Transgender in China

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The rainbow flag, commonly the gay pride flag and sometimes the LGBT pride flag, is a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pride and LGBT social movements in use since the 1970s.

Transgender is an overarching term to describe persons whose gender identity/expression differs from what is typically associated with the gender they were assigned at birth.[1] "Transgender Studies" was institutionalized as an academic discipline in the 1990s so it is difficult to apply transgender to Chinese culture in a historical context. There were no transgender groups or communities in Hong Kong until after the turn of the century. Today they are still known as a "sexual minority" in China.[2]


Because Chinese transgender studies is so unfocused, a wide variety of terms are used in relation to transgender in the varieties of Chinese.

  • Tongzhi (同志, pinyin tóngzhi) refers to all peoples with a non-normative sexuality or gender, including homosexual, bisexual, asexual, transgender, and queer peoples.
  • Bianxing (變性, biànxìng) is the most common way to say "change one's sex", though not necessarily through sexual reassignment surgery—bianxing may also include hormonal changes and lifestyle changes.[3]
  • In Mandarin, the term kuaxingbie (跨性别, kùaxìngbié), literally "cutting across sex distinctions", has recently come into use as a literal translation of the English term "transgender", but kuaxingbie is not in popular use outside of academia.[4]
  • Offensive terms for trans girls include “niang niang qiang” (娘娘腔, meaning sissy boy) or “jia ya tou” (假丫头, meaning fake girl).[5]
  • "Fanchuan" (反串, fǎnchùan) is the historical term for cross-dressing performing on stage, as in Beijing opera where males play women's parts, or in Taiwanese opera where females play men's parts.[citation needed]

In Hong Kong, there are specific derogatory terms used towards transgender people. The most common is jan-jiu (人妖) which translates to "human monster".[citation needed]

  • Bin tai, or biantai (變態) in Putonghua, in Hong Kong refers to a non-normative person, deviating from the reproductive heterosexual family and the normative body, gender, and sexuality expectations. It is also a derogatory term for cross-dressers, pedophiles, polygamists, homosexuals, masculine women, sissy boys, and transgender people.[6]
  • Yan yiu, or renyao in Putonghua, translates into human ghost, human monster or freak. It is commonly used to target transgender people, but has historically been used for any kind of gender transgression.[7]
  • The second form is naa-jing referring to men who are considered sissy or effeminate. However, the politically correct term for a transgender person in Hong Kong is kwaa-sing-bit (跨性別). The media in Hong Kong might use the negative term jan-jiu or bin-sing-jan, referring to a sex or gender changed person.[8][9]
  • In the late 1990s, the performing group Red Top Arts (紅頂藝人, py Hǒngdǐng Yìrén) came to fame in Taipei, Taiwan as the island's first professional drag troupe. Since this time, "Red Top" and various homophones (紅鼎, 宏鼎, etc.) have come to be common combining-forms that indicates drag, cross-dressing, etc.[citation needed]

Terms for crossdressing are many and varied. 異裝癖 (py yìzhūangpǐ), literally "obsession with the opposite [sex's] attire", is commonly used. 扮裝 (py bànzhūang), literally "to put on attire", is commonly used to mean crossdressing. Related to this is an auxiliary term for drag queens: 扮裝皇后 (py bànzhūang húanghòu), or "crossdressing queen". There are several terms competing as translations of the English drag king, but none has reached currency yet.[10] While research shows that China's younger population is much more accepting of transgender people, offensive terminology like "jan-jim" or "bin-sing-Jan" is very common.[2]

History of transgender people in China[edit]

In the mid 1930s, after the father of Yao Jinping (姚錦屏) went missing during the war with Japan, the 19-year-old reported having lost all feminine traits and become a man, was said to have an Adam's apple and flattened breasts, and left to find him.[11][12] Du He, who wrote an account of the event, insisted Yao had become a man,[11][12] while doctors asserted Yao was female.[12] The story was widely reported in the press,[12] and Yao has been compared to both Lili Elbe, who underwent sex reassignment in the same decade.[11][12]

Cross dressing in Peking Opera[edit]

A Beijing Opera or Peking Opera performer.

Sinologists often look to theatrical arts when imaging China in a transgender frame because of the prominent presence of cross-gender behavior.[13]

Peking Opera, also known as Beijing Opera, had male actors playing female dan characters. Men traditionally played women's roles due to women being excluded from performing in front of the public.[14] Although, before 1978, male to female cross dressing was mostly for theatrical performances, used for comedic effect or to disguise a character in order to commit a crime or defeat enemies.[citation needed] Female to male characters were considered heroic in theatrical performances.[15]

Within the Ming and Qing Dynasties of China, there was a lot of cross dressing and transgender practices occurring both onstage and in everyday life. Within the theatre, elite men were intrigued by it. They would role-play, organize their own troupes, write and perform theatrical pieces.[16]

