fiction and art that they create.  

“Shippers are very creative. They write fan fiction, draw art, edit videos and communicate with like-minded fans online. Some of these creators are really talented and produce quite high-quality work. They enjoy fandoms where they freely discuss, exchange thoughts, create and share their work. So in reality, fans are essentially loving each other, and loving the creative content they produce,” Lin said.  

She points out like in other fast-paced East Asian societies, anxiety over the increasingly rare “hard currency” of intimate relationships is driving the shipping culture in China. “Intimate relationships are something that everyone lacks and everyone needs, but not everyone can get,” Lin said.  

“I’ve shipped and I know perhaps they’re not real couples. But these sugary virtual romances give me some temporary comfort from my bleak, loveless reality. Essentially, it’s because deep in my heart I still believe in love so I’m hungry for these sweet stories,” said Qing Cheng, 24, who has shipped six couples.  

“It’s very much like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey. Our life needs something sweet to get us through all the hardships. It doesn’t matter if that sweetness comes from natural honey, processed cane sugar or artificial sweeteners,” Qing told NewsChina.