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New Chinese Dictionary Leaves Out “Gay” Definition

New Chinese Dictionary Leaves Out “Gay” Definition


The latest edition of one of China’s most authoritative dictionaries contains a glaring omission. Gay rights advocates say that, amid the 69,000 entries, 13,000 Chinese characters and more than 3,000 new phrases in the newly revised sixth edition of the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary, a definition for a commonly used word for “gay” in Chinese has been excluded.

The word in question, tongzhi, is a colloquial term equivalent to “gay.” As Ding Xueliang, a social sciences professor from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, tells the BBC, tongzhi has another definition, “comrade,” with political associations:

“The use of ‘tongzhi’ to describe homosexuality started in Hong Kong and Taiwan to make fun of the mainland’s communist terminology because Chinese leaders address each other using ‘tongzhi’ meaning ‘comrade’ – for instance, ‘Hu Jintao tongzhi’ or ‘Wen Jiabao tongzhi.’

“So it’s quite normal that the Chinese government doesn’t want to take this new meaning into the dictionary.”

One of the dictionary’s compilers, linguist Jiang Lansheng, said that he and his colleagues were indeed aware of the different meanings of tongzhi. He said they refused to put tongshi‘s meaning of “gay” into the dictionary because “we don’t want to promote these things. We don’t want to draw attention to these things.”

The standard word for homosexual, tongxinglian (literally meaning “same-sex love”) is included in the dictionary, but this word has “clinical” connotations. Tongzhi literally means “same will.”

The leading dictionary, Xinhua Zidian, also omitted the “gay” definition of tongzhi in its most recent 2010 edition.

Homosexuality was illegal in China until 1997 and has still been considered a mental disorder; discriminatory attitudes clearly still exist. The BBC points out that the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary does include internet slang such as geili for “awesome” and weibo for microblog (as well as NBA). But the omission of tongzhi as the “most commonly used, non-offensive term” for homosexuals in Chinese (as a gay rights advocate identified as Nan Feng says to Xinhua) shows how the “preferences and values” of the dictionary’s compilers shaped its content.

In English, the use of the word “gay” to mean homosexual goes back to the 1940s or even the 1920s, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. In the US, it was not until 1973 that homosexuality was no longer considered a mental disorder and removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

LGBT rights and advocacy are still in their infancy in China.  According to a 2010 Agence-France Presse article, there are about 30 million homosexuals in China, with 20 million of them are men. Zhang Bei-chuan, one of China’s authorities on HIV/AIDS, told China Daily in February that about 90 percent gay men in China marry heterosexual women because of “pressure to conform” — the same pressure that led the dictionary compiles to ignore the reality of how words are used in China and to leave out the “gay” definition of tongzhi.


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Photo of LGBT Pride in Taipei, Taiwan, by SSKao

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9:45AM PDT on Sep 11, 2012

Where did they get the numbers? 30 million gays and 20 million of them male? Even if only 5% of the Chinese population is gay, it means 75,000,000. And how come only a third of those 30 mill are female? Anyone know how they(?) came to that conclusion?

8:40AM PDT on Aug 11, 2012

Are you kidding? Oh, wait, it's China... you're not kidding.

10:52PM PDT on Aug 7, 2012

interesting reading-thankyou!!!!

3:28AM PDT on Jul 26, 2012

It's only one dictionary, the Chinese can manifest by choosing to purchase one of the others.

Besides youngsters who don't know what it means are more likely to ask a friend or family before looking it up in any dictionary.

Generally we tend to no longer use gay as meaning happy and joyful, just in case it gets misinterpreted and we don't happen to be homosexual. :)

6:07PM PDT on Jul 24, 2012

Thank you

2:04PM PDT on Jul 23, 2012

Serious and systematic errors of ommission like this smother the spirit. It negatively effects the LGBTQ sense of spirit of inclusion, safety, celebration and unity. Just as strongly, it errodes community, national and global spirit as well. Exclusion is destructive and underscores a premise that some are better than others.

11:32AM PDT on Jul 23, 2012

Gay means happy

8:40AM PDT on Jul 23, 2012


8:21PM PDT on Jul 22, 2012

Lmao oh China, leaving it out of the dictionary doesn't make it disappear, nor does it mean people don't already know about it.

Kath N, I am gay but I don't sodomize anyone's anus, nor do I allow anyone to sodomize my anus. Why are you so into anal sex? Especially among males? Have a dirty little fetish that keeps creeping up?

7:29PM PDT on Jul 22, 2012

Kristina - Could you please clarify some of your statements. Are you talking about Hong Kong which was under British rule for 150years then handed back to the Chinese on July 1, 1997 when you talk about homosexuality being illegal or where you talking about mainland China? The West's influence in Hong Kong came from the British which had Christian values. Where as mainland China is not religous and it doesn't have any laws regarding this. The pressure is coming from Western countries.

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