‘Lack’ of languages
Affective experiences of female same-sex intimacies in contemporary China
in Affective intimacies

This chapter, developed from an anthropological study, analyses female same-sex affective intimacies in contemporary China. Applying the feminist new-materialist theory of ‘nomadic subjectivity’, and through embodied perspectives for understanding bodies, I find that, although Chinese same-sex attracted women often encounter a lack of ‘proper’ language for expressing love and describing sexual practices, this very ‘lack’ enables us to observe, think and feel the ‘becoming’ of the intimacies experienced by female, non-heteronormative, global South, post-traditional and post-colonial subjects, and the ‘becoming’ of these subjects themselves, beyond the limitations of the standard usage of authoritative languages. By theorising ‘(first) love without articulation’ and ‘penetration’, I argue that becoming a women-loving woman in contemporary China is a collective, trans-subjective process, and Chinese women-loving women understand and practise love through non-consistent, non-linear journeys. The embodied emotions and memories of these women grow beyond explicit verbal expressions, defying the heteronormative discourses about ‘aiqing/love’ in China’s wider society. I also argue that the heterosexual and phallocentric idea(l)s of penetrative sex have profoundly influenced female same-sex sexual practices and caused Chinese women trauma and shame in different contexts. Nevertheless, I call for the re-appropriation and re-definition of heteronormative notions and terms, such as ‘penetration’, through lenses that are sensitive to embodiment, in order to better portray the inter-corporeal entanglements in sexual experiences that are often unspeakable or unspoken, and better sense and express the diverse affective forces that (re)shape feelings about intimacy.


In our everyday lives, we deal with, talk about, long for and/or run away from intimacies; however, intimacy is differently understood and embodied in different times, groups of people and circumstances, since intimacies are always entanglements of specific notions, emotions, bodies and environments (Sanger and Taylor, 2013). Due to the Euro-American-centrism in the (re)production of most normative knowledge, the uneven globalisation of information and the personal and national pursuits of ‘modernity’ in developing countries, Western-rooted experiences and interpretations of intimacy, especially those about sexuality and romantic love, have often been taken for universal ‘truths’ in many societies (Chao, 2000; Reddy, 2012; Weeks, 2003; Sang, 2003). Of course, people’s everyday practices, languages and feelings about intimacy in the contemporary world are not ‘Westernised’ homogeneously. Rather, an increasing number of studies have mapped the hybridised and contested configurations and understandings of intimacy across the world (e.g. Martin et al., 2008; Padilla et al., 2008; Sanger and Taylor, 2013), which, despite embodying unequal power relations, are ever-multiplying and ever-transforming.

Among the sites where diverse ideas about intimacy dynamically encounter one another is China, a society renowned for its unique cultural traditions and well-developed philosophies since ancient times. Chinese histories of sexual eroticism, kinship relationships and understandings about the self and the other have provided inspiring materials for Euro-American scholars to write about intimacies and subjectivities (e.g. Butler, 2004: 103; Deleuze and Guattari, 1987; Foucault, 1978: 57; Van Gulik, 1961). Since the beginning of the twentieth century, China has witnessed waves of introductions of transnationally and transregionally circulating concepts, theories and ideals related to intimacy, including the terms of ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’, the categorisation of sexual orientations, and the normalisation of heterosexual, monogamous marriage based on ‘free choices’ (Evans, 1997; Rocha, 2010; Sang, 2003). In the twenty-first century, scenes of intimacies in China, as vibrant ‘non-Western’ but globalising experiences, have become highly contested and are rapidly changing (Ho et al., 2018). These scenes have inspired a boom in empirical studies conducted in China that reflect on Euro-American theorisations of both heteronormative and ‘queer’ desires and practices (e.g. Engebretsen, 2014; Kam, 2013; Kong, 2011; Zheng, 2015).

This chapter, developed from an anthropological study on Chinese women-loving women’s subjectivities and everyday lives, investigates the affective experiences of female same-sex love and sex in the 2010s in mainland China. Scholars have noticed that, compared with the ways that sexuality is routinely discussed in Euro-American societies, finding a language to openly talk about sexuality is not an easy task for East Asian researchers and their researched subjects, especially when they are women (Jackson et al., 2008). On the other side, in studies on Chinese women-loving-women intimacies, the ‘love’ between women functions more as a pre-existing, fixed fact, which is rather left unexplored compared with other research questions such as ‘coming out of the closet’ and LGBTQ1 activism (see Engebretsen, 2014; Kam, 2013). This situation can also be a result of the tradition of queer theory: compared with sexuality, love often seems too normative to play a critical role in queer inquiries (Halperin, 2019). Thus, processes of the ‘becoming’ of female same-sex love and the embodiment of love in the lived experiences of Chinese same-sex attracted women have seldom been depicted in detail. In my own study, however, I tried to talk, write and feel female same-sex love and sex. Interestingly, I found that – whether in my fieldwork or in the everyday lives of the participants and myself – there were unspoken or ineffable feelings, ‘misused’ words, and lessons learned by bodily practices. This ‘lack’ of languages was beyond fluent, precise and rational verbal expressions but still powerfully presented how love and sex could make sense in processes of becoming intimate and becoming a women-loving woman.

