taming 'The Untamed'

what happens when fanfiction spirals out of control

By Sarah


When I was bored in lockdown last year, I finally decided to try out this show I had seen all over Tumblr. It was corny and amazing, I fell headfirst into the fandom, and then discovered some uuuhhhhh wild events that happened around Archive of Our Own (AO3), the web’s biggest fanfiction site.

The TV show that started this is called 陈情令 (Chén Qíng Lìng), known in English as either CQL or its official translation, The Untamed. The Untamed is a Xianxia fantasy show based in a fantasy version of ancient China, similar to how The Witcher is set in a fantasy version of medieval Europe. The crux of the genre involves “cultivators” (a generic term sort of like “wizard” that has common tropes, but which each writer will put their own spin on) who go around fighting demons and spirits and evil. There are lots of sword fights while they fly through the air and lots of long hair and swishy robes. It aired in China over the summer in 2019 and soon became the most popular show of the year there, having been watched over 8 billion times. It later managed significant popularity outside of China since it was available with English subtitles through Netflix and YouTube.

The show has an elaborate and convoluted political plot involving a big cast of characters, but the core narrative is driven by the relationship between Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. The show makes them out to be very close and dedicated friends. But The Untamed is actually not an original work; it’s an adaptation of Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation (Mó Dào Zǔ Shī), a very popular novel published online on the website Jinjiang Wenxuecheng. In the online story, Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are very gay, very romantically involved, and have a lot of explicit sex. Because of censorship rules in China, that sort of relationship could not be portrayed in the screen adaptation but the showrunners did their absolute best. The main gay couple paralleled the equally chaste heterosexual relationships in the show. The dialog made veiled references to historical gay symbols, like rabbits. And lots of scenes had prolonged pining glances between the two main characters. I found that the resulting relationship between the characters was very heartfelt and emotional, even if it was not explicitly romantic.

This strong intimation, stopping just short of confirming what viewers think they’re seeing, stirs up an enthusiastic fandom. And makes for very compelling fanfiction.

A ton of fanfiction has been written about the main pairing. AO3 has over 22,000 fics tagged Wei Wuxian/Lan Wangji. The most kudos-ed fic involves an arranged marriage between the pair. The next is about accidental baby acquisition.

But that ship is not all that fanfic writers have focused on. One genre of fanfic that’s fairly popular is called Real Person Fiction, or RPF. This is almost exactly what the name implies, writing fictional stories about real people. This can show up in mainstream media, like The Crown, a story about real people and events. Or the published book Rodham, which is an Alternate Universe (AU) fic about Hilary Clinton. The fanfiction version of real life is usually more focused on relationships and erotica. Lots of it is about actors, YouTubers or boy bands. One Direction used to be super popular, but the top spot is now undoubtedly occupied by BTS with 151,000 fics under their tag.

It’s practically a given that if two actors are playing romantically linked characters on a show, people will be writing fanfic imagining that the real actors are romantically entwined as well. The two actors who starred in The Untamed, Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan, got shipped together a lot. (There was also a conspiracy going around, at least in the English speaking fandom, that Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan were actually dating and passing hidden messages to fans through jewelry and Instagram posts? I think that was circling in Chinese speaking fandom as well, but I never really figured that one out. For the record, I don’t think it’s true.)

AO3 is the undisputed center of English-speaking fanfic, but before The Untamed came out it had also been steadily gaining in Chinese-speaking users, to the point where the site was soliciting more volunteers who spoke Chinese because they had too many support tickets for their current volunteer translators to handle. It was gaining popularity in China because the Chinese government had blocked or shut down other popular fanfic sites.

RPF work was flourishing on AO3, in both English and Chinese, and the personal fandom for both of the actors was also flourishing, mainly in China. The Untamed made them both breakout stars. Then fans of Xiao Zhan became aware of the erotic RPF being writen about him and got in a massive fight with RPF writers and then later on the wider Chinese user base of AO3. This was all happening in February 2020, when you may recall there were a few other things going on in the world, like a burgeoning pandemic.

I’ll admit that the specifics of what happened are not completely clear to me, because lots of this drama was happening in Chinese, on Weibo, and the only people translating it to English were those who felt very involved in the controversy and so we should probably take their reports with a grain of salt, or a hundred.

The start of this conflict was a popular fic on AO3 called《下坠》. It was an AU that featured Xiao Zhan as a prostitute with gender dysphoria. Supporters of Xiao Zhan found it highly offensive and urged people online to report AO3, the fic, the fic writer, and all related Weibo posts to Chinese authorities for inappropriate content. They also harassed the writer online and other people supporting them.

Then supporters of the ship, along with other fandom writers who used AO3, created a counter hashtag called “227大团结” (227 Great Unity, roughly) and harassed all the Xiao Zhan fans right back. Weibo began to block hashtags related to the incident which only drew more attention. Anti-Xiao Zhan fans (pro-AO3 fans) even managed to disrupt an Olay livestream where Xiao Zhan was promoting the brand.

