S01 Episode 2: Advanced Lesbianism / Luo Xiang Detective Club

Turning your male idol to your female lover + Criminal Law Cancel Squad + lofi beats to slash fic to

In the house this week: Ting, Yan, Tianyu, Caiwei, Yi-Ling, Krish, Jaime, Henry, and Simon.

Krish: Welcome back to the house that Chaoyang built (we're trapped here, help). This is episode 2 of season 1. 

Tianyu: Every fourth episode will be for paid subscribers only—and that’s in just a month! Please consider subscribing to support our contributors and keep Chaoyang Trap going. Also, we’re throwing a launch party in Beijing this Saturday, the 27th. All are welcome; email me at tianyu [at] chaoya.ng for the details! 


Krish: In this episode, Ting looks at the curious subculture of nisu, where female fans fantasize about male celebrities. Plot twist: they imagine these male idols to be female. 

Meanwhile, Yan witnesses the online mob that forced criminal law professor Luo Xiang off Weibo. Plot twist: he was once their senpai

First up, Ting with the burning question: “what if wife guy was … wife?”


Nisu, or I Want My Male Idol to Be My Female Lover

By Ting Lin

Ting: When I first stumbled into the world of nisu, my first thought was: Judith Butler would have a field day with this.

Nisu (泥塑) is an online subculture of female fans fantasizing about male celebrities being female, often in the role of a lover, a sister, a daughter or even a stepmom. 

It’s been known in fan circles since 2016, but only narrowly entered public consciousness around 2019. As an online trend, it involves everything from sharing photoshopped feminized pictures of the idol (long, dark, curly hair with pale skin is usually the norm) to writing sexual first-person narrative fan fiction. “My baby is so soft and pretty,” one Weibo user gushes, “I just want him to be my wifey.”

Yan: Quick geeky aside here. I realized that nisu comes from the older concept of su (苏). Without going too deep down the rabbit hole of fan fiction terminology—su is a term used by fans to imagine themselves being in a relationship with celebrities or fictional characters. It was originally a Chinese shorthand for “Mary Sue” (玛丽苏), a fan-fic trope of idealized self-depiction. Nisu, then, is a homophone of 逆苏 (“reverse-su”) and it is the gender of the celebrities/fictional characters that is reversed here.

Ting: The subjects of nisu are much more varied than I anticipated. There are the usual Chinese xiao xian rou (小鲜肉) actors and K-pop idols, but there are also some wildcards like the one-and-only “Wolf Warrior” Wu Jing (吴京). When a friend heard that I was looking into nisu, she sent me a link to the 2020 Stepmom Competition on Douban’s “Western Entertainment” section. For some inexplicable reason, Henry Cavill, aka Superman, amassed over 45% of votes, emerging victorious over competitors including Adrian Brody, Al Pacino and Adam Driver. Selected quotes from the nomination : “His breasts are so offensively full … his cheeks are always rosy, like a shy doe.”  (Um, #ReleasetheSnyderCut??)

My first question was: is this an advanced form of lesbianism?

To investigate, I asked my other friend and official lesbian correspondent R. She didn’t recognize it as such, but said that it might be because it’s too advanced. I assured her that she was a very advanced lesbian. She said she wasn’t worried about her own advanced-ness, then informed me that lesbians have their own cultural icons and don’t bother with male celebrities.

So, female heterosexual desire is still at the core of this. Under a nisu interpretation, the idol doesn’t necessarily swap genders—male pronouns are still used— he just takes on a female character. But why? Where some Weibo users talk about “the beauty of gender fluidity,” others put it more bluntly: “There’s nothing to like about masculinity.” 

Perhaps it’s a direct refutation of the self-proclaimed desirability of traditional masculinity.

In the comment section of a half-serious post discussing disturbing male online behavior, someone says: “The highest compliment I can give to a man is to call him ‘wife.’”

There’s also the entrenched narrative of the feminine being the ultimate compliment—words like “sweet,” “shy,” “soft,” and “pretty” appear frequently and passionately. The Henry Cavill descriptor above is more explicitly sexual than the industry-standard—nisu posts are usually gentle and often protective in tone, giving a sense of genuinely treasuring the idol even when hard-core thirsting.  

