Revival of 400-Year-Old Lesbian Play Has China Abuzz
Chinese society may be inching closer to accepting gays and lesbians. Last autumn saw the opening of the state-approved gay bar in Beijing, and the country was set to host its first gay pageant as the new year dawned, only for the event to be canceled by police at the last minute. Still, that the pageant came as close as it did to taking place was in itself a sign of a thaw in the culture’s chilly reception of gays. But if a trend is at work, it may be a case of everything old becoming new again, as a revival of a 17th century play about two romantically involved women suggests.
The play, titled Lianxiang Ban (or, in its official English translation, A Romance: Two Belles in Love) is the work of playwright Li Yu, reported the Global Post on May 13. The article summarized the plot of the theatrical work as a tale in which two women fall in love and make plans to marry the same man in order to married, in a sense, to one another. The article noted that though its theme may strike contemporary audiences as modern, the 400-year-old work is presented in an even older theatrical mode: as a classical Kunqu opera.
The production is being performed at the famed Poly Theatre in Beijing; the choice of such a prominent venue has Chinese LGBTs excited.
"The fact that we have approval to put this kind of subject matter on stage is one more step towards Chinese society becoming more open-minded," the production’s director, Stanley Kwan, told the press. The article noted that Kwan is an openly gay filmmaker with films such as the Chow Yun Fat-starring Women and Lan Yu, which has a gay theme, to his credit.
The government-sponsored gay bar did not open to crowds last fall, but that doesn’t mean there are no such establishments in China. The Global Post reported that gay businesses are commonplace in urban areas a round the nation of more than one billion.
As is the case even in the United States, lesbians are more readily embraced by Chinese culture than are gay men. Said gay podcast producer Xiaogang Wei, "It would have been more of a challenge to have gay men" featured in such a prominently produced play.
Chinese mental health experts struck homosexuality from their list of mental illnesses in 2001, and the penal system does not criminalize sexual intimacy between consenting adults. But Chinese culture is centered on family, particularly the honoring of parents and the generation of offspring. Homosexuality is seen as not supporting those things, if not downright antithetical to them.
Even so, there are still more signs that China is becoming more accepting of gays and lesbians. Last month, just before the May 1 opening of the world exposition in Shanghai, China followed the United States in lifting a longstanding travel ban on HIV+ visitors. The change--which amends two laws, one from 1986 and another from 1989--became effective on April 24.
Though the Chinese government in the past has adopted temporary reversals of the HIV+ travel ban, the new amendment seems to be intended as a permanent change. Some health-related travel bans remain in place, including exclusions targeting serious forms of mental illness and "infectious diseases which could possibly greatly harm the public health," such as tuberculosis.
China enjoys a relatively low rate of HIV infection, with estimates ranging from about half a million to one million Chinese living with the virus.
The American ban had been in place since the 1980s, when the means of transmission of the virus was poorly understood; in 1993, however, long after it was known that HIV cannot be casually transmitted, Congress acted to reaffirm the ban. In 2008, President George W. Bush signed legislation to rescind the ban, but nonetheless, still-extant U.S. Department of Health & Human Services regulations prevented HIV-positive travelers from entering the country without first obtaining difficult-to-secure visas. As a result, sixty Canadian would-be participants in the North American Housing and HIV/AIDS Research Summit in Washington, D.C. last June were denied permission to enter the United States.
President Obama approved the removal of those last barriers in January of this year, calling the action "a step that will encourage people to get tested and get treatment, it’s a step that will keep families together, and it’s a step that will save lives." Added Obama, "If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it."
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.