Essay: A study on the history and media representation of LGBTQ+ in China

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  • A study on the history and media representation of LGBTQ+ in China
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As one of the most heated discussed topics all around the world, LGBTQ+ equal rights have entered a new era. In 2010s, an increasing number of countries have started or completed the process of legalizing same-sex marriage and supporting LGBTQ+ rights by establishing anti-discrimination laws concerning sexual orientation as well as gender identities and expressions. According to “LGBT rights at the United Nations”, almost all of the countries in the Americas and European Union supported the LGBT rights declaration in the General Assembly or on the Human Rights Council in 2008 or 2011 (Donahoe 2011 & Wikipedia, 2019).
Works of all kinds of media advocating for LGBTQ+ equal rights are made all around the world to educate people to be inclusive and open diverse backgrounds and identities. Websites of organizations with official recognition like GLAAD, Equal Rights Advocates, and Human Right Campaign are established to post the newest information about the equal right movement and the parades. Numerous movies concerning LGBTQ+ rights are made recently, such as Can You Ever Forgive Me, Call Me By Your Name, and Moonlight. Also, movies of other themes now tend to include LGBTQ+ elements, such as Vice and Harry Potter, taking these identities as normal things that happen around us. Also, in the newest School of Rock Musical touring this year (2019), a girl character is set to have two fathers. Throughout the history of western mainstream media representation of LGBTQ+, from neglecting, to concerning and emphasizing, to normalizing, the development is far beyond the imagination.
In China, everything about LGBTQ+ rights seems unique comparing to the rest of the world. According to Gay Shanghai, a private organization, three trucks with three red billboards, imitating the film Three Billboards, appeared in Shanghai, on which writes “To cure a disease that doesn’t exist.”, “Chinese Diagnostic Criteria for Mental Illness keeps ‘disability of sexual orientation’.”, “It’s 2019. Why?”. These trucks are used to protest the fact that there are still 136 hospitals and clinics offer treatment for “abnormal sexual orientation”, though China decriminalized homosexual behavior in 1997 (Gay Shanghai, 2019). Even though a number of individuals in metropolises are mostly forward-thinking as people in Western countries about this topic and already making efforts, the government seems to silent the voices of the LGBTQ+ community. Individuals don’t even have the rights to advocate for their own rights by holding parades and campaigns on the streets or at the college campuses. The only way for them is turning to digital media where they can set up personal blogs with LGBTQ+ advocacy and hope it will work to some extent, facing the risk of being permanently blocked. At the same time, there are so many rumors and misunderstandings online about LGBTQ+ community that nobody stands out to confirm. The scariest thing is people who don’t even know who they are advocating for their rights.
In the publication of Chinese mainstream media, strict laws are made to get LGBTQ+ theme out of the game. According to General Rules for Network Audiovisual Program Content Review in China, homosexuality is prohibited because of rendering abnormal sexual relationships and vulgar low-level fun (CCTV, 2017). More incredibly, earrings and dyed hair are censored in television shows, even when these decorations are not necessarily a symbol of queerness. The same as the digital media, more and more filmmakers are trying to make films with their own funds concerning the LGBTQ+ community. However, most of them are too worried about advocacy and not acquainted with knowledge about this group of people. Therefore, excessive obsession of sexual excitement and overdone materialism in these films further strengthened the prohibition of films of such genre.
This embarrassing current situation of the LGBTQ+ community in China is not formed one day. To fully unfold the issue, in this study paper, I will analyze the history of China, especially the contemporary history, which includes the birth of dictatorship and cultural revolution. Also, I will combine them with several media presentation examples of the LGBTQ+ community, such as Farewell My Concubine and East Palace West Palace. The unique historical atmosphere depicted in these media, led to the delay of the progress of equal right movements. Through studying the unique situation, the unique approaches of advocacy will be predicted and suggested accordingly, to promote the unique future development of LGBTQ+ rights in China.
Throughout the history of China, from formation of the monarchy empire 2 thousand years ago, to foundation of the Republic of China in 1912, LGBTQ+ community has never been discriminated or punished, though there was a severe gender segregation. Also, these people were regularly depicted positively or normally in ancient Chinese literature. For example, Cao Xueqin writes in The Dream of the Red Chamber, “Name called Fengyuan, …, Age eighteen or nine, quite loves men, not women.” (Cao, 1791). Homosexuality is widely used in pushing the plot lines and showing the love other than heterosexual in these works. However, according to Lesbians in emergence, around the end of the empire in the early 20th century, with the emergence and clash of different philosophical and psychological views towards love and sex, people started to relate sex to the devil, especially the same-sex relationship (Sang, 2014). And this is the time when the story of Farewell my Concubine began.
