‘Rose Boy’: How a death on campus changed LGBTQ education in Taiwan

Society & Culture

The 22nd anniversary of the death of “Rose Boy” was commemorated in China, while the media coverage of an empowering song named after him attracted criticism for downplaying its progressive message.

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Welcome to our new China LGBTQ Column — Queer China — a fortnightly round-up of news and stories related to the sexual and gender minority population in Greater China.

April 20 marked the 22nd anniversary of the death of Yeh Yung-chih (叶永志 Yè Yǒngzhì), also known as “Rose Boy” (méiguī shǎonián 玫瑰少年), an iconic figure in Chinese-speaking LGBTQ communities around the world. 

On the morning of April 20, 2000, Yeh, who was at the time a junior high student in Taiwan, asked his teacher to go to the bathroom in the middle of a class. A few minutes later, he was found lying unconscious in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor. Yeh later died of head trauma at a local hospital at the age of 15. An investigation concluded it was an accident: as Yeh rushed back to the classroom, he slipped and fell head-first onto the wet floor in the bathroom.

Prior to his death, Yeh suffered verbal and physical bullying by schoolmates due to his non-conforming gender expression. Despite multiple complaints lodged by his mother, the school did nothing to improve the situation. Although there was no direct evidence connecting the incident to his past experience of being bullied, Yeh’s plight attracted a great deal of public attention and prompted local queer activists to advocate for more inclusive education on diverse sexuality and gender identities in school. Yeh’s mother, Chen Chun-ju (陈君汝 Chén Jūnrǔ), has also been participating in social activism proactively to seek justice for her son and to reach out to other youth.

Inspired by Yeh’s story, the famous pop singer Jolin Tsai (蔡依林 Cài Yīlín) wrote and released a song named “Rose Boy” (official English title “Womxnly”) in 2018. “Which rose has no thorns? The best revenge is beauty,” the chorus goes. It quickly became a hit, earning Song of the Year at the 2019 Golden Melody Awards, Taiwan’s equivalent of the Grammys. Its wide reception among both queer and straight audiences in and outside of Taiwan helped further circulate Yeh’s story and the name of “Rose Boy” in Chinese-speaking societies, including mainland China.

Rose Boy in China

But although a host of Chinese singers have covered the song on television, neither Yeh’s name nor the song’s underlying message is ever directly mentioned. So in April, when the music variety show The Treasured Voice teased another rendition of the song performed by Zhōu Shēn 周深, a male singer known for his ethereal voice and unique high register, viewers expected something different, something more true to the song’s original form. Now one of the most popular singers among the younger generation, Zhou used to be criticized and taunted for his “effeminate voice” after his TV debut 10 years ago. In several interviews, Zhou recalled how his voice and mannerism brought him more derision and verbal abuse than praise or recognition when he was young. Naturally, the theme of “Rose Boy” seemed to speak to these experiences.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

But Zhou’s rendition turned out to be a massive letdown due to a series of revisions made to the lyrics: The lines discussing gender variance were removed. Instead, Chinese rapper GAI, whose real name is Zhōu Yán 周延, joined the performance with a rap verse talking about the hardship, doubts, and stresses that the duo endured throughout their careers. For the lines that were kept, several specific words were also changed, probably due to censorship concerns. For instance, the lyric “The world is sinful” was altered into “Time is sinful.” 

In addition, some audiences considered Gai’s masculine delivery as out of place. Several critics even denounced the entire show as a case of “cultural appropriation.” They argued that by exploiting “Rose Boy” to gain sympathy for their struggles as artists, the two celebrities ended up diluting the original song’s sharp focus on sexuality/gender-based minorities, trans- and homophobia, and social problems. Other people opposed these critiques, arguing that the song should not be limited to LGBTQ people, but can be used to convey other feelings or ideas. 

Violence against LGBTQ youth 

It’s unclear whether the timing of the show was intentionally chosen to pay homage to the 22nd anniversary of Yeh’s incident, but the ensuing debate over the performance was proof of heightened awareness of LGBTQ issues in Chinese society. In recent years, the name of “Rose Boy” has appeared with increasing frequency on the Chinese internet, with people using it to refer to youth who have been ridiculed, bullied, and, in the worst-case scenario, lost their life. 

One recent case was the suicide of Lù Dàosēn 鹿道森 in November 2021. Before his suicide, the 24-year-old photographer posted a lengthy article (in Chinese) on his Weibo account, recounting in excruciating details the discrimination, violence, and mental stress he had endured since a kid due to his “effeminate” behavior and appearence. “There’s no need to build a monument for him, but may there be roses flourishing for him every year,” Lu wrote, referring to himself in third person. Amid the nearly 170,000 comments on his post, some internet users cited lyrics from Tsai’s song to mourn the tragic end to the young man’s life: “The world is sinful, you are not. Being alive is not guilt, you don’t need to be sorry.”

On April 20, a group of mainland China-based social media accounts dedicated to LGBTQ issues published articles and posts (in Chinese) to memorialize Yeh while also using the opportunity to raise attention about the prevalence of violence against LGBTQ youth on campus and the lack of anti-bullying measures and policies at schools. Some of the articles specifically highlighted the urgency of addressing “school bullying on the basis of gender expressions.” 

Gender and sexuality education is generally lacking in mainland China. A recent revision of the Law on the Protection of Minors in 2020 included the term sex education for the first time (in replacement of the previous vague expression adolescent education), likely signaling a potential change on state policy. But teaching acceptance of gender diverse and sexual minority students is still a distant dream at the moment. 

Other LGBTQ topics in the news:

Censorship over gay scenes in the Chinese release of the new Harry Potter movie
Warner Bros. censors gay dialogue in Harry Potter movie for China release / CNN Business
Two lines discussing the gay relationships between the main characters are removed from the recently released Harry Potter movie, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore, in China. The producer, Warner Bros., stated that they “accepted those changes to comply with local requirements but the spirit of the film remains intact.”

Chinese LGBTQ community faces more challenges under Xi Jinping
How LGBTQ life in China has gotten tougher under Xi / Bloomberg News
The LGBTQ community in China went through an increase of visibility and expansion of social space in the early 2000s, but more constraints and challenges have been coming in recent years, including media censorship, a crackdown on civil society, and promulgation of dominant gender norms.

Taiwanese activists strive for adoption rights for same-sex couples
Activists fight for LGBTQ adoption rights in Taiwan / SupChina
Despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan in 2019, gay people still cannot adopt children as a couple. To fight for full recognition of same-sex families, activists are using litigation and other methods to push for changes of the adoption policy.

Bipartisan disputes over LGBTQ rights delayed congressional report on human rights in China
Congress splits over how to address LGBT rights in China / Foreign Policy
A major annual congressional report addressing human rights issues in China was delayed for six months due to the disputes between Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The Democratic lawmakers requested a new separate section on violation of LGBTQ rights, but the Republican commissioners opposed the idea. A final compromise was made to include a more detailed assessment on the topic, although not in a separate section. The report was eventually released on March 31.

LGBTQ mental well-being
March Newsletter | Beijing LGBT Center (in Chinese) / Beijing LGBT Center
In March, Beijing LGBT Center released an online platform that collects information about LGBTQ-friendly psychological counseling services and medical care. The Center has also organized various events to build support networks for transgender people and for people living with HIV.

Medical service delivered to people living with HIV under the COVID lockdown in Shanghai
Sina Weibo post (in Chinese) / Shanghai Qingai Health Center
Under the ongoing citywide COVID lockdown in Shanghai, local HIV/AIDS social workers are still working hard to reach out to people living with HIV quarantined at home and deliver medications and medical services to them.