Crossing the Borders of Gender In China

Crossing the Borders of Gender In China

Review of Zhou Huashan. 2000. Xingbie yuejie zai Zhongguo [Crossing the Borders of Gender in China]. Hong Kong: Xianggang Tongshi Yanjiushi. ISBN: 962-850268-9, 319 pages.


What does it mean to be a woman in China? What does it mean to be gay? What does sexuality, in general, stand for in Chinese society? In Xingbie Yuejie Zai Zhongguo [Crossing the Borders of Gender In China] (2000) Zhou Huashan tries to answer these questions. Zhou focuses on how the discourse on gender in Mainland China has developed in a very different way from the West. Therefore, these concepts end up meaning different things to the Chinese than they do to people in the West. Even so, many representatives of Chinese feminist or gay movements look at themselves through Western eyes. In this work, Zhou explores what “gender” actually means in a Chinese context, and by doing so, tries to put the Chinese concept of “gender” back where it belongs: in China, and not in the West. This review is an exploration of Zhou’s main arguments and ideas. According to the title, Zhou goes beyond the concept of “gender”. Does he actually succeed in doing so?

This review is divided in three parts, where consecutively is explored what Zhou’s stance is on (1) the concepts of gender and feminism (2) the Chinese position of the man and Men’s Studies  (3) the emancipation of the Chinese homosexual.

On The Author

Zhou Huashan (also spelled as Chou Wah-san), born in 1962, is a graduate in Sociology from the University of York and later became a professor at Hong Kong University, specializing in gender studies. He has written over twenty books, most of them focusing on gay studies and the dominance of heterosexuality, like Yixinglian Baquan [The Hegemony of Heterosexual Love] (1993), and his only translated work: Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies (2000). Recently he has been researching the matriarchal society of the Mosuo people in the south of China. As an anthropologist he worked on the documentary on the Mosuo, The Kingdom of Women (2007) (Baike 2010; Zhou Huashan 2000; IMDB 2007).

Xingbie Yuejie zai Zhongguo has a broader theme than Zhou’s previous works. For the first time, Zhou does not only focus on a particular part of gender studies, but provides the reader with a wide framework on gender in China in general. Since it covers many areas within gender studies, the book is divided into four parts. The first is focused on Men’s Studies, and how this research has developed in China. The second part concentrates on Women’s Studies, and specifically, on the “politics” the female body has to deal with in Mainland China. The third part, “Interpreting the Mother Role”, compares Chinese and Western concepts on what it means to be a mother. In the final part Zhou turns to gay studies, and looks into the history and the future of the Chinese gay movement.

The read thread throughout the book is the Western concept of what “gender” is versus the Chinese concept of this idea.

1. Chinese Gender and Feminism

In the 1960s sexuality and gender relations were first recognized as academic research subjects in the West[1]. Western understandings of “sexuality” and “gender” were influenced by the sexual revolution and by movements like feminism and gay liberation. The main idea generated from this period is that sexual embodiment does not belong to some universal human nature; it is strongly interwoven with specific cultures and societies. An important new insight was how gender is a construction; “gender” does not necessarily refer to the difference of sex between men and women, but how this sex-difference is formed by society (Zhou 2000, 43).

According to Zhou, the discourse on sexuality and gender is heavily dominated by the West. This dominance makes it quite problematic to discuss these concepts of gender in other forms and cultures, since the ideas themselves already entail a whole (Western) history.

Zhou argues that through the Western “Orientalist view”[2], the Chinese woman is seen as “helpless and ignorant”[3], as she has to depend on the experiences of the Western woman to emancipate herself (Zhou 2000, 7). It is a misconception to see the Chinese woman as backward according to Zhou. She actually is not backward; her present position can just not be analyzed through a Western framework, since the dominance of the “white West”[4] in the gender discourse only brings about misunderstandings in a Chinese context.

According to Zhou, the West has constructed “gender” as a binary concept of men opposed to women. The feminist movement, Women’s Studies and Men’s Studies have all come from this idea of binary division. Western feminism originated from resistance against the dominance of men throughout history. To be “woman” or to be “man” has become an integral part of Western identity. In China, however, one does not necessarily identify with one’s sex. According to Zhou, sex, class and age are all mutually constitutive. Combined, they make up someone’s identity. There is no space in between (11). Zhou quotes sexologist Li Yinhe when he says: “In the West, a woman firstly is a woman, and then she is a human. In China, people look at humans; whether she is a woman is not a first priority”[5] (2000, 13).

