Homosexuality in China

Young men sipping tea and having sex. Individual panel from a hand scroll on homosexual themes, paint on silk; China, Qing Dynasty (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries); Kinsey Institute, Bloomington, Indiana, United States

Homosexuality in China has been documented in China since ancient times. According to one study, homosexuality was regarded as a normal facet of life in China, prior to the Western impact of 1840 onwards.[1] However, this has been disputed.[2] Several early Chinese emperors are speculated to have had homosexual relationships accompanied by heterosexual ones.[3] Opposition to homosexuality, according to the study by Hinsch, did not become firmly established in China until the 19th and 20th centuries, through the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China.[4] On the other hand, Gulik's study argued that the Mongol Yuan dynasty introduced a more ascetic attitude to sexuality in general.[5][6]

For most of the 20th century, homosexual sex was banned in the People's Republic of China until it was legalized in 1997. In 2001, homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental illnesses in China.[7]

In a survey by the organization WorkForLGBT of 18,650 lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, 3% of the males surveyed and 6% of the female surveyed described themselves as "completely out". A third of the men surveyed, as well as 9% of the women surveyed said they were in the closet about their sexuality. 18% of men surveyed answered they had come out to their families, while around 80% were reluctant due to family pressure.[8][9]

Terminology in China

Traditional terms for homosexuality included "the passion of the cut sleeve" (Chinese: 斷袖之癖; pinyin: duànxiù zhī pǐ), and "the divided peach" (Chinese: 分桃; pinyin: fēntáo). An example of the latter term appears in a 6th-century poem by Liu Xiaozhuo:

— She dawdles, not daring to move closer, / Afraid he might compare her with leftover peach.[10]

Other, less literary, terms have included "male trend" (Chinese: 男風; pinyin: nánfēng), "allied brothers" (Chinese: 香火兄弟; pinyin: xiānghuǒ xiōngdì), and "the passion of Longyang" (Chinese: 龍陽癖; pinyin: lóngyángpǐ), referencing a homoerotic anecdote about Lord Long Yang in the Warring States period. The formal modern word for "homosexuality/homosexual(s)" is tongxinglian (Chinese: 同性戀; pinyin: tóngxìngliàn; literally: "same-sex relations/love") or tongxinglian zhe (Chinese: 同性戀者; pinyin: tóngxìngliàn zhě, homosexual people). Instead of that formal word, "tongzhi" (Chinese: 同志; pinyin: tóngzhì), simply a head rhyme word, is more commonly used in the gay community. Tongzhi (literally: "comrade"; sometimes along with nü tongzhi, Chinese: 女同志; pinyin: nǚ tóngzhì; literally: "female comrade"), which was first adopted by Hong Kong researchers in Gender Studies, is used as slang in Mandarin Chinese to refer to homosexuals. Such usage is seen in Taiwan. However, in Mainland China, tongzhi is used both in the context of the traditional "comrade" sense (e.g., used in speeches by Communist Party officials) and to refer to homosexuals. In Cantonese, gei1 (基), adopted from English gay, is used. "Gay" is sometimes considered to be offensive when used by heterosexuals or even by homosexuals in certain situations. Another slang term is boli (Chinese: 玻璃; pinyin: bōli; literally: "crystal or glass"), which is not so commonly used. Among gay university students, the acronym "datong" (Chinese: 大同; pinyin: dàtóng; literally: "great togetherness"), which also refers to utopia, in Chinese is becoming popular. Datong is short for daxuesheng tongzhi (university students [that are] homosexuals).

Lesbians usually call themselves lazi (Chinese: 拉子; pinyin: lāzi) or lala (拉拉, pinyin: lālā). These two terms are abbreviations of the transliteration of the English term "lesbian". These slang terms are also commonly used in Mainland China now.

