Glass Rabbit

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William Page, in his comment on “Happy New Year Rabbit You,” correctly informs us that it is au courant to refer to gay men as “rabbits” (tùzǐ 兔子).  As for why gay men are referred to as “rabbits,” this custom is said to have its basis in “Tale of the Rabbit God,” about a deity who protected homosexuals, from Zǐbùyǔ 子不語 (What the Master [i.e., Confucius] Did Not Talk About), an old collection of strange stories by the famous Qing Dynasty author, Yuan Mei (1716-1797).  There are other speculations about the origins of using tùzǐ 兔子 (“rabbit”) to refer to male homosexuals, but none of them seems as convincing to me as the one I have just offered.

There are many related terms, such as tùerye 兔兒爺 (“wabbit dad”), which refers to a gay. And tù bǎobǎo 兔寶寶 (“bunny darling / precious”) refers to someone who is the girl boy in a gay relationship.

If you look around on the Web for tùzǐ 兔子 (“rabbit”) in the context of homosexuality, you will find that it often occurs in the company of bōlí 玻璃 (“glass”), which is another way to refer to male homosexuals in Chinese-speaking societies today.  Why bōlí 玻璃 (“glass”) signifies male homosexuality is initially even more difficult to figure out than why tùzǐ 兔子 (“rabbit”) does, but once the answer is discovered, it is definitive.  Namely, bōlí 玻璃 (“glass”) as a substitute for “male homosexuality” is derived from the expression, “boy love,” which is common in Chinese LGBT circles.  Thus “boy love” –> BL –> bōlí 玻璃 (“glass”), a usage that has been around since at least the mid-90s.  In other words, “boy love” was shortened to BL, which — rather than being read as “bee” [bi:] “el” [ɛl] or “bê” [pɛ] “êl” [ɛl] (a la Hanyu Pinyin), was pronounced as bōlí.

I have entitled this post “Glass Rabbit,” but that’s simply because of the concatenation of bōlí 玻璃 (“glass”) and tùzǐ 兔子 (“rabbit”) as indicators of male homosexuality that I’ve noticed on the Web.  So far as I am aware, it has nothing to do “Garasu no Usagi / Glass no Usagi / Glass Rabbit ” (Japanese: ガラスのうさぎ), an animated film based on the non-fiction bestselling autobiography The Glass Rabbit (Toshiko Takagi) that was released on December 18, 2007.  Here’s a synopsis of the film:

The period of late World War II, Toshiko was living in downtown Tokyo with her family. Japan was more towards losing the War at the time and people were suffering with lack of materials. On March 10th 1945, she lost her mother and two younger sisters by the bombing in Tokyo. She picked up “Glass Rabbit”, which shape was changed by the fire, out of the wreck one day and she experienced the terror of the War. Moreover when she had to evacuate to the suburbs, her father was killed by US army on the way at the station. Now that she became all alone, she felt so lonely and despaired that she almost found no meaning to be alive. But despite of her loneliness and sorrow, she aroused herself, thinking about all her family who were gone. “I must survive for my family…. Otherwise, who will be visiting their grave.” This is the story of one girl, which should not be forgotten.

For the philologists and genuine etymologists among us, it may be interesting to note that the Mandarin word bōlí 玻璃 (“glass”) comes from Sanskrit.  There are actually two words in Mandarin that are used for “glass,” liúlí 琉璃 and bōlí 玻璃 (though bōlí 玻璃 is much more common than liúlí 琉璃 in Modern Standard Mandarin [MSM]), and both of them are derived from Sanskrit (perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are derived from a Prakrit).  Liúlí and bōlí are two of the seven “Precious Treasures / Jewels / Gems” (Skt. sapta ratna) of Buddhism.

Liúlí is derived from Skt. vaidurya (dot under “d” and long “u”).  There are approximately a dozen different transcriptions of this word in Chinese characters, some with three or four syllables that account for the beginning and ending sounds of the Sanskrit word, but most transcriptions are reduced to two syllables to account only for the core sounds (-dury– [dot under the “d”]).  Vaidurya is cognate with “beryl” < Latin beryllus < Greek beryllos < Prakrit veruliya, apparently of Dravidian origin, perhaps from the city of Velur (modern Belur) in southern India.

A few days ago, I wrote about an old commercial street in Beijing that I had trouble finding because I didn’t pronounce the name the way the locals do.  There is another famous, old-fashioned shopping street in Beijing that I never have trouble finding and that gets its name from liúlí 琉璃, namely Liúlí chǎng 琉璃廠 (“Glaze Factory”).  This is a good place to buy books, “antiquities,” art works, and so forth.

