Queer Voices

Chinese Dictionary's Omission Of Gay 'Comrade' Term Angers Linguists, Activists

Producers of an authoritative Chinese dictionary are facing a barrage of media criticism after opting to leave out the colloquial definition of a word used to describe gay men and lesbians.

As CNN reports, the word "tongzhi" -- which translates to "comrade" or, as Shanghaiist points out, "people of the same purpose" -- has, in recent decades, evolved to refer to homosexuals. Still, officials for the committee charged with revising the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary said they chose to leave out that particular definition because they didn't want to encourage its use.

As CNN points out, "tongzhi" serves as a substitute for "tongxinglian," which is the formal Chinese term for homosexuality. "Tongxinglian" is defined in the 2005 edition of the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary both as same-sex love and as a psychosexual disorder, even though homosexuality's classification as a mental disorder in China was removed in 2001, Xinhua reports.

"We know homosexuals call each other 'tongzhi,'" linguist Jiang Lansheng is quoted as saying in a Chinese TV interview. "But a normative dictionary won't include that meaning, no matter how the term has been informally used. That is to say, we don't want to advocate or bring attention to such things."

Among those to sound off was Ding Xueliang, a social sciences professor from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who said the definition was not surprising given the word's popularity among members of China's Communist Party -- and which is, ironically, what partly inspired its use as a term for gay people.

"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,'" he is quoted by the BBC as saying. "So it's quite normal that the Chinese government doesn't want to take this new meaning into the dictionary."

Local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights advocates were perhaps more riled by the exclusion. "It's unacceptable that the 'gay' meaning of 'tongzhi' was excluded from the dictionary, a reference book written for all, simply because of the compilers' own preferences and values," a source identifying themselves only as"Nan Feng" tells Xinhua.

On the other hand, words like "geili" (awesome), "leiren" (shocking) and "weibo" (microblog) did make the cut, according to Shanghaiist.

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