Traditional views

A woman spying on a pair of male lovers

The political ideologies, philosophies, and religions of ancient China regarded homosexual relationships as a normal facet of life, and in some cases, promoted homosexual relationships as exemplary. Ming Dynasty literature, such as Bian Er Chai (弁而釵/弁而钗), portrays homosexual relationships between men as enjoyable relationships.[11] Writings from the Liu Song Dynasty claimed that homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality in the late 3rd century:

All the gentlemen and officials esteemed it. All men in the realm followed this fashion to the extent that husbands and wives were estranged. Resentful unmarried women became jealous.[1]

Confucianism, being primarily a social and political philosophy, focused little on sexuality, whether homosexual or heterosexual. However, the ideology did emphasize male friendships, and Louis Crompton has argued that the "closeness of the master-disciple bond it fostered may have subtly facilitated homosexuality".[12] Although Taoist alchemy regarded heterosexual sex, without ejaculation, as a way of maintaining a male's "life essence", homosexual intercourse was seen as "neutral", because the act has no detrimental or beneficial effect on a person's life essence.[12]

In a similar way to Buddhism, Taoist schools sought throughout history to define what would be sexual misconduct. Consequently, the literature of some schools included homosexuality as one of the forms of sexual misconduct, while others maintained neutrality.[13][14]

Opposition to homosexuality in China rose in the medieval Tang Dynasty, being attributed by some writers to the influence of Christian and Islamic values,[15] but did not become fully established until the late Qing Dynasty and the Republic of China.[4] There exists a dispute among sinologists as to when negative views of homosexual relationships became prevalent among the general Chinese population, with some scholars arguing that it was common by the time of the Ming Dynasty, established in the 14th century, and others arguing that anti-gay attitudes became entrenched during the Westernization efforts of the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China in the 19th and 20th centuries.[4] Although rejection of homosexuality originating in the Tang Dynasty might also suggest Indian influences, given the fact that some Hindu and Buddhist literature disapproved of homosexuality.[16][17][18][19][20][21][22]

The earliest law against a homosexual act dates from the Song Dynasty, punishing "young males who act as prostitutes." The first statute specifically banning homosexual intercourse was enacted in the Jiajing era of the Ming Dynasty.[23]

Lu Tongyin, author of Misogyny, Cultural Nihilism & Oppositional Politics: Contemporary Chinese Experimental Fiction, said "a clear-cut dichotomy between heterosexuality and homosexuality did not exist in traditional China."[24]

Same-sex relationships in literature

Same-gender love can sometimes be difficult to differentiate in Classical Chinese because the pronouns he and she were not distinguished. And like many East and Southeast Asian languages, Chinese does not have grammatical gender. Thus, poems such as Tang Dynasty poems and other Chinese poetry may be read as either heterosexual or homosexual, or neutral in that regard, depending on the reader's desire.[25] In addition, a good deal of ancient Chinese poetry was written by men in the female voice, or persona.[26] Some may have portrayed semi-sexual relationships between teen-aged girls, before they were pulled apart by marriage. Male poets would use the female narrative voice, as a persona, to lament being abandoned by a male comrade or king.

Another complication in trying to separate heterosexual and homosexual themes in Chinese literature is that for most of Chinese history, writing was restricted to a cultivated elite, amongst whom blatant discussion of sex was considered vulgar. Until adopting European values late in their history, the Chinese did not even have nouns to describe a heterosexual or homosexual person per se. Rather, people who might be directly labeled as such in other traditions would be described by veiled allusions to the actions they enjoyed, or, more often, by referring to a famous example from the past.[27] The most common of these references to homosexuality referenced Dong Xian and Mizi Xia.

