Hongwei Bao

Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture examines lesbian and gay cultural production — including literature, art, film and performance — in the People’s Republic of China (PRC or mainland China) during the post-Mao and postsocialist era (1976 to present) to map out the role of identity, community and culture in contemporary political activism and social movements.

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

Bao: This book offers a critical analysis of key cultural texts ranging from gay novels and poetry to girls’ love fan fiction, from lesbian paintings and photography to gay papercutting art, from a feminist film to a transgender documentary, and from a drag performance in Shanghai to a same-sex wedding in Beijing. It reveals a vibrant picture of queer communities and cultures since their inception in post-Mao China. It also makes a strong case for the crucial role of culture in constructing LGBTQ identities and communities, and in enabling queer political and social activism.

This transdisciplinary book speaks to a wide range of academic fields, including the study of literature, art, film, media, performance and social activism. It is of interest to scholars in gender and sexuality studies, media and cultural studies, as well as China, Asia and Global South studies. Employing multiple theoretical perspectives and research methods, this book presents rich empirical and historical data; it also offers a nuanced analysis of the complex relationship between neoliberalism, queer sexualities and cultural production. This timely intervention aims to de-Westernise queer theory and cultural studies, and to queer China, Asia and Global South studies.

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

Bao: This book can be seen as sequel to my first book Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China, though both books can be read independently without having to cross-reference each other. In Queer Comrades, I traced the emergence and development of a politicised queer identity in the PRC called tongzhi (literally comrade, meaning gay or queer), along with its concomitant political and social activism. After Queer Comrades, I found it difficult to continue this line of enquiry because of the limitations of the term ‘political activism’. I needed to rethink what is ‘political’ and what constitutes ’activism’. Obviously, the Western sense of queer political activism does not map neatly onto China. LGBTQ prides do happen in the PRC, but they are irregular occurrences; many ordinary queer people tend to stay away from these spectacular and slightly confrontational type of identity display. Many activists in China have adopted a more pragmatic approach for identity and community building; that is, they engage in cultural activities such as film, literature, art and theatre — ‘cultural activism’ in other words. I find this approach fascinating, because these cultural activities often perform what ‘activism’ is supposed to do: they bring people together; they forge a sense of togetherness; and they articulate feelings of hope and optimism. At the same time, they are much safer, more interesting, flexible, creative, affective and effective. In other words, cultural production can function as a form of queer activism, and this strategy is context specific and culturally sensitive, and therefore works better in the PRC context. Also importantly, many of these creative and cultural activities are not obsessed with fixed notions of gender and sexual identities; there are often enough ambiguities, contradictions, openness and flexibility in the identities they represent and construct. This manifests a post-identitarian mode of politics. That is to say, sexual identities are not singular and static; they are often multiple, fluid and transient; they should be seen not as being but as becoming, not an end but as a starting point. So, after Queer Comrades, I started to look at different creative and cultural forms including novels, poetry, fan fiction, film, performance, painting, photography and papercutting in relation to queer subject formation. Queer China was the result.

One of my goals for this book is to practice identity critiques without subscribing to identity politics. I hope that Queer China delivers on this goal. Having said this, I acknowledge that identities should not be rejected all together; they are often useful as tools to build communities and politics. People involved in social movements are constantly aware of the uses and abuses of identities. Here comes my remaining question: how can identities be used productively to mobilise politics and build social movements? To answer this question, we would need to look at collective and activist forms of media and cultural productions. Queer community media — that is, the films, videos and websites produced by, for and about queer people — are good examples, and they will be the focus of my next book.

NOTCHES: This book is clearly about sex and sexuality, but what are other themes it speaks to?

Bao: This book makes a case for the crucial role of culture in queer politics, and in other anti-hegemonic politics and social movements as well. Political activism and social movements should not merely be about political agitation and mass mobilisation, or merely concerned with how to deal with the state and the market. Cultural production is an integral part of the political process. Literature and visual culture make a movement interesting, affective and approachable; they also help disrupt rigid lines of thinking about identities, which often underpin some fundamental premises and inform key strategies of a movement.

As already mentioned, theoretically, I use a post-identitarian approach to bring together a wide range of materials. Literature and visual art are seldom entirely about identities; nor do they explicitly advocate identity politics. They may depict identities, but the meanings of these representations are always multiple, ambiguous, ambivalent — in other words, they are beyond identities. This inspires me to pursue a line of enquiry that focuses on the simultaneous construction and deconstruction of identities in a specific historical conjuncture. In analysing literary and art works, I have paid meticulous attention to how identities are represented and constructed, as well as how they can be potentially challenged, subverted and perhaps dismantled. This approach is productive, because it helps me rethink the globalisation of sexual identities — the debate of whether there is a Westernised ‘global gay’ identity in China, Asia and the Global South; it also enables me to critique reified identities under neoliberalism, and to highlight the significance of China’s socialist history and postsocialist experience for an anti-hegemonic transnational politics. A key concept of this book is ‘postsocialist metamorphosis’; I use the term to describe the transformations of gender, sexuality and identity in a neoliberal and postsocialist context, which are bound to be incomplete, uncontrollable and unpredictable. By depicting these processes, the book offers a critique of gay identity politics and neoliberal subjectivation; it also offers hopes, optimism and ‘lines of flight’ under the global neoliberal hegemony.

