CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

Emerging representations of homosexuality in post-Maoist China

1The end of the Maoist period (1949-1976) and the launch in 1978 of a policy of reform and opening up signaled a steady relaxation of state control over the cultural sphere in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and included a more liberal approach to personal (particularly erotic [1]) types of behaviour, and – to a more limited degree – towards public discourses. From the 1980s onwards, economic reforms and the gradual opening up to international exchange were accompanied by the introduction of, and growing readiness to receive, new ideas and cultural representations, including in the area of sexuality. Transformations in the economy and rapid urbanization also entailed a profound change in living conditions, in the sense of increased autonomy for individuals, [2] fostered in particular by the emergence of private establishments and the dismantling of the work unit (danwei) system, which ensured everyday control over individuals in the PRC until the first half of the 1990s.

2As regards homosexuality, these transformations were accompanied by a transition from a significant administrative repression of male homosexual encounters and meeting-places [3] to a greater tolerance on the part of the authorities, with the de facto decriminalization and depathologization of homosexuality, in 1997 and 2001 respectively, [4] and the recognition of – and cooperation with – homosexual organizations, which became strategic partners in the fight against Aids. In parallel, there was a gradual diversification of representations of sexuality, including the diffusion of homosexuality as an identity category (tongxinglian) [5] and the new visibility of a gay and lesbian population within the Chinese public sphere. This process was furthered by the publication of new works of sexology from the 1980s onwards – giving expression to a liberal intellectual current which adopted an open-minded attitude towards homosexuality [6] – as well as by the progressive liberalization and (from the 2000s onwards) pronounced intensification of media coverage of homosexuality. These developments were accompanied by the opening of the internet in 1998, which provided access to a more diversified array of discourses, particularly on sexuality.

3In this context, a growing number of journalistic, popular and academic discourses turned their attention to the emergence of a gay and (to a lesser extent) lesbian population in China, a phenomenon that was frequently associated with the “cultural influence” of the West. In addition, the most publicly commented upon forms of homosexual subjectivity and culture were generally presented as relatively similar to those that could be observed in other contexts, notably Western ones, sharing many of their traits and cultural codes – first and foremost, the importance attached to youth and its self-segregation. [7] The emerging representations of homosexuality therefore appear to be strongly intertwined with the discourses on national “modernity”, of which homosexuality appears to be an exemplary component (whether in a positive or a negative sense) by virtue of being more or less and simultaneously “Westernized”, young and middle class.

4The ethnographic investigation I conducted nevertheless suggests that, alongside the gay cultural forms deployed within central sites in the major cities, one should also consider the existence of distinct configurations of male homosexuality in urban China. Like the “central” gay scene, this milieu, which is “peripheral” from the perspective of both urban sociogeography and public discourses, is frequented by men who have adopted a mode of homosexual identification that manifests itself in the language they use to refer to themselves, individually and collectively, and which gives meaning to their practices. Yet it is distinct from the central gay scene by virtue of its social, cultural, generational and geographical properties. The relations and subculture known locally by the term “old-young love”, or “old-young sexuality” (laoshaolian), are a particularly significant characteristic of this milieu. This article examines the situation and configuration of “old-young love” in the China of post-Mao reforms and the opening up of China. In particular, it develops an analysis which is informed by transformations that have arisen in this context in the sphere of discourses, economic organization, age socialization, and class relations.


5The empirical data on which the analyses presented here are based is the result of a multi-site investigation, initiated in March 2009 and conducted over six years in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu, within different meeting-places for male homosexual sociability. This investigation was conducted using “undisguised” participant observation, informal conversations, the collection of numerous life histories, and the recording of sixty in-depth interviews (primarily with participants in the observed meeting-places, and then via a “snowball” approach).

