Howdy all, I’ve been spending the last couple of days jet-lagged to no end, but here’s the results of my research these past couple of months into Chinese perceptions of the LGBTQ community. It’s not entirely comprehensive, and far from my best work, but it is informative and satisfied my curiosity. It’s also helped me know how to better direct conversations on the topic in China to better spread awareness and avoid certain pitfalls. Please enjoy and any feedback is welcome.
Where Did the Love Go?: China’s Perceptions of the LGBTQ Community, Past and Present
China’s recorded history stretches for over 4,000 years, making it one of the most well documented civilizations in the world. However, despite extensive documentation, parts of its rich culture can get lost. A surprising number of Chinese individuals, both in the U.S. and China, have claimed to me that “gay people don’t exist in China”. This claim made me wonder how Chinese people could be unaware of the existence of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer) community in their own country’s history, as I had been exposed to the many examples of homosexual relationships detailed in classical Chinese literature, to say nothing of my gay Chinese friends. Homosexual relationships in Chinese society are recorded as far back as far as the Zhou Dynasty even at the highest levels of society. This discrepancy made me curious about how the LGBTQ community is perceived in China today and the reasons for such views. The cultural and historical factors in the debate about gay rights and gender identity are very different in China compared to the United States, which combined with the above factors inspired me to do this project while on the Fulbright-Hays program. To understand this topic, I delved into historical texts, surveyed local residents of Xi’an and interviewed several individuals involved with LGBTQ friendly NGO’s in China. This paper will begin with a brief examination of examples of gay relationships and gender nonconformity in ancient China before going into the results of my surveys and interviews to give a sketch of current Chinese perceptions towards the LGBTQ community. Finally, I will summarize my findings and discuss the needs of the Chinese LGBTQ community I observed, how to better public perception towards them, and what steps can be taken moving forward.
One of the earliest examples of gay love depicted in Chinese literature is the story of Mizi Xia found in Han Fei Zi (韩非子). The story is mainly a parable about how an individual’s looks shapes others’ views of them, a lesson it teaches by detailing the relationship between ruler of Wei and his male lover Mizi Xia. The Zhou dynasty also records the relationship of Pan Zhang and Wang Zhongxian, who fall in love at first sight and live together thereafter as “affectionate as husband and wife, sharing the same coverlet and pillow with unbounded intimacy for one another.” Finally, in the story of lord Long Yang the titular figure laments the potential brevity of his relationship with the King of Wei, comparing his worth to that of a fish. While the intimate details of these relationships are not detailed, the language of these texts and others serves as sufficient evidence of high level homosexual relationships of both genders in ancient Chinese society, including the bisexuality of many emperors of the Han Dynasty.
From a theological perspective, Chinese society has no major opposition to same-sex relationships. Two of China’s main traditional schools of thought, Buddhism and Daoism in no way condemn same-sex relationships, and merely urge against physical desire in general. Confucianism on the other hand at first glance does not mesh overly well with same-sex relationships as it condemns not having descendants, which monogamous same-sex couples have trouble doing in the traditional sense. Chinese society is very focused on filiality or respect for one’s parents and doing one’s duty as a child. The sentence “不孝有三，无后为大,” from the Confucian classics states that not having descendants is the greatest expression of unfiliality, an obstacle that without modern science or adoption dedicated same-sex couples in ancient China would be hard-pressed to complete, leaving them to face social stigma. This is in contrast to the west where conservative interpretations of the Abrahamic religions condemn homosexuality on the basis of its nature, not the fact that it can prevent people from having offspring. During the Ming and Qing dynasties however, same sex relationships held a type of prestige at the high levels of society provided their participants avoided Confucian condemnation by maintaining additional heterosexual relationships for the purpose of siring offspring.
Besides sexuality, the LGBTQ community also includes those who do not conform to traditional definitions of gender or identify as a gender different from their biological one. In China, forms of gender nonconformity most notably occurred with crossdressing in traditional Chinese opera. Dan (旦) roles in Chinese opera are exclusively female, but until the 1870’s were exclusively performed by men due to a ban on women on the stage, similar to acting in Elizabethan England. Even after the 1870’s, male performers such as Mei Lanfang continued to dominate the Peking opera scene as dan performers. Master dan performers must imitate traditionally “feminine” manners, performing most younger roles in a falsetto, walking as women “should” walk, and wearing several layers of “beautifying” makeup. As the first Beijing opera performer to travel outside China, Mei Lanfang was one China’s main cultural ambassadors to the west after the fall of the Qing Dynasty during the first half of the 20th century. Besides Mei Lanfang’s mastery of feminine portrayal, other prominent examples of crossdressing individuals who challenged gender roles in recent Chinese history include the revolutionary Qiu Jin, executed in 1907, who was known for donning both Chinese and Western men’s clothing in pictures, and Yi Shuyu, lover of political activist Tian Han who often presented as a man in public. Examples of female-to-male (here after referred to as FtM) crossdressing occur countless times in classic Chinese literature as well, most famously in the case of Hua Mulan, and feature heavily in the works of author Tian Han. Lastly, the role of eunuchs in Qing society represents an example of a societal “third gender” as these individuals had separate social roles from men and women, which provides precedence for gender nonconformity in Chinese history.