——

Yan: I introduced nisu to my “advanced” bi friend. She replied, “I just realized that my love for men had always been filled with a touch of nisu. My gratitude to whoever invented this concept. It’s a moment of self discovery.”

Yi-Ling: As someone who identifies as queer/bi, I’m on the same page as your friend. My attraction to men is often driven by qualities that are more “effeminate” and on the flip side, my attraction to women is often driven by characteristics that are more “masc” or “boyish.” Perhaps, what I am ultimately attracted to is a kind of fluidity and androgyneity in both—something that nisu appears to celebrate.  

——

Ting: Another explanation is that it’s just too hard to objectify a man under patriarchy. For young women who want to enjoy their sexuality, nisu is a way to escape the male gaze—they flip the object of sexual desire and imagination to “female” in order to center their own agency. 

Jaime: You can take the crush out of the girl but you can never take the girl out of the crush.”

Ting: This subversion is perhaps made easier by the fact that, like women, male idols in East Asia are frequently on the receiving end of male-rage tirades. They are berated for being too feminine, their appearance and attire are hyper-analyzed, and they become a point of obsession for sexually-insecure straight men. In 2019, Chinese idol KUN (蔡徐坤, Cai Xukun) was the subject of a months-long shaming campaign that had an intensity our culture usually only reserves for women in the public eye. 

Henry: The artist Sterling Ruby told Hannah Gold that when he asked male porn stars to masturbate alone in front of a camera, the actors thought it’d be a piece of cake. Then “some of them broke down, almost crying. One screamed repeatedly to turn off the camera. Another got so upset he threatened to break down the door between him and the smaller man, the artist, and beat him up.”

I’d be very curious to see what the “merchandise” in this burgeoning economy has to say to the sellers (a shame that KUN is probably not going to read any of his fanfics). 

Ting: The art critic John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, says about women in oil paintings: “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” His words apply equally to male idols in China, whose career hinges on their popularity among their (mostly female) fans. The idol is the sight, and fans are the surveyors. 

Nisu, then, is a kind of correction. It isn’t just about reversing the power relation; it’s also about seeking deeper emotional connection by imagining commonality.

To me, the most interesting nisu posts are the rarer, non-sexual ones that involve the idol undergoing oppressive female experiences, from being overlooked by parents in favor of their brothers to being slut-shamed by male classmates. I’ve seen more than one nisu-er reference Simone de Beauvoir: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Nisu makes idols into women by treating them as such.

In the words of writer and famous nisu-er 白媚娘bfk: “If in nisu, you are slut-shamed, impregnated, humiliated, pursued, hurt in the name of love, it is not because I hate you—it is because I hate myself. I give you all the suffering and passion my gender has endured. I live and die with you. And in the ashes of our shared fate, there is just me, you, and our humanity.”

——

Yi-Ling:  I’m reminded of the Chinese photographer Li Yushi, who has embarked on a project taking hyper-sexualized photos of men she’s sourced through Tinder, to subvert the conventional man-woman, subject-object dynamic. Low-key kind of awesome.  

Caiwei: New to the divine sanctuary of fan-fiction, I followed Ting to AO3, the internet’s most beloved fan-fiction repository. The website first struck me as a literary version of Pornhub … an overwhelming amount of content plays into common tropes and over-the-top “edginess,” from horny stepmothers to male-centric sex fantasties. However, after reading a few pieces, I could feel a completely different kind of sensibility, one that’s delicate and imaginative. I find this contradiction intriguing, and nisu seems to exist in the heart of this paradox: how do we free sexual fantasies and our tropes of romance and love from the trap of the male gaze?

Henry: Totally. Feminist scholar Donna Haraway mentions her ambivalence with table-turning by way of a gender-bending King Kong comic where a giant Ann Darrow reaches into the bedroom of a terrified, human-sized Kong—liberating the woman, but consigning her desire to the bedroom. Of course, we could reply—as if Ann had that much power! And as several people have pointed out, nisu does seem different than just plain reversal. 

——

Krish: This hyper-analysis of people in the public eye is the focus of our second story this week. It starts, as many stories do, with 985 snakes being releas… 

Yan: OBJECTION! 

Krish:

Yan:

Krish: What?

Yan: Sorry, just had to make a Phoenix Wright joke before we started. This will all make sense soon. 


