Queering/queered Chinese-language cinematic and
cultural imaginaries

review by Jamie J. Zhao

Queer Representations in Chinese-Language Film and the Cultural Landscape by Shi-Yan Chao (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020). 412 pages, € 129.00 ($145), hardback.

The publication of the monograph Queer Representations in Chinese-Language Film and Cultural Landscape in 2020 initiated a rich, groundbreaking scholarly dialogue on the study not only of film, TV, and digital media but also opera, art, literature, and activism in the Sinosphere through queer and feminist perspectives. Its contributions to existing English-language scholarship on queer Chinese and Sinophone media and cultures are manifold. (For other significant publications published in the 21st century in the field, see, for example, Bao, 2018, 2020, 2021; Berry, Martin & Yue, 2003; Chiang & Heinrich, 2014; Chiang & Wong, 2020; Engebretsen & Shroeder, 2015; Leung, 2008; Lim, 2006; Liu, 2015; Martin, 2010; Martin et al., 2008.) [open reference page in new window]

As the inclusion of “Chinese-language” in the title indicates, the book draws on what film scholar Chris Berry (2012) has conceptualized as a “transnational turn” in English-language Chinese film studies to highlight the differences and (inter-)connections of diverse queer media industries and landscapes that “could be called ‘Chinese’” (p. 497). This book, the first monograph of the author, Shi-yan Chao, covers queer media cultures in three major “Chinese” sites (Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) and is an ambitious, comprehensive work. With over 400 pages, it consists of an introduction, three major sections (each containing two chapters), a short conclusion, and a ten-page bilingual filmography listing all the queer media materials discussed in the writing.

The 2019 Hong Kong Gay Parade held on November 16, 2019, image from Hong Kong Pride Parade 2022 - GlobalGiving. The images on this page demonstrate the distinct sociopolitical environments for the three major Chinese-speaking societies, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China in the second decade of 21st century. In the book, the author discusses in detail the convoluted modern histories concerning nonnormative gender and sexual cultures that have contributed to the discrepancies of LGBTQ realities and media landscapes in the three societies nowadays.

As noted in previous studies, Mainland China (also known as the People’s Republic of China or PRC) has always been a largely heteropatriarchal, homophobic, authoritarian nation-state, even though it officially decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and subsequently depathologized homosexuality in 2001. The PRC government has constantly censored explicit homosexual content in media and public spaces, deemed homosexuality “obscene,” “abnormal,” “vulgar,” or “immoral” (Bao, 2021, p. 31; Shaw & Zhang, 2017, p. 273; Yang & Xu, 2016, p. 169), and cracked down on LGBTQ film festivals, gathering spaces, and communicative platforms (Zhao, Yang & Lavin, 2017, pp. xi-xxxiii). In contrast, its special administrative region, Hong Kong, is an intriguing, cosmopolitan geolocale that has been famous for its globally influential film industry. Yet, in the post-1997 years, it has also been unwillingly caught between the Chinese Communist Party’s political governance and its British colonial legacy. (Hong Kong was colonized by the British Empire beginning in1841, but was handed over to the PRC in 1997). Hong Kong is thus believed to have a more “dystopian, rhizomatic, and multidirectional” queer media culture, which has been theorized as “postcoloniality beyond China-centrism” (Wong, 2020, p. 63).

Diverging from these two “Chinese-speaking” societies, the “other China,” Taiwan, (also known as the Republic of China or ROC) has been considered one of the most progressive Asian countries in terms of the progress of its feminist and queer movements (e.g., it elected its first woman president in 2016, who also happened to be unmarried and of mixed Han-indigenous Paiwan background; and Taiwan in 2019 became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage). Nevertheless, Taiwan’s mediascape has also been largely shaped, if not frustrated, by tensions among its indigenous groups. The island’s long settler colonial history has been influenced by East Asian, Southeast Asian, and European cultures, and its two contemporary political parties. (The parties are the Kuomingtang, KMT, or Nationalist party which retreated from Mainland China to the island in 1949 and maintained postwar martial law till 1987; and the Democratic Progressive Party or DPP which “continues to bid for Taiwanese independence” from the PRC. Cheng, 2020, p. 44). This intricate situation of entangled gender, ethnic, and sexual minority histories and cultures in Taiwan has created a relatively queer-friendly yet self-contradictory queer media environment. Contemporary Taiwan’s queer mediascape has continually negotiated with local, inter-Asian, and transnational sociocultural, political, and economic forces, such as Western, Japanese, and traditional Chinese gender and sexual ideologies (see Cheng, 2020; Martin, 2010). Chao’s writing thoroughly unfolds these nuances as his book simultaneously differentiates between and links the queer media industries and cultures in these three Chinese-speaking societies.