Across the Euro-American humanities and social sciences, an ‘affective turn’ from the dominance of linguistic, semiotic and discursive practices has been fuelled, which instead pays attention to the affective capacities of bodies, emotions and materials (Clough, 2010). These emerging theorisations about affects are embedded in the genealogies of Western philosophy and other disciplines, while making innovative reflections on them (Seigworth and Gregg, 2010). Although it is hard to find a single Chinese word to precisely translate the English term of ‘affect’, affect theories to a large extent echo Taoist and Buddhist thoughts that nourish Chinese classical philosophy (Braidotti et al., 2018). Additionally, affect theories criticise dualistic thinking about the individual and society, body and mind, culture and nature, self and other, inside and outside, material and immaterial, human and non-human (Blackman and Venn, 2010; Clough, 2010), and ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’ of course. Since such dualistic thoughts have also dominated Chinese modern and contemporary languages, texts and ideologies, analysing my data through the lens of ‘affect’ will produce new knowledge about the intimacies experienced by female, non-heteronormative, global South, post-traditional and post-colonial subjects beyond the limitation of the standard usage of authoritative languages.

Of course, this chapter does not render the sexual histories and politics of the global South as mere ‘footnotes’ in English-written academic texts, ‘providing the empirical material upon which Northern academics build their theories’ (criticised by Wieringa and Sívori, 2013: 6). Rather, I create a space that allows Chinese intimate experiences and the ever-growing body of work focusing on affects to encounter each other. My analysis in this chapter is inspired by and aims to enrich feminist new-materialism, especially the ‘nomadic subjectivity’ theorised by Rosi Braidotti (1994, 2002, 2011a, 2011b, 2014), as well as the approaches to the body with more embodied perspectives, rather than linguistic ones (see Blackman, 2008). In this chapter, I am interested in the question of what kinds of embodied emotions and memories, affected and affecting bodies, and assembled and relational subjectivities are emerging from Chinese same-sex attracted women’s love and sexual experiences, especially when these love and sexual experiences grapple with and/or grow beyond verbal expressions and discourses. My chapter contributes to rethinking intimacies by recognising the trans-subjective, inter-corporeal experiences that constitute affective experiences.

Focusing on love and sexual experiences, this chapter by no means agrees that intimacy should be reduced to individual privacy and the private sphere; rather, ‘intimacy is shaped by, and helps shape, a variety of spatial scales – from the domestic, the local, the urban and the national, to the global’ (Sanger and Taylor, 2013: 2). Scholars who combine affect theories and feminist and queer studies have even pushed the discussions of intimacies towards a post-humanist frontier, breaking the traditionally supposed boundaries that separate human subjects (especially white, male subjects) from ‘other’ statuses of being and becoming (e.g. Braidotti, 2013; Haraway, 2008; Lykke, 2018). In this chapter, although my analysis of intimacies revolves around human experiences, I bear in mind that love and sexual relationships are not vacuums built by (normatively two) individuals and bounded bodies. Instead, I view intimacies as affective ‘intra-actions’, rather than interactions, which defy boundaries between subjects, bodies, materials and discourses (see discussion about ‘intra-action’ in Barad, 2007). Of course, not all affects experienced by ‘others’ can easily be observed and understood by social science research, and the difficulty of ‘offering an empirical portrait of a world filled with holes’ has not been completely solved by affect theories (Rutherford, 2016: 295). As an anthropologist, while in my studies I explored the affective experiences that had ‘failed’ to be represented by unambiguous, rational verbal language, I had to rely on understandable communications and palpable empathy to collect data in my fieldwork. Not despite but because of this, I believe that my approach in this chapter enables the observations and analyses of affective intimacies to avoid the dualism of mind/body.

Chinese lesbianism and the participants of the study

Same-sex eroticism and practices, especially those between men, were richly documented and fictionalised in pre-modern Chinese texts, yet this does not mean that same-sex sexualities were unconditionally tolerated in Chinese traditions (Kang, 2009). Female same-sex relationships that tried to refuse heterosexual married life and escape patriarchal kinship were unthinkable according to traditional Chinese familial and social norms, even though some women did manage such non-normative lives (Sang, 2003; Wieringa, 2007). During China’s Republican era (1912–1949), Chinese (male) intellectuals selectively introduced European sexologist and eugenic thoughts in order to develop a modernised nation-state, and the pathologised notion of ‘homosexuality’ (‘tongxinglian’, or ‘tongxing’ai’) entered modern Chinese vocabularies (Sang, 2003).

