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

The situation of homosexuality in Chinese culture is relatively ambiguous in the contemporary context, although many instances have been recorded in the dynastic histories.

Terminology in China

See also: Tongzhi

In the old days, terms for homosexuality included "the passion of the cut sleeve" (断袖之癖, Mandarin, Pinyin dùanxìu zhī pǐ), and "the bitten peach" (分桃 py fēntáo). Other, less obscure terms have included "male trend" (男風 py nánfēng), "allied brothers" (香火兄弟 py xīanghǔo xīongdì), and "the passion of Longyang" (龍陽癖 py lóngyángpǐ), referencing a homoerotic anecdote about the Duke of Longyang in the Warring States.

The formal word for "homosexuality/homosexual(s)" is tongxinglian (同性戀, py tóngxìnglìan, literally same-sex relations/love) or tongxinglian zhe (同性戀者, py tóngxìnglìan zhě, homosexual people). Instead of this formal word, "tongzhi" (同志 py 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 py 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, while 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, py: bōli, crystal or glass), which is not so commonly used. Among gay university students, the neologism "datong" (大同, py dàtóng, 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, py lāzi) or lala (拉拉, py 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

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File:Woman spying on male lovers.jpg

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. For example the Confucians have the codex that a man should behave according to somewhat traditional male gender roles and a woman likewise. So, for example, crossdressing is a deed that is against the Confucian natural law.

There were some historical accounts of emperors who used to dress themselves in women's clothes, and this was always interpreted as an ill omen; and to beget children (especially sons) is a very important duty for a man in traditional Chinese society. So a man who only has male lovers is not dutiful. Taoism emphasizes maintaining the balance between Yin and Yang. A man-man relation is thought to be a Yang-Yang relation and so is imbalanced and destructive.

But on the other hand, none of the major Chinese religions consider homosexual acts as sin as many Christian churches do. Compared to sin in Christian culture, the list of sinful deeds in the codex of Confucianism does not include homosexuality. As long as a man does his duty and sires children, it is his private affair to have other male lovers.

This is also true in Taoism. 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 even be regarded as something very natural, according to the natural balance 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 god) 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 emphasises on freedom and carefreeness, so anything that is seen as 'out of the ordinary' is really 'ordinary' according to the natural way of things.

Same-sex love in literature

Another remarkable thing is the prominence of friendship between men and women in the ancient Chinese culture. There are many examples in the classic novels, especially in Water Margin, a book about very deep and long lasting male friendships. These bonds were based on revolutionary comradeship in war, instead of homosexual tendencies. However, other works depict less Platonic relationships. In the seminal novel Dream of the Red Chamber, there are examples of males engaging in both same-sex and opposite-sex acts. A good deal of ancient Chinese poetry was written in the female voice and portrayed semi-sexual relationships between teen-aged girls, before they were pulled apart by marriage. Male poets would also use the female narrative voice to lament being abandoned by a male comrade or king.

There is also a tradition of erotic literature, which is less known as 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 Zhai", 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" Record of the Passionate Hero, the protagonist, Zhang, a valiant soldier with two warrior wives, is seduced by his younger friend Zhong, an unusual arrangement as it is usually 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. A contemporary author, Huang Biyun (Cantonese: Wong Bikwan), writes from the lesbian perspective in her story "She's a Young Woman and So Am I".


Ancient China


Young men engaged in erotic play; Hand scroll with homosexual theme, opaque watercolor on paper; Beijing, Qing Dynasty, late 19th c. Private collection

Homosexuality has been documented in China since ancient times. Two notable royal examples come from a formulaic expression, yútáo duànxiù (余桃断袖). Yútáo, or "the leftover peach", recorded in Hanfeizi, speaks of Mi Zixia (彌子瑕), a beautiful youth cherished by Duke Ling of Wei (衛靈公) who once shared an already bitten but very delicious peach with the duke, who appreciated the gesture (although once the growing Mi Zixia lost his beauty, the duke looked back on this event and said Mi was being insincere [1]). Duànxiù, or "breaking the sleeve", refers to Emperor Ai of Han's act of cutting his sleeve, on which his adored male concubine Dongxian (董賢) was sleeping, in order not to wake him.