Luo Xiang: Ace Attorney

By Yan Cong

Yan: Criminal law professor Luo Xiang (罗翔) has over 13 million followers on video platform Bilibili, but few of them are there to prepare for China’s crazy tough bar exam. They’re there for entertainment.

Luo opened his channel in March 2020 and racked up his first million followers in days. Even before going official, his video lectures recorded for a bar exam prep school were circulating widely, finding an unexpected audience outside aspiring lawyers. 

Usually around 5 minutes long, his videos are a cross between Michael Sandel’s “Justice” lectures and the courtroom stories of videogames like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Each features a surreal case study, delivered like a deadpan stand-up comedy set. The protagonist is the diabolical Zhang San (张三, the Chinese equivalent of “John Doe”), as famous and beloved as its creator. In a video about “endangering public safety,” Zhang San releases 985 vipers into a park to celebrate his son’s admission to a top university. If the snakes are not venomous, Luo Xiang smirks, Zhang San walks away free. The absurdity of these stories is intentional—lure you in with an easy laugh, then drop the heavy intricacies of Chinese criminal law.

A meme circulating on Weibo mashes up Luo Xiang (left) with the criminal prosecutor Miles Edgeworth (center) from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

One of the most-liked comments on Bilibili, parodying the multiple choice questions that end most Luo Xiang videos, goes:

Another replies: 

Simon: If I can backtrack for a bit, why would one release snakes to celebrate their child’s accomplishments?

Krish: Presumably Zhang San learning a trick or 985 from “Cool Mandy.” 

Yan: Luo Xiang is meme gold. A starter pack would include “365 ways for Zhang San to die,” a video edited by a die-hard fan who put together sound bites from Luo’s lectures describing imaginary scenarios where Zhang San dies from murders, incidents, and murders-turned-incidents. Fans mix Luo Xiang clips with popular memes, including this insane super cut that situates Zhang San within almost every major Chinese internet phenomenon of the last few years (keywords: Duang, Jinkela fertilizers (金坷垃), That scene from Downfall (元首的愤怒), and so many more). 

Luo Xiang’s peers like Shang Jiangang (商建刚), a lawyer-turned-judge in Shanghai, applaud Luo’s exceptional skill in translating boring legal language into funny stories that everyone can consume. Shang added, “If you prepare for the bar exam watching Luo Xiang’s videos, it’s going to be very slow and ineffective.”

Indeed, Luo seems uninterested in dwelling on “correct answers” or points on quizzes. He’s not satisfied with merely telling a good joke either. What draws many, myself included, is that behind the facade of a hilarious criminal law lecturer, he cares deeply about justice and the legal system. In one case study, a victim who buys adulterated milk powder demands compensation and is wrongfully jailed for blackmail. Luo gets passionate: “For individual rights, everything that is not forbidden is allowed! For public power, everything that is not allowed is forbidden!”

Like Michael Sandel, Luo always connects hypothetical scenarios to bigger legal or philosophical questions. He repeatedly emphasizes that law should be grounded in people’s lived experience and common sense. It should respond to the times, and not fossilize into a system for pure “rationalbro” logical reasoning.

On September 8, 2020, Luo Xiang was caught up in an absurd controversy. He shared a quote on Weibo, “Cherish virtue and don't become a slave to honor, because the former is eternal, but the latter will soon disappear.” This was the same day that respiratory disease expert Zhong Nanshan received China’s highest state honour, the Medal of the Republic, for his contribution to China’s fight against COVID-19. An online mob attacked Luo for indirectly calling a national hero “a slave to honor.”

They were methodical criminal law acolytes. They dug up Luo’s Weibo posts from years ago as “evidence” that he was “unhappy with the system” all along. The irony here is that a law professor who taught the presumption of innocence was assumed guilty from the get-go. As the trolls dug up more evidence, Luo first tried to explain that there was no connection between his post and the medal award. But this wasn’t a Zhang San-style case study for deliberation. Realizing that to explain himself would be futile, he quit Weibo. 

——

Krish: I’m reminded of the “desktop documentary” Forensickness, which makes this connection between how fandoms online can become “forensically-minded” towards objects of culture, and that same spectatorial attitude, contaminated by the possibility of hidden meanings, can became an analytical frenzy directed at real people.