The word bōlí 玻璃’ underwent the same kind of transition as liúlí 琉璃. The Sanskrit word sphatika (dot under the “t”), phalika in Pali, meaning “crystal” or “quartz,” similarly has about a dozen transcriptional forms in Chinese, the most common of the truncated ones being bōlí 玻璃.  In early Chinese Buddhist contexts, bōlí 玻璃 and shuǐjīng 水晶 (“crystal”) were synonyms.  With the importation and spread of glass, bōlí 玻璃 came to be applied to that material as well.

This is not the place to delve into such a huge subject, but elaborate glass beads and faience were already being brought to East Asia from the Mediterranean region starting from at least the 8th century BC and are found at many sites throughout China, though they undoubtedly would not have been called by the Sanskritic terms liúlí 琉璃 and bōlí 玻璃 at that time.

All of this is to show how deep and complex the history of one of the designations for male homosexuality is in China.

Finally, another very popular term used by homosexuals in China, Taiwan, and elsewhere in the Sinophone world is tóngzhì 同志 (“comrade”).  The Wikipedia article on “comrade” covers equivalents in many other languages, see especially the sections on Russian and Chinese usage.  In Chinese tóngzhì 同志 was already in use by Sun Yat-sen as early as 1894 to refer to his associates who had a “common aspiration” to overthrow the Manchus.  In other words, it was pre-Communist.

The Japanese word for “comrade” is dōshi 同志.   I’m not sure if it is used to refer to homosexuals.

In any event, in non-Communist circles in China, tóngzhì 同志 (“comrade”) has been almost entirely co-opted by the gay community, much as the word “gay” in English currently and “queer” forty and more years ago.  The communists, however, still use it with utter seriousness to designate like-minded individuals, i.e., “comrades.”  For example, the most famous Communist comrade of all in China today is President Hú Jǐntāo (Hu Jintao tóngzhì 胡錦濤同志), i.e., Comrade Hu Jintao.  But I don’t think that anyone would dare to call President Hu a tùzǐ 兔子.

[With thanks to Gianni Wan, Rebecca Fu, Mark Swofford, and Sijie Ren.]



31 Comments

  1. X said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

    兔子 is tùzi, not tùzǐ.

  2. Chandra said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 4:35 pm

    the girl boy in a relationship

    I’m not sure if this is an expression you’ve translated directly from Chinese, but I’d suggest that a more accurate/appropriate term would be “femme”.

  3. vivamus said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    I’m also quite surprised to see a reference to “a gay.” I hope it’s a slip of the keyboard, and the phrase was supposed to be “a gay man” — regardless, you probably ought to correct it.

  4. tudza said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 5:05 pm

    Well now, this is most annoying given the handle I have used on the Internet for many years now. It’s what my nanny in Taiwan called me when I was 3.

  5. Jim Breen said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

    The Japanese word 同志/どうし (dōshi) is not usually associated with homosexuality.

  6. Rubrick said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

    @Chandra: I’d suggest that a more accurate/appropriate term would be “femme”.

    I dunno. I think the whole butch/femme thing is a false dykotomy.

  7. hanmeng said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 5:56 pm

    The title of the Yuan Mei story is “兔兒神”.

    In “The Cult of Hu Tianbao and the Eighteenth-Century Discourse of Homosexuality”, Michael Szonyi describes the existence of a similar god. As for 兔子, he claims that “The word rabbit (tuzi) is an insulting epithet for a male prostitute which is still used today”. Perhaps someone can enlighten us as to whether the current insult 兔崽子 tùzǎizi (“baby rabbit”–Sorry, tudza!) has any homosexual connotations.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    @X 兔子 is tùzi, not tùzǐ.

    Thanks for correcting that; the third tone was added automatically by a pinyin annotator that I used. I was in a rush and didn’t have time to check it. Under normal circumstances I would have caught it.

  9. Chandra said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    @Rubrick – All puns aside, I happen to agree. But it’s still better than “girl boy”.

    @viviamus – Yes, that too.

  10. Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said,

    February 2, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

    Interesting–“BL” is a term for what’s more often called “yaoi” by the English-speaking fandom (Japanese manga and doujinshi 同人誌 about male characters in love/physical relationships, mostly produced by and for women). The term is definitely known by Taiwanese consumers. I have no idea if there’s a connection or not.

  11. Mark Mandel said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:11 am

    Fascinating, and link-forwarded to the offspring, who are likely to appreciate it.

