Queer Sinophone networks
These discussions lead us toward a different way of conceptualising transnational queer Chinese cultures, one that allows us to see areas of commonality across geographically dispersed Chinese communities but focuses on how these arise from rhizomatic cross-flows in the present rather than from ‘deep’ cultural heritage. According to this view, the starting point for approaching contemporary Chinese cultures is acknowledgment of their difference, multiplicity and fragmentation, but we should recognise, too, that new forms of shared experience are also enabled as a result of transnational flows of media and migration in a contemporary globalising world. This idea has something in common with Guobin Yang’s influential proposition of a ‘transnational Chinese cultural sphere’, ideologically driven by the complexity (or ‘confusion’, to use Yang’s term) of Chinese identity today and technically enabled by Internet communication across otherwise distant and diverse Chinese-speaking communities worldwide (Yang 2003: 486).
In this context, Shu-mei Shih has introduced her influential theorisation of the Sinophone, which now provides a critical lingua franca for scholars working on trans-local articulations of Chinese-language cultures (Shih 2007; 2011; 2012). Inspired by Francophone studies, the study of sites that are conditioned by their histories as territories connected to the French empire, Shih conceives the Sinophone as encompassing those many and varied locations beyond the territorial and cultural ‘heartland’ of Chineseness in mainland China, dominated by Sinitic languages yet positioned ‘on the margins of China and Chineseness’ (Shih 2007: 4). Shih’s conception of the Sinophone foregrounds the dispersal, fragmentation, heterogeneity, and internal incommensurability of ‘Chineseness’ and is emphatically transnational in extension and focus. Shih is committed to a critique of China-centrism, but does not a priori exclude consideration of sites and cultures found within the borders of the PRC nation-state, instead ‘giv[ing] space for minoritised and colonised voices within China, be they Tibetan, Mongolian or Uyghur’ (Shih 2012: 5). Elsewhere, Shih explains that ‘the Sinophone encompasses Sinitic-language communities and their expressions (cultural, political, social, etc.) on the margins of nations and nationalness in the internal colonies and other minority communities in China as well as outside it’ (2011: 716). Shih’s commitment to a politics of minoritised communities both within and outside mainland China opens up two connected questions for the project of a queer Sinophone studies. One concerns the adaptability of the Sinophone framework to studies of ‘Chinese’ queerness in a transnational frame; the other concerns the positioning of analyses of queer cultures inside mainland China within such a project.
At the time of writing, a new field of enquiry under the title of queer Sinophone studies is in the process of formation, with Howard Chiang and Ari Larissa Heinrich’s edited collection, Queer Sinophone Cultures (2014), gathering essays by eleven established and emerging humanities scholars based in the USA, the UK, Australia and Singapore on topics covering queer Chinese film, literature and histories. Other works that have explicitly taken up the Sinophone rubric for queer studies include Alvin Ka Hin Wong’s discussion of the concept in relation to transnational lesbian cinema from Hong Kong and the US Chinese diaspora (Wong 2012), and Audrey Yue’s framing of the experimental films of Beijing director Cui Zi’en as queer Sinophone films (Yue 2012a). Yue offers a definition of queer Sinophone cinema that can usefully engage with the project of defining queer Sinophone cultural studies more broadly. Extending Shih’s definition, Yue defines queer Sinophone cinema as a ‘minor transnational network that includes not only queer Chinese cinemas outside of China, but also queer Chinese films in China that are beneficiaries of peripheral Chinese and global Western queer film markets’ (2012: 105). In this definition, the Sinophone begins when transnational flows come into play; this is an important point, to which I will return below. In highlighting the ‘minor’ aspect that is part of Shih’s definition of the Sinophone (see Lionnet and Shih 2005), Yue also opens up potential for broadening Shih’s project in a specifically queer direction.
