[REVIEW] “Hongwei Bao’s Queer China Under Neoliberalism with Socialist Characteristics” by Elaine Chiew

{Written by Elaine Chiew, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Hongwei Bao, Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature And Visual Culture Under Postsocialism, Routledge (London & New York, 2020), 213 pgs.

Shaping an “Asian queer studies” framework (to borrow gender scholar Megan Sinnott’s term) outside of Western-centric rubrics that also takes into account a post-socialist China and globalisation effects is an epistemology-in-progress, and Hongwei Bao’s Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature And Visual Culture Under Postsocialism carves out new ground through a combined theoretical and empirical case study method. Building upon his 2018 monograph Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China  (NIAS Press), which focused on male homosexuality and political activism, he broadens his scope in Queer China to encompass queer cultural production in the post-socialist era (1978 to the present). Bao’s belief that such studies performatively shape culture and community-building as a form of queer activism in the PRC is the raison d’être of the book.

This triangulation of epistemology-empiricism-activism covers an ambitious interdisciplinary range of creative forms including literature, film, and the visual arts. Admittedly, his selection process for the case studies within the book is eclectic, being, as he says, “inevitably mediated by [his] preoccupation, politics, idiosyncrasy and affective experiences”. While acknowledging his lack of specific disciplinary training in the various artistic fields, he emphasises the usefulness of juxtaposing different modes of production and searching for commonalities and similarities as well as highlighting differences, because they manifest “structures of feeling” and provide insights into queer culture in China, its unfolding and transformations sparked by Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening-up era”.

This post-socialist timeframe is critical in understanding and evaluating this study because of certain socio-temporal signposts: the break with Mao-era socialism, which augmented the growth of the middle and upper classes; China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001, signalling its embrace of neoliberal capitalism within a socialist framework and its accompanying bid for globality; and, further, specific LGBTQ+ movements as a result of queer activism, such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1997 when the term “hooliganism” (liumang zui), used to prosecute homosexual activities, was removed from China’s Criminal Law, the partial depathologisation of homosexuality in 2001 within the classifications of mental disorders, as well as the undeniable burgeoning of queer spaces and activities in major urban areas amid a changing neoliberal and transnational social and economic milieu. These developments are instrumental not only in creating a burgeoning “pink economy” but also in activating community awareness and support for LGBTQ+ rights in China, even as government censorship remains omnipresent and its tolerance of queer identities ambivalent at best. Same-sex marriage is also not yet recognised within China’s civil code.

Bao, along with queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick and Jack Halberstam, establishes “queer” and “trans” as contingent and unstable umbrella terms, and “queer” in fact functions more like a verb in unsettling the relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire. Sedgwick uses the term to include all non-normative identities and practices, and this, according to Bao, in turn flips “queer” as an identity category into a post-identitarian stance. This logic carries through to the organisation of the book.  Part I offers a theoretical and historical context for understanding the formation of queer identities from socialist to post-socialist China (and makes no attempt to connect the formation to time periods prior to this). The logic for including within this overarching background in Part I the case study of Women Fifty Minutes, an independent documentary by filmmaker and artist Shi Tou and her lesbian lover Ming Ming, is rather more obscure, and doesn’t necessarily illustrate Bao’s thesis of rejecting the Foucauldian “repression hypothesis” for China (where he argues that Chinese queer historiography positing a repression of all queer expression and sexual practices during the Mao-era isn’t altogether true but lacks sufficient empirical proof).

