Embracing feminism and discussing queer issues in Chinese college classrooms — Q&A with Lin Song

Society & Culture

A conversation with Lin Song, a Chinese scholar with a PhD in gender studies who currently teaches at a Chinese college. Song said he was surprised by how much interest his students have in discussing feminism and queer-related topics.

Illustration for The China Project by Alex Santafé

Lin Song is a Chinese scholar of media and cultural studies. He holds a PhD in Gender Studies from The Chinese University of Hong Kong and is the author of Queering Chinese Kinship: Queer Public Culture in Globalizing China, in which he scrutinizes the relationship between queerness and family relations, questioning the Eurocentric assumption of the separation of queerness from family ties.

About a year and a half ago, he returned to mainland China and is currently an assistant professor at a Chinese university that he prefers not to name.

I talked to Song earlier this week about how he approaches gender- and queer-related topics in the college classroom, and what he thinks about the changing attitudes towards feminism and LGBTQ issues among his students.

How would you compare your teaching experience in mainland China to your experience in Hong Kong?

When I was in Hong Kong, I taught several gender- and sexuality-related courses at both undergraduate and master levels, and a lot of different kinds of topics were discussed in those classes.

In contrast, there are things that you are not supposed to talk about in the Chinese classroom. On the one hand, there are definitely more constraints here. But on the other hand, the interest of young Chinese students in gender-related topics, especially feminism, have been overwhelming for me.

When I was in Hong Kong, this was more of an everyday topic, a subject that people are more familiar with. I did a general elective course. Students liked it. But they didn’t seem particularly interested in this area.

However, in China, there’s a huge discrepancy between what a university typically offers and what the students want to talk about. This is because university authorities have concerns over offering certain courses and covering certain topics. But gender-related topics have been gaining popularity on social media. As a result, students here make full use of opportunities to talk about gender and sexuality.

On Twitter, you talked about a capstone project that your students are currently working on and it seems really interesting!

That particular project I mentored spoke to that. I was myself very, very surprised when a bunch of straight guys first came to me and said they wanted to work on a project about drag performance. I loved the idea. But I was also concerned because the project would be presented within the whole department. I needed to take into consideration how other faculty members and students would feel.

So after some discussion, they switched the topic and came up with this idea to “cure toxic masculinity,” which is still quite surprising for me.

You wrote on Twitter that the students had designed a game and filmed a pseudo-documentary to fight against toxic masculinity and promote gender parity. What else could you tell me about this project?

It’s a practice-oriented and public communication project, meaning that the final product will be available to the public. We’ve worked on this idea of how to cure “straight men cancer” (直男癌 zhínán ái), the Chinese internet slang for “toxic masculinity”. We wanted to come up with something that straight guys would actually watch and interact with. In other words, we needed to think about our target audience. The goal was to “trick” them into engaging with the end products of the project, so that they could learn something from them. Obviously, you cannot straightforwardly say that this is a gender equity project, because most straight guys don’t really care about gender issues.

So we have to do a little bit of masquerade in order for it to seem more appealing to straight guys. The students came up with an idea of making a very simple interactive game, which would be available on Bilibili. It’s a dating simulation game for straight guys. Every time the player says something that involves toxic masculinity, such as commenting on the way his girlfriend looks, making victim-blaming remarks or making inappropriate comments about his partner’s career choices, there will be a reduction in the player’s score. When it reaches a certain point, the boyfriend in the game gets arrested by the so-called “straight men cancer police.”

For the pseudo-documentary, which I think should be called a “mockumentary”, they presented a world where genders are reversed. The mockumentary imitates a Chinese reality TV program where people would submit complaints and a reporter would be sent to settle the dispute. The scenario portrayed in the video involves a guy who complains that his girlfriend works too late into the night and is rarely at home and never shares any household chores. In reality, it’s a common complaint from women but by making a man the complainer, the mockumentary encourages male viewers to take a female perspective in a relationship.

It’s not a super sophisticated project, but I think it really shows the students’

creativity and their enthusiasm in talking about gender issues.

Did they ever present the project in public? How did their classmates and faculty members react to it?

They haven’t completely finished the project yet, but they did a demo in front of their classmates and some faculty members in our department. I think people generally liked it because it was lots of fun.

For a lot of capstone projects, students tend to gravitate towards serious subjects, but this one is more on the lighthearted side of things.

