Book Review: Queer China (Hongwei Bao)
While many people are going through a difficult period, being grounded while unsettled and uncertain because of COVID-19, a number of online talks, open access resources, and new publications, providing a sense of caring and being together, help to fill in the appalling void for those who find themselves a bit lost as they face ongoing changes (physical, economic, cultural, political, ideological…) not just in everyday news but also in front of their own doors or even within their homes. The book Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postcolonialism (Hongwei Bao, 2020) is one of them.
As one title in the series Literary Cultures of the Global South, Queer China’s existence is a positive sign showing that queer studies is on its way to break away from the label of “subculture” in the academic world and enter the general conversation, such as (regional) ethnography. It provides a careful chronology of the development of the Chinese queer scene, which is a piece of go-to material for anyone looking for a quick glimpse of the past four decades of Chinese queer history (and less about its interactions with the rest of the world). As part of the community himself, the author generously shares some of his own memories and experiences to help us understand the various metamorphoses that happened/ are happening in postsocialist China, which is one of the traits that make the book reader friendly. Another one sees the author adopting an extremely neat fashion as he strcutures each chapter complete with an announcement of purpose and occasional guiding reference before the main body that includes a full description of the case together with the straight-to-the-point analysis, and an emphasis on the key points before ending the chapter.
The book puts together some of the noteworthy queer cultural practices of the last few decades according to the author’s “own preoccupation, politics, idiosyncrasy and affective experiences”(p. 19). The selected cases include the lesbian icon Shitou’s independent documentary Women Fifty Minutes (2006) and her paintings and photography (1990s~2000s), the online gay story Beijing Story (1998) and the lesbian fan fiction Pink Affairs (2007), a street performance of same-sex weddings in central Beijing (2009) and its accompanying documentary film, Mu Cao’s poetry (2000s~early 2010s), the drag performance Extravaganza (2017, 2018) and film, as well as papercut artist Xiyadie’s work (1990s~2010s). It deliberately casts its focus within mainland China and makes sure to avoid any material that has set foot outside even if it’s closely related to the mainland context. For instance, the film adaptation of Beijing Story titled Lan Yu was made by Stanley Kwan in 2001, a piece that opened the door to the world of homosexuality for many mainland audiences and led to much broader media attention, public discussion, as well as the rediscovery of the original story, despite the fact that it never got the chance to enter movie theaters in the mainland.
Working with a wide range of methodologies from community ethnography to literary studies as well as an exploration of various forms of visual arts, the book also appears to be selective in its use of which methodology is applied to a particular case and which aspect(s) of it to look at, leaving out the elements that are less relevant to that particular methodology or his specific purpose. Within the detailed textual analysis on Beijing Story, the reality that the author of the story was actually a woman is not mentioned. This could have led to the Fujoshi culture (the phenomenon where women enjoy fictional gay contents which has a significant following in Japan) and add another layer to the definition of Chinese queerness. In the Super Girl fan fiction Pink Affairs, both protagonists go abroad, one to France, the other to the UK, after an unpleasant time together in China, and are able to develop their relationship in foreign contexts or languages. What we are not made aware of in the discussion about transnational imagination, derived from the fictional story, is that Pink Affairs (like many other fan fictions) brings certain facts that the fans care/admire about the real life idols to the fictional writing, in this case one idol’s school experience in the UK and the other’s college major in French. The absence of such details doesn’t dismiss the argument that “the global identity offers an imagination of living in a cosmopolitan, romantic, exotic and even utopian world” (p.97), but is likely to influence how we shape the logical path to reach the same end. Furthermore, the translation of the story’s title 绯色事 as Pink Affairs itself is questionable yet left unchallenged , no matter how convenient it is that “pink invites association with queerness in popular cultural representation”, which is more of a Western assumption than a Chinese reality.
Following “a post-identitarian trajectory” (p.180), the author demonstrates that queerness in contemporary China is an ongoing metamorphosis, shaped by embrace and rejection of the past (Chinese Socialist legacies) and the present/future (China’s search for and imagining of modernity), as well as the domestic (the local specific experiences, memories, and difficulties) and the global (neoliberal Capitalism). As much as these factors/feelings are co-existing and inseparable, the author nevertheless points out certain directions of how they should be understood when it comes to specific cases. When the documentary director Matthew Baren (Extravangaza) talks about his observation of how Shanghai’s queer events encounter less trouble compared with the rest of China, leaving the city “in a weird bubble”, he comments that “I don’t really know why, I’m happy that we haven’t, but I don’t know. We’ll see how that changes”. (p.141) The author reminds us that “[t]he relatively liberal attitude of Shanghai vis-à-vis queer events … should not be read as a defense of laissez-faire capitalism, but rather be understood as a call for the Chinese government’s more active and consistent support for queer people”. (p.141) When talking about the front stage and backstage at drag performances, the author wants us to recall the sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of dramaturgy, despite the fact that Goffman borrowed the term from theater performance to denote the presentation of self in everyday life, instead of using it as a theory about stage performance per-se. Again, this doesn’t mean that drag performance didn’t involve a number of performance theories, nor does it mean that Goffman’s dramaturgy was of no use in reflecting on the daily life of drag/queer people. But there seems to be a subtle mismatch here.
