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Chinese: "Comrade" (Mandarin tóngzhì; zhì is pronounced something like "Ger" in "German")

"Comrade" was the official and ubiquitous Communist term of address in Chinese from 1949 until some time in the late 1980's or early 1990's. In 1995 I still heard government officials use the word as a matter of course to describe colleagues, but ordinary people no longer used it much. It was still common when farmers were pleading with supercilious bureaucrats for attention.

In Taiwan, the word was not used in this sense. Taiwan long avoided politically charged words from Mainland China. But I remember Taiwan people using this particular word, with mild deprecation, in the early 1990's to mean a gay person - "S/he is a 'comrade'" (wink wink). At some point after that, gay identity became much more visible in Taiwan, and gay people adopted the word forthwith. A sign I saw on a Taipei campus in the Fall of 1999 said "Only girl comrades wanted" - this was an ad for a lesbian student association.

"Comrade" as a Communist term made Taiwan people giggle, as did many things associated with the Mainland. Its early use to mean a gay person was pretty clearly sarcastic. The Communist word has been falling into steep decline in China itself because of political changes, though I'm wondering whether the Taiwanese usage has caught on - my prediction would be not, as that would be seen as too disrespectful toward the ruling party.

However, on the morning that I am posting this write-up, I see in the New York Times that this special sense of "comrade" has also spread to Shenzhen, a Mainland city created to compete with Hong Kong (and therefore under heavy influence of politically incorrect places like Taiwan).


Homosexuality has a long and elaborate history in China, but it has been a very different kind of lifestyle from that of the modern West, and popular self-appelations of the type of English "gay" or Mandarin tóngzhì probably did not exist. But I do recall a teacher from Peiping (what people today call Beijing) telling me that, years ago, the Beijing dialect word for a gay male prostitute was tùzi, meaning "rabbit". It does not appear in any dialect dictionary I have checked.

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