Queer Chinese roots
If there is a correlate in queer Chinese studies to a roots-based, centripetal, civilisationist view of ‘Chinese culture’ (see Tu 1991), it is found perhaps most clearly in queer responses to what Singaporean-American film scholar Kenneth Chan has called the ‘homophobic Chinese patriarchal system’ (2008: 142). Such responses foreground what is felt to be a deep-rooted cultural similarity, or at least a shared ‘cultural repertoire’ (Yang 2003: 486) among geographically dispersed Chinese queer people based on the presumed consistency of the structures and demands of ‘Chinese family’. Queer critical engagements with this family system occur across a range of scales, from microlevel studies of how individual Chinese queer people negotiate their relationships with family, to macrolevel critical analyses of how discourses of familialism inform wider state and legal structures. These discussions, which I consider in detail below, range from identification with and idealisation of a culturally distinctive ‘Chinese family’ to strong critiques of the violence and exclusions perpetuated in its name.
At the micro end of the scale, a series of debates that sociologist Day Kit-mui Wong has dubbed the ‘coming out/coming home controversy’ took place among Hong Kong and Taiwan-based queer studies scholars between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, sparked by the works of sociologist Chou Wah-shan (D. K-m. Wong 2007, 2011; Chou 1997, 2000, 2001; Kam 2012: 89—96). With the aim of demarcating the cultural specificity of same-sex erotic relationships in Chinese societies, Chou singled out the Chinese family kinship system as the key marker distinguishing ‘Chinese’ from ‘Western’ modes of homosexual identity and sociality (Chou 2001). Based on a series of interviews with queer people in Hong Kong, Chou concluded that what he saw as the individualist, confrontational politics of Western-style coming out were overwhelmingly rejected by tongzhi (contemporary Chinese lesbigay people: see discussion below) in favour of a strategy of ‘coming home’. According to Chou, rather than making a verbal declaration of homosexual identity, such tongzhi would introduce a same-sex partner into the parental home where she or he would be tacitly integrated into the family circle, without the topic of the couple’s same-sex relationship ever needing to be directly broached. Chou’s analysis elevates the concept of a culturally distinct, harmonious and ‘tolerant’ Chinese family to the level of an ideal that offers tongzhi not just a literal family home but a deep sense of cultural and existential belonging. He writes:
‘Coming home’ can be proposed as an indigenous lexicon of tongzhi self-confirmation. Jia (home/family) is a culturally unique category that does not have an equivalent parallel in Western language. While jia condenses the meaning of family and home in the English speaking world, it is also a mental space which refers to the ultimate home and roots to which a person belongs. Hui-jia (coming home) means not only going back home but also, more fundamentally, searching the ultimate place/space to which one belongs [sic]. (Chou 2001: 35)
Chou’s theorisation of coming home as a uniquely Chinese approach to integrating queer personhood into the context of family relationships stands as one of the most generative — albeit controversial — articulations of a roots-based view of Chinese queerness. Wong, for example, points out that coming out and coming home are in fact rarely mutually exclusive strategies in Hong Kong, where what is often seen is a hybridised mix of tactics, such as inviting family members to make speeches supportive of their tongzhi relatives at public queer events (D. K-m. Wong 2007).
Denise Tse-shang Tang’s ethnographic research on the living spaces of lesbians in Hong Kong supports this idea of a hybrid mix of queer tactics vis-a-vis family, ranging from the structural integration of queer relationships into family life to the radical spatial and social separation of the two, but in contrast to Chou, Tang underlines the oppressive force of dominant family structures and expectations for queer people in Hong Kong (Tang 2011: 24—39; see also Tang in this volume). In their now-classic article ‘Reticent Poetics, Queer Politics’, Taiwan-based literary and cultural studies scholars Jenpeng Liu and Naifei Ding mount an incisive critique of Chou’s argument, which, they point out, solves the problem of conflict between queerness and family by effectively making tongzhi willingly subservient to the hegemony of familial power (Liu and Ding 1998, 2005). In particular, they critique Chou’s valorisation of ‘silent tolerance’ (moyan kuanrong), which in practice often simply means that queers have little choice but to maintain silence about their sexuality (Liu and Ding 1998: 112—13). Liu and Ding’s genealogy of the classical aesthetic value of reticence (hanxu) leads them to the conclusion that Chou’s argument on ‘silent tolerance’ actually reinforces the local homophobic system which mandates silence — with sometimes fatal results — for queer family members (Liu and Ding 1998: 119). Whereas Chou idealises a culturally specific form of sexual being in the relational, family integrated tongzhi self, Liu and Ding critique a culturally specific inflection of homophobia in the reactionary value of sexual reticence, a view that highlights the family system’s powers of shaming and abjection visited on subjects who refuse to reproduce its structures.
Another approach to the topic of family vis-a-vis individual queer life is found in the works of scholars who employ the tools of ethnography to map practices of alternative family making in queer Chinese lives. In Chinese Male Homosexualities, his book about the lives of gay Chinese men in Hong Kong, mainland China and London, Hong Kong-based sociologist Travis S. K. Kong includes a chapter on intimate citizenship and family biopolitics among Chinese gay men (memba) in the Hong Kong gay scene. Kong’s findings from his interviews with Hong Kong memba support Day Kit-mui Wong’s (1997) argument that queer tactics in Hong Kong reveal not so much a straightforward, voluntary enfolding of queer offspring into extant family structures, as a hybrid array of practices that reconfigure and subvert, at least as much as they reproduce, dominant family values. Compulsory monogamy and the definition of family through blood ties and marriage are all called into question, in Kong’s analysis, by Hong Kong membas’ creation of families of choice and new narratives for sex and intimacy (2011: 94—119).
