Queer Women in Urban China: An Ethnography, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Queer Women in Urban China

An Ethnography, 1st Edition

By Elisabeth L. Engebretsen


194 pages | 9 B/W Illus.

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Lala (lesbian) and gay communities in mainland China have emerged rapidly in the 21st century. Alongside new freedoms and modernizing reforms, and with mainstream media and society increasingly tolerant, lalas still experience immense family and social pressures to a degree that this book argues is deeply gendered. The first anthropological study to examine everyday lala lives, intimacies, and communities in China, the chapters explore changing articulations of sexual subjectivity, gendered T-P (tomboy-wife) roles, family and kinship, same-sex weddings, lala-gay contract marriages, and community activism. Engebretsen analyzes lala strategies of complicit transgressions to balance surface respectability and undeclared same-sex desires, why "being normal" emerges a deep aspiration and sign of respectability, and why openly lived homosexuality and public activism often are not.

Queer Women in Urban China develops a critical ethnographic analysis through the conceptual lens of "different normativities," tracing the paradoxes and intricacies of the desire for normal life alongside aspirations for recognition, equality, and freedom, and argues that dominant paradigms fixed on categories, identities, and the absolute value of public visibility are ill-equipped to fully understand these complexities. This book complements existing perspectives on sexual and gender diversity, contemporary China, and the politics and theories of justice, recognition, and similitude in global times.


"[…] an extremely valuable contribution to the study of queer life and politics in China."— Dr. Howard Chiang, University of Warwick

"Engaging, revealing, well-rounded and accessible, Engebretsen’s valuable multidisciplinary study is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the development and negotiation of non-normative sexual identity within contemporary Chinese society."— Gareth Shaw, University of Nottingham

"Elisabeth Lund Engebretsen’s Queer Women in Urban China is an engaging and thoroughly researched, ethnographic study of the lives of lesbian or lala women in Beijing. Engebretsen’s investigation of Chinese sexual nonnormativity provides a much-needed counterbalance to Euro-American-centric theories of queer culture. This is a valuable book for anyone interested in non-normative sexualities and contemporary Chinese society." – Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender

Inequality in China (Zed, 2014)

"As the first book on queer women in urban China this book raises imortant questions about and offers invaluable insights into what it means to be queer in a non-western context, how one negotiates social norms in a society that undergoes rapid changes, but where social norms still take a strong hold. As a well-trained anthropologist, Engebretsen has demonstrated acute attention to details in the everyday and subtle changes in human emotions. She knows how to tell stories, and she tells them in interesting ways. Written in lucid language, this book combines thick descriptions of lala everyday lives with nuanced critical analysis. It makes an important contribution to queer studies, China studies and urban anthropology."— Dr. Hongwei Bao, Women & Gender Research

Table of Contents

1. Queer Women in Urban China: An Introduction 2. "A Special Self": New Sexual Subjectivities 3. Is Face More Important than Happiness?: Negotiating Family and Kinship 4. "Come and Join Our Wedding!": The Symbolic Politics of Lala Marriages 5. Convenient Resistance?: Lala-Gay Contract Marriages 6. "Our Lala Space": Community Development and Social Activism 7. Conclusion: "Queers, Keep up the Good Work!"

About the Author

Elisabeth L. Engebretsen is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Gender Research, University of Oslo

About the Series

Routledge Research in Gender and Society

The social sciences continue to be transformed and enriched by analysis which takes gender, and the ways in which gender and society interact, to be of vital, defining importance. This series is new and broadly based, and will publish high-level contributions from across the disciplines.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Lesbian Studies
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Women's Studies
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Gender Studies