Queer Chinese routes
As was foreshadowed in the introduction to this chapter, over the past two decades in the humanities and social sciences, there has emerged a strong tendency to critique essentialist understandings of Chineseness as a singular, ‘authentic’ and nation-based identity. For example, Lydia Liu proposes that the massive influx of neologisms from other languages into what has become the modern Chinese language since the late nineteenth century makes it impossible to conceive of ‘Chinese’ as pure or originary (Liu 1995: 1—42). Allen Chun critically deconstructs the presumed links between Chinese ethnicity, culture and identity (Chun 1996). Rey Chow asks that we recognise Chineseness as ‘always already’ multiple and fragmented, a term to be placed under erasure rather than taken for granted (Chow 1998). Aihwa Ong shows how transnationally mobile Chinese business elites in Southeast Asia develop forms of ‘flexible citizenship’, adapting different forms of cultural and national identity to meet the needs of the moment (Ong 1999: 1—26). Ien Ang reflects on the ways in which the diasporic Peranakan (straights Chinese) experience troubles a monolithic conception of Chineseness as culture, language and ethnicity (Ang 2001: 1—18). All of these works recognise that the many regionally distinct histories, languages and cultures within the nation of P. R. China as well as across the multiple transnational sites of ethnic ‘Chineseness’ in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and the worldwide Chinese diaspora make faith in any singular version of Chinese culture and identity difficult to sustain. In the recent words of David Eng, Teemu Ruskola and Shuang Shen, ‘it is not at all obvious just what makes China… a seemingly solid object of knowledge’ (2012: 2).
This shift toward a centrifugal understanding of Chineseness is reflected in much of the current scholarship on queer Chinese cultures. For example, in his book on male homosexuality in Chinese cinemas, Celluloid Comrades, UK-based Singaporean film scholar Song Hwee Lim directly refutes the idea that such a project could or should produce any simple, unitary picture of Chinese cinematic representations of homosexuality. Rather, ‘representations of male homosexuality in Chinese cinemas have been polyphonic and multifarious, posing a challenge to monolithic and essentialised constructions of both “Chineseness” and “homosexuality”’ (Lim 2006: 2). A related assumption can be seen in Hong Kong filmmaker and scholar Yau Ching’s framing of her edited collection on non-normative genders and sexualities in mainland China and Hong Kong, in which ‘the changing configurations of sexualities are studied in light of the destabilising, internally differentiated and contested notions of the Chinese nation-state through its conflicted relations with regional and local territories such as Hong Kong’ (Yau 2010a: 6). Travis Kong finds that gay male Chinese identities in different national and geographic locations are plural and varied, shaped by distinctive negotiations with sexual citizenship as a result of specific forms of institutional regulation by the state, the market, the queer community and the family (Kong 2011: 27). From the macro perspective of international cultural diplomacy, meanwhile, Petrus Liu argues that Taiwan’s government publicly champions gay rights in large part as a rhetorical strategy to maintain the favour of the USA by presenting a ‘liberal, democratic’ image in distinction to the ‘repressive’ PRC (2012; see also Ho 2008). This illustrates the complex entanglements of divergent and competing national-level representations of ‘Chinese culture’ with claims to queerness on the international political stage. At a more micro level, studies of China’s rural-to-urban migrant ‘money boys’ — young men who have sex with men for money — provide a concrete example of the internal multiplicity and stratification of queer experience inside the PRC, where the poor, rural money boy identity is constructed as the debased Other to the urban, cosmopolitan, middle-class gay self (Kong 2011: 174—93; Rofel 2010).
A related example is provided in the survey of 116 users of nutongzhi-related Chinese-language websites which I conducted in 2003—4 in order to gauge the degree to which Internet communication was helping to forge a sense of transnational nutongzhi community and identity in the Sinophone world (Martin 2009). Several respondents, like the one quoted below, emphasised a sense of distance from, rather than commonality with, Chinese-speaking nutongzhi living in different national and geographic territories:
Q: Do you feel you have many things in common with other Chinese-speaking lesbians you meet via the Internet who live in territories other than your own? Or do you feel you are very different from them? Please explain.
A: (from a 26-year-old unemployed graduate in Guangzhou): Aside from the fact that we have the same sexual orientation, I feel that there are many differences, which are to do with the different cultural conditions in each place. In mainland China, lesbians [nutong] from different provinces all have different cultural backgrounds. Lesbians [nutong] who live close to Hong Kong and Taiwan bear virtually no relation to my own sense of sexual identity, and lesbians [nutongzhi] from the interior have to face far greater levels of pressure, pressure that comes from all quarters in relation to all kinds of issues. Personally I feel that what we have in common mainly reflects the information and culture available through the lesbian [nutong] Internet. (Martin 2009: 294)
In their introduction to a special issue of positions, Beyond the Strai(gh)ts, Petrus Liu and Lisa Rofel argue for an understanding of queer Chinese cultures that focuses on ongoing present-tense conversations among different sites of queer Chinese life across P. R. China, Taiwan and the US Chinese diaspora (Liu and Rofel 2010). They thus echo the above respondent’s sense that much shared repertoire among Chinese queer people today is the result of contemporary cultural flows rather than organically shared traditions. Along similar lines, in my work on the distinctive yet connected histories and present-day examples of female homoerotic representation across P. R. China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, I have proposed the metaphor of ‘a cultural archipelago where media cross-flows — both within and beyond “transnational China” — interact with local histories to create distinctive yet inter-linked contemporary cultural scenes’ (Martin 2010: 21).