On an academic level, Zhou highlights how gender studies in the West derived from a discourse of post-colonialism, where the West critically looked back upon it’s 300 year road to modernization and started giving attention to voices that had previously been silenced by dominant discourses. According to Zhou, China does not need to look at the “mistakes” the West made [6], and is not yet ready to look back on it’s own recent past. Therefore fields like Women’s or Men’s Studies have not been properly explored by Chinese scholars yet (70).

On a more ideological level, Zhou stresses the idea that the Western discourse on gender and feminism derives from an individualistic, liberalist and capitalist background, whereas the Chinese counterpart derived from a post 1949 socialist background, where the individual never played an important role. The emancipation of the woman has therefore never really been of great significance, since it has always been about the liberation of the people in general (13).

Although women’s liberation has not been of great importance in China, there is indeed a women’s movement or a “Chinese feminism”. The goals these movements have in mind, however, differentiate from the West. Whereas the West is focused on diminishing differences between men and women, Chinese feminists do not feel this urge at all (13). Zhou argues that the women’s movement originally has never been a battle for autonomy, and was not really focused on the emancipation of the sexes; it was more a national movement of the people; anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, and anti-feudal (155). Zhou describes the main current tendency as: “Men looking more like ‘men’, and women looking more like ‘women’”[7] (13). This idea derives from the fact that women under Mao’s regime were only taken seriously if they dressed and acted like a man. By acting and dressing like a woman now, they take their gendered identity in their own hands.

Zhou takes it as the biggest challenge for Chinese scholars now to figure out how to read and rewrite the Western feminist discourse to suit China. In doing so he stresses some main characteristics of China’s feminism. The liberation of women , for example, cannot be separated from the emancipation of society at large. Furthermore, the emancipation of women goes beyond the Western binary division of the sexes (16-18).

As Zhou stresses the idea that there is no clear binary concept of men versus woman in Chinese thought, he explores phenomenons in Chinese society that are, indeed, heavily gendered. This elucidates the idea that there is a discrepancy between Chinese feminism in theory and the daily lives of women in reality. One of these phenomenons is the public toilet, where there actually is a clear division between men and women. Zhou argues that public toilets are designed to suit the needs of men, and ignore women’s needs (86). Besides toilets, Zhou also explores the gendered discourse on cursing, where men’s cursing is looked upon as “releasing anger”, whilst women’s cursing is frowned upon (99).

By providing the reader with a range of daily-life examples of gendered categories, Zhou makes the rather new and abstract idea of what “gender” entails more tangible to the Chinese reader, and in this way, he eventually turns “gender” (“shehuixingbie”) into something Chinese. Furthermore, Zhou clearly conveys how Western concepts of gender and feminism are incompatible with China because of enormous ideological, cultural and historical differences.

2. The Emancipation of the Man

A major part of his book is dedicated to research on men’s identity in China, since Zhou stresses the importance of the emancipation of the man along with the emancipation of the woman. Without feminism, there would have not been any research on the male gender. Essentially, they go hand in hand (54).

In the last decennia there have been enormous changes in Chinese society. As a result, the idea of what it means to be a “nanzihan” (a “real man”) has greatly changed. While the role of the man was intrinsically linked to the household and family in traditional China, in the 20th century, the man fully served the nation. After 1949, instead of dedicating himself to his family, the man had to be loyal to the Party and strive for the good of the Chinese people. In present-day society, men mainly have to work for China’s growing economy (22-25).

Since the 1990s, the dominant idea of the Chinese man is facing some challenges. Chinese feminism has improved women’s status in society and economy. This has forced men to rethink themselves and adjust their attitudes towards women (37). Through interviews with different men from varying ages and social classes, Zhou reveals the misconceptions mainstream male society has on the idea of “men’s emancipation”. Many men think that men’s emancipation is equal to feminization (39).  According to Zhou, however, that is not the meaning of “men’s emancipation”; the “emancipation” of men is needed to break down the hegemony of the “real man” among men. There is a dominant idea of what the male identity is, and this hegemony of the man’s identity actually weakens the female one (46). And thus, there is not “one man”, but multiple “masculinities” (44).