Farewell my Concubine is a Chinese film directed by Chen Kaige in 1993, talking about the life of a queer/gay character Chen Dieyi from 1930s to 1977 and how he was challenged tremendously by the historical and political situation. This film shows the life and feeling of being LGBTQ+ community in contemporary China. And the comments and background of this film can help to analyze how people’s concepts, opinions and reactions towards this group of people changing overtime.
In the scene of young Dieyi learning Peking Opera, he intentionally said the line “I’m a male youth by nature, not a beautiful woman” as “I’m a beautiful woman by nature, not a male youth” no matter how severely he would be punished, showing his gender identity. At the same time, he showed his sexual orientation by showing his obsession and admire to his partner Duan Xiaolou. Dieyi could do anything because of him, including trying to be a woman. Here lies an important misconception that Chinese people always made: Confusing the gender identities with sexual orientation. It’s true that some people, for instance, may be born to be a man who uses she series pronouns and has sexual and romantic love towards man. However, in many Chinese people’s minds, the gender identity of gays, lesbians and more must be different from the origin of someone’s own. They think that in a pair of same-sex couple, there must be different roles imitating the relationship between a heterosexual couple and one of them must be feminine. Also, there is no trace that the education in China has ever covered any knowledge of this kind. Speaking of the representation of Dieyi’s identity in film, he is the person who doesn’t know clearly about what he is because of the lack of knowledge that time and the social and political repression. However, he knows that he is different from other people in some ways which were ambiguously included somewhere in sex. Therefore, he dared to challenge others and spoke out loud about his difference when he was young. And he was brave to express his love openly to the person he loved—Duan Xiaolou.
Xiaolou is the most important supporting character to Dieyi. When they were young, in the school of Peking Opera, they were best friends, while in adulthood he “betrayed” Dieyi by marrying a concubine and by giving up upon Peking Opera. At last, Dieyi realized that the reason why Xiaolou “betrayed” him is not the woman. It’s homophobia that made the distance between Xiaolou and Dieyi farther over time. (Hee, 2009) However, who is born to be homophobic? There are a lot of psychological debates on the whether homophobia is a natural trait or a nurtural behavior, as there are too many uncertainties in the dynamics. However, when we look back to the Chinese history, it’s interesting to discover that there are seldom voices of homophobia, because they were living in the time and culture with respect and normal views to sexual minorities, which makes me believe that homophobes in contemporary China were produced by the repressing politics and society.
After the foundation of People’s Republic of China, which ruled by Mao Zedong of the Communist Party. Dictatorship and the cult of Mao is born to rule the population of 550 million. The strategy of Mao’s ruling is to control the ideology and mindsets of every single person by integrating all of his words and poems about his great ambition of ruling the country to a red book, requiring everyone to own, with his face on the cover surrounded by a golden star and glares. Propagandas were posted everywhere on the street and his portrait was hung in everyone’s home. To controlling the ideology, he wanted to minimize the diversity and difference between people’s mind, thus banning all the controversial topics, including topics around LGBTQ+. If someone talks or does something related to LGBTQ+, they will be imprisoned or executed for the accusation of treason. Also, there is no record of gays, lesbians or more being punished in that kind of time, because no regular people dares to disobey the authority of Mao.
However, with the time passed by, 15 years later, the highest level party members in the communist party could not bear his reign for eternity, and a part of people, especially the intellectuals in China, started to get bored with this situation. Also, Mao thought China’s imitation of Soviet style communism went too far and his absolute authority was unstable. As a result, to reinforce his authority, in 1966, Mao started the Cultural Revolution, a disaster to Chinese people and ancient Chinese culture, to further control people’s minds. As the president cannot see and hear the act and speech of all the population, public overwatch was established. The rule of the Cultural Revolution was quite simple: if you find anyone does anything that violate the absolute authority of the Communist Party (generally all the things that not related to communism, including ancient Chinese culture, same-sex speech or behavior), you must report them. Then they will be displayed publicly and executed. According, to Chen Chinfu’s article, that was a time of panic and terror, when everyone became the watchers of other people, and everyone was watched by other people, just like a multi-dimensional Truman Show (Chen, 2015).
