Fran Martin


A certain tension frequently arises in attempts to think about queer Chinese cultures in a transnational frame. Broadly, this is a tension between emphasising the multiplicity and frag­mentation of Chinese identities today, versus emphasising the ‘deep structures’ of ethnicity and culture — especially the family — that are sometimes understood as a point of commonality across otherwise very different Chinese communities. Exemplifying the former position, in closing her recent reflection on trans-border drifts in queer Hong Kong, Helen Hok-Sze Leung writes:

If we look closely enough, we will find that the formulation ‘transnational Chinese queer’ is always already a tautology, because neither ‘Chineseness’ nor ‘queerness’ can or should be understood within national boundaries. Illuminating this insight may well be the single most worthwhile endeavour for transnational queer Chinese studies. (Leung 2008: 129)

For Leung, as for many other contemporary scholars, both Chineseness and queerness are ‘always already’ transnational, and the suspicion of simple, unchanging, essential identity that is a defining feature of queer intellectual projects is brought to bear on the topic of Chineseness (see Heinrich 2014). Chineseness is conceptualised as multiple, contradictory and fragmented: not the expression of a timeless national essence but instead the product of disjunctive regimes of cultural regulation across the multiple transnational contexts where claims to various forms of Chineseness are made.

For an example of the contrasting view, consider the statement below, which was made by a respondent to the author’s survey on ‘lesbian’ (nutongzhi) identified Sinophone Internet users (discussed further below), in answer to a question about whether she felt any particular affinity with other ethnically Chinese (huaren) nutongzhi, as distinct from lesbian Internet users of other ethnicities and nationalities. This 32-year old nutongzhi-identified [lesbian-identified] teacher in Taiwan wrote as follows:

Since we [Chinese lesbians: huaren nutongzhi] are from the same cultural background, our parents have all been inculcated with similar views. The whole of Chinese [huarende] society keeps on reproducing the same range of stuff: continue the family line, worship your ancestors, filial piety is more important than the self, parents are not to be educated [by their children], and so on. To put it simply, patriarchy still maintains a firm grasp on the sexual orientation and sexual desires of sons and daughters. And, confronted with these traditional ethics and the shadow of the patriarchy, Chinese sons and daughters often choose escapism, deception or self-sacrifice. It’s this kind of tragic situation that makes us sense the commonality between us. (Quoted in Martin 2009: 295)

On one hand, the very terms of the question, originally posed in Chinese (and the awkward process of rendering these into English) actually reinforce the points made in Leung’s statement. ‘Chinese’ is no stable or singular category here. In the survey, the term huaren — a term commonest in Sinophone communities outside China, which foregrounds Chinese ethnicity rather than citizenship of any particular nation-state — was deliberately chosen for this question among the many possible renderings of ‘Chinese’ in order to give a sense of Chinese identity in a transnational frame. This is in distinction to other possible terms that could translate the falsely monolithic English term ‘Chinese’ (Chua 2012: 35): Zhongguoren, which emphasises allegiance with the historical mainland Chinese territory and/or the nation-state of the People’s Republic of China; huaqiao or huayi, which refers to communities of ethnically Chinese people in diaspora outside of the territories of the PRC and Taiwan; Hanren, which foregrounds a racialised con­ceptualisation of Han Chinese ethnicity, and so on. Both the multiplicity of terms designating various differently inflected versions of Chineseness, and the fact that huaren, the specific term used, indexes a de-nationalised Chineseness that is transnational in reach, correlate with Leung’s anti-essentialist, post-national understanding of the ‘Chinese’ in ‘Chinese queer’.

On the other hand, however, the survey respondent’s statement also points to a sense of convergence in the midst of this multiplicity and fragmentation. In her account, the deep cultural roots of heterosexist Chinese patriarchy are what unite queer ‘Chinese sons and daughters’ the world over, in the contradiction they face between the drive to realise queer selfhood and the rigorous demands of a culturally and ethnically specific family structure.

Taken together, then, these two contrasting statements point to transnational Chinese queer cultures and experiences that often seem characterised by heterogeneity, fragmentation and disjuncture while, at different points, also being marked by the perceived commonality of certain inherited modes of social and cultural organisation. Rather than attempting to adjudicate which of these two different representations of transnational Chinese queer culture is the ‘correct’ one — an obviously impossible task — I will engage with a range of current scholarship in the field of queer Chinese social and cultural studies in order to map transnational queer Sinophone cultures as a terrain fundamentally conditioned by precisely this tension between what might be called centripetal versus centrifugal understandings (Heinrich and Martin 2006): the roots versus the routes of Chinese queer life today (Clifford 1997: 17—46).