Category Archives: Sp ’24 Feature

Sp '24 Feature, Spring 2024

Compulsory Heterosexuality in Mao Era China: Marriage as a Union of Equals

In a Tortoiseshell

In this Writing Seminar paper on queerness in Mao era China, Katherine Ren identifies a gap in the scholarly conversation on compulsory heterosexuality to argue that queerness manifests uniquely in societies predicated on gender equality. Kat’s paper is particularly evocative for its treatment of the scholarly conversation, its development of motive, and its strong writerly ethos.

Excerpt / Katherine Ren


Current scholarly literature regarding compulsory heterosexuality, including the landmark paper, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” by Adrienne Rich, situates almost all discussion of the perpetuation of compulsory heterosexuality in a Western context. In order to bridge this gap, I analyze the perpetuation of compulsory heterosexuality in Mao-Era China. Current theory is often inexorable from the discussion of the objectification of women for the service of men, but in Mao-Era China, the government made a conscious effort to raise women up as equals to men. In this paper, I investigate how compulsory heterosexuality is perpetuated in a society that insists on equality of the sexes. I additionally connect this investigation of the differences between Western and Eastern compulsory heterosexuality to differences in Western and Eastern queer culture, concluding that compulsory heterosexuality and queerness in a capitalist society is distinct from compulsory heterosexuality and queerness in a socialist society.

Queerness and Socialism

Current scholarly conversations on lesbian culture in China tend to be situated in post-socialist China, as Hongwei Bao (2020)’s Queer China is, or pre-modern/pre-Mao China, as Tze-Lan D. Sang (2003)’s The Emerging Lesbian is. Both books acknowledge the gap of queer literature in Mao Era China in their analyses, explaining that queer histories and stories were essentially erased from the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s records. Sang, citing Harriet Evans’ research in her book, writes that “in the early years of the PRC, homosexuality was declared not to exist in liberated China” (Sang, 2003, p. 163). Bao, in his introduction to a section titled “The Emergence of Homosexuality,” writes that “[homosexuality] vanished for several decades in the Mao era” (Bao, 2020, p. 29).

However, we must not interpret the lack of records of “homosexuality” as a lack of queerness during the Mao era. (For clarification, I will use the word “queer” in this paper as a description of close relationships outside of traditional heteronormative relationships (spouses), even if the relationships are not inherently romantic.) Maoist “sexual puritanism” was based on the ideal of having men and women be equal in every way. Traditional femininity, such as clothes shaped to accentuated feminine features (such as dresses), were frowned upon by the socialist regime, and the national body of China became a unisex body in a Mao suit, which was a shapeless, modest outfit (Chen, 2001). Furthermore, relations between a man and a woman outside of wedlock were seen as scandalous and indulgent, and so close relationships between those of the same sex (homosocialism) prevailed. The Chinese population were labeled not as men or women but as comrades, no matter the sex or gender. Socialist China’s culture, which involved “[departure] from bourgeois individualism and private property, [redefinition] of traditional regimes of family and kinship, and [challenge] of conventional gender norms,” was a complete deviation from past heteronormative ideals (Bao, 2020, p. 34). In his book, Queer China, Hongwei Bao even goes as far as to say that Mao China’s culture was, in the Western definition, “queer in itself” (Bao, 2020, p. 34).

The homosexual identity did not exist and was not spoken of, yet homosexual acts and romantic relations between members of the same sex continued. Though this statement seems contradictory, it is important to situate discussions of queerness with Chinese queer identity as opposed to the (Western) “global gay.” The concept of “the global gay” asserts that ideas of sexual identity (such as names and labels) originate from the West as a result of neoliberalism and spread around the world, allowing others to exercise freedom by being able to label themselves as their preferred sexual identity (Bao, 2020, p. 71). In contrast, queerness in China, as presented in work such as Shi Tou’s Women Fifty Minutes or the online queer novel Beijing Story, is often unlabeled; queer characters are not defined by their queerness, nor do they label themselves as any specific identity, simply existing and enjoying a relationship that is “other” to the heterosexual norm. Bao points out that these stories are often imbued with a nostalgia for socialism, as the utopian relationships they portray stand in direct opposition to the commercialization of heterosexual relationships, love, sex, and marriage under capitalism (Bao, 2020, p. 79). Queer relationships are portrayed as a pure type of love asking for nothing else but love in return, while heterosexual relationships are portrayed as imbued with ulterior motives and social burdens. In this way, Chinese queer identity is inseparable from critiques of neoliberalism and nostalgia for socialism; this was a time when queerness was not labeled nor discussed, yet deep connections outside of heteronormative relationships still prevailed (Bao, 2020, p. 80).


