Translated by Iman Seepersad

On 1 April 2003, the famous Hong Kong actor and singer Leslie Cheung, suffering from a severe depression, took his own life by jumping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong. He left behind a grieving community of fans from around the world. To this day, Leslie Cheung remains one of the few public figures in Hong Kong and China who has officially identified himself as queer and gay. This self-affirmation led to hundreds of negative reviews, coupled with the rise of unchecked cyberstalking in the 1990s and 2000s, which greatly contributed to his depression. 

Thus, although decriminalised since 1997 and no longer considered a mental illness since 2001, homosexuality remains difficult to accept in China, more so on the mainland than in the more liberal islands of Hong Kong and Taiwan. This Chinese severity was for example re-expressed in October 2019 by the State’s refusal to legalise same-sex marriage. This prohibition prevents the Chinese concerned from adopting children, from buying joint property or even from taking time off work if their partner is ill.  

In fact, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tolerance of the LGBTQI+ community remains very low. It seems that in a society where expressions of affection are not well perceived and are primarily a private matter, this rigour in controlling emotions is even more demanded when it comes to same-sex couples. Discretion is therefore the order of the day, and this is reflected in cinematographic representations. Indeed, while the CCP recognises the bare minimum of rights for LGBTQI+ people, the idea of true normalisation still seems a long way off. 

Is censorship more or less prevalent depending on the context?

In the 1990s-2000s, the situation seemed more promising for the LGBTQI+ community. China’s desire to develop economically and increase foreign investment meant that it had to conform to the criteria required by Western powers, such as respect for human rights standards. As a result, there has been an increase in the acceptance of minorities (ethnic, sexual, etc.) by the Chinese authorities, which is also reflected in film representations. It should be noted that Hong Kong was a British-ruled province until 1997, so there was more leniency in terms of human rights and freedom of expression. Many LGBTQI+ films were made during this period, first in Hong Kong and then in China’s major industrialised cities. One example is Farewell My Concubine (霸王别姬 – Bawang bieji), directed by Chen Kaige in 1993 and starring Leslie Cheung. This famous Sino-Hong Kong film tells the story of two childhood opera actor friends, Dieyi and Xiaolou, in early 20th century China. As time goes by, Dieyi develops feelings for his stage sidekick, but the latter does not seem to share them. The film premiered in Hong Kong in January 1993 and was soon screened abroad to great acclaim. It was shown in mainland China in July 1993 in Shanghai before being banned a month later for explicit references to homosexuality, suicide and crimes committed under the Mao Zedong regime. However, the film was awarded the Palme d’Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival. Faced with mounting international criticism, the Chinese authorities reversed their decision, but still modified certain scenes deemed too “shocking”. 

Thus, despite considerable progress in the cinematographic representation of gender minorities, the hold of traditional values on Chinese society remains strong. Indeed, although in Confucianism, a Chinese philosophy that is more than 2000 years old, homosexuality is not explicitly forbidden; men and women must however be content with “traditional roles”. Also, in Taoism, another pillar of Chinese philosophy, there is this idea of a perfect balance between, on the one hand, yin, which represents feminine values, gentleness, goodness; on the other hand, yang, which represents man, strength, and evil. Thus, this idea of the complementarity of man and woman is well rooted in the Chinese mentality. Moreover, another virtue is also emphasised in Confucian thinking: filial piety. In other words, it is about showing respect to one’s parents and ancestors. However, not conforming to the norm of Chinese society, such as being homosexual, would be, according to this thinking, a way of undermining the honour of the family. Especially since the issue of perpetuating the family legacy is still very present in Chinese society. In the context of the one-child policy (in force between 1979 and 2015), many parents find it difficult to accept that their only child is not able to provide them with descendants. A strong family pressure is therefore placed on the shoulders of young Chinese people, which prevents them from fully assuming their responsibilities as they would like to do.

Moreover, this feeling of not being accepted, for Chinese LGBTQI+ people, has increased tenfold over the last five years by the fact that homosexuality is seen by the Party as a mark of Western decadence. LGBTQI+ people are thus seen as less able to conform within Chinese society and as a threat to the homogeneity of the nation. We are therefore witnessing a strong retreat in tolerance, under the pretext of refusing to conform to Western ideas imposed by the United States. There is always this fear on the part of Chinese politicians of being controlled and losing their sovereignty, probably stemming from the trauma of the Western occupation of the early 20th century. This reduction of leniency from the Chinese Communist Party towards the LGBTQI+ community is also reflected in the world of cinema. First of all, the handover of Hong Kong to China by Great Britain in 1997 drastically reduced freedom of expression within the province. Whereas in the 1990s, Hong Kong cinema was increasingly developing internationally and venturing into more daring themes, Chinese censorship can now impose itself and control productions. Today, Chinese and Hong Kong films featuring homosexual couples are very similar and relatively boring. The homosexuality of the characters is often not explicit and is portrayed as friendship. If there is any mention of a real love relationship, it always ends with the heroes breaking up at the end of the film. This is a way for the CCP to show that one cannot be happy in a homosexual relationship, and that this one is doomed to failure. 