While acceptance for nontraditional relationships and gender roles was not universal, the existence of gay rulers and literary characters, as well as individuals like Mei Lanfang and Mulan who challenged definitions of gender indicate a historical presence of the LGBTQ community in historical Chinese society. Greater intolerance for homosexuality and same-sex relationships seems to have begun with the arrival of western culture. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) posits that the entrance of conservative Christian missionaries into China preaching homosexuality as a sin has encouraged intolerance for the LGBTQ community amongst the Chinese populace. One symptom of this viewpoint inside China can be seen in revolutionary author Lu Xun’s opposition to Mei Lanfang serving as China’s cultural ambassador. As a proponent of a new, strong China trying to integrate more with the West, Lu Xun felt that Mei Lanfang’s status as the paragon of femininity threatened China’s strong masculine image and went contrary to nationalism, a connection that is still a large influence on male intellectuals in China according to writer Liang Luo.
What is the state of acceptance and awareness for LGBTQ individuals in China today? According to the UNDP, a 2012 survey of over 1,500 residents of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou indicated that 31% of those surveyed accepted gays and lesbians, and only 27% believed there should be protections for sexual minorities. A survey conducted in 2013 of roughly 3,000 individuals on a national scale similarly indicated that 69% of individuals said they could not accept gay and lesbian individuals. While the report lists no hard statistics for acceptance of transgender/gender-nonconforming individuals, it does state that they face harsh discrimination, have trouble finding employment, are often forced into sex work, and often face abuse at the hands of police and even family. Additionally, the report states that FtM transgender and other genetically female non-conforming individuals are virtually invisible in Chinese society, and have difficulty accessing what few services are offered to MtF trans women.
From a legislative standpoint, homosexuality is not illegal in China as of 1997, and as of 2001 it is no longer classified as a mental illness. Trans individuals are also allowed to change the genders on their birth certificates, but must prove intent to transition for five years, obtain the consent of their parents, and then pay for the prohibitively expensive surgery which massively limits access for many individuals. Even if successful, they still face difficulties in changing their gender on other documents such as diplomas, which can lead to difficulties finding employment. Even this baseline legal recognition of trans individuals is important however, as the People’s Republic of China still does not officially recognize same-sex families and does not allow for gay marriage. However, it also does not explicitly ban the practice, which recently prompted two men in Changsha to sue for their right to marry. While their suit was rejected, the fact that a court even chose to hear the case is being hailed a big step towards legalizing gay marriage and has started a larger national conversation on the topic.
Transgender people are also gaining more visibility thanks to a variety of high profile individuals. The most well-known perhaps are Jin Xing and Qian Jinfan. Jin Xing holds the distinction of being one of the earliest individuals to undergo an official male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery in China in 1993, leaving her career as a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army to become one of the country’s most preeminent ballerinas, dance choreographers, and TV personalities. Jin Xing has gone on record saying that while she still faces discrimination, she has been quite fortunate and lucky to accomplish what she has. Qian Jinfan on the other hand came out as a woman in 2008 after living as a man for 80 years working as a calligrapher, critic, and government official, and now goes by Li Yu. While initially fearful of consequences such as rejection by friends and family and losing her pension, Li Yu says she has been pleasantly surprised with the amount of acceptance and support she has a received, and serves as proof that high profile transgender individuals can be accepted in China.
Interested in collecting data of my own, I also conducted surveys on the students and employees of Shaanxi Normal University. Ranging in age from 18 to 64, my respondents offered interesting information.
First of all, the data I collected seems to confirm my impression that the Chinese people have little direct exposure to the LGBTQ community and culture. Only 35% of my respondents had heard of one of the works of classical gay Chinese literature mentioned above, and only 40% said they had gay friends. No one reported having transgender friends.
I was unable to establish a statistically significant link, but it seemed as though survey respondents who had gay friends were more likely to be accepting of friends and family coming out to them or undergoing sex reassignment surgery (SRS).
In answer to the questions, “If your friend or family member came out to you, what would your response be?” and “If your friend or family member wanted to undergo SRS, what would your response be?” the majority of respondents stated that they would accept their friends in both sets of circumstances to varying degrees ranging from neutrality to full support, but almost no respondents said they could accept family members undergoing SRS.