In the following sections, I will study heterosexual marriage as an institution during the Mao era in order to study queerness. More specifically, I investigate how compulsory heterosexuality was perpetuated via Mao’s propaganda for marriage. Queerness, especially in China, is not so much of an extension of heterosexual relationships (as it is perceived in the West) as it is a desire for a relationship free from the burdens of a heterosexual relationship. In other words, Chinese queerness represents the relationships outside of heterosexual, socially acceptable relationships, such as marriage (Bao, 2020).

In an attempt to determine whether or not compulsory heterosexuality in Mao Era China functioned differently to compulsory heterosexuality in the US in the same time period, I will also evaluate my findings alongside Vandermeade (2015)’s findings in her paper, “Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941 – 1961.” Specifically, I compare the image of the wife in Mao Era China marriage propaganda to the image of the wife in post-World War II America.

Analysis of Marriage Posters in Mao Era China

In the 12 posters analyzed, the Mao-Era Chinese government used both implicit messaging (through the fashion choices made by the pictured women) and explicit messaging (through the poster text) in order to communicate a new image for marriage to women. Three messages stand out: (1) marriage must be resocialized as a union between equals, shown by the similar outfits and styles worn by both spouses regardless of gender, (2) marriage supports and is work for the country, and (3) both parties in a marriage should be collaborative, but independent.

Comparison to 1940-1980s America

Adrienne Rich and other scholars came to the conclusion that compulsory heterosexuality was perpetuated by the socialization of women as subservient to men. While it would be bold to say such socialization did not exist in Mao-Era China, I posit that such socialization was not as strongly pushed on women through public magazines, posters, and images. Furthermore, the American image of a wife during this time greatly differed from the Chinese image of a wife. The Chinese wife is gender-neutral and independent from her husband, where the American wife is overtly sexualized and dependent on her husband, whether it be for self-fulfillment (as seen in American makeup or weight loss advertisements) or monetary support (as seen in the lack of employed women in American advertisements). Therefore, I argue that compulsory heterosexuality in Mao-Era China was not as strongly perpetuated through the spread of the idea that women are “incomplete” without men nor the idea that women must find “self-fulfillment” in men, as Seidman (2009) had written.

Compulsory Heterosexuality in Mao Era China

What separates compulsory heterosexuality in Mao-Era China from compulsory heterosexuality in America is the presence of male-identification. Male-identification, as defined in Adrienne Rich’s paper (where she quotes Kathleen Barry) is “the act whereby women place men above women, including themselves, in credibility, status, and importance in most situations, regardless of the comparative quality the women may bring to the situation” (Barry qtd. in Rich, 1980, pg. 646). Barry also describes it as the “colonization of one’s self” (Barry qtd. in Rich, 1980, pg. 646). Combining this with Rich’s earlier assertion that women are socialized as sex objects for men, Rich appears to be claiming that, under compulsory heterosexuality, women are taught to want to be objectified. This claim is further supported by the analysis of advertisements targeted to women in the 1940-1960s in the previous section, where women are told that they needed to be desirable and therefore needed certain products.

However, this narrative is missing in the Mao-Era marriage propaganda. In its place is encouragement to be independent from your husband, to support each other in work, and to maintain relationships with others outside of your marriage. Like in the US, heterosexuality was compulsory, but, unlike the US, it was not everything. Even prior to the passing of Mao’s marriage law, when unhappy arranged marriages were commonplace, life was framed to be worth living for wives because of the company of  “sworn sisters” (Cong, 2016). While the presence of male-identification in Western compulsory heterosexuality diminishes the worth of relationships between women, the lack of it in Eastern compulsory heterosexuality causes there to be a focus on them, as a type of personal salvation from the hardships of marriage. In contrast, Western compulsory heterosexuality appears to paint marriage as a personal salvation.

As concluded in the previous sections, the Chinese government pushed marriage onto women for the sake of production for the state, whether it be the production of goods or the production of children, who may then be future workers. In other words, a citizen entered a marriage not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the country: a very socialist motive. On the other hand, American industries pushed marriage onto women for the production of the nuclear family, an essential social structure for the perpetuity of capitalism, as Marxists have theorized in the past (Healy, 2009). This innate difference in motive between Chinese propaganda and American propaganda stems from their differences in economic systems. I posit that it is also this difference that separates Chinese compulsory heterosexuality and American compulsory heterosexuality. Through this lens, we can observe how Eastern compulsory heterosexuality and Western compulsory heterosexuality result in different queer cultures in America and China. As mentioned in the section “Queerness and Socialism,” Chinese queerness reflects a criticism of capitalism, while Western queerness champions it, as seen in the spread of the idea of the “global gay.”

