Why I Read Chinese BL

So…. I read a lot of Chinese BL fics. In fact, it’s pretty much all I read nowadays. Some people may be curious about why I read Chinese BL and write in English / publish with an American MM publisher instead, and others may be interested in the difference between Chinese BL and American MM(Romance). Firstly, as I spent my childhood mostly in English-speaking countries, I am more comfortable with writing in English. I know my English writing itself needs a lot of improvement especially as I’m an ESL author (sorta), but it still beats my Chinese writing. Not to mention, I wanted to share my love of BL to a non-Chinese audience (lately I am less motivated LOL it’s just not working out well and I’m also busy with RL). As for the difference between Chinese BL vs. English MM, I can only surmise the contrasts based on my shallow opinion, since I haven’t read much MMromance and I’ve picky-as-hell tastes. So, discrepancies I see are through sheer observation of…summaries and people’s reviews, LOL. I’d like to say beforehand that one of the differences between BL and (published) MM is the mainstream in BL is to have romance as a secondary element (so it’s closer to slash), while in MM, romance is still the mainstream. All in all, take my pretentious assumptions with a grain of salt.

1. The Publishing Environment / Sex

99.9999999999999% (I’m not saying 100% because I never know, but it’s pretty much 100%) of Chinese fiction are online serials, be it BL, straight romance, genre fiction, or YY Gary-Stu fiction. Thus, Chinese BL is much closer to the slash fandom than it is to MMRomance because it’s all online and published chapter by chapter. A lot of slash authors eventually publish MMRomance to get paid for writing, but MMRomance fics are somewhat different than slash fics. Chinese BL, on the other hand…well, it stays the same, and the authors get paid by chapter / readership. It’s like a paid version of AFF/Fictionpress, except you can expect paid works to be updated every day or at least 4 times per week, and you can expect that WIP label to become COMPLETED.

In a sense, the Chinese online fiction publishing community is farrrrrrr more mature than English ones, and also the commenting system is more interactive so you can reply to other readers’ comments and all. You can also encourage authors by sending them extra money and boosting their fic’s ranking (since each chapter only costs a few cents). As pretty much everyone can publish and the popular authors can quickly get contracted to charge users, there are a lot of crazy fiction as “rejections” do not exist.  Paid authors, therefore, don’t get much feedback from editors in terms of the overall content, because most of the time no one knows how it’s going to end. Overall this has to do with purchasing / reading behavior – Chinese have a long history with serial fiction. I’m not sure this mode of publishing would work out in the States, however.

Also, y’all know Mainland China and its censorship issues. Yes, every now and then, much to the readers’ woes, the PRC government conducts hard crackdowns on anything with smex (and at one point last year, anything involving the military, triads, or politics). So, partially because of this censorship issue, not a lot of Chinese BL contain explicit sex, especially not after the recent crackdown last year. The crackdown was actually caused by some YY Gary-Stu fics written by straight men for straight men, since those fics were selling so ludicrously and were later revealed to have sexual content. The idiots at Beijing decided to crackdown on “porn” in online fiction, and the main site hosting Chinese BL (JJWCX) was unfortunately affected as well, as it belonged to the same company that owned the site that published those YY Gary Stu fics. As a result, a lot of BL fics got shut down / locked from the public. For months, you couldn’t find a fic with explicit sex, though the pressure has lessened a little after one year. JJWCX now employs readers to “verify” if a fic has explicit sex or not…and according to my online friends who are doing it, they just reject the ones that have really cringe-worthy sex in horridly written fics, lol.

That said, in general Chinese BL (or at least the ones I pick up) puts less emphasis on sex. Characters may be physically attracted and they could be creepy molesters, but in general there is far less blatant, in-your-face explosive UST you’d often find in mainstream (popular) American MMRomance where the two guys are constantly wanting to fuck and the readers are constantly reminded about how horny these two dudes are. (Genre fic usually does not sell as well as romance, so I’m naturally not taking them into consideration when I say MM.) So, you don’t have that kind of scorching hot romance / fast pace in Chinese BL… not just because of the censorship issues, but because of cultural differences.

