Tea Leaf Nation

Benedict Cumberbatch Is a Gay Erotic God in China

Why is the Chinese Internet obsessed with writing gay Sherlock Holmes fanfiction?

In one story published on MTSlash.com, a Chinese Internet forum, "sexual desire coursed through Sherlock's chest as his heart beat wildly." In another, Dr. John Watson is a part-time porn star; in the first chapter, Sherlock Holmes deduces that his sidekick-to-be became an adult film actor to pay off his student loans from medical school. "You've only known me for five minutes," the indignant Watson protests. "That's long enough for me to come to a conclusion," Sherlock responds.

Since 2010, when the BBC television series Sherlock first aired, a fascination with Benedict Cumberbatch, the show's star, has inspired a new wave of gay romance literature on the Chinese Internet. It's perhaps not surprising that Sherlock, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's detective stories, is popular in China -- it has received over 24 million views since it first became available on the Chinese video site Sohu TV in March 2011. But in certain corners of the Chinese Internet, Cumberbatch's Sherlock is just as likely to ravage his loyal sidekick Watson, played by Britain's Martin Freeman, as he is to solve mysteries. "Sherlock's tongue was like an all-powerful key," wrote one author of a story told from Watson's point of view, "Unlocking all the doors of my heart."

China loves Cumberbatch. According to an Oct. 29 article on the Chinese news site Caijing, the 37-year-old Cumberbatch, whom the Chinese call Curly Fu, "is the reason a new wave of Chinese viewers have turned to British television." (‘Curly' describes the star's hairstyle, while 'Fu' is a shortened Chinese transliteration of 'Holmes.') The Caijing article attributes the recent spike in the popularity of British television in China to "the Sherlock effect," and Cumberbatch's rising star isn't limited to the small screen. One journalist with the Beijing-based newspaper Jinghua Times surveying viewers of the 2013 blockbuster sci-fi movie Star Trek Into Darkness found that most had gone to see Curly Fu, a villain they declared "impossible to hate" because they had "never seen a bad guy so handsome before."

The enthusiasm is most avid on the Internet, where Cumberbatch is an erotic god. In the Baidu Curly Fu Bar, an Internet forum devoted to the star, fans said they loved his hair, voice, height, eyes, physique, poise, nose, the speed at which he talks, and a certain ineffable charisma. (One viewer compared him favorably to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, whom he plays in the recent film Fifth Estatewriting that Cumberbatch was "much more handsome.") Some fans cataloguing his good traits also listed his "cute wife" Watson, whom they call ‘Peanut,' because the Chinese phoneticization of Watson, huasheng, is a homonym for the legume. Amateur cartoon adaptations of Sherlock and Watson holding hands and photo-shopped images of Cumberbatch and Freeman kissing are available on Chinese websites. On Youku, China's YouTube, a music video that set clips of Cumberbatch's Holmes and Freeman's Watson sharing knowing looks to a Chinese love song has received over 70,000 views.

The Chinese Internet is home to a wealth of slash fiction -- danmei in Chinese -- a genre that imagines existing fictional characters in romantic same-sex relationships, and a body of work in which Cumberbatch's Sherlock features prominently. Stories range from the explicit "He Is My Bitch," about Sherlock and Watson's sadomasochistic sex life, to the more romantic "I Write You This Letter from a Foreign Land," in which Watson describes his inner feelings for Sherlock in a diary. There are even novels, like the 39-chapter tome It's Alright, I'm Here, Sherlock, which describes in great detail the lovers' long and convoluted path to couplehood.

The Cumberbatch crush isn't just a Chinese quirk; in October The Atlantic Wire wrote that the actor "holds a strange sway over certain parts of the Internet," while slash itself is a global phenomenon that traces its modern roots to the 1970s, when Star Trek fans began to circulate fanfiction pairing the two male leads, Captain Kirk and Mister Spock. Just as Cumberbatch's English-speaking fans follow the actor's work closely and identify themselves as "Cumberbitches," his Chinese-speaking fans also share information about his new projects and appearances.

What makes his Chinese fans special, though, is that some are risking jail to write him into slash fiction. In early 2011, authorities in China's inland Henan province arrested Wang Chaoju, the webmaster of the slash fiction website Danmei Novels Online, and charged him with "disseminating obscene content" after finding about 1,200 sexually explicit danmei stories among the tens of thousands on the site. Later that year, Justice Online, a legal news website, labeled slash a "harmful trend," quoting a psychologist who said the literature "could lead to a deviation of sexual orientation, difficulty interacting in social situations, and even criminal activity." To avoid punishment, writers and readers of explicit slash often exchange content over email, ensuring the work remains invisible to the wider Internet.

LGBTQ individuals in China still encounter discrimination in the workplace, and the country boasts few openly gay public figures. In China, however, many writers and readers of slash are heterosexual women, who identify themselves as funu -- 'rotten women.' Why young, often heterosexual women love slash is a rabbit hole of epic proportions, but it's safe to say that many female Chinese fans of Cumberbatch's Sherlock find it more enjoyable to imagine him riding off into the sunset with his trusted companion Watson than a female acquaintance.