Scholar Pan Guangdan (潘光旦) came to the conclusion that nearly every emperor in the Han Dynasty had one or more male sex partners. There are also descriptions of lesbians in some history books. It is believed homosexuality was popular in the Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. Chinese homosexuals did not experience high-profile persecution compared to homosexuals in Christian Europe during the Middle Ages.

In some areas, same sex love was particularly appreciated. There was a running joke in the late Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) that the province of Fujian was the only place where high class gentry and merchant love for male courtesans was prominent.[1] However, writers from Fujian protested this stereotype; Xie Zhaozhe (1567–1624) wrote that "from Jiangnan and Zhejiang to Beijing and Shanxi, there is none that does not know of this fondness."[1] Even the European Jesuit missionaries—such as Matteo Ricci (1552–1610)—took note of this and what they deemed "unnatural perversions", distressed over its often open and public nature.[2] The historian Timothy Brook writes that this was not the only concern of the Jesuits, since "the celibate Jesuits were rich food for sexual speculation among the Chinese."[2] Most homosexual behavior with a male courtesan or "singing boy" was associated with the luxurious and decadent behavior of the highest elite among the gentry and merchant classes.[3] It is known that some of these men were not entirely homosexual, since some of them pursued their female maids as often as they did their serving boys.[4]

The Qing official Zhu Gui (1731-1807), a grain tax circuit intendant of Fujian in 1765, intending to improve the moral shortcomings of the people under his jurisdiction, promulgated a "Prohibition of Licentious Cults," criticizing the respect the people of Fujian paid to such cults (yinci). One cult which he found particularly troublesome was the cult of Hu Tianbao. As he reports,

The image is of two men embracing one another; the face of one is somewhat hoary with age, the other tender and pale. [Their temple] is commonly called the small official temple. All those debauched and shameless rascals who on seeing youths or young men desire to have illicit intercourse with them pray for assistance from the plaster idol. Then they make plans to entice and obtain the objects of their desire. This is known as the secret assistance of Hu Tianbao. Afterwards they smear the idol's mouth with pork intestine and sugar in thanks.[5]

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 [2].

In the year 1944, the scholar Sun Cizhou published a work stated that one of the most famous ancient Chinese poets, Qu Yuan, was a lover of his King. Sun cited the poetry of Qu Yuan to prove his claim. In Qu Yuan's most important work Li Sao (Sorrow of parting), Qu Yuan called himself a beautiful man (or woman, mei ren). A word he used to describe his king was used at that time by women to characterize their lovers.

The first law against homosexuals in China went into effect in 1740. There was no record in the history as to how effectively the law was enforced. The more devastating event for Chinese homosexuals was, ironically, the enlightenment that came after the Self-Strengthening Movement, when homophobia was imported to China along with Western science and philosophy.

Modern China

File:Chen Yu-Rong,Wang Ping,on Asian Lesbian Film and Video Festival.jpg

Activists Chen Yu-Rong and Wang Ping of the Gender/Sexuality Rights Association Taiwan

Homosexuality went underground after the formation of the People's Republic of China. The Communist regime persecuted homosexuals, especially during the Cultural Revolution, when many homosexuals were punished with long prison terms and sometimes execution. Social tolerance of homosexuality declined.

Since the policy of Reform and Opening Up in 1979, the Communist Party has been loosening its control over this kind of behavior.

A notable change occurred during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when sodomy was decriminalized in 1997, and the new Chinese Classification and Diagnostic Criteria of Mental Disorders removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses on April 20, 2001.[3] The situation has continued to evolve; magazine "Menbox" [4] is a gay magazine.

An Internet survey in 2000 showed that Chinese people are becoming more tolerant towards homosexuality: among the 10,792 surveyed, 48.15% were in favor, 30.9% disapproved, 14.46% were uncertain, and 7.26% were indifferent. Gay-bashing is rare in modern China. But some scholars complain that the government is too indifferent on this issue, doing nothing to promote the situation of homosexuality in China. During the 2002 Gay Games, only 2 persons from the mainland were sent to take part, and apart from gay websites the media gave little coverage to the event. The authorities still refuse to promote either gay issues or gay rights in China. Although there is no explicit law against homosexuality or same-sex acts between consenting adults, neither are there laws protecting gays from discrimination, nor are there any gay rights organizations in the PRC. It is believed that the Chinese policy towards the gay issue remains the "Three nos": no approval, no disapproval, and no promotion (不支持, 不反对, 不提倡). Author Justin Barr now of San Francisco wrote of his famous troubles seeking acceptance as a homosexual Chinese male in his 2005 novel "Song of Forgotten Sorrows"

