When women fell in love with each other in the Qing dynasty, what did they do? If the 17th-century play Lianxiang Ban is anything to go by, they had quite a bit of sex and then schemed to become wives of the same man. Surprised? Perhaps even more astounding than that is the fact this overtly homosexual play (adapted into opera form) was staged at a top mainstream theatre in Beijing last month. The promotional material proudly proclaimed it as the mainland's first lesbian opera and used a close-up image of two women cheek to cheek in tender repose. The show's posters were displayed across the city's subway system. It was a big show with aggressive publicity and the local media loved it. Activists are hailing it as a major step forward for public awareness and acceptance of homosexuality on the mainland. 'It's wonderful,' says Xian, founder of Common Language, a lesbian self-help group based in Beijing. 'It's so important, especially because it's happening in the mainstream and with the mainstream media covering it. For the first time they are using the word 'lesbian' and using it in a positive way. 'China is not old China any more and the younger generation has so much access to information [through the internet], and information changes knowledge and knowledge changes people,' says Xian. 'They now have a much more open mind on the issue of homosexuality.' Gay Hong Kong filmmaker Stanley Kwan Kam-pang was hired to direct the production while sexologist Li Yinhe - famous for urging the central government to consider allowing same-sex marriages - was the opera's 'cultural consultant'. Her role, says Kwan, was to field questions on 'China and homosexuality' from the media. The show was adapted into a Kunqu opera (one of the oldest existing forms of Chinese theatre) with the English name A Romance: Two Belles in Love. On stage, the female lovers, Cui Jianyun and Cao Yuhua, looked gorgeous and feminine. They were draped in glorious gowns of diaphanous silk and appeared porcelain like in ivory-white face paint. They stroked each other's faces sensuously, held hands and embraced. It was a passionate and delicately erotic performance. 'We'll stay together all the time ... sleep together in the same bed, just like man and wife,' sang Cui. The audience clapped, whooped and cheered whenever the women got frisky. The crowd waiting for the show to begin one night at Beijing's Poly Theatre ranged from elderly opera enthusiasts to young men and women. A member of the audience, who would only give her name as Noor, said the show was 'groundbreaking' because it was the first homosexual play to be shown at a big theatre in the mainland. 'Kunqu is highbrow art and you can see this audience is mostly straight, so I feel happy that they have a chance to see that even in ancient China there was homosexuality,' the 25-year- old said. Officially, the performance was billed as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of playwright Li Yu's birth. Li, who wrote during the Ming and Qing dynasties, has given the performance credibility, says Xian, offering an explanation as to why, just three months after authorities closed down a gay beauty pageant in which a mainland contender for Mr Gay World would have been picked, the opera was allowed to go ahead. 'It's a special occasion.' The fact this opera, which audiences in Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou may also see this year, is set in the Qing dynasty, removed from the events of today, means it is politically safe. It does not threaten the government's authority and that was key to getting a green light from censors. 'If you publish something that happened 100 years ago, you can just publish it even if it's about something sensitive,' says Li, a lesbian activist who does not want to use her real name. It only gets tricky when you start talking about things that happened after 1949, she adds. Shanghai's gay pride celebration last year (in which some events were banned) and the aborted Mr Gay China competition attracted inordinate amounts of Western press coverage. In contrast, while the domestic media were excited about Lianxiang Ban, the opera barely rated a mention in the global press. 'You can't hold big gay events in China because they attract too much publicity,' says Wei Xiaogang, founder and co-presenter of Queer Comrades, a Beijing-based podcast show. But change is afoot. 'The general trend in China is one that is more open and more accepting of gay people and this is the bigger background, without which it would not have been possible to perform this play,' says Xian. 'It is a reflection of the change in Chinese society.' Indeed, the mainland has taken relatively big strides over the past decade towards becoming gay friendly. In 2001, homosexuality was removed from the official list of mental diseases. Domestic media have slowly opened up and now frequently report on gay and lesbian issues sympathetically. In January, the China Daily ran a front-page picture of two Chinese men kissing at their 'wedding' in Chengdu, Sichuan province (same-sex marriages are not legally recognised in the mainland). Authorities have allowed gay and lesbian groups, such as Common Language, to flourish (provided they stay apolitical); gay bars, clubs and saunas have opened in many big cities; and there are thousands of mainland-based gay websites. Hong Kong-born documentary filmmaker Ruby Yang makes public-service announcements on gay awareness and safe-sex issues for mainland television stations. 'In the five years I have been [in Beijing] the changes have been significant,' Yang says. 'The government is beginning to passively accept gay lifestyles by allowing some personal freedoms.' An alarming rate of HIV infection is one reason the government has softened its stance on homosexuality, she believes. According to the Ministry of Health, men who have sex with men made up about 32 per cent of the 48,000 new infections last year. That's up from 12.1 per cent in 2005. 'The rate of HIV infection among gay men is really very high,' says Yang. 'It's about a 5 per cent increase per year. So, as long as you phrase it as a health issue, you can talk openly about gays.' Many gay and lesbian groups shelter under the safe-sex-education umbrella while they work on other issues. Last year, in the Yunnan tourist town of Dali, authorities wanted to open a gay bar as a place to offer help with HIV prevention. The bar did not open, however, because, accord- ing the press, the media attention scared away potential patrons. Homosexuals encounter little violence in the mainland compared with, say, Africa, but there is a lack of understanding among the older generation - and since tradition dictates that children should marry and have children, wanting a gay or lesbian lifestyle is seen as being at best shameful; at worst a mental disorder. '[The older generation] think we are sick,' says Xian. 