A peripheral configuration: the subculture of “old-young love” (laoshaolian)

6Centred around the age difference between male erotic partners, the subculture of old–young love (or sexuality) is anchored in spaces of predominantly male, [8] popular and intergenerational sociability, set apart from the most central and gentrified urban locations. These spaces include parks, public squares, toilets, municipal showers and public bath-houses, which provided covert shelter for the hard core of homosexual sociability during the era of repression, and then served as a base for its extension and institutionalization with the advent of greater opportunities. In Shanghai and Chengdu from the 1990s onwards, some of those participating in the networks of sociability that had grown up in these spaces sought, with incremental success, to diversify the places and institutions to which they had access. These places therefore also include establishments of working-class sociability, such as tearooms, games rooms and dance halls. [9] Within these locales, which are often open during the day and closed by the time central gay establishments become busy at the weekend, pastimes include the playing of mainly “traditional” or Maoist music or songs, tea-drinking, practising the friendship dance, or gambling at mahjong or cards. These forms of leisure pursuit and consumption are perceived as forming part of a “local”, “traditional” or “Chinese” culture, which nevertheless increasingly extends into an equally strongly diversified digital sphere.

7Similarly, those participating in these peripheral homosexual milieus are mainly drawn from the working classes (workers and retired workers, low-level white-collar employees), and to a lesser extent from intermediary categories (in particular, junior engineers, teachers, local civil servants, bosses of small businesses and doctors [10]), with the notable absence of members of the upper economic classes (particularly executives employed by major companies or multinationals). [11] Typically homo-bisexual, if only in practice (most of the men frequenting these sites are married or plan on being so), this milieu is also strongly pluri- and intergenerational; men of all ages mix, and “young” men are in the minority. [12]

8Constructed in a similar way as the terms “homosexuality” (or “same-sex love”: tongxinglian) and “heterosexuality” (yixinglian), the category of “old-young love” (laoshaolian) suggests the relative autonomy and codification of this subculture, centred around the age difference between male partners. In the places where this category is deployed, erotic preferences are consistently expressed with reference to age categories derived from everyday language, thereby distinguishing between “young”, “middle-aged” and “elderly” (or “old”) men. [13] Sought after by older men mainly for the physical and psychological qualities which are attributed to them (freshness, strength, vigour, etc.), young men in this sphere tend in contrast to express a preference for “middle-aged” or “elderly” men and the qualities that are associated with them, as well as for their “maturity”, which is often praised as both a moral and physical quality. Age therefore plays an explicit role in the categorization of the participants, the choice of partners and the arrangement of their relations, as well as in the qualification of – or recurrent effort to objectivize – each man’s desires, and each man according to his desires. [14] As a specific form of sexual taxonomy, the configuration of old-young love contrasts with the high value that the central gay culture places on youthfulness and, most often implicitly, on “homogamy” of age, as is also the case within a majoritarian culture marked by a reduction in the normative age difference between spouses since the Communist policy of rupture with “traditional” marriage. [15]

Discursive space, social space and “old-young” homosexual careers


Monday 2 May 2011, Shanghai, in a district on the outskirts of the city centre.
As I am leaving the tearoom, just as the men are arriving from the dance hall, I bump into Bei Bei, a 19-year-old junior employee from the Jiangxi countryside, whom I met a few weeks ago at the dance hall. He is also leaving and invites me to take a turn with him around the public gardens, and then to show me some photos of his boyfriend. On the way I ask him about his forthcoming marriage, which I have heard about. He tells me that he is bisexual (shuangxinglian) and that he is going to return to his province to get married, have children and set up a hairdressing business. That it will be easier to do business there than it is here. He also tells me that he has now made love with a lao tou (an old man, literally an “old head”), “his” lao tou […] We go back to his place after finding the doors to the dance hall closed. I discover the tiny, spartan room in which he lives, on the first floor of a low-rise communal house. From the narrow stairway, I glimpse the members of a neighbouring family lodged together in a room on the ground floor. Then, after switching on the television and as he is preparing the tea, he talks to me very freely about his relationship with “his old man”. He tells me that things had happened very gradually for him and that he had taken things one step at a time: that he liked girls and hadn’t had any furtive sexual thoughts about boys beforehand, and that he hadn’t felt especially attracted to them either […] He then outlines the different stages of his relationship with “his old man” in an impersonal, almost pedagogical tone. First of all, chatting to each other at length on the internet, to get to know one another. Then meeting up out of doors for the first time, which arouses the initial feelings. Then caressing each other’s hands and kissing each other’s cheeks for the first time. The first nights together, too, when one’s old man caresses one’s body and genitals, or even kisses or sucks them, “if he really loves you”. Then comes the day when the old man asks Bei Bei if he wants to penetrate him, and he accepts; he adds that his old man, who is over 60 years old, cannot do the same. First of all it’s painful, he says, as he is sitting on top of him. The times after that, when Bei Bei is on top, are better. Once again he stresses how his relationship with his old man – whom he initially sought out on the Internet for his support, experience, knowledge, and ability to understand him – developed very gradually and in unexpected ways.