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, during the Maoist decades the topics of sexuality were rarely discussed openly, and private lives were regulated in support of national development and collective benefits (Evans, 1997). Accordingly, in this period female same-sex practices were largely silenced in public discourse and personal narratives (Ruan and Bullough, 1992). Later, in post-Mao China under the policy of ‘economic reform and opening up’ (gaige kaifang), sexuality, gender and feminism re-emerged from academic and popular discourses (Zhong, 2007). Male same-sex behaviours were decriminalised in 1997, and homosexuality was officially de-pathologised in 2001 (Kang, 2012). After the twenty-first century started, owing to the development of the internet and accelerated global mobilities, same-sex attracted women in mainland China have communicated with one another, and with their counterparts in Taiwan, Hong Kong and overseas; online and offline communities of lesbians, or ‘lalas’,2 have emerged (Engebretsen, 2014; Kam, 2013). However, since women are usually not recognised as autonomous sexual subjects and are not encouraged to be ‘leftover women’ (shengnü) on the heterosexual marriage market, issues related to female same-sex intimacies have not received adequate attention within and without China’s ‘tongzhi’3 communities (Engebretsen, 2014; Kam, 2013).

Methodologically, the data analysed in this chapter were collected in the ethnographic fieldwork of my PhD project, which was intensively conducted between 2013 and 2014 in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan city in the contemporary world, and Yunnan, a province located in southwestern China which is often considered to be economically less developed. Scattered follow-up investigations were carried out until 2019. Thirty-nine self-reported same-sex attracted women (seventeen living in Shanghai and twenty-two in Yunnan Province), aged between their early twenties and mid-forties at the time, participated in my study through in-depth interviews, focus groups, participatory observations and casual conversations. In order to find these participants, I mixed different sampling methods, including purposive sampling, snowball sampling and convenience sampling (see Bernard, 2011). I posted invitations on popular Chinese-based social network websites and apps such as Sina Weibo, WeChat, Douban.com and QQ chat groups. I contacted organisers of grassroots ‘lala’ groups in my fieldwork locations and asked them to introduce potential participants, who then introduced more.

Although my study originally focused on collecting and analysing narratives, in this chapter I re-examine the data from a perspective that is more sensitive to the affective aspects of female same-sex love and sex, and of an anthropological study. According to the scholars who have sought inventive research methods for collecting/producing embodied-affective data (e.g. Kinnunen and Kolehmainen, 2019; Knudsen and Stage, 2015; Walkerdine and Jimenez, 2012), affective forces can be traced in forms and styles of verbal expressions, in gestures and non-verbal languages, as well as in trans-subjective flows co-constructed by the researcher and the researched, even if the data of a study mainly consists of narratives and texts. During the process of revisiting my data and writing this chapter, I have recognised myself as a ‘vulnerable observer’ (Behar, 1996), who was easily affected by – and actively affecting – my own study.

In the following two sections, I respectively discuss ‘love’, especially ‘first love’, and ‘sexual intimacies’, two topics about which both the participants and myself yearned to express ourselves and discuss, but often found a ‘lack’ of language. Pseudonyms are given to the participants. Instead of piling up similar cases in the two analysis sections, I select typical experiences shared by many participants and special experiences that can ‘jar our ideas’ and ‘make us question what we think we know’ (Becker, 1998: 8).

(First) love without articulation

In my fieldwork there was a particularly welcomed icebreaking question for initiating a conversation: ‘Could you say something about your “first love”?’ (chulian). This question was always followed by rich, spontaneous narrative flows. Ironically, while the participants had much to say, retrospectively, about their earlier feelings of love for other women or teenage girls, many of them had never explicitly expressed these feelings to those beloved persons under the name of ‘love’; and those beloved persons also reacted in ambiguous or ambivalent ways. In this section, I discuss cases of such affective experiences without or beyond precise verbal definitions and confirmations, what I call ‘love without articulation’. By combining these cases with the concept of ‘nomadic subjectivity’ developed by Braidotti (1994, 2002, 2011a, 2011b; a feminist new-materialist philosopher who has critically elaborated the Deleuzian affective theorisation of ‘becoming’), I argue that becoming a women-loving woman in contemporary China defies the verbal language that confines ‘love/aiqing’4 within a heteronormative framework, confines subjectivity within a consistent (self-)identification, and confines the understanding of intimacy within the present relationship between a couple of individuals.

