Dictionary's exclusion of gay terminology sparks criticism

By Wang Ruoyao and Mou Xu
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, July 18, 2012
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The compilers of a newly-revised authoritative Chinese dictionary have come under fire for excluding a word commonly used to refer to the country's growing homosexual community from the reference book.

The Chinese term "tongzhi," which literally translates as "comrade" in English, has been widely used by Chinese homosexuals to refer to themselves for years and has entered the popular lexicon as well. However, the word failed to find its way into the sixth edition of the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary.

"We know homosexuals call each other 'tongzhi.' 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," Jiang Lansheng, a linguist who leads the work to revise the dictionary, said in a TV interview that took place on Sunday, when the book was officially published.

Jiang's remarks raised the eyebrows of homosexuals and gay rights advocates.

"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," said "Nan Feng," a homosexual who has been working on an anti-AIDS campaign aimed at homosexuals in the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing for 12 years.

"'Tongzhi' is the most commonly used, non-offensive term used by our circle to refer to homosexuals," Nan said. "We hope the compilers can view the word from an impartial standpoint."

"Lin Huai," a 22-year-old homosexual college student in Beijing, described Jiang's explanation as "lame."

"Her words obviously don't hold water. She indicated that all entries listed in the dictionary should be promoted. In that case, does the word 'corruption' deserve any favor?" Lin said.

Although homosexuality has been increasingly discussed by mass media in China, the voice of the official side is rarely heard, she added.

"The compiler's words represent explicit discrimination against homosexuals," said Zhang Beichuan, a leading Chinese scholar in homosexual studies.

"In my opinion, all forms of love should be promoted and only hatred should be condemned. Jiang's argument is fairly naive, meaning the country urgently needs a push towards improving its sexual orientation education," he said.

Zhang's view was echoed by Yu Haitao, an associate professor of linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University. Yu said personal values should be put aside when compiling dictionaries.

Compilers can't totally avoid subjectivity when deciding whether an entry or new definition deserves to be listed in accordance with linguistic standards, Yu said.

"But for a linguist, it's wrong to cite personal feelings as the reason for their choices," Yu said.

According to Zhang, gay people living on the Chinese mainland have referred to themselves as "tongzhi" since the mid-1970s. The term gained immense popularity in the 1990s after an influential Hong Kong film director vigorously promoted its use in 1989.

"Tongzhi" serves as a substitute for "tongxinglian," the formal Chinese term for homosexual. The substitution removes the sexual connotation included in "tongxinglian," which literally translates as "same-sex love," and therefore helps homosexuals avoid some social stigma, as sexual topics remain taboo in mainstream society.

The fifth edition of the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary, published in 2005, describes "tongxinglian" as a psychosexual disorder, despite the fact that homosexuality was removed from the Chinese Classification of Mental Disorders in April 2001, 11 years after the World Health Organization did the same.

"The term 'tongzhi' mirrors homosexuals' aspiration to have equal rights and to be accepted by the majority. It, to some degree, also reflects their wiliness to be 'invisible' in the face of social pressure," Zhang said.

Although the compiler's remarks have irritated many, the question of whether the gay meaning of "tongzhi" should be included in one of the country's most prestigious, best-selling dictionaries remains an open question for some.

"Denial of this usage of 'tongzhi' means the book fails to provide comprehensive and object information about the entry," "Nan Feng" said.

Guo Yan, a 24-year-old postgraduate student in Beijing, said the gay meaning of "tongzhi" has reached outside the sexual minority and is popular enough to be included in the dictionary.

"The term is a smart, indigenous expression to describe same-sex love in China and it is not used in a vulgar and offensive way," Guo said.

Yu Haitao, however, holds a different opinion.

"Based on my knowledge of linguistics, I think it's reasonable to put aside this usage of 'tongzhi,'" he said.

According to Yu, new words and meanings should be part of the "masses' linguistic system" for at least five years before being included as part of a normative dictionary.

"But the detailed criteria may depend on the judgment of different compilers," he added.

Yu said similar revisions of authoritative foreign dictionaries, such as the Oxford lexicon, were all done very "discreetly."

It may be sensible for compilers to solicit public opinions about the inclusion of controversial words like "tongzhi," said Li Ji, a commentator, in an article published in the Chengdu Business Daily on Monday.

Despite having excluded "tongzhi," the revised dictionary does add more than 3,000 new entries and over 400 new meanings for older words.

The new entries include many buzzwords that originated on the Internet, such as "shanzhai," which refers to counterfeit products.

"The new expressions honestly represent modern society," Jiang Lansheng said at a meeting held to promote the new publication on Sunday.


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