Academic journal article China Perspectives

"In My Opinion, Most Tongzhi Are Dutiful Sons!"

Academic journal article China Perspectives

"In My Opinion, Most Tongzhi Are Dutiful Sons!"

Article excerpt

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Every year, World AIDS Day provides an opportunity for the Chinese health authorities to publish in the press the latest figures concerning the epidemic of HIV/AIDS, and to emphasise the main challenges being faced. In December 2008, various articles highlighted the rise in infection among men having sex with men (MSM).(I) For example an article in the English-language Shanghai Daily announced that the rate of HIV/AIDS had almost tripled, from 1.5 percent in 2005 to 4.4 percent in 2008.(2) According to national statistics produced by a major survey, the results of which were also published on World AIDS Day 2008, the incidence among MSM had risen from 0.4 percent in 2005 to 4.9 percent in 2008.

Much research, first in China and then in the West, has popularised an overall concept of "sexual revolution" that is supposed to be transforming socialist China with the diversification of sexual practices, including homosexuality. The high visibility of prostitution, as well as of discotheques and bars(3) where some urban youth dance, cruise, and talk about sexuality, intrigues and even fascinates observers.(4) It cannot be denied that something is happening in China, at least in some social spaces. And yet, the difficulties experienced by Chinese homosexuals, who are usually married and in the closet, indicates that while some norms have not survived the Cultural Revolution, the single child policy, and the social and economic transformation of the country,<5) others seem largely unchanged.

The steady growth of HIV/AIDS among those considered to belong to the MSM category obliges us to think of ways to improve and consolidate prevention and education programmes. The difficulties that emerge when certain prevention initiatives are applied indicate the need for more detailed study, using sociological and anthropological approaches, of a certain number of problematics that have been overlooked. Moreover, it seems necessary to distinguish between different groups of men who have homosexual relations.

Much research, not only in Western countries, has called into question approaches that reduce homosexuality to a sexual practice or behavioural variable/6' Indeed, it is important to take into account the numerous social, cultural, and normative factors used by actors in constructing their identities.

Sexual identity is not an individual's only identity, and it is elaborated in the tension between different normative systems and social roles (family, power, gender, etc.). While some homosexuals in the big cities of the West, as well as some members of the medical and research community, have adopted a discourse that places sexual identity at the centre of the construction of self, in China, as in many other cultures, actors set out as primordial the identities of gender (masculinity is constructed through marriage and children) and a certain number of social roles: being a son who is respectful of his parents and of his duties towards the family, and being a responsible citizen who contributes to society. Thus in India, for example: "[...] masculinity in India is asserted and publicly acknowledged through marriage and, more importantly, through the production of children. To be a husband and a father is to be a man. [This society] offers little scope for the development of alternative identities based on sexuality."(7)

The research presented in this article is based on interviews with 15 young tongzhim from Hefei, in the province of Anhui. It seeks to complement studies already carried out on the modes of identity construction of young homosexuals(9) by focusing on an analysis of the forms of sociability these young men construct among homosexuals as well as the way in which they perceive their social environment. The participants in this survey present society as a whole as being relatively intolerant of their sexuality, obliging them to develop fragmented social networks with small groups of friends who are also homosexual, and to separate completely the two parallel worlds in which they live: on one side their everyday lives, in which they conceal their sexual orientation, and on the other, activities and social relations organised around a shared sexual orientation. …

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