Sunday, July 19, 2015

Attitudes toward homosexuality in China: What are fǔnǚ?

With the recent US Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, some people in countries such as China are being forced to face a topic they rather sweep under the carpet. But for others, the ruling provides an opportunity for them to come out when perhaps they may not have otherwise. One such instance happened earlier this month when a graduate of Sun Yat-Sen came on stage wearing a rainbow flag and asked for the university president's support.

In ten years living in China, I have not come across any Chinese friends or acquaintances who were openly gay. In fact, the vast majority of Chinese people say they don't know anyone who is gay. I'm not particularly surprised by this as most gays and lesbians try to live an outwardly straight life in an attempt to appease their families and society. Gay men often marry, some to straight women and others to lesbians. The pressure to marry is great, but perhaps the pressure to have a child is even greater. Nowadays, gays and lesbians can turn online and to "marriage markets" so that they can find a partner to enter into a heterosexual marriage and later have a baby.

I recently talked to one of my adult students, a post-90's generation young woman, what she thought about the Supreme Court ruling and her impression of the overall attitude towards gays in China. The conversation veered in an unexpected direction.

"Do you know what fǔnǚ (腐女) are?" she asked.

“Fùnǚ (妇女)? You mean women?" I answered, confused.

She laughed.

I had mixed up two near homophones. I had her write the characters down for clarification. The first one, fǔ (腐) means "rotten or decayed" in Chinese (for those beancurd haters out there, it's also the first character in the Chinese word for tofu). Nǚ simply means "female or woman." A strange word at first glance, but it's actually a transliteration of the Japanese word (ふじょし,fujoshi) for this phenomenon.

What phenomenon? She explained that there is a raising trend of teenage girls and young women obsessing over BL (online slang for "Boy Love," yeah, I had to look that up), delighting in gay romance found in books, movies, and anime. There are large groups of women online that swap BL photos and recommend stories, films, and shows featuring BL. Initially, I thought it odd but more-or-less harmless; maybe not so different from the recent popularity of "Bromance" in the US. But there was more.

These girls also like to pair heterosexual males together, often in photos, for their own amusement. My student showed me a cartoon featuring Kim Jung-un and Barack Obama sitting together shirtless, staring at each other lovingly; this is one such example of the types of stuff that get passed around the internet. But the fǔnǚs fixation isn't strictly reserved to online shenanigans. They may harass male classmates and friends when they show any form of attention or affection towards the same sex, encouraging them to marry or kiss. For fear of being labeled as gay, some young men lash out, making ugly, homophobic comments in an attempt to ward off any further comments.

I find this trend bizarre and unfortunately, I don't know that it's doing anything to help the plight of the gay community in China, but hopefully the Supreme Court ruling will.

BL anime, from


Constance - Foreign Sanctuary said...

I never heard of funu before, but then again, I am sometimes out of the loop with things that are going on among teenagers these days.

I remember having a teenage class that were always talking about homosexuality when the movie 'Brokeback Mountain,' directed by Ang Lee, hit the theaters. I faced so many questions like do you know anyone who is gay? etc.

I don't know if you read a post my husband wrote about his buddy worrying about whether or not his son is gay. It just goes to show how it plays on a parent's mind.

rosieinbj said...

Hi Constance, My husband didn't even know what this meant and he's Chinese! I think the 90's generation get into a lot of stuff online that older people are clueless about, particularly in China.

Autumn said...

Very interesting post, Rosie! I had not heard of this cultural phenomenon.

So, given the stigma of homosexuality in China, my first thought was, "That seems very cruel of the young women," and my second was, "Oh, I get it. It's their way feeling powerful."

Most kids in the US no longer say, "That's so gay!" as an insult. Perhaps China will eventually follow suit.

rosieinbj said...

Hi Autumn. Yeah, I think attitudes in China are changing and will continue to change quite quickly about this and other such issues. I find this whole funv "trend" (if you can call it that) strange though. I don't think it's meant to be cruel, but the problem arises when they suggest heterosexual people should be gay for their own personal amusement.

Anonymous said...

I had never heard about this funv thing either...

I have met several gay men in China, though. The last one a few weeks ago, when I went to a blogging event. He was dating a British guy. I think there are several gay bars in Shanghai. Sometimes on the street I have also seen openly gay men and women (usually quite young, post 90s). I wish attitudes towards homosexuality would change in China but also abroad there is still a long way to go... I was very surprised when I heard my Western male colleagues make homophobic comments one time we took a plane and there was a documentary about some gay festival on the screen.

rosieinbj said...

@Marta, I have met ONE gay man (that I know of) in ten years. He was in "a relationship" with his lesbian friend. Almost no one, including their closest Chinese friends, knew (or let on that they knew) the reality of the situation. I live in a 3rd tier city and attitudes about everything are still very old-fashioned, but I do sense that things are changing as the post 90's generation seem to be very open about a lot of issues.