The word is “tongzhi”, whose primary meaning is “comrade”, or, as Shanghaiist points out, “people of the same purpose” – a form of address beloved of Communists for decades, but had evolved to refer to gay people.
One of the compilers said they did not want to draw attention to its more colloquial meaning and encourage it’s use, reported the BBC.
“Tongzhi” serves as a substitute for “tongxinglian,” which is the formal Chinese term for homosexuality, reported CNN.
“Tongxinglian” is defined in the 2005 edition of the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary both as same-sex love and as a psychosexual disorder. Homosexuality was illegal in China until 1997, and for several years after until it was defined as a mental disorder.
Linguist Jiang Lansheng, one of the compilers of the dictionary, said in a Chinese television interview: “We knew about the usage but we can’t include it.”
“You can use the word whichever way you like, but we won’t put it into a standard dictionary because we don’t want to promote these things. We don’t want to draw attention to these things.”
Ding Xueliang, a social sciences professor from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told BBC Chinese that came as no surprise:
“The use of ‘tongzhi’ to describe homosexuality started in Hong Kong and Taiwan to make fun of the mainland’s communist terminology because Chinese leaders address each other using ‘tongzhi’ meaning ‘comrade’ – for instance, ‘Hu Jintao tongzhi’ or ‘Wen Jiabao tongzhi’.”
“So it’s quite normal that the Chinese government doesn’t want to take this new meaning into the dictionary.”
However, Xueliang said “There is growing sympathy towards and even support for gay people. Otherwise, there would not be so many people out there to protest against this new edition.
“But China still has a long way to go in protecting the rights of gay people in employment and promotion, and many other aspects of society.”