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The Rib
Zhang Wei 张唯
The Rib

Zhang Wei’s The Rib is the first Chinese feature film about transgender issues to pass the censors for release in the People’s Republic. It opens up questions about how transgender issues are treated by the Chinese medical-legal system and perceived in the public sphere, as well as LGBTQ issues in general. Based on a news report from Zhejiang Province, The Rib focuses on the relationship between thirty-two-year old Huanyu, who has decided to undergo the procedures colloquially known as a “sex change,” and her devoutly Christian father, Jianguo, who is a widower. Huanyu discovers that she cannot have gender confirmation surgery in China without a signature from her next of kin, even though she is an adult. As Huanyu tries to persuade her father, the film contrasts the attitudes of the Christian community which both Huanyu and Jianguo belong to, and the trans community, where Huanyu finds some refuge. The title of the film refers to the Christian idea that God made woman from one of Adam’s ribs.

Professor Chris BERRY (King's College London)


When Huanyu visits her friend Liu Mann, she discovers she has used her vacation to Thailand to undergo gender confirmation surgery. However, since returning to live fully as a woman, her employers have fired her. Huanyu is planning to have surgery in China, but she discovers that she requires permission from next of kin. This situation forces her to confront her father Jianguo, whose reactions reveal difficulties drawing a line between being trans and being gay, sick, or not sufficiently committed to Christianity.

This set-up raises issues faced by trans people throughout the world and some issues specific to certain communities or cultures. Prejudice and discomfort are faced by trans people in many countries. In The Rib, they appear in various scenes, including the straight male flatmate’s decision to move out, or the sniggering and whispered comments when Liu Mann and Huanyu go shopping for cosmetics.

But other questions are more specific to China. A final title in the film reveals that after law changes in this century, people who have undergone sex reassignment surgery can change the gender on government documents and that it is legal to undergo sex reassignment surgery in China. However, the differences between Liu Mann’s experience in Thailand and Huanyu’s in China reveal differences in the legal conditions surrounding the medical procedures in different places. And organisations such as Amnesty International have reported that even today trans people in China face many difficulties accessing appropriate medical care, as depicted in the film. In Huanyu’s case, the requirement to get permission from his next of kin reminds us that in pre-modern China, Confucian familism meant that people belonged to their family and their fate was not determined by individual choice. The film suggests that elements of this heritage persist in the modern era. Although not so relevant to the medical humanities, the church theme of the film ends with Huanyu’s expulsion from her congregation, demonstrating that each trans person also has to deal with their specific situation below the national level. Finally, Liu Mann’s lawsuit points to the limited legal protections available to trans people in China, where surgery is available but there are no effective anti-discrimination statutes to protect the transgender community.

Contemporary trans identities carry echoes of old Chinese legends about characters that change sex. The most prominent of these must surely be the Buddhist goddess of mercy, Guanyin. Guanyin is derived from the Indian figure of Avalokiteshvara, who manifested in numerous forms, both male and female. Because Guanyin has become conventionalized as a female deity in China, sometimes she is said to have undergone a spontaneous sex change. Other examples abound in contemporary popular culture, such as the androgynous tree monster in A Chinese Ghost Story (Qiannü Youhun 倩女幽魂, 1987) or the figure of Murong Yang/Murong Yin, played by Brigitte Lin (Lin Qingxia) in Wong Karwai’s Ashes of Time (Dongxie, Xidu 东邪西毒, 1994).

Pre-modern China also had a eunuch culture, and sometimes this phenomenon is confused with being trans. However, becoming a eunuch had nothing to do with gender identity. Castration in China entailed both the testicles and the penis being sliced off. Because of the belief that the body inherited from one’s parents should be treasured and intact, the organs were often dried and kept to be buried with the eunuch after death. However, these procedures were not undertaken for psychological reasons. Instead, becoming a eunuch was a requirement for becoming part of the bureaucracy of men that lived at court and ran the empire. The origins of this system go back thousands of years, but it is said that, in a culture where the basic social unit was not the individual but the blood family, eunuchs were thought to be less likely to try to overthrow the existing dynasty and replace it with a new one based on their own family.

In the Republican era that followed the end of the dynastic political system in the first half of the twentieth century, the disappearance of the court was accompanied by the end of the eunuch system. Various Euro-American ideas about sexuality and gender identity were introduced, but then suppressed following the Communist Revolution of 1949. In the decades to come, the possibility of alternative gender and sexual identities was frowned upon. Therefore, it is only in recent decades since the country’s opening up (kaifang) in the 1980s that the Chinese public has become aware of same-sex sexual practices and transgender identities, as well as the European and American concepts used to discuss them.

Professor Chris BERRY (King's College London)


The Rib is shot in black-and-white, except for a scene where Huanyu and her father walk together on the street. Jianguo is finally supportive of Huanyu’s transition, and she puts on a red dress, which appears in colour, while everything else is black-and-white. The sudden use of colour suggests that, in some sense, Huanyu only comes alive when she is able to live as a woman with the support of those close to her.

The filmmakers behind The Rib were clearly conscious that awareness of being trans is relatively new in China, and through its dialogue and plot, the film uses scenes such as the father-daughter conversations to introduce a lot of basic information to the audience. However, they also employed Los Angeles-based trans writer-producer and actor Marlo Bernier to assist with the screenwriting in an effort to give the film an international audience beyond the Chinese-speaking world as well as a local one. Credibility is also enhanced by casting members of the Chinese transgender community in various roles in the film.

Before being submitted to the Chinese censors, The Rib was 123 minutes long. The version that screened in international festivals was 83 minutes long. In interviews, director Zhang Wei has claimed that the cuts were demanded by representatives of the officially recognized churches. This claim is plausible. As well as their own internal procedures, the censors in the Chinese Film Bureau do indeed consult with outside experts, who can also be seen as stakeholders, on sensitive topics. For example, the People’s Liberation Army might be asked to check military content, the Institute of Tibetology in Beijing might be turned to for any Tibetan content, and so on.

Professor Chris BERRY (King's College London)

  • In what ways is Huanyu’s a universal trans story, and in what ways is a specific one?
  • In what ways does Huanyu’s story reveal continuities with older Chinese cultural practices and beliefs, and in what ways does it break with them?
  • Should an adult ever have to get permission from their next of kin for a medical operation? Under what conditions?
  • Should all medical procedures related to being trans be covered by medical insurance, and why or why not?
  • Do you believe The Rib indicates that the prejudice faced by Huanyu is worse because he and his father are Christians?