What I Learned From 10 Years Teaching Chinese Students About Gender
This week marks the start of the new school year. It also marks the first time in a decade I will be unable to teach one of my favorite classes.
I first mapped out the syllabus for my “Gender and Media” course 10 years ago. An open elective, any student at my college could sign up, regardless of their chosen field of study. The course explored how certain gender constructions are perpetuated by the media, and, in teaching it, I sought to gain insight into how young people perceive issues related to gender, sex, and equality.
Of course, lesson planning changed somewhat over the past decade. Initially, I mainly focused on teaching basic theories of sex and gender; later, I expanded to cover a broader range of topics, including feminism and gay culture.
Yet the material didn’t change nearly as much as my students did. The first time I taught the class, my students were largely mute. Names of important scholars from China and abroad, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Li Yinhe, drew blank stares. And when I spoke about the current circumstances of gay and transgender people in China, students’ eyes widened with shock.
Their responses had a lot to do with their prior learning experiences. Their main priority in high school was to prepare for the college entrance examination. Some students told me that their high school teachers forbade them from reading any books that wouldn’t help them prepare for the test. That gave me hope that the course would be meaningful for them, helping them make up for important information they hadn’t acquired in high school and giving them a deeper understanding and acceptance of the world around them, as well as themselves.
Because few students were willing to answer my questions, I suggested that they could communicate with me in the form of anonymous notes instead. I would collect their notes after each class, and then respond to them individually before the next. Many students expressed surprise at the topics discussed, mentioning that this was the first time they’d ever heard of a certain idea, and that they were unaware there were so many ways to talk about gender. Others were more confessional: “I think I may be different from the girls around me — I don’t like boys,” wrote one.
More recently, however, I’ve noticed new students are increasingly candid and comfortable discussing gender and sexuality in class, in part because of their greater familiarity with online LGBT resources and communities. In the past, I was the one enlightening them, but now they’re boldly raising their hands in class and explaining to me the similarities and differences between homoerotic danmei novels and the more sexually explicit cuipi ya “crispy duck” subgenre.
In a class last year, I asked some of the students to stand behind the lectern and talk a little about their views of gender. A young male student took the opportunity to announce to the class: “Yes, I am gay. I had a boyfriend in high school.” The students in the lecture hall didn’t display any shock, as they might have a decade ago. Instead, they gave the boy encouraging applause and appreciative smiles that struck me as natural, rather than forced or performative.
Another time, a female student came up to me after class and chatted with me about her own situation. She said she knew that she was different from others, and she had liked girls since she was a child. Since beginning university, she had found a girlfriend through a forum for baihe “lilies” web novels, which depict lesbian romance. After graduation, the two moved in together and took care of one another. “We also have sex, but we feel that making each other comfortable is what’s most important,” she explained. “As two girls in a relationship, we just think that girls are girls. We don’t imitate traditional gender roles, and we don’t need one of us to deliberately play the ‘man.’”
“It all goes beyond gender,” she added. “Who still cares who’s the ‘T’ (tomgirl) or the ‘P’ (short for po, or wife)? I just like this girl and that’s all there is.”
On Chinese university campuses today, the students — at least — are already quite tolerant and understanding of sexual minorities. To give another example, once, in our class group chat, a young gay man accidentally sent a nude photo of himself. By the time he realized, it was too late to recall the message. But, when the other students saw it, they all decided — as though through some sort of tacit understanding — to spam hundreds of emoticons and GIFs to send the photo as far back in the chat log as possible. They sent so many that classmates who hadn’t seen the photo simply thought everyone was taking part in an emoticon battle and happily joined in without suspecting a thing.
However, students’ relaxed attitudes are not always reflective of broader society. Even on campus, LGBT issues have become an increasingly fraught topic in recent months. Off campus, these discussions are even more strained. In the case of the female student mentioned above, although she had a very good relationship with her girlfriend, she still didn’t dare come out to her family. “I have never felt that my sexual orientation is a problem, but once, when I was on (microblogging platform) Weibo, some of the comments I read were very sobering,” she told me. “Attitudes toward LGBT people and the realities they face in China today are still unacceptable.”
Another student — an openly gay drag queen who often wore heavy makeup and wore miniskirts and high heels on campus — was well known and well-liked by his fellow students. At his class’ graduation party in 2020, he came dressed in an evening gown and performed for the audience. While on stage, he choked up as he expressed his gratitude to the school — especially his teachers and classmates. After the performance, he told me that he wanted to work in a big city: “I come from Chaoshan. It’s a very conservative place with almost no people like me. Many of the LGBT people I know have all fled to big cities, desperately trying to find a sense of belonging.”
Later, I learned that he had moved to Shanghai and found work selling make-up — a job that he liked very much and which is very well suited to him.
In addition to societal and familial pressure, another problem is how social media is shaping the attitudes of today’s college students. Baihe and danmei sites, as well as forums for other gender and sexuality-related subcultures, have provided sexual minorities with a refuge. This is of course a good thing. However, the sense of mutual acceptance and validation these sites create is, unfortunately, not a true reflection of how things work in Chinese society. On the one hand, these online communities reinforce minorities’ understanding of their own issues and identities. On the other, they cause them to become more alienated from the “real” world. Despite the existence of hospitable online communities, it is still important that students have an opportunity to get a more rigorous education on these issues in an in-person and open learning environment.
Unfortunately, I won’t be able to offer that anymore. As part of an overall reduction in the number of open course electives offered at my university, my “Gender and Media” class was cut at the end of the last school year. I regret that I will no longer be able to dialogue with students on these issues, at least in the classroom, and that I have lost this window into the evolution of young Chinese students’ ideas and perceptions of gender. But I also know that this evolution will continue — with or without me.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Marco Guidi/EyeEm/People Visual)