A flyer for the third Taiwan International Queer Film Festival (TIQFF) in 2016, image from cheercut.com.

Chao explores a broad array of important, pioneering ideas and topics including

Although there have been some studies discussing transgender figures, cross-dressing performances, and homosocial and homoerotic narratives in Chinese-language cinemas (e.g., Tan, 2000, 2007; Wu, 2010), Chao pays careful attention to the queer characteristics and traditions of diverse Chinese dialect operas, such as Shaoxing and Cantonese operas, gendered performances and beauty norms in indigenous Taiwanese culture, and local religious rituals that are constantly appropriated in contemporary official political discourse and entertainment media productions. His attention to these modes of discourse unveils another queer layer of Chinese-language media and cultural landscapes. This subtle queer nature of Chinese-language theater, performing arts, and religious beliefs and practices, as well as cross-media adaptations, has often been undervalued if not completely ignored in existing queer Asian, Chinese, and Sinophone scholarship.

Relevant to this emphasis on the queerness of different “Chinese-language” cultures is Chao’s use of the word “Sinophone.” The two terms are often used interchangeably in his writing. However, some scholars tend to exclude China from Sinophone studies, which is considered a radical way to undermine the ethnic-Han-centrism that “privileges China as the original homeland” for Chinese-speaking communities in other parts of the world (Yue, 2012, p. 96) and to highlight “the value of difficulty, difference and heterogeneity” in imagining Chineseness (Shih, 2007, p. 5). Other writers, especially some film scholars, use “Sinophone” to include China as well as Chinese dialects and Chinese-language cultures in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other diasporic communities—a move which acknowledges both regionalism and transnationalism in the circulation of Chinese-language media and sociocultural traditions (Lu, 2007; Martin, 2010; Yue, 2012).

As queer Sinophone scholar Fran Martin (2014) eloquently states, these two ways of conceptualizing “Sinophone” highlight the “tensions between what might be called centripetal versus centrifugal understandings [of Chineseness]” (p. 36). In line with this view, Chao’s “loose” uses of the terms “Chinese-language” and “Sinophone” in the book also serve as a friendly gesture that encourages a productive approach to recognizing both the roots (the regionalism that “problematizes Sino-centrism as a force that constitutes Chinese identity and representation”) and routes (the transnationalism that “confronts the flows that affect the political economy of” Chinese-language cinema and media) of imagining Chinese queer cultures and lives (Yue, 2012, p. 97; also see, Chiang & Wong, 2020, p. 10; Martin, 2014, p. 36).

This dual emphasis on Chinese roots and routes in studying queer Chinese-language cinema and other media has been most evident in the existing scholarly debates concerning the translinguistic traveling and mutations of the two terms, queer (ku’er) and tongzhi (“comrade”; the Chinese phrase for gay) across Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Mainland China through the trans-geocultural circulation of queer Chinese-language cinemas (Bao, 2018; Lim, 2006).

The term tongzhi was “effectively mobilized to refer to people sharing the same political ideals” in modern and contemporary China (Bao, 2018, p. 69), and was closely “associated with rebelliousness during its use in anti-Qing uprisings at the end of the imperial period and continued to be used by both Nationalists and Communists” in modern China (Engebretsen & Schroeder, 2015, pp. 4–5). Since the mid-1990s, the term has become more common in denoting non-heterosexual desire and subjectivity both in Chinese-speaking lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) communities and in official media (Lim, 2006, p. 12). The popularity of the use of tongzhi in the Chinese-speaking world helps to “acknowledge the temporal coevality (the 1990s) of its circulation with the emergence of representations of male homosexuality in cinemas from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong” (Lim, 2006, p. 12). At the same time, the creative use of this socialist term “reflects both a conscious departure from the socialist past and the desire to become fully a member of global neoliberal capitalism on the part of many members of the varied LGBT communities in Chinese-speaking contexts,” which ultimately demonstrates a surge in transcultural tongzhi media and activism in the Sinophere (Bao, 2011, p. 133, 2018; also see, Rofel, 2007).

In a dissimilar way, the Western-originated term, “queer,” has become popular and was translated as ku’er (“cool kid”) or guaitai (“weirdo”) in 1990s’ Taiwan (Lim, 2006, p. 12). Queer/ku’er was officially introduced to Mainland China through Beijing-based sociologist Li Yinhe’s scholarly translation of Western feminist and queer theories in 2003 (Bao, 2018, pp. 29–30). Around the same time, in the early 2000s, the term was quickly adopted by many Mainland Chinese filmmakers and artists to denote a form of aesthetic avant-gardism (Bao, 2018, p. 30). This trajectory led to the double meanings of queer/ku’er in the Chinese-speaking world as either subversive, cosmopolitan, and avant-garde, or as a self-identification point for nonnormative gender and sexual minorities (or both). 