According to the official guide on the subject, The Theories of Ideology and Politics (Sixiang Zhengzhi Lilun), a compulsory subject in China’s national post-graduate entrance exam, the nature of ‘aiqing’ (love) is:

a strong, pure, and single-minded affection, between a man and a woman who have gained certain social relations and material supports and share the same ideal of life, entailing mutual admiration and yearning for building a life-long partnership.5

Obviously excluding same-sex intimacies, these lines count as the standard definition of ‘love/aiqing’ given by the Ministry of Education of China, representing the authoritative knowledge and the government-advocated ideal of romantic love in contemporary China. Chinese women who are attracted to women are ignored or even stigmatised by this heteronormative discourse. They also live under the familial and social pressure of ‘compulsory marriage’ (Kam, 2013: 6), which means that (hetero)marriage is considered to be the only normal and desirable lifestyle for all adults. Thus, for many participants of my study, being an openly identified homosexual (tongxinglian) and maintaining their same-sex intimacies – especially their early explorations of same-sex love – are often incompatible with each other.

The first-love story told by the participant ‘Shore’ is typical. Shore, born in the early 1990s and grown up in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan Province, had cherished her continuous special attachment to a young woman named ‘Seagull’ since primary school. For more than thirteen years, neither Shore nor Seagull had touched on the word ‘love/aiqing’ when they expressed the special feelings they had for each other, even though they had celebrated ‘Qixi Festival’6 and ‘May Twentieth’7 together several times – the counterparts of Valentine’s Day in Chinese popular culture. Seagull usually defined their relationship as ‘friendship’ (youqing), and she had dated several boys alongside. However, she tried her best to trivialise these dates in front of Shore. Shore recalled: ‘She [Seagull] once said that if I was against her dating that boy, she could absolutely give him up.’ On the other side, Shore had never told Seagull that she actually saw the young men who courted Seagull as ‘love rivals’ (qingdi). Thus, only under a name other than ‘love/aiqing’, such as ‘friendship’, did the love between the two women survive.

Here, I phrase ‘love without articulation’ as a pun, since the word ‘articulation’ means either the action of giving utterance or the action of interrelating. For many Chinese women (once) involved in same-sex love, it is unbearable to explicitly name the intimate connection between women as ‘love’ – until it is no longer possible to maintain this connection, for example when they can tell their (first-)love stories retrospectively (see also, Martin, 2010). However, silenced verbal expressions of love and emotional detachments from the experiences of love do not mean that these women have passively compromised on a heteronormative life script and social pressure. Rather, embodied intimacies without verbal definitions sometimes allow these women to eschew social stigmas such as sexual and/or gender ‘deviant’.

‘Tea’, a working-class participant in her early forties who was born in a small town in Yunnan Province, spent hours in the interview reminiscing on her three ex-girlfriends, to whom she had never uttered the word ‘love/aiqing’. Despite the frustration and sadness brought about by the break-ups, Tea expressed that she was quite satisfied with holding on to the memories of these three women – ‘the three good dreams’ in her own words – for the rest of her life. For twenty years, Tea had a close bond with her second ex-girlfriend, although at the time of the interview she preferred to name this bond as ‘sisterhood’ or ‘family’, rather than ‘lovers’. Tea was this ex-girlfriend’s bridesmaid and her son’s ‘nanny’; and this woman in return supported Tea financially and emotionally when she faced difficulties. This ex-girlfriend’s husband, who had never known of the same-sex intimacy between the two women, had a mutual appreciation and respect for Tea. In other words, without verbally self-identifying as a ‘lesbian’ or ‘lala’, Tea had maintained a life filled with exclusive women-loving-women attachments, regardless of the past tense she applied to describe her same-sex love relationships.

Knudsen and Stage (2015) have analysed the complicated relations between affect and language, based on two groups of scholars who research and theorise affect. On one hand, affect is beyond language categorisation, and semantics and semiotics can turn out to be distorted traces of affect; on the other hand, language has a sensitive capability of expressing affective experiences (4). In the case of ‘love without articulation’, affective intimacies between Chinese women show both abovementioned characteristics. Through embodying emotions, sensations, longings and belongings that travel between bodies, and through expressing subjective feelings, memories and understandings about such embodiments, these women and their subjectivities are not insulative, static and consistent ‘selves’, but are ‘ever-becoming journeys’ able to be affected and to affect.

