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Changing Times for Queer Lives in China

Lesbian wedding in China (Photo from

by Isabella Tianzi Cai

In a “Letter from China” column for the New York Times on September 1, 2010, Howard W. French elaborates on China’s changing attitude towards queer culture based on his personal observations in Shanghai. Having worked and lived in Shanghai for just under a decade, French is well aware of Chinese people’s increasing psychological tolerance towards homosexuals in their midst.

French says that it is most evident in “public intimacy between women,” which he supports in the letter by recounting a few of his personal experiences, most memorably, witnessing two teenage girls kissing passionately in a Shanghai subway car, without regard for the older passengers watching them with consternation. It should be noted that this incident is without precedent; a similar event in 2008 was captured on video and created a stir when posted on the internet.

French offers his understanding of this social phenomenon:

As this society rapidly grows richer, its social fabric and mores have been changing in ways far more dramatic than even the physical landscape, and sexual choice and expression are arguably in the leading edge of this upheaval.

Although this trend, as articulated by French, is more or less inevitable, the transition from a conservative society to a liberal one is neither as easy or as fast as he makes it out to be.

In this vast country boasting the world’s largest population, French’s observations are but a drop in the ocean. While his experiences are valuable primary sources, this topic on homosexuality is more thoroughly and systematically explored in Cui Zi’en’s documentary Queer China, Comrade China.

Queer China has plenty of scholarly research and news footage to both clarify, correct or enhance conceptions about homosexuality in China. Its scope is wide and its understanding is deep, with rich historical and cultural references. Moreover, its organization of ideas provokes its audience to ask further questions.

Cui Zi’en’s long-established body of work, as a scholar, writer and filmmaker, is enough to prove that the expression and exploration of queer identities in China is nothing new. His groundbreaking debut feature Enter the Clowns caused an international sensation. In the film, Xiao Bo (Yu Bo) lives in a world where the lines defining men from women are constantly dissolving. He kneels at the deathbed of his father (played by Cui) who has become a woman, and whose dying wish is to have oral sex with his/her son. His boyfriend “Nana” has also undergone a sex change, but Xiao Bo no longer finds her attractive as a woman. A sexual chain reaction ensues that wreaks havoc on traditional Chinese roles that govern male and female, parent and child.

French also mentions the “Super, Girls!” singing competition as another example for the “sudden media exposure of lesbian and gay people” “the rapid decline of [restrictive] ideology in most every aspect of Chinese life.” For those who don’t know, this singing competition is a Chinese equivalent of “American Idol.” French interviews Feng Hui, an 18 year old lesbian, who cites “Super, Girls!” champion Li Yuchun for making a “critical breakthrough” for sexual identity and behavior among girls:

Ms. Li, who has sidestepped questions about her sexuality, wore her hair short and dressed in boyish fashions. Moreover, she won singing love songs written for men about women. “Li Yuchun is the mother of unisex in China, and her comfort with herself inspired a whole generation of women like me,” said Ms. Feng.

But how do the young in China approach these issues of personal freedom, in their identities, their behaviors, and their pursuit of “alternative” lifestyles? The answers to these questions can be found in Jian Yi’s documentary Super, Girls! Jian allows his subjects sufficient space and freedom to explore these topics and express themselves, not within the context of the “adult” world, but on their own terms. The resulting film is a powerful exploration of the youth culture of contemporary China.


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