From Liberal to Conservative and Back Again: Homophobia in China

As a rather conservative country, China is known to be against the idea of homosexuality. Homosexuality is labelled as a “negative influence”, and most Chinese strongly believe that society should not support homosexuality.

But guess what? Homosexuality was once accepted in China.

All my fellow Chinese out there might be thinking: haha, that’s impossible.

And I understand why you might think that. It seems counterintuitive that a country that is now so strongly opposed to homosexuality would have once been tolerant, let alone accepting, of the concept. But, according to various scholars, homosexuality was actually quite common in ancient China.

Where It All Started: Homoeroticism in Ancient China

Bret Hinsch suggests in his book Passions of the Cut Sleeve that homosexuality was a common occurrence in China prior to the 19th century. Through a content analysis of ancient Chinese texts, he found that the phrase “Passion of the Cut Sleeve” (断袖之癖 [duan xiu zhi pi]) was a euphemism used in Chinese literature to refer to homoeroticism. The phrase originates from a story surrounding Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty and his male lover, Dong Xian. One night, Dong Xian fell asleep with his head resting on one of the sleeves of Emperor Ai’s robe. In order to avoid disturbing Dong Xian’s sleep, Emperor Ai cut off the sleeve of his robe as he got up from bed. Since then, “Passion of the Cut Sleeve” became a common expression used in literature to allude to homoerotic love.

Homoeroticism in Ancient China. Image from Making Queer History.

Apparently, homosexuality in China can be dated back much further — all the way back to the Shang Dynasty (c.1600-1046 BCE). According to Li Yinhe, homosexuality was described in Shang Dynasty records using the term luan feng. Homosexuality was apparently so prevalent in ancient China that, according to historical records, almost all Western Han Dynasty emperors had same-sex lovers. Homosexuality was neither condemned, nor praised. It merely existed alongside heterosexual relationships as an ever-present phenomenon. However, marriage was always heterosexual. Same-sex relationships were seen as affairs, rather than serious romantic relationships.

An Era of Change: The Cultural Revolution and Intolerance of Homosexuality

With the canonization of Confucianism in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) came a shift in lifestyle and beliefs. Confucianism emphasized social order and fulfilment of responsibilities and introduced the five cardinal relations: 1) sovereign-subject, 2) father-son, 3) elder-younger brother, 4) husband-wife, and 5) friend-friend. The philosophy also stressed loyalty to the family, filial piety, and prioritization of the family before the individual. As a result, Confucianism encouraged the canonization of the “correct” relationship of husband and wife and deemed homosexuality deviant behaviour. Children were (and still are) pressured to perform their expected duties according to the concept of filial piety, a virtue that encourages respect for one’s elders. These duties often include getting married, having kids, and preserving the bloodline.   

In 1740, the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) passed an act that defined consensual homosexual intercourse as a punishable offense. However, the law was selectively enforced, meaning that homosexuality persisted in society — just obscured from the public eye.

Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution. Image from Wall Street Journal.

Later, the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), spearheaded by Chairman Mao Zedong, swept China in an influx of change. Mao encouraged the abandonment of tradition and the welcoming of modernity. Along with this modernity came the exposure to and importation of Western ideals, including different interpretations of sexuality and the intolerance of homosexuality. The government adopted the (still pervasive) view that same-sex attraction was a mental illness that needed a cure, which birthed the rhetoric of tongxinglian bing (同性戀病) — homosexuality illness. Up until 1997, people engaging in homosexual activity could be prosecuted for “hooliganism” or disturbing the public order.

Where China Stands Today: Conservative, But Changing

In recent years, China has taken small steps towards LGBTQ+ acceptance. China decriminalized liumangzui — hooliganism (widely thought to include homosexuality, although the legislation did not explicitly state this) — in 1997. Later, in 2001, the Chinese Psychiatric Association amended a 1989 definition of homosexuality as a mental disorder by excluding it from the Chinese Classification and Diagnostic Criteria of Mental Disorders.

Support for LGBT rights in China. Photo by AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu, via Out.

While homosexuality is no longer officially considered a crime or a sickness, negative attitudes towards homosexuality still persist, due to the lasting influence of Confucianism on Chinese culture. As I previously mentioned, filial piety demands that children marry and start their own families as one of their expected duties. Increasingly, homosexual Chinese have opted to engage in hezuo/xingshi hunyincooperative/fake marriages — in order to remain filial. These fake marriages may involve a gay man marrying a lesbian woman as a means to fool family and friends into thinking both are straight, or a gay man marrying a straight woman who is unaware of the man’s sexuality. In a country where same-sex marriage has not yet been legalized, it’s either fake-marry or stay closeted.

Sexual migration is also prevalent in the Chinese LGBTQ+ community. Homosexual Chinese who refuse to feign “straightness” often opt to leave the country altogether — the pressure to remain closeted and hide one’s sexuality is unbearable for some.

Where China Is Headed: Steps to Acceptance

A movement in support of LGBT rights in China. Image from The Economist.

According to a Chinese scholar currently researching world-wide sexual orientation law (unnamed because the topic is sensitive in China), acceptance is the first step to change:

Global patterns of the adoption of LGBT-related legislation show that social acceptance almost always precedes legal progress. Despite the recent progress made in media portrayal, [it’s a fact that] family acceptance, working place discrimination, poor sexual education, and a complete lack of public figures who are openly gay are all major hurdles currently preventing activist efforts from succeeding.

Anonymous, via The Atlantic

In recent years, LGBTQ+-supportive NGOs are becoming increasingly visible (especially online) and are even garnering financial support from the state. These NGOs provide invaluable information for the LGBTQ+ community in China, as well as instigate discussions about LGBTQ+ awareness and rights. Some of these NGOs include Queer Comrades and the Queer University program.

Small steps can lead to big changes — as social norms evolve, so will legislation, and hopefully, the future of LGBTQ+ acceptance in China is bright.


What do you think about LGBTQ+ history and acceptance (whether it be in China or in your own countries)? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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