After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine,
and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China

By Howard Chiang

Reviewed by Elise Huerta

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2020)

Howard Chiang, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. xx + 391 pgs. ISBN: 9780231185790 (Paper); Hardcover published 2018: ISBN: 9780231185783.

Since the late 1980s, China scholars have produced a steady stream of research on sex, gender, and feminism that has critically reframed the way the field approaches major topics such as love, labor, nationalism, and modernity. Despite the vast magnitude of  existing work on sexuality and same-sex desire, Howard Chiang’s After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (2018) is the first book-length history of sex change to appear within the field of Chinese studies. In this meticulously-researched interdisciplinary study, Chiang unearths a plethora of archival evidence to not only shed fresh light on decades-long debates about shifting discourses of sex in modern China, but also to reveal the precise mechanisms and conditions that made such discourses possible. Chiang’s detailed close reading of visual and literary texts, his rigorous engagement with queer, Sinophone, and post-structuralist theories, and his sensitive treatment of the archive culminate in a coherent and convincing genealogy of sex in China, from the demise of eunuchism in the late imperial period through the emergence of public discourse on transsexuals in 1950s Taiwan. The book’s major historical intervention is its establishing of an unexpected relationship between these two phenomena, arguing that the conceptual foundation necessary for “transsexual” to emerge as an intelligible category in 1950s Taiwan can be traced back to a three-pronged “‘epistemic nexus’” that came to the fore during the early twentieth century (13). This nexus, which posited a new conceptualization of sex as composed of  “elements of visibility, carnality, and elasticity,” was constructed by Chinese sexologists and self-proclaimed “sexperts” who developed globally-circulating ideas within the context of examples from traditional culture, among which was the body of the eunuch (14).

Existing work on eunuchism and its demise tends to address the matter from a social and political angle. The first chapter of After Eunuchs departs from this approach: it rummages through a sensational and challenging archive to address the ill-understood corporeal experience of castration. In the late 1800s, eunuchism came under severe criticism by early reformers and foreign observers, who left behind a profusion of records documenting the gruesome details of Chinese castration practices. Voyeuristic medical images and graphic descriptions of the agony experienced after having one’s penis and testicles sickled off by “knifers” (刀子匠) deployed Orientalist logic to cast the “feminized” body of the eunuch as a synecdoche for a backward and castrated Chinese civilization. In this sense, the turn-of-the-century representation of eunuchism parallels that of footbinding and leaves behind a similarly problematic archive that conceals the agency and subjective experiences of individual actors beneath a hegemonic, politicized narrative of victimization put forth by (alleged) observers. Following the approach adopted by Dorothy Ko in her revisionist history of footbinding, Chiang maintains a vigilant awareness of source limitations as he attempts to excavate eunuchs’ agency and multiplicity of experiences from the historical ruins. The chapter contends, against the mainstream narrative, that undergoing castration did not indicate the complete erasure of eunuchs’ masculine identities: many were castrated only after having children and retained their patriarchal social positions in both the political and domestic spheres. The chapter also reconsiders the apparently stunted reproductive capacity of castrated men by pointing out that eunuchs reproduced themselves socially and culturally as the principle actors who castrated other male bodies. Finally, the book dispels the ahistorical assumption that eunuchs had always been considered a “third sex” or “feminized men” by illuminating how these labels rely on epistemological categories that did not emerge until the early 1900s.

Chapter 2 describes a visual turn that underpinned the transformation of earlier notions of bodily “gender” into the modern notion of “sex” beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Chiang designates three techniques of visualization that authorized a new scientific epistemology. First, the “anatomical aesthetic of medical representation” depicted sex as a universal, scientific, and visible entity through anatomical images that promoted and produced dissection-based realism. Second, popular biology books disseminated a “morphological sensibility of the natural history tradition” that assigned the meaning of sex to all forms of life through a discourse of ci/xiong (雌/雄) distinction. For example, textbook images highlighting the distinct characteristics of ci and xiong animals trained readers how to visually distinguish binary gender. Finally, the “subcellular gaze of experimental genetics” reinforced anatomical and morphological techniques with figures and images detailing chromosomal factors that naturalized sex on a sub-cellular level.

In chapter 3, Chiang substantiates the work of scholars such as Tze-lan Sang in his elaboration of a Foucauldian epistemic rupture that occurred with the establishment of scientia sexualis in the early twentieth century. As sexuality was accepted as a legitimate, specialized realm of scientific knowledge, intellectuals and self-proclaimed experts competed to claim discursive authority over topics ranging from eugenics to female ejaculation in the emergent “public of truth” (132). Chiang locates the advent of homosexuality as a subjective identity within these debates—many of which deployed western psychiatric reasoning to frame same-sex desire as a pathological response to national backwardness—revising existing chronologies put forth by Dennis Altman, Lisa Rofel, and others who claim that “gay identity” did not appear until the postsocialist era. Here, he distinguishes his claim from the accounts of Wenqing Kang and Tze-lan Sang by arguing that the May Fourth period witnessed the emergence of homosexuality not only as a social problem, but also as a category of personhood.