As Braidotti points out, the subject is non-unitary, which means that it is ‘split, knotted, and complex’ (Braidotti, 2011a: 37), and the subjectivity is ‘becoming nomad’, which ‘marks the process of positive transformation of the pain of loss into the active production of multiple forms of belonging and complex allegiances’ (Braidotti, 2011a: 80). Entangled with memories, ‘the present’ that is being lived and visions about the future are affirmed through ‘nomadic remembering’, which, in Braidotti’s words, is ‘not indexed on the authority of the past’ but ‘occurs in relation to creative imagination in the future anterior’ (Braidotti, 2011b: 34). If we do not see time, life and the formation of subjectivity as linear, consistent continuums, the seeming ruptures between the so-called ‘past’ and ‘present’, such as Tea’s ‘three dreams’, can also be ways to create an endurable future.

For ‘nomads’, or for female (post-)colonial, sexual-minority subjects, whose bodies and emotions are usually otherised by white, male, middle-class, heteronormative languages and knowledges as ‘site[s] of animality, primitivism and irrationality’ (see Blackman, 2008: 48), ‘loving without articulation’ does not mean a ‘lack’ of language, but means a proliferation of embodied intimacies. The dominant discourse about romantic love in contemporary China only recognises heteronormative relationships and only values life-long monogamy – a narrow definition of ‘loyalty’. Facing these types of discourse, Chinese same-sex attracted women understand their intimate experiences without fully depending on one version of ‘common-sense’ logic, but through acknowledging complex affective feelings and experimenting with multiple affective expressions.

In Chinese, the word ‘chulian’ refers to both ‘first love’ the experience and ‘first lover’ the person. This overlapping usage has created not only trouble, but also inspiration in my own same-sex intimate relationship.8 Although both my current partner and I agree that our relationship brings us ever-renewed knowledge about love, as if this relationship is always a ‘first love’, we still have a habit of calling our first lovers, with whom we no longer keep contact, our ‘chulian’ in the chronological sense. Besides the predictable jealousy, dispute, awkwardness or sulky atmospheres, embodied memories – many of which are bitter and painful – revisit us unexpectedly when we touch on the word ‘chulian’. These ‘inharmonious’ moments, however, keep reminding us that ‘“others” are the integral element of one’s successive becomings’ (Braidotti, 2011b: 153), no matter whether an articulation still exists between us and our former lovers. In contemporary China, where same-sex love is not recognised as respectable ‘love/aiqing’ and where women outside the hetero-marriage are not believed to deserve a fulfilled life, becoming a women-loving woman is rather a collective, trans-subjective process. One’s first love/r without articulation can become an organic and affective part of one’s current and future intimate experiences.

The gaps between verbal languages, and affective understandings through embodied thinking and feeling, show that ‘love without articulation’ is an intimacy that grows beyond the exclusively categorised, committed and sanctioned relationship between two self-contained individuals – the ‘love/aiqing’ defined by the Ministry of Education of China. Neither can such intimacies be reduced to being one’s ‘better half’ (the Chinese translation of which is ‘ling yiban’, literally ‘the other half’), as heteronormative romantic discourses often say. Female same-sex love in a heteronormative, homophobic, patriarchal, misogynous context seeks inventive languages for describing the affective intimacies that travel between bodies and make them both incomplete and simultaneously assembled. During my fieldwork, I was impressed by the query expressed by ‘Brook’, a participant born in the late 1980s in north-eastern China and working in Shanghai at the time. Not satisfied with the existing Chinese vocabulary that names romantic intimacies, Brook said:

[Rather than] the existing definition of ‘aiqing’, perhaps [there is] a word we haven’t created yet, a feeling we haven’t put into words. […] I think love should have an inclusiveness [that is more inclusive than ‘aiqing’].

Although Brook did not give an answer herself, her query is a good starting point to search for more nuanced affective languages that can better depict relational subjectivities, non-normative connections and affective intimacies.

Sexual intimacies as ‘penetrations’

In traditional social scientific methodologies, language has played a central role in constructing human understanding; expressions of self are often explored through paying disproportionate attention to statements and accounts, which tend to submerge the body as merely a silent, physical presence (Blackman, 2008). During my fieldwork, when I tried to collect information about the participants’ sexual experiences, which were related more to embodied and affective experiences, I faced a multi-fold lack of language. After I asked the participants about their sex lives, many of them responded with stammering sentences and shy smiles. Since openly talking about sexuality is still more or less a taboo for women in China, discussing same-sex sexual practices outside of private spaces, such as in the cafés, restaurants and karaoke lounges where I conducted interviews and observations, was even more challenging. Neither was I sure about what follow-up questions could sound appropriate and professional. As an anthropologist and a self-identified lesbian/lala woman, I grappled with the taboo of talking and writing about my own sexuality and erotic subjectivity in social science research (see discussions in Kulick and Willson, 1995). As a result, although both the participants and I appreciated the opportunities to discuss topics about sexuality (see also Chan, 2008), we found it less easy to communicate in direct and efficient language.

