Chuang will never forget the first time she met her husband: the kind man who offered her a lift on a rainy day, back to her hometown, outside Xian, Shaanxi province. During the ride she found out they hailed from the same village and she was impressed by his thoughtful, attentive manner.
Chuang thanked him by text message. When he called at her parents' home the next day, she took it as a sign of an honest courting.
The man turned out to be a maestro in the kitchen. His dress sense was impeccable, both in his own attire and the clothes he chose for her. When they talked, there was real empathy. Then there were the elegantly crafted poems he wrote.
Before their marriage, he made an awkward attempt to kiss her - but only once, and then only after he had been drinking. She reached for his hand and he withdrew it, a reaction she rationalised: 'I had friends whose boyfriends were quite physical in their advances, so I thought, 'This is a man who treats me with respect.''
The first two months of their marriage, however, were not good. They didn't make love once. He would go out at night and leave her alone. When he got into bed, he would turn his back to her and keep well away. Then, one night, she reached across to caress him and he turned and struck her across the face.
'My eyes were smarting from the blow,' Chuang recalls. 'I was dismayed and I thought, 'Who is this man who was so nice and now will not come near me; who never wants to touch me and looks through me as if I'm not here? Is he the same person? How are we going to live together?''
The union was sinking fast and soon things came to a head. Chuang discovered a URL on their computer that led to a website used by gay men to 'cruise' one another online.
'I felt stunned; like my head was about to explode,' Chuang says. 'I had heard about homosexuals but never thought they would have anything to do with me. Then my mind went quiet. I realised that this was where all the answers lay.'
There is a well-known Chinese saying, attributed to the ancient philosopher Mencius, that runs: 'There are three ways of being an unfilial son. The most serious is to have no heir.'
Seemingly a consequence of this belief, over the past few years it has become apparent that millions of women are trapped in false, loveless and nearly always miserable marriages to homosexual men. Aided by the internet, their cries for help have moved far enough into the mainstream to have earned them the commonly accepted moniker of tongqi. The first syllable of the name is from tongzhi, slang for tongxinglian or 'homosexual', which literally means 'comrade'. The 'qi' comes from qizi, which means 'wife'.
Tongqi often accuse their husbands of betrayal. Experts prefer to cast homosexual husbands - even if they knew they were gay before marriage and hid it from their brides - as victims of Chinese culture, too.
Because of a reluctance to talk in light of the stigma attached to the subject of tongqi - for both spouses - it is difficult to ascertain exact numbers but University of Shanghai sociology professor Liu Dalin estimates that 90 per cent of homosexual mainland men enter a traditional marriage (this compares with estimates of 15 per cent to 20 per cent in the United States) and it'd be reasonable to assume, based on globally accepted norms, that 4 per cent of the nation's men are gay. Allowing for the proportion of the population who are children, that suggests there are up to 19 million tongqi across the country.
'The main difference between gay men in China and in other countries is that in China most of them get into heterosexual marriages,' says sexologist Li Yinhe, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 'Chinese culture places enormous value on the family. The name for a family without descendants is juehu, which means 'A house that is severed'. This is considered the biggest tragedy and causes huge pain.
'[Gay men] have to get married and beget children,' says Li. 'They sacrifice their happiness. That is their duty.'
A tongqi marriage may not seem like such a bad thing - some women love gay men for their creative flair, skills in relating and, yes, gaiety - but 'every tongqi I've met says definitely no; you shouldn't get married to a gay man', Li says. 'Their husbands don't want to look them in the eye. They're not willing to get close to them or touch their bodies. This is a huge blow to a woman's sense of self-worth.'
He Xiaopei runs a Beijing-based gay support group called Pink Space. She is less willing to mince words.
'Women need sex,' she says. 'A gay man is usually unable to have that kind of intimate relationship with a woman. I have spoken to tongqi who have gone into severe depression because of this.'
There is a familiar pattern to tongqi unions: a man who is unaware or unwilling to admit that he is gay courts a woman who has little or no experience of sex; there is a honeymoon period of loneliness, dismay and building sexual frustration; the spouses' families put pressure on the husband to seek medical attention for his apparent dysfunction; the wife discovers his extramarital activities and confronts him; he may try hard to change but ends up conceding that is impossible.