To be sure, it's not only Cumberbatch who features in the erotic dreams of China's slash community: Chris Hemsworth's Thor -- whom Chinese call "Brother Hammer" -- and Tom Hiddleston's Loki play gay lovers in thousands of Chinese love stories. And since the 2008 blockbuster Ironman came to the Middle Kingdom, slash writers have had a heyday imagining the protagonist, played by Robert Downey Jr., romancing Captain America. Although Downey played Sherlock as well, it's Cumberbatch's detective who has a special place in their hearts. "Curly Fu, Hiddleston, the Ironman, and Brother Hammer are all great," wrote one user of Weibo, China's Twitter, "But I've made up my mind to always support Curly Fu."

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

That Time a Buddhist Nun Walked into Beijing's Futuristic Sex Shop

The market for Chinese adult toys is coming out of the shadows.

Instead of the faded red-and-white lettering often found atop Chinese "adult" stores, Powerful Sex Shop's logo features the playful image of a single sperm wriggling up into a sun. Instead of dusty packs of condoms cramped into a tiny store, gigantic, bright pink lips hang suspended above a phallus-shaped, bright yellow coffee table, with different sized silicon breasts hanging on a wall. High-end vibrators that could be mistaken for Easter eggs lie in plush, velvet display cushions. Plastic cucumbers and bananas are splayed next to S&M chains, whips, and blindfolds imported from countries like Japan, Germany, and Sweden that are known for the high quality (and price) of their sex toys.

It's all part of a bet by Ma Jiajia and Ma Wei that they can make money by making sex less grim. The two unrelated college friends founded Powerful after graduating from university in 2012. Located in the up-market Sanlitun district of Beijing, the store is different from most of the sterile, hole-in-the wall sex shops found across Chinese cities and towns. In a country where talking sex can still be taboo -- one Chinese academic estimates sex education there is "at least 60 years behind" developed countries -- Powerful Sex Shop's co-founders are trying to make sex lively, bright, and fun.

So far, Ma Jiajia and Ma Wei's efforts seem to be paying off: "Profits are high and we are selling over $1,600 worth of goods each day," Ma Wei told FP; the Sanlitun branch is their third. His co-founder Ma Jiajia says the clientele is diverse: "We have all types of people who come into our stores ... office workers, migrant workers, university students, actors, celebrities, entrepreneurs." One time, a Buddhist nun came in, apparently by mistake, Ma said -- then stuck around to have a peek at the merchandise.

It's a deliberately far cry from the dark, clinical sex shops still lurking on the most unexpected of street corners in China. On the west side of Beijing lies Adam and Eve, reportedly the first legal sex shop opened in China since the Communists took power in 1949. Considered a daring novelty in 1993 when it first opened, the store is now desolate but for some drab sex toys and two sales assistants. On a recent visit, one of the assistants was napping, slumped over the cash register in a bare room that resembled a hospital ward. Fluorescent light hit the cracked, plastic floor, and dust-covered toys sat in locked, glass cabinets. "We don't really have any customers anymore," said the other assistant, dressed in a medical lab coat, who gave her name as Mrs. Li. "I think it's because there are too many other stores, too many other choices now."

There's no question that Powerful Sex Shop is operating in a burgeoning market. Definitive figures for the size of China's market for sex toys are hard to come by -- a 2012 article in Chinese business magazine The Founder put it at $16 billion -- but it's certainly on the upswing, with the Chinese version of men's magazine GQ estimating the market's annual growth at 63.9 percent. That's the demand side; supply should never be an issue, as China manufactures 70 percent of the world's sex toys.

This effort to bring sex into the sunlight still retains Chinese characteristics. Next to the shop entrance sits a box of books, with the intriguingly titled Confucius and Sex sitting on top. The place feels a bit like a coffee shop, but with dildos instead of espressos. Ma Jiajia said Powerful wasn't the type of place where a porn star would show up half-naked to "crack a whip." Instead, it was the type of place where consumers might see an "S&M Snow White" or a "Hello Kitty with big boobs."

Powerful does not sell online -- the founders plan to try starting by year's end -- but it is still powered, in part, by the Internet. Ma Jiajia uses Chinese social media like WeChat, a private messaging service with about 500 million users worldwide, to engage customers and the curious. Both owners' WeChat accounts are filled with photos of new products, musings on memorable customers, and, every so often, the obligatory selfie. In one of his photos on Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, Ma Wei can be seen extending an irreverent middle finger at the camera.

To be sure, making a living in China's sex toy industry isn't all roses. One Beijing sex shop manager tearfully recounted how she was rounded up and detained for one month in a recent police crackdown on sex stores that sell medicine without the appropriate permits. Jason Ong, co-founder of Playroom, an online sexual health and wellness store based in Shanghai, said he had faced "sensitivities" when advertising his business in magazines.

But as China changes, so do its consumer and sex cultures. When the two meet -- with sexual fantasies wrapped in hip, Technicolor packaging -- the result can be hard to resist. Chinese citizens looking for that perfect, phallus-shaped coffee table finally have a place to go.

Fair Use/Douban