From my analysis of Mao-Era marriage posters, I conclude that Mao-Era compulsory heterosexuality was enforced by appealing to citizens’ patriotism and desire to help their country, contrasting 1940-1960s American compulsory heterosexuality, which was enforced through male-identification in order to reproduce power structures within the nuclear family for the sake of upholding capitalism (Healy, 2009). Both types of compulsory heterosexuality manifest in marriage, but, where Mao-Era marriage encouraged women to be independent in order to work more efficiently for the country, American marriage encouraged women to be dependent in order to maintain a power imbalance between husband and wife. Thus, I argue that compulsory heterosexuality under socialism and compulsory heterosexuality under capitalism are distinctly perpetuated, which may also be related to the differing queer cultures between the East and the West. I suggest that future studies further investigate this distinction through more studies on compulsory heterosexuality under socialist or communist countries, as the current scholarly literature focuses almost exclusively on compulsory heterosexuality under capitalism.


Bao, H. (2020). Queer China. In Routledge India eBooks. Informa.

Chen, T. (2001). Dressing for the Party: Clothing, Citizenship, and Gender-formation in Mao’s China. Fashion Theory, 5(2), 143–171.

Chen, Y. (2013). Eye Contact. The University of Texas at Austin.

Cong, X. (2016). Marriage, Law and Gender in Revolutionary China, 1940–1960. Cambridge University Press.

Hamon, R. R., & Ingoldsby, B. B. (2003). Mate Selection Across Cultures. In SAGE Publications, Inc. eBooks.

Healy, L. (2009). Capitalism and the Transforming Family Unit: A Marxist Analysis. Socheolas Limerick Student Journal of Sociology, 2(1).

Marriage Law | Chinese Posters | (n.d.).

Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence (1980). Journal of Women’s History, 15(3), 11–48.

Sang, T. (2004). The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China. Comparative Literature, 56(3), 276.

Seidman, S. (2009). Critique of compulsory heterosexuality. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 6(1), 18–28.

Vandermeade, S. L. (2015). Fort Lipstick and the Making of June Cleaver: Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941-1961. Madison Historical Review, 12(1), 3.

Yang, W., & Yan, F. (2017). The annihilation of femininity in Mao’s China: Gender inequality of sent-down youth during the Cultural Revolution. China Information, 31(1), 63–83.×17691743

Author Commentary / Katherine Ren

I cut the Introduction (with the discussion of current literature into compulsory heterosexuality being very and maybe even inherently Western), and the nitty gritty of the poster analyses (though I kept the conclusions) — I hope the paper still makes sense regardless!

I knew from the beginning of the semester that I wanted my final paper to incorporate the concept of compulsory heterosexuality somehow, since it’s a fascinating topic that not a ton of people talk about, as some argue that it is exclusive to lesbianism. At first, I tried looking for theory-level motives only in Adrienne Rich’s original compulsory heterosexuality paper to see if she raised any points that were contradictions, or any points that I found iffy. When I situated her theory in Mao Era China, an era with queer culture that not a lot of scholarly conversation seemed to talk about, I found a punctum that I felt that I genuinely cared about and that I thought would add a valuable dimension to how compulsory heterosexuality is differently perpetuated in different cultural contexts.

When I began writing, I only wrote about Mao-Era marriage— the context was complicated, and the implications were more so— and I kinda neglected discussion of Western gender norms at this time because I thought most people would just “get” how it differed from what I was looking at. But adding the Comparison to 1940s-1980s America actually 1) clarified my argument, and 2) made my own paper make more sense to me. It’s safe to say that this paper went through quite a lot of different phases in the writing process, where I tried things, removed things, rewrote things, and only cried a little bit. In the end, I’m deeply proud of this paper, and I hope that reading an excerpt from it was enjoyable.

Editor Commentary / Grace Wang

While juggling the analysis of both primary and secondary sources, it can be difficult to find your own voice in a piece of writing. But when I first read Kat’s paper, I was struck by how strong the presence of the writer was. In this excerpt, Kat identifies a gap in the scholarly conversation—the lack of application of compulsory heterosexuality onto non-Western contexts—and uses it to craft her own unique contribution.

