Homosexuality in China

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 refers to homosexuality in Chinese culture; which, as a term, is relatively ambiguous in the contemporary context, although many instances have been recorded in the dynastic histories.


Terminology in China

Traditional terms for homosexuality included "the passion of the cut sleeve" (断袖之癖, Mandarin, Pinyin: duànxiù zhī pǐ), and "the bitten peach" (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.[1]

Other, less literary, terms have included "male trend" (男風 Pinyin: nánfēng), "allied brothers" (香火兄弟 Pinyin: xiānghuǒ xiōngdì), and "the passion of Longyang" (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 (同性戀, Pinyin: tóngxìngliàn, literally same-sex relations/love) or tongxinglian zhe (同性戀者, Pinyin: tóngxìngliàn zhě, homosexual people). Instead of this formal word, "tongzhi" (同志 Pinyin: tóngzhì), simply a head-rhyme word, is more commonly used in the gay community. Tongzhi (literally means 'comrade', and sometimes nü tongzhi, (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 referring to homosexuals; such usage is seen in Taiwan, however in Mainland China tongzhi is used both in the context of the "comrade" definition (e.g. used in speeches by Communist Party officials) and 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 (玻璃, Pinyin: bōli, crystal or glass), which is not so commonly used. Among gay university students, the acronym "datong" (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 (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 towards homosexuality in China's society

A woman spying on a pair of male lovers

All major religions in ancient China have some sort of codex, which have traditionally been interpreted as being against exclusive homosexuality when it interferes with continuation of the family lineage. Confucians believe that begetting children (especially sons) is a very important duty, so a person who only has same-gender lovers is not dutiful. Taoism emphasizes maintaining the balance between Yin and Yang. An exclusively male relationship is thought to be a Yang-Yang relationship and believed to be imbalanced and destructive; similarly a female relationship would be read as Yin-Yin.

It can be interpreted that although each man is regarded as yang (陽, masculine), every man also has some yin (陰, feminine) in him. Some men can have much yin in them, so the presence of some feminine behavior is not viewed as unnatural for men. In this view, homosexuals can be regarded as something natural, according to the flow of the states of yin and yang. It is also remarkable that many Taoist gods and goddesses live alone or together with some equal deities of the same sex. The very common example is Shanshen (山神, mountain spirit) and Tudigong (土地公, "keeper of earth", i.e., local god). Every place has its Shanshen and Tudigong, and they sometimes live together. Shanshen and Tudigong are often both males (Tudigong is always a male). More intriguingly, they sometimes manifest themselves as an old man and an old woman (such appearances are described quite often in the classical novel Journey to the West). On top of this, the philosophy of Zhuangzi puts an emphasis on freedom and carefreeness, so anything that is seen as 'out of the ordinary' is really 'ordinary' according to the natural way of things. The reaction of both taoists and confuncians about the subject is diverse.

Same-sex love in literature

Same-gender love can sometimes be difficult to differentiate in Classical Chinese because the pronouns he and she were written with the same character. 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.[2] In addition, a good deal of ancient Chinese poetry was written by men in the female voice, or persona.[citation needed] Some may have portrayed semi-sexual relationships between teen-aged girls, before they were pulled apart by marriage.[citation needed] Male poets would use the female narrative voice, as a persona, to lament being abandoned by a male comrade or king.[citation needed]

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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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."[6]

A remarkable aspect of traditional Chinese literature, in contrast to English 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.[7] 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.[8] The daring 17th century author Li Yu combined tales of passionate love between men with brutal violence and cosmic revenge.[9] 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.[10]

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: Qīng 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 (丁玲 Dīng Líng), 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" (莎菲女士的日記 Pinyin: Shāfēi Nǚshì de rìjì), a seminal work in the development of a voice for women's sexuality and sexual desire. Additionally, a contemporary author, Huang Biyun (黄碧云, Pinyin: Huáng Bìyún, Cantonese: Wong Bikwan), 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.[11]

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 [1].


Legal status

People's Republic

Homosexuality has been legal in the mainland PRC since 1997; it was removed from the Ministry of Health's list of mental illnesses in 2001. Same-sex unions and adoptions are not legal, and there are no anti-discrimination laws. Though men who have sex with men are included in anti-HIV efforts, gay relationships are censored from television and movies, and police raids continued in 2010 (see LGBT history in China).[citation needed]

Hong Kong

Homosexuality was legalized in Hong Kong in 1991, and the age of consent was equalized with heterosexual acts in 2006. Same-sex unions are not recognized, but transgendered people can have gender on most official documents changed. The Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance 1991 outlaws government discrimination, but not private discrimination.


Same sex marriage is not legal in Macau, but otherwise homosexuality is not addressed by law.[citation needed]

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
小攻 xiǎo gōng top
小受 xiǎo shòu bottom
1 號 yī hào top
0 號 líng hào bottom
T Tomboy lesbian
P (婆) po Wife (femme) lesbian
G吧 g BAR gay bar
18禁 shí bā jìn forbidden below 18 years of age
同性浴室 tóng xìng yù shì same-sex bathhouse
出櫃 chū guì come out of the closet
直男 zhí nán straight (man)
賣的 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'



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

  • Wan Yanhai (signatory on The Yogyakarta Principles and participant of 2009 World Outgames)
  • Leslie Cheung (bisexual or gay singer and actor from Hong Kong - died 2003)
  • Pai Hsien-yung (gay writer from Taiwan)
  • Li Yinhe (the well known scholar on sexology in China)
  • Josephine Ho (researcher and political activist in Taiwan)
  • Siu Cho (researcher and political/ social activist in Hong Kong)

Movies and TV series

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

See also


  1. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p. 56. ISBN 0-520-06720-7
  2. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. pp. 16- 17.
  3. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p. 7.
  4. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. Published by University of California Press. p. 84.
  5. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p. 6.
  6. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. Published by University of California Press. p. 23.
  7. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. Published by University of California Press. p. 80-81.
  8. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p. 24-25.
  9. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. pp. 121- 131.
  10. ^ Hinsch, Bret (1992). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. pp. 147. ISBN 9780520078697. http://books.google.com/?id=1LmEC1b1bncC&pg=PA147. 
  11. ^ Hinsch, Bret. (1990). Passions of the Cut Sleeve. University of California Press. p. 163.

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