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2018-06-06 07:49:43 Commentary

After the conclusion of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the Chinese news website iFeng published a collection of press photos depicting the top 10 “bromances” of the games. In one image, American swimmer Michael Phelps grabs the hand of his teammate Ryan Lochte, while in another, Spanish tennis players Rafael Nadal and Marc López embrace on the floor of the arena. In fact, such stories are relatively common in the Chinese media: Here’s a list of wealthy heir Wang Sicong’s best “bromances,” and here are a few photos of kung fu star Zhen Zidan showing some love to actor Wang Baoqiang.

In fact, the word “bromance” doesn’t quite work in this context. The writer of the iFeng article used the Mandarin term jiqing — literally, “gay affection.” Given that professional sports tend to be rife with homophobia, I sometimes wonder how the abovementioned stars would feel about fans on the other side of the globe bandying around a gay epithet in their names. I assume most of them wouldn’t mind at all, especially once they understood the complimentary meaning of jiqing in Chinese youth culture.

The word jiqing was originally derived from the Cantonese phrase gaau gei, a derogatory term for homosexual activity. The second character, gei, is an approximation of the English word “gay”; in Mandarin, its pronunciation changes to the ji of jiqing and other related words — for example, jiyou, or “gay buddies.”

Although gaau gei carries strongly pejorative connotations, its Mandarin counterpart has gradually taken on a positive meaning in mainland Chinese internet culture. This has happened despite the prevalence of homophobia in Chinese society, which until the last 10 years or so manifested itself in the symbolic annihilation of homosexuality in public discourse. But today, internet slang with homosexual connotations is routinely used playfully to describe intimate relationships between two straight young men.

In imperial China ... physical intimacy between men was not necessarily conflated with sexual desire.

In Mandarin, the term gaau gei is pronounced gaoji. My research shows that the term gaoji began to change its meaning around 2010, when communities of young internet users — for instance, online gamers and IT technicians — began appropriating the term. Most of these people were men who communicated in highly gender-segregated environments. At first, they employed the term gaoji to tease each other about particularly strong platonic relationships with other men in the group.

Later, Chinese netizens invented two further terms — jiqing and jiyou — that have no equivalent expressions in Cantonese. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine that doubles as an online encyclopedia, jiqing is defined as “subtle affection between two people of the same sex, which goes beyond ordinary friendship but stops short of homosexual love.” Jiyou, meanwhile, can still refer to a pair of homosexual people, but is more often used to describe same-sex friends who are very close.

As an openly gay researcher concerned with the social visibility of homosexuality in China, I have noticed the rising popularity prevalence of straight men engaging with the jiqing discourse on campus. Some people openly identify as jiyou, with such relationships defined by shared intimacy and a phenomenon known in sociological circles as “dyadic pairing” — put simply, behaving like a couple.

When jiqing culture flourished four to five years ago, I interviewed 18 students at my university who engaged with it. Most defined intimacy between jiyou in terms of heightened levels of physical contact with each other. Dyadic pairing is another unique feature of jiyou relationships; the men involved will often share all kinds of daily activities, such as eating or walking around campus together. In this sense, jiyou are different from gemenr, another popular Chinese kinship term assigned to close male friends. Jiyou necessarily come in pairs and are bound by sharing intimate details of their lives with each other; gemenr often appear as groups of male friends bound primarily by strong feelings of loyalty toward one another.

Unfortunately, the presence of social memes with homosexual themes does not necessarily translate into the social visibility for which the Chinese lesbian and gay communities are still fighting.

The jiqing discourse gives young straight men more space to demonstrate emotional and physical intimacy while also consolidating their heterosexual identities. My interviewees were all quite clear about when it was appropriate to invoke the jiqing narrative or tease others about having a jiyou. When I asked whether having a jiyou challenged their identities as straight men, they said it didn’t at all: It is precisely because they feel secure in both they and their friend being straight that they can joke about being jiyou. As a result, this kind of teasing is not offensive to them — in fact, young men will sometimes even invoke the jiqing narrative defensively to reaffirm their straight, male identity in public. In essence, it’s akin to claiming that you’re not gay, you just have close male friends.

Changing social attitudes toward homosexuality help to explain the growing mainstream appeal of jiqing culture but do not tell the whole story. Perhaps straight young men in China have stronger incentives to engage in gendered forms of “identity management” compared with their Western counterparts.

Historically, homosexuality was tolerated more in China than in most other cultures. Same-sex eroticism and intimacy enjoyed considerable cultural space for long periods in imperial China, when they were usually justified in the name of male friendship and brotherhood. Since physical intimacy between men was not necessarily conflated with sexual desire, it was not “marked” as a practice in need of monitoring and regulation until the mid-19th century — curiously, around the same time that the Qing government began to engage frequently with the West.

Successive Chinese governments suppressed homosexuality in public discourse during the 20th century. But since the late 1990s, the situation has begun to change, thanks both to the concerted efforts of gay activists and to the more spontaneous rise of a number of subcultures that blur established ideas of sexuality in gender, like boy love. Consequently, young Chinese tend to be much more conscious of homosexuality and LGBTQ issues than previous generations.

But because opposition to homosexuality remains deep-rooted, many straight people exhibit a sense of anxiety about asserting “normal” heterosexual identities. This anxiety did not exist in the past, when “unmarked” behaviors between men — including physical proximity and intimacy — did not carry homosexual connotations. So, in order to process this unspoken anxiety, intimate same-sex behavior today must be “marked” by new, gendered labels like jiqing and jiyou. These terms accommodate previously acceptable masculine behaviors and distinguish them from “real,” still-stigmatized homosexuality.

What does jiqing culture mean for China’s LGBTQ community? Unfortunately, the presence of social memes with homosexual themes does not necessarily translate into the social visibility which the Chinese lesbian and gay communities deserve. Some of my interviewees commented that the popularity of jiqing-related jokes distracts attention from more important sexual minority issues in China.

We could argue that the jiqing discourse shows that we can renegotiate the rigid boundaries between heterosexuality and homosexuality in China, in order to open up more space for acceptable straight, male behaviors. But this conclusion is too simplistic: Rather, my research suggests that society polices jiqing culture in order to consolidate heteronormative expectations of men. Consquently, jiqing’s ability to challenge behavioral norms remains limited.

Editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

(Header image: Two young men pose for graduation photos at a university campus in Anqing, Anhui province, May 9, 2015. Ni Miaokang/VCG)