A 2008 survey by sexologist Li Yinhe shows a mixed picture of public attitudes towards gays and lesbians in China. 91% of respondents said they agreed with homosexuals having equal employment rights, while over 80% of respondents agreed that heterosexuals and homosexuals were "equal individuals". On the other hand, a slight majority disagreed with the proposition that an openly-gay person should be a school teacher, and 40% of respondents said that homosexuality was "completely wrong".[6]

The number of homosexuals in China remains unclear. One statement based on Chinese government documents and academic studies states that the figure is 15 million. An official statistics, as quoted in a news report in China Daily, put the figure for mainland China at "approximately 30 million".[7] Compared to the higher proportions of homosexuals in other countries, many find these figures unconvincing.[citation needed]

The loosening of restrictions on Internet use has resulted in a blossoming of gay websites in the PRC mainland, even though the police sometimes intervene and shut down such websites. The Internet has been very important to the mainland Chinese gay community. Although there are no gay organizations in mainland China, there are some organized Internet sites that function as advisory institutions.

The mainstream media sometimes cover notable gay events abroad, such as pride parades. But some critics charge that the purpose of the media is mostly to smear homosexuality. Lacking a film rating system, the PRC government forbids gay movies to be shown on TV or in theaters because they are "inappropriate". Despite having received much attention in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other places, the gay-themed movie Lan Yu is still forbidden in the PRC mainland (the film also features references to the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989) although the actors are all Mainlanders, and the story is based on a quite popular Internet story written by a mainland netizen (a heavily edited version of the film was released on DVD for the mainland). New Western films like Brokeback Mountain in 2006, was denied release in the mainland, even though there was an overall public interest as the film was directed by Ang Lee.

Although more prominent in first-tier Chinese cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, gay clubs, bars, tea houses, saunas and support centers are also becoming more widespread in second-tier cities like Xi'an, Dalian, and Kunming. Occasionally, these locations are subject to police harassment. Similar to the development of the gay scene in other countries, other less formal 'cruising spots' exist in parks, public washrooms, malls, and public shower centers. Being gay is particularly difficult in the countryside; in China this is especially severe as the vast majority of people live in the countryside with no Internet access and no possibility to move to a city. Country dwellers do not often speak of homosexuality, and when they do, it is usually considered a disease. [5]

Many cases show that gay people still have to endure prejudice from the justice system and harassment from police, including detention and arrest. In October 1999, a Beijing court ruled that homosexuality was "abnormal and unacceptable to the Chinese public" [Washington Post 24 January 2000], which was the first time this official attitude was stated openly. Another notable case happened in July 2001, when at least 37 gay men were detained in Guangdong Province. Recently, in late April, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (国家广播电影电视总局) has initiated a campaign to clear violence and sexual content from the media. Programmes related to homosexual topic, scene or language are considered to be "going against the healthy way of life in China", and are banned. [6] [7]

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Same-sex marriage in China 

During the evaluation of the amendment of the marriage law in the Chinese mainland in 2003, there was the first discussion about same-sex marriage. Though this issue was rejected, this was the first time that an item of gay rights was discussed in China. However, just not long before the new marriage law went into effect, an officer stated in a press conference that same-sex marriage is still forbidden in China, on August 19, 2003.

Li Yinhe (李銀河), a well-known sexology scholar among the mainland Chinese gay community, has tried to legalize same-sex marriage during the National People's Congress in 2000 and 2004 (Legalization for the Chinese Same-Sex Marriage, 《中国同性婚姻合法化》 in 2000 and the Chinese Same-Sex Marriage Bill, 《中国同性婚姻提案》 in 2004). According to Chinese law, 35 delegates' signatures are needed to make an issue a bill to be discussed in the Congress. Her efforts failed due to lack of support from the delegates. Many scholars as well as gay and lesbians believe it will be difficult to pass such a law in China in the near future.

For the 2006 National People's Congress, Li proposed the same-sex marriage bill again. Some gay web sites called for their members to sign petitions in support of this bill. But as expected, this bill was dismissed again.

Hong Kong

Male homosexual behaviour was illegal before 1991 in Hong Kong, the maximum sentence being life imprisonment. The Legislative Council agreed to decriminalize buggery after the public debate that arose in 1980. Nevertheless, two other attempts at introducing anti-discrimination legislation failed in 1993 and 1997.

