What elderly Swiss lesbians can teach China

Depending on the source quoted, between 30 million and 50 million homosexual men and women live in China. ©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

A book showcasing the lives and loves of 70-year-old Swiss lesbians in the second half of the 20th century could soon be published in Chinese and may encourage a more open discussion in China of homosexuality.

This content was published on June 26, 2016 - 11:00
Dahai Shao, swissinfo.ch

Qiao Mu (not her real name) has translated “After that night I was spellbound” by Swiss author and historian Corinne Rufli. She is thrilled by the stories of the elderly Swiss protagonists.

“Despite concrete differences, the social situation of Chinese women today is to a certain degree comparable with that of Swiss women in the 1950s and 1960s,” Qiao Mu told swissinfo.ch. “With their experiences they could maybe offer Chinese readers a new perspective.”

In her book, published in German last year, Rufli wanted to tell the stories of older lesbians and thereby create a sensitivity and awareness for different ways of living.

She also wanted to draw attention to the fact that “there’s a lot more to being a woman than our narrow views”. What’s more, she adds that these women could “become role models for the younger generation”.

Corinne Rufli (1979) studied history and German language and literature at the University of Zurich, completing her degree with an oral history study of older lesbian women in Switzerland. In addition she worked as an editor for culture magazines and for two newspapers, the Aargauer Zeitung and Schweiz am Sonntag. The freelance historian does research on the topic of lesbian history and lives outside of Zurich in Baden. Sandra Ardizzone

swissinfo.ch: Your book is set to be published soon in China. How did that come about?

Corinne Rufli: It’s a crazy thing and a wonderful coincidence. A Chinese woman heard about my book and told me it must absolutely be translated into Chinese. I’d been thinking English or Spanish – but Chinese? That was certainly a surprise.

Chinese publishing houses have already expressed an interest. For me, it’s an adventure, because I haven’t got the faintest idea about the bookselling business in China, and I don’t know how openly one can write about lesbians there.

swissinfo.ch: What are your hopes for being published in Chinese?

C.R.: If my book appears in Chinese – and is accessible for interested readers – then my expectations have already been exceeded. For me, the greatest present would be if the book encourages women – and men.

It should also motivate young Chinese lesbians to write down the stories of older lesbians in their country and thereby enter into a cross-generational dialogue.

swissinfo.ch: Do you think the stories of your protagonists could have a universal effect, thus becoming a model for lesbians in China?

C.R.: Yes, I can imagine that. Although these women are Swiss, although they come from a completely different culture and live in totally different worlds, all the women in my book have fought for their happiness in various ways. Despite difficult circumstances – from society or sometimes their family – they set their feelings free.

They assumed responsibility for their love, and this power helped them – in a misogynist and homophobic society – to construct their lives as they saw fit. Not all women had the same possibilities and chances. But what’s nice is that every woman in my book can look back, reconciled, on her life. That’s another reason the book encourages readers: it gives them courage to take their life in their own hands and assume responsibility for their happiness.

Homosexuality in China and Switzerland

The Chinese health authorities estimate that around 20 million gays and ten million lesbians live in China (population 1.35 billion).

The reason for the difference in numbers between gays and lesbians is explained by China being a patriarchy in which men tend to decide how to live their lives and sexuality, whereas women have to subordinate themselves, including their sexuality.

In Switzerland (population 8.3 million), experts estimate 4%-10% of the population are homosexual or bisexual. The proportion of gays and lesbians is greater in cities, where acceptance is also greater and there are more like-minded people.

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