The sixth edition of the “Modern Chinese Dictionary” has just been published in China and, even though it contains some 3000 new entries, criticism has already begun that it excludes too many current, popular expressions.
In particular, many Chinese netizens have pointed out that it does not contain the modified meaning of 同志, tongzhi.The main meaning of the word is ‘comrade,’ and it was the main honorific in Chinese society after the revolution and still is the honorific of choice for official Chinese Communist Party purposes.
It has acquired another meaning, however, which is ‘homosexual or homo or gay.’ This new meaning first appeared in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Because the first character and sound of ‘homosexual’ in Chinese, 同性恋, tongxinglian, is the same as the word for comrade, changing its meaning to homo or gay was a sly jab at the mainland’s political elite.
Imagine if the word ‘honourable’ also came to mean ‘homo’ because they both started with ‘ho’ and this would then change the Right Honourable Prime Minister into the Right Homo Prime Minister and you get the idea.
Once in China we saw a banner strung across a hotel entrance that said ‘Welcome Old Comrades.’ Because it could also be interpreted to mean ‘Welcome Old Homos,’ my friend insisted on taking a picture of me standing beneath it.
Just a final note, although homosexuality is still socially unacceptable in China and gay men and lesbians are struggling to find acceptance in a deeply sexually conservative society, one thing you do not often encounter is the kind of violent and aggressive homophobia often encountered in western democracies , Islamic countries, Eastern Europe or parts of Africa. Personally, I believe this is partially due to the suppressed nature of religion in Chinese society, and I predict at that if religion, and particular Christianity, asserts itself more strongly in China, you will be see a rise in aggressive homophobia.
(Those who read Chinese might want to check out an article on the new dictionary and the controversy at http://preview.tinyurl.com/bsr67a8 )