12.24.2021-final papr for a comparative literature class hehe

ORIGINAL TITLE: Queering China: The Breakdown of Westernized Binaries

In April of 2013, the United Nations released a statement from the Oslo Conference on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity; publicizing its commitment to a global campaign against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. As the world’s largest international organization, this declaration demonstrates the extent to which the subject of gender and sexual variation has permeated the global consciousness in recent years. In line with this dramatic increase of attention towards the issue of LGBTQ rights, a diverse body of research focused on assessing levels of transphobia and homophobia has emerged. One angle of analyzing this issue centers around economic development, as demonstrated by a 2020 article, “Mapping out a spectrum of the Chinese public’s discrimination toward the LGBT community: results from a national survey” from Wang et al. Their findings include a negative correlation between per capita GDP and discriminatory actions perpetrated by heterosexuals. The key conceit of this approach is in the universalism implied by the usage of certain frameworks - namely, it presumes that the neoliberal model of constant economic progress can map cleanly onto the matter of human rights. Focusing on China, which is the home to a majority of the world’s population, this paper seeks to complicate the idea of universalized linear progress by calling to attention the heterogeneity of LGBTQ subjects, with a close look into the role of transgender people in theatrical embodiment to understand their role in the shifting tides of nationalism. I argue that studying portrayals of sexually diverse Chinese people in media can blur the lines between male/female, gender/sexuality, mind/body, and queer/normative; all of which are artificial binaries in part imposed by an Euro-Americancentric global discourse.

The umbrella terms, ‘LGBTQ subjects’ and ‘transgender,’ are constructs originating from a Western context, and the usage of such terms when discussing citizens of China must be elaborated upon. Even within the West, the unity of all the groups represented within that acronym are constantly being questioned. The uniqueness of bisexuality, transgender identity, lesbianism, and gayness to each other presents a daunting challenge for people who seek to work with these demographics (Dworkin & Pope, 2012, ix). Even within a specific community, the language is constantly evolving (Fogarty & Zheng, 2018, 2). As Dr. Susan Stryker remarks, “transgender, once a very expansive term, now fails to fully capture the complexity of contemporary gender” (2017, prologue). Certainly, this presents a major problem, given that these terms are not necessarily loan words in Chinese, and that the Chinese language has its own specific lexicographical constructions for adjacent, but not necessarily congruent concepts. This contradiction between an ambiguously located set of terminology and the specific cultural geographies in which terms are applied is rendered a site of focus, borrowing from theoretical work on Asian modernity. Just as wrestling with the concept of Asia requires engaging with its construction as a negative to the West, coming to terms with LGBTQ discourse relies on looking at its construction as in opposition to a spatialized cultural norm (Lo, 2011, p. 15). In this context, using the LGBTQ terminology that originates outside of China is not intended to enforce a cultural imperialism upon an unruly subject, but rather to contend with a hybrid cultural space that engenders questioning on the legitimacy of universal queer politics.

The necessity of a queer studies approach in understanding how gender and sexuality variances manifest in China comes from the failings of other Western constructs in parsing the subjects of this region. A common definition for transgender is as a “diverse group of people who experience some form of gender dysphoria, a discomfort with the relationship between their bodies’ assigned sex and their gender identity, or otherwise reject the gender binary” (Wade and Ferree, 2018, p. 15). However, this approach, which will be referred to as binary transgenderism, centers a pathologized gender dysphoria and an implicit assumption of Western notions of assigned sex and identity. While at times relevant, this paper also applies Stryker’s definition (as cited in He, 2012, p.622) of transgender as

“an umbrella term for a wide variety of bodily effects that disrupt or denaturalize

heteronormatively constructed linkages between an individual’s anatomy at birth, a

nonconsensually assigned gender category, psychical identifications with the sexed body

images and/or gendered subject positions, and the performance of specifically gendered

social, sexual, or kinship functions.”

Transgender, understood in this queer way, can make sense of the history of cross-dressing theater in China, which leads into the blurring of the gender/sexuality binary. A traditional form of theater, known as Peking opera, had male performers that cross-dressed to fulfill female roles (Zhang, 2013, p.181). The 1993 film, Farewell My Concubine, is a fictional story about one such actor, but it serves as an evocative representation of the real given the director’s experience with the most renowned female-impersonator of the 21st century, Mei Lanfang (He, 2013, p.626). In the reimagined world of Farewell My Concubine, the interpersonal drama may be unverifiable, but the taboo of homosexuality even for those performers who have transgressed gender identity to create the most convincing performance holds water based on real accounts. Additionally, the 20th century social and political upheavals that serve as the backdrop for Farewell My Concubine challenge the notion of a stable gender binary to return to - the opera actors face highs and lows in life, as they age into times of prosperity, the Anti-Japanese war, and the Cultural Revolution. The film highlights the ways in which female impersonation, or that which can be understood as queerly transgender, is not of an innate and individual gender dysphoria, but highly influenced by the temporal circumstances which change social functions and acceptable psychical identifications of the body. A coherent answer is never given to whether the main female impersonator is gay or transgender - the difference is rendered meaningless given the whole of his life.