In Farewell My Concubine, Xiaolou’s wife Juxian tells Xiaolou to shut his mouth outside the door of home, preventing the troubles. But, as Dieyi was gay/queer, he was certainly the objects of being watched and criticized. Dieyi’s identities created a terror to all the surrounding people. Xiaolou, as his friend and partner, certainly don’t want to be put into this kind of death-threatening trouble. For many time, Xiaolou tried to stop Dieyi being feminine and he became increasingly afraid to stay together with Dieyi. Ultimately, his homophobia and femmephobia are forced to be formed to give himself a reason to leave Dieyi. Even today, the aftermath and the terror of the cultural revolution is still there. In almost every childhood of Chinese people, they were taught not to say anything opposes to the country or any leaders of the country. Under the restriction of act and speech, “forced phobia” is everywhere.
Comparing to Xiaolou’s forced homophobia, Dieyi was forced to be another extreme by the society—forced feminization. According to “Representations of the Besieged ‘Comrade’”, Peking opera is a kind of transgender practice designed for Dieyi’s feminine traits, thus specifying his homosexual love (Lim, 2006). Through the character “Concubine” that Dieyi plays, he could feel fulfilled because this was the time that he could ask for the love of the “King of Chu”, which is played by Xiaolou. This kind of satisfaction forced Dieyi to be a concubine and to be feminine in the real life. Also, it was ironic that it became the reason of him to be the best performer of concubine that time. According to Chen, “Freud once said that, in many forms of love, the function of this particular subject is replacing ourselves thus achieving the completion of ego idealization.” (Chen, 2015). The forced feminization is forced to attach on Dieyi himself, thus satisfying his egoism and narcissism. Xiaolou said to Dieyi with lament, “You cannot do something well if you are not paranoid.” To the whole society and Xiaolou, Dieyi was insane; however, for Dieyi, it’s the society and all the other people were insane. Dieyi is the only person in the society had his own thoughts and did things based on his own wills. In the interview in 1993 Tokyo International Film Festival, Leslie said, “He was a tragedy, who lived a poor life. The only time he is satisfied is on the stage.” (Youtube, 2014)
At the end of the film, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Dieyi and Xiaolou could finally get back together and sing Peking opera again in a theater with no audience, a single strong light beam falls on them. Before they started to practice, Dieyi said the line again to the Xiaolou. But this time, he said, “I’m a male youth by nature, not a beautiful woman.” To the audience who watched this film, this is the most shocking line concerning the life of the LGBTQ+. Dieyi finally dared to confirm his gay identity to fall in love with a man as the identity as a man. However, this time Xiaolou said to him, “You are wrong.”, smiling. In return, Dieyi said this line again, and louder. Then, they started to sing Farewell My Concubine. At the end, when the concubine in the opera committed suicide, Dieyi really killed himself with Xiaolou’s sword. With various farewell my concubine happened throughout the story, this time it’s the real farewell. By reviewing the psychology of Dieyi, himself, as well as the audience, didn’t know what his real identities were even when he died. It’s a tragedy brought by the extreme society, where everything other than revolution is ambiguous.
This film was released in 1993. Certainly, it has never been played in China. From my own perspective, the reason why Chen Kaige could make this masterpiece is because 1993 was just after the democratic movement. Although the movement failed, people’s voices of freedom, culture and civil rights on LGBTQ+ were kept. Also, the aftermath of the movement weakens the supervision of picture administration.
