Queer Comrades

Travis Kong

Hongwei Bao’s monograph offers an excellent example of an examination of gay identity and activism in contemporary China from a cultural studies perspective. It draws from queer theory, feminism, Marxism, and postcolonial and critical race studies for its theoretical lens. More specifically, driven by a leftist politics, Bao brings queer theory and Marxism into dialogue to provide a nuanced understanding of the complexity and fluidity of non-normative male sexual identities: tongxinglian (同性戀), gay, tongzhi (同志), ku’er (酷儿), MSM. He examines the challenges and potential of a radical gay politics against the backdrop of China’s socialist legacy and contemporary postsocialist reality, which is infused with nascent capitalism, neoliberalism and cosmopolitanism.

Inspired by Halberstam’s ‘queer methodology’, which uses various methods to produce knowledge on subjects who have been excluded from traditional studies of human behaviour, Bao brings together medical records, published diaries and films, as well as interviews, ethnographic accounts and personal anecdotes in his analysis. Moreover, he is no detached researcher, but rather a passionate and engaged ethnographer. Bao was born and grew up in China, self-identifies as gay, studied in Australia for his PhD, and has taught at various universities in China and Europe. He is now teaching in the United Kingdom. He was well aware of both the privileges and limitations of his research position as insider and outsider when he was in conversation with queer communities in China, conversation that took place primarily during his field trips to the country over the 2007 and 2009 period. With his distinctive and sometimes witty writing style, Bao illustrates the ‘structure of feelings’ of the kaleidoscopic queer culture in China today. The book, he says, is a journey into queer China with him as tour guide.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part (Chapters 2–4) concerns the genealogy of tongzhi identity in contemporary China. Bao delineates the usage of the terms tong (meaning ‘same’) and zhi (meaning ‘ideal’ or ‘aspiration’), which exist separately in classical Chinese literature, but were first used in combination in 1911 to mean ‘comrade’, a term signifying a revolutionary and political subjectivity and widely used in Republican and Maoist China. However, the term was later reappropriated to signify a sexual subjectivity (‘queer’), first in Hong Kong (1989–), then in Taiwan (1992–) and later in postsocialist China (1992–). By tracing the genealogy of tongzhi identity from a political subjectivity (tongzhi as comrade) to sexual subjectivity (tongzhi as queer), Bao differentiates it from other sexual identities such as the older, traditional (and often stigmatised) tongxinglian, the transnational and multilingual ‘gay’, and the radical and subversive ku’er. He is also critical of the normalisation process of tongzhi as law-biding, well-educated, model sexual citizens. Bao does not merely treat tongzhi as an identity, but uses it creatively as an analytical framework to examine ‘subject, power, governmentality, social movements and everyday life in China’ (p. 4). By putting the two meanings of tongzhi together as ‘queer comrades’, he advocates for queer Marxist analysis that queers the political subject of comrade while simultaneously underscoring the radical and political potential of being queer (Chapter 3). Particularly fascinating is Bao’s mapping of the sexual geography of Shanghai, with the city’s transnational gays located in trendy bars, young, educated tongzhi in local and community-organised activities (e.g. sport, karaoke, dining), and older, often stigmatised tongxinglian in dance halls, public parks, and toilets (Chapter 2). He also discusses how conversion therapy (turning gay people straight) can be seen as an affective project, as well as a postsocialist technology of the self that violently rejects homosexual desires, and delineates the way in which the victims of such therapy have suffered as they struggle to become ‘proper’ sexual citizens (Chapter 4).

Part 2 of the book (Chapters 5–7) focuses on the media and cultural queer activism. Bao first discusses China’s leading queer filmmaker and activist, Cui Zi’en, and the way in which he uses digital video films as a form of queer activism (what Cui calls ‘digital video activism’) (Chapter 5). Like Bao, who uses queer Marxism to perform his cultural analysis, Cui uses queer Marxism to direct his films. Both men embrace a socialist and Marxist vision and imagine a radical queer politics in contemporary China. In Chapter 6, Bao discusses younger queer filmmakers (e.g. Fan Popo, Shitou, Mingming) and examines the ways in which they organise queer film festivals, travelling from Beijing and Shanghai to Guangzhou and engaging with different local queer communities, for example. In response to government intervention (e.g. sudden forced closures by the police), these organic intellectuals adopt a guerrilla style of festival organisation, with contingent screening plans in place, resulting in the creation of fleeting queer public spaces for screening, exchange and interaction. Whilst these two chapters focus on queer activism advanced by the queer intelligentsia, Chapter 7 discusses a concrete case of confrontation between the police and a group of cruising gay men over the use of a public park in Guangzhou, showing how some gay men make use of social media to reclaim their sexual citizenship. Whether discussing intelligentsia or ordinary people, offline or online activities, queer film festivals or daily cruising behaviours, Bao presents a picture of tongzhi in China as constituting an ephemeral counter-public – or heterotopia in Foucauldian terms – that captures the radicalness of queer activism in China today.

Queer Comrades is original and theoretically engaging, weaving textual analysis with ethnographic accounts and personal anecdotes. It is extremely accessible and easy to read and digest. The book makes two major contributions. The first is to cultural studies. The book is an exemplar of an interdisciplinary work in both theoretical (speaking to different fields and disciplines such as cultural studies, media studies, gender and sexuality studies, sociology, anthropology, and China studies) and methodological terms (combining textual and socio-materialistic analysis). In conjunction with Bao’s leftist orientation, his proposed queer Marxism is particularly useful for rethinking the radicalness of gay identity, politics and activism in contemporary China. His use of cultural studies lessens to some extent the tension between textual and social-materialistic analyses that is deeply rooted in the humanities and social sciences. In addition to Bao’s proposed directions for future research, including overcoming the male basis of tongzhi, going beyond urban and Han ethnocentrism, and examining the role of new media in identity and community formation, I would add social-materialistic analysis and critique of the state and the family and the role they play (both enabling and restricting) in shaping the contours of tongzhi identities, practices and politics.

The book’s second major contribution is to queer Asian studies, a slowly emerging discipline that is critical of the hegemonic Western understanding of non-Western and non-normative genders and sexualities. Queer Asian studies scholars have examined the complex diasporic, trans-national/regional and hybrid forms of Asian queer identities, practices and cultures under the forces of globalisation, cosmopolitanism and neoliberalism. Bao has critically engaged with these scholars (see his list of other scholarly works on pages 25–28 and 205–206). His work fits firmly within queer Asian studies (or more specifically queer Chinese studies), offering a timely intervention that critically engages with Western theories in order to ‘reimagine and reshape queer, China and Asia’ (p. 206).