A day later AO3 could no longer be accessed in mainland China. AO3 confirmed this independently, and this development led fans of AO3 to escalate their harassment of Xiao Zhan and Weibo accounts accused of reporting AO3 to the authorities. They also tried to start a campaign to boycott brands who sponsored Xiao Zhan.

It’s a bit hard to assess the scale of the incident when I’m not on Weibo, but it eventually resulted in Xiao Zhan and his studio releasing not one, not two, but three separate apologies for the disruption caused by the incident in the middle of the pandemic. Chinese state media weighed in on the situation. The Economist wrote an article about fan culture in China getting out of control and cited this incident.

In all of this, pretty much the only thing that can be confirmed is what people said online, not much of who actually reported what. It’s not much of a surprise that AO3 might be banned in China due to some of the content available on the site, but there is absolutely no way to know whether it was influenced in any way by the social media kerfuffle around The Untamed. (If you want to read even more about this series of events, Fanlore has a really detailed breakdown of all the claims that were made online.)

Eventually things calmed down. But that was not the last dust-up involving AO3 and The Untamed.

Some important background for the next bit: AO3 actually has a really fascinating tagging system that blends automation with human moderation. Old fanfic sites that supported tagging allowed you to select from a limited set of human-generated tags. Usually the major characters and ships in the work and absolutely nothing else. There was no confusion between them, but it was very limiting and inflexible. On the other hand, there are tagging systems like on Instagram where people put five variations of the same concept because they’re not sure exactly what users will search and they need to get the exact right combo of words in their hashtag. Do you put #NewYork? #NY? #NewYorkCity? #NYC?

AO3 has a hybrid system that is both very searchable for readers and very flexible for writers. When writers publish a fic on AO3, they can choose from a list of canonical tags or put in any text they want as a tag. Any new text that’s submitted as a tag on AO3 is then passed to human tag wranglers who, by being humans, not computers and looking at the context in which it was used, can link it to a canonical tag, then the fic becomes searchable through that tag. For example, the canonical tag for The Untamed is “陈情令 | The Untamed (TV)” but if you search that, you will also find fic tagged with “Chen Qing Ling” or “CQL”, or with subtle spelling errors like “Cheng Qing Ling” or “The Untaimed”. Because humans have seen these tags, know that they refer to the same thing, or are just typos, and link them to the canonical tag. 

But, people still do the Instagram strategy. If you put as many tags as possible on your fic, it will show up in more searches, even if your fic is only tangentially about the subject. The logic is like, “Does your character eat a piece of bread in a scene? Tag ‘bread’!”

So the previous feud was focused on fanfic about the actors, but good old-fashioned fanfic about the show’s characters is still extremely popular. And lots of this fanfic is focused on them having sex. One of the most infamous fics is one called “Sexy times with Wangxian”. (Wangxian is the ship name for Lan Wangji/Wei Wuxian combining Wang- with -xian.) As of April 15th it has 304 chapters and a total of 1,303,981 words across them. The author would update it almost daily, involved every single character in The Untamed, and included crossovers with dozens of other shows. They also had over 3 pages worth of tags appended to the fic. 

They tagged basically every single sex act and normal action you could possibly think of. This meant that this fic showed up in nearly every single search made on the site and it eventually became the bane of everyone’s existence. AO3 doesn’t have any way to block specific users or fics so it was very difficult to ignore. Scrolling past it on a phone took a small eon (it’s embedded at the end of this post). Some examples of tags include: “Bad Dirty Talk”, “Simple Living,” “Girl Power,” “Tongues” “Blasphemy” “Heterosexual sex” “Puzzles” “Sex in Space” “Glittering Caves” “Missionary Position” “Missionaries”.

Eventually, users had had enough of the prolific fic, and in the spirit of trolling and making the problem worse, other users decided to exploit the fact that AO3 didn’t limit the number of tags on a work. Someone posted the entirety of The Great Gatsby in the tags. Someone else posted the entirety of 1984 in the tags, each sentence a tag. This started making AO3 even more unusable, not just for the users, but also the staff as well. Remember, new tags are sent to tag wranglers so that they can link them to existing canonical tags. The moderators were absolutely swamped. AO3 eventually put an end to this by putting a limit on the number of tags on a work. And the writer of “Sexy times with Wangxian” was suspended for a month, allegedly for wishing death on all their trolls in the endnotes of a chapter.

Since then, the great tag war has mostly settled itself. The Untamed is back under control, relatively speaking. Xiao Zhan has been in four TV shows since then and is currently performing on stage in an 8 hour long play, so his career is probably okay. And the anonymous author of “Sexy Times with Wangxian” came back to continue their epic, which last updated March 24th. Is it finished? That might be too much to hope for. 


Elsewhere…


Sarah is from Toronto and reads about geopolitics and writes about fandom. Seeing an Economist article about The Untamed was definitely the best intersection of her interests ever.