A Different Way to Tie the Knot: The Rise of Xinghun Marriages in China

September 21, 2014 • Features, Print • Views: 2104

By Josh Feng

The “True Confessions” side banner at Chinagayles.com scrolls slowly as username after username appears, each accompanied with a short blurb:

“Age 30. 182cm. 70kg. Looking to find a lesbian for a xinghun marriage! Let’s both not interfere with each other’s own private lives after marriage, but I do want us to care for each other’s elders at home. Whether you want children or not, both are OK. Let’s just get married as soon as possible.”

“I have [had] a girlfriend of many years myself. However I am under family pressure. I am looking for a suitable xinghun marriage. After the marriage, we can be just like friends rather than spouses.”

A gay rights pride in Shanghai (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

A gay rights pride in Shanghai (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Established in 2005, Chinagayles.com is one of the oldest and most popular websites that specialize in xinghun matchmaking. Xinghun is a Chinese term that describes a contract marriage between a lesbian woman and a gay man, or what many in the Chinese LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans) community refer to as jiahun (fake marriage) instead of xinghun (a marriage of formality, or a shaped marriage). The website has more than 180,000 registered members who all flock to this self-proclaimed “professional Chinese dating website” for different reasons, though membership has steadily increased since its inception. In April 2013, only about 160,000 registered users were on the site. Today the number is over 360,000. This popularity brings a largely invisible subset of Chinese society to light: LGBTQ individuals.

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In theory, the arrangement of xinghun marriages aims to resolve cultural and familial pressures to marry. However, xinghun marriages often end up pressuring LGBT individuals to keep up the “act” in order to fit within societal norms, while also leaving space for their true romantic relationships—a hard balancing act to maintain.

An important distinction of xinghun relationships is that this “fake” marriage is pre-arranged, and each partner is aware of the other’s sexuality. Many Chinese LGBT people find xinghun a more attractive alternative to the other option: marry a heterosexual and hide their sexuality. But it is clear that many continue to opt for this route. Zhang Beichuan, a professor and LGBT issues researcher at Qingdao University Medical School, estimates that approximately 16 million heterosexual women are married (often unknowingly) to homosexual men.

Susan*, who lives in Shanghai, met her xinghun husband at a gym through a personal trainer. Yet she opts to spend most of her time not with her husband, but with her girlfriend, eating dinner with her legal husband and mother-in-law only two to three times each month. Though Susan didn’t meet her husband online, she said “there are a few websites for gay people looking for xinghun partners. Some of my friends find their partners there.” The recent boom in online dating has enabled the flourishing of suitable spaces for LGBT people looking for xinghun partners; the network has a wide reach while also allowing users to maintain secrecy.

While such websites make it easier to arrange xinghun marriages, they also preserve certain gender conventions. Min Liu, a professor at Southern Illinois University, wrote “Two Gay Men Seeking Two Lesbians: An Analysis of Xinghun (Formality Marriage) Ads on China’s Tianya.cn,” which utilizes online xinghun advertisements to illustrate the rigid adherence to heterosexual norms required for these marriages to “fit in” to the Chinese social landscape. Liu concluded that all mentions of physical features in the ads analyzed indicated a preference for masculinity among men and femininity among women. While most gay men emphasized their financial stability in the ads they placed, most lesbian women emphasized their personality and family-related skills – reinforcing the traditional female housewife/male breadwinner roles. The physical and occupational attributes of those looking for xinghun arrangements reflect their desires to fit neatly into pre-prescribed gender roles.

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When asked, Susan cited “pressure from society and family” as the reason she decided to be in a xinghun marriage. And her sentiment is not too far off from many others in these relationships. Unique socio-political aspects of Chinese culture play a key role in the emergence of the xinghun phenomenon in China. Many Chinese people today are influenced by ancient Confucian concepts such as filial piety and are steeped in virtues such as “continuing the bloodline” (that is, having children with a partner of the opposite sex). Books written over a thousand years ago don’t give provisions for nontraditional family structures.

