China’s Evolving Stance On Transpeople: Change Amid Deep Conservatism

By Lynnea Urania Stuart

We can learn much from the Chinese, given the richness of their history alone.  In fact most nations on the planet cannot come close to their depth.  Not only do we learn lessons from ancient China, we can also learn from the modern Chinese experience which in less than 150 years has absorbed a tumult of change with seismic shifts among their teeming array of peoples.  That includes change in their approaches to transpeople.

It’s a bit tricky to speak of China’s demographics because of its diversity of peoples.  Not all are Han Chinese.  We also find Mongol, Uighur, Tibetan, Manchu, Szechwanese, Cantonese, and many other nationalities within the mainland.  At the same time, when we speak of China, we often must differentiate between the mainland of the People’s Republic of China (with or without Hong Kong), Hong Kong as an economically “autonomous” zone, and Taiwan.  Many Chinese communities have also dispersed globally, with strong presences in the Russian Federation, Southeast Asia, South Africa, and North America.

Estimates of how many transpeople believed to exist in China has its own trickiness because transpeople appear to have been counted differently on Taiwan than on the mainland including Hong Kong.  According to Asia Catalyst, an estimated 4,082,160 transpeople exist in Mainland China with an additional 21,705 in Hong Kong specifically.  In both cases, the estimate falls to exactly .3% of the general population.  In Taiwan, however, 70,231 are believed to exist.  Compared to the general population, the ratio of transpeople to the general population of Taiwan is .9707%1

Even such an insignificant number is a lot of transpeople, enough to singlehandedly repopulate a large city like Detroit or Milan.2 It’s enough for both Taiwan and the Mainland to take notice, examine best practices for government services and actions, and to consider their own traditions that run deep into the collective psyche of generations beyond memory.



In addition to what records exist in the West and the Subcontinent, China’s history tells us that transsexualism has existed in ancient times.  This included the periods of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220CE) followed by the Wei-Jin period (220-420 CE) and the period of the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912 CE).  That’s over 1000 years of recorded cases of transsexualism.  However, the documentation of reasons for “change of gender” pertained to “unexpected incidents,” serious illness, or to covertly perform acts of filial piety.  In those days, and often remains so today, it was considered shameful for a male to transition to female, but a family blessing for a female to transition to male.3

The Mulan story, popularized by Disney animation, was actually a known 6th Century CE Chinese legend.4  But it was in the Ming and early Qing period where operatic performances in Beijing featured male artists and actors who acted the role of females and sometimes lived as females as well.  To this day, male-to-female dancers and performers are more apt to be celebrated than those of other professions.5

Variations on gender non-conformity have been noted including eunuchs, some of which served the Emperor.6  The navigator Zheng He was such a person, leading an immense fleet of Chinese vessels West to Africa in the 5th Century CE, and according to some, east to the Americas.7

Apart from this, the Chinese custom of foot-binding made a difference in gender perceptions during the early Qing dynasty.  Manchurian women, because they didn’t bind their feet, were perceived as “masculine” and so were considered less desirable.8

Traditions rooted in such legacies continue to fuel the continued conservatism of Chinese society.  After the tumult of the Nationalist movement under Sun Yat-Sen, the Communist Revolution, the Cultural Revolution, and the economic revival initiated by Deng Xiao Ping, today’s mainland transpeople have been finding cracks of societal acceptance, and this has also appears to be the case elsewhere.

 In limited situations, Chinese people have adopted the designations of the West for transpeople.  The acronyms CD for “cross dresser” and TS for “transsexual” have been adopted by Chinese within trans community units in order to acknowledge one another with terms of concealment.9   Other English terms have gained similar usage such as “transvestite”, “ ladyboy”, “ kathooey”, and others.  Mandarin terms include kuàxìngbié (to go beyond sex)” for “transgender”, biànxìngzhě (one who changes sex) for “transsexual”, and  rényāo (human monster—a pejorative generally pertaining to Thai transsexuals).10 The pejorative underscores that the desire for ethnic dominance isn’t just a feature of the West, but carries over as an attitude fostered by previous generations of Han Chinese as well.



