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Looking for Lesbians in China

Friday, June 21, 2024 - 19:58

Although I'm mostly focusing on theater-related publications at the moment, I'd read and taken notes for this one, so I'm getting it off the desktop. It's always hard to find good resources for non-Western cultures, and what's available is often focused on male homoeroticism. I wish I could do better.

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Ng, Vivien. 1997. “Looking for Lesbians in Chinese History” in Duberman, Martin (ed) A Queer World. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8247-2874-4

A brief survey article discussing how the author came to study lesbian themes in Chinese history. Around the turn of the 20th century, Chinese women studying in Japan formed a mutual support organization that also had feminist and nationalist goals. Leadership included the fascinating Qiu Jin, who transgressed gender in clothing and behavior. But the question arises whether such organizations and figures fit into lesbian history.

The author has published a study of homosexuality in Late Imperial China but it deals almost exclusively with men, but she has not been able to identify any corresponding female tradition, beyond some isolated 17th century female-authored poems that hint at the possibility of a homoerotic literary tradition.

Returning to Qiu Jin, Ng considers whether her formally sworn friendship with her friend the poet Wu Zheying is suggestive of a romantic relationship, and whether they poem Qiu Jin wrote to commemorate their vows to each other, titled “Orchid Verse,” relates to the Golden Orchid Society of marriage resisters in China. These organizations were described in the mid 19th century as involving young women in “close sisterhood” who resist marriage and, if forced into marriage, refuse to live with their husbands. Accounts of the time indicated that these sworn sisterhoods could include sexual relations. References to the sexual nature of such partnerships continue up into the 1920s, indicating that they did not simulate heterosexual couples but obtained gratification by “friction and/or mechanical means.”

Marriage resistance was a theme present in the women’s student group in Japan, and Qiu Jin  had divorced her husband when she left China to study. So while one can’t say for certain that she had lesbian relations, the themes and motifs present in her life are suggestive.

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