In the introduction to Chao’s book, “Processing Tongzhi/Queer Imaginaries,” the terms tongzhi and queer are carefully discussed in relation to the social-political atmospheres of the three Chinese-speaking societies and their media landscapes. Drawing on the existing conceptualization of the two terms, Chao presents the translocal genealogy of tongzhi/queer cultures in Chinese-speaking societies and historizes Chinese-language (huayu) film and media studies. He also spells out the differences between the two terms in the Chinese-speaking context, his creative combination of them, and their potential:

“While tongzhi emphasizes identity and serves as the rallying call for social movements, queer defies fixed identity categories and stresses the heterogeneity of both identity and human subjects. … By stressing the term tongzhi in this project, I include a more affirmative connotation in terms of identity politics than the word ‘queer’ tends to do. By using ‘tongzhi/queer,’ jointly or in parallel, I aim to capture the nuanced dynamics between tongzhi and queer politics, and those of social movements and media representations.” (Chao, p. 15)

With a growing number of English-language academic publications using the terms tongzhi and queer (sometimes interchangeably without clarification) in the study of Chinese-language media and cultural studies, Chao’s remarks on the varying meanings and powerful alliance of the two terms are particularly useful.

Moreover, Chao emphasizes that the book is “anchored by four main themes or discourses: the Chinese familial system, Chinese opera and melodrama, camp aesthetics, and documentary film” (p. 301). In this sense, the book also makes the ambitious theoretical move of going beyond the relatively narrow scope of most scholarship on Chinese and Sinophone cinematic and literary portrayals of LGBTQ groups to explore how hetero-patriarchally structured familial values, media and cultural industries, and state policies have both constrained and implemented various queer “audio-visual elements” in these and other forms of media (p. 19).

More specifically, as a Taiwan-born, U.S.-trained Chinese-language film scholar, Chao has researched and taught in the field of cinema studies at various distinguished universities in the United States and Hong Kong for over a decade. His solid academic training in Anglophone queer media studies, his broad knowledge of the film industries and cultural histories of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and his sophisticated understanding of the transcultural LGBTQ world and politics are synthesized in stimulating ways in the book. His writing draws on key theoretical frameworks and concepts within Chinese and Sinophone queer film studies, such as Berry’s (2000, 2001, 2004) influential discussions of the tension between homosexuality and the hetero-patrilineal family in Chinese-speaking societies and Martin’s (2010) conceptualization of Chinese-language media representations of lesbian tomboyism. In addition, Chao carefully references relevant foundational Western gender, queer, and transgender scholarship, such as Judith Butler’s (1990) and Eve K. Sedgwick’s (1993) works on “performativity,” Richard Dyer’s (1979) and Alexander Doty’s (1993) theorization of queer stardom and spectatorship, and Esther Newton’s (1979) discussion of “camp.” Chao explains his use of Western-originated queer theory “as a form of analysis that systematically challenges any theoretical or discursive practice which naturalizes sexuality” (p. 26). Suturing these with queer Chinese and Sinophone media studies, Chao produces fertile, novel syntheses for “lesser-studied titles, or … more familiar titles from new perspectives” (p. 32).

Chao states his aim as, “locat[ing] the transmedial representations of tongzhi/queer subjects within the interactive and interdependent relations between the socio-economic and the cultural, the global and the regional, the regional and the local, and the local and the individual” (p. 17) He presents two chapters that address the relation between familial discourses and state politics in different ways in Section One, “Against Families, Against States.”

Chapter 1, “The Chinese Queer Diasporic Imaginary,” starts with a historical account of the intertwined discourses on the ideologies of Confucian filial piety (xiao), the familial home (jia), and the family-state (jia-guo)—all of which have been shaped in interesting ways by traditional Chinese values and various modern, political mentalities in Mainland China (those of the Chinese Communist Party) and Taiwan (those of the KMT government, aimed at sustaining the legitimacy of the ROC). Chao pays particular attention to the father-son relationship in Taiwan’s patrilineal social settings in his analyses of the 1986 Taiwanese gay film Outcasts (dir. Yu Kan-ping) and Tsai Ming-liang’s Taipei trilogy (including Rebels of the Neon God made in 1992, Vive L’amour made in 1994, and The River made in 1996). He argues that these films employ various male-homosexual tropes, such as the discourses on niezi, Nezha, AIDS, ghostliness, and local theater opera, in order to contest the Han-centric, heterosexual-structured “familial nationalism” in (post)colonial Taiwan (p. 63, p. 95).