Many of early modern China's stories reflected cross-dressing and living the life of a different gender for a short period of time, mainly featuring the cross-dressers as virtuous, like Mulan.[16]

Li Yu, a writer and entrepreneur, featured the gendering of bodies to be dependent upon men's desires and operated by a system of gender dimorphism, assumed by social boundaries of the time. When Li Yu created an acting troupe, as many elite males did, he had a concubine that played a male role as he believed she was "suited to male" or considered her more of the masculine gender.[16]

In modern-day Peking Opera and film, there are male to female cross dressers and vice versa for characters, especially with certain time periods.[17]

Early sexual reassignment surgery[edit]

Sex and gender were arguably fluid within the late Ming and early Qing dynasties as many female infants were forced into sex changes to be males. This, in turn, affected those children into living transgender lives, whether through physical transformation or—if there were not a sex change—continuous cross-dressing.[16]

Laws regarding gender reassignment[edit]

In 2009 the Chinese government made it illegal for minors to change their officially-listed gender, stating that sexual reassignment surgery, available to only those over the age of twenty, was required in order to apply for a revision of their identification card and residence registration.[18]

In early 2014 the Shanxi province started allowing minors to apply for the change with the additional information of their guardian's identification card. This shift in policy allows post-surgery marriages to be recognized as heterosexual and therefore legal.[19]

History of the LGBT community in China[edit]

The first recorded gay and lesbian community began to develop in the early 1990 in Beijing, however homosexuality was a relatively sensitive topic until the early 2000s. The introduction of the internet in 1998 allowed for a convenient medium for LGBT activists to connect and communicate. Online chatrooms were a great resource for grassroots LGBT organizations.[20] In addition to the internet, the presence of LGBT communities in China developed very quickly due to outbreak, spread, and subsequent international and government funding for HIV/AIDS prevention. In 1996, AIDS-related funds from the government were just over $500,000 but by 2001 this figured reached nearly $10 million annually. The AIDS public health crisis remains one of the most influential variables for the rise of LGBT groups worldwide. However this funding was mostly focused on gay groups so other sexual minorities groups have developed slower in comparison.[21]

The Beijing LGBT Center (Beijing Tongzhi Zhongxin) is primarily composed of four organizations: Aizhixing AIDS Organization, Tongyu Lala Organization, Aibai Cultural and Education Center, and Les+.[20] Tongyu Lala is an organization based in Beijing that combats discrimination against and is an advocate for social inclusion of lesbians, bisexual women, and transgender people. The group also helps organize LGBT groups in China.[22]

There are a number of important events that focus on promoting LGBT rights and equally in China including the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, the Beijing Queer Film Festival, and gay pride parades held in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou (see Hong Kong Pride Parade and Shanghai Pride).[20]

Pretty Fighter[edit]

Inside the LGBT movement in China the gay moment is dominant while other sexual minorities have historically been relegated. On 11 December 2011, a group calling themselves "Pretty Fighters" issued a manifesto proclaiming, "We are lalas. We are queer. We want to speak out." This controversy started when the Aibai organization (a major LGBT group in China) made claims that homosexuality is inborn and that queer theory, which upholds the possibility of plurality in sexual desire, was harmful to the LGBT movement. This debate eventually led to the lesbian movement declaring independence from the gay movement. “The Pretty Fighter Debate” was a major event for the LGBT movement within China because it hailed the lack of gender awareness in China, marked the independence of the lesbian movement, and defined "queer lala" as inclusive of other sexual mores including transgender individuals.[20]

Transgender people and Chinese culture[edit]


Confucianism, one of the dominant religions in China, enforces and promotes traditional gender roles. Confucianism has a strong belief in maintaining men's dominance over women and trans women are therefore viewed as shameful for expressing a lower status.[23]

Buddhism views all bodily concerns as entrapment in the Samsara, equally including those concerns regarding LGBT+ identities and issues.[24]


The attitudes of younger generations that have been less exposed to Maoist ideologies are beginning to reflect more accepting attitudes towards members of the LGBTQ+ community.[5]

Transgender culture[edit]


Transgender youth in China face many challenges. One study found that Chinese parents report 0.5% (1:200) of their 6 to 12-year boys and 0.6% (1:167) of girls often or always ‘state the wish to be the other gender’. 0.8% (1.125) of 18- to 24-year-old university students who are birth-assigned males (whose sex/gender as indicated on their ID card is male) report that the ‘sex/gender I feel in my heart’ is female, while another 0.4% indicating that their perceived gender was ‘other’. Among birth-assigned females, 2.9% (1:34) indicated they perceived their gender as male, while another 1.3% indicating ‘other’.[25]

One transgender man recounts his childhood as one filled with confusion and peer bullying. In school he was mocked for being a tomboy and was regularly disciplined by teachers for displaying rowdy boy-like behavior. Some recommended to his parents that he be institutionalized.[18]

