A man and a woman meet through mutual friends and go on a blind date. Before getting married, they discuss children and the care of elderly parents. Sounds like a typical Chinese rite of passage, only that in this case, a gay man weds a lesbian. This is Xinghun (形婚) – China's version of gay marriage. Literally a marriage of formality, Xinghuns are undertaken by homosexuals desperate to throw persistent parents off-track. Prior to Xinghuns, gay men took heterosexual wives or Tongqi (同妻, crudely translated as “homowives”) to keep up appearances in largely conservative China. Xinghuns avoid the Tongqi phenomenon while offering a win-win situation to all involved – a gay man, a lesbian and two sets of parents. However, in reality, orchestrating a Xinghun in China is no mean feat, as evidenced in Ang Lee’s movie, The Wedding Banquet.
Photo: See-ming Lee
The term Xinghun simply refers to any marriage of formality, or more bluntly put, a sham marriage, entered into for underlying motives ranging from money to emigration opportunities. Of late however, the term has become closely associated with gays and lesbians entering into marriage for the purpose of appearing “normal” and hence is also known as a "mutual support marriage".
Staging a Xinghun
As in The Wedding Banquet, the parents will often fly over from their hometown, insisting on the full works, leaving the “couple” scrambling to make wedding plans. Pulling off a Xinghun is like implementing a witness protection program, only more difficult, since new identities come under the scrutiny of one’s family and existing social circle.
The quest for a Xinghun match usually begins online or through mutual friends to increase the likelihood of yielding a like-minded mate. In most instances, bargaining power lies with the female. Male candidates abound, possibly because of China’s skewed gender ratio brought on by the one-child policy and the greater pressure on men to carry on the family name. Assessment criteria are the same as any Chinese heterosexual female evaluating a mate – income, apartment and appearance – only applied more stringently, in the absence of romantic feelings. Lesbians entering into Xinghuns look for the most eligible bachelor and bargain hard – they are also in it for their parents. After the male has cleared this hurdle, negotiations on whether to have children and the care of both parties’ parents can begin.
The complexity of the Xinghun usually depends on the requirements of the parents. Is there a need for a wedding banquet? Children? With modern technology, conception can take place asexually anyway. The Xinghun couple usually lives apart after marriage, each maintaining their own same-gender partners. Appearances still need to be kept up though, in the event of sudden visitor to the marital home or when the "couple" appears in public.
At the end of the day, however, Xinghun is no different from any transaction, ruled by rationality and where feelings or romance have no place. Both sides agree not to invoke existing marriage laws against each other and forgo the rights to inheritance through marriage. Some even insist that care of parents-in-law is outside their concern. Eventual divorce may be worked into the picture just to show parents that marriage didn’t work out.
Why not just come out of the closet?
Instead of going to all this trouble, why not come out of the closet in front of one’s family? Face, everything to the Chinese, yet inexplicable to outsiders, explains the necessity of keeping up the heterosexual façade. Although it was an open secret among aristocracy in ancient times, homosexuality was first officially outlawed in the 1700s. Decriminalization came only in 1997 and declassification as a mental disorder in 2001. Yet, as the older generation starts to tolerate the LGBT community at large, it is another matter for their sole offspring to be one of them.
Likewise, to homosexuals themselves, coming out of the closet would only result in familial estrangement. In a one-child society, emotional ties between family members tend to be more intense. Moreover, society and the education system discourage challenging all forms of authority, parents included. Even homosexuals themselves either shudder at bringing shame to the family or sticking out like a sore thumb in a highly conformist society. Yet an undercurrent of pragmatism runs beneath the surface – Chinese children never seem to stop being financially dependent on their parents so being disowned is out of the question. In mega-cities like Beijing, average salaries are hardly enough to sustain life for pampered yuppies, let alone afford real estate. The married-with-children are also favored among conservative bosses for promotions.
In close-knit rural communities where traditional values are stickier, having a child fast approaching the threshold of marriageable age could lead to rumors of physical or mental incapacities. Homosexuality is also viewed by many as a curable disease and nothing short of a heterosexual marriage will satisfy parents. The unparalleled tenacity of Chinese parents to press for marriage has also given rise to the phenomena of children not making the Spring Festival sojourn and resorting to partners-for-hire.
Is Xinghun a viable solution?
If coming clean before one’s parents is not an option, are Xinghuns really a win-win situation? Examined under the eye of cold logic, yes. Two individuals' homosexual identity can be preserved with minimal fuss against a collectivistic homogeneous background. At the very least, the tragic Tongqi phenomenon can be averted – sparing heterosexual women from loveless ties to homosexual men. Tongqis typically suffer in the silence of shame and rejection. In Beijing, "Pink Space", is a group that provides support for Tongqis. Elsewhere, urban Tongqis seek support from fellow sufferers online – too ashamed to meet in person – to get solace that is unavailable to the offline community in rural areas.
Taking a step backwards to examine marriage in China, the notion of marrying for love is a relatively new concept anyway. Arranged marriages were the socially accepted form of unions until relatively recently. Marriage, like all other relationships, was governed by a comprehensive set of li or social norms, rather than feelings. Xinghuns are really the modern take on marriages that existed to fulfill societal norms and provide mutual care for children and parents.
In practice, however, pulling off the elaborate deception of a Xinghun surely does take its toll over the years. Each party has to maintain the semblance of a heterosexual marriage while living in a homosexual relationship. Servicing the former could take so much time and energy, rendering the latter virtually impossible. If children are involved, a fair bit of explaining would be called for irregularities such as “parents” not living together or being gone for days at a time. Only in China can children be dumped on two sets of doting grandparents but the “couple” ultimately has to decide whether to disclose the true nature of their union to their offspring.
Perhaps the greatest damage wrought by Xinghuns is the perpetuation of homophobia by homosexuals themselves. As long as individuals do not even dare disclose to their nearest and dearest something as personal as sexual orientation, changes in societal mindsets will be held back.
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Keywords: Xinghun phenomenon homosexuality in China cooperative marriages in China Tongqi
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I never understood why the Chinese government does not embrace gay marriages. In a country where the government dictates popular opinion, it would be easy to make people accept it. The benefits being 2-5% of the population would stop reproducing, with willing happiness, and the inevitable repeal of the wildly unpopular One Child Policy. But I guess forcing this nation's mothers to have abortions and castrations is preferable to changing your opinion of others slightly.
May 28, 2014 06:06 Report Abuse
'Face, everything to the Chinese, yet inexplicable to outsiders, explains the necessity of keeping up the heterosexual façade. .. etc.' Face is nothing more than social acceptance, keeping up with the Jones, peer group pressure, conformity....etc. In the language of Maslow's hierarchy this phase is only slightly beyond bare survival. Those who are in this phase still haven't figured out who they are or what they truly want, thus these ignorants invariably become blind, immature followers of fashions and fads thinking they have some kind of self-identity by adopting a group (herd) identity. As pointed out correctly 'having face' is essential within the mainland Chinese culture --- this tells you how evolved the culture is.
May 27, 2014 09:00 Report Abuse
I would say the majority of marriages in modern day china are marriages of convenience. The parents have the final say in who their child marries and unfortunately the parents consifer their childs happiness as very low priority. It is no wonder that chinese men find mistresses and mothers pretty much ignore their husbands once they have a child.
May 26, 2014 07:35 Report Abuse