Last week, a women’s basketball coach at a central Chinese university posted a photograph online showing two students holding an anti-gay banner on school grounds. “Keep homosexuality far from the university campus,” it read, the golden characters and red background calling to mind the colors of China’s national flag. “Protect Chinese traditional mores. Defend core socialist values. Resist corrosion from decadent Western thoughts.”
The photograph, taken at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) in Hubei province, reignited online discussion about the discrimination faced by many LGBT students in China. Yet commentators have paid scant attention to the wider context in which the offending message was written. For what this banner demonstrates is that Chinese nationalism has a homophobia problem, one that too often gets swept under the rug.
The banner’s appearance on a college campus may seem out of place to many Westerners whose experiences of college life have led us to see universities — with several high-profile exceptions — as oases of socially liberal thinking. Certainly, in most Western countries, our college years are often romanticized as a time of sexual awakening and exploration, much of which asks us to challenge prejudice held against the LGBT community.
Yet the same probably cannot be said for China. It is true that there is a growing number of organized LGBT groups at Chinese colleges, including an active community at HUST. As recently as a decade ago, however, research by social psychologists Louise Higgins and Chunhui Sun found that most university students disapproved of gay sex, no matter whether it occurred between men or between women.
Look again at those slogans. Taken together, the banner commands us not only to oppose homosexuality in and of itself, but also to resist it as a practice that is neither Chinese nor socialist — as an act of debauchery more befitting of the morally bankrupt Western bourgeoisie.
In fact, Ling Bing, the coach who posted the photograph online alongside a statement supporting the preposterous notion that homosexuality is somehow “un-Chinese,” needs to read up on his country’s history. Far from having no precedent in traditional culture, homosexual relationships have been tolerated and even celebrated throughout broad swaths of the country’s imperial history.
We know, for example, that male members of the Ming Dynasty social elite commonly kept catamites — young male servants whose masters used them for sex. At the same time, many of the empire’s most celebrated literary talents composed works venerating erotic love for other men. Indeed, as recently as the early 20th century, Chinese writers such as Guo Moruo and Yu Dafu dwelled on same-sex desire in their autobiographical writings. Romantic relationships between women presumably flourished as well, though the drastically inferior social position of women in imperial China has left rather scant evidence of the extent to which this took place.
In late imperial China, sex was a means to reinforce hierarchies of age and social status more than normative gender roles. Men who had sex with women saw the act itself as a reflection of patriarchal dominance over their inferiors. But so, too, did men who had sex with other men, so long as the actual act of penetration was carried out by the partner of higher social status. The 17th-century advent of the Qing Dynasty, however, brought about a shift toward an ideology of sex that enforced rigid gender norms. For the first time in the country’s history, anal sex between men became a crime.
The Qing fixated on how the act of sexual penetration could and should shape gender roles. The groundbreaking research of historian Matthew Sommer shows that the state regulated sex in order to bolster stereotypical marital relationships in which women were expected to become chaste wives and dutiful mothers, and men were expected to become upstanding husbands and filial fathers. For the Qing, “proper” sex took place between husband and wife, was procreative, and reinforced the dominance of men over women.
At the same time, “improper” forms of penetration were seen as disastrous to the regime’s stability. All sex that did not reinforce normative gender roles would inevitably corrupt them, along with the family unit. Since the family was viewed as a microcosm of the state, sexual degeneracy was considered a grave threat to national security.
In fact, sexual impropriety was not an abstract concern but one grounded in political reality. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, China’s population tripled while the amount of cultivated land only doubled. The resultant squeeze on resources skewed rural demographics so dramatically in favor of boys that before long, the countryside was awash with bands of “surplus” men, many of whom resorted to violence or sexually predatory behavior. The rapacious, marauding male — known as guanggun, or “bare sticks,” a word that still means “bachelor” in modern Mandarin — became something of a pantomime villain for Qing legislators, a sexual deviant whose predilection for rape, sodomy, and hooliganism represented a grave threat to imperial order.
Obviously, it’s as ludicrous to say that being gay is “un-Chinese” as it is to say that homosexuality is “un-socialist,” as if common ownership of the means of production is somehow a straight thing. Yet the notion that homosexuality is socially destructive has proven remarkably difficult to shake in China. Despite widespread reconsideration of gender norms between the end of empire and the Communist victory in 1949, China still punished homosexual intercourse under the hooliganism act — a deliberately vague law that was frequently used as a stick with which to beat those accused of “Western” individualism and bourgeois tendencies. The hooliganism law was not abolished until 1997.
The most unsettling thing about the language used on the HUST students’ banner is that it channels latent distrust of homosexuality as a means to revive hyper-confrontational Maoist nationalism — an ideology against which many LGBT Chinese have reclaimed the term tongzhi, or “comrade,” to emphasize solidarity among the queer community. The banner doesn’t just cast gay people as less than Chinese; it actually depicts them as products of the capitalist West, as ideological impostors excluded from China’s coming socialist paradise. Even as the definition of a “hooligan” changes — from vagrant to sexual predator to ideological adversary — gay people are constantly drawn into the net.
Consider again the imagery used in the line “Resist corrosion from decadent Western thoughts.” The Chinese word for “decadent,” fuxiu, is formed from two characters connoting decay and putrefaction. Its meaning is different from the English term, which has come to associate decadence with overindulgent, one-more-won’t-hurt consumerist excess. In fact, the meaning of fuxiu lies closer to the sort of cataclysmic profligacy we traditionally associate with, say, the fall of the Roman Empire. The Hanyu Da Cidian, a Chinese lexicon similar in scope to the Oxford English Dictionary, defines fuxiu as “a metaphor for banal thinking, degenerate living, or” — most tellingly — “systemic ruin.”
Equating homosexuality with a threat to state security casts gay people as the “enemies within” and creates a powder-keg atmosphere that legitimizes the kind of hate speech displayed so prominently on the HUST students’ banner. Unlike, say, Vladimir Putin’s Russia — where “decadent” homosexuality fires up a hyper-macho nationalism predicated on the moral duty to rein in Western excess — Chinese patriots are more likely to oppose assertive LGBT identities as a means to foreground national unity and harmony. Yet in the end, the message is the same: It’s OK to discriminate against LGBT people in the name of the nation.
I do not mean to say that all Chinese nationalists are homophobic. Though nationalism naturally pits its adherents against outside groups, it is of course possible to love your country while respecting your fellow citizens’ diverse sexual orientations. Yet in China, where official propaganda videos claim that “the country is a family,” where the consumption of pornography and other sexual practices seen as “non-mainstream” are airbrushed from the internet, and where school textbooks define homosexuality as a “disorder,” it’s time to have a conversation about how supposedly national values are being perverted to ostracize China’s LGBT community. To ignore the issue would only entrench more deeply an ideology that Oscar Wilde once called “the virtue of the vicious.”
Editors: Qian Jinghua and Sarah O’Meara.
(Header image: Craig Ferguson/Getty Images/VCG)