In Profile: Li Yinhe

October 11, 2017

Often described as “China’s first sexologist”, Li Yinhe (1952 -) is a pioneer and leading figure in women and gender studies in China, and one of the country’s best-known experts on sex and sexuality.


Born in Beijing, Li obtained her PhD in Sociology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1988 with a thesis entitled Marriage and Family for Modern Chinese Females. On her return to China, she took up a post-doctoral fellowship at Peking University under the renowned sociologist Fei Xiaotong. In 1992 she became a professor at the Institute of Sociology at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a prestigious government-affiliated think tank.


Over the course of her career, Li researched family, gender, sex, sexuality, and sexual norms in contemporary China. She often argues that China is in the midst of a sexual revolution.


Li is a prolific writer and has published extensively on a wide range of topics. Her first book, published in 1991, was entitled Sexuality and Marriage in China. In 1992, she published her second book, Their World: A Study of the Chinese Gay Community, one of the first major studies of gay men in China. While the book received much criticism and scrutiny from the larger public with some labelling it as ‘pornographic’, it was warmly received by the gay community who applauded Li for promoting greater awareness about their experiences. Since then, Li has published a number of other (often path-breaking) books on sexual subcultures, as well as women’s attitudes to love and sexuality. In 2012, she published Sexual Discourse in New China, which looks at the evolution of official attitudes toward sex. An ardent reader of French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, Li published Foucault and Sex in 2001, and has also translated excerpts of works by a number of other western feminists, sexologists and queer theorists.


Li is also a very active public intellectual and a committed activist for a number of social justice issues. She is most well known for her advocacy work for LGBTQ+ rights, which she has been challenging government policy on for more than 30 years. As a member of the national committee of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Li submitted several proposals urging for the legalisation of marriage equality. She has also been heavily involved in the movement to decriminalise orgies and sex work. Li has also spoken out against the growing inequalities across China’s urban-rural divide and online censorship.


Though she retired in 2012, Li remains extremely active, particularly online where she maintains a very public profile. Her blogs and microblogs often promote greater social acceptance of homosexuality, pornography, sex work, orgies, and non-monogamous marital relations. To date, her blog “Li Yinhe’s Blog” has over 100 million visitors. More recently, Li has been offering sex advice to her 1.7 million followers on Weibo for 100 yuan (£11.50) per question asked.


Li has received a number of awards for her work on sex and sexuality, and for promoting public awareness and dialogue around these issues. In 1999 Asia Week magazine ranked Li as one of the "50 Most Influential People in China", while in 2012 Southern People Weekly listed her as one of "China’s 50 Most Influential Public Intellectuals" in 2008. In 2012 she was also awarded the Special Contribution Award at the China Rainbow Media Awards.

Séagh Kehoe is a PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Nottingham. They tweet @seaghkehoe and blog at Image credit: The Beijinger. 

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