The Tang Dynasty "Poetical Essay on the Supreme Joy" is a good example of the allusive nature of Chinese writing on sexuality. This manuscript sought to present the "supreme joy" (sex) in every form known to the author; the chapter on homosexuality comes between chapters on sex in Buddhist monasteries and sex between peasants. It is the earliest surviving manuscript to mention homosexuality, but it does so through phrases such as "cut sleeves in the imperial palace", "countenances of linked jade", and "they were like Lord Long Yang", phrases which would not be recognizable as speaking of sexuality of any kind to someone who was not familiar with the literary tradition.[28]

While these conventions make explicit mentions of homosexuality rare in Chinese literature in comparison to the Greek or Japanese traditions, the allusions which do exist are given an exalted air by their frequent comparison to former Golden Ages and imperial favorites.[29] A Han Dynasty poem describes the official Zhuang Xin making a nervous pass at his lord, Xiang Cheng of Chu. The ruler is nonplussed at first, but Zhuang justifies his suggestion through allusion to a legendary homosexual figure and then recites a poem in that figure's honor. At that, "Lord Xiang Cheng also received Zhuang Xin's hand and promoted him."[30]

A remarkable aspect of traditional Chinese literature is the prominence of same-gender friendship. Bai Juyi is one of many writers who wrote dreamy, lyrical poems to male friends about shared experiences. He and fellow scholar-bureaucrat Yuan Zhen made plans to retire together as Taoist recluses once they had saved enough funds, but Yuan's death kept that dream from being fulfilled.[31] In Water Margin, a Song Dynasty novel, male revolutionary soldiers form deep, long lasting, and arguably romantic friendships.

Other works depict less platonic relationships. A Ming Dynasty rewriting of a very early Zhou Dynasty legend recounts a passionate male relationship between Pan Zhang & Wang Zhongxian which is equated to heterosexual marriage, and which continues even beyond death.[32] The daring 17th century author Li Yu combined tales of passionate love between men with brutal violence and cosmic revenge.[33] In China's best-known novel, Dream of the Red Chamber, from the Qing Dynasty, there are examples of males engaging in both same-sex and opposite-sex acts.[34]

There is a tradition of clearly erotic literature, which is less known. It is supposed that most such works have been purged in the periodic book burnings that have been a feature of Chinese history. However, isolated manuscripts have survived. Chief among these is the anthology "Bian er chai" (弁而釵,Pinyin: Biàn ér chāi), Cap but Pin, or A Lady's Pin under a Man's Cap, a series of four short stories in five chapters each, of passion and seduction. The first short story, Chronicle of a Loyal Love, involves a twenty-year-old academician chasing a fifteen-year-old scholar and a bevy of adolescent valets. In another, "Qing Xia Ji" (情俠記 Pinyin: Qíng xiá jì, Record of the Passionate Hero), the protagonist, Zhang, a valiant soldier with two warrior wives, is seduced by his younger friend Zhong, a remarkable arrangement as it is stereotypically the older man who takes the initiative with a boy. The work appeared in a single edition some time between 1630 and 1640.

More recently, Ding Ling, an author of the 1920s in China, was a prominent and controversial feminist author, and it is generally agreed that she had lesbian (or at least bisexual) content in her stories. Her most famous piece is "Miss Sophia's Diary", a seminal work in the development of a voice for women's sexuality and sexual desire. Additionally, a contemporary author, Wong Bik-Wan, writes from the lesbian perspective in her story "She's a Young Woman and So Am I" (她是女士,我也是女士 Pinyin: Tā shì nǚshì, wǒ yě shì nǚshì"). Author Pai Hsien-yung created a sensation by coming out of the closet in Taiwan, and by writing about gay life in Taipei in the 1960s and 70s.[35]

Same-sex love was also celebrated in Chinese art, many examples of which have survived the various traumatic political events in recent Chinese history. Though no large statues are known to still exist, many hand scrolls and paintings on silk can be found in private collections .