These attitudes may be slowly changing and many Chinese youth are able to live happy and well-adjusted lives as members of the LGBT+ community in modern China.[5] In July 2012 the BBC reported that the new open economy has led to more freedom of sexual expression in China.[26]


Literature and plays in the 17th century featured cross-dressing, like Ming dramatist Xu Wei who wrote Female Mulan Takes Her Father’s Place in the Army and The Female Top Candidate Rejects a Wife and Receives a Husband. Despite the female to male cross dressing, the woman would eventually return to her socially gendered roles of wearing women's clothes and would marry a man.[16]

Social media and technology[edit]

Technological advancements help to promote greater awareness among youth of LGBT+ issues. Access to Western media, such as movies, trans-identifying characters, as well as trans-themed web sites are broadening the knowledge and sense of community many trans youth seek.[5][27]

Transgender people in media[edit]




The flowing Chinese films portray transgender characters:[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender Issues". GLAAD. 2011-09-09. Retrieved 14 April 2015.
  2. ^ a b c Chiang, Howard (2012-12-11). Transgender China. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 269. ISBN 978-0-230-34062-6.
  3. ^ Baird, Vanessa (2003). 性別多樣化: 彩繪性別光譜. 書林出版有限公司. p. 25. ISBN 9789575869953. Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  4. ^ "Chung wai literary quarterly". 31 (4–6). 2002: 212. Retrieved 5 July 2015. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ a b c d Shiu, Ling-po (2008). Developing Teachers and Developing Schools in Changing Contexts. Chinese University Press. pp. 298–300. ISBN 978-9629963774.
  6. ^ Erni, John Nguyet (2018-12-07). Law and Cultural Studies: A Critical Rearticulation of Human Rights. Routledge. ISBN 9781317156215.
  7. ^ Emerton, Robyn (2006). "Finding a voice, fighting for rights: the emergence of the transgender movement in Hong Kong". Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. 7 (2): 243–269. doi:10.1080/14649370600673896. Retrieved 2019-09-03.
  8. ^ "Transgender China". Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  9. ^ Chiang, Howard (2012-12-11). Transgender China. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 266. ISBN 978-0-230-34062-6.
  10. ^ "Cantonese: Sex 黃色字眼". Retrieved 5 July 2015.
  11. ^ a b c P. Zhu, Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature (2015, ISBN 1137514736), page 115.
  12. ^ a b c d e Howard Chiang, Sexuality in China: Histories of Power and Pleasure (2018, ISBN 0295743484), pages 240-241 Cite error: The named reference "Chiang 2018" was defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  13. ^ Chiang, Howard (2012-12-11). Transgender China. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-230-34062-6.
  14. ^ "Transgender China". Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  15. ^ Zhang, Qing Fei (2014). "Transgender Representation by the People's Daily Since 1949". Sexuality & Culture. 18: 180–195. doi:10.1007/s12119-013-9184-3.
  16. ^ a b c d e Kile, Sarah E. (Summer 2013). "Transgender Performance in Early Modern China". Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 24 (2): 131–145. doi:10.1215/10407391-2335085.
  17. ^ Chengzhou He (2 December 2011). Performance and the Politics of Gender: Transgender Performance in Contemporary Chinese Film. Brown University. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  18. ^ a b Jun, Pi (9 October 2010). "Transgender in China". Journal of LGBT Youth. 7 (4): 346–351. doi:10.1080/19361653.2010.512518.
  19. ^ Sun, Nancy (9 January 2014). "Shanxi Permits Persons to Change Gender Information". All-China Women's Federation. Retrieved 17 October 2014.
  20. ^ a b c d Lixian, Holly (Nov–Dec 2014). "LGBT Activism in Mainland China". Against the Current. 29 (5): 19–23. ISSN 0739-4853.
  21. ^ Hildebrandt (September 2012). "Development and Division: the effect of transnational linkages and local politics on LGBT activism in China". Journal of Contemporary China. 21 (77): 845–862. doi:10.1080/10670564.2012.684967.
  22. ^ "LGBT Community in Beijing". Anglo Info. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
  23. ^ Bolich, G. G. (2009). Crossdressing in Context, Vol. 4 Transgender & Religion. pp. 351–354. ISBN 978-0-615-25356-5.
  24. ^ Greenberg, Yudit Kornberg, ed. (2007). "Homosexuality in Buddhism". Encyclopedia of Love in World Religions. 2. ABC-CLIO. p. 303. ISBN 978-1-85109-981-8.
  25. ^ Winter, Sam; Conway, Lynn. "How many trans* people are there? A 2011 update incorporating new data". Archived from the original on 28 March 2015. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  26. ^ "China's acceptance of transgender people". BBC. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  27. ^ Levine, Jill (8 August 2013). "Is Support for Transgender Rights Increasing in China?". Tea Leaf Nation. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
  28. ^ Kirstin Cronn-Mills, Transgender Lives: Complex Stories, Complex Voices (2018, ISBN 1541557506), page 45.

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