How Chinese Youth Are Finding Depth in the Two-Dimensional World

Young Chinese may be dazzled by the color and lines of Japanese-influenced manga, anime, and games, but it’s the three-dimensional relationships that draw them in.

For many young Chinese, the two-dimensional world — or erciyuan — can feel more real than our own, three-dimensional one. An umbrella term for a wide range of Japanese-influenced media, from manga and anime to video games, Chinese erciyuan fans now number in the hundreds of millions. And while their preferred art may be two-dimensional, their feelings for it are anything but.

Erciyuan has struck a chord with Chinese audiences at a time when the sweeping meta-narratives and all-consuming “–isms” of the 20th century increasingly feel out-of-date and out-of-tune with contemporary life. As the French postmodernist philosopher Jean-François Lyotard once wrote, postmodern society is at least partly defined by the collapse of “grand narratives,” such as the belief that absolute subjectivity is possible; that human history moves according to certain knowable rules; and that it’s possible to build a perfect society for everyone.

Today’s dislocated, atomized, and lonely young Chinese aren’t craving ideology; grandiose, utopian promises about the future; or any of the other animating beliefs from the last century. They want something more primordial and affective: stories of heroes triumphing over evil and the tight-knit, loyal groups of friends they make along the way. And that’s exactly what erciyuan gives them.

A Chinese transliteration of the Japanese word nijigen, or “two-dimensional space,” the term erciyuan became popular in the mid-1990s, when it appeared on the sci-fi anime series “Martian Successor Nadesico.” The show’s Jupiter-based characters are fans of a fictional anime called “Gekiganger III,” in particular its female protagonist, Nanako. Swept up in their fandom, Nadesico’s characters constantly remind each other of the insurmountable physical boundary that separates them from their idol: “Nanako may be a great woman, but she belongs to the two-dimensional world!”

The line struck a chord with many die-hard anime fans, and erciyuan has since become a succinct way of lamenting the boundaries that separate “our” world from “theirs.” While it’s been around for years, the term came into broader use in China after 2008, when the country’s first erciyuan-themed magazine came out.

But what makes the two-dimensional world so appealing? After the chaos of the 20th century, the stories found in erciyuan can be a relief. Continue to read the full article here.


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.