However, Women Fifty Minutes is undeniably iconic, not just because Shi Tou is one of China’s best-known queer personae and activists and considered a member of the New Documentary Movement and New Queer Chinese Cinema, but also because Bao’s analysis highlights the interpolation of queer women identity with feminism playing out in dispersed geographic locations, both urban and rural, and linked with myriad social issues, from folk traditions to environmental degradation and uneven economic development, and into which Shi Tou interjects her own artworks and imagined spaces and fantasies. Interestingly, the chapter begins with a Shi Tou quote on the precepts “yin” and “yang” – “you yourself are a combination of yin and yang” (Shi Tou, 2013 on her artwork Concave-Convex) – a gesture towards a broader definition of “tongzhi” that attempts to connect to an older moral-philosophical epistemology that resists a Western-centric toggle between sexual binaries. Perhaps because he dealt with definitional extrapolations of “tongzhi” in his other writings, Bao instead seeds the idea of how cinema and queer female subjectivities can function as utopian queer “social space” (along a Henri Lefebvre and Fredric Jameson spatial theory framework) and opens up the inquiry into how filmic spaces can be affective, performative, and act as counter-hegemonic constructs or antidotes to the commercialisation of space.

Part II, aptly titled “Queer Becoming”, focuses on literature, although given the heavy censorship of print literature, the literary case studies here are chiefly concerned with the freewheeling, more tolerant world of online fiction: Beijing Story (published in 1998 under a pseudonym, deals with BL: Boys’ Love, and has been made into a movie titled Lan Yu by Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, thereby expanding its reach into the Sinophone world) and Pink Affairs (fan fiction based on a reality TV show called Super Girl – a Chinese version of Pop Idol, published almost a decade later in 2007 also under a pseudonym, and deals with GL: Girls’ Love). It is Bao’s analysis of Pink Affairs that steals the spotlight within this compendium of case studies; not only is it laudably exhaustive and incisive, it fascinatingly highlights the tension between identification and disidentification within Asian queer communities, because, as Bao shows, queer sexual desire here is enabled by class and privilege, as well as by subscribing to a transnationalism that is heavily Western-centric. If you have upper class aspirations, becoming queer can be a status symbol. As he says,

The emergence of homosexuality and gay identity in post-socialist China, therefore, becomes an important marker for the country’s grand social engineering project to construct new bodies, identities, desires, dreams, and aspirations that would bring the country into a new historical era and the world of global capitalism.

Both stories also transpire in urban milieus, showing how participation in the “neoliberal capitalist” project is facilitated by urban modernity, with the leisure and desire to engage in virtual social spaces in constructing their own identities and subjectivities. These two case studies provide brilliant comparisons of the degree to which queer desire, as synecdoche for a general “desire” for freedom, opportunities and wealth in China, are activated by cross-streams of class aspirations and transnationalism (dovetailing with the “global gay” movement as a further sign of status – as Bao writes, “guowai (abroad) is…a symbol of modernity” – and upward mobility). Both case studies are Bildungsromans of becoming queer (neither the two male characters in Beijing Story nor the two female characters in Pink Affairs were born queer) and both are testament to the state of flux inherent in the formation of queer identity: in Beijing Story, the male protagonist Han Dong characterises his gay relationship to his protesting mother as temporary “playing around” engaged by China’s social elites, purifying it of the stigma of low class “homosexuality”, even as he maintains relationships with both men and women; and in Pink Affairs, both female protagonists are childhood antagonists who re-encounter each other abroad in France and then become lovers, and who also happen to be half-blood sisters, thus exemplifying how non-normative family relations can muddle sexual and gender relations.

By contrast, the two case studies in Part III (titled “Queer Urban Space”) are attempts to unveil how social disparities and class differences transact with public or urban space: the first details a photoshoot of two same-sex weddings on Valentine’s Day 2009 in Qianmen Street, a tourist spot near Tiananmen Square; while the latter focusses on poet Mu Cao (a pen-name meaning “grass on the grave”, adopted for its working-class identification), Cao’s poetry and the live poetry reading scene in Beijing. In the case of the two same-sex marrying couples, particularly noteworthy is Bao’s delineation of the politics of “coming out”, more prevalent within Western gay identity politics. Because the couples here are in fact volunteer actors and actresses (rather than actual couples) and the event staged by local queer NGO, Tongyu, the actors and actresses plumb the boundary between secrecy and disclosure. Within the context of the PRC, the idea of “masking”—because of the government as panopticon—troubles the Western-centric politics of visibility as legitimation. Bao writes,

Masking does not prioritise truth and authenticity; the boundary between what is reality and what is a staged performance is often blurred in a masked event. …Truth does not matter so much in the case of masking; it is the context, that is, wearing the right mask at the right time and place, that matters. For many queer people in China, one does not need to be completely “in” or “out”.