However, I was most interested in Chinese awareness for more peripheral parts of the LGBTQ community, namely pansexual individuals and gender nonconforming individuals (GNC). GNC individuals refers to people with non-binary gender identities, which can include the identity of any individual who does not identify as wholly male or female. These can include, but are not limited to, “genderfluid”, referring to an individual whose gender identity varies over time, “bi-gender”, referring to an individual who identifies as both male and female to some degree, and “genderqueer”, which has a variety of definitions and can sometimes refer to an individual who does not identify with either of the male and female binary genders. GNC individuals struggle for visibility even in the US where the LGBTQ community is becoming more and more vocal, and in China seem to be next to invisible given the sources I consulted and my own surveys. Less than 20% of those surveyed listed more than two possible psychological genders, stating that there were only the male and female binary genders as defined by physical anatomy. Only two respondents allowed for trans individuals and the majority of the 20% listed intersex individuals as a “third gender”.
In my opinion a public awareness for GNC people can be said to be necessary for recognition of another part of the LGBTQ community, pansexual people. Pansexuality can be defined in many ways, but one of the most commonly seen definitions is attraction to people of all genders. Where it differs from the common definition of bisexuality is that it includes the attraction to GNC people in addition to the male and female binary genders. Therefore there is a necessity for the recognition of the one before the other can be distinguished as a separate orientation from bisexuality. However, none of my survey respondents had heard of the Chinese translation, “泛性恋”, with many guessing that it meant bisexuality.
I also interviewed Stephen Leonelli, a former employee of the Beijing LGBT Center about the needs of the LGBTQ community in China. In his opinion services such as counseling, steps for coming out, educational materials, publicity, and news were already well covered by the various groups that operate in China’s various major cities, most notably Guangzhou, Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu. When asked what services he felt were unavailable to the Chinese LGBTQ community, Leonelli said that while there are a lot of informational articles about the LGBTQ community translated in Chinese, everyday news and interest pieces about the community around the world are much harder to come by.
In light of his remarks and my own findings, I am now involved in a group through the Forum for American-Chinese Exchange at Stanford (FACES) with the goal of translating such articles and distributing them via a WeChat public platform. I believe the service is much needed and would personally like to focus on articles regarding GNC individuals and pansexuality to raise awareness for those parts of the community. However, the project has been put on hold and is only tangentially related to this research project.
While I don’t have the resources to launch a larger scale project, I have developed some thoughts on the needs of the LGBTQ community in China and identified two main areas. First of all, acceptance and support, particularly within the nuclear family, is still an issue as demonstrated in my surveys and backed up by my various in-person and online sources. The prevalent opinion towards the LGBTQ community in China is “it’s okay for others to be gay/trans, but not for my family”, which I personally do not consider full acceptance. I believe a series of videos similar to the It Gets Better Project, which publicizes coming out stories in America, would be effective. Videos of whole families with gay/trans members would help show the populace that these people can still have healthy family lives and pose no threat to China’s traditional family values. This would hopefully help specifically with acceptance and normalization of trans individuals, particularly trans men. Official recognition of same-sex marriage, easier adoption laws for same-sex couples, easier processes for changing one’s legal gender, and more public exposure would all have a positive effect on the LGBTQ community in China and raise public opinion of them.
The second issue is awareness of GNC people. Although GNC people have legal recognition in India and Austria, with British businesses reportedly adding more gender options in their activities as well, across the majority of the globe, including in China, they are practically invisible. The presence of a “third gender” in traditional society in the form of eunuchs who were not bound by the societal constraints placed on men or women, and the dan role in Beijing Opera point to precedence of crossdressing and challenging of gender definitions. Additionally, a non-insignificant number of my Chinese respondents listing more than two genders indicates to me a mental foundation for the acceptance of non-binary gender identities. In light of this, I feel that more visibility and more importantly vocabulary are needed. Many of the English words for non-binary gender identities either do not exist in Chinese, or are so far removed from common vocabulary that they might as well be another language. I feel that more exposure in the form of articles, videos, and non-binary celebrities would help spread this vocabulary and normalize the community.
Overall, the project was incredibly interesting. I learned more about Chinese history, gained new insight into modern Chinese society, and became informed about the Chinese LGBTQ community’s needs. I can strongly refute the claim that homosexuality has no place in traditional Chinese culture thanks to the large amount of gay historical figures, and its compatibility with Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism. Gender nonconformity also finds acceptance in the form of eunuchs, dan performers, and the partial acceptance of high profile transwomen in modern China. Despite a still mainly negative public view of the LGBT community, my surveys revealed that Chinese people who had gay friends were more likely to be accepting of gay people in general, and so hopefully increased visibility for the community will shift public opinion, and eventually cause people to be accepting of gay and trans family members. To sum up, visibility and education, particularly on gender identity, will help the LGBT community attain an equal place in society, a process that has taken a large legal step with the Changsha case and will hopefully end sooner rather than later.