At the beginning of my fieldwork, I was surprised and even a bit disappointed when I received the participants’ answers to my question: ‘How do you define “having sex” [fasheng xing guanxi] with women?’ Their answers shared key words of ‘penetration’ (charu) or ‘enter’ (jinru), which seemed no different from the normative knowledge about heterosexual, penis-vagina penetrative sex. I am of course not saying that female same-sex practices are imitations of heterosexuality, but I could not avoid getting an impression that many participants did believe that bodily intimacies involving vagina penetration were more qualified as ‘real’ sex, including the sex between women.

However, as I went on conducting my fieldwork, I gradually realised that there was a gap between how the participants talked about ‘having sex’ and how they embodied it. Scholars who study the body through more embodied perspectives point out that the body thinks and feels rather than simply being an inert mass; they conceptualise the body through notions of connectedness and mixing rather than of singularity and separation, and they do not separate mind from the body (e.g. Blackman, 2008; Brennan, 2004; Despret, 2004; Tamborinino, 2002). In this section, I apply such perspectives, which recognise the body’s capacity to affect and be affected and recognise both the materiality and immateriality of the body (see Blackman, 2012) to analyse the sexual experiences of Chinese same-sex attracted women. I argue that the heteronormative discourses of penetrative sex have affected the bodies and emotions of these women in their intimate relationships and everyday lives. However, if we re-appropriate the idea and the term of ‘penetration’ through lenses that are sensitive to affective and embodied entanglements, ‘penetration’ can be a concept which helps us observe, understand and contour the body, the self and intimacies that are often unspeakable or unspoken. Moreover, the multi-fold lack of language I mentioned earlier actually sharpens a researcher’s own affective knowing, thinking and feeling, rather than limits her study.

In contemporary China, while sex education provided by schools or families for adolescents and young adults is seriously lacking, information about sexuality has been rapidly (re)produced and circulated via the internet and emerging new media (Wang and Wang, 2012). Alongside these processes, ideas about sexual violence, gender stereotypes, gender inequality, heteronormativity and LGBT phobia have also been reinforced through images and language. Although the formal term describing physical sexual contact, ‘xingjiao’ (sexual intercourse), is hardly used in people’s everyday language, the commonly heard, sex-related slang terms in Chinese usually portray sexual behaviour as heterosexual, penis-vagina penetration, which is initiated and dominated by the male body.

Such discourses even permeate among people with same-sex desires. As I have mentioned earlier, many of the participants of my study narrowly defined the sex between women as vagina penetration without thinking twice. However, I also noticed that some other parts of our interactions revealed the contradictory and complicated role that the notion of ‘penetration’ played in their everyday sexual encounters. For example, ‘Kite’, a participant and a lesbian/lala friend of mine in her mid-twenties, who had grown up in a city on China’s southeast coast and was living in Shanghai, mentioned her best sex experience:

Usually, we [Kite and her girlfriends] fucked [shang]9 each other, which means we entered each other’s body. But in my best [sex] experience, which happened between my second girlfriend and me, she didn’t even enter me at all. That experience was really amazing.

Obviously, while Kite used a term that normalised vagina penetration as more naturally occurring and more qualified sex behaviour, she could not deny the particularly impressive pleasure her body had felt in an intimate experience without penetration. Of course, not all the participants had managed to live comfortably with the gaps between heteronormative discourse and non-normative practices and ‘abnormal’ feelings. For example, ‘Scarlet’, a participant who was born in the southwestern part of Yunnan Province and attended college in the city of Kunming, reported how the normative idea of penetrative sex had created emotional and physical pain in her sex life with her ex-girlfriend:

My ex-girlfriend and I did have sex. But I didn’t have much [pleasurable] feeling. … I was in a lot of pain, and she dared not enter [my vagina with her fingers] deeper. … We were both frustrated. She asked me: ‘Why? Do you have sexual apathy [xing lengdan]?’ I answered: ‘I don’t know. Maybe I do.’ … A friend of her[s], who is also a T,10 told her: ‘The deepest point of pain is the greatest feeling. Pain is fine.’ These words made me sick.

Under the surface of Scarlet’s accounts, which viewed vagina penetration as the taken-for-granted definition of ‘having sex’, we can find how Scarlet struggled with the discourse that objectifies and disciplines female bodies in the name of ‘sexual pleasure’. On one hand, many popular sex-related concepts, such as ‘sexual apathy’, essentialise and standardise women’s ‘normal’ reaction when having sex, and meanwhile stigmatise the women who ‘fail’ to meet this standard. Such concepts have been popularised in Chinese everyday vocabularies alongside the emergence of pro-sex medical and consumerist discourses among urban, middle-class, well-educated people in contemporary China. On the other hand, the physical and mental pains felt by female subjects/bodies during penetrative sex are often silenced and trivialised by a symbolic idea of ‘sex pleasure’ built on phallocentric and heteronormative logics, which have even been embodied in same-sex practices between women.