Kat is able to achieve this intervention through her clever structure. By introducing the reader to the existing scholarly conversation on queerness in Mao era China, she simultaneously orients the reader while building motive. Then, she explicitly states how she will address that motive by laying out her method. Through neat motivating moves, she employs analysis of her primary evidence—Mao era marriage posters—to build towards her thesis. In the subsequent section comparing Mao era China to 1940-80s America, Kat explains how Mao era China is unique is its treatment of compulsory heterosexuality, helping her cultivate a credible writerly ethos.

When I read Kat’s paper, I feel as though I am in good hands. Her references back to the existing literature tell me that she understands her topic well, and her use of signposting helps guide me through the paper’s argumentative journey. Kat’s concluding section, “Compulsory Heterosexuality in Mao Era China” elegantly closes out the paper by linking together previous points of analysis to arrive at the thesis. The conclusion connects back to the scholarly motive by revisiting compulsory heterosexuality in a new context, providing the full circle moment that the reader has been waiting for.

Producing a final research paper for Writing Seminar is no small feat. It requires self-guided research, thoughtful planning, and sometimes a few agonized screams into a pillow. However, I find that one of the most challenging aspects of writing that paper is finding the tension, gap, or puzzle that motivates the writer themselves to follow their paper through to the end. When I read Kat’s paper, I never lose sight of what the point of it all is—and that is because I see her, the writer, working with motive from beginning to end.

Papers like Kat’s are always a pleasure for readers because we get the sense that what we are reading matters, a feeling which often seems extinct within the drudgery of writing academic essays. It is a sensation that can manifest in the smallest of ways, whether through an intervention into a small part of a scholarly conversation, or a simple application of one theory onto a context where it’s been previously unexplored. These are all worthwhile and meaningful explorations for a Writing Seminar paper, and they are examples of how academic research happens—through tiny additions to the Pool of All Knowledge. Kat’s paper reminds me that what we write as college students can and should matter—even and especially in Writing Seminar.

Professor Commentary / Jorie Hofstra

Kat knew from the start of her project that she wanted to engage with Adrienne Rich’s argument about compulsory heterosexuality. Her initial plan to fill a gap in the literature by investigating queerness in China, however, hit a speedbump when she visited Princeton’s librarian for Gender and Sexuality Studies, came away with a copy of Hongwei Bao’s Queer China, and realized that the gap wasn’t quite as large as she had expected. Kat humorously captured the experience of being “scooped” by another scholar in her project proposal entitled “Research Proposal by Kat, who changed her entire idea today because Queer China practically stole everything she wanted to say, so she was both super interested and devastated as she read 233 pages of analysis on queer culture in China.” But having read extensively on compulsory heterosexuality in the West, and on gender and sexuality in both the West and the East, Kat had primed herself to recognize a genuine puzzle—aka motive—when it arose. She found new footing quickly in the puzzle of how the 1950 Marriage Law made heterosexual marriage simultaneously compulsory and easier to dissolve. Rich argues that compulsory heterosexuality is enforced through the diminishment and objectification of women, but might it take a different form when accompanied by rhetoric of equality and sameness between women and men? 

Since I’ve found it useful to pivot to primary sources when feeling stumped among the scholars (and vice versa), I sent Kat a link to an archive of Mao-era Chinese posters promoting marriage. While these posters were fairly opaque to me, Kat’s ongoing reading about gender and sexuality in that period of Chinese history allowed her to perform a deep semiotic analysis of how these posters promoted a particular vision of marriage, gender, and family through the figure of the Mao-suited wife. Kat’s primary-source motive thus nested tightly within her secondary-source motive, and the result is a paper that teaches us something new about marriage ideology in Mao-era China and constructs a theoretical framework that is potentially portable to other projects.

Through her wonderfully detailed analysis of the imagery and captions of the posters and a comparison to U.S.-produced marriage propaganda from the same historical period, Kat finds that marriage in the Chinese case was promoted as “work for the country,” by contrast to the U.S. promotion of marriage as the only road to fulfillment for women. This difference has consequences for how women’s same-sex relations are constructed in each context: as a valve for relieving the pressures of marriage as a productive “union of equals,” or as a siphoning-off of energies that should be devoted to the private project of marriage. Kat’s work suggests that scholars of compulsory heterosexuality have missed the opportunity to deepen the concept through cultural-historical studies, and she offers a new variable—the economic structure within which heterosexuality becomes compulsory—to address in such studies.

Her paper stands as an exemplar of what it looks like to take motive seriously. Kat’s relentless pursuit of tension, inconsistency, or friction within and across her sources led her to continually unfold new layers of motive, complicating her argument and resolving these complications, toward a genuinely meaningful contribution to the scholarly conversation.