Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and
Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China

By Hongwei Bao

Reviewed by Ari Larissa Heinrich
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2018)

Hongwei Bao, Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2018. vi-xii + 265 pp. ISBN: Hardback 978-87-7694-234-2, £65.00; ISBN: Paperback 978-87-7694-236-6, £22.50

Followers of the mainstreaming and globalizing of gay rights, with antennae pointed toward the Sinosphere, may remember the controversial McDonald’s McCafe “coming out” ad released in Taiwan in 2016. In the ad, a boy comes out to his father by writing “I like guys” on his coffee cup. Spoiler alert: the father, who initially seems annoyed, eventually borrows his son’s pen and adds a few words of his own, so that the writing on the coffee cup now reads “I [accept that you] like guys.” Music swells as tears of relief well up in the son’s eyes. For me and for many of the students in my large undergraduate lecture classes on “Queer Chinese Cultures,” the ad’s carefully choreographed emotional manipulation is so successful that, even after viewing it many times, I still sometimes feel weepy at the end. How embarrassing. For though on the surface the ad seems to paint a utopian picture of familial acceptance in the age of same-sex marriage, historically speaking the ad actually reinforces ideas about patriarchal family values and the ideal citizen-consumer in Taiwan. When working with students for whom such a course may be the only substantive introduction to LGBTQ-spectrum issues that they ever have, I sometimes struggle to articulate how ads like this may seem to offer straightforward support of a liberal politics, when in fact they effectively obscure the many histories in which “coming out” is actually a late-breaking and ideologically complicated addition to the story of sexualities in Sinophone contexts. As Hongwei Bao indicates in the introduction to his new book Queer Comrades: Gay Identity and Tongzhi Activism in Postsocialist China, citing Fran Martin and others, many scholars have pointed out how the authenticity of one’s identity is not determined by concealment or disclosure. On the contrary, concealment and disclosure “are historically contingent. Indeed, for many gays and lesbians in China, one does not need to be completely ‘in’ or ‘out.’ Being ‘in’ and ‘out’ depends on the particular social setting and on the person they are with. When to conceal and when to disclose one’s identity, together with to whom, becomes a matter of politics” (53). Now that the coming-out narrative has reached the stage where it can be folded (alongside “marriage equality”) into mainstream commercial idioms, it becomes even more urgent to understand the specific history of how “gay” came to be defined in Sinophone settings. Hongwei Bao’s new book contributes substantially to this agenda, by providing an eminently teachable resource for students interested in understanding some of the early twenty-first century figurations that have informed contemporary Mainland Chinese cultural practices around gay identities.

Queer Comrades treats a key window in Mainland Chinese gay history of the first decade of the new millennium by “bringing together critical analysis of queer cultural texts, including queer films and published personal diaries written by gay ‘patients’ as they undertook conversion therapy,” and “harness[ing] insights gained from two years of ethnographic research of queer public culture” (5). As Bao’s book makes clear, during the years of 2007-2009, when he was doing the bulk of his ethnographic research—years when dramatic changes were occurring in China’s market economy and internet technology was developing rapidly—terms like tongzhi (同志), tongxinglian (同性戀), and “gay” were also entering circulation and acquiring different nuances and meanings. Queer Comrades shows how the meanings of terms like these—terms that may at first appear to have an almost one-to-one correspondence to their English equivalents—are in fact acutely inflected by the specific historical contexts of their production. As Bao argues, replacing the uncritical or acontextual adoption of these terms with a more nuanced understanding of their origins could allow Mainland Chinese activists (for one) to exert greater agency in shaping future agendas. Consistent with the book’s title, Bao makes no secret that he believes one of the most promising terms to reclaim is “tongzhi”: instead of blindly adopting imported terms with neoliberal associations, Bao argues, Chinese activists should draw on the linguistic and cultural etymologies of tongzhi’s collectivist (and Chinese) roots to envision a more explicitly collectivist utopian future. “[I]n contemporary China, the socialist ‘comrade’ and the postsocialist ‘queer’ are mutually constitutive [italics in original],” writes Bao. “That is to say, the socialist past laid the foundation and provided the inspiration for contemporary Chinese gay identity and queer politics, which are both produced by and pose resistance to the Chinese state, as well as to transnational capitalism” (11). Later in the book, Bao elaborates that “As collective organizing gives way to individualism and consumerism, it is time to reinvigorate a Chinese queer identity, tongzhi. . .” (91) Interestingly, in his support of revitalizing the socialist idealist roots of tongzhi, Bao also brings back into play the scholar Chou Wah-shan’s controversial work, which in its advocacy of a return to “Chinese” cultural understandings of terms related to homosexuality has been criticized for, among other things, its essentialisms around what counts as “Chinese” and as “Western” when it comes to homosexuality (see for example Bao, pp. 73-78). While the challenges of understanding what counts as “Chinese,” and indeed of “homosexual,” remain controversial and in need of constant vigilance and interrogation, however (and while Bao does more directly address complications related to this question in chapter 7 and in the book’s conclusion), in the age of the global mainstreaming of homonormative values related to things like “marriage” and “coming out,” Bao’s point is well-taken: do contemporary Mainland Chinese queer activists really want to take the hand-me-down vocabulary of ‘Western’ neoliberal transcapitalism at face value? Or might the objectives of queerness and collectivity actually and fruitfully overlap?