Sexual intimacies are not only related to pleasure but also to oppression. ‘Hermit’, a native-born Shanghainese participant in her early thirties, mentioned a traumatic experience. Once in a group excursion, Hermit shared a room with a female acquaintance, ‘Firefly’. A male friend of Firefly who had just found out that Hermit was a T and expressed curiosity about her insisted on staying overnight in their room. They did not refuse him. In the middle of the night, after giving Firefly a large amount of alcohol, the man had sex with her without her full consent. Hermit recalled in the interview with sobs:

I thought they [Firefly and the man] had some mutual fondness, [so] when he said that he would stay overnight, I didn’t mind so much. … [When he tried to have sex with Firefly], I was lying there [in another bed] and could not help but say: ‘Don’t force her.’ [But he did not stop.] … I don’t know if this counted as rape. … The [next] morning, Firefly said to me [nothing about this incident except] one sentence: ‘Did that [incident last night] disgust you?’ I felt so uncomfortable. I said to her: ‘I didn’t leave, … because I thought you might cry for help. [If you had done so,] I would have pushed him away and rescued you.’ [But she didn’t do so.] I felt I was mentally raped [jingshen bei qiangjian]. … This man knew my homosexual [tongxinglian] identity and my T identity, and this made him even more excited [when he had sex with Firefly]. … I shared the room with Firefly only because she said that staying with me made her feel safer. … I bet that she wasn’t willing to [have sex with that man]. … I regret that I joined that excursion. … Sometimes, I want to become a man, because I don’t have a sense of security [anquangan]. Many lesbians, especially Ts, want to become masculine. I think this is because we want … the rights to have a sense of security.

While Hermit managed to use language to review an incident that had brought her sexually traumatic feelings, she could only say three words (‘Don’t force her’) when the incident was happening. Being forced to take part in a scene of heterosexual coercive sex, Hermit, a female but masculine homosexual, found that, under a homophobic male gaze, she was both a sexual and gender deviant, who could provide exotic sexual excitement, but also less qualified than men to pursue sexual pleasure with women. This feeling of discomfort and insecurity made Hermit feel a sensation of being ‘raped’ by the male power while at the same time a desire to gain this power.

Firefly, according to Hermit’s understanding, experienced sexual coercion but could say nothing on the spot to reject the unwanted sex. Although it was the male friend who disappointed her fondness for him, it was Hermit who made her feel safer but could not save her. What Firefly could verbally express was only a concern about whether her acquiescence to an imposed sexual contact was ‘disgusting’. Neither was she be able to say aloud that she was (or was not) raped. In other words, sometimes, one’s body feels and thinks that one has been ‘penetrated’ in a forced, unwanted, uncomfortable, oppressive way, for example rape, but one just cannot find the language to name, describe, refuse and protest it. Here, I want to re-appropriate the notion of and the term ‘penetration’ from the literal answers given by many participants when I asked them to define ‘having sex’, to help us understand, contour or even speak about, the often-unspeakable embodied experiences of intimacy, many of which may be related to pain, shame, trauma and violence.

Of course, I am not saying that ‘penetration’ only implies the restrictive, institutionalised, normative power; rather, it also implies an active and creative power (see Braidotti’s discussion on ‘potestas’ and ‘pontentia’, 2014). When doing anthropological research and (also) living a lesbian life, ‘penetration’ is my understanding about every ‘intra-action’, rather than ‘inter-action’, that is to say, every ‘embodied cut delineating the object from the agencies of observation’ (Barad, 2007: 115) but never taking distinction for granted. After my fieldwork, I started a long-distance relationship with one of the participants, who I later moved in with and she and I are now life partners. When we were still unable to touch each other since we lived in different hemispheres, time zones and seasons,11 we desperately relied on high-tech communication tools to channel our emotions. It was via assemblages of images, sounds and other embodied virtual and actual means that we created feelings of love and desire. As affective entanglements without connected bodies, those moments penetrated through the gaps of time and space, the limits of particular senses, and the boundaries that are conventionally set between a researcher and the researched subjects or objects. In this process, I personally experienced and defined ‘penetration’ as affective energies that always broke through (seemingly) physical barriers and brought me ‘home’ – the good feelings of intimacy.