At that stage the couple may divorce but the majority slog on in a deeply unhappy marriage.
In contrast to Chuang's chance encounter, Zhou met her husband in a traditional way: an introduction arranged by the families. Zhou is a production supervisor at a factory in the coastal city of Fuqing, Fujian province. Her accent speaks of rustic roots in the country's interior. Her criteria for selecting a mate were practical rather than romantic.
'People who knew him said he was a good, reliable man,' Zhou says of her husband, a factory foreman. He was handsome and had a sense of refinement and taste about him. In his spare time, he raised dogs and bred pigeons, which Zhou saw as an indication of a kindly nature. Yet he never wanted to touch her, although she took this for shyness. In the year of their courtship he never took her with him when he went out.
'He always said he was with his dog and pigeon friends,' Zhou says. 'He always guarded his mobile phone. He would never tell me his QQ [instant messenger] username.'
Zhou admits she had no sexual experience and little knowledge of homosexuality.
'I can't think of any other culture where chastity before marriage is actually praised by the government,' says Li. 'In the Song dynasty, a widow had a placard hung outside her house so no one would marry her. Rape victims were seen as permanently soiled. Their nuptial prospects were so low that they often committed suicide.'
Zhou starts to cry when asked to recall what happened after her wedding. For the first few months, sex was perfunctory and took place on average once every two weeks. Then it stopped completely.
'He'd lie with his back to me in bed,' Zhou says. 'When it happened, he'd enter me directly, shoot off immediately and roll off. No tender words or caresses.
'I thought he didn't want to touch me because he didn't want children. But then I spoke to my friends and they said, 'That's not right! When a man has just married you, it should be sultry, sizzling. He should be wanting you all the time.''
Lan, a lawyer working in Shanghai, was introduced to her husband, an engineer, in the summer of 2008.
'I like observing people and I know the way that men look women over,' she says. 'This man was not looking at women in that way. At the time I thought [that it was because] he was introverted and had high standards. Now I know I was wrong.'
Lan's experience of early matrimony was as empty as Zhou's. There was no sex until two weeks after her wedding day and only after she initiated it. For a few months, it happened once every three weeks. Then it stopped altogether.
'It was like he was only going through the motions,' Lan says. 'There was no thirst there.'
Soon after, the rows started.
'I didn't know what was happening. Of course, I didn't know he was gay. I was screaming at him even though I felt our characters were so compatible,' she says. 'I chose him because I really liked his sincerity and down-to-earth manner. The problem was only his orientation. If we had just been friends, we could have been very good friends.'
Lan turned to her in-laws, who had long wanted a grandchild. The two parties united and put pressure on him to go and see a doctor.
In Fuqing, Zhou found her in-laws much less supportive, especially when it became clear exactly where the problem lay.
'I was trying desperately to win my husband over; to make myself attractive to him,' she says. 'After I found out he was homosexual and told his parents, they refused to listen. His brother knew but his mum and dad were only interested in protecting him. They shouted at me. They said, 'Watch yourself! You will say nothing to blacken the name of our son.''
It is a sign of the times that, for all three women, the truth was revealed through the internet or mobile-phone texts.
Lan found torrid messages on her husband's phone, 'written as if between a man and wife', though her intuition told her the other party was male. Her hunch proved correct when photographs started turning up; of men in states of undress.
'I was filled with terror,' she recalls. 'Through further investigation of his internet habits, I read messages and saw pictures you shouldn't see.
'Then I grew angry. I hated him. I was furious with this man who had cheated and betrayed me.'
Zhou's confrontation came soon after her husband forgot to log out of a QQ session on their home computer. When she asked him about the websites he'd been visiting, he refused to talk to her. Then she took the problem to his older brother, who also confronted him.
Denial after denial finally turned into an admission: 'I'm gay. I love men and not women. I can't do anything about it. How can I have regrets about what I am when I cannot change?'
Six months into her marriage, Chuang secured a similar confession from her husband.