Mainstream Chinese BL puts more emphasis on the non-romantic events that facilitate interaction/emotional attraction, where character dynamics triumph smex. Thus, the most popular Chinese BL also has romance as a secondary element. Personally I prefer this because of my cultural upbringing. I prefer less sexual undertones in my fic and I prefer a slower pace in terms of romance (but since Chinese is a “telling” language, more plot gets covered.) So, covers are often more subtle, and you won’t see any headless muscular men with naked chest covers. NULL. NADA. Additionally, MMRomance has a huge thing for BDSM. Chinese BL, not so much. In a sense they are similar in that there’s a Dom/sub and most Chinese BL has a D/s like thing going on, but Chinese BL is much less kinky – there is no awareness and few attempts to make the characters try to resemble real-life D/s relationships. I’m personally not so much into the 24/7 thing or Dom/sub thing…I just like kinky smex with D/s undertones. So, once again BL is more to my taste. Chinese BL makes little attempt to be realistic. It’s almost always the less mature works that contain explicit sex, where you’ll often see unrealistically-sized dicks and dudes who can come 7 times 1 night…. Less bleeding assholes nowadays, thankfully.

2. The Community

I gotta say…the Chinese BL community is sooooo active and this is a HUGE plus to me. There is an active reccing weibo account (though the quality of the rec’d fics are worsening and it sometimes has to go on hiatus during periods of crackdowns), and every few days a month they would release a list of newly completed BL fics, each title already tagged with character tropes / genre / major tropes so we can quickly pick out fics of interest. This is SUPER helpful to me in finding something new to read and is also one of the main reasons I mostly read Chinese BL. It’s simply easier to have an overview of what is new, get an idea of what the fic could be about based on the labels, and then to try out the fic. There’s also an extremely active forum (with 691k+ members and visits from at least 68). It’s used for people to request for recs of a certain type of fic, for members to post their recs or reviews, and for people to discuss about BL fiction in general (e.g. tropes, what was the strangest thing you’ve seen, etc). Some members also post their own original fics to the forum or get permission to cross-post a fic to the forum. It’s much more active and fun than the Goodreads MMRomance group IMHO. I don’t visit that BL forum often now but it’s still quite interesting.

In addition, there’s a “goodreads”-esque book rating site SOLELY FOR BL, complete with tags and reviews and half-star ratings. It is so awesome I now use it to keep track of books I’ve read and DNF’d before. LOL I am a bit more critical with my ratings there because the site discourages users from giving 5 stars.

Also, I said earlier, JJWXC allows readers to interact with each other under each chapter of a fic, and often you can see funny-as-hell comments. Popular authors also have their own QQ chat groups (I’m in Priest’s chat group) where readers can connect with each other and chat about random shit (there are 4 known dudes in the group I’m in, 3 of which who claim to be straight). Finally, there are BL audio dramas being arranged by fans, where actual dudes will voice characters. The BL audio drama has its own active community, where listeners become fans of the voice actors. I don’t listen to BL audio dramas because the fics that get made into audio dramas are not my type of story, but I think it’s an extremely nice thing to have. Mainland China is missing everything but people, so you never feel alone, especially since practically every girl has come into contact with BL fics during highschool. Some people grow out of it, some people stick to it. I’m one of the people who got into BL in elementary school through fandom, so. All in all, I really like the community even though I dislike the mainstream.

3. Language Differences

My Chinese writing may not be good compared to native speakers, but I have an easier time immersing myself in stories written in Chinese because of the language. I think a lot of people who don’t have English as their first language would agree with me that English feels like a “cold” language. It’s a logical language great for writing papers and essays, but it takes far more effort to convey emotions (usually “showing” is better, you can’t just “tell”). Telling is very jarring in English. I’ve gone into detail about this issue in another post already. I can enjoy non-MM English fiction just fine because I have a different reading motivation, as I would be reading entirely for plot and not for emotional satisfaction. However, when I’m reading MM I have the motivation of expecting some secondary romantic elements, and if I don’t care for the main character within the first few sentences I would quit. I have a much shorter attention span for English fiction because the language keeps me at arm’s length.

