The scene is loud, rambunctious, and scarlet all over. The endless ballroom is packed with glossy tables, waiters bustling bottles of champagne, the guests already red-faced from intoxication. It is a Chinese wedding ceremony, complete with “double-happiness” decorations and a baby-bouncing fertility ceremony. The bride throws a bouquet, and the women violently crash over one another to become the bride-to-be. We know the couple’s families spent a fortune on the ceremony. We know they’ve called all their friends, family, neighbors, doctors, teachers, the groom’s comic-book dealer from fifth grade, the bride’s favorite tea shop owner—everyone is there.
A guest’s mother looks at her now-adult son expectantly, and his father is asking him when he can hold his grandson.
But the son is gay.
In 1993, Ang Lee released The Wedding Banquet, in which a gay landlord from Taiwan must marry his tenant in order to hide his homosexuality from his traditional parents who hope for their son to find a wife and start a family. We follow the story of Wai Tung and his American lover, Simon, as they orchestrate a fake marriage between Wai Tung and Wei Wei, a struggling artist who agrees to the false marriage for a green card.
During the time of the film’s release, America’s attitudes—and those of much of the Western world—were still largely unfavorable toward the LGBTQ population. However, in recent years, rapid shifts in attitudes have occurred. In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was protected by the US Constitution, and a significant portion of the American population, especially college-aged students, have become increasingly receptive and supportive to LGBTQ rights. We know the American story, but as The Wedding Banquet exhibits, the Chinese attitude towards homosexuality has always been quite different.
Lee’s The Wedding Banquet humorously but poignantly examines the clash of cultures and generations regarding issues of love, gender, and family.
Homosexuality was removed from China’s health ministry’s list only in 2001. In a 2016 Peking University survey, conducted under the United Nations Development Programme, fewer than 15% of LGBTQ respondents had come out to their families, and half of those who came out expressed that they had suffered discrimination as a result.
But unlike the majority of nations that reject or disapprove of homosexuality, China and Taiwan do not have a large following of a monotheistic religion, so the stigma against LGBTQ is not because they threaten Christian, Muslim, or Jewish values.
It’s all about family duty.
In 1990s America, the film’s gay couple Wai Tung and Simon are not free from societal disdain. An opening shot reveals their neighbors, a conservatively dressed white, heterosexual couple, grimacing at a kiss between Tung and Simon. Overseas, Tung’s parents, completely unaware their son is gay, pressure him to find a nice girl and settle down so that they might hold grandchildren.
Lee’s film powerfully explores the dichotomy between Chinese and American rejections of homosexuality. Just before his son’s wedding, Tung’s father confesses how he was an only surviving son and, therefore, carried enormous pressure to continue his family name after he had escaped to Taiwan from China. His father’s story hauntingly echoes Tung’s current dilemma as an only son as well as the stresses he faces to preserve his family lineage.
The stigma against homosexuality in China is eternally linked with filial piety—the virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors. In Chinese culture, bearing children is never just for the couple. Providing grandchildren to one’s parents is considered one of the ultimate duties that a child must fulfill, and homosexuality bars that from occurring.
The Wedding Banquet highlights the conflict between the Chinese idea of filial piety and homosexuality through the parents’ secret knowledge that their son has a gay lover and refusal to let their son know of their knowledge so that he continues in his loveless marriage, all in the hopes that Tung will father a son anyway. Their choice to not disclose their knowledge about his sexuality suggests that Wai Tung’s parents do not take issue with the concept and actions of homosexuality itself—just its results.
Chinese culture also heavily prioritizes the concept of liu mianzi, which means “saving face.” This describes the tidy maintenance of appearances and promotion of a positive image of one’s own family to the public. In this vein, Wai Tung’s mother insists on a large, extravagant Chinese wedding banquet, after she bursts into distressed tears at the pragmatic, American City Hall marriage ceremony that Wai Tung had originally. When Wai Tung explains he did not require a lavish ceremony, an old family friend admonishes him. He explains: “It’s not for you, of course. It’s for your parents.”
The film emphasizes that liu mianzi plays a significant role into the rejection of homosexuality by Chinese parents, since marriage and children are large indicators of success in China. Especially with the one-child policy of recent decades, adults feel even more pressure from parents to find a spouse, settle down, and have a child, which is likely why homosexuality has been even more stigmatized within the last half of the century.
After all, Taoism regarded homosexuality neutrally, and love poems from the China’s golden age of poetry rarely made clear whether the subject was a man or woman. China’s greatest novel, the 18th century Dream of the Red Chamber, included both heterosexual and same-sex relations. China’s literary, spiritual, and philosophical teachings from the past has had little bias against homosexuality.
The Wedding Banquet, however, highlights that today’s stigma may come from traditional goals and familial duties coupled with recent government policies, wherein all a family’s hopes lie in the hands of one child. But attitudes are shifting now, especially amongst the Internet-active Chinese youth of whom many are supportive of LGBTQ rights.
It is a testimony to the fact that despite varied and often negative attitudes towards homosexuality in China, we can look towards China’s historical stance and the younger generation’s increasing acceptance toward the LGBTQ and understand that changes in perceptions may soon become a reality.