There are several gay-rights organizations in Hong Kong, such as Rainbow Action and Tongzhi Culture Society. In 2003, the Catholic Church of Hong Kong released an article condemning same-sex marriage. In response to this, a group of protesters rushed into a church and interrupted the service.

Before 2005 - In Hong Kong, all sex acts ("buggery" and "gross indecency") between two consenting males was illegal for those under age 21. Homosexual sex committed otherwise in public under all ages was also illegal. In 2005, a Hong Kong High Court case brought by William Roy Leung triggered debate within the Hong Kong community regarding this law. The government lost the case, with Judge Hartmann finding that the existing legislation was discriminatory towards gay men and unconstitutional under the "bill of rights in Hong Kong". The Advocate: Hong Kong gays fight sodomy laws From 2006 the age of consent is now 16 for all - The court decided not to appeal, pronouncing the "Buggery" law "dead."

However, on 2007-10-18, a 17-year-old male (19 at count) was adjudicated guilty for sodomizing with a 15-year-old male (RTHK). In 11/15/2007, the former was sentenced to 20 months in jail on 4 charges of homosexual buggery with or by man under 21 (Crimes Ordinance - Sect 118C) & indecent assault (Apple Daily (Chinese), Ming Pao (Chinese)). Although the judge did mention that all sex acts with whatever gender under 16 was already illegal, the case was judged under Sect 118C. As of September 2006, no revision has been made to the deemed unconstitutional laws.

On 2006-09-07, RTHK broadcasted a programme called ” Gay. Lovers”. It was criticized and accused of promoting homosexuality, and generated significant controversy in Hong Kong. On one hand, people believed that RTHK should speak for the minority and it was objective enough in that program. On the other hand, some people believed that the program was encouraging people to be gay.

In Jan 2007, the Broadcasting Authority ruled that the RTHK-produced programme ” Gay. Lovers” was "unfair, partial and biased towards homosexuality, and having the effect of promoting the acceptance of homosexual marriage." On 2008-05-08, Justice Michael Hartmann overturned the ruling of the Broadcasting Authority that ” Gay. Lovers”'s discussion on same sex marriage was deemed to have breached broadcasting guidelines for not including anti-gay views. [8]


In Macau, according to Código Penal de Macau Article 166 & 168, committing anal coitus with whoever under the age of 17 is a crime and shall be punished by imprisonment of up to 10 years (committing with whoever under 14) and 4 years (committing with whoever between 14 and 16) respectively. Nevertheless, there is no legal discrimination based on the gender of those involved. Moreover, all forms of sexual acts involving minors are considered criminal acts on exactly the same grounds and with the same penalties. Same sex marriage is not legal in Macau, but otherwise homosexuality is not addressed by law.



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:

  • Leslie Cheung (bisexual or gay singer and actor from Hong Kong - deceased, suicide)
  • 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 China, including:

  • Bishonen (HK)
  • Buffering, (HK)
  • Butterfly (HK)
  • Crystal Boys (Taiwan)
  • East Palace West Palace (China)
  • Eternal Summer (Taiwan)
  • Farewell My Concubine (China)
  • Fleeing by Night (Taiwan, 2000) [9]
  • Formula 17 (Taiwan)
  • Happy Together (HK)
  • I Am Not What You Want (HK)
  • Lanyu (China)
  • Spider Lilies (Taiwan)
  • Tongzhi in Love (documentary film, China/US, 2008)
  • The Wedding Banquet (Taiwan)

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Brook, 232.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Brook, 231.
  3. Brook, 231–233
  4. Brook, 233.
  5. Szonyi 1-25.
  6. Li Yinhe on Chinese attitudes towards homosexuality: ten questions
  7. China Daily (10th October, 2005) - Lesbians, gays gaining acceptance on mainland (published on the website)


  • Brook, Timothy. (1998). The Confusions of Pleasure: Commerce and Culture in Ming China. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-22154-0 (Paperback).
  • Szonyi, Michael. "The Cult of Hu Tianbao and the eighteenth-Century Discourse of Homosexuality." Late Imperial China (Volume 19, Number 1, June 1998): 1–25.

External links


  • Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, The University of California Press, 1990, ISBN 0-520-06720-7.

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