Also, in terms of writing styles, English fictions are really anal about POV. Readers hate POV slips, and they hate omniscient POV. In Chinese fiction, POV can be anywhere at any time. The famous Jin Yong writes from an omniscient POV, which can make fights easier to describe since he can just mention what the opponent is thinking or what observers are thinking. Head-hopping is not a sign of bad writing in Chinese ficiton so there’s no rule for it. Is it lazy? Maybe. But in my opinion, it’s also much better for me as a reader because I don’t have to read an entire section / chapter about a character I don’t care about…but it can make me care for a character within a short time. Of course, I get annoyed by POV slips and head-hopping in English fiction as well, so I can chalk this up to language differences. Somehow head-hopping is just jarring / not easy to follow in English. Maybe it’s just my double standards because of different expectations.

4. Genre / Content

When I say BL fiction does not attempt to be realistic, I mean it also in the sense of genre / plot. A lot of slash fans have difficulty getting into MMRomance because contemporary is the mainstream and because of the emphasis on realism / logical world-building in MMRomance. As I said, Chinese BL is much closer to the slash fandom because it’s published online as serials and there are no limitations at all – anyone can publish whatever the hell they like and still get a shitload of readers as long as you can push their buttons. Fans ship pairings mostly because they like the character archetype / dynamic…and thanks to the labeling practice in the Chinese BL community, it’s much easier to make the transition from fanfic to original fic, especially since there are a LOT of original fics completed each month. Fanfics rarely get completed. Not to mention, there aren’t a lot of satisfactory fanfics since most fanfic authors are young.

Chinese BL… I feel that nowadays it’s all about having CRAZY settings / premises, and about a character leveling up or something (much as YY Gary-Stu fics), so readers in general do not like pure romance fics now. This is because so much emphasis is put on character archetypes and dynamics, so the best way to differentiate your fic is to have different settings and plots or you’ll be buried. Most readers, like me, don’t care about the genre and only care about the character archetypes / dynamics. This is also what makes Chinese BL different than Japanese BL, which is said to have more contained settings and fics differentiate through detail. Just to list some of our common tropes (there are many other variations but I won’t list them because the point of a crazy premise is for it to be somewhat unique):

  • Rebirth (重生): as the name implies, the MC dies and is reborn, either as himself for a second chance to take revenge or to amend mistakes, or the MC can be reborn as someone else (e.g. an actor, a rich person, a poor person, his rival’s lover, etc.) Setting could be historical, contemporary, or some futuristic fantasy place. It could be a crack fic where an asshole gets one-upped by the guy he treated badly.
  • Space-time travel (穿越): Something happens to a character and the character wakes up in a different world. Could be a historical setting, inside a book (like Fushigi Yugi), inside a video game, to some alien /futuristic world with MPreg, etc. An example would be Feng Yu Jiu Tian, though I strongly dislike that book. I usually avoid reading Space-time travel fics, especially those that involve time-traveling to historical settings. There is a subgenre of this where the MC is forced to travel to different space-time/worlds instead of just sticking to one different world.
  • System (系統): For lack of better word, I really don’t know how to translate this trope. This is a bit difficult to explain, and I assume it’s an extension of the space-time travel genre. You know when you play a game there’s a set of rules you have to abide by and the (game) system assigns missions to you? Well, in system fics, a character travels to some place and finds themselves restricted to a system where there are usually some funny as hell and illogical rules the MC has to abide to in order to return to reality or survive. This obviously evolved from the space-time travel fics with characters who found themselves in video games, but unlike those fics, system fics are usually just crack fics that aren’t supposed to make sense. The “system” is usually just going to give the main character a hard time.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In these fics, everyone is aware they’re characters in the story or the MC is aware of who is the main character of the story (usually his eventual love interest). Usually this is going to be a crack fic, and more often than not it is a sub-trope of the “tropes” above (in particular it’s often about a guy who space-time travels into a book)
  • Raising the LI/MC (養成): Incest – Father/son & Siblings & Master/apprentice (父子、兄弟、師徒): Bringing this trope up because Father/son was a huge thing a while back. You still see one or two fics with this trope every month, but yeah… sometimes the father is the top, sometimes the son is the top (I would read if the son is the top)…if you see this trope now, most of the time the two won’t be blood related. I think this is less of a May-December kink than it is just a weird kink of liking the raising process. I like that too…. LOL I get all excited when a strong father-figure raises a son and then the son tops the father, which shocks the father-figure.