Gay, lesbian and queer culture in contemporary Mainland China

Gay identities and communities have expanded in China since the 1980s as a result of resurfacing dialogue about and engagement with queer identities in the public domain. Since the 1990s, the preferred term for people of diverse sexuality, sex and gender is tongzhi (). While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) culture remains largely underground, there are a plethora of gay cruising zones and often unadvertised gay bars, restaurants and discos spread across the country. The recent and escalating proliferation of gay identity in Mainland China is most significantly signaled by its recognition in mainstream media despite China's media censorship. There are also many gay websites and LGBT organisations which help organise gay rights' campaigns, AIDS prevention efforts, film festivals and pride parades. Yet public discourse on the issue remains fraught - a product of competing ideologies surrounding the body; the morality of its agency in the public and private arena.[36]

Like in many other western and non-western societies, public sentiment on homosexuality in China sits within a liminal space. While it is not outright condemned, neither is it fully accepted as being part of the social norm. In many instances, those who associate with the queer community also associate with another marginalised group, such as rural-to-urban migrants and sex workers, and therefore the stigma that is attached to aspects of queer identity is often a manifestation of perceived social disobedience against different intersecting vectors of 'moral rights'. As Elaine Jeffreys and Haiqing Yu note in their book, Sex in China, individuals who interact within the queer community do not necessarily identify as being homosexual. 'Money boys', men who provide commercial sexual services to other men, but do not identify as being homosexual, are an example of such a social group. Their minority status is imbued with aspects of criminality and poverty. This suggests that the 'perverseness' attached to homosexuality in Mainland China is not purely informed by a biological discourse, but, depending on the circumstances, can also be informed by accepted notions of cultural and social legitimacy.[36]

The influence of Western gay and lesbian culture on China's culture is complex. While Western ideas and conceptions of gayness have begun to permeate the Chinese gay and lesbian identity, some Chinese gay and lesbian activists have pushed back against the mainstream politics of asserting one's own identity and pushing for social change due to its disruption of "family ties and social harmony."[37] Most of the exposure to Western gay and lesbian culture is through the internet or the media, but this exposure is limited—mainstream symbols of gay and lesbian culture (such as the rainbow flag) are not widely recognisable in China.[38]

Justice Anthony Kennedy quoted Confucius in his majority ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges[39] leading to discussion of the ruling on Sina Weibo, [40] along with issues on the microblogging service like gay Chinese coming out to parents,[41] and articles in the People's Daily on gay men.[42]


Main article: LGBT history in China

Recent occurrences

In 2009 a male couple held a symbolic wedding in public, and China Daily took the photo of the two men in a passionate embrace across its pages. Other symbolic gay and lesbian weddings have been held across the country and have been covered positively by the Chinese media.[43]

In 2012, Luo Hongling, a university professor, committed suicide because she knew her husband was a gay man. She alleged their marriage was just a lie since the man could not admit he was gay to his parents. Luo was considered a 'homowife' - local slang for a woman married to a homosexual male, akin to the English term 'beard'.[44]

In 2016, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television banned images of homosexuals on television.[45]

Adult, consensual and non-commercial homosexuality has been legal in China since 1997, when the national penal code was revised. Homosexuality was removed from the Ministry of Health's list of mental illnesses in 2001 and the public health campaign against HIV/AIDS pandemic does include education for men who have sex with men. Officially, overt police enforcement against gay people is restricted to gay people engaging in gay sex acts in public or gay prostitution, which are also illegal for heterosexuals.

However, despite these changes, no civil rights law exists to address discrimination or harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Households headed by same-sex couples are not permitted to adopt children and do not have the same privileges as heterosexual married couples.

Research conducted by The Chinese Journal of Human Sexuality in 2014 showed that nearly 85 percent of the 921 respondents supported same-sex marriage, while about 2 percent of them oppose the idea, and 13 percent of them said "not sure."[46]

On January 5, 2016, a court in Changsha, southern Hunan province, agreed to hear the lawsuit of 26-year-old Sun Wenlin filed in December 2015 against the Furong district civil affairs bureau for its June 2015 refusal of the right to register to marry his 36-year-old male partner, Hu Mingliang.[47] On April 13, 2016, with hundreds of gay marriage supporters outside, the Changsha court ruled against Sun, who vowed to appeal, citing the importance of his case for LGBT progress in China.[48] On May 17, 2016, Sun and Hu were married in a private ceremony in Changsha, expressing their intention to organize another 99 LGBT weddings across the country in order to normalize gay marriage in China.[49]

Slang in contemporary Chinese gay culture

The following terms are not standard usage; rather, they are colloquial and used within the gay community.