China’s recent awakening to the existence of transpeople appears to begin in the 1990’s, and in fact, 1990 is when the first modern gender confirmation surgery was reported in China. 11 In 1995 a dancer and former Colonel in the People’s Army gained gender confirmation surgery and published stories about her struggles.  Bian Yujie (opera), Chen Lili (singer and Miss World contestant), and Liu Shihan (model) captivated Chinese intrigue and rocketed to fame.  But the one to grasp the most attention in Chinese society was Jin Xing, a variety show star commanding 100 million viewers per week.12

In 2007, Liu Ting was awarded as a “national role model of virtue” because she physically carried her mother back and forth from the hospital for treatment.  Then in 2015 she came out as a transwoman, gaining interest that their virtuous hero wasn’t a performer of any kind.  It was a revolutionary idea in its own right that a transperson could be understood, despite social stigma and press scrutiny of degrees of femininity, as a pillar of moral excellence.13

This rise in understanding of transpeople is no small feat, and mass media seems to have made the difference including Internet.  In 2011, a survey of 1,762 respondents conducted in 5 universities in the areas of Chongqing and Chengdu in central China demonstrated the negative attitudes maintained in the upcoming generation due to the traditional conservatism.  Only 16.8% considered transpeople acceptable.  12.6% would accept a date with a transperson.  4.2% had gender identity issues of their own.14

The Williams Institute released a survey of 23 nations concerning trans rights in 2016.  It ranked these nations, including the United States and China on a “Transgender Rights Scale.”  The highest scoring nations included Spain at 74, Sweden at 72, and Argentina tied with Canada at 70.  The United States tied India at 61.  China came in at 52, immediately behind Turkey’s 54.  The nations who fared the worst were Hungary and Poland at 49, South Korea at 48, and Russia at 41.15

In the same survey, a mean of 2.2% in China admitted to having transgender friends and family compared to 15.7 in the United States and 10.8% in Canada.16 Support for “gender change” in China revealed  that 17.8% “agree strongly” and 43.4% “agree somewhat;” in other words, “agree” speaks of an inclination to support those in transition.  On the other hand, 7.5% of Chinese respondents “disagree strongly” and 12.8% “disagree somewhat” while 18.4% didn’t know.  In comparison to respondents in the United States, 45.6% “agree strongly” and 27.0% “agree somewhat.”  10.0% of Americans “disagree strongly,” 7.8% “disagree somewhat,” and 9.6% don’t know.17

For a difference between 10 points on the human rights scale, this survey tells a significant story.  It’s more than the strong difference between America’s acceptance and Chinese reluctance.  If 4.2 of university students admit to gender issues but only 2.2% of the population admits to having transgender friends or family, it appears that few act upon their gender issues through transition and prefer to suffer instead.  It’s easy to see why this should be.  For many, the prospect of transition is prohibitive.

Fewer than 10 medical establishments in all Mainland China even provide hormone replacement therapy for transpeople.18 Patients may feel compelled to seek alternatives through Internet or the black market. If a patient desires transition and requests gender confirmation surgery, that patient must pass a rigorous set of requirements that exceed requirements in other parts of the world:

  1. The patient must obtain a permit from a public security bureau demonstrating that the patient has no criminal record.
  2. The patient must present a certificate from a psychiatrist who must show the patient has continued in treatment a minimum of 1 year without being dissuaded from transitioning.
  3. The patient must draw up a report requesting surgery and have it notarized.
  4. The patient must present a certificate showing that next of kin have been notified.
  5. The patient cannot be married.
  6. Documents need to show that the patient must have desired transition for a minimum of 5 years, living in the role of the gender in which one identifies.19