As for settings / genre, we have

  • Chinese Historical: Chinese Historicals are very popular in the BL community, so there are always a lot of fics in historical settings every month, and in JJWXC the fics are mainly divided by contemporary and historical.
    • Wuxia: Not much to say about this…it’s wuxia. Often there’s going to be some evil cult leader (Mojiao Jiaozhu魔教教主), or some Head of the Wulin (武林盟主). It’s usually in a historical setting where characters know martial arts. Sometimes Wuxia will involve MPreg.
    • Chinese Fantasy: Self-explanatory. There’s usually going to be shifters, dragons, gods, immortals, etc. Could be relationships between two immortals, could be between an immortal and a shifter/human, etc.
      • Xiuzhen Fantasy: The plot of these fics is focused on gaining immortality. I went into detail about Chinese fantasy in this post.
      • Pseudo-China alternate world: a bit rarer, but these will have fantastical elements that aren’t from Chinese folklore
    • Palace fics: There will be an emperor, political struggles, war between countries/powers, etc. Often mixed with wuxia genre.
    • Just Plain Old Historical: Sometimes involves arranged marriages, often involves nobles/the wealthy and their servants, scholars, etc.
  • Contemporary:  Most contemporary fics would involve a dude from a wealthy/political/military family (X二代) and would involve politics of some sort. Other common elements/topics are: business wars, the entertainment industry, triads, school life, military, etc. You know, typical contemp stuff. There are two subgenres that are more distinctive:
    • Online relationships to Real relationships: The relationship is going to be between two gamers of online RPGs, or about two guys who are involved in the Chinese BL audio drama (several dudes are involved in recording free audio drama based on Chinese BL fics), or two guys involved in the online singing community (in Mainland China there’s a huge online community around non-celebrities creating works and singing them in a place called 5sing), or two guys in the online fiction publishing community (could be between a cover artist / author, but usually is going to be between an author / reader).
    • Supernatural / Paranormal
      • Ghost Busting: these fics often include shifters and ghosts, and usually will have a ghost-buster/daoshi/tianshi. Main character will likely be a human and have a relationship with a non-human. This subgenre is not as commonly seen as online-to-real relationship fics, but there are several popular works in this genre. The genre generally comes and goes like a fad.
      • Shifter Romance: Super rare. Usually shifters (yao) appear in historical fantasy, but a tiny number of contemporary are also about shifters
    • Science Fiction: involves super-powers and secret organizations.
  • Western Setting:
    • Futuristic Sci-Fi / Space Opera: This is probably the subgenre in the western setting that gets read the most. Could involve mechas (you know, the human-piloted robots from Japanese anime like Gundam, Evangelion, etc), aliens, shifters, military, politics, arranged marriages…and MPreg. Around the end of 2013, Chinese BL also imported the Omegaverse from the English slash fandom.
    • Western Fantasy: Every month you’ll see two~five western fantasies pop up in the list of completed stories. Western fantasy could be either involving dragons/elves, or demons/monsters. Or Japanese-style Western fantasy, if you get what I mean.
    • Zombie Apocalypse: while not always in a western setting, I think some fics were and they ended up getting picked up by some readers, especially when Zombies were all the rage around 2012. Less Zombie fics today, but there are still one or two every month. Zombie fics set in Mainland China are of course going to be received better.
    • Western Historical: haha…are you kidding me? *Ahem* Well, actually, there were a few popular works from 2001~2011 as 3~4 big-shot authors wrote BL works in Western Historical settings (with a translation accent) and those works somewhat resemble MMRomance. So, Western Historical was once somewhat popular. Not anymore though, especially since the big-shot authors are no longer active.
    • Western Contemporary: given the sheer amount of authors and fics being published, there is usually one every few months, usually some kind of supernatural thing with vampires and stuff or things involving the mafia, but I don’t remember any that have become popular enough for me to hear of.

I’ll add more if I remember. Right now just writing this from the top of my head. Note that Hurt-and-Comfort tropes are practically non-existent in Chinese BL. There are some, but they’re not the mainstream, and HnC is seldom the focus of a fic. Also, I am speaking about more recent Chinese BL from 2010 onwards, while most translated Chinese BL are earlier than 2010 and thus likely different as the current community has evolved a lot away from the old mainstream. The mainstream now is: MC leveling-up and overcoming external difficulties to become stronger / fluffy-feel-good fics / crack fics. I’ve liked a few fics written earlier than 2010, but did not like the mainstream from 2001~2008 where there were super-angsty fics with a bastard top and a weak, doormat bottom (e.g. Lan Lin’s works).