10The relationships and erotic tastes of those who participate in the relations and subculture of old-young love (and more generally in the peripheral spaces of homosexual sociability) appear at least in part to be the product of the particular homosexual careers[16] they have followed, which, due to their sociocultural position, are less affected by the circulation of new discourses and representations concerning sexuality and homosexuality – in other words, by the diffusion of new “scenarios” or “normative concepts” of sexuality and homosexuality. [17] The constraints bearing down on the diffusion of representations of homosexuality (which remain censored in literature and cinema, and partially so in other media, particularly the internet) – combined with socioterritorial variations in the media and cultural supply and the degree to which homosexual spaces are institutionalized and visible – seem to have created the conditions for significant sociogeographical heterogeneity in the distribution of representations of homosexuality in post-Maoist China. In addition, the strong differentiation in sociocultural practices and competences (reading practices, written proficiency or English-language skills, familiarity with local, national and international current affairs, modes of access to and use of the internet, etc.) also affects the reception of these representations and accentuates this heterogeneity.

11As a consequence, and as the comparison of the biographical narratives indicates, cultural representations of homosexuality have on the whole been available less frequently, and at a later stage, to participants in the gay periphery compared to those in central gay milieus, who mainly come from the urban middle or upper classes. [18] Interviewees who were aware of “homosexuality” during their childhood or adolescence, during the 1990s and the years that followed, generally lived in Shanghai, Beijing or Chengdu, where they were born, grew up or studied. The type of representations of homosexuality discovered or explored at this time, which mainly emanated from the “central” gay culture, seem to have played an important role in their homosexual trajectory. Conversely, the trajectories of the vast majority of men frequenting popular homosexual milieus were, until a generally advanced age, based – in the absence of previous representations of homosexuality – on interpersonal, and, relatedly, intergenerational, learning curves. The interviews conducted show, for example, that a very high number of those frequenting these meeting-places were not aware, until adulthood or beyond, of the existence and the possibility of erotic relations between people of the same sex. The expressions “not to know” and “not to be aware of” (bu zhidao, bu dong), which are often applied to “that thing” or “all that” (zhe ge dongxi), are employed almost systematically by the interviewees in peripheral homosexual spaces (a fortiori those born after the 1970s), when they mention their early homosexual experiences.

12This is illustrated in an account given by Xiao Gang, a 33-year-old construction worker originally from the rural region of Anhui, who, at the time of our interview, went every evening to a tearoom I regularly visited. Married and the father of a child who had stayed with his wife in his village, he describes himself as by turns homosexual and bisexual, and likes young girls and “old” men aged between 40 and 70. He began to frequent homosexual “circles” (quanzi) four years ago, when he was working in a large provincial city, and “did not know that two men could do that sort of thing”: [19]


One evening I went for a stroll, all the way to the park. I was underneath a pagoda, a three-storey pagoda. All of sudden somebody came up to me [he later describes him as a “mature man”]. He told me to sit with him a while. And I sat down. Then he spoke to me and we talked for a while. As we talked he touched me … he touched me … [He breathes in]. At that time I was young, huh! I felt … I wasn’t yet married … As soon as he touched me, I felt … I started to react … And he “helped” [masturbated] me … He asked me to follow him, and we left. That was the first time. After I … For quite a few days I didn’t dare go out or return there. I was afraid of bumping into him. Then afterwards, after a while, I went out again. I went out and then … I bumped into him. I bumped into him, and we did the same thing. Yes. When he gave me a blow job, I felt, it wasn’t … I just felt really good, you know. There you go. Really good. Then … then after that it carried on, and after a while, I became more daring too! After that … I stayed there one … over two months. Over two months. And after that I left. After leaving there I came to Shanghai. And I went back to that kind of circle. In the parks I fell in with people like that again. Because I had already done it once, so I knew, you know. So gradually I’ve … er … I’ve become more daring.