This chapter, developed from an anthropological study, analysed the affective experiences of female same-sex intimacies, especially love and sex, in contemporary China. Although Chinese same-sex-attracted women, myself included, often find a lack of ‘proper’ language for expressing love and describing sexual practices in/about different contexts, I argue that it is through this lack that we can observe, think and feel how bodies, emotions and subjectivities are ‘becoming’ in our intimate practices. In re-examining the data originally collected for narrative analysis, I have applied concepts and ideas that are sensitive to affects, including the ‘nomadic subjectivity’ developed by feminist new-materialist Rosi Braidotti (1994, 2002, 2011a, 2011b, 2014), and the embodied – rather than linguistic – perspectives for studying the body (e.g. Blackman, 2008, 2012).

In this chapter, I have found that Chinese same-sex attracted women understand and practise love through non-consistent, non-linear, trans-subjective journeys of ‘becoming’, rather than by naming ‘love’ explicitly in verbal language. Their refusal of the normative discourses about ‘aiqing/love’ and their embodied emotions and memories are re-definitions – although not in terms of language – of what love is and what love can be. I have also found that, in China, female same-sex relationships are strongly affected by the heteronormative idea(l) that vagina penetration marks a more qualified sexual (f)act, although many women with same-sex desires are exploring affective intimacies beyond this norm. Meanwhile, Chinese women, regardless of their sexual orientations, also embody the shame, anxiety, trauma and violence caused by such a phallocentric, misogynous, homophobic sexual culture, yet they can hardly find the language to voice these painful affective experiences.

Furthermore, I have theorised the concepts of ‘(first) love without articulation’ and ‘penetration’, deriving from the abovementioned findings. ‘Articulation’ – a pun with parallel meanings of ‘speaking out’ and ‘being jointed’ – captures the affective complications of intimacy that consist of material and immaterial happenings while growing beyond conventional rules of verbal expression. On the other side, re-appropriating the notion and term of ‘penetration’ for portraying the inter-corporeal, trans-subjective entanglements and ‘becomings’ in sexual – and love – experiences is to sense and express the diverse affective forces that shape and reshape feelings about intimacy.


1 I choose the acronym of ‘LGBTQ’, rather than ‘LGBTIQ+’, to describe gender and sexual minorities in China, because the concept of intersex and other emerging identities that are represented by the plus sign in some societies have not been widely known and discussed within Chinese gender and sexual minority communities. For ordinary Chinese people, however, while ‘LGBT’ as a single (imported) word has become more and more commonly seen in mass media, the concept of ‘queer’ is still less familiar. Therefore, when mentioning the ‘LGBT phobia’ in China, I do not include ‘Q’ in the acronym.
2 ‘Lala’ is a local Chinese term used by same-sex-attracted women for self-identification.
3 ‘Tongzhi’, literally ‘comrade’, is a local Chinese term referring to LGBTQ people.
4 In modern Chinese, the term ‘ai’ refers to the general love, while ‘aiqing’ is narrower, only referring to the romantic love accompanied by sexual desires and passionate and erotic feelings. In this chapter, my discussions about love focus on the latter.
5 This paragraph is an excerpt from Chapter 5, under the rubric of ‘Family Virtue’ (Jiating Meide), in Ideological and Moral Cultivation and Basic Law Education (Sixiang Daode Xiuyang Yu Falü Jichu) (the 2015 edition), published by the Higher Education Press in China.
6 Qixi Festival is on the seventh of July in the Chinese Lunar calendar. According to Chinese folklore, the fairy Zhinü and the cowherd Niulang are a loving couple separated by the Milky Way, who can only meet other once a year on the date of Qixi Festival via a bridge built by magpies in the heavens. Qixi Festival is viewed as a traditional festival for lovers and has become highly commercialised in the twenty-first century.
7 May Twentieth, ‘5.20’, the three numbers of which have a homophonic pronunciation of ‘I love you’ in Chinese, ‘wo ai ni’. Similar to the Qixi Festival, this day has also been celebrated by couples and commercialised as a festival for lovers.
8 My partner has been informed and consented that her personal experiences would be portrayed in this chapter.
9 Here, ‘shang’ is a sex-related slang term in Chinese. Literally meaning ‘being top’, this slang term indicates a more active party, often a man or a masculine person, initiating a sexual intercourse with a more passive party, often a woman.
10 ‘T’, short for the English word ‘tomboy’, is a local Chinese term referring to a masculine woman who usually prefers to date feminine women. In this particular case, Scarlet said that she herself was more feminine while her ex-girlfriend was more masculine.
11 When I did fieldwork between 2013 and 2014, I interviewed my future partner, a Chinese woman residing in Australia but on a temporary stay in Shanghai. After my fieldwork ended, she went back to Melbourne while I went back to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where I was doing my PhD.


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