NOTCHES: How did you research the book?

Bao: First of all, I must acknowledge that this book is not a cultural history, although it examines some key texts in PRC’s queer cultural history. A history of queer literature, art, film and performance would require a group of scholars’ collective wisdom and teamwork over a course of many years and this cannot be accomplished by a single author. Besides, at the present moment, we may stand too close to, and even inside of, the queer history we are looking at: China’s queer history from the 1980s to present. There is a Chinese saying: it is difficult to see the true shape of a mountain because we are inside the mountain. We would need a certain critical distance to see the picture more clearly and this usually takes time.

Secondly, this book is not a study of the forms and aesthetics of queer literature and visual culture, although it does touch upon issues such as forms and aesthetics. My overall approach is a cultural studies one, and my focus is on the social and cultural meanings of these works. Also, I have adopted an approach that combines close analysis of cultural texts with critical analysis of their political, social and cultural contexts. At times I turn to social and industry practices to interrogate the discourses and power relations in which a cultural text is situated. This is very much owing to my own academic background as a cultural studies scholar. I studied literature and art history in China and worked at a theatre academy before I did my PhD in cultural studies. I have found the traditional approach focusing on forms and aesthetics insufficient for this project, and hence the use of a cultural studies approach.

Having made these strategic decisions and choices, I started to think about what key cultural texts or practices I can include. Of course, ‘key cultural texts and practices’ is a very subjective phrase; different people may come up with different lists. It is however still possible to identify some widely circulated and highly influential works in PRC’s queer communities, such as the online novel Beijing Story (aka Lan Yu or Beijing Comrade), Mu Cao’s novels and poetry, Shi Tou’s films and artworks, Xiyadie’s papercutting, among others. I have tried to include a wide range of literary and art forms; I have also taken into consideration various forms of gender and sexual identities they represent, as well as different types of cultural producers and geographical locations. The amalgamation of all these considerations results in the key case studies of this book. It is worth mentioning that this book covers many literary and artworks that have not been given sufficient scholarly attention before in both English and Chinese language academia, including Mu Cao’s poetry, Xiyadie’s papercutting, Shi Tou’s film Women 50 Minutes and Matthew Baren’s film Extravaganza. The analysis of these works not only helps write queer cultural texts and their authors into Chinese and transnational cultural histories; it also helps rectify the urban centrism in Chinese and Sinophone queer studies by paying attention to rural, migrant and working-class queer issues.

The research and writing of this book lasted more than a decade. The first chapter on the re-emergence of homosexuality in postsocialist China was the first piece of writing I did as a PhD student in 2007. The chapter on Beijing Story was also part of my PhD thesis. The materials and arguments of the two chapters are still very relevant today; I have therefore included a revised version of them in this book. In the past fifteen years, I have collected research materials, conducted interviews and done participatory observation every time I visited China, usually annually. Some of these interviews and ethnographic accounts are documented in this book. The different chapters of the book have witnessed my own intellectual development; they have also documented the change of my subject position from an academic researcher trying to observe China’s queer cultures ‘objectively’ to being a self-identified community historian committed to working with China’s queer communities with which I identity through participatory action research (PAR).

NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out of your book and why? What would you include had you been able to?

Bao: There are many cultural texts and authors or artists that I could have included, including Cui Zi’en and Tong Ge’s novels, Ren Hang’s photography and many more. But this is not my major concern at the moment: a book like this cannot hope to include everything and anything. The examples I have chosen can help me make my argument, and that is the most important thing. Future researchers are welcome to build on this research by studying more works and their authors/artists. In fact, we probably need several books for different literary and art forms including literature, art, film and performance. As the first scholarly monograph dedicated to the study of queer literature and visual culture in the PRC context, this book only marks a beginning of studies on the topic.

Perhaps a more urgent issue for this book to address is that this book has primarily focused on individual and spontaneous forms of creative and cultural expressions. Xiyadie, for example, had started making queer papercutting art even before he knew he was gay. Artistic creation, for him at one time, was a more spontaneous form of self-expression. Also, some texts were not meant for a queer readership when they were first created; it was their reception and circulation in society that eventually rendered these texts ‘queer’; many fan fiction texts would fall into this category. To some extent, this explains the overall post-identitarian and de-subjectivising tendency of many cultural texts I have chosen. However, in China’s queer communities, there are also collective, communitarian, activist and explicitly political types of cultural production. Fan Popo and David Zheng’s documentary New Beijing, New Marriage and Matthew Baren’s documentary about the drag community in Shanghai, Extravaganza, are good examples. These filmmakers are self-identified queer activists and they often work closely with other queer people in the communities for self-representation and rights advocacy. These types of community, citizen and activist media have not featured prominently in Queer China. Hopefully this will be addressed and remedied in my next book on queer community media in China.

NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualised it?

Bao: For a book whose research and writing lasted more than a decade, changes are inevitable. I could never have imagined what this book would look like when I started this project. I tend to think about the change in a positive way. Foucault once said, if we already know what a book is going to be like from the start, what is the use and fun of writing the book? The process of writing is a creative, dynamic and often unpredictable process; it is a process of becoming: becoming someone different, becoming other, becoming Queer China.

Similarly, I would encourage readers to take a more relaxed and idiosyncratic approach to this book: please read the book as if you are playing with Lego in order to build your own Lego. You do not have to follow the book outline to read from Chapter 1 to Chapter 8 in a linear trajectory. You can start with any chapter or even any page if you feel like to. If something you have read touches or inspires you, that’s great; but otherwise, forget about it and go to the next page or even the next chapter. The most important thing is to establish your own affective connections with the book and the topics it discusses, rather than becoming a hostage to them.

Perhaps this also explains the eclectic and even erratic theoretical approaches I have used in this book: Chapter 1 is a very Foucauldian chapter, as I was reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality volume 1 when I was writing the chapter, which was meant to be a brief history, or genealogy, of the re-emergence of homosexuality in post-Mao China. Chapter 8 is very Deleuzian and at times Latourian, because the writing of the chapter overlapped with my post-humanist reading period. The book is overall Marxist, sometimes post-colonial, and even at times Harbermasian. The writing of these chapters has certainly coincided with my intellectual development at different stages in life. I do not see the coexistence of these theoretical approaches and perspectives as contradictory: whatever works is useful. It is encounters and intensities that I am after, and it is intellectual dogma that I try to reject. This belief also informs the post-identitarian argument of this book.

NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?

Bao: It has taken me a long time to realise that I have been documenting China’s queer histories, and that I am essentially doing a historian’s job. On the one hand, I was not trained as a historian. Media and cultural studies where I situate myself are usually associated with the study of contemporary society and culture. On the other, the queer history I am working on, from the 1980s to present, seems too recent for many people to consider ‘history’. And yet they are definitely histories: sexualities and identities are historically specific and socially constructed; queer history can therefore tell us a lot about national and transnational histories as well as the power relations that construct them. Also, histories are important for marginalised people and communities. If global or national histories often erase or marginalise queer people’s existence, it is all the more important for us to trace it, write it down and to remember it. After the publication of Queer Comrades, many queer people said thanks to me, and I did not understand why. As it turned out, they saw my book as a record of China’s queer history. However incomplete this historical account is, writing them down is the first step and is a crucial thing for communities that have traditionally been denied their histories. With this realisation, I have come to appreciate the value of my own research, and the historical and social roles I have been thrown into. This can sometimes become a burden for an individual, but at the moment I am doing what I can to document China’s queer histories in the past four decades, from my own perspective. This is how I have become a self-identified community historian.

Here I would also like to highlight that this book is an important documentation of China’s queer history in the post-Mao era. The appendix of this book features a chronology of key events in PRC’s queer history in ten pages, covering a period of almost thirty years from 1991 to 2019. I have compiled this chronology by myself, in reference to numerous historical sources and critical scholarship. This chronology is far from being complete, and there may be occasional inaccuracies because I was not able to locate every primary source, but it is the most comprehensive Chinese queer chronology published to date. I hope that this chronology will be of use to community members and queer researchers alike.

Chapter 1 of this book is also worth mentioning from a queer historian’s perspective. This chapter traces the re-emergence of homosexuality in the post-Mao era. It makes an important argument about the ‘repressive hypothesis’ in the post-Mao era; that is, a way of talking about sexual repression in the Mao era and sexual liberation in the post-Mao era. Recent oral histories conducted by Wenqing Kang and Travis Kong support my argument in refuting the simplistic thesis that homosexuality was repressed or non-existent in the Mao era. It is then important to reflect on the power relations embedded in the ‘repressive hypothesis’. Chapter 1 also encourages us to consider the ambivalent role that Chinese intellectuals have played in the post-Mao era when they speak about a repressed homosexuality and thereby bring it under a scientific gaze. Indeed, the ‘incitement to discourse’ in relation to homosexuality in the post-Mao era marks a collective denial and erasure of China’s socialist past, as well as the socialist and egalitarian principles underpinning it. This insight has profound implications for the prevalence of queer liberalism and even neoliberalism in our contemporary historical moment. The re-emergence of homosexuality in the post-Mao era is therefore an ideologically complex discursive and social practice for a country, and even for a world, that has gradually departed from socialism and embraced neoliberal ideologies and modes of governance. I hope this insight — with an emphasis on class politics and the ideological ambivalences of gay identity — is useful for the study of Chinese and transnational queer histories.