'I can't make you happy,' he said. 'You deserve better. Go. Leave me. Seek your own happiness.'
Despite their husband's boyfriends, all three women resolved to fight to save their marriages, with different outcomes.
'Divorce was not an option. I've seen too many broken families,' says Lan, from cosmopolitan Shanghai. 'How could I tell his parents I wanted a divorce? How could I deal with the shame?'
Internet research led Zhou to conclude that her husband was telling the truth when he said he could not change. Yet stigma is crushing in small-town China.
'He said he didn't care if we divorced. But how could I remarry?' she says, through tears. 'How could I stand it; the looks of complete contempt that neighbours would give me when I left the house? How could I bear it if people were speaking of me as if I were dead?'
Chuang tried hard to understand her husband; to cook and clean and provide a loving home for him. Because her marriage was sexless, she told herself it made no difference if he had boyfriends. But as his affairs continued, she found she could bear it no longer. Ten months into the marriage she moved out. Soon after, the couple divorced.
In December last year, in a rare internet article about the phenomenon, the Heilongjiang Morning Post found that only nine of the 40 tongqi it interviewed had opted for divorce.
Zhou's experience is more representative. She lives 'one day at a time'; her mood swings between clutching for signs of affection from her husband one day, and rage and despair the next.
'I still want a child,' she says. 'If we had a child that might make him more responsible. He might stay at home more, instead of going out and never taking me with him. I know his parents would love me more if we had a child.'
Lan's experience is perhaps the least typical. She believes she has reached some kind of modus vivendi with her husband. For six months, she and her husband lived through what the Shanghainese call lengzhan, a 'cold war', in separate rooms without talking. Then something changed. He agreed to come straight home from work each night. Now they spend most of their free time together, making an effort to do the things that happily married couples do. There is no internet at home and Lan is trying to turn a blind eye to anything that is not brought into the house. Lan says they even manage to make love once a week.
'I trust him and treat him like a normal husband,' she says. 'If you had asked me a month ago, I would have said we couldn't go on. But if it's like this, I think we can continue.'
Whether a tongqi union remains intact or not 'depends on how much you are willing to sacrifice', says Li, who points out that Western society values individual happiness above all whereas Chinese society stresses the interests of the family. 'If you don't want to give up your own happiness, you get a divorce. If you are willing to sacrifice yourself, you can live together.'
Chuang, Zhou and Lan all see their husbands as betrayers who lied to them and should never have married. Li agrees that gay men should not marry women. But she is more forgiving.
'In our society, a man who does not marry is seen as an unqualified failure,' she says. 'And if people know you're gay, that will bring you great pain, so it's something you have to hide. These men are forced into marriage. You cannot blame them.'
Although gay sex has never been illegal per se in the mainland, it was only in 2001 that homosexuality was removed from the country's official list of illnesses.
HONG SHANHU IS A 29-year-old hairdresser who lives in the small city of Zhangjiakou, in Hebei province. Unlike the husbands of Chuang, Zhou and Lan, Hong says he did not know he was gay until after he was married. He speaks of the time 'before I was a tongzhi', although he has no doubt about his sexual orientation now.
A tall, graceful man with slender wrists and a well-styled head of dyed hair, Hong says there was little talk of homosexuality in Zhangjiakou when he was growing up. He was therefore unaware of what was happening when he formed a romantic friendship while serving in the army in Beijing, in 2001.
'My group leader liked me very much,' Hong recalls. 'The way he looked after me made me feel like he was my older brother. Then, just before we were demobilised, he said something that shocked me. He said he wanted to marry me.
'I didn't know I was going to become gay and, if I had, I wouldn't have married her,' Hong says of his wife, whom he met after he had returned to his hometown and trained to cut and style hair. 'Every man likes a pretty woman. I pursued her and asked to be her boyfriend, and she agreed,' he says. 'I felt the thing to do was get married when you were young and create a nice family. I know that's what she wanted and I liked the idea.'
Hong says he and his wife had a healthy sex life. He was earning good money and bought a home computer. In 2004, the internet was spreading into lower-tier cities such as Zhangjiakou. Hong felt a sense of emptiness while something was dawning inside him. He typed into a search engine the three characters that would see his world explode: tong-xing-lian.