Outside Farewell My Concubine, Leslie Cheung, the performer of Dieyi is an important figure related to LGBTQ+ to talk about. He was a character with controversies that time because of his sexual orientation. However, his charisma and strength in the entertainment field made him one of the greatest contemporary artists in Asia. On the personal concert in 1997, he sang “The Moon Represents My Heart” of Teresa Teng, to his boyfriend Daffy Tong, thus coming out of the closet to the public (He, 2018). After that, news and otters digital media unstoppably talked about him. With time passes by, under the pressure of public opinions, he got depression. In Apr 1, 2003, unfortunately, he committed suicide in Hong Kong. He was fooled by the whole society repression, just like Dieyi was. However, his advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights started quite early. According to He Guilan, the 90s of Hong Kong is a time with the clash of civil rights advocators and protestors. The bias of LGBTQ+ in entertainment industry never ceased. “Other than Farewell My Concubine, Leslie did act in several other film with sexual ambiguity theme in Hong Kong. Nonetheless, these films took sexual orientation and gender identity as a joke. In the 1994 interview, Leslie showed his opposition to these films by saying, ‘people in Hong Kong apply satire and comedy on gays, it’s quite unnecessary.’ ” (He, 2018) It is until Farewell My Concubine that Leslie Cheung fully put himself into the character because he was making art and starting a campaign. According to Chen Kaige’s interview in his Alma Mater in 2018, he shared the story of meeting Leslie Cheung for the first time. “After a read the whole story of Farewell My Concubine to Leslie, he held my hand and said ‘I’m Dieyi’.” At that time, Leslie already clearly knew what he is. His way of advocating rights for himself, as well as the whole LGBTQ+ community, was fully devoting himself into this film and the creation of art. After his sacrifice, the Hong Kong media started the introspection on the negative voices of LGBTQ+, people in Hong Kong were increasingly aware of the importance of advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.
In the 90s of China, there is another film called East Palace West Palace concerning LGBTQ+ topic. But the story of it is much simpler than Farewell My Concubine. The story happened in 1990s when performing same-sex relationships and acts were considered as hooliganism crime in China. It talks about interrogation of a gay named A Lan by a homophobic police officer. While interrelating, the officer used words like disgracing and shameful to describe him. In comparison, A Lan was very calm about it and peacefully talked about all his stories to the officer.
There is one line in A Lan’s confession caught my attention: “They tried to cure me. They forced me to watch heterosexual pornography and treat me with good food and forced me to watch homosexual pornography and treat me with terrible food. But that didn’t work.” This showed the how China took care of homosexuality: People with homosexual mind would be sent to clinics and people who were reported to have homosexual behavior would be imprisoned. After the failure of the democratic movement in 1989, people were not able to start a second one. At the same time the legislature and police force of China became stronger. Facing this situation, along with the terror left by the cultural revolution, people in LGBTQ+ community only met secretly at secret places in mid night. No one dares to speak their voices out loud.
This is the film known to the world as the first gay theme film ever in China. But it’s not as good as people think. It’s a great motivation to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in China by making a purely homosexual film. However, this way of advocacy in not suitable under the situation of that time. Speaking of the plot, the film was lack of a historical context and other elements. As a result, according to Hee Wai Siam, it became a film made by minorities and watched by minorities. No people outside of LGBTQ+ community would acknowledge this film at that time (Hee, 2009). However, there are things we should learn from the film.
At the end of the film, out of the audience’s exception, A Lan confessed his love for the police officer. Later, to get his love, A Lan wore the costume and makeup of a lady. Then, police officer found that there was a Brokeback Mountain in the deepest part of his mind. A Lan said, “You’ve asked me enough questions. Why don’t you ask yourself?” Again, this part exposed three problems similar to Farewell My Concubine in China: Forced homophobia, forced feminization and confusion between gender identity and sexual orientation. The police officer was actually gay, but he didn’t know it and he was even homophobic. The explanation to this astonishing combination of traits is, as a police officer, he was paralyzed by the laws and rules and lived a life like a robot. Forced feminization has multiple answer, decided by whether the writer knows the difference between gender identities and sexual orientations. But no matter the writer or A Lan, they showed the misconception of Chinese people that we must be a woman to love a man. These problems didn’t change for decades in China, from 50s to 90s. However, these remain unchanged, from 90s to nowadays.
Now, with the popularizing of social media. Individuals started to advocate for the LGBTQ+ rights online. (As I have said, the reason why I’m not talking about the mainstream media because LGBTQ+ is totally banned.). There are voices of homophobias, such as giving one stars on Farewell My Concubine and simply writing “f** movie” in reviews. There are egoism homophobes, who agree LGBTQ+ rights in public, but oppose to friends or family members who are gay, lesbian and more. There are tragedies happening because of forced feminization. A gay boy cut his own penis, trying to love boys as girls, but finally committed suicide due to depression related to gender identity error. The unique situation now in China is the absence of official attitude and education about LGBTQ+ community and these remained terror and misconceptions of people. Thinking of the 1.3 billion population in China, the advocacy seems to be merely useful. Also, in recent years, there are also films about gays made in China. But they are mostly biased. Influenced by a genre called boy’s love, these people are too obsessed with this kind of relationship and boast for the excitement of different experience of sex, making gay people uncomfortable while watching these films. Also, due to the boy’s love culture, the rights of lesbians, transgenders, queers and also feminism are neglected to a great extent in the media.
