Last fall in China, more than 400 million viewers—that’s nearly one-third of the country’s population, the largest television audience in China ‘s history—tuned in to watch the season finale of Super Girl, an American Idol-like singing competition for women. The winner was 21-year-old Li Yuchun from Sichuan province, who wooed the hearts of teenage girls across China with her notably boyish appearance, masculine stage presence and bold personality.
Li has never stated that she is a lesbian, but she has admitted that she identifies as
a “tomboy,” and her appearance and mannerisms clearly mark her—at least to Western eyes—as someone who challenges gender norms. In the context of contemporary China, whether or not she is a lesbian is actually less important than the fact that she
garnered the adoration of millions of girls to win a contest that was conducted in a democratic manner.
Li’s rise to stardom marks an important turning point in the meaning of Chinese womanhood and the development of a queer identity in Mainland China.
Although what we as Westerners would consider lesbianism—same-sex love and desire between women—has historically been tolerated in China just as same-sex love between men was tolerated in many traditional Asian societies, female same-sex relationships have always been subordinated to the demands of an androcentric, Confucian culture.
In other words, it’s all right for two concubines to fall in love with one another as long as their desires don’t prevent them from remaining married to a man and bearing him children. Even today, pressure to carry on the family line by having children—specifically sons—continues to force many gays and lesbians in China into heterosexual marriages.
Homosexuality has never been illegal in China, but Communist laws against “hooliganism” effectively outlawed homosexual activity until 1997, when that law was repealed. In 2001, the Chinese Psychological Association finally removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, but despite these clear advances, homosexuality—particularly lesbianism—is not widely tolerated in China today.
In contrast, Taiwan and Hong Kong have become increasingly tolerant of homosexuality, with vibrant queer scenes emerging in the last decade in both places. Taipei hosted its first gay pride march in 2003, and Hong Kong followed in 2004. University of Melbourne professor Fran Martin has noted that Taipei ‘s emerging lesbian culture has begun to intersect with feminist concerns, marking the development of a new public female identity separate from the traditional daughter/mother/wife roles that Chinese women are relegated to.
The Super Girl show reveals evidence of a Mainland effort to grapple with these issues: how feminism, gender and womanhood are becoming increasingly intertwined and challenging traditional Chinese culture and values.