14The development of desire for “old” men here appears in large part to result from the role played by more experienced men in imparting homosexual techniques and the taste for their effects. [20] During these learning trajectories and indeed later on, the these partners are perceived as being “old” just as much as being “men”, and, alongside other qualities, their much-valued “maturity” can seem equally likable – because it is liked – as their “masculinity”. The types of homosexual careers based on such learning curves form part of a more general framework of strongly intergenerational sociability, and indeed the latter representing a significant condition for the existence of the former.

Age affinities and generational socialization in the era of internal migrations

15If the trajectories of those participating in the subculture of oldyoung love appear to be conditioned by their sociocultural position and its effect on their representations of sexuality, they are also made possible by the differentiated conditions of socialization and age sociability, affected as they have been by the socioeconomic transformations underway in reform-era China. Social stratification in China is marked by the consequences of the accelerated development of the country’s economy since the 1980s (and above all the 1990s), which has notably entailed the rapid growth of urban centres, initially on the east coast, the rise of a new urban bourgeoisie, and the parallel development of labour migrations, particularly from rural regions to the most economically dynamic urban agglomerations. This situation implies significant disparities in terms of the level and duration of schooling among the younger generations.

16This type of disparity is notably different from what commonly occurs in societies that have adopted relatively high school-leaving ages and which are organized into more administratively and legally standardized age cohorts (in particular through educational and social security systems). [21] In large Chinese cities, young migrant workers from rural regions mostly leave school at the end of primary or middle-school education, i.e. at the age when most city-dwelling teenagers begin the final three years of high school with a view to going on to higher education.

17This results in a marked difference from the point of view of generational socialization. The latter group of teenagers – who are brought together, both socially and spatially (in boarding schools or university dormitories), for a relatively lengthy period of time – gain more experience of a single-generational community, and the exploration of their individual autonomy predominantly takes place within the framework of a more strongly autonomized youthful sociability, which, moreover, is controlled and standardized by educational and family institutions. In comparison, young migrant workers leave the school-based age cohorts early in life to enter working life and an age of economic responsibility, in which their trajectory of (material, relational and domestic) autonomization occurs within the framework of a strongly intergenerational sociability. This is the backdrop of the trajectories of young workers who participate in the relationships and subculture of old-young love.

18Furthermore, the relatively favourable attitudes of these men towards generationally mixed relationships and cultural practices, which are associated with public places and institutions aligned with a popular sociability (parks, public squares, public baths, dance halls, games rooms, small karaoke bars), are also a function of their socioeconomic status, if only because of the low access costs involved. Similarly, the fact that these workers have left behind the networks of solidarity to which they belonged before their migration to the city [22] – coupled with the isolation that this entails and the precarious economic situation and discriminations they confront, [23] as well as their family responsibilities and the pursuit of their material or professional plans – generally have the effect of encouraging their participation in new networks of attachment, exchange and belonging in the city. In particular, these create the conditions of possibility for a specific nexus between homosexual and professional careers.

Old-young love and sexual-economic exchanges

19The characteristics shared by men who frequent peripheral homosexual spaces coexist with significant divisions between them. Indeed, one of these divisions appears central to the configuration of old–young love: the “old men” in these milieus are almost always “locals”, [24] entitled to be residents in the city, and integrated insiders, even when they belong to what is nonetheless a “downwardly mobile” old urban working class. The vast majority of the “young men”, on the other hand, are migrant workers from the countryside, outsiders possessed of second-class citizenship [25] and precarious resources, who work in white- or blue-collar jobs in the service, building or manufacturing sectors.

20This asymmetry notably implies that the “old men” have at their disposal an array of material, social, emotional and cognitive resources that are valuable to the young migrants, since they are liable to improve the stability and general conditions of their life in the city, as well as their capacity to realize their material or professional plans. Among the terms frequently employed to describe their elderly partners or the qualities they value in them (alongside terms relating to their physical qualities, such as “cute”-“lovely”, “handsome”-“stylish”, or even occasionally, “chubby”, “plump”), many refer to social qualities (“rich”, “successful”, etc.) as well as to emotional or relational attitudes (“kind to me”, “attentive”, “loving”, etc.). Oldyoung relationships therefore appear to be simultaneously erotic and economic in substance. Whether they take the form of openly negotiated paid sexual relations, or fleeting or more long-lasting relationships, they almost always entail different forms of economic transfer between the partners (mostly from the old men towards the young men). These transfers run the gamut from the very vague to the highly specific: [26] invitations to eat or go out together, lodgings, recruitment or assistance with job-seeking, various purchases, loans or gifts of money, etc.

