Homosexuality in China : 余桃断袖

Initially, I’d very much assumed that in China, like many western countries, homosexuality was frowned upon, or seen as sinful and evil, at least until recent years. However much to my surprise, especially so in the earlier generations, homosexuality was seen as a very normal, and regular way of life in China. Homosexuality wasn’t frowned upon in China until the 19th and 20th century through the spread of westernisation and Christian and Islamic beliefs. In time it was banned in the People’s Republic of China, and only 15 years ago in 1997 was the ban lifted and legalised once more.

Homosexuality in China has been documented since ancient times. There have been many documented cases of high authorities and people such as emperor’s having one or more male sex partners, while also maintaining heterosexual relationships. Emperor Ai of the Han Dynasty was one such emperor who was very devoted to his male companion, stated that he “did not care for women”, he even tried to pass on the throne to his lover. Another was General Liang Ji, again of the Han Dynasty, who was happily married, but also owned a slave who was publicly acknowledged as a concubine.

Homosexuality was the norm back in these days, so cases weren’t taken much note of unless there were odd circumstances surrounding them – Emperor Ai was noted as he once cut off his sleeve that his lover was sleeping on as not to wake him, which was then imitated by many people in court leading to the expression “breaking the sleeve”, and expression for homosexuality, which was paired with an early story of an emperor sharing a peach with his lover “the leftover peach” to create “yútáo duànxiù” (余桃断袖), a term for refering to homsexuality in general. General Liang Ji’s case was noted because he was extremely devoted to his wife, and shared his slave with her in a 3-way sexual relationship, rather than having them both only aim to please him. Male prostitutes was also not unheard of, younger or poorer men would provide sexual services to a man in a higher power in return for a political advancement.

Marriage between males also came about in the province of Fujian. The older male would play the masculine role as an “adoptive older brother”, pay a price to the family of the younger man, virgins reportedly fetching higher prices, the younger man would be the “adoptive younger brother”. They would carry out the ceremony much like a regular wedding. The younger male would move in the older’s home and would become completely dependant on him. They would even possibly go on to raise adopted children. Marriages like these would last up to 20 years before they were both expected to marry women and carry on their family name.

There is not much documentation of relations between women in Chinese history, with most of the reason being that the role of women is not given much positive emphasis, and that it can only be assumed to have been a rare occurrence.

China would keep these very open views, and deem homosexuality the norm for years to come, until the west began advancing into their territory. It is highly argued that the influence of the west is the reason that China took on the view of the majority of the rest of the world – that homosexuality was unnatural and wrong.

From the 19th and 20th Century onward, homosexuality was banned up until 1997, however it was only removed from the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. Not much was known about the Communist Chinese governments official policies in regards to homosexuality prior to the 1980’s, however many were imprisoned and executed – whether for oppression or sexual identity is unknown but Mao was believed to have supported castration of “sexual deviants”. Even in the 1980’s the Chinese government treated homosexuality as a disease and would subject people to things like electric shock therapy  to change their orientation.

Today, homosexuality in both males and females is becoming much less taboo, or shunned as it was during the 19th and 20th century. It is increasingly becoming more widely accepted among Chinese people, though there are still some limiting factors such as gay movies being banned from being shown on TV or at the cinema. In Chinese countryside it’s still as heavily frowned upon as it was before, what with lack of internet, city lifestyle and breaking out from the traditional norms, homosexuality is, when spoken of, usually considered as a disease.

While widely more tolerated, many individuals are not inclined to “come out” to family or friends – to not marry and have a child is seen as largely disrespectful to their parents. Some also feel that revealing themselves will have an impact on their career. People who have come out to parents, and even those who have not but the parents know, often face the “don’t ask; don’t tell” attitude; if it’s not talked about it won’t/hasn’t happened, they will often bring up marriage and children even if they know their child is gay, which can lead to many cutting of a huge chunk of their life off from their family. Older generations maintain the heterosexual lifestyle and carrying on the family name and heritage, but newer generations are beginning to branch out and embrace themselves rather than cling on to age old ways.