A recently published Atlantic article titled “For Gay Chinese, Getting Married Means Getting Creative” cites both xinghun couples and scholars while pinpointing family pressure as the cause of the phenomenon. Rebecca Karl, associate professor of East Asian Studies at New York University, said that “for the families of many LGBT people, the heterosexual nature of marriage is non-negotiable. They are thus expected to marry someone of the opposite sex to give themselves ‘family and social cover.’” Often, even if parents are tolerant of their LGBTQ child’s sexuality, they push their children into xinghun arrangements to maintain their mianzi ( “face” or “public image”) in front of other family members.

A participant in a gay rights parade in Shanghai (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

A participant in a gay rights parade in Shanghai (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The Chinese political and legal climates also influence xinghun marriages. As Deborah Davis, professor of sociology at Yale University explained, “astronomical real estate prices and the one child policy all help to create a cauldron of parental anxiety.” Though the one child-policy has loosened in recent years, it often funnels parental burden and expectations onto one child rather than spreading it among siblings. In order to “continue the bloodline”, the only child receives even more pressure to have a traditional marriage.

In recent years, Chinese law has made great strides regarding LGBTQ rights. Consensual, adult homosexuality was made legal with the 1997 revision of the national penal code, and homosexuality was removed from the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. Yet this decriminalization is far from tolerance. The Chinese government’s stance on homosexuality, sometimes summarized as “bu zhichi, bu fandui, bu tichang” (don’t support, don’t disapprove, don’t promote), silences the LGBTQ community from pushing for change. The lack of visibility of the LGBTQ community hinders its efforts to secure human rights for LGBTQ Chinese individuals, such as advocacy for a civil rights law that addresses discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

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Despite the increasing popularity of such marriages, the initial honeymoon phase of xinghun is often short, and the idealized image of the xinghun marriage sometimes crumbles as the realities of the arrangement hit home. While xinghun marriages may ameliorate short-term pressures to marry, couples often struggle to maintain the relationship. By engaging in a xinghun, LGBTQ individuals reinforce heterosexual family institutions, which often marginalize the same-sex relations they aim to protect. Additionally, Vincent, a Shanghainese non-LGBTQ identified individual, voiced his concerns over children born into xinghun marriages as a result of these external pressures. He asks “what about the child [in the xinghun]? The child might be raised in quite a different environment…they may have 4 parents…perhaps the grandparents will replace the role of the parents in these situations.” Furthermore, the gendered power structure of traditional marriage establishments skews adverse consequences of xinghun to be particularly devastating for the lesbian woman in the relationship.

Elisabeth Engebretsen describes the effects of gender role conformity in xinghun marriages in “Under Pressure: Lesbian-Gay Contract Marriage at the Intersections of Contemporary Regimes of Normalization.” Perhaps as a reflection of a larger problem in Chinese society, this shift toward a heavily gendered heterosexual norm tends to hit lesbian women harder than it does gay men. While these marriages may seem like “the perfect way out” for closeted people of any gender and orientation, Engebretsen presents xinghun narratives indicating that lesbians suffered restricted autonomy and emotional or sometimes even physical violence.

Of course, some xinghun relationships avoid these issues. Susan mentions that she “didn’t find it difficult to reconcile both the xinghun relationship and [her] real relationship” but also adds, “things might get intense before the xinghun wedding”—adding the notion of anticipated troubles down the road. Susan notes that she does not feel held down by the xinghun relationship, but also contributes this to her success in finding someone “morally nice so that he wouldn’t cause much trouble for [my] life in the future.”

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While xinghun marriages seem to offer a perfect solution that reconciles conservative socio-political forces with personal sexual desire, the balance between public and private, “acting LGBTQ” and “being LGBTQ,” and separating and conflating xinghun and true relationships is hard to maintain. Despite these long-term challenges, tens of thousands of LGBTQ Chinese individuals continue to see “fake marriage” as the best response to a bad situation. Until the socio-political climate changes in China towards one more friendly to LGBT citizens, it looks like xinghun is an institution that will stay.

* Names of individuals who are in xinghun marriages have been changed to protect privacy.

Josh Feng ’17 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at josh.feng@yale.edu.

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