Shih’s initial concept for the Sinophone was based on the marginalisation of certain communities both inside and outside of P. R. China as a result of colonial and migration histories, and a concern to make audible the voices of the colonised and the ethnically minoritised. This focus on minoritised subjects may also afford a space for the consideration of sexual minorities, both outside and inside P. R. China. In this sense, sexually marginal subjects like the lalas studied in Shanghai by Lucetta Kam (2012) and in Beijing by Elisabeth L. Engebretsen (2009), the male homosexual (piao piao; tongzhi) tea-house patrons of Chengdu discussed by Wei Wei (2007), the ‘queer comrades’ of Beijing, analysed by Hongwei Bao as inhabiting an identity fundamentally conditioned by the PRC’s socialist past (2011), and the rural migrant money boys and gay urbanites studied by Kong (2011) and Rofel (2010) could feature as topics within a queer Sinophone studies project, broadly conceived. As Heinrich notes, queer Sinophone studies could be seen as a logical juxtaposition of ‘the margins of gender and sexuality with the margins of China and Chineseness’ (2014). This is especially the case since marginal genders and sexualities are positioned, almost by definition, as occupying the margins of China and Chineseness, even (especially?) when they are located inside the territorial borders of the PRC.
This issue of whether, to what extent, and on what basis considerations of mainland Chinese queer subjects and cultures could be included in a queer Sinophone studies project is a key question for this emerging field. In addition to the fact that queer sexualities in P. R. China can be seen, somewhat like non-Han ethnicities, as minoritised, there is also another good reason to consider the inclusion of queer mainland China in a queer Sinophone studies project. Mainland China is more and more interlinked into the transnational networks of Sinophone cultural flows, both of broader popular culture and specifically of queer texts, practices and identities. Hence, in a practical sense, it becomes harder than ever to conceive of mainland Chinese queer cultural life as sealed off from that of Sinophone queer communities outside China. Analysis of material exchanges between queer peripheral Sinophone sites and queer mainland Chinese sites can surely be made while continuing to avoid the uncritical China-centrism of which the Sinophone studies project is so suspicious.
One of the clearest examples of such exchanges is the sexual identity tongzhi, which has cropped up throughout this chapter and is now possibly the most common term for non-normative sexualities across all of the major Chinese-speaking regions. First used in a queer sense in the late 1980s in Hong Kong (D. K-m. Wong 2011: 157), the term’s standard English translation is ‘comrade’, as seen in the rhetoric of both the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang. Literally meaning ‘common will’, tongzhi performs a sly citation of the famous words of the founder of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-sen — ‘The revolution has not yet been accomplished; comrades we must struggle yet’ — while simultaneously punning on the first character of the term for homosexual (tongxinglian) (Martin 2003: 22—23). Starting at the geographic periphery before arriving belatedly at the centre, this term travelled from Hong Kong first to Taiwan, and from there on to mainland China and the Chinese diaspora. The First Chinese Tongzhi Conference, a mixed cultural, activist and academic event, was held in San Francisco in 1996; the second, in Hong Kong in 1998 (Lu 1999; D. K-m. Wong 2011: 158). While it is by no means the only Chinese-language term for queer sexualities in circulation today (in fact there are too many local, regional, gendered, classed and generational variations to list), tongzhi has become the commonest term used in ways comparable to the English LGBTIQ, and arguably constitutes ‘the most extensive non-English language medium of queer imaginaries in Asia today’ (Martin et al. 2008: 14). Although Chou framed the term tongzhi as an expression of the unique Chinese cultural disposition of relational selfhood and familial orientation discussed above (Chou 1997, 2000; D. K-m. Wong 2011: 157—59), its hybrid late modern history, linking Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China and the Chinese diaspora in a transnational queer circuit, makes it very amenable to a more Sinophone interpretation: the expression of queer Chinese routes rather than roots. If mainland Chinese sites are included in the queer Sinophone articulation performed by tongzhi, then it is as nodes in a decentred network, not as ultimate source and origin.
Another series of queer Sinophone routes can be found in the transnational flows of queer Chinese media. Today, the transnational queer Sinophone mediasphere constitutes a distinct cultural world. When a new Sinophone queer film or television series is released, news spreads fast on Sinophone social media sites (including Facebook, Twitter, Renren, Weibo, Feizan, and Douban). Before long, queer audiences across mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the diaspora are downloading, watching, circulating and discussing the latest media offering, along with the subtitled versions of queer British and American films and television series. This queer Sinophone media circuit is in some ways not as new as it might seem, a point illustrated by Chan’s recollections of the queer pleasures of viewing Chinese family melodramas from Hong Kong and Taiwan during his youth in Singapore: queer audiences have been active for decades, no doubt, in the practice of queering regionally mobile popular media texts (Chan 2008; Tan and Aw 2003; Yau 2010b). Today’s queer Sinophone media texts, however, more often openly figure same-sex relationships as central plot elements, and tend to be transnational in character across the levels of production, distribution, exhibition and consumption.