—Hongwei Bao, Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism

Bao’s study brilliantly shows how performance art and the shrewd deployment of social media serve as “soft-form” activism and a remaking of public space, but simultaneously raises more questions than it answers in how this activism dovetails with same-sex wedding performances as a bid for homonormativity, and what various bids for homonormativity mean overall for the construction of an Asian queer studies epistemology.

The case study of poet Mu Cao is saddled with the heavy burden of representing the rural and the working-class in this monograph—“rural” and “working-class” here being synonymous with the underprivileged or those left behind by the Chinese “middle-class dream” (and poetry itself lags behind in popularity and readership when compared to online fan fiction). While much needed to complement Part II, less satisfying is the analysis of how Mu Cao’s live poetry reading as a working-class poet in Dongjen Book Club, a middle-class queer urban space, contributes to shaping communal gay identity or becomes a disruption of space that reveals social and class inequalities. The poor attendance at the event minimises its impact, and underscores that the rural-urban divide is rather more rigid and unbridgeable than presented; footnotes suggest that it’s the recognition of Mu Cao’s work overseas that bolstered his impact as a queer artist in Beijing.  

Such is also the case for queer rural artist Xiyadie and his papercutting art, examined in the final section, titled “Queer Migration”. Xiyadie only learned to call himself gay when he moved to Beijing, and only when his queer papercut artworks gained recognition overseas was his identity as a queer artist cemented at home. In this Part IV, Bao also discussed an international cohort of drag queens in Shanghai who perform in a show called Extravaganza and how the sociality of this community contains within it an important element of “play”, a concept with attributes similar to masking in terms of deploying creativity as a form of destruction and deconstruction and “soft-form activism”. Transnationalism as evidenced in these case studies, however, undercuts any argument that an Asian queer epistemology can be queered from inside out, and also complicates the building of a Sinophone queer theoretical framework markedly distinct from a Western-centric one.

Overall, Bao’s approach of stand-alone case studies examined under its own theoretical concerns—from feminist to spatial to hauntology to performance theory—yields a theoretical richness, but lacking an adequate conclusion, the various case studies produce a “silo” effect that don’t facilitate comparisons of similarities and differences. However, in raising more questions than it answers, Bao’s monograph emphasises just how much work still needs to be done, and how fruitful the inquiry is (significantly useful is his appendix of queer history chronology in China as an attempt to memorialise neglected or censored community history), particularly inquiries into intra-disciplinary workings, explorations of diverse queer cultural production engagements with or against the various strata of government in different settings and geographies, the tensions and interconnections that exist between the urban and the rural, and even within specific urban communities such as Shanghai versus Beijing, and the PRC within the larger Sinosphere. The PRC’s neoliberal capitalist environment poses challenges for a post-identitarian stance, not just because of transnational flows but also because of China’s local characteristics and social values informed by its history and culture, as well as the convergence of technology with cultural production. As the first scholarly monograph on queer cultural production in the PRC, the realisation is of having seen just enough to know one hasn’t seen enough.

How to cite: Chiew, Elaine. “Hongwei Bao’s Queer China Under Neoliberalism with Socialist Characteristics.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 19 Nov. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/11/19/queer-china/.

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Originally from Malaysia, Elaine Chiew graduated from Stanford Law School and worked as a corporate securities lawyer in New York and Hong Kong before studying for an MA in Asian Art History at Lasalle College of the Arts Singapore, a degree conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London. She is now a writer and a visual arts researcher, and editor of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist, 2015). Twice winner of the Bridport Short Story Competition, she has published numerous stories in anthologies in the UK, US and Singapore. Her short story collection The Heartsick Diaspora, and Other Stories (2020) is now available. Elaine lives in Singapore.  

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