To me, it’s too early for Chinese activists to talk about advocacy at this point. Decades will be taken to completely change the country and people’s opinion on LGBTQ+. The first thing first for us is acquainting people with the knowledge of LGBTQ+. Sex education should start. Of course, it will also be a slow process, which may take several years only doing this thing. Also, sex education should start section by section experimentally in the first several years in some schools in metropolises and big cities, from higher education gradually turn to elementary education. Also, with the time pass by, the terror left over by cultural revolution will be healed slowly. At the same time, we should promote genuine Chinese culture. While studying ancient Chinese literature in middle and high school, I found lots of the sentence concerning love and sex are censored. In fact, they should be kept, and teachers should help students to take these topics seriously, but not as jokes or something strange. This way can help new generations feel what the true China is and embrace the inclusive part of Chinese culture. Then, advocacy will be easy after people all have had accurate knowledge of sex and learnt to be inclusive by heart. The most unique part is, it’s a process of recovering. References:
Donahoe, Eileen, Over 80 Nations Support Statement at Human Rights Council on LGBT Rights, U.S. Mission to International Organizations in Geneva, Human Rights, Mar 22, 2011.
LGBT rights at the United Nations, Wikipedia, Feb 18, 2019,
Opposing to Treatment that Tries to Change Sexual Orientation, Chinese Red Trucks Advocate for LGBT rights, Gay Shanghai, Jan 24, 2019,
China Network Audiovisual Program Service Association released “General Rules for Network Audiovisual Program Content Review”, China Central Television (CCTV), Jun 30, 2017,
Luo, Wei. “History of Censorship in China.” Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2018. EBSCOhost,
Cao, Xueqin. “The Dream of the Red Chamber”, 1791
Sang, Zilan, Lesbians in emergence: Love and sex of Contemporary Chinese Lesbians, Taiwan University Press Center, 2014.
Hee, Wai Siam, “Representations of the Besieged ‘Comrade’: Li Bihua’s and Chen Kaige’s adaptations of the Peking Opera ‘Farewell My Concubine’ ”. Film Appreciation Academic Journal, 6(2), 113-133, 2009.
Lim, Song Hwee. Celluloid Comrades- Representations of Male Homosexuality in Contemporary Chinese Cinemas. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006.
Sexual Orientation and Gender, Human Rights Campaign, Workplace, 2019,
Hsu, Jen Hao. “Queering Chineseness: The Queer Sphere of Feelings in Farewell My Concubine and Green Snake.” Asian Studies Review, vol. 36, no. 1, pp. 1–17, Mar. 2012.
China Population Statistics and Related Information, China Today, 2004,
Cultural Revolution, A&E Television Networks,History , Nov 9, 2009,
Chen, Chin Fu, “Concubine Yu, Cheng Dieyi, Leslie Cheung– the gaze and gender concept of Farewell My Concubine”, Chinese Literature School, Soochow University, Jun 29, 2015.
Farewell My Concubine – Interview of Leslie Cheung and Chen Kaige, 1993 Tokyo international film festival press, Youtube, 2014,
Chen Kaige returns Alma Mater to share his experience with Farewell My Concubine, Bilibili, Dec 21, 2018,
Interview of Chen Kaige on Cannes Film Festival, Bilibili, Sep 14, 2018,
He, Guilan, Leslie Cheung’s gender heritage: still leading the era after 15 years, BBC, Mar 30, 2018,
Leslie Cheung “The Moon Represents My Heart” Cross 97 Concert, Youtube, Sep 10, 2016,
Lally Kevin, East Palace, West Palace, Nov 2, 2004,
Hee, Wai Siam, “The rhetoric of “Comrade” in modern China : from Yu Dafu’s Boundless Night to Wang Xiaobo’s Love in the Revolutionary Period and East Palace, West Palace.” Chung Wai Literary Quarterly, 2009, 38(3), 149-203.

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