I don’t speak any dialect of Chinese. From my understanding, the word tongzhi was claimed as a contemporary autonym by the LG-and probably B-not necessarily T-but mostly Q Chinese community in the 1980s. According to Chou Wah-shan, the word, literally translating as “same” (tong) “purpose” (zhi) was introduced into the language as a Chinese equivalent to a pivotal Soviet concept: comrade. Same purpose.
Tze-Lan D. Sang explains (argues, maybe) that the more institutional Chinese term for homosexuality, tongxing lian’ai, was coined a little bit earlier as an adaptation of a Japanese phrase. During the Meiji Period, Sang says, the equivalent Japanese term was constructed as a way to adapt their political and social definitions of sex to Western and European conceptions of a “gender category” in order to align Japanese politics more cohesively with European and American interests. (European-influenced Liberalization of Japan prompted a whole lot of changes in Japanese conceptions of women, sexuality, and gender. Although lots of Western feminists like to argue that Backwards Patriarchal Japanese Traditions or whatever the ethnocentric fuck else caused an increasingly restrictive political climate for Japanese women starting in the late 1800s, remember that it was pressure to conform to Euro-American constitutional Liberalism which influenced the first institutionalized, official denial of women’s political participation. IE, we were like “yeah that’s cool and everything Japan, but if you wanna be like us you gotta make sure to write in there that women can’t vote.”)
Classical Chinese, up until that point, had no character to parallel an English word like “gender” (which, I should remind you, may or may not be an ancient European concept, but is not, as we know it, a very old term). As such, the word chosen to approximate gender as a category reflected, perhaps, a more Confucian model: xing, which means something like “human nature.” Thus two geneses of gay emerge: tongxing, "same gender," or "same human nature," and tongzhi, “same purpose.”
Tongzhi, then, as it was co-opted in the eighties, probably in Hong Kong gay activist subculture, references a Westernized-pseudo-scientific (and largely oppressive) conception of nonprocreative sexuality (tongxing lian’ai was generally pretty closely associated with what we know as sodomy). At the same time, it steals from Mao’s (now kind of outmodisch) word of co-struggle, sacrifice and understanding. It’s kind of like queer, then, but with a more explicitly political etymology. Further, it’s hard to ignore the significance of a term which is so rooted in identity, category, subjectivity as opposed to a referent for desire and biology. Because of this, maybe, it’s doubly important within the lesbian community—a community which, for a million reasons, was all but invisible within the self-identified gay community as well as China’s Western-influenced pathologization school. By this I mean: when Chinese New Culture science was marking homosexual as deviant and ill, it mostly forgot to wonder about lady-on-lady love. As science erased their identity, maybe the identity became less essentially entangled with science at all.
No one, I’m told, uses tongzhi to mean “comrade” anymore. Maybe mostly because no one thinks about comrades anymore except grandmas and partymouths. So, then, maybe the best part of all of this is that there are Chinese queers on the ground that get to appropriate the words of the Father of the Nation himself:
The revolution has not succeeded, tongzhi still have to fight.