Farewell My Concubine bookmarks the beginning the “New Queer Cinema” movement of the 90’s, along with the emergence of a queer community, known as the tongzhi identity (Chiang et al., 2019, location 4800/5851). As a part of the cultural shift towards ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ first enacted by Deng Xiaoping, contemporary Chinese culture faces a slow shift towards a Westernized acceptance model that is identitarian in nature - marked by gay and trans figures that self-represent their practices and identities (Potter, 2016, p.9, thesis). This practice has been made easier by the introduction of the internet and digital mediums. Findings show that digital media can facilitate self-exploration and understanding of emergent LGBTQ identities (Hatchel, 2016, p.64). The importance of the move towards capitalist models of modernity in opening up discussions of homosexuality and transgender identity in China after the Cultural Revolution period cannot be ignored, given that the HIV/AIDS pandemic response in socialist China was designed with a global audience in mind (Zhang, 2014, p. 1016). However, the efficacy and progressive nature of this mark on China should also not be overestimated. Drawing from Hildebrant’s work on transnational linkages and LGBT activism in China, the globalized nature of LGBTQ identity and activism plays a niche role. The HIV/AIDs response and the linked concept of LGBTQ awareness is an example of a homonormative response that furthers a gender binary view of the world. The introduction of external pressures into China has led to the positive beginnings of acceptance, but enforces a new paradigm that divides each identity of the LGBTQ into many, as opposed to supporting unity based on shared cultural and historical ties. LGBT activism in China is focused much more on HIV/AIDs funding, which leaves activists in a precarious position of rendering their own organizations superfluous (2012, p.860). In addition, older LGBTQ people that reside in the epicenter of multiple stigmatized identities are less likely to be treated for their HIV-positive status as current policies and media do not address them (Hua et al., 2019, p. 448). Instead, attention is redirected publicly towards the more highly visible cisgender gays and lesbians and transgender persons that can ‘pass’ for the ‘opposite gender.’ The gender binary and mind/body dichotomies that have been newly employed since the Cultural Revolution lead to problematic gaps in awareness and care for those whose lives cannot be socially reflected within these frameworks.

Representation for those of diverse gender identity and sexual orientation can become a malleable tool used to promote a nationalist image for an international audience, demonstrated through a shifting history in media. However, it would be reductive to declare all the changes and progress in China as part of a homonormative construction; rather, the relation between what is queer and what is normative can be further nuanced by considering how global homonormativity can be a force of reimagined oppressions, but can be disruptive towards the performance of normative social functions on the localized scale. The presence of trans and gay people in normative media has assisted Chinese LGBTQ persons in explaining their identities to their families, gain acceptance where previously none existed, and even more (Deklerck, 2017, p.234). The importance of Chinese pop culture shows created by LGBT NGOs, like Queer Comrades, which promote normative models of family and belonging is in taking care to not reduce the local agency and ‘subtle hybridization of transnational discourses.’ Even if a film is well received in the West for its creative and radical artistry, it may not be well received in the local context of the Chinese filmmaker. An example of how playing into normative structures and ideals can create change is through the Queer Comrades’ ability to support the indie short film, Comrade Yue. Yue’s Comrade Yue is remarkable for the way

“the social self or selves constructed in the video intersects with the issues of class and other social categories and renders queer becoming as a never-ending project of undoing both heteronormativity and homonormativity” (Tan, 2016, p. 49)

Director Yue Jianbo is able to capture his life as a gay man in a small coal town, exploring the depth of identity that emerges past an identity-based framework (Deklerck, 2017, p. 240). Queer Comrades is able to concurrently push out multiple threads of queer identity, residing in a hybrid space that simultaneously questions neoliberally prescribed LGBT identities while still making use of what these new concepts bring to the culture.

Continuing to delve into spaces of global and local interactions, the final account of how media and theatrical portrayals of Chinese LGBTQ citizens can remake understandings of current global discourses delves into two individual accounts from transgender persons published in an academic setting. While not theatrical in a visual performance sense, the comparison of these two accounts draws from theories of gender performativity, in that everyone is constantly performing their genders (Wade and Ferree, 2018, p. 68). The contrast between Fung Kei Cheng’s account of trans woman Peppe and how Siufung W. L. Law accounts for their own experience as a genderqueer bodybuilder is a site that reaffirms the contradictions of global discourse and Chinese experiences. Without seeking to promote one account over the other, it must be noted that Law takes an identitarian approach to arguing for a queer and destabilized understanding of gender dualisms. Meanwhile, Cheng draws on traditional Western notions of identity and medical science to explain Peppe’s plight as needing incremental liberation from a ‘wrong form.’ These articles, both a response to and result of cross-cultural interactions, argue for holding all possible queer identities together without seeking to universalize and homogenize these diverse communities.