On the other hand, in the context of rising anti-Americanism, censorship of Western films is raging and, at the beginning of 2016, the law was tightened in order to protect the public from the “dark sides of society”: from now on, any representation of a homosexual relationship, but also of a one-night stand, an extramarital relationship or sexual relations between minors, is forbidden. While some film productions are simply banned from the market and will never see their titles shown in Chinese cinemas, for some highly sought-after works, a whole artistic cut is made. The most surprising is certainly the censorship of all the gay scenes present in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), reducing the film considerably and making it lose most of its meaning, to the point of removing the word “gay” from all the dialogue, removing all the references to AIDS and deleting the famous scene from the video clip “I Want To Break Free” in which Freddie Mercury is dressed as a woman. Another example is the censorship of Mr Fassbender’s “gay” kiss with his double in Alien Covenant (2017), played by himself. For the LGBTQI+ activist Fan Popo, Chinese censors are the most conservative people in society.

Stratagems to circumvent censorship 

As the majority of the LGBTQI+ community does not recognise itself in the films authorised by the Chinese government, techniques are being developed to slip through the net, mainly through the use of streaming. However, it is important to remember that Chinese censorship is very strong on the Internet and that it is impossible to access Western sites such as Google, Facebook, Instagram or Netflix without using a VPN, a technology that allows oneself to be located outside the country. Nevertheless, those who use a VPN make sure to retrieve banned films and make them available to the general public. This explains, for example, the success of Call Me By Your Name (2017) in China. Although it was banned from screens for reasons of pornography and homosexuality, the streaming links in English with Mandarin subtitles spread very quickly on the web. For many young Chinese people, this film is a revolution in the way it centres its whole story around a gay relationship and normalises it.

This is what some thematic events such as the Beijing Queer Film Festival or the Shanghai Queer Film Festival are trying to do. Thus, during the 2018 edition of the latter, about 40 Chinese and international short films on LGBTQI+ themes were screened in only 22 hours. They thus allow to promote diversity, to give visibility to often marginalised artists, but also to tackle themes that are still too little known. For example, one of these productions presented during the festival, A Covered Girl (搁浅的鱼 – geqian de yu), tells the story of a young woman sent to a clinic in order to undergo “conversion therapy” to “cure” her homosexuality through violent methods. Director Xin Geng explains in Asyalyst that she was able to make this film thanks to the help of her film school and her family: “We had almost no money to make this short film,” she confides, “and it’s even harder to make this kind of film when you work on sensitive subjects or auteur films. “. These festivals are the only places where it is possible to freely discuss these difficult issues in an authoritarian country, first through the films shown, and then through the discussions organised (or not) between the participants at the end of the screening. However, these events only take place in the big Chinese cities, such as Shanghai or Beijing, where the population is freer, younger and more open-minded. Many foreigners, often Westerners, study, work and live there, which makes it easier for Chinese people to exchange and compare their situation with that of immigrants. Moreover, their presence in these large cities makes the authorities more flexible in their interpretation of social and traditional norms. This is still far from being the case in the much less open cities of Western China, for example. 

The difficulties caused by this non-representation

By keeping LGBTQI+ people in the shadows and preventing them from asserting themselves as they are, the CCP prevents the creation of a genuine community. Indeed, as demonstrated above, it is very difficult for Chinese people to break out of the gender norms that are imposed on them, especially as they have no role models to identify with. If we want to create a common culture, we need to rely on myths, heroes that are similar to us, stories that we can pass on to each other, and thus create a sense of common belonging. In this case, we cannot identify with what we do not know. This is why people who are really successful in accepting themselves often live in big cities and are in contact with the West through their studies, friends, or even have had the chance to go abroad for a while and have access to a different culture that is tolerant of LGBTQI+ issues. 

The refusal to show gay characters on the big screen leads to a feeling of unfamiliarity, of unusualness. People are afraid of what they don’t know. As films featuring LGBTQI+ individuals are hard to find, the audience that manages to access them is specific: the viewer knows what they are looking for and is already aware of the cause.  Therefore, it does not normalise these behaviours that are considered “deviant” within Chinese society. It is by showing that we will manage to change mentalities and create a more tolerant society: showing is legitimising, giving recognition. Through cinema, we offer the possibility for certain people to be in contact with behaviours that may appear atypical for them. For example, for some older people, homosexuality remains a taboo and intersexuality, transgenderism and queer thinking are concepts they have never heard of. If certain practices were more often shown, they would become accepted by society, which would help to advance mentalities towards more equality.

Sources

BILLIOUD, S. & THORAVAL, J. (2009). La Chine des années 2000 : regards nouveaux surle politique. Extrême-Orient Extrême-Occident. 2009/1. N°31. Pp. 5-31.

XU, B. (2006). Nationalisme populaire et nationalisme d’Etat : le cas chinois. Outre-terre. 2006/2. N°15. Pp. 51-59.

DOSSANTOS, G. (2019). Bohemian Rhapsody a enfin été projeté en Chine … mais sans les scènes gay, le film n’a aucun sens. newsmonkey.be [online]. Mar 25.

FARRE, A. (2018). Chine : la question LGBT toujours plus censurée au cinéma. asyalist.com [online]. Apr 3.

LEBLANC, C. (2021). Chine: Une jeunesse de plus en plus nationaliste. lopinion.fr [online]. Feb 26.

N.A. (2020). Faute de mariage, des homosexuels chinois convolent en ligne. challenges.fr [online]. Jun 29.

VANDAL, G. (2019). La montée d’un nationalisme anti-américain en Chine. lesoleil.com [online]. Dec 3.

Queer Stories. (2020). Farewell My Concubine and The Tragic Story of Leslie Cheung. Youtube.

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