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

Bao: Each chapter of this book deals with a different topic, a separate case study, informed by a set of theoretical perspectives. They can therefore be used independently in classroom teaching, depending on the topic and the need of the course. If readers are interested in learning more about gay identity and queer activism in the PRC, my other book Queer Comrades could be useful. Interviews about Queer Comrades can be found on the Notches, New Books Network and CeMEAS websites. I also coedited, with Elisabeth Engebretsen and William Schroeder, a book titled Queer/Tongzhi China, which examines queer activism, research and media cultures in the PRC and features articles from a transnational group of queer researchers and activists, and I highly recommend that book.

This book is about queer cultural production. It is therefore a good idea to use the book in conjunction with the queer cultural texts that it covers. While it is true that some texts are only available in Chinese (e.g. the girls’ love fan fiction Pink Affairs), many texts have been translated into English, including Beijing Story (also known as Beijing Comrades, translated by Scott Myers) and some of Mu Cao’s poems. You can also find Mu Cao’s novel In the Face of Death We Are Equal translated by Scott Myers and recently published in English. Many of the artworks by Shi Tou and Xiyadie are available online; a simple google search will yield many exciting discoveries. Fan Popo and David Zheng’s documentary New Beijing, New Marriage is also available for online streaming, with English subtitles. You can find a trailer of Matthew Baren’s film Extravaganza online too.

If you read Chinese, I encourage that you read Pink Affairs on a Chinese website. Ling Yang and I have also co-written an article discussing the affective sociality of the Super Girl fandom; that article can be read in tandem with Chapter 4 of this book, the latter of which has a stronger focus on reading the fan fiction text. For readers interested in learning more about fan cultures and other forms of queer popular culture in China, I recommend that they read two recently published books: Boys’ Love, Cosplay and Androgynous Idols (edited by Maud Lavin, Ling Yang and Jamie Jing Zhao) and Love Stories in China (edited by Waning Sun and Ling Yang). For readers interested in learning about queer cultures in the Sinophone sphere, I recommend Queer Sinophone Cultures (edited by Howard Chiang and Ari Larissa Heinrich) and Queer Chinese Cultures and Mobilities (by John Wei). I also look forward to reading Howard Chiang’s forthcoming book Transtopia in the Sinophone Pacific and his co-edited book, with Alvin Wong, Keywords in Queer Sinophone Cultures.

NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?

Bao: This book has documented an important queer community history. Queer identities and communities emerged in the PRC context in the 1980s and 90s. In a country where homosexuality has only recently been decriminalised and depathologised, and all kinds of political activism are still forbidden under a repressive regime, it is crucial to understand the pivotal role of culture in queer identity and community formation, and for political activism and social movements.

This book also makes a strong critique to neoliberal capitalism, together with a neoliberal mode of sexual identity and politics focused on individualism, private property and consumption. This book sheds important light on how neoliberalism shapes identities and desires, demarcating them along licit and illicit, reputable and irreputable lines. Class is an important keyword as this book discusses rural, working-class, and migrant sexualities. This book thus critiques an urban, middle-class, homonormative and even homonationalist form of queer culture with perfect identifications. It also points to the gaps, irregularities and lines of flight in neoliberal subjectivation. Indeed, subjectivation is never complete, in the same way that identities are never fixed and coherent. It is the incompleteness of subjectivation and the gaps and fissures in neoliberalism that should give us hope and optimism.

NOTCHES: Your book is published. What next?

Bao: As mentioned earlier, I am currently working on a book on queer community media in the PRC, with a focus on digital video films and community documentaries. Different from Queer China which primarily focuses on individual and spontaneous forms of cultural expression, the book on queer media will dedicate itself to examining more collective, communitarian, activist and political forms of queer media and film practices. It documents an important period in the PRC’s cultural history when queer activists used films, digital videos and websites, along with film and media related events (such as queer film festivals and video-making workshops), for political and social activism in the first two decades of this century. The study of queer community media is important because it highlights the productive role of identities, communities, socially engaged modes of media practice, as well as socialist and democratic visions for transnational queer politics. I am working on the book at the moment while isolating myself at home amid the COVID-19 global pandemic; my argument for the book will be informed by the collective, communitarian and activist practices I saw, as well as the shifting global geopolitics, during the pandemic. Watch this space!

Hongwei Bao is an associate professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is the author of Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China (Nordic Institute of Asia Studies Press, 2018) and Queer China: Lesbian and Gay Literature and Visual Culture under Postsocialism (Routledge, forthcoming in 2020).

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