5. the Line Between Fantasy and Reality – Escapism & Responsibility

American MMRomance, of course, wins in every way here, and it’s a good thing – I respect that. There are more gay authors. The men in MMRomance probably resemble real-life people more. There is more respect / caution with sensitive topics such as rape, disability, PTSD, transsexualism, and all these things. Both MMRomance and Chinese BL came from fandom, but slash / MM authors / readers would try a bit harder not to treat their characters as “objects”. They would therefore respect / research gay men and everything. MMRomance, in a sense, is more “real”, and the community cares a lot more about being respectful to minorities. I enjoy reading discussions about sensitive issues because I learn a lot from them.

Anyhow.

99.999999% of Chinese readers know and expect fiction to be an unrealistic fantasy, be it BL fiction or YY Gary-Stu fiction (where a main male character ends up with a harem of women), so practically no one is interested in taking fiction seriously.

The reading / writing environment is completely different than what it’s like in the States, probably because East Asians in general don’t have strong opinions about PC issues as they value harmony over conflict (I know it’s a stereotype but it does have truth to it). Authors have completely no moral obligation when they write, so, as all online fictions are, there are some pretty WTF fics that just make you want to poke out your own eyes and forget what you read. My tastes pretty much automatically filter out these sort of fics, but I’ve seen readers share their horror stories with reading BL fiction here. I think it goes without saying that Chinese BL is similar to Japanese BL where it has yaoi influences, most notably with the thing about having a “seme” and an “uke”. I know a lot of American gays may get angry about yaoi and shit for supposedly objectifying gays and about how untrue the top/bottom thing is, but the culture is different here.

There is a very strong line between fantasy and reality just as in “otaku” culture – most readers of BL would imagine characters as 2D figures instead of 3D humans because almost every BL fan was first an anime/manga fan. Anime/manga in itself is not at all close to reality, and almost every East Asian has watched one anime or read one manga in their life to understand this absolute difference between 2D and 3D. So, like Japanese anime / light novels, Chinese BL puts a rather heavy emphasis on character archetypes and “moe-ness”, which means readers objectify fantasy characters who they know will never exist in real life. As there are too many BL fans in East Asia (almost every high school girl has come into contact with BL), most East Asian gays have already accepted BL as being akin to porn (even if there isn’t sex, it’s still porn for the soul because it’s unrealistic romance featuring unrealistic people), which means few would feel the need to get worked up over how offensive it is (though most probably think it’s creepy or distasteful).

Many East Asian gays also have female friends who read BL, so they should know BL fans draw a line between fantasy and reality – there’s a rule in the BL community to never mix up BL and actual gay life and to never annoy real gays. There is seldom any real attempt to draw a parallel with gay life and BL, just as you wouldn’t attempt to draw a parallel between manga/light novel life and real life.

Case in point: I have never seen a BL fic with real men on the cover. Most of the time, it’s either manga art or just photos / artwork of objects or places. I like the latter type of covers more (but covers have little influence on a Chinese reader’s decision to pic up a fic.) Also…strangely, BL does have some male fans who claim to be straight @@

Personally, because of my experience living in the States I do try to be more respectful of sensitive issues and stuff when I write, and I expect some level of PCness in English fics, but I don’t really care about what Chinese authors are writing as long as the author isn’t trying to brainwash me (yeah…double standards, I know. I just don’t read if I don’t like, hence my DNF list can pretty much pile into a mountain).

That said, in general I find that mature authors, regardless of the culture / nationality they belong to, tend to treat what they write with respect. Anyhow, I’ve rambled enough excuses now. Disagree or belittle me all you like…but BL caters to my inner fantasies more. Yup, being a retired yaoi fangirl (retired because I haven’t read any for a long time and I am not interested in them anymore as I dislike most yaoi), I still care immensely about who tops and who bottoms and I care a lot about character archetypes. I think there’s a top/bottom thing going on for some MMRomance because of yaoi influences as well, but people don’t label it, and the dynamics are usually not to my taste because they mostly reflect the mainstream typical strong top / weak bottom trope, which I strongly dislike. Chinese BL, on the other hand, will usually label / tag the character archetypes of the top / bottom, allowing me to avoid things I don’t like and letting me find setups that would interest me. So…you can have stuff like a beautiful top who looks like a girl and a muscular & taller bottom (not my type of thing but it’s actually a popular trope), etc. Nowadays there are less spineless / doormat bottoms (unlike a few years ago), but then again I usually avoid fics labeled with overpowered tops and weak / wife-like / goody-two-shoes / idiotic bottoms so I’m not sure about how these fiction fare. I usually go for the D/s-y nice guy top and ice king bottom, the subordinate top and the superior / emperor bottom, a wife-like top and an overpowered self-assured bottom, the idiotic & funny top and the intelligent/cool bottom, etc.