Of course, it’s impossible to show “no criminal record” if one has been charged with prostitution or some other crime in the underground economy.  Like other nations, Chinese transwomen have often felt compelled to turn to this shadowy life to survive.  In China, like elsewhere, not only do transpeople face discrimination in every aspect of life, they fear further abuse by friends, family, employers, or others.  Fear of retaliation prevents reporting even though discrimination is illegal under the Employment Promotion Law 20 and Chinese domestic law.  Profession of sex work marks an individual for further rejection, even aside from gender identity.21

Compulsion of transpeople into the underground economy results in serious dangers, not only for those transpeople entrapped in the sex and drug industries, but upon Chinese society in general.  That includes enhanced transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, especially in areas where condom use isn’t promoted.  The enhanced risks prompted Asia Catalyst to issue recommendations for the government of the People’s Republic of China and international donors.22

But it appears that a lesser degree of openness remains the trend.  In June 2017 the China Netcasting Services Association (CNSA) published a new regulation banning any display of “abnormal sexual behaviors” including homosexuality in online video and audio content.  According to Reuters, this ranges from film to documentaries to educational videos.23

This happened a month after police in the old royal city of Xi’an detained organizers of the Speak Out 2017 conference.  Xi’an police told the organizers, “LGBT events can never be held in Xi’an. Xi’an does not welcome LGBT events.”  Organizers were ordered to hand over their cell phones, administrative passwords, lists of speakers, and were kept from contacting anyone.24

But much of the battle for trans rights has focused upon one locale particularly:  Hong Kong.

Hong Kong itself is currently hearing the case of 3 transmen who are challenging the government requirement to complete transition before identity cards could be amended to show that they’re legally male. The petitioners claim the practice violates the Sex Discrimination Ordinance and they have support of the Equal Opportunities CommissionSince female-to-male surgery often requires multiple procedures, transmen often face a protracted danger of legal limbo, especially with respect to holding onto a job.25

This isn’t the first challenge to come to Hong Kong.  The Court of Final Appeal ruled in 2013 that a transwoman may marry her boyfriend.  Others are also challenging Hong Kong laws as “out of date” in a changing conservative milieu in which the people of Hong Kong previously didn’t discuss transgenderism, referencing transpeople as “cross dressers” or “perverts”.26

In the same year the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Amnesty International intervened in the case of a Columbian transsexual, Eliana Rubashkyn, who obtained legal recognition as a female in 2013 despite not having had gender confirmation surgery.  She had been prohibited from entering the country till taking refugee status, and claims Hong Kong authorities continue to discriminate against her. 27

Hong Kong has an extra dimension of conservatism over that of other parts of the People’s Republic of China or even Taiwan.  Hong Kong has been a hot market center since its years in the British Commonwealth.  Money is king here and strong conservatism orders corporate practices throughout the area.  The struggles represented in Hong Kong are endemic to traditional values common throughout China with additional influence from British conservatives.  But resistance to recognition appears to slowly melt with understanding.

In which case, Hong Kong is the place to watch.  Change would take generations of trans visibility and education throughout China.  But what happens in Hong Kong would set a precedent for the rest of China and Hong Kong’s staunch conservatism would speak loudly to conservatives in other Chinese regions who may not have considered the case of transpeople before trans visibility sharpens public awareness.

It’s a trend to watch regardless of whether Beijing cracks down on Hong Kong’s murmurings to assert its own autonomy.  To the Mainland, Hong Kong has always been and will always be properly part of China.  Assertions of autonomy won’t prevent the rest of China from considering Hong Kong’s legal trends, though the rest of the mainland may be slower to adopt their approach to trans rights than Hong Kong.  After all, resistance to change is a feature of conservatism and the hinterlands change more slowly than the cities.

