Howard Chiang

From anti-castration discourses in the late Qing era to sex-reassignment surgeries in Taiwan in the 1950s and queer movements in the 1980s and 1990s, After Eunuchs explores the ways in which the introduction of Western biomedical sciences transformed normative meanings of gender, sexuality, and the body in China.

NOTCHES: In a few sentences, what is your book about? Why will people want to read your book?

Howard Chiang: After Eunuchs tells a history of sex change in modern China. The book develops a narrative from the demise of castration in the late Qing period to the emergence of transsexuality in Cold War Taiwan. In so doing, it explores, through the lens of sex transformation, not just how the conceptualization of sex itself changed over time, but also how corporeal bodies from traditional Chinese culture (e.g., eunuchs, hermaphrodites, male opera actors, etc.) enabled scientists and doctors to grasp new, foreign ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality. This study revises the conventional view that China “opened up” to the global circulation of sexual ideas and practices only after the economic reforms of the late 1970s. Instead, I discovered a rich and vibrant discourse of sex metamorphosis in the first half of the twentieth century, which presaged the media publicity showered on the alleged “first” Chinese transsexual, Xie Jianshun, in 1950s Taiwan.

Readers of this blog will find this book particularly interesting first and foremost because it is one of the few existing histories of sexuality that deal with China (and East Asia more broadly). In fact, previous studies in queer Asian history have tended to focus on same-sex desire and relations. My work breaks from that tradition by treating the history of transgender peoples, ideas, and experiences as a subject of investigation in its own right. If you are not a China expert, don’t worry about not being able to grasp the book’s content. When writing the book, I made an intentional effort to explain the relevant historical context as thoroughly as possible so that the book can speak to a wider audience. My analysis also frequently nodded to familiar conventions in Western LGBTQ historiography. These include debates about rupture and continuity in the genealogy of sexual selfhood and paying attention to the way medical science, the popular press, and personal biographies helped shape the history of transsexuality.

NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic, and what are the questions do you still have?

HC: I came to this topic from a number of angles. First, as a Sinologist, I have always been intrigued by the practice of castration in China’s long imperial history. Chinese historians have written quite extensively about the involvement of eunuchs (castrated male servants of the emperor) in state affairs. Eunuchs exerted colossal control in certain dynasties of Chinese history such as the Tang (618-907) and the Ming (1368-1644). Yet no one had written about the history of eunuchs from the viewpoint of their bodily experience. My book thus begins with the demise of castration in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I start there because that period witnessed the unprecedented explosion of visual, oral, and textual records documenting the methods of castration.

Second, as a historian of gender and sexuality, I went to college and grad school at a time when transgender studies became increasingly institutionalized as an independent field of study. It also struck me that whereas there are many solidly-researched gay, lesbian, and to a lesser extent bisexual histories out there, professional historians have paid insufficient attention to transgender topics. I was also fortunate to have come across the works of Joanne Meyerowitz, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Susan Stryker, Alison Oram, Emily Skidmore, and others. Taken by their archival and historical work, I thus began my journey into the science and transformations of sex in China’s modern past.

NOTCHES: This book is clearly about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?

HC: I am glad that you asked this question because, in the course of researching for the book, I gradually realized that I was simultaneously writing a history of how the very idea of “China” changed over time. For non-China experts, the fact that the first case of Chinese transsexuality was reported in 1950s Taiwan may seem moot. But that was at a time when global powers reconfigured along the geopolitical axis of the Cold War. It was the historical context that cemented the “two Chinas” situation: the People’s Republic of China ruled by the Communist Party under Mao Zedong on the continent and the Republic of China governed by the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek on the island of Taiwan. (We are still living with this legacy as much as the legacy of the “two Koreas” today.)

Therefore, After Eunuchs shows why debates over gender and sexual identity provide an instructive window into larger concerns over political and national sovereignty. The path that I trace from sexual science in mainland Republican China to sex reassignment surgeries in post-WWII Taiwan will undoubtedly upset many scholars of East Asia. But it is also my hope to show that queer history can productively disrupt scholarly conventions that tend not to be structured around matters of intimacy and sexuality.

Moreover, as a historian of science and medicine, I join a growing cohort of scholars to challenge the “failure” narrative of modern science in China. By that, I am referring to at least two dated views in historiography. First is the assumption that China had failed to generate its own science and medicine in its transition from empire to nation (in large part due to its well-known defeat by Western and Japanese powers in the nineteenth century). Second is the still common perception that modern science originated solely in the Scientific Revolution of Europe and not elsewhere.

After Eunuchs dispels these myths in many ways, but its most important intervention is to draw a genealogical line between imperial China’s eunuchs and modern Taiwan’s transsexuals. In so doing, it advocates for a more capacious and flexible meaning of “science” and, relatedly, a more creative approach to identifying primary sources. In the Republican period (1911-1949), Chinese scientists successfully negotiated different regimes of sexual knowledge to consolidate a biomedical conception of the human body; they established journals and learned societies for the empirical study of sexuality; they introduced a scientific theory that places everyone somewhere on a continuum between absolute maleness and femaleness; and they used anomalous bodies from the traditional past (e.g., eunuchs and hermaphrodites) as a conceptual interface for digesting foreign sexological ideas about sex mutability.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book, and were there any especially exciting discoveries?

HC: One of my most exciting discoveries was the widespread media coverage of the “Chinese Christine” in 1950s Taiwan. That was the label that journalist and reporters assigned to Xie Jianshun. With this label, they were referring to the American transsexual celebrity, Christine Jorgensen, who glamorized the pursuit of sex reassignment and became a worldwide household name in the 1950s. This also nicely captures the influence of American culture on the Republic of China at the peak of the Cold War. After Xie’s story made headlines, Taiwanese newspapers began to report stories of gender variance and non-conformity at an unprecedented rate. The subject of sex transformation suddenly moved to the center of the national spotlight in Taiwan. I would say that my confidence in the feasibility of this project matured only upon my discovery of the Xie story and the extensive media discussion of sex change immediately afterward.

NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?

For a comparative queer/trans history class, I would definitely recommend pairing After Eunuchs with something like Joanne Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States or Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Historians Susan Stryker and Ryan Jones are currently doing very interesting work on trans history that will also be relevant once published. Jones, for instance, is researching and writing about the Mexican Christine case, Marta Olmos. This year, respectively, Jones and I are teaching a new course on the global history of sexual science, for which my book can also be positioned constructively with debates in the history of Euro-American sexology.

NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?

HC: I am currently expanding my thinking on transgender history in a new book project. Drawing mainly from Sinophone (Chinese-language) sources again, this study will propose a new paradigm to bridge queer theory and transnational history. The book advances a series of “methods” to challenge the limited view of transgenderism as a minority phenomenon, namely, the approaches of globalizing, titrating, inscribing, and creolizing “transgender.”  A nested ambition is to think about the production of transness from the historical viewpoint of multiple sites without resorting to an area studies approach whereby Sinophone case studies merely serve to either illustrate or debunk Western theoretical models of queerness.

Howard Chiang teaches in the history department at the University of California, Davis. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the 3-volume Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) History.

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