Ban, Ki-Moon. “Secretary-General's Video Message to the Oslo Conference on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity .” United Nations. United Nations, April 15, 2013. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2013-04-15/secretary-generals-video-message-oslo-conference-human-rights-sexual.

Cheng, Fung Kei. “A Marathon Search for My Deserved Body: How a Chinese Male-to-Female Manages Gender Nonconformity.” Multidisciplinary Journal of Gender Studies 9, no. 3 (October 25, 2020): 234–62. https://doi.org/10.17583/generos.2020.6206.

Chiang, Howard, Anjali Arondekar, Marc Epprecht, Jennifer Evans, Ross G. Forman, Hanadi Al-Samman, Emily Skidmore, and Zeb Tortorici, eds. Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) History. Farmington Hills, MI: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2019.

Deklerck, Stijn. “Bolstering Queer Desires, Reaching Activist Goals: Practicing Queer Activist Documentary Filmmaking in Mainland China.” Studies in Documentary Film 11, no. 3 (May 14, 2017): 232–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/17503280.2017.1335564.

Dworkin, Sari H, and Mark Pope. Casebook for Counseling Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons and Their Families. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association, 2012.

Fogarty, Alison Ash, and Lily Zheng. Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination. ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2018.

Hatchel, Tyler J., Kaveri Subrahmanyam, and Michelle Birkett. “The Digital Development of LGBTQ Youth: Identity, Sexuality, and Intimacy.” Identity, Sexuality, and Relationships among Emerging Adults in the Digital Age, January 2016, 61–74. https://doi.org/10.4018/978-1-5225-1856-3.ch005.

He, Chengzhou. “Performance and the Politics of Gender: Transgender Performance in Contemporary Chinese Films.” Gender, Place & Culture 21, no. 5 (July 9, 2013): 622–36. https://doi.org/10.1080/0966369x.2013.810595.

Hildebrandt, Timothy. “Development and Division: The Effect of Transnational Linkages and Local Politics on LGBT Activism in China.” Journal of Contemporary China 21, no. 77 (September 2012): 845–62. https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2012.684967.

Hua, Boya, Vickie F. Yang, and Karen Fredriksen Goldsen. “LGBT Older Adults at a Crossroads in Mainland China: The Intersections of Stigma, Cultural Values, and Structural Changes within a Shifting Context.” The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 88, no. 4 (2019): 440–56. https://doi.org/10.1177/0091415019837614.

Law, Siufung W. “Transgender Trouble: Gender Transcendence in Self-Ethnographic Genderqueer Experience in Hong Kong.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 22, no. 2 (July 3, 2021): 196–214. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649373.2021.1927556.

Lo, Kwai-Cheung. Excess and Masculinity in Asian Cultural Productions. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2011.

Potter, Christian. “Sons, Husbands, and Lovers: Marriage, Filial Piety, and Transgender Men in Chinese Media.” Thesis, University of Illinois, 2016.

Stryker, Susan. Transgender History: The Roots of Today's Revolution. 2nd ed. Seal Press, 2017.

Tan, Jia. “Aesthetics of Queer Becoming: Comrade Yue and Chinese Community-Based Documentaries Online.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 33, no. 1 (November 9, 2015): 38–52. https://doi.org/10.1080/15295036.2015.1129064.

Wade, Lisa, and Myra Marx Ferree. Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. 2nd ed. New York City, NY: W.W. Norton et Company, 2018.

Wang, Yuanyuan, Zhishan Hu, Ke Peng, Joanne Rechdan, Yuan Yang, Lijuan Wu, Ying Xin, et al. “Mapping out a Spectrum of the Chinese Public’s Discrimination toward the LGBT Community: Results from a National Survey.” BMC Public Health 20, no. 1 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-08834-y.

Winter, Sam, Beverley Webster, and Pui Kei Cheung. “Measuring Hong Kong Undergraduate Students’ Attitudes towards Transpeople.” Sex Roles 59, no. 9-10 (May 28, 2008): 670–83. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-008-9462-y.

Zhang, Qing Fei. “Representation of Homoerotism by the People’s Daily since 1949.” Sexuality & Culture 18, no. 4 (May 18, 2014): 1010–24. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-014-9237-2.

Zhang, Qing Fei. “Transgender Representation by the People’s Daily since 1949.” Sexuality & Culture 18, no. 1 (May 21, 2013): 180–95. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-013-9184-3.