For example, Hong Kong director Yan Yan Mak’s film Butterfly (Hudie, 2004), was made, set, and financed in Hong Kong, based on a 1996 novella by Taiwanese lesbian author Chen
Xue (Hudie dejihao, Mark of the Butterfly), and featured a star from mainland China: Wuhan-born musician Tian Yuan, who plays Yip (Chen 1996). An interestingly ‘pan-Chinese’ linguistic effect — somewhat similar to the one that Shih underlines in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which she frames as exemplary of Sinophone cinema and culture (2007: 1—8) — is created in the film by the fact that while co-star Josie Ho delivers her lines in Cantonese, Tian Yuan slips habitually into a northern-accented Mandarin (Martin 2010: 157—64). For Alvin Ka Hin Wong, Butterfly is exemplary of a new form of transnational Sinophone lesbian cinema (A. K. H. Wong 2012; see also Bachner 2014). Underlining the film’s alteration of the story of Chen Xue’s novella to include thematisation of Hong Kong students’ response to the 1989 student movement in Beijing, Wong observes that this lesbian love story ‘can be read as containing Taiwanese “roots”, exhibiting Hong Kong flavor while functioning as a political critique of authoritarian forms of Chinese nationalism all at once’ (2012: 314).
Another salient example is Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan’s film, Lan Yu (2001), which tells the story of a romance between money boy Lan Yu and wealthy Beijing businessman Chen Handong. As several scholars have noted, Lan Yu can be seen as a paradigmatic example of the transnationalism of contemporary queer Chinese-language media (Lim 2006: 39—40; Guo 2013; Chiang 2014; see also Eng 2010). The film is an adaptation of an Internet novel entitled Beijing Story (Beijing Gushi), which was posted on the web in 1996 and published in book form in Taiwan in 2002 by Taiwan Tohan publishers, a branch of Japan’s Tohan Corporation (Guo 2013). The film’s producer, Zhang Yongning, a P. R. Chinese national based in Britain, read the Internet novel and developed the plan for the film, sourcing international funding and approaching Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan to direct it in 2000 (Lim 2006: 39—40). The film found massive popularity among Sinophone audiences worldwide: Chan notes that it was an audience favourite, for example, at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2002 (2008: 155). The fame of queer Sinophone texts like Beijing Story and Lan Yu is also opening up new discursive spaces for critical anti-homophobic scholarship inside mainland China, where some commentary on the novel and the film takes the form of liberal humanist analyses promoting the language of human rights and tolerance for sexual diversity (B. Liu 2012; Fan 2011). In Lim’s apt words, then, ‘Lan Yu is a text that has travelled across nations, transmuted across media, and thrived in the disjunctive order of the new global cultural economy’ (2006: 39).
As well as demonstrating these flows of finance, narrative, ideology and media within a transnational queer Sinophone network, Lan Yu also instantiates the complex routes of sexual epistemologies within such a network. Chiang, for example, proposes that, insofar as Lan Yu can be read ultimately to champion a contemporary global-style understanding of gay male identity, the film underscores a historical logic whereby what was once Japan’s role in channelling Western understandings of homosexuality into mainland China is now taken up by peripheral Sinophone locations like Hong Kong. Thus, Chiang observes:
what a Sinophone rereading of Lan Yu reveals is precisely this apparatus of historical displacement, in which the social and cultural articulations of non-normative sexualities are rerouted through — and thus re-rooted in — Sinitic-language communities and cultures on the periphery of Chineseness. (2014)
A related interpretation is made in an article by US-based literary scholar Jie Guo. Focusing on Beijing Story, the novel on which Kwan’s film is based, Guo observes that the narrative hinges on a conceptual separation between Lan Yu’s initial identity as a money boy — a boy prostitute exchanging sex for money — and his final characterisation as a morally redeemed gay man. This identity transformation is enabled by Lan Yu’s refusal of payment from his lover and his unswerving emotional fidelity to his love for the other man. Guo frames this plot as part of the long drawn-out process of sexual modernisation in China, which leads back to the pre-modern history of male prostitution in the theatrical tradition of dan (female-role) boy actors who were available for sexual services with male patrons. To become sexually modern in the world of Beijing Story is, in Guo’s perceptive analysis, to switch from sex for money to sex for love, and to abandon the emotional inauthenticity of prostitution in favour of ‘true’ gay identity. It is through this plot that the novel (and, arguably, also the film) connects a ‘Beijing story’ with a broader global tale of cosmopolitan gay identity.