Chapter 4 describes an “endocrinological model of sex” that between the 1920s and 1940s came to supplant the anatomical framework introduced in the second chapter. As stories about foreign sex change experiments on animals flooded the press, the logic of hormonal secretions facilitated a more malleable understanding of sex epitomized by a popular “theory of universal bisexuality” (188) that understood all people as both male and female.

Finally, chapter 5 follows the three-point epistemic constellation described in the previous chapters to Taiwan in a detailed case-study of Xie Jianshun 謝尖順, a 1950s media darling labeled the “Chinese Christine” after the American transsexual celebrity Christine Jorgensen. Even though Xie’s condition was a case of intersexuality, the popular press touted Xie as the first Chinese transsexual whose male to female transformation signified a breakthrough in medical science that put Taiwan on par with the United States on an imagined teleology of civilizational progress and national development. However, Chiang’s larger argument in After Eunuchs calls into question what the label “Chinese Christine” seems to suggest. His genealogy aims to move beyond the question of Western “influence” while interrogating the stability of terms such as “China” or  “the West,” which continue to be unproblematically invoked in a “China-centered perspective” that wonders if “Xie Jianshun’s transsexuality [was] ‘Chinese’ or ‘American’ in nature” (277). Drawing on Françoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih’s theorization of “minor transnationalism,” Chiang’s Sinophone framework places neither “China” nor “the West” at the center in the effort to understand complex epistemic interactions that culminate in “overlapping recognitions of Xie Jianshun’s transsexuality as a Chinese copy of a Western original, a Sinophone production of a Chinese original, a straight mimesis of a male-to-female transgendered body, a queer reproduction of an American blond beauty, and so forth” (279).

Besides engaging with queer and Sinophone concepts of the “transnational,” After Eunuchs also sheds light on the well-documented feminist theorization of gender by putting it in dialogue with the history of medicine. For example, the book both corroborates and diversifies the influential narrative put forth in Tani Barlow’s genealogy of “woman” in modern China. On the one hand, Chiang posits that early Chinese gynecology was based on a concept of bodily “gender” that was not correlated to isolated anatomical organs. He insightfully observes that the term designated for gynecology was fuke 婦科 (not nüke 女科), supporting Barlow’s contention that “woman” (nüxing 女性) did not exist as a universal category before the twentieth century. In chapter 4, however, he emphasizes a substantial network of competing theories and discourses that took hold throughout the Republican era, challenging Barlow’s description of the period as discursively dominated by a hegemonic nanxing/nüxing gender binary. To be certain, Chiang’s evidence suggesting the existence of alternative models—such as the aforementioned “theory of universal bisexuality”—is irrefutable. However, this chapter would have benefitted from greater clarity with regard to the precise milieux in which these theories circulated. At times, it is unclear whether these alternative models truly took hold among the public or merely flourished in elite sexological discourse. Because of the extensive evidence put forth by Barlow and others to support binary nanxing/nüxing as the dominant mainstream epistemology throughout the 1930s and 1940s, further analysis is necessary to strengthen the plausibility of the argument that laypersons brought the radical conception of malleable gender to Taiwan in the ROC exodus.

This historical indeterminacy in no way undermines After Eunuchs’ vast contributions to our understanding of sex and gender in modern China, in addition to its broader contributions to Sinophone studies, LGBTQ history, and the global history of medicine. Chiang’s revisionist interpretation of eunuchism as a cultural practice deserves serious engagement, and his persuasive description of a late-imperial/early Republican-era “visual turn” provides a new analytical framework with the potential to yield far-reaching insights beyond the question of sex. For example, it would be worth considering how Chiang’s argument about the shift from visual to endocrinological models in 1920s-1940s medical discourse could be put in dialogue with what Xiaobing Tang has coined an “aural turn” in mid-1930s visual art.

By taking transsexualism as its main subject, After Eunuchs not only initiates an important conversation in the field of Chinese history, but also constructs a discourse on trans-identity that has implications beyond the Sinosphere. Fortunately, the book’s organized structure, historical contextualization, and lucid prose make it accessible to a broad audience both within and outside the China field. It is a must-read for scholars of modern Chinese history and culture, as well as for anyone invested in understanding the global history of science, medicine, and sex.

Elise Huerta
Stanford University