 On the translation of 绯色(feise), the color of 绯(fei).
In Wang Li Traditional Chinese Dictionary (王力古汉语字典, Wang Li, 2000), the only meaning of 緋 is red 紅. He quotes two poems as references:
In Contemporary Chinese Dictionary (现代汉语词典, the 6th edition, 2012), 绯also has only one meaning red.
In the contemporary usage of 绯, there does exist an extended meaning that refers to steamy affair, illicit love, scandal as in 绯闻 (scandal of steamy affair), which is believed to derive from Chinese philosopher and politician Cai Yuanpei’s once usage of 绯艳(kitsch, erotic). (溯源俗语老典故, 聂鑫森, 2010) But there is no reliable resource on 绯色as the color pink.
Questions by S_Z
Hongwei Bao, 29 June 2020
1. What do you think are the major signs of continuity and differences between the Chinese queer scene around the turn of the century and that in recent years?
If we compare queer cultures in the PRC in 2000 and now (2020), we can see that a lot has changed: there is more awareness and acceptance of queer identities and communities in Chinese society now than back in 2000. For example, people only knew about homosexuals (tongxinglian) or gay, or comrade (tongzhi), back in 2000; now we are more likely to talk about queer (ku’er) or LGBT or LGBTQIA+, showing a greater awareness of a multiplicity of identities. In 2000, people were primarily talking about whether one is gay and whether being gay is normal (i.e. not a form of pathology); now, many queer people in urban China would be talking about a wide range of topics such as dating, coming out, same-sex marriage, adoption, surrogacy, and discrimination in the workplace, topics that are not much different from other parts of the world where LGBTQ rights have been more officially recognised.
With the increasing visibility of queer identities, different communities based on these identities have also started to emerge. So have various community spaces. In 2000, there were very few queer public spaces and events; now, there are queer public venues such as bars, clubs and community centres; there are also events such as Shanghai Pride, Shanghai Queer Film Festival, and Beijing Queer Film Festival, which bring people together to form communities. In 2000, few people talked about sexual minorities as a community (shequ or shequn), now we hear phrases such as Shanghai Shequ Diantai (Shanghai Community Radio) or ‘women de shequn’ (‘Our Community’, a Shanghai Pride slogan). So, communities based on shared but diverse gender and sexual identities have come into being in the past twenty years.
But there are also setbacks. The government attitude toward queer issues seemed more relaxed twenty years ago, and there was overall a sense of optimism in Chinese society at the time. As a result, there were many grassroots initiatives and there seemed many spaces for new ideas and a lot of creative energy in China at the time. Today, these spaces have shrunk significantly, both online and offline, and many queer activists I met were highly pessimistic about what is going on. Those who organise queer community events are constantly faced with the realities of government censorship or police crackdown. Back in 2000, Hunan Satellite Television hosted a talk show programme called ‘Face to Face with Homosexuals’ (Zoujin Tongxinglian), inviting queer people to a state TV studio to talk about homosexuality. Today, such a programme would be impossible to imagine: firstly, the programme director would have chosen other terms denoting multiple identities than the old-fashioned term ‘homosexual’; secondly, it would be difficult for such a programme to pass China’s media censorship and be on air today. This seems a bit paradoxical: while queer identities and communities have proliferated, their media representations and public spaces have not kept up. Of course, one can cite examples of queer commercial spaces and queer elements in commercial and mainstream popular culture to make an argument for the expansion of queer commercial and cultural spaces. But queer political and activist spaces have certainly been under serious constraint in recent years. Here we see not ‘progress’ but ‘backlash’ and even ‘regression’ in terms of queer-friendly public policies in China.
2. In light of today’s global tendency of physical and political isolation, what’s your vision of the Chinese queer scene in the near future, which, as you mentioned in the book, often relies on the construction of community and various sorts of support from abroad (despite it being locally specific in many ways)?
A large part of the job that academics do is to look back upon what has happened, and not to predict what will happen, or how thing will happen. History has a lot of uncertainties. The situation you mentioned, the global pandemic, could not have been imagined by most people. But I am pleased to see that queer communities were not passive during this crisis. During the lockdown, many queer individuals and groups reached out to one another, offering timely help and support, when queer people’s needs were neglected by mainstream society. For example, volunteers from the Wuhan LGBT Centre offered free HIV/AIDS drug delivery services for community members who had no access to drugs because of the lockdown. There is a strong community feeling during the pandemic, and this is great! The crisis can become a good time for community support and community building; it also offers a good opportunity for queer people to think about their relationship to other people and communities who are suffering not only the pandemic but other forms of structural inequality and injustice.