21This point is clearly illustrated by the manner in which Xiao Lu – a 24-year-old migrant from a rural village in Guangxi, who has held numerous jobs as a labourer or white-collar worker in Shenzhen and later in Shanghai – describes the relations that he and his young friends maintain with their partners. Xiao Lu first says that they are all looking for someone who can help them; when I ask him what he sees as the most important quality in a potential companion, he replies that it is enough for the latter to be “a bit better than him” (economically or socially), or to be able to “help him a little”. He adds that they have to get on well, not argue too often, and that physical appearance is of no more than secondary importance. Later, he briefly contrasts different types of relations that exist between “friends”: [27]


We have fun … We go out for something to eat, we go to the park or we go out and have fun. When we have some spare time: “Hello? Are you free? If you’re free come and have a bite to eat with me.” After eating, if we like each other we take a room so we can have fun. And that’s that. We enjoy ourselves! … With some people it’s about feelings, and with others it’s about money. For example, if I’ve seen that a guy has money, and I don’t like him … I’ll say: “Oh … darling, oh … daddy!” You see how I lie? “Oh darling, darling!” [He laughs.] … Sometimes at the [he gives the name of a karaoke club where clients may leave with a barman after negotiating a payment] you can get 1,000 yuans. Can you imagine! Half a month’s salary … For example, there are people who … won’t spend as much money; once you’ve left [the public gardens] they’ll go and rent a room with you and give you 100 or 200 yuans …

23The moral condemnation of prostitution and “money boys” in central homosexual spaces [28] here contrasts with the frequency, banality and visibility of these types of sexual-economic exchanges [29] within peripheral homosexual spaces (although there too they can also meet with disapproval). These exchanges generally correlate with the age relation. [30] The search for material aid and the pursuit of erotic pleasure with older “locals” therefore combine here in varying ways and proportions, and form part of a continuum.

24This continuum appears moreover to be dynamic, with certain men being led during their homosexual career to adapt their economic strategies and their working practices in accordance with the resources discovered within the homosexual “circle” (quanzi), for example, by deciding to invest all or some of the time hitherto devoted to paid employment to the development and maintenance of relations with other men. Conversely, others engage in homosexual careers primarily in view of the material benefits they can thereby obtain. From this point of view, the professional and homosexual careers of the men participating in the subculture of old–young love appear to be strongly intertwined.

25This point emerges clearly in the account of a 37-year-old man employed in an “old-young” sauna, where I interviewed him. [31] The man comes from a rural village, where his daughter and relatives still live. His wife works as a factory hand in a large city in the province of Zhejiang. At the age of 22, when he went to work as a factory hand in another city in Zhejiang, he met his first partner, 34 years his senior, by chance in a park. He recalls that even in the early days when they first started meeting, the man, an important provincial civil servant, was “very kind” to him, and within a year had procured him a position in a good factory (which at that time was barred to migrants), as well as lodgings, designer clothes and a computer. After initially refusing – at the time he “wasn’t one of them”, he explains, and “hadn’t thought” that a man could have sexual or amorous relations with another man – the older man’s largesse and proximity led him to gradually consent to having sexual relations with him.


27Anchored in the post-Maoist Chinese context, the subculture of old– young love cannot be understood simply as the effect of “globalization” or Western cultural influence, nor as an expression of “authentic”, “indigenous” or “traditional” [32] Chinese culture. It has come about through contemporary circumstances in which, following the launch of the policy of reform and opening up, reconfigurations of the discursive sphere, as well as of economic organization and social structure, have played a central role. Made up of sexual and emotional connections established in large Chinese cities between old “locals” and young migrant workers, and intertwined with ordinary forms of socialization and sociability that are at once masculine, popular and intergenerational, it is remarkably different from the forms of gay culture that are deployed in central urban milieus frequented by the new Chinese middle and upper classes. As a kind of inversion within inversion – one which, in terms of sexual or conjugal arrangements, contravenes age conventions just as much as gendered prescriptions – the subculture of old-young love occupies a peripheral position in the symbolic space of Chinese “modernity”. As an erotic configuration caught up in the more general economy of age, sex and class relations in the post-Maoist era, its analysis sheds new light on the nexus of social relations that are constantly at work in the contextual production of sexuality.


