Often described as ‘China’s first sexologist’, Li Yinhe 李银河 is a sociologist who is widely admired as a pioneer of Gender Studies in mainland China. She is also a public intellectual well known for defending the rights of women, gays, lesbians and transgendered people.
As an undergraduate, Li Yinhe studied history at Shanxi University from 1974 to 1977. After a brief stint as an editor at Guangming Daily, she was assigned to a research position in the newly-founded Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), where she pursued research on marriage and the family. It was during this time that she began to learn about sociology, which was excluded from Chinese universities in 1953 and was not restored as an academic discipline until the late 1970s. From 1982 to 1988, Li lived in the US where she studied at the University of Pittsburgh. Her husband Wang Xiaobo 王小波 (later a noted writer in his own right), whom she married in 1980, joined her in 1984 on a scholarship in East Asian Studies. When she returned to China, she worked as a post-doctoral fellow under the acclaimed sociologist Fei Xiaotong 费孝通.
Li and Wang co-authored Their World: a Study of Homosexuality in China 他们的世界——中国男同性恋群落透视 (Hong Kong: Cosmos Press 1992 and Shanxi People’s Publishing House 1993). The book was widely praised as a ground-breaking study of a marginalized subculture in China. During the 1990s, Li continued her research into Chinese sexuality in the context of family and institutional norms. Her two best known publications of this period are Love and Sex for Chinese Women 中国女性的感情与性 and The Sub-Culture of Homosexuality 同性恋亚文化, both of which were published in 1998 by China Today Press 今日中国出版社 in Beijing. Li has expressed frustration over the difficulty of pursuing her research. In the preface to her 1997 book, The Subculture of Sadomasochism 虐恋亚文化, a survey of Western scholarship on sadomasochistic practices and their literary representation, she lamented:
Our level of understanding of sex is equivalent to that of the Western world before the 1960s… . To a majority of Chinese, Western academic discourse [on this topic] must seem completely alien, something hailing from a different planet.
Li was an avid reader of the writings of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. In 2001, she published Foucault and Sex 福柯与性, a study of the institutionalisation of sex and the development of sexual politics, based largely on the first volume of Foucault’s three-volume study of the history of sexuality in the West. It brought her many new fans among graduate students in China interested in postmodern theory.
Li has also been a vocal advocate for minority sexual practices, calling for their protection under Chinese law as an integral part of citizens’ rights. The causes she has supported range from the rights of homosexuals in the 1990s to the decriminalisation of pornography and ‘group licentiousness’ 聚众淫乱 in the 2000s. She has made annual proposals to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) urging for the legalisation of gay marriage.
Her activism and commentary did not always sit well with her employer, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). In a 2007 blog post, Li wrote that the CASS leadership was:
put under pressure by ‘people who are not ordinary’ and has asked me to shut up. In fact, the bosses do not regard what I talk about as politically sensitive, and the pressure was not of a political nature… . Yet they seem unable to withstand social disapproval for remarks I made in a setting that is not politically sensitive… . So I’ve decided for the time being (perhaps forever) that I will:
- 1. accept as few media interviews as possible; and,
- 2. publish as few sex-related articles as possible.
Three years later she broke her silence. When, in 2010, Ma Yaohai 马尧海, formerly an assistant professor at the Nanjing Institute of Technology, stood trial on charges of having engaged in ‘group licentiousness’ by hosting an online swingers group and was sentenced to three and a half years, Li publicised his plight and argued in his defense. Similarly, in 2011, when Cheng Jianjun 成建军, a government official in Kunming, was sentenced to three and a-half years for the same offense, Li was a vocal critic of the verdict, arguing in several online commentaries that the law against ‘group licentiousness’ was obsolete and unconstitutional and should be abolished. She compared it to the law against ‘hooliganism’ 流氓罪, which encompassed offences from disruption of public order to showing disrespect for women, making the definition of a criminal act highly vulnerable to interpretation. The law against hooliganism was amended in 1997.
Li has advanced a similar argument against the criminalisation of pornography. In 2006, when Chen Hui 陈辉, a webmaster for three porn websites, was convicted of ‘disseminating obscene materials’ and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment, Li criticised the court ruling and called for abolition of the crime. She argued that when compared to the law in other countries and considering the guarantees in China’s own constitution, the selective prosecution of the law in China reflected a country that ‘still has not emerged from the Middle Ages’.
In 2012, Li retired from CASS. She published her last research monograph in 2009. Titled The Women of Houcun 后村的女人们, it was a field study of gender inequality in a southern town. She maintains a visible public presence on her blog and microblog. She also devotes much of her time to educating her adopted son and describes her present lifestyle as ‘Thoreau + microblogging’ 梭罗加微博. She has recently started writing fiction about transgressive sexual practices, including a blog-published SM-themed short story, but has rejected comparisons to her late husband’s famous writings.