Of course, queer activism in China has always been a part of the global LGBTQ movement. Queer activists in mainland China have worked together closely with activists from Asia, the West, and other parts of the world. But this is not to say that they rely on ‘support from abroad’. In particular, since the Chinese government passed a stringent NGO law in 2016, many international organisations had to withdraw their support for China’s grassroots organisations and civil society, and many queer organisations stopped running because of the lack of funding or policy support. So queer activism in China is at a difficult stage at the moment. But this can turn out to be a blessing in disguise: many queer activists and organisations have to work more closely with community members and respond to the community needs. When explicit forms of queer political activism become difficult or impossible, other strategies including cultural activism – that is, community building through engaging in shared cultural activities – become more popular, and this is the major argument of Queer China.
In the context of today’s ‘global tendency of physical and political isolation’, queer communities in China have been actively building communities by bringing people together, online and offline, and raising awareness of issues about identities and rights. The Shanghai Pride and various queer public events in China during the Pride Month (June) are good examples. The focus on community culture and grassroots participation is a positive development in recent years and will likely have a long-lasting impact for the future.
3. As you locate Chinese queer culture under the arch of the Global South, in which way do you think the Chinese situation can acknowledge/inspire queer scenes in other countries in the Global South, apart from the premise that they all try to establish their own discourses distinct from the Western narrative?
In my view, the Global South is not an alternative to the Global North. Besides being infiltrated by discourses and power relations from the Global North, the Global South is also full of inequalities, injustices, and hegemonic power relations. My emphasis is on heterogeneity of the Global South, as well as the entangled relationship between the Global South and the Global North because of historical experiences and current conditions of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Global South should not be seen as a homogenous and essentialised space for utopian longing and creative resistance, although it can embody the potential for a postcolonial, democratic, and anti-hegemonic politics. My emphasis in the book is both on the hegemonic discourses dominating the Global South and on the emancipatory potentials of the Global South. This is why I discuss the neoliberal capture in which queer China is situated throughout the book. In delineating different forms of neoliberal subjectivation, I also look for spaces of resistance and ‘lines of flight’. It is worth noting that this book has been inspired by a Deleuzian way of thinking, according to which differences are immanent, and new emergences are ubiquitous. It is under this light that this book’s discussion of the Global South should be understood.
4. Conducting English research on non-Western culture brings many challenges, such as what is untranslatable, the gap between (Western) theories and (non-Western) realities, etc. Could you share some experiences and thoughts on that, and how can we overcome these challenges to establish an effective postcolonial way of thinking?
This is a great question. Many authors, myself included, are working on it and exploring their own answers, so there is no definitive answer. I like your use of the term ‘untranslatable’, which points to the process of cultural translation. It is productive to think about researching and writing as processes of cultural translation. I would even stretch the argument to say that everything we do can be seen as a form of cultural translation: we observe things and figure out in our mind the meanings and significances of these things, and this is helped by our knowledge, experience, society, culture, and conceptual framework. We reflect on, summarise, and write down our lived experiences and our understandings of the world by using different forms and styles of language, and this is cultural translation too. This process is also mediated by our understanding of language, the world, and our own personalities and positionalities. If translation requires the use of language (defined broadly), at least two sets of context or reference framework, and a busy mind, we are doing the work of cultural translation all the time. And if we understand cultural translation as a fact of life, as a mundane daily experience, then the question of West and non-West may not be that important. This is not to suggest that geographical locations and social contexts do not matter – after all, they are shaped by history and often unequal power relations and cannot be dismissed – it is rather an emphasis on perpetual differences. Non-West and West are but one set of these differences, and they sometimes may not be the most important set. I usually look at contexts or situations – under what specific circumstances certain sets of relations are prioritised, and what effect these configurations may engender.
When I write, I do not think so much about where theories, or analytical tools, come from. I tend to think about things in terms of contexts or ‘toolboxes’: to understand something, what set of tools do I need from my ‘toolbox’? Whatever tool works is best. Needless to say, there are tools that I have obtained and carried with me from China and the West, as I have been educated both in Chinese and in English. A ‘toolbox’ has its limits; the strengths and limits of my ‘toolbox’ may shape some of my analysis. But if I stop thinking about what the best tool is and ask instead about what tool works the best in a specific context, there are then encounters, connections, and pleasant surprises. For example. although I have primarily resorted to a Foucauldian and Deleuzian toolbox in analysing Xiyadie (the ‘Siberian Butterfly’ in Chapter 8)’s life, I finish the chapter with Zhang Zi (Chuang Tzu)’s story ‘Pao Ding Jie Niu’ (‘The Dexterous Butcher’), a story I learned from high school in China. I could not have anticipated the use of the story beforehand, but it came to my mind naturally when I was writing about Xiyadie’s papercutting skills. I was not deliberately following a postcolonial way of thinking, but the contingent encounters with different tools in the ‘toolbox’ helped bring different lines of thought together. However, in the sense of celebrating cultural hybridity and resisting rigid identity categories, I am exploring a postcolonial way of thinking.