Yan: I wonder if there’s a connection with the increasing amount of “archives” for people to dig up now: a Weibo early adopter would have more than a decade of posts on the platform, potentially open, for everyone to examine closely. Before real-name registration was the norm, all people could do was renrou (人肉, “human flesh search engine,” a form of crowd-sourced information gathering that often included doxxing). The “archival detectives” today have more primary sources on which they can base their speculations about a person’s political viewpoints or motivation. 

Tianyu: Yeah, and we’re seeing this kind of toxic discourse more often these days. Chloé Zhao, who won a Golden Globe for her film Nomadland, was criticized for her past remarks about China (“where there are lies everywhere”) and her own identity (“The U.S. is now my country, ultimately”), both dug up from old interviews. China has also asked broadcasters to downplay the Oscars, for which Zhao is nominated.

Yi-Ling: I’m struck by how both online attacks—of Luo’s criminal justice videos and of Zhao’s Nomadland that Tianyu mentions—also feel starkly different in tone and tenor than the human flesh search engine accusations of the early Weibo days of 2012—which some often dub its “Golden Age.” Whereas the Weibo takedowns of the past were more cacophonous, this feels more like a one-noted mob: deviate from the status quo, and we’ll roast you no matter what. 

——

Yan: So Luo, a paragon of public engagement, had to disengage. Fortunately, he remains active elsewhere, on Bilibili and through media interviews. He’s fond of quoting Greek philosopher Epictetus: 

Remember that you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the author chooses… If it be his pleasure that you should enact a poor man, see that you act it well; or a cripple, or a ruler, or a private citizen. For this is your business, to act well the given part; but to choose it, belongs to another.

It surprised me that someone as influential as Luo, who single-handedly made criminal law part of popular culture, believes that what he does is predetermined by a force he has no control over. The road to viral fame can feel dangerous, as scale brings with it this loss of control.  

The nuance of Luo Xiang’s lectures and his public voice, that line he perfectly straddled between case study absurdities and the complications of criminal law, fell victim to the cruelties of the public sphere in China today. Hopefully, this will become just  another Zhang San teaching moment. After all, what can he do but “act well the given part”—that of a criminal law professor.

Yan: For more inspirational quotes from Luo Xiang, I recommend this mix with soothing piano music in the background.)

Tianyu: I know no one asked for this, but here’s a nisu version of Luo Xiang: 


Tianyu: That’s it for episode 2! If you enjoyed this, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, or forward it to a friend by hitting the shiny button below! Every fourth episode will be for paying subscribers only, and all of our revenue will go towards paying contributors on time and supporting writers. We also welcome feedback, story ideas, and cute animal GIFs via email (hello [at] chaoya.ng) or Twitter (@ChaoyangTrap). 

Share

Krish: Next time: Ryuichi Sakamoto, n̶i̶s̶u̶ ̶R̶y̶u̶i̶c̶h̶i̶ ̶S̶a̶k̶a̶m̶o̶t̶o̶, and an actual Wife Guy.

Outro music this week is the gorgeous new ambient work of Wuhan’s Hualun (花伦). This song is from their Homework in Quiet Time release, which was composed during the city’s lockdown this time last year.

Tianyu: Bye!


Tianyu Fang is a writer who grew up in Beijing. He spends most of his free time eating Lanzhou beef noodles and subtweeting.

Krish Raghav is a comic-book artist in Beijing. He is the second picture in the galaxy brain meme. 

Jaime (bot) is a critic and translator in Beijing who lives in Dongcheng and works in Chaoyang. She is also a contributing editor at Spike.

Yan Cong is a Beijing-based photographer. She is not the guy in Jilin who carries a rock on his head, despite Google’s insistence.  

Caiwei Chen is a writer, journalist and podcaster. She is the proud caretaker of Ting.

Ting Lin is a writer in Beijing, based semi-permanently on Caiwei’s couch. 

R is an advanced lesbian correspondent.  

Simon Frank is a writer, translator, and musician in Beijing. He is embarrassed to say he is a DJ, but is, in fact, also a DJ.

Yi-Ling Liu is a writer in Beijing. She likes to wall-dance—both online and at the climbing gym. 

Henry Zhang is a writer and translator who has often crashed his scooter in Chaoyang.