Chinese Pinyin English
同性 tóng xìng same sex
拉拉 lā lā lesbian
1 号 yī hào top (1 symbolises a penis)
0.5 号 líng diǎn wu hào versatile (0.5 is the mediant of 1 and 0)
0 号 líng hào butt hole/bottom (0 symbolises a hole)
搞(搅)基 gǎo(jiǎo) jī (Canto: gao2 gay1) the activities and lives of gays
gōng the more aggressive partner
shòu the more receptive partner
T Butch lesbian
P (婆) po High femme/lipstick lesbian
C Feminine male (short for "sissy")
G吧 g BAR gay bar
18禁 shí bā jìn forbidden below 18 years of age. Could also mean pornographic material, without regard to sexuality.
同性浴室 tóng xìng yù shì same-sex bathhouse
出柜 chū guì come out of the closet
直男 zhí nán straight (man)
弯男 wān nán gay
卖的 mài de rent boy (can also be called MB for money boy)
xióng bear
狒狒 fèi fèi someone who likes bears - literally 'baboon'
猴子 hóu zi twink - literally 'monkey'
láng muscular or athletic gay man - literally 'wolf'
同妻 tóng qi beard; woman whose husband is gay - literally 'homowife'


Historical people

See LGBT history in China.

Modern people

The following are prominent Mainland Chinese and Hong Konger people who have come out to the public or are actively working to improve gay rights in Mainland China and Taiwan:

Movies, TV and web series

Many gay movies, TV series and web series have been made in Hong Kong and mainland China, including:

In 2015, film-maker Fan Popo sued government censors for pulling his gay documentary Mama Rainbow from online sites.[55] The lawsuit concluded in December 2015 with a finding by Beijing No.1 Intermediate People's Court that the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) had not requested that hosting sites pull the documentary.[56] Despite this ruling, which Fan felt was a victory because it effectively limited state involvement, "the film is still unavailable to see online on Chinese hosting sites."[57]

On December 31, 2015, the China Television Drama Production Industry Association posted new guidelines, including a ban on showing queer relationships on TV. The regulations stated: "No television drama shall show abnormal sexual relationships and behaviors, such as incest, same-sex relationships, sexual perversion, sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual violence, and so on."[58] These new regulations have begun to affect web dramas,[59] which have historically had fewer restrictions:

"Chinese Web dramas are commonly deemed as enjoying looser censorship compared with content on TV and the silver screen. They often feature more sexual, violent and other content that is deemed by traditional broadcasters to fall in the no-no area."[60]

In February 2016 the popular Chinese gay web series Addicted (Heroin) was banned from being broadcast online 12 episodes into a 15-episode season. Makers of the series uploaded the remaining episodes on YouTube, and production of a planned second season remains in doubt.[61]

See also


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  2. Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China by Bret Hinsch; Review by: Frank Dikötter. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 55, No. 1(1992), Cambridge University Press, p. 170
  3. Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. pp. 35–36.
  4. 1 2 3 Kang, Wenqing. Obsession: male same-sex relations in China, 1900-1950, Hong Kong University Press. Page 3
  5. Robert Hans Van Gulik 1961. Sexual life in Ancient China: a preliminary survey of Chinese sex and society from ca. 1500 B.C. till 1644 A.D. Leiden: Brill.
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  50. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/life/weekend-australian-magazine/gigi-chaos-father-makes-an-indecent-proposal/story-e6frg8h6-1226663280154
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  53. 我和X先生第二季:只為遇見你
  54. Video on YouTube
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