Once again, Zhou stresses the thought that the idea of “masculinity” and Men’s Studies essentially is a Western idea. The hegemonic masculinity is Western, white, middle class, and heterosexual (46). Zhou clearly proves here that the Western discourse on Men’s Studies is not universal. It ignores the idea that there are multiple masculinities, and so, excludes many male identities, such as the black male, homosexuals and men from the lower classes of society (46).

Zhou again emphasizes the differences between the West and China. Because the lack of a clear binary opposition in China, there is no clear translation of “femininity” or “masculinity” (59) in the first place. Secondly, while the Western man is individualized, the Chinese man is a “dutiful son under the patriarchal society” [8]; a big part of his identity therefore lies in his role as a son (60). Thirdly Zhou argues that self-value in the West is based on sex appeal, whilst there is a “non-sexual culture” [9] in China. According to Zhou, sex is an essential part of Western life and therefore sex appeal is a powerful force in society. The emphasis on sex appeal generates a clear separation between men and women: the strong man versus the sexy woman (62-64). China, according to Zhou, is more “neutral”, and not about “big-breasted women and muscled men” [10]. The conclusion Zhou draws here is equal to the one he draws on feminism; namely, without the clear Chinese gendered concept of man versus woman, they both have to “emancipate” at the same time.

Zhou is quite clear on what men’s emancipation actually is. It is not about dividing the sexes, but about harmonizing them. It does not resist feminism, does not misuse women, and does not take “the oppression of the sexes”[11] as a general idea to avoid individual responsibilities. Furthermore, the gender debate should not be simplified into the idea of men just becoming softer, and men should not flaunt themselves as the new “liberated” man; since that is not what emancipation is about (76-78).

3. Homosexuality in China

In traditional Chinese society, the “sex consciousness”[12] of the people was very blurry. There was no desire to construct different sexual identities and categorize people as “heterosexual” or “homosexual”. Every identity was seen from the perspective of one’s role in the family (147). Other identities were not considered important. It is for this reason that “homosexuality” has been a non-existing sexual category in China for a long time. There was a general tolerance towards same-sex sexual relations, and no pressure to construct a gay identity (212-213).

However, around 1900, homosexuality was medicalized by Western scholars and generally looked upon as a disease that needed to be cured. When Western ideas reached China at the beginning of the 20th century, China took over this “homophobia”[13]. While the U.S. officially rejected the idea of homosexuality as a disease in 1973, China was still caught up in this idea for a long time. According to Zhou, the present situation is as follows:

Present day homosexuals are in a space that is oppressed in many ways. Although they long for public acceptance, feudal thought is still deeply rooted in Chinese thought (212)[14].

Homosexuals need more tolerance, but the old-fashioned ideas that live in society keep them from liberation. In the thoughts of many, being Chinese and being gay do not go together. Nevertheless, there does exist a certain “gay identity” in China. This identity differs from the West in multiple ways. Firstly, the greatest pressure on the Chinese homosexual does not come from the government, work or religion, but from the family, who wants their son to get married to a girl. Secondly, sexuality is just a piece of life and does not need to be overly stressed; the fact that someone is sexually attracted to men does not define his identity. Thirdly, a lot of Chinese gays do no feel the need to “come out” like homosexuals in the West do. It is considered private, or simply not necessary (213). Because of these differences, Zhou argues that the Chinese do not need to build on Western experiences to construct a gay-identity. “Gay emancipation” is not a universal process but is different for every culture (213). The Chinese do it the Chinese way. There is no suppression of gay people, but neither is there understanding for them: many Chinese simply cannot imagine what the concept of “homosexuality” entails (213). Zhou holds that Chinese gays should find their own way, and not over-romanticize the liberation of the Western gay.

Zhou also elaborates on the identity of the Chinese lesbian. Lesbian groups have only been appearing in China since the 1990s. The lesbian has a completely different position in society than the gay. Zhou explains how in China everything that has to do with “sex” is connected to the male genitals. A relationship where there are no male genitals, therefore, is officially not a sexual relationship. In this way, the Chinese “lesbian” is simply non-existent. A relationship between girls is seen as “erxiwanyi”; children’s games (239-243). Zhou argues that being gay/lesbian in China is a unique phenomenon; the blurry sexual consciousness of the people actually also generates a relative kind of tolerance (215).