Throughout the book, Bao deploys a wonderfully eclectic approach, marshaling what he calls an ‘engaged ethnography’ of local history (as in his research for chapter 2 on Shanghai’s gay scene, for example) and linguistics (as in his historically-situated study of the etymologies of terms like tongzhi and tongxinglian) for chapter 3. Bao also takes care to situate himself consistently as a researcher-participant, noting good-humoredly in the Introduction that “[i]t is best to see the book as a journey into queer China with the author as a tour guide,” and adding, “As with all tours, the narrative of this one is shaped by the guide’s own priorities, perspective, enthusiasm, frustration, bias, omission, interpretation, idiosyncrasy, and above all, politics” (32). In chapter 2, for instance, Bao artfully records not only what amounts to an incredibly valuable archive of accounts of various events, groups, and online forums as they emerged in this critical period in Shanghai, but also takes pains to evoke some of the feeling of this time in his narrative, as when he recreates the scene at Eddy’s, “one of the longest running gay bars in Shanghai”:

The bar has a modern design, with red lighting, Chinese antiques, and modern art. The red lighting at the bar is designed to create an effect of ambiguity, connoting both sexual innuendo and political subversion. Most eye-catching are the paintings on the wall portraying the Maoist ‘comrade’, serving as both a pun and a parody of communist ideology. The crowd is a mixture of foreign expatriates and local Chinese. English seems to be the working language. The bartender is busy but friendly. One glass of beer, Budweiser or Corona, costs 30 to 40 yuan. . . . The DJ is playing trendy music mixed with a global flavor, but not loud enough to disturb conversations. Men in tight T-shirts and jeans show off their well-toned bodies. The Chinese gay men here are mostly in their 20s and 30s and they are young, relatively well-off and very confident. . . This might be anywhere in the world: London, Paris, New York, Berlin, or San Francisco. (51)

Meanwhile, chapter 3 cleanly deconstructs the interwoven histories and usages of “gay” terminology like tongzhi, which Bao connects to utopian activist roots and ideals; tongxinglian, which he connects to a more pathologized or clinical characterization of homosexuality that therefore renders it perhaps less useful to activism; and “gay,” which he convincingly situates in the context of its cosmopolitan and quasi-elitist class associations. For its cultural etymologies alone this chapter merits being included as core reading in any queer Chinese studies syllabus, and could contribute much-needed depth to North American queer studies courses more generally.

Bao deploys a case-study modality in chapter 4 to recount how “conversion therapy” was practiced in the 1990s in China, a smart and at times harrowing approach to understanding what the constructed “self” could mean in terms of certain tongzhi identities in this period. Here Bao uses for example the diaries kept by patients who underwent “conversion,” simultaneously providing a measure of historical and social context while considering “the centrality of ideas of the self that are framed by the imperative of ‘knowing the self’ and ‘transforming the self.’” He accomplishes this by “trac[ing] a genealogy of the self that foregrounds links between contending notions of self in the Maoist and the post-Mao eras” (94), reminding readers all too concretely that bodies and minds can both be sites for state intervention. “The conversion therapy diaries bear witness,” notes Bao, “to the remaking of both bodies and subjectivities by the social engineering project of post-Mao China and by the pervasive medical governmentality of modern society more widely” (116).

Chapter 5 is devoted to an individual case study of the queer film-maker Cui Zi’en (1957-), weaving together numerous interviews with Cui to create what is essentially a portrait of the artist as a young queer activist who uses digital video as his primary medium and method. In a forthcoming fashion characteristic of the book as a whole, Bao here confesses that, in writing the chapter, he is in many ways “reconstructing a seemingly coherent person as a foil for my articulation of a particular type of politics, knowing that Cui himself would probably object to treating his ideas as static, dogmatic and stripped of their context”(121). By contrast, chapter 6 traces the emergence of traveling queer film festivals organized since 2001 by young queer filmmakers like Fan Popo, Shitou, and Mingming, looking in particular at how these traveling festivals, “by ‘going to the people,’” do the work of community-building around queer identities, including the filmmakers’ own (196). At times this community-building is imbued with a utopian quality, as when Bao describes the experience of being present at a screening of a film by Shitou about a lesbian pride march in San Francisco. Observing that, for many women participants in the audience, the screening “was clearly experienced…as empowering,” Bao reflects that, “[f]or one moment, I could also imagine myself to be on Castro Street, dancing with the people in the film and sharing their joys. . . . Everybody seemed to feel, as I did, that he or she belonged to this queer nation by sharing an identity on which it depends” (164). Chapters 6 and 7 also function archivally to give readers in English unique access to critical primary materials from China. Meanwhile some of the theory on public space laid out in chapter 6 (Habermas, Lefebvre, Foucault) sets the stage for chapter 7, in which Bao explores questions of queer citizenship and public space through the example of an incident on August 25, 2009, when police asked a group of gay men to leave a public park in Guangzhou (called, naturally, “People’s Park”); the incident escalated until passers-by joined in and—to the sound of a cheering crowd—the police retreated. Complicating what have been considered obvious parallels to the Stonewall Incident, Bao here argues for a more situated understanding of what queer culture and resistance may mean in China going forward.

As we enter a time when the market-friendly and acontextual global narratives of “coming out” or “marriage equality” threaten to eclipse or even erase more complex understandings of twenty-first century queer Chinese (and Sinophone) histories, a nuanced and engaged work like Hongwei Bao’s becomes even more important. Queer Comrades should be on the syllabus of any class about queer activisms in China and beyond.

Ari Larissa Heinrich 韓瑞
University of California, San Diego