  • [1]
    For a brief summary of the debates on this topic, see Micollier 2005: §56-60.
  • [2]
    On the changes to residence patterns and the “construction of a society of anonymity”, see Pan 2006: 85.
  • [3]
    Li 2006; Kang 2012.
  • [4]
    Guo 2007; Zhou 2009. For a summary, see Kang 2012.
  • [5]
    By contrast with Euro-American sexologies, and despite the many medical/scholarly discourses on sex expounded in China during the first half of the twentieth century, which were hostile to non-reproductive forms of sexuality, the constructed figures of “perverts” like that of the homosexual as analysed by Foucault (1976) – barely existed in the country. See Dikotter 1995: 143-145.
  • [6]
    Li & Wang 1992 being one of the earliest and most well-known works within this current. On the general development of sexological research and language in China after 1979, see Pan Suiming, “A sex revolution in current China”, Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, 6, 1993: 5, cited in Micollier 2005: §39. From the 1980s onwards, Pan Suiming also emerged as one of the early promoters of this new Chinese sexology, in particular by importing English-language sexological literature and translating it into Chinese.
  • [7]
    Bessin 2009: 126.
  • [8]
    The gender norms and constraints weighing down upon the use of public spaces by women, the sexual division of public places, including those related to hygiene, and the sexual division of work, especially housework, are all factors explaining the numerical predominance of men in most of the places observed, as well as the apparent absence of female equivalents, in sociocultural terms, of the milieu studied here.
  • [9]
    The testimonies collected indicate that, until the 2000s at least, similar spaces could also be found in certain public places dedicated to newspaper reading, in the area surrounding the Workers’ Cultural Palace (Wenhuagong) in Shanghai, and in the former labour marketplace in Chengdu (which at that time was located close to a riverside quay, and is now situated on the outskirts of the city centre).
  • [10]
    Socioprofessional categories whose economic and symbolic status is moreover generally lower than that of their equivalents in France’s socioprofessional stratification.
  • [11]
    Though a few rare participants present an economically affluent profile – in particular, executives or even directors of large SMEs – it is significant that, among those participating in these spaces, they are the most inclined or eager to frequent the locales and men associated with the other pole of homosexual sociability, from which they nevertheless remain at a remove due to their age attributes and their socialization trajectories: in Shanghai, for example, proficiency in English, as well as forms of cosmopolitan sociability, seem to be an essential condition for Chinese men over the age of 40 to continue to frequent establishments in the gay district of the former French Concession.
  • [12]
    For example, below the age of 30. An individual here is generally considered young until this age at least.
  • [13]
    The thresholds delimiting these categories can vary somewhat across the conversations (for example, for young people the upper age limit may be 30 or 35, for middle-aged men it may be 45, 50 or 55), in particular insofar as they express relative disparities. The “middle-aged” and “elderly” categories are occasionally conflated into the single entity of “middle-aged/old” men (zhonglaonian de), which is again contrasted with “young men”.
  • [14]
    For example, men who prefer very old men are sometimes jokingly referred to as “archaeologists” (kaogu).
  • [15]
    Characterized in particular by the important marriage law adopted in 1950 immediately following the PCC’s accession to power, which aimed to liberate women from an oppression inherited from the old imperial world.
  • [16]
    Becker 1985.
  • [17]
    Gagnon 2008; Scott 1988 [1986].
  • [18]
    According to the available quantitative data, this observation seems to feed into a more general situation of class differences in terms of access to sexual representations and practices in modern-day China (see, among other examples, the viewing of pornography). Huang & Pan 2013: 137.
  • [19]
    Interview recorded on 20 April 2011.
  • [20]
    Following Becker’s (1985) discussion of deviant (including homosexual) careers, which are characterized (in various ways and to varying degrees) by the discovery of deviant techniques and behaviours, the development of the “taste for [their] effects”, the growing importance of participation in deviant milieus in the organization of individual activities, and modes of identification.
  • [21]
    Rennes 2009: 8.
  • [22]
    Gilles Guiheux, “Flexibility and mobility: The case of Shanghai white-collars”, text (provided by the author) delivered at the conference “Work precariousness in the context of economic growth: France and Japan in the postwar era / Contemporary China compared”, Berlin, Humboldt University, 19-20 June 2015.
  • [23]
    Variable forms of institutional discrimination linked to the household registration system (hukou), particularly in the areas of health, education and employment, which most affect people who hold a rural hukou but live in a city. On this point as well as on the status of migrants more generally, and how it has developed in post-Maoist China, see Froissart 2013.
  • [24]
    A term (bendiren) frequently used by the interviewees, synonymous in this context with “Shanghainese”.
  • [25]
    Froissart 2013.
  • [26]
    However, the taste for older men occasionally allows for a transfer in the opposite direction, although this is rarer. In some cases, young men deriving an economic benefit from their sexual interactions may also recruit the services of older men (for example, retired labourers or construction workers) in pursuit of their erotic pleasure – and, conversely, these men can derive material profit from young men’s taste for them.
  • [27]
    Interview recorded on 24 April 2014, in Shanghai.
  • [28]
    On the displeasure or anxiety expressed by gay Chinese men vis-à-vis “money boys” (male prostitutes), see in particular Rofel 2007: 105.
  • [29]
    Tabet 2004; for recent uses of the concept, see in particular Broqua & Deschamps 2014.
  • [30]
    These exchanges also appear to be strongly contingent on gender relations: if they exist, opportunities for young migrants to enjoy this type of relation with local, possibly older, women, appear much fewer and farther between. Conversely, the districts studied are also home to numerous heterosexual prostitution establishments, in which local as well as migrant men can buy the sexual services of young migrant women. The constraints concerning women’s access to sexuality (Pan 2006: 92) and public places serve to explain why young migrant women, as observed in this inquiry, are less present in heterosexual and public recreational spaces that are not specifically associated with prostitution, such as public dances and gardens (which tend to be frequented by older women with a higher social status).
  • [31]
    Interview conducted on 30 July 2014.
  • [32]
    Reprising, for example, a form of “traditional” homoeroticism dating back to the imperial era (Hinsch 1990).