The first man Hong formed an online relationship with was in Zhangjiakou, although things did not progress beyond chatting because the man was married. Then there was a student in Beijing, whom he went to see.
'He was handsome. He was worldly. He really liked me,' Hong says. 'I told him, 'I want to find a man I like and open a salon in Beijing, so we can be together.''
Hong's wife agreed to the proposal - or at least to the business half of it, which was the only half she knew about - and gave him some capital. In Beijing, Hong opened his salon and the two men rented an apartment together. When friends visited, Hong took his lover along to meet them for dinner, although sometimes they would ask him where his wife was. Hong told his boyfriend he would find a way to leave his wife. After two years, however, the boyfriend tired of waiting and the two parted.
'I wanted [my wife] to leave me,' Hong says. 'She was still young enough to find someone else.'
His second boyfriend was also a student. Hong took him back to his hometown one summer holiday. The two slept in the same bed while Hong's wife slept on the sofa in the living room. Incredibly, Hong says, she didn't suspect anything until she came in one morning and found the men in an embrace. Then she confronted him.
'I said; 'I've lied to you. I've let you down. I've betrayed you,'' Hong says, eyes welling with tears. ''Shout at me. Beat me if you want. But this is what I am. I cannot change. This cannot go on. I cannot give you my love.''
Hong's wife begged him not to leave her; by that time, they had a baby boy.
'She wanted him to have a father as well as a mother,' Hong says. 'She still wanted a perfect, happy family. That's what she wanted other people to see.'
After Hong's salon was demolished to make way for a commercial development, his wife agreed to support him in opening another, as long as it was in Zhangjiakou.
Hong says he and his wife have found a way of continuing their relationship. Hong lives with his boyfriend in Zhangjiakou while his wife and child live in a separate apartment. He takes them out as if they were a normal family and spends time at their home with them, although he and his wife haven't had sex for a year.
On occasion, neighbours have seen through this act.
'A man came up to me the other day and said, 'People say you're a gay,'' Hong laughs, confident in the knowledge he's self-employed in a trade that is relatively tolerant of homosexuals. 'I answered, 'Really? Is that what they say? Well, if that's what they want to say, then let them go ahead and say it.'
'[My wife] still loves me and she's a magnificent woman. I've told her that if I cannot be a good husband, at least I can be a good father.'
Li agrees that gay men often have excellent parenting skills. She also believes gay men should be allowed to marry each other.
In 2003, Li used her reputation to try to raise a motion to legalise gay marriage in the mainland's legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC). She failed to secure the support of the 30 delegates needed for a formal debate. So, in 2005, 2006 and this year she tried to raise a similar discussion in the National People's Political Consultative Conference, which acts in an advisory capacity to the NPC and where only one delegate's support is needed to raise a motion. Although it's obvious her efforts have failed, it's not clear how far they were taken, because debate in both assemblies takes place behind closed doors.
The mainland has no powerful gay lobby, which, she says, is the reason for her lack of success. But she does have hope.
'The first time I lobbied delegates, they said gay marriage was wrong,' she says. 'Now they say it's just too early to legalise it in China.'
While politics move slowly, civil society is rushing forward to find an answer to the tongqi problem. In 2008, Pink Space opened a hotline for tongqi. Later it formed a support group.
Pink Space takes no position on what to do about tongqi unions once they have been formed. No advice is dispensed but often just talking about the problem can make an enormous difference.
'One woman who came to our group and said she felt as if she had been living under a death sentence,' says Pink Space's founder, He. 'After unburdening herself for the first time, she said it felt as if it had been commuted to life. And the second time she discussed her marriage it felt like her sentence had again been reduced, to a fixed term in prison.'
'If tongqi marriages become a thing of the past, then the last country in which that will hap- pen will be China,' says Li, who sees the nation's family-oriented culture as too big an obstacle to be easily overcome.
Until then, men and women will continue to be compelled or tricked into sham and desolate unions. Weighed down by filial duty, they will be forced to endure.