But given the increased visibility of transpeople in other parts of China, it’s inevitable that regions will be forced to confront the issues visibility demands.  Either a regional authority can shut it down in an attempt to erase the memory of any such thing as a transperson or they can take the wiser approach of considering the social repercussions of discrimination.  Given that Chinese laws have already shown some cracks by which transition is possible, however remote for most individuals, the trans struggle cannot help but become more visible.  Chinese must learn and understand.



Featured Image:  Hong Kong at night, with a hint of the outline of the emblem of Hong Kong.  (adapted from Wikimedia Commons)

  1. Asia Catalyst Staff with Beijing Zuoyou Information Center and Shanghai CSW&MSM Center. “‘My Life Is Too Dark to See the Light’: A Survey of the Living Conditions of Transgender Female Sex Workers In Beijing and Shanghai” (Published by Asia Catalyst, NY, accessed January 24, 3018) p. 11.
  2. O’Callaghan, Jay; Flahive, Ryan; Kelleher, Laura; et. al. “Urban Agglomerations-2005” National Geographic College Atlas of the World (National Geographic Society, 2007) ISBN-13: 978-0-471-74117-6, p. 271.
  3. Eugene K. Chow. “China’s Complicated Approach to Transgender Rights” The Diplomat (October 23, 2017, accessed January 24, 2018)
  4. Ibid.
  5. Esme Benjamin. “Is China Making Strides for Transgender Rights” The Culture Trip (October 26, 2017, accessed January 24, 2018)
  6. Jill Levine. “From the Shadows: China’s Growing Tolerance of Transgender Rights” The Atlantic (August 9, 2013, accessed January 24, 2018)
  7. Frank Viviano. “China’s Great Armada” National Geographic (July 2005, accessed January 25, 2018)
  8. Op. cit.
  9. Asia Catalyst, p. 18.
  10. Carlos Ottery with Weijing Zhu. “Crossing the Gender Lines: Transgenderism might just be a step too far for China” The World of Chinese (November 23, 2013, accessed January 25, 2018)
  11. Zuo Chen. “The 20-year road of legalizing gender reassignment surgery.” Law and Life Magazine( August 28, 2009, accessed October 20, 2014) .
  12. Eugene K. Chow. The Diplomat.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Zhang Peichao, Chi Xinli et al. “Cognitive survey of homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals in universities.” China Public Health, Vol. 28, No. 7(2012): 921-923.
  15. Andrew R. Flores, Taylor N.T. Brown, and Andrew S. Park. “Public Support for Transgender Rights: A Twenty-three Country Survey” The Williams Institute (December 2016, accessed January 25, 2018) p. 7.
  16. Ibid, pp. 11, 12.
  17. Ibid, p. 12.
  18. Xu Jingxi. “Qian Jinfan: The 84-year-old transgender person’s ‘best part of life has just begun.’“People’s Daily, (June 20, 2012, accessed October 1, 2014. .
  19. Asia Catalyst, p. 53.
  20. Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. Article 3:”Workers seeking employment shall not be subject to discrimination based on factors such as ethnicity, race, gender, religious belief etc.” The Employment Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China (August 30, 2007).
  21. Op. cit. p. 24.
  22. Ibid, pp. 65-67.
  23. Yifan Wang. “Chinese Regulator Calls Homosexuality ‘Abnormal’ and Bans Gay Content from the Internet” (June 30, 2017, accessed January 25, 2018)
  24. Catherine Lai. “LGBT conference in China forced to cancel; organizers [sic] say they were detained for 8 hours” HKFP (May 31, 2017, accessed January 25, 2018)
  25. Kylie Knott. “Transgender lecturer in Hong Kong on her fight to be accepted by a conservative society , and her fear of the police” South China Morning Post (updated January 20, 2018, accessed January 24, 2018)
  26. Laurie Chen. “How a Hong Kong ‘genderqueer’ bodybuilder is fighting discrimination – with compassion” South China Morning Post (updated  January 22, 2018, accessed January 24, 2018)
  27. Op. cit.
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