    The synopsis of “Glass Rabbit”… :-(. Even at this level, they still haven’t learned to get native speakers to write their English, or at least edit it.

  12. mondain said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:17 am

    @hanmeng
    ‘兔崽子’ used to be slur refering to homosexuals (e.g. 二十年目睹之怪現狀, ch. 83), while it broadened in its contemporary use to a more general insult losing the homosexual connotation. See Hou (1994) and Zhou (2004).

  13. Brendan said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 3:18 am

    Interesting explanation for 玻璃. It’s more Taiwanese usage than Mainland usage (although the term is known here); when I asked a Taiwanese friend where it came from, his guess was that it was from “a word meaning ‘butt'” one of the native Taiwanese languages — but then again, he was neither an expert on languages nor particularly up on his gay cultural references.

    “兔崽子” no longer connotes homosexuality, as mondain notes. I tend to mentally translate it to “rat-bastard.”

  14. Smith said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 4:32 am

    Just a note with respect to “a usage that has been around since at least the mid-90s”, 玻璃 bōlí was used as a euphemism for gay sex in the 1986 虞戡平 (Kan Ping Yu) movie 孽子nièzi, where the main character was reproached for “selling glass at New Park” (在新公園賣玻璃). I don’t remember if the term was used in the original book (白先永, 孽子), which was set in the 60’s, though published in 1983.

  15. Marc said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 7:17 am

    I wonder if BL→玻璃 might not have come about from MS’s Pinyin IME’s function that allows abbreviated input, e.g., zhg for 中國. Typing bl brings up about 160 options in the IME, but 玻璃 is among them.

    As Jim points out, 同志 doushi doesn’t mean gay. In fact, it’s a pretty rare word, that you only really ever encounter in descriptions of recent Chinese history. The most common word is お釜 okama. 釜 means “iron pot,” and according to Kojien adding the honorific o- changes the meaning to “1) a polite way of saying “iron pot,” 2) another word for female servant, 3) another word for buttocks, hence male homosexual, or a male homosexual’s partner, and 4) the mouth of a volcano.”

    Wouldn’t “a male homosexual’s partner” also be a male homosexual?

  16. Victor Mair said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 8:26 am

    A multilingual, multiscriptal way to write “gay” in Taiwanese:

    http://pinyin.info/news/2007/i-now-pronounce-this-character-taiwanese-and-english/

  17. baylink said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 9:32 am

    FWIW: I strive not to use gay as a noun… But most gays I know and whom I see writing on gay topics don’t seent care in the least: they do it all the time.

    Yes; irony added. :-)

  18. Read Weaver said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 12:50 pm

    @baylink I’m don’t know where you’re seeing ‘gay’ being used as a noun, but it’s certainly not “all the time” by LGBT folks in the US, and (again, in the US) it’s pretty universally seen by LGBT folks as offensive, or at least clueless. In the plural, it is more widely used, though not ideal. I think the New York Times style guide gets it right when it says “Do not use gay as a singular noun. Gays, a plural noun, may be used only as a last resort, ordinarily in a hard-to-fit headline.”

  19. Lareina said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

    @SMITH,yes, the word 玻璃 was used in 孽子. Li Yue (丽月), who was xiao yu (小玉)’s landlord and cousin, said to him: “你这个小玻璃。“
    I read the novel but did not know it appear in the movie also

  20. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    February 3, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    I don’t have a citation to hand, but I remember reading that the linkage of hares with homosexuality in China came about as an extension of the same attributes associated with them in the West, namely indiscriminate sexual voracity. (Cf. the semantic drift of English gay from “lively” through “wanton; promiscuous” to “homosexual”.)

    I also can’t speak authoritatively on the connotations of rabbits in Korea, but it may be of interest that Martin’s dictionary gives the gloss “an adolescent passive homosexual” for 톳장이 /thos.ca(y)ng.i/, which he derives from 토 /tho/ (the Korean reading of 兔) and the informal agentive suffix -장이/-쟁이. (A synonym given elsewhere in the dictionary is 면 /myen/; I’ve long wondered how familiar these terms are to contemporary speakers of Korean.)

  21. Victor Mair said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 12:05 am

    @Read Weaver “New York Times style guide gets it right when it says ‘Do not use gay as a singular noun. Gays, a plural noun, may be used only as a last resort, ordinarily in a hard-to-fit headline.'”