More recently there has been a trend growing in China of gays marrying lesbians to lead the “heterosexual lifestyle” that their parents desire, but while also leading their own lives, rather than past generations of homosexuals who would simply marry and have children, and stay hidden about their sexuality forever. They believe in China that this is a “temporary fix” to deal with social and family pressures, because for some the cost is too high for them to come out.

Homosexuality, until the 19th century really didn’t seem to be any sort of issue in China at all, in all generations past. It’s only since the coming of the west and their religious beliefs, and possibly Mao, has China taken on the same  questionable stance as (most of) the rest of the world. Though with the silenced attitude of many older generations, violence against gays and lesbians isn’t as prominent as it is in countries like the USA. With the way things are now in China, especially so with the current younger generation, it can only be a matter of time before homosexuality is once again, nothing more than normality, and with equality for everyone.

Factories in China, acceptable working conditions?

When you look at a piece of clothing, an electronic device or even a child’s toy, where is it most likely to have come from? China. In fact you would probably guess China without even looking. Everyone I asked guessed that their things like laptops, mp3 players and so forth were from China, or “somewhere in Asia”. When I was younger I used to imagine China was just a country where everything was made, that it was just factory after factory, and nothing else – of course I know now that this is certainly not the case. Still, a large majority of products are made in China, but what do we know about these factory’s?

There has been talk of China’s factory’s in the news as of late, in particular the factory Foxconn, which is the manufacturer for the likes of Apple’s iPad’s & iPod’s, Microsofts Xbox, and Amazon’s Kindle among other companies and products. The recent controversial topics surrounding Foxconn are with Apple following a record high in earnings in 2011, which were up over 100% compared to their previous years earnings, causing people to start asking questions. On one particular article I read about the massive success of Apple in 2011, the first comment was “Thank god for cheap Chinese labor”.

In China there are currently 13 Foxconn factories in 9 different cities – the most in any other country in the world. The largest is situated in Longhua, Shenzhen, with 430,000  workers, it is often refered to as “Foxconn city” or “iPod City”, and with that amount of people and things like worker dormitories, a grocery store, swimming pool, it’s own tv network, a downtown area with restaurants, bookstores, a hospital and bank, it certainly is like a city! Some of the workers, as guessed by the dormitories, live within the factory, while others live in nearby towns and villages. Without knowing what goes on behind the scenes it seems not too shabby, but is that really the case?
It was recently revealed after some investigation following such record high earnings from Apple about the conditions at Foxconn, the long hours the hundreds of thousands of staff worked (6 or 7 days a week for up to 14 hours a day), and the suicides of 17 of their workers (which prompted Foxconn to put up a barrier on the top of their buildings, and for workers to sign a form promising not to commit suicide). Apple promptly raised the workers average wage by 25% following the sudden epidemic of suicides. Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook said they are taking their working conditions very seriously for their workers.

American monologist Mike Daisey, who is an Apple enthusiast recently spoke about his trip to Foxconn after he saw a forum thread about someone who had photo’s on their newly bought iPhone of the inside of a Chinese factory. For me this was the first thing I had ever really heard or taken particular notice in, and it shocked me. He speaks with a joke thrown in here and there, but he tells the listener about how he meets workers from the factory, one girl who cleans the screens of iPhones all day long, every week, and she is as young as 13. This kind of work is not acceptable in the likes of the UK or America, so why is it in China? Another worker he meets is an older man (at another factory, not Foxconn), his hand is all twisted up and his hands are very leathery, and the man tells him how he’s moved to this factory because the hours and pay are better (70 hours a week), and the people are nicer. He also meets other people from Foxconn whose joints have disintegrated from the total wear and tear from doing the same repeated movements every single day for hours on end, and when they get to this stage, they are thrown off their line, and moved to another or fired. Really, this is horrific, without even doing research I know in the west, if this sort of thins happened, it would be headline news and not acceptable at all.

You can listen to his experience here

Following onto this, it’s very different to factory work you would find in the west. There aren’t factories like this in the west, why is that? Apple commented that they use Chinese labour because they work better than American labour. You’ll find people in the west also won’t apply (or certainly not enough) for the types of jobs like factory labour, they think they are above it, and they certainly wouldn’t apply for the amount of pay it gives, even in the current recession.

