Source: China Channel, LARB (1/13/20)
Review: Perverse Pasts and Queer Futures in Taiwan
Brandon Kemp reviews the academic essay collection Perverse Taiwan
When Taiwan’s government became the first in Asia to legalize gay marriage last May, the de facto island-nation received a flurry of positive press from international media. For a brief moment, coverage of Taiwan was not dominated by its relationship with neighboring China. Yet the open question remained of what exactly it means to be Taiwanese. The island, once home to an indigenous majority, was colonized variously by the Dutch, the Japanese, and the Chinese and still calls itself the Republic of China decades after the end of the exiled Chinese Nationalists’ one-party rule. This is despite the fact that its population increasingly identifies not as Chinese but Taiwanese.
Taiwan, in short, is a queer subject. By this, I don’t mean to repeat the cliché that it’s a gay Mecca, though it’s certainly true that Taiwan boasts a rich tradition of cultural and artistic LGBT expression. Rather, I mean that Taiwan today, with its political ambiguity, cultural syncretism, and peripheral status, seems almost impossible, or impermissible. Even as an object of scholarly inquiry, Taiwan is frequently ignored. As Sinophone scholar Shih Shu-mei writes, “Taiwan is too small, too marginal, too ambiguous, and thus too insignificant. Taiwan does not enjoy the historical accident of having been colonized by a Western power in the nineteenth or twentieth century; instead it was colonized by other Asian powers.”1 The result, she concludes, is that Taiwan has been effectively “ghettoized” within China-centric Asian studies or Sinology.
What’s more, due to historical connections between the anti-Communist American right and the exiled Nationalist government during the Cold War, Taiwan remains anathema for many liberals and leftists. This is despite the fact that Taiwan today embodies many of the political values and goals that progressives in the West claim to champion: democracy, labor rights, relatively equitable wealth distribution, representation of women in politics, universal health care, same-sex marriage, a free press, and so on. This is not to ignore Taiwan’s more illiberal side (anti-adultery statutes, harsh drug laws, and the death penalty, for instance), just to note that its imperfections are more comparable to those of other rich democracies rather than those of its authoritarian neighbor. Despite all the Western left’s talk of anti-colonialism and grassroots democracy, it has less to say about China’s own record of continental colonialism and Taiwan’s multiethnic struggle for self-determination. This is indeed a queer, and telling, silence.
Given Taiwan’s recent debates over same-sex marriage and concerns over an increasingly assertive China, Perverse Taiwan, an academic collection of essays edited by Howard Chiang and Wang Yin, remains timely. It comes in the aftermath of the turn toward queer Sinophone studies, which examines the dynamic relationship between marginal cultural and sexual subjectivities, and renewed attempts to carve out a space for the study of Taiwan in its own right. It also follows on the heels of a new wave of scholarship questioning whether Taiwan’s liberalization in the late 1980s really was the turning point for the island. Instead this new body of research, as the editors’ introduction states, “sheds light on the darker side of the liberal democratic order in the immediate post-martial law era,” including the marginalization of the most vulnerable queer subjects (for instance, the poor, sex workers, and those living with HIV) by both the state and the mainstream Taiwanese LGBT community.
The collection seeks new points of entry for the examination of Taiwan’s perverse histories, with essays that are both transnational in scope and intimate in register. As Chiang and Wang write, Taiwan’s complex, layered colonial past and present mean that “perversities in modern Taiwan often indicate ambiguous contact zones between two or more transnational apparatuses.” This makes the volume invaluable for anyone interested in topics as wide as Taiwan, modern China, Japanese colonialism, the US’s role in the Asia Pacific, or wider global and regional flows of media and desire. By carefully tracing the evolving representation and experience of gender and same-sex desire from the immediate postwar period through the present day, the collection manages to explore these points of erogenous contact, bringing together the transnational and the transgender, geopolitics and gay politics.
As suggested by a common Chinese term for “perverse,” biantai (變態 – literally “to change form”), Taiwan’s cultural and erotic realities are constantly evolving. The collection as a whole is deeply attentive to the ways these transformations occur at the intersection of global trends and local practices. Collectively, the essays suggest that a “transnational cultural politics” is at the heart of how queer desire is experienced and represented in Taiwan. Whether it is intellectuals’ frequently contradictory takes on imported medical and moral discourses on homosexuality, the changing kinship rituals embraced by trans people, or the postwar media’s obsession with the petty criminal Zeng Qiuhuang, each essay studies how artists, activists and communities have struggled to find a shared language and set of practices for living together in the world.