    “gays” 23,000,000 ghits

    “gays in the military” 274,000 ghits

    “gays in the bible” 101,000 ghits

    Did the New York Times style guide really get it right? Also, if we have a widespread plural noun, what would make the singular of it “offensive” or “clueless”?

  22. Toby said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 12:58 am

    “someone who is the girl boy in a gay relationship” – you’re obviously straight, so no offence taken at all (seriously!). Gay relationships do not as a rule have “the girl boy” – you could mean a girly boy (as in “screaming queen” or “queeny one” or possibly even “twink”) but I suspect that you actually mean “bottom” (which is the usual gay way of referring to it but this can also be quite offensive as it talks about sexual roles that may not always be the case and secondly it sexualises gay relationships in a way straight ones aren’t). Knowing some Classical but not Modern Chinese, I assume that use of this word by straight people could be pretty offensive. In Japanese, you can use “neko” (cat) for the same thing (and same offence rules). Okama in Japanese is fairly offensive too.

  23. Toby said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 1:00 am

    @Victor. “gay” as a noun is rude (plural or singular), just like “black” or “coloured” as nouns are. Period. Google hits really is not the proper metric.

  24. Puzzled in Berkeley said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 3:00 am

    Victor,

    I don’t know what makes it offensive or clueless, but something sure does.

    Gay seems to be an unusual noun (substantive adjective?) in that respect; I have no problem referring to “a lesbian,” or “a Christian,” for example. “Black” meaning “black person” is another one, though. The plural is iffy, but usually acceptable: “Blacks make up 13.6 of the US population” sounds okay, but I might or might not have phrased it differently myself. I certainly wouldn’t refer to anybody as “a black,” however.

    I also raised an eyebrow at “the girl boy in a gay relationship,” by the way. Where did that come from?

  25. Matt Pearson said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 3:53 am

    Yes, the NYT style guide got it exactly right: describing someone as “a gay” (rather than “a gay person/man/etc.”) is indeed considered offensive or at least off-putting by many gay people, myself included. I’m not sure exactly why I feel that way. My first instinct is that referring to someone as “a gay” sounds reductionist, as though being gay were the only salient or important characteristic of the person. (“A homosexual” is similarly jarring.)

    As to why “gays” (in place of “gay people”) fails to offend my ear as much, it’s difficult to say. Whatever the reason, we seem to get somewhat the same pattern with other terms used to designated traditionally stigmatized groups–e.g., “Jews” versus “a Jew”, “Blacks” versus “a Black”.

  26. Chandra said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 2:59 pm

    I can think of plenty of examples where a stand-alone adjective is acceptable for a group but not for an individual, in addition to the examples of “black”, “Jew”, etc. above.

    “The disabled” (as a group) vs. “a disabled” (individual)
    “The unemployed” vs. “an unemployed”
    “The homeless” vs. “a homeless”
    etc.

    As for “girl boy”, if “femme” isn’t quite the right term and you’re not comfortable with “bottom”, you could have said something along the lines of “the receptive partner”. “Girl boy” seems quite blatantly ridiculous if not offensive, and to be honest I’m wondering why it still hasn’t been changed after the feedback you’ve received here.

  27. David said,

    February 4, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

    It was my understanding that 兔子 referred to a gay male prostitute and not to gays in general. I never heard any gay friends refer to themselves or their friends as 兔子;however, money boys (or MBs) did get called that. This was in the gay scene both in Beijing and in Changchun. Any input on that?

  28. bryan said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 2:37 am

    “femme” is a word used in the lesbian community to denote the person portraying the opposite of a butch [the “male” of a lesbian relationship.], in other words, the female of a lesbian relationship. “twink” is the gay version of “femme”.

    兔子 might come from

    gym bunny A person who works out merely for aesthetics

    Have no idea if it’s related, but it IS related to homosexuality.

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gym_bunny

  29. David said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 10:18 am

    Although it’s true that we say ‘gym bunny’ in English, I don’t think that that is the origin of the term, especially since it seems to have more usage in the north among monolingual speakers of Mandarin. But, again, these are the impressions I got from living in the gay scene in Beijing and Shanghai.

  30. Toby said,

    February 6, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

    @bryan – I am not sure “twink” carries that meaning (although it can sometimes imply it) – it certainly means a young pretty bimbo, but I have always heard it used in that sense only, with no automatic sexual practice attached…

  31. Daffyd said,

    February 10, 2011 @ 2:25 pm

    I’ll have you all know that calling someone “a gay” is totally acceptable, it is. I should know, I’m the only gay in my village and I have tell set people right all the time.

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