With the echo that Guo observes between Lan Yu’s initial money boy identity and the historical practice of dan actors’ sex for money, we have also, perhaps, come full circle. For there is a strong resonance between Guo’s analysis of Beijing Story’s ‘cleansing’ of modern, cosmopolitan gay male identity from the taint of prostitution and Huang’s critique of the construction of normative sexualities in contemporary Taiwan through the abjection of the figure of the prostitute (both male and female), discussed above. Guo’s reading thus brings us from the transnational routes of this paradigmatic queer Sinophone text back to the other term in the dialectic that this chapter has argued both structures and troubles the emergent project of a queer Sinophone studies: the partially shared historical ‘roots’ of Chinese sexual modernities.
In this chapter I have mapped the state of the field that is in the process of consolidating under the title of queer Sinophone studies. The material reviewed has revealed some of the central tendencies that currently structure this field as a whole. As well as the conceptual tension between emphasis on the ‘roots’ versus the ‘routes’ of queer Chinese cultures today, noted throughout, the studies discussed have tended to cluster around ethnographic approaches to specific sites of queer social life, on the one hand, and critical interpretations of queer-themed literature, films, and other media, on the other. In conclusion, I would like to note several other areas of contemporary queer Sinophone life that could provide fertile areas for future study.
First, the transnational ethnoscapes ofqueer Sinophone tourism, migration and other travel stand out as an obvious site for further investigation (see Yue 2011). Gay Chinese men in particular are increasingly mobile in the circuits of specifically gay tourism and circuit parties (Yue 2012b: 4), with a recent study of outward bound gay male tourism from Taiwan, for example, revealing Thailand, Japan and mainland China as their top three destinations (Lin, Lai and Kao 2011). What kinds of regional connections and transnational identifications are being forged in these embodied routes of queer mobility across the Sinophone world?
Second, as Taiwan-based sex radical scholar Josephine Ho observes, cultures of non-normative sexuality in various Sinophone territories, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan, are increasingly under attack from transnational forces of a different kind in the form of US-style conservative Christian groups (Ho 2008). Both these homophobic organisations themselves and the queer activist responses to them articulate powerfully emergent energies in Sinophone public culture: these are urgent subjects for further study.
Third, the rapid pace of development of Chinese-language social media both in mainland China and beyond — and, perhaps most interestingly, in the new interstitial cyberspaces linking mainland China with the peripheries of the Sinophone world — mean that new studies are needed to keep up to date with the implications of these communications technologies for the growth of a transnational queer Sinophone mediasphere. If a study were conducted today on queer users of Chinese-language social media, the findings would most probably look
significantly different from the results of my 2004 study of Chinese-speaking nutongzhi Internet users cited above. But how so? Would the sense of cultural and affective connection between users in different nations and territories be greater or lesser today than it was then? Or are individuals’ sexual and cultural identifications being transformed in yet other ways by the intervening years and changes in technology?
Finally, it is worth noting the transnational academic networks of scholars of queer Sinophone studies. Throughout this chapter, reference has been made to studies of queer Chinese cultural and social life conducted by scholars in conversation with each other across mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, the USA, the UK and Australia. This scholarly network can be seen not just as a structure for analysing, but as itself an integral part of, the transnational queer Sinophone networks that this chapter has mapped. The current energies of the nascent field of queer Sinophone studies indicate that it is poised to continue growing in size, in complexity, in ambition, and in generative contradiction.