Hu Yu-ying’s chapter on lesbian identity in Taiwan exemplifies the collection’s attention to this interplay. Through a series of interviews, Hu reflects on how personal identification among members of the community has shifted over time. The traditional dichotomy between T and po lesbians – roughly corresponding to the butch-femme dynamics of Western queer circles – are giving way to more fluid formulations like T-leaning, po-leaning, bufen or vers. Partly, this is due to critiques of the T–po binary as heteronormative and limiting. It also owes something to recent global attention to the potential fluidity of gender expression. Hu notes how while these critiques have enabled some lesbians to shed restrictive roles, the continued need to negotiate erotic intimacies and boundaries also helps account for their persistence. Ultimately, she paints a picture of queer identities as both tenacious and flexible, and always transnational.
These fraught negotiations play out against the backdrop of Taiwan’s successive waves of colonialism. For example, Wang Yin’s reading of Lai Xiangyin’s The Translator (1995) and Thereafter (2012) points out how Taiwanese intellectuals’ postwar embrace of Japan is less a case of straightforward colonial nostalgia than a rejection of the “Sino-American dyad’s” stranglehold on the island’s life. Similarly, Wu Chao-jung discusses the cross-dressing Redtop theater troupe’s alternating embrace of Japanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese ballads over the years, documenting how the group’s trajectory closely tracks the island’s own changing political fortunes. As Wang notes, for those living within the vestiges of past colonial empires while fending off new ones, “decolonization at the level of everyday life is not a simple matter.”
The collection shines brightest in those chapters that manage to challenge and expand existing queer theories and genealogies through a careful readings of Taiwanese art. Chi Ta-wei’s essay on 1960s queer literature is one such example. He convincingly argues that the dominant models of homosexuality presented by American queer theorists such as David Halperin and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick fail to account for the kinds of unspoken longings and secret crushes so prevalent in Pai Hsien-yung’s short stories and Kuo Liang-hui’s Green Is the Grass (1963). Likewise, Halperin’s inegalitarian model of homoeroticism, which usually maps onto class in European contexts, does not quite capture how same-sex school romances play out in East Asia, where seniority tends to take precedence over social status. Like so many voices in the collection, Chi is also critical of the exclusions within the emerging queer canon, noting how novels depicting male homosexuality, such as Pai’s Crystal Boys (1983), are lauded as literary milestones, while earlier works exploring female homosexuality, such as Hsuan Hsiao-fo’s Outside the Circle (1976), are overlooked.
Turning from literature to film, Yeh Te-hsuan’s study of sexual shame in Tsai Ming-liang’s The River (1996) is one of the densest but most rewarding chapters. Yeh argues that dominant accounts of shame as identification with a disgraced subject fail to account for how shame actually operates in Chinese cultures. Rejecting a Cartesian model of psychic interiority as inadequate, he sees radical potential in the way the “internalized exteriority” of East Asian shame cultures can encourage dissociation, desubjectification, and disruption of existing relations and roles – exemplified by the infamous father-son incest scene in Tsai’s film. It’s in losing oneself in another, in one’s surroundings, that new possibilities lie.
Wang Chun-chi, meanwhile, wonders if this kind of subversive edge has been lost in the subsequent marketization of tongzhi (literally “comrade,” roughly “gay and lesbian”) cinema. Wang analyzes how films like Girlfriend, Boyfriend (2012), Blue Gate Crossing (2008), and Murmur of Youth (1997) romanticize queer suffering. Moreover, by situating queer romances in the transitional period of adolescence, Wang observes, these films refuse to take up contentious questions of identity and politics. Still, while the author rightly names some of the limits of this popularization of tongzhi cinema, she is perhaps too cynical when it comes to its radical possibilities. Taiwanese queer youth cinema – with its tendency to explore unconventional modes of openness – arguably challenges social and sexual norms in its own way.
Queer Taiwanese cultures, as these essays suggest, draw on a wellspring of influences and memories. Taiwaneseness, no less than queerness, is constantly evolving and adapting itself to new forms of power. Though it’s common nowadays to see “Republic of China (Taiwan)” in official English usage, the nomenclatures never seem to sit easily side by side. The bracketed term haunts the nominally Chinese settler state, just as it acts as a perennial thorn in the side of its increasingly belligerent neighbor. Its fiercest advocates too seldom sit well with Washington. Like queerness in José Esteban Muñoz’s telling, Taiwaneseness is both forcefully here and also not yet. Were the island to be swallowed up by China tomorrow, it’s difficult to believe the new regime could easily exorcise its ghosts. Today, perhaps more than ever, Taiwan’s ambiguous political status and polyphonic sexual subcultures continue to hold out the promise of other possible social and political relations. Therein lies Taiwan’s constantly mutating perversity: it is an irrepressible reminder that what constitutes a body, or a body politic, remains an open question. ∎
- “Globalization and the (In)Significance of Taiwan” (2003) in Postcolonial Studies 6:143-153.