What classes are you teaching right now? Are they overtly gender-related?

They’re not overtly gender-related, and I don’t think there are any gender-focused courses offered in the school. Maybe I’ll design one in the future. But what myself and my feminist colleagues do now is to incorporate gender elements into our courses. For example, we would talk about gender-related cases and public issues.

Another thing is that because the students are so enthusiastic about gender, they will come up with gender-related topics for themselves when they do presentations or assignments. I’m currently teaching a completely non-gender-related course, and you’ll be surprised by how many groups of students are working on topics such as the plight of the “chained woman” in Xuzhou.

It’s difficult for academics in China to teach about queer content in their universities, according a research by New Zealand-based scholar Cuī Lè 崔乐. He told us that college teachers have to cope with a system of student informants, who are usually anonymous students appointed by the university to monitor classes and collect information on teaching. If they consider someone’s teaching to be ideologically problematic or to conflict with official ideologies, they would report the issue to the university leadership.

Do you have concerns when you bring up potentially sensitive topics in the classroom?

I think you cannot be too concerned about “offending” students. This happens everywhere in the world. When I was teaching in Hong Kong, I showed a video clip of two women kissing. One student stood up and said, “this is disgusting.” And then he dropped the course.

So gender is a controversial topic in itself, not just in China. There are always people who don’t like this kind of topic, especially straight men, unfortunately.

But in China, there’s another layer of sensitivity to it. Popular feminism has been criticized by state news media and some people associate feminist activism with foreign influence. So this can get tricky if you get reported by the students. There’s definitely a risk related to it.

Right now, I’m generally not as concerned as I was before, like when I just started the job. I’m actually quite optimistic about how my students feel about feminism. The general — I wouldn’t say consensus — but the general atmosphere among the students is accepting and supportive of gender equality. The young students are more on the feminist side. I think if you’re too worried about it, you can’t talk about anything.

For this new generation of Chinese university students you interact with, do you think their heightened awareness about queer and feminist issues will lead to bigger social awakenings when they graduate and enter the workplace?

I’m definitely optimistic. Based on my limited experience of working with these young people, I think they are definitely more assertive than my generation. When I went to college many years ago, it was not that much of a general trend of reflecting on gender. When I compare that with the current generation, I think feminism has become very, very popular. It’s astonishing how many books on women’s rights and feminism are published every year in China despite the constraints.

Therefore, I’m hopeful about feminism in China, but not in the political mobilization sense, I don’t think these young people will become activists. But I think they will definitely go into the society or the workplace with a higher self-consciousness. I think they are more confident about what they want in terms of their rights and pursuits. And they are not afraid of articulating them.

When it comes to women, feminist language has entered the daily language they speak. That’s something that I haven’t seen in my generation. For well-educated Chinese women of previous generations, they had a good sense of rights and selfhood, but they didn’t use words such as “women’s rights” and “toxic masculinity” every day. But the new generation seems to be using this voice.

I’m definitely hopeful that there will be gradual, positive changes as this generation becomes the mainstay of society.

Outside the classroom, you’ve written a string of research papers about queer culture in China as a scholar. In 2021, you published a book called Queering Chinese Kinship. What can tell us about this book?

When I first got into gender studies, I was working on my Master’s in Guangzhou. It was very liberating to learn about things like gender fluidity, femininity, and homosexuality. I started my PhD when I was like three or four years into gender studies. Then I realized that a lot of the theories I read are Western — in the sense that they don’t necessarily speak to my own experiences as a Chinese person. And the biggest problem I had was actually this idea of when someone comes out to their family, they have the ability to start a chosen family somewhere else. I felt it didn’t really click with that part of my experience.

So I started to think of other possibilities of theorizing the relationship between queerness and kinship ideologies. It’s a very different thing here in China, where in most cases, people still rely on their biological families for financial and emotional support. That’s the theory I wanted to engage with, queer theory and particularly queer kinship. They are trendy topics in the Western academic, but mainly about chosen families and reproductive technologies, and also same-sex marriage, all of which, unfortunately, are not officially possible in China.

So I wanted to theorize what it looks like for queer people in China to be living in a society where Confucian kinship ideologies are still very significant in every part of their lives and how they negotiate with these ideologies. And if it is possible to imagine a queerness outside this Western blueprint of coming out and liberationist politics.