It is evident that Zhou’s expertise lies in gay studies. His elaboration on the Chinese gay identity and how it differs from the West is clear and convincing. Zhou especially succeeds in depicting how the Western gender discourse categorizes and labels people according to their sexual identity; a state of affairs that suddenly seems questionable after reading Zhou.


Xingbie Yuejie zai Zhongguo sets out a full framework on the concepts of gender and sexuality. Not only does Zhou Huashan provide the reader with a history of gender studies in both the West as China, he also highlights how gender manifests itself in present-day society. He does this by taking daily-life examples, and by interviewing people about their (sexual) identity. This has resulted in a book that delivers many new insights on the gendered construction of Chinese society.

Zhou can be praised for his attempt to map out the history and present of gender studies. However, he covers so many topics in this book – from feminism to homosexuality, from public toilet to cursing word, from mother-role to lesbian -, that the book gets to a point where the reader can not see the wood for the trees. It might have been better for Zhou to focus on one aspect of gender studies in order to make the book more appreciable.

Whilst Zhou critiques the Orientalist way in which Western scholars look at China, it could be argued that he does the same; Zhou takes on certain assumptions about the West that could surely be argued. At the same time, Zhou also takes on assumptions about China that could be rejected. The importance of sex appeal, for example, is a growing phenomenon in China. Anybody who has ever been to a Chinese bar in a bigger city can confirm that muscled men and round-breasted girls get just as much attention in China as they do in the U.S. It sometimes seems like Zhou himself is still caught up with old-fashioned ideas; although, ironically, it is exactly these outdated ideas that he tries to fence off by writing this book.

Xingbie Yuejie zai Zhongguo elucidates how the contemporary discourse on gender in China is in constant flux. It also reminds us that not all concepts used in the Western academic world can be universally applied. Most of all, Xingbie Yuejie zai Zhongguo clarifies that there is a lot of work to be done on the understanding and awareness of gender issues in China. After all, there are still a lot of borders that need to be crossed. This book is a good start-off point to the journey that lies ahead.



Baike. 2010. Zhou Huashan. Baidu (Accessed May 26,          2010).

IMDB. 2007. Kingdom of Women. Internet Biggest Movie Database (Accessed May 26, 2010).

Zhou Huashan. 2000. Xingbie yuejie zai Zhongguo [Crossing the Borders of Gender in China]. Hong Kong: Xianggang Tongshi Yanjiushi.

Zhou Huashan. 2000. Tongzhi: Politics of Same-Sex Eroticism in Chinese Societies. New York: Haworth Press.

Zhou, Huashan. 1993. Yixinglian baquan [The Hegemony of Heterosexual Love]. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing.

[1]When Zhou Huashan speaks of the “West” in this book, he aims at the United States and Europe in general.

[2] “東方注意” (2000: 7).

[3] “(..) 東方主意的幫兇把「中國婦女」定格凝固為「無助無知」 (..)” (7).

[4] “西方白人殖民霸權固然照然若揭” (Zhou 2000, 7).

[5] “在西方,一個女人首先是一個女人,其次才是一個人;在中國,人們見以一個人,不會首先想到她是一個女人(…)” (Zhou 2000, 13).

[6] “我們實在不必重蹈覆轍去複製西方現代化的歷史” (Zhou 2000, 70).

[7] “男性更像男性,女性更像女性”(Zhou 2000, 13).

[8] “國家宗族下的孝子” (Zhou 2000, 60).

[9] “非性文化” (Zhou 2000, 62).

[10] “男大肌肉女大乳房” (Zhou 2000, 64).

[11] “性別壓迫” (Zhou 2000, 78).

[12] “性意識” (Zhou 2000, 147).

[13] “恐同” (Zhou 2000, 212).

[14] “當代中國大陸同志正處於一種多種受壓的兩難夾縫困局中,機渴望同志身份得到公眾接納,但傳宗接代的封建思想仍深深植根在中國大陸土壤裡” (Zhou 2000, 212).

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