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The Global Citizen

Not freaks or prostitutes: A subculture seeks understanding

Erciyuan, meaning “two-dimensional space”, is a growing subculture in China, made up of fans of Japanese animation, who dress up as their favourite characters.

Ying Wei immerses herself in a little-known and often misunderstood world.  

Not freaks or prostitutes: A subculture seeks understanding

A young cosplayer at the Guangzhou Firefly ACGN festival.

Photo essay by Ying Wei

Japanese comics and animation were first introduced to China in the 1990s, but the popularity of the genre didn’t really take off until 2007 when Acfun, the first Chinese anime platform, was launched. Two years later Bilibili, another anime platform, went live.

By 2020 there were 370 million fans of anime, comic, games and novel (often abbreviated to ACGN), according to data from iiMedia Research. The bulk of the fanbase were born after 1995.

Many Erciyuans are also involved with cosplay – dressing up as characters from anime, comics or video games. Erciyuans often adopt “circle names” to reflect their chosen cosplay personality.

Lieyanxinghongshougeji is a cosplayer whose circle name means “harvester of fire and blood”.  She often participates in cosplay exhibitions in different parts of China. “I think my name is cool,” she said. “But some people think it means I have chūnibyō.”

“Chūnibyō” is a derogatory term for Erciyuans, a colloquial Japanese term used to describe teenagers with grandiose delusions, who desperately want to stand out, and who have convinced themselves that they have hidden knowledge or secret powers. It’s called “eighth-grader syndrome” in English-speaking countries.

A popular outfit among the Erciyuan crowd is the JK uniform, based on Japanese high school uniforms.

In 2020, a cosplayer at the Guangzhou Firefly ACGN exhibition wearing a JK uniform flashed her underwear and posed suggestively. Many photos of the cosplayer were uploaded to the Internet, triggering a debate in China about whether or not the ACGN subculture is pornographic and cosplayers[1]  are prostitutes.

To counter accusations that the subculture is “vulgar”, the organisers of the May 2021 Guangzhou Firefly ACGN exhibition announced participants were not allowed to wear revealing outfits or strike indecent poses. Organisers of similar events in Shanghai and Chongqing adopted similar rules.

Xiaolubumilu, a 20-year-old cosplayer whose name means “Miss Lu will not get lost”, regularly shares photographs of herself in JK uniforms on social media. Last year she received an anonymous private message on Weibo requesting a one-night stand, with the sender saying, “I know this is common in your circle.”

“He made me feel sick,” Xiaolubumilu said. “I was angry and shocked at the time. I even don’t know why I was treated as a sex worker. I don’t understand why he has such a ridiculous view of ACGN culture and JK either.”

Although the Erciyuan still suffer discrimination in China, passion and tolerance were the prevailing sentiment at the Hangzhou ACGN exhibition in September 2021. You could see a princess in a traditional Chinese costume talking happily with a silver-haired demon, while a dog in a costume  wanders past. You could also see police interacting with various characters in a friendly way.

Many Erciyuans are drawn to the subculture because the characters are heroes, often with magical powers. All too often, they are met with discrimination in the real world.


About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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