OCTOBER 23, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 16
'Is There Anything Wrong with Love?'
Fritz Hoffmann/Network Photographers for TIME.
Patrons at Asia Blue, one of Shanghai's few gay bars, spend weekend nights meeting friends and lovers. The bar is run by Phil, left, who enjoys dressing in drag
Young gays are having trouble finding their place in modern Chinese society
The beautiful, melancholic story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai has mesmerized Chinese for centuries. Some even call this 3rd century folktale an Eastern version of Romeo and Juliet. I have been as deeply moved by this classical tragedy as anyone. But unlike most, I am convinced that the hero Liang did not die of a broken heart because his lover Zhu was forced to marry another man. Instead, he died from a crushing sadness and disappointment after discovering that Zhu, whom he had courted as a handsome man with beautiful eyes, turned out to be a woman under her man's disguise. I marvel at the depth and richness of the Chinese literary tradition, which recorded same-sex love some 1,700 years ago.
Today, however, homosexual romance in China is like a once familiar face that has become obscure. Chinese gays are treated like clownsfreakish examples of humanity reminiscent of eunuchs in ancient times. It's quite common to see two men or two women walking hand-in-hand or with their arms around each other's shoulderseven sharing the same bedbecause no one would dream of associating this kind of behavior with gayness. Viewed in this way, homosexuality can seem to be everywhere and yet nowhere in China.
Men who have even the slightest suggestion of feminine beauty are not tolerated by society and are often abused, at least verbally, in much the same way that unusually muscular women are. Homosexuals who are brave enough to come out of the closet are burdened with even greater troubles. In Chinese society, gays are stereotyped as incapable or untrustworthy individuals. How, some people ask, can someone who doesn't know clearly his or her own sex benefit humanity and society?
Traditional Chinese beliefs about family have led most people to treat sons ritualistically as the perpetuators of clans, meant to produce offspring to carry on the family name. Of course, in today's China, this loveless tradition is gradually disappearing. But the government's one-child policy does create a situation that puts even greater pressure on gays who want to come out to their families. Many of my friends had no choice but to get married and live a lie because they couldn't bear the disappointment of their families. Too often, satisfying one's parents takes precedence over one's own happiness.
In fact, being in love is itself a sweet wonder, and being in love with someone of the same sex is even more wonderful. Once I French-kissed a male friend of mine in Shanghai right before I got into a taxi. Taking that in, and probably also my rather unusual attire, the driver began to chat with another taxi driver over the radio, contemptuously calling me a fag in the Shanghainese dialect. In the same dialect, I asked: "Sir, what's wrong with homosexuality? If you love your lover and I love mine, the only difference between you and me is that we are in love with different persons. Is there anything wrong with love?"
Right now too many Chinese are, like that cab driver, not ready for such logic. Mainstream society still has no clue about how to behave when confronted with homosexuality. And homosexuals themselves, affected by this narrow social view, are unsure how to locate themselves in society and how to manage their relationship to heterosexual culture. Some of my gay friends have asked me bitterly, "Why is it that people don't accept me? How come people don't like me?" Actually, the answer is very simple. You must first like yourself, accept yourself and reassure yourself before you reveal your capabilities and charms to other people. Only then will society accept you.
And one day, maybe soon, that will require no great drama. Recently I told some of my married, middle-aged friends about my alternative interpretation of the story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. After hearing the theory, they shrugged and said they had already thought of that possibility a long time ago. Evidently, there is hope for homosexuals in China.
"Fentao" is the pseudonym of a musician who lives in Shanghai
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