As anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes cycling through WeChat and Weibo feeds or perusing the comments sections of Chinese websites will know, Mandarin slang is a sprawling, constantly evolving beast that can be crucial to understanding those who use the terms. In few places is the importance of slang more keenly felt than in the veiled communications between LGBT individuals. A need for discretion and a way to subtly identify one another in social situations has resulted in a torrent of terminology becoming not only a feature of mainstream and fringe gay discourse, but also a valuable tool for China’s increasingly visible sexual minorities.
Our earliest reliable sources for language relating to same-sex love come from the Han Dynasty, when the Chinese written language as it is known today was codified. Two famous terms from this period, both of which refer to romantic relationships between men, are fentao (‘portioned peach’; 分桃) and duanxiu (‘cut sleeve’; 断袖). Both are still in limited use among modern queers.
The ‘portioned peach’ is a reference to Long Yang, a man who allegedly shared the fruit with his male lover, the Duke of Ling, a gesture hailed by writers at the time as both romantic and filial. ‘Cut sleeve’, meanwhile, is a reference to the Ai Emperor of the Han dynasty, who chose to cut the sleeve from a garment rather than disturb the male concubine who had fallen asleep upon it. The term made a comeback thanks to the popularity of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. The film was called Duanbei Shan (断背山) in Chinese, the same ‘duan’ as in duanxiu.
A whole host of other historical terms for gay love are contained within ancient texts. One common epithet, nanfeng (南风), or ‘southern wind’, was frequently used in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) when comparing ‘effete’ southerners to their more masculine northern brethren. Some terms were even limited to certain regions. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, gay Fujianese men were termed xiao tuzi (小兔子) ‘little rabbits’ – apparently due to their surging libidos.
Conservative Euro-American moral doctrines arrived in the 18th and 19th centuries and brought China’s values on homosexuality into line with their homophobic norms. But as China progressed, gay slang slowly began to creep back into society.
The advent of the Internet and social media have caused the gay lexicon to explode, and the invention of uniquely Chinese terminology has given Chinese queers numerous options when discussing their own identities and proclivities.
Today, tongxinglian (同性恋– literally ‘same-sex love’ but used for ‘homosexuality’ in Chinese) is almost exclusively a scientific term that belongs to the straight world. LGBT individuals overwhelmingly prefer tongzhi (同志) and its trendier sister ku’er (酷儿) – a transliteration of the English word ‘queer’.
Translated into English as ‘comrade’ but literally meaning ‘same intent’, tongzhi (同志) was initially coined in ’80s Hong Kong as a two-fingered salute to the perceived sexual oppression of Mainlanders by the Communist government. It has now become a gender-neutral, inclusive term that can mean gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex or even just an ally of the gay community.
This flexibility also acknowledges the Chinese tradition of viewing sexuality in terms of what one does, rather than an innate ‘identity’.
That said, numerous terms used regularly by Chinese LGBTs are lifted entirely from the Anglocentric liberation vocabulary that has emerged post-Stonewall: ‘gay’ is gei (给); ‘to come out’ is chugui (出柜).
Crucially, this linguistic revolution has given a voice to women, with gay gals coining their own armada of terms and phrases to enrich the gradually expanding dictionary of modern gay Mandarin. For example, lala (拉拉) is still the term favoured by self-defining lesbians and bisexual women, who often describe themselves as ‘T’, meaning ‘tomboy’ (butch) or ‘P’, meaning ‘pretty’ (fem).
A similar situation exists for gay guys. Inescapable are the designations ling
(one) and the compromise ling dian wu
(0.5). These correspond to the English terms ‘bottom’, ‘top’ and ‘versatile’ and are still a prevalent means for Chinese gay men to identify likely partners.
Get your tongue around this!
If you want to practise your newly acquired gay vocabulary, there’s nowhere better than the Beijing LGBT Center’s bi-weekly LGBTalk event, a loosely-formatted social where locals and expats can eat, drink, mix and mutually experiment with language and ideas. Every other week there’s a different theme and an inclusive atmosphere with a good balance of guys and girls. Every other Thursday, after 7pm.
Beijing LGBT Center Building B, Room 2606, Xintiandi Plaza, 1 Xibahe Nanlu Jia, Chaoyang distict (6446 5698). 朝阳区西坝河南路甲1号新天第B座2606室