The argument goes, the West has sought to prop up marriage equality, protection for same-sex couples, acknowledgment of trans rights etc., as a core means of delegitimising the East, as well as sowing seeds of discontent amongst the younger generations whilst further polluting individuals’ understanding of the family. LGBTQ+ rights are framed as antithetical to family values, Asian values, and – in the particular context of China, its distinctive political culture and model.
This narrative is further amplified by the admittedly ubiquitous presence of homophobia and discrimination towards queer individuals amongst certain segments of the Chinese society. Yet the view that such rights are innately Western in origin, not only does massive disservice for vulnerable individuals that await protection and recognition, but also unfairly essentialises the culture in a way that both misrepresents the pluralism and openness of the Chinese population at large, and distorts the roles played by LGBTQ+ individuals in Chinese history.
Homosexuality was a commonly known phenomenon throughout going back over two millennia in China – whether it be the relationship between Duke Ling and Mi Zixia, whose tales of sharing a peach rendered the peach a metonymy for same-sex relationships, or Lord Long Yang and King of Wei, another pair of prominent statesmen whose love was widely spoken of across high society circles. Historians have noted that emperors and kings had kept male companions that were as much administrative aides as they were sexual partners. In short, homosexuality was not viewed as a trait that had diminished masculinity or competence – on the contrary to popular beliefs about Chinese historiography.
Indeed, as Brett Hinsch notes in his seminal work on the same-sex relationships tradition in China, homosexuality could be found in men from all levels of society – from “emperors, transvestite actors, elegant scholars, […] to licentious monks”.
More contemporarily, perhaps, Fujian province once saw open homosexuality enshrined through a system of male marriages, with older men forming pastoral relationships (‘qi’) with younger counterparts. Such unions often occurred alongside regular, heterosexual marriages, which suggested that bisexuality was not only present, but also formally recognised by both the state apparatus and civil society. It was not until the Qing dynasty that homosexuality was criminalised – with the relatively light punishment of a short prison sentence and 100 whips. In short, Chinese history is riddled with queerness – and it would be delusional to neglect that fact.
The misconstruing of Chinese culture and heritage goes hand-in-hand with endemic Sinophobia, and – more generally – attempts to discredit Chinese beliefs and mores as ostensibly ‘backwards’ and ‘regressive’. Indeed, the stigma against non-heterosexual relationships was arguably the direct product of China’s attempting to open itself up and render itself more amenable to foreign trading partners. The Self-Strengthening Movement, which sought to mold China after the West, imported heteronormativity – alongside other prominent traditions in the hegemonic White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture.
Queer individuals, progressive activists, and, indeed, all of us in China, are in need of a home-grown form of LGBTQ+ discourse – one that repels the vices of Western paternalism as much as it embraces the virtuous aspects of progressivism; one that eschews blind worshipping of ‘white Queerness’, and that instead uplifts the roots of the sexual equality movement in Chinese culture and history.
For instance, the family values trumpeted by neo-Confucians need not inherently be centered around a heterosexual relationship – same-sex couples, or couples between individuals with non-conforming gender identities, or trans couples, could just as well provide the necessary stability and harmony that underpin the family. Embracing marriage equality would ensure that individuals can and are married into relationships to which they genuinely consent, and that could give rise to sustainable partnerships and competent parenting.
Emphatically, a pro-LGBTQ+ discourse rooted in Chinese cultural nuances is instrumental in ensuring buy-in, and acceptance from individuals otherwise skeptical of what they perceive to be neocolonialism or Western intervention. It pries ‘culture and tradition’ away from the staunchest critics of emancipatory efforts on the ground; it is also a nod to the indigenous efforts that have sought to make LGBTQ+ rights more accessible and popularised amongst Chinese youth.
China has come in leaps and bounds in queer rights since the early days of opening-up and reform.
In 1991, sexologist Ruan Fangfu published an English work Sex in China: Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture, which straddled the language and cultural divide between China and the U.S., in dispelling misconceptions and myths propagated surrounding sex in Chinese culture. In 1997, homosexual intercourse was de facto de-criminalised, with substantial revisions to the Chinese criminal code.
This was followed by the subsequent removal of homosexuality from the official classification of mental disorders – though the recent court ruling by the Suqian Intermediate People’s Court was indubitably a setback on that front. From mid-2019 onwards, same-sex partners had begun to name their partners as legal guardians, which was a move that was tacitly tolerated by local governments.
LGBTQ+ movements have flourished in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong – metropoles where Western ideals and mores have been transformed, assimilated, and fused with liberating Chinese values. Pride parades and rallies are celebrated, albeit through a distinctively de-politicised lens. A 2015 Ipsos poll found that 29% of Chinese individuals supported same-sex marriage.
A 2016 survey of college students in China found that only less than 8% of the surveyed population saw homosexuality as a sin or a moral dilemma . The very same survey nonetheless noted that students who had been more exposed to ‘traditional’ Chinese culture were more reluctant to embrace official recognition of such relationships by formal institutions. The prevalence of such ‘traditions’ tells strongly for the need to co-opt and engage established cultural traditions, as opposed to usurp and up-end them altogether.
Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, LGBTQ+ rights could also be a critical area for the U.S. and China to collaborate – whether it be by bridging cultural divisions and resolving long-standing misconceptions about one another’s culture, or in celebrating the universality of these values, rooted in distinct, heterogeneous, yet compatible explanations. Equality can be unifying, as much as it is universal.
China’s acceptance in March 2019 of the UNHRC’s recommendations on LGBTQ+ rights was a watershed moment. It signified not only was the country motivated to comply and work with established protocol on human rights and civil liberties, but that the Chinese clearly recognise, and are open to working with international and multilateral institutions in making their lives better for sexual minorities in the country. China and the U.S. need not be at loggerheads over women’s and sexual minorities’ rights – and recent developments have been both encouraging and instrumental in furthering the potential alliance.
An increasing shift towards the individual, as noted by sociologist-anthropologist Yan Yunxiang, is a trend that can be witnessed in both China and the U.S. Both governments are confronted by the challenging questions of how individual liberty should be balanced against collective interest and social stability. LGBTQ+ rights precisely offer both countries the opportunity to pool and share insights, and for their people to forge bonds that cut across ethnicity, nationality, and, above all, geopolitics.