Another Hong Kong-based scholar, Lucetta Yip Lo Kam, has recently published the findings of her detailed ethnographic study of lala (lesbian, bisexual and transgender) women in Shanghai (2012). Like Liu and Ding, cited above, Kam focuses on dominant discourses of family harmony, supposed ‘Chinese tolerance’, and compulsory heterosexual marriage as forces of cultural regulation over non-normative sexualities. Kam analyses the widespread lala practice of cooperative marriage: marriages arranged between a lala and a gay man for the purpose of ending once and for all the parental and broader social pressure to get married, while enabling both parties to continue living their queer lives. She frames this as a culturally specific survival strategy enabling lalas a modicum of personal and sexual agency within what remains — no matter how reticently — a highly hostile system (Kam 2012: 89—104; see also Engebretsen 2009). Approaching Chinese family structures with different methods but related conclusions are works by humanities scholars who analyse contemporary queer fiction, film and other cultural texts and performances from P. R. China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora to reveal how the mutual entanglements of family and queerness in such texts often have the effect of queering dominant discourses of family by calling into question their founding assumptions and directly or indirectly critiquing the basis of their power (Chan 2008; A. K.H. Wong 2012, 2014; E. K. Tan 2014; Leung 2008: 98-103; Martin 2003: 117-84).
While the works surveyed above approach the intersection of queerness with ‘Chinese family’ largely from the microlevel of individual experiences, a different approach is suggested in the work of Taiwan-based scholar Hans Tao-Ming Huang. In his book Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan, Huang traces the institutional and discursive histories of contemporary regimes of sexual regulation. Further developing some of the key ideas first articulated in the works of Liu and Ding, cited above, Huang finds woven through the fabric of Taiwan’s sexual modernity a thick strand of moral-paternalist power which he relates to the neo-Confucianist ‘sage-king’ (shengwang) paradigm. In particular, Huang focuses on legal categories from the cold war period, including crimes against ‘virtuous custom’ (shanliang fengsu) – under which public manifestations of homosexuality were prosecuted – and the category of the ‘woman of good family’ (liangjia funu), positioned as the deserving target of the law’s defence. Although both of these categories have now been removed from the letter of Taiwan’s legal codes, Huang argues that the moral-paternalist power behind them has not disappeared but has been transformed. This enables a reconfigured state power, augmented by government endorsed, culturally conservative state feminisms that continue to centre ‘family values’, to define ‘good’ sexual subjects (monogamous, marital, middle class) versus ‘bad’ ones (associated with prostitution, obscenity and base femininities). Defining the type of neo-Confucianist moral-paternalist power that is the target of his critique throughout the book, Huang writes:
I term ‘sage-king’ the regulatory regime of ‘virtuous custom’ formed under the KMT [Kuomintang] administration during the Cold War, while designating as ‘sage-queen’ the seemingly liberal yet deeply disciplinary regime of ‘sexual autonomy’ espoused by state feminism. In marking out the symbolic dimension of these reigning positionalities as well as their ideological and affective bases, and in tracking the hegemonic process whereby the sage-queen feminist subject emerged from the shadow of the sage-king nationalist subject as the new moral authority, this book delineates the historical construct of normative national heterosexuality… in Taiwan. (Huang 2011: 24)
Huang’s macro-level analysis of the deep structures of sexual modernity again positions family — along with class — as central in the production of both normative and non-normative sexualities. In Huang’s account, the power of family has become more diffuse, more abstract and even more far-reaching than in the analyses cited above. For Huang, rather than representing only a kinship grouping that frames individual sexuality, paternalist power modelled on a neo-Confucian classist and familialist paradigm also reaches deep into the very structuration of Taiwan’s legal system and public culture, providing the underlying framework for the legal and social demarcation of modern sexual subjects into good and bad categories.
Collectively, the works discussed in this section acknowledge the cultural specificity of structures, practices and discourses of family that have historically dominated in ethnically Chinese communities and, these scholars argue, continue to have a marked influence on experiences of Chinese queer cultural life today. In some responses, ‘Chinese family’ is constructed as an object for idealisation and identification (Chou 2001); in others, it is critically reconfigured in queer practices and representations of intimacy and alternative family (Kong 2011; Kam 2012); in others, it is ardently contested as the root of homophobic oppression in the private and public lives of queer subjects (Liu and Ding 1998; Huang 2011). At the same time, though, through their careful attention to the particularities of specific instances of queer family experience and representation, a majority of these authors are wary of any essentialising construction of ‘the’ Chinese family. As Travis Kong rightly cautions, ‘we have to question the arbitrary formula that equates Chineseness with the family institution’ (2011: 205). In their challenge to essentialist versions of Chineseness as Chinese family, these scholars reflect what is now a dominant approach to understanding Chinese cultures on a centrifugal rather than a centripetal model: one that emphasises the routes rather than the roots of Chineseness in a transnational frame.