The same-sex version of “old-young love” (laoshaolian) in post-Maoist China, characterized by an age difference between male same-sex partners, which infringes both age conventions and gendered prescriptions pertaining to eroticism, differs greatly from the forms of gay culture prevalent in the city centres frequented by the new Chinese middle and upper classes. Such liaisons, formed as a result of the sexual and affective ties established in the wider context between old « locals » and young migrant workers, and having their origins in the ordinary forms and spaces of a predominantly masculine, popular and intergenerational sociability, appear above all to be rooted in the context of post-Mao reform and the opening up of China, in which reconfigurings of discursive space, economic organization and social structure play a major part.


  • China
  • age
  • migration
  • post-Maoism
  • sexuality
  • homosexuality
  • class

De l’« Amour vieux-jeune ». Âge, classe et homosexualité masculine en Chine post-maoïste

Axée autour de la différence d’âge entre partenaires masculins, contrevenant tant, en matière érotique, aux conventions d’âge qu’aux prescriptions sexuées, la configuration de l’« amour vieux-jeune » (laoshaolian) homosexuel diffère singulièrement des formes de culture gay qui se déploient dans les espaces urbains centraux fréquentés par les nouvelles classes moyennes et supérieures chinoises. Constituée des liens sexuels et affectifs qui s’établissent dans la métropole entre vieux « locaux » et jeunes travailleurs migrants, imbriquée dans les formes et les lieux ordinaires d’une sociabilité principalement masculine, populaire et intergénérationnelle, elle apparaît avant tout ancrée dans le contexte de la Chine des réformes et de l’ouverture post-maoïstes, au sein duquel les reconfigurations de l’espace discursif, de l’organisation économique et de la structure sociale jouent un rôle central.


  • Chine
  • âge
  • classe
  • migrations
  • post-maoïsme
  • sexualité
  • homosexualité


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Lucas Monteil
Lucas Monteil teaches at the department of political science in the University of Paris VIII, and is a member of the Laboratoire d’Études sur le Genre et la Sexualité (LEGS). His doctoral thesis, currently under preparation, on the construction of homosexuality in post-Maoist China, touches on gender and sexuality studies, globalization, taste and social movements.
Translated by
Helen Tomlinson
Uploaded on on 21/10/2016
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