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A recent article by Lisa Lim in the South China Morning Post discusses how the Chinese word for comrade has been appropriated by the country’s gay community. In English the word comrade is used to mean companion.
As the socialist and communist movements grew, members of left ideologies would use the word comrade to refer to each other in a discreet fashion. The Mandarin word for comrade is tongzhi, Which translates to “same will” or “same purpose.”
According to Lim’s article, the term gained in popularity among the Communist Party of China from 1921–49 but began to decline in usage around the ‘80s. The name was adopted by a Hong Kong organizer of the city’s lesbian and gay film festival, which popularized the term comrade among queer people.
Now the word means something entirely different, and it’s become common for Chinese queer people to identify as Tongzhi.
The Beijing Center for LGBT People calls itself the Beijing Tongzhi Zhongxin — the Beijing comrade center.
The same article discusses a controversy from 2016 when China’s president Xi Jinping insisted that Chinese people call him comrade instead of “president” or “party secretary.” The president used the word tongzhi.
Despite a 2016 push to re-assimilate the word into the communist party’s common vocabulary, it’s likely that the president won’t be using the word again, as more Chinese people are beginning to associate it with gay men.
Only top leaders in the Communist Party are still referred to as tongzhi, while the lower levels have replaced the word with titles like boss, deputy secretary, CEO, brother and grandfather.