Criminology & Sociology
A “Phoenix” Rising from the Ashes: China's Tongqi, Resistance, and New Life
Starting Date
Expected Completion Date
Principal Investigator
Dr. TSANG Yuk Ha Eileen

In the literature on sexuality, family, and marriage in China, it is difficult to ignore the phenomenon of Tongqi (同妻, literally translated as “homowives”), women who have unwittingly married gay men seeking to hide their sexual attraction to other men. Conventional wisdom suggests Tongqi are desperate, and commonly described as “damaged” or “spoiled” goods (possible HIV carriers) who do not deserve a second chance in love. The predicament of Tongqi reflects the gender inequality which persists in China. Heterosexuality and looking for family bloodline are deeply rooted in the culture, and the nuclear family remains the cornerstone of collectivist China. Even today, gay men rarely “come out” to their parents. Rather they engage in marriages of convenience with heterosexual women to fulfill their parents’ wishes for grandchildren. As such, Tongqi are in a sense defrauded in marriage because the relationship is merely entered into by the gay husband to deflect social and family obligation pressures. The wives taken into this “marriage fraud” are not aware of their husbands’ sexual orientation. In addition, China’s divorce law favors men, so even if the wife applies for divorce, the husband often wins custody of children. The tendency to blame the victim extends even to the woman’s own immediate families. Therefore, Tongqi are the victims of human rights violations involving their own marriage. A useful theoretical framework for this phenomenon is necropolitics. The literature on necropolitics in Western countries focuses on the politics of physical death but can be usefully extended to address social death. The social death perspective can include social aspects which recognize Tongqi are victims and include the possibility that they exhibit resistance and agency. This proposed research extends necropolitics to the social death situations of the middle-class and uneducated Tongqi, and how they resist and overcome their circumstances. To date, there are limited literature to study Tongqi. Tongqi and their closeted gay husbands are often omitted from sociological research, but there are serious public health implications. In extreme cases Tongqi have committed suicide after discovering they have contracted HIV from their gay husbands. It is both a social health risk as well as a public health threat that HIV can be transmitted to unwitting Tongqi. This proposed project argues that, despite the challenges of social stigma and HIV risk, Tongqi are often resolute in finding ways to resist, cope, survive, and eventually, overcome to achieve a new ‘normal’ life. The study will make a major contribution to the literature on the sociology of sexuality and the Tongqi. Tongqi are not passive victims of unfair social and cultural policies in China. Their efforts to escape the “slow violence” of queer necropolitics in China represent a brave reclamation of their identity. Why should Tongqi be deprived of basic human rights by entering marriages of convenience just to extend their gay husband’s bloodline? How do Tongqi exemplify what necropolitics refers to as “kept alive but in a state of injury” (Mbembe 2003: 21)? How does this “wounding” fit with the characterization of necropolitics in China, which is underdeveloped in East Asian studies of culture, sexuality, and migration? This research encompasses the spectrum of Tongqi, from rural and uneducated women to middle-class urban sophisticates. The study hypothesis is that middle- class Tongqi are more able to resist and survive than those lacking education or resources. The study seeks to make a major contribution to the literature on the sociology of sexuality and homosexuality in China, which has thus far largely ignored the Tongqi, the dynamics of resistance and agency to change. The proposed project will collect data in northeastern China based on the PI’s previous project on male sex workers (money boys). An initial sample of 60 Tongqi (educated and uneducated) will be contacted and interviewed via a multi- step process. First, through the PI’s contacts from previous research, “money boy” (MB) husbands will be contacted and requests extended to meet with their wives. Second, a sample of Tongqi will also be recruited via the directors of nongovernmental organizations. Third, a conventional ethnographic fieldwork approach will be adopted, supplemented by less conventional methods, such as “community talk,” QQ/WeChat interviews, participant observation, and non- participant observation. This project involves at least three levels of analysis. The first will focus on the perceptions, interpretations, and reactions of Tongqi as individuals. The second will examine how socio-cultural interactions have contributed to Tongqi’ predicament. The third will explore how current policies on divorce, custody, and rural-urban migration have impacted Tongqi efforts to terminate their marriages and start over. By including Tongqi as heterosexuals “queered” by necropolitics, this project will have significant contributions for NGOs, state actors, and other social service providers. The findings will provide specific strategies to support Tongqi and protect their mental health, reducing the need for taxpayer-funded resources to combat HIV transmission.