Is Foxconn and other factories like it so bad though? Well, yes, given some of the current conditions it’s certainly not great, so why do millions Chinese people apply to work at these factories? Well the simple and obvious answer is that it’s easy to get a job, and so an easy way to earn, albeit not a lot of money. But they have helped raise the economy in China, it’s helped move people from the absolute lowest form of poverty, to something not that much better, but to something better at least. Women in particular were given sudden job opportunities that they never had.

I think it’s a hard thing to comment on, of course these kind of factories aren’t good, not in their current state, but they are getting better, and I think if they keep continuing to improve, giving better conditions to it’s workers, not such intense hours, a higher pay and so on, they could really be not such an issue, in fact they could be a great(er) asset than they currently are to China.

History of Chinese Animation

Ever since the boom in animation following the huge success of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, animation from all over the world has enjoyed commercial success, most notably the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and France. China is sadly not a country that has known much commercial success with it’s animation, and so not many people know many, if any Chinese animations at all.

The first well recognised animation in China was the 10 minute short “Uproar in the Studio” created by the four Wan brothers; Wan Chaochen, Wan Dihuan, Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming in 1926. Sadly the film has been since lost, but it helped the Wan brothers become recognised as pioneers in the animation industry in China. In 1935 they created their first animated film with sound “The Camel’s Dance”, again seems to have been also lost to history.

In 1941 the Wan brothers released China’s first animated feature film “Princess Iron Fan”. After seeing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they sought to create an animated feature film of the same quality. The film was adapted from a popular Chinese folk tale “Journey to the West”. It took them 3 years, 237 artists and 350,000 yuan (roughly £35,133). A high amount of rotoscoping was done to save on costs, often the eyes of the live action actors were left visible on the faces of the characters. “Princess Iron fan” was the first Animated feature to be made in Asia, in 1942 it reached the shores of Japan and went onto inspire Tezuka Osamu, a highly influential Japanese comic artist.

You can watch the full film on YouTube!

While subtle, Chinese animation, particularly “Princess Iron Fan”, had a highly important role in the boom of animation in another region of the world – Osamu Tezuka is highly regarded as the “Walt Disney of Japan”, and of course, Japan is a huge part of animation, the largest in Asia by far. Perhaps without the influence of Chinese animated film Princess Iron Fan, Japan wouldn’t be as successful and as influential in the animation industry as it is today.

In the late 1940’s Chinese Animation was heavy in political content, with films such as Emperor’s Dream which was animated with puppets, trying to expose the Kuomintang Chinese nationalist party. From the 1950’s onwards, the predecessor of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio was formed, all of the big name artist came together within this studio, including the Wan Brothers. In 1956 the Wan brothers created their first coloured animated film “Why is the Crow Black-Coated”, which also was the first animated Chinese film to be recognised internationally, at the 1956 Venice Film Festival.

The very early 1960’s gave way to the Wan Brothers most recognised film “Havoc in Heaven” or “Uproar in Heaven”. Planning for the film originally began in 1941, but due to the War, it was delayed over 10 years. They began production in 1954 and by 1964 the whole film was completed. Based on the story “Journey to the West”, it is about a Monkey King who rebels again the Emperor of heaven. As previously mentioned, it was a highly recognised film, and one of the most influential films of all time to come out of Asia. The film runs for almost 2 hours long,  pushing the limits of the current animation technology, and had incredibly vivid colours at the time on screen.

1966 saw the Cultural Revolution and Chairman Mao, and the animation industry was essentially put to a halt during this time. Many animators were not allowed to draw during this time, and were forced to do labor work. This continued until the Cultural Revolution was over in 1976. The animators left were heavily influenced by Mao’s campaign, for example one animation made “Little 8th Route Army” which was the story of a boy taking revenge against the Japanese Army.

