Tea Leaf Nation
Now Viral in China: Tolerance
A short LGBTQ-themed film received 100 million online views over China's biggest holiday.
Coming out is still exceedingly hard in China, but it just got a bit less so thanks to an unusual short film. In a country where grassroots activism is tightly circumscribed, it’s perhaps unsurprising that online videos have become lighting rods for something resembling political conversation. That’s true of environmental concerns – a Feb. 28 documentary about pollution, Under the Dome, got over 150 million views before being censored, and jump-started a national conversation about air quality. But it’s also true of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) issues, where a short film, Coming Home, received over 127 million views on video streaming sites after being released over China’s biggest holiday.
The notion of coming home is a fraught one for LGBTQ Chinese this time of year. China annually hosts the largest annual human migration on earth, comprising 3.6 billion trips, as people around the country return home to mark the new lunar year. This year’s mass migration started on Jan. 31 and ended on March 5. It’s a typically stressful period for young people of all sexual orientations, who often face overbearing parental expectations to date, get married, or start a family, and often have to explain to mom and dad why they might be falling short. For young Chinese who identify as LGBTQ, the pressure can be even harder to bear.
Enter Coming Home, a six-minute film depicting fictitious protagonist named Fang Chao, a young gay Chinese man who had grown up as an obedient only child. After Fang comes out to his parents as gay, they call him “shameless” and threaten to disown him. But his mother gradually changes her views, starting with participation in support groups like PFLAG China — Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays in China – a non-profit founded in 2008 in the southern city of Guangzhou. After a year of estrangement, the mother asks her son home for the New Year. The credit roll features clips of real-life mothers advising LGBTQ youth to “share your stories with your parents” and asking parents not to “let traditional marriage norms stop your children from coming home.”
When it comes to sexuality, China’s generation gap is deep. Younger Chinese generations born after the death of Chairman Mao in mid-1970s tend to be more accepting of homosexuality and LGBT equality generations before them. But LGBTQ Chinese still face a stigma among elders — homosexuality was only decriminalized in China in 1997 — and most LGBTQ Chinese children choose to remain silent. Paradoxically, new technology makes that easier; as online gay-dating communities like Zank and Danlan become more popular, it’s gotten more feasible to maintain a love life as an LGBTQ youth without parental knowledge or interference. Some young Chinese might bring their partners home for the holidays, posing as their “best friends.”
Coming Home has encountered a mixed reaction in mainstream and social media. Many celebrities on Weibo, China’s huge microblogging platform, have shared the film with their followers, including renowned sex scholar Li Yinhe and sociologist of sexuality Fang Gang, who guest-starred as the father in the film. But the grassroots response to the movie has been polarized: while online comments applauding the film have been the most up-voted, other comments call the protagonist and “homosexuals like him” “pathological,” “perverse,” and “disgusting.”
Coming Home is just the latest, most popular entry in an underground but resilient LGBTQ film scene in China. Film serves as a powerful way to increase the visibility of Chinese LGBTQ communities. But getting LGBTQ works produced isn’t easy, partly because they are not authorized for public cinematic release unless the homosexuality is edited out. Filmmakers looking to screen their films often have to rely on venues like bars or salons, limiting their films’ prospects for exposure and profitability. Fan Popo, a 29-year-old director of five films on LGBTQ issues and the author of a book on the history of homosexuality in world cinematography, told Foreign Policy that he has had to use wages from other jobs to make his LGBTQ-themed productions. As part of an ongoing crackdown on free expression, the Chinese government has reportedly demanded that Chinese video sites remove LGBTQ-related content. Perhaps thanks to its fictitious nature and its focus on one family, not a community of activists, Coming Home has thus far been a lucky outlier.
Even with these restrictions, it’s become much easier to discuss LGBTQ issues in China. Fan told FP he has found the change in attitudes towards LGBTQ issues “dramatic and noticeable.” When Fan first started making his films eight years ago, “it was difficult to find even one person to talk about the subject of coming out. I could not have imagined then that parents and families of LGBTQ communities [today] would ever talk openly to me. Many of my friends have come out to their families in recent years. And younger people,” thanks to work like Fan’s, “know a lot about LGBTQ issues from social media exposure.” One sign of the times: an October 2014 commercial for popular online book retailer Dangdang depicted two gay men holding hands. Censors banned the commercial before it hit the airwaves, but it circulated widely online anyway.
Like the protagonist of Coming Home, many single children born under China’s so-called one-child policy face weighty parental expectations and a yawning generation gap. Yet their identity as only children also affords them unprecedented power and leverage. Their parents have no other child to love, so they may be more willing to support one who does not fit every one of their expectations. A coming-out guide in the U.S.-owned Chinese-language magazine Psychologies quotes the mother of a gay man insisting, “Being LGBTQ is not a choice. The people who have a real choice are parents,” who can choose between denial and acceptance. The ubiquity of a film like Coming Home surely makes the latter a bit more likely.