'It's a mental disease; it's morally bad; it's indecent.' To continue to improve gay rights, it is crucial to engage the general population, say activists; events organised specifically for homosexuals help inspire their sense of belonging and community but they do not spread tolerance among the public at large. Yang started the Chang Ai Media Project for this purpose. She wanted to raise awareness about issues such as homosexuality and realised to do that she needed to get her films onto television. She has since had a number of documentaries and talk shows broadcast on channels including Phoenix Satellite, Shanxi satellite television station and Shanghai's SMG. Yang, who is straight, has put parents of gay children on the air to talk about how they embraced their sons' sexuality, interviewed renowned gay scholar Tong Ge and profiled Long Long, a volunteer at a homosexual support group in Jiangsu province who runs a gay bar to help fund it. Yang won an Academy Award in 2007 for The Blood of Yingzhou District, a documentary about Aids orphans in Henan province. She says, 'People are still not well educated, so I think if the media can have a positive effect with its portrayal of gay men, then things will change a lot. That's our goal: to get these issues on mainstream television. It took the United States about 20 years [to achieve public acceptance of homosexuality], from the 1980s until 2000, so I think if China wants to do that it can do it even faster.' HISTORICALLY, CHINA was tolerant of homosexuality. Li Yinhe, the opera's culture consultant, told the media that gay and lesbian relationships were not uncommon during imperial times. The fact Li Yu wrote this play suggests lesbians were talked about during the Qing dynasty - and were even having fun. Harvard University professor Patrick Hanan, who has translated much of Li Yu's work, says there is some evidence the story was based on the playwright's own family situation - his concubine and first wife being the subjects. Li Yu is considered by many scholars to have been bisexual and he wrote several erotic plays about love between homosexuals. There is a huge body of homoerotic literature and art dating from the Ming dynasty. The 'spring pictures' erotic woodblock prints from the Ming-Qing era are well known gay-sex images while Dream of the Red Chamber, one of the classic four novels, includes male-male intercourse. Then, though, homosexual relationships seemed to exist alongside a conventional marriage. So what happened to make society turn against homosexuality? According to Xian, it was the import of ideas from the religious West before 1949. 'Especially during the 1920s and 30s, when much Western knowledge came into China. These views on sexuality were negative,' she says. Kwan agrees, although he theorises that since the mainland was not colonised, it escaped the worst of this intolerant religious influence. 'If you ask me which is the most gay-friendly out of the mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, I would say the mainland,' says Kwan, chuckling. 'Hong Kong is the worst because its education was influenced by being a colony.' Homosexuality was illegal in Hong Kong until 1991. Christian groups such as the Society for Truth and Light continue to campaign against gay rights in Hong Kong: something unthinkable on the mainland, where religious organisations are ban- ned from interfering publicly in people's lives. The Mao Zedong era, when all kinds of sexuality were considered bourgeois, exacerbated anti-gay sentiment on the mainland, says Xian. The older generation on the mainland may still be uncomfortable with homosexuality but, as Lianxiang Ban has proved, 'nowadays, lesbianism is a selling point ... it can be something you can make money from', Xian laughs. 'I think people are curious to know what lesbians do and what lesbians are like,' she adds. Indeed, there were plenty of straight-looking young men in the audience during the play's four-day run in Beijing. One of them, Su Xiaohu, 26, said: 'I know this is a lesbian opera and that's one of its attractions for me.' He looked embarrassed and then added, hurriedly: 'But of course it's not the only attraction.' Li Yu may well have recognised the motivation. 'As was often the case, [Lianxiang Ban] served male fantasy more than recognising (or encouraging) same-sex desire between women,' says Dr Wu Cuncun, a lecturer at Australia's University of New England. The production company may have chosen this love story to titillate people into buying tickets but the fact remains that Lianxiang Ban has helped get lesbianism noticed. 'The visibility of lesbianism is an issue we have been working on for the past five years,' says Xian, 'This play has brought this issue out of the closet.' 'When people use the word 'tongzhi' [literally 'comrade' but now slang for 'homosexual'] they almost always mean gay men, not lesbians,' says Wei. 'Lesbians feel invisible. So this is a good time to hold this Kunqu opera; to give Chinese lesbians a voice and get people talking about their issues.' For Macau-born Eva Lee, a gay activist based in Beijing, the opera wasn't 'lesbian enough'. 'The two women marry the same man and so they don't really end up with a lesbian lifestyle,' she says. It fits into a husband-centric system and therefore doesn't challenge society. Lesbian love is considered spiritual, Lee says, whereas when people think of gay men, they think of them having sex. 'The lesbian story is less offensive to mainstream society,' she says. 'People don't think two women can do anything to each other. They don't treat lesbians seriously because they don't understand how women can have sex without a man, without a penis.' The lovers in Lianxiang Ban don't seem to have any trouble. 'We suggested sexual intimacy in two scenes with the movements and the lyrics,' says Kwan. 'It's very good. Very erotic.' And it was those scenes that the audience appeared to appreciate the most. 'I was so surprised [at the sex],' laughs Xian. 'My girlfriend told me she could hardly sit on her seat at the sensual bits. These women are so bold, they are more bold than many lesbians nowadays.' Whether viewed as a marketing success, titillation for male theatregoers, a gay-rights statement or classic entertainment, the fact that a lesbian opera was staged at a top Beijing theatre is a first for modern mainland China. One of many firsts in a time of rapid change.