The Cultural Revolution had done an extensive amount of damage to the Chinese Animation industry, the majority of animation shown in Hong Kong was from the United States, mostly being a Disney animation. Japan had also risen as the dominant country providing animation from Asia, creating extremely popular mascots and animated shows. China had a very hard time coming back and competing again in the animation market. The 1980’s saw them begin to pick back up, but then again by the 1990’s they were once again pushed back by the ever growing Japanese Animation industry with the likes of Pokemon which was a hugely massive success all over the world, earning $15 billion in sales.
Currently, with the massive rise of the internet, many independent animators are embracing things such as flash animation, while not commercially successful as feature films, it is a step in the right direction. In 2005 they also completed their first 3D feature film “DragonBlade”, a huge step for the industry. It is a huge shame that the Cultural Revolution halted Chinese Animation for so long, and of course that Japan overshadows all of Asia in terms of animation, however hopefully China will pick up once more stronger and better than ever, and it will produce some beautiful animated films, such as the wonderful “Havoc in Heaven”, as it once did.

Pop Culture in China: Music and Cinema


Pop Culture in China, with particular interest in the cinema and music, while we in the west may not know much about it, is just as important and as big as our own, only within their own culture. Unlike the west, where big stars may emerge from the United Kingdom or America, and go onto become a word wide phenomenon, a Chinese pop star will only really experience the fame within their own culture. The same can be said for things like their cinema, music, comics, and animation – it’s very much kept within China and not shared with the rest of the world, whether it be down to lack of success outside China, or simply that it’s not shared with the rest of the world.

The music scene is huge in China, while you may initially think of Chinese music being the traditional, and easily recognisable flute, string and cymbals (which, it’s important to add is still a large part of Chinese culture today), it is in fact very similar to our own music scene – they have pop (dubbed “C-pop” 中文流行音乐), rock, hip hop, and so on. C-Pop remains the most popular form of music today in China, boasting many singers and bands, along with award ceremonies and music tours.

While C-pop emerged from the 1920’s, Chinese hip hop is a very new and still emerging genre for them, only first appearing in the 1980’s, and more so in the early 2000’s when Eminems movie “8 Mile”, and along with other movies which helped increase the growth of Chinese hip hop. A lot of their hip hop is performed in english as they don’t feel Chinese works well or is suitable

Chinese Rock too is a very new genre in China, as the same with hip hop, it first emerged in the late 1980’s. These songs started off very political and idealistic, moving onto become quite vulgar and negative (Chi Zhiqiang 迟志强 Starting this particular genre of rock off, singing about his time in jail). During the early 90’s it hit its peak in the music scene, but due to strict censorship by the Communist party of banning rock music on tv and heavy restrictions on their performances, it started a slow decline into an underground culture. In 2004-2005 an American filmmaker Kevin Frtiz followed the Chinese Rock band “Beijing’s Joyside” on their first tour of China to make the film “Wasted Orient”, which comically depicts the pitfalls and hardship of trying to tour in China, where there is little taste for rock music.

“The film Wasted Orient is what it is pure and simple. It’s honest. It is the true way of Chinese rock n’ roll. It’s not glamorous. It’s filthy. It’s filled with despair. It’s very unwanted in that society and is shown in its citizens’ apathetic response to it” – Kevin Fritz

In Chinese cinema, they face some of the same restrictions as those within the rock music industry, there is heavy censorship from any films that contain political overtones, and many are simply outright banned in China. Despite this, China remains the third largest film industry of feature films produced yearly. Films like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers” are Chinese films that were very successful overseas, the former of which is the most commercially successful foreign film in US cinema, and provided a great introduction to Chinese cinema for many people, and helped increase popularity in older Chinese films that would have otherwise, been left unknown.

Chinese cinema doesn’t contain a motion picture rating system, so all films must be deemed suitable for all ages to watch, or it is not allowed to be screened. In the case of films such as those that come from Hollywood, many scenes and footage is cut out to be allowed to be screened. Some films are outright banned altogether, for example James Cameron’s Avatar was banned (though notably only in 2D) because it was thought it would possibly incite violence. Chinese censors also only clear 20 foreign films a year to be shown in the country, though through counterfeit DVD’s, people are freely able to obtain all internationally released films.

With the ever-growing popularity of things like the internet, being able to listen to Chinese Music, or watch Chinese cinema through streaming rental sites, or buying CD’s and DVD’s online, it’s much easier to obtain a better insight into these ever-growing area’s of Chinese pop culture these days, than it ever has been.