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