Yes I write what I want to read, but don’t we all?

4 thoughts on “Why I Read Chinese BL

  1. Hi, I know this is an older post but I’m really interested in the topic. First of all this is really insightful for someone who is trying to break into the Chinese BL circles, as there isn’t a lot of hype or translations available for Chinese slash in the English speaking community. As someone from a Chinese background who can’t read Chinese well, I started off with Japanese BL, mainly because I could find more elements that attracted me to them than in English fandoms. Now I usually read original slash in English but even more recently, I’ve begun to discover Chinese BL, starting with online translations. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or what, but I was immediately hooked by the way the stories were written, the common tropes and the cultural context. I think Western fiction was getting too limited to reality to be enjoyable for me, and some of the stimulation I was looking for just wasn’t there… I agree that there is a completely different approach and set of expectations for Western and Eastern gay fiction, but I also disagree with some of your points generalizing Western MM (I can’t remember where). One of the things that I definitely find better about Chinese BL is its community, there seems to be a lot more interaction and development there than in the West. English slash is just kind of everywhere and unorganized (I dislike LJ with a passion), and rarer still an updated dropped fic… The genres/tropes breakdowns and trends were interesting, and I’ve for sure seen most if not all of them around. Also, I get being frustrated or turned off by fics where they just don’t give what you’re looking for. I find English romfics overall a lot more conscious about what is morally comfortable/realistic to write, and while it does have its merits, sometimes it just fails to reach a particular itch for me. I haven’t read enough Chinese lit to comment much on it but I’m very slowly learning t.t Omg I haven’t realized how much I’ve rambled so I’m going to cut this off soon. I’m not trying to bash Western fiction, but there’s a lot of progression in a different direction in Chinese BL that I’m dying to explore but can’t due to language barriers, and I just wanted to say that I really appreciate how you are bringing that into English. I would love to read a Chinese translation of your works if it became available!

    • Hi,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m really not familiar with Western MM for the exact reasons you don’t find Western fiction satisfying, so I’m likely wrong on a lot of things concerning MM. Anyhow, I’m somewhat aware of the existence of translated Chinese BL, but those are mostly pretty old titles and also ones with tropes that really aren’t my thing (Well, the only one I was somewhat ok with is a Cruel Romance, but that wasn’t my favorite fic either.) If you want my recs on more recent works, feel free to check out my saowen profile~

  2. I read your Deceiving Clouds, Cunning Waves a long time ago and really liked it. Recently, the new Cdrama (Nirvana in Fire) was such a huge hit and renewed my interest in ancient Chinese stuff. Sadly, my Chinese level is a little below smooth reading and while I’m trying to improve it, I mostly need to stick to English.

    I was really surprised by the BL fiction culture in China too – the literacy standards are extremely high and it’s so easy to publish anything O_O I also find myself attracted to how plot-heavy everything is; I’m always bugged by how characters in Western M/M fictions seem to have nothing better to do in their lives than wonder he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not or fuck @_@

    So yeah, just popping in to say I agree with everything you’ve listed. I really, really wish I could read Chinese because I LOVE your taste in character dynamics and want to read everything you rec’d hahaha (but it takes me hours just to read one chapter) >.>;

    • Hi~ haha glad you liked DCCW 😀 Yeah… It’s just easier to find a Chinese BL fic to my taste, especially since it’s super niche. I already have trouble finding fics to read in the first place. Awesome that you share my taste in character dynamics!
      I can’t connect with/don’t care about Western MM characters which is the biggest reason I don’t really read MM, probably the same as many Westerners may find it difficult to connect with my characters or writing style XD

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