Brick by Brick – Scholar Dismantling Misconcemtpions about Queer China

If you were to enter “Queer Chinese literature” into most search engines, you are unlikely to unearth much in the way of results. At first glance, it would appear that there is a dearth of Queer literature, both academic and fictional, related to the Chinese mainland. The internet is awash with literature from Taiwan and Hong Kong, two parts of South East Asia that have been far more liberal in terms of tolerating and embracing Queerness while still being a part of the Sinosphere – a collection of countries, and special administrative regions joined by overarching Chinese culture.

Your search, however, is likely to unearth books such as Queer Comrade, Queer China, and Queer Media in China along with other more historical-leaning titles exploring the evolution of Queer identities in ancient times and before the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Admittedly, you might also assume, like many of the titles shown from a quick Google search, that the three titles mentioned above were also written by non-Chinese and non-Asian authors and researchers as is often the case with research projects conducted outside of the Western world, but you would be mistaken.

Synonymous with the word China is the concept of censorship, both in terms of personal forms of expression and in the media. This was a hard reality to grapple with for Dr. Haowei Bao, Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of Nottingham, UK, who despite a myriad of challenges, would become one of the foremost authorities on Queer voices, spaces, and media in China when, “At that time, China’s Queer history remained largely unwritten.” Bao had always dreamt of being a writer, but chose a pedagogical career path instead, teaching English before joining the Beijing National Academy of Chinese Theatre Arts, all the while coming to terms with his own sexual orientation and joining a vibrant Queer community in the Chinese capital.

No one would have ever thought that the starry-eyed boy born and raised in North China’s Inner Mongolia, who would later pursue a career in journalism would be disillusioned by the realities in his own country. “Peking University was my childhood dream and I simply had to go there. The study provided me with a good understanding of Chinese society and some methodological training in social sciences. It also killed my dream of becoming a journalist, because my idealism could be easily crushed by the harsh realities of media censorship in China,” Bao said in a written interview response. It would be a scholarship from the University of Sydney in Australia that would firmly set him on the path to researching on and writing about the Queer community in China. “I also met some Queer studies scholars and realized that Queer Studies is a perfectly legitimate subject to study,” explained Bao.

Dr. Hongwei Bao
Dr. Hongwei Bao

Like many Western countries such as the US that conflated the spread of HIV/AIDS with homosexuality, so too was the initial scholastic study of China’s Queer community which was mainly tied to the epidemic. A feature of such research pointed out by many Western and non-Western scholars in Gender and Sexual minorities in the South East Asian region is the “colonization” of research often conducted by non-natives who rarely speak the language fluently, if at all, and have a scant understanding of native culture, a factor that didn’t escape Bao. “Most of the English-language scholarship was sociological and anthropological studies of the Chinese Queer community conducted by Western or non-mainland Chinese researchers. In this picture, Chinese perspectives, especially those from the community members, were missing,” Bao said.

The result of such non-inclusive forms of research is the erasure, renaming, and often politicization of long-exiting Queer identities in pre-industrialized countries, of which China is one. Independent Bangladeshi researcher in the field of gender and modern development in the subcontinent, Ahmed Ibrahim, provides a contextual reference in his essay, “Under Empire and the Modern State: Unravelling ‘Queer Precarities’ inside Global Assemblages.” With regard to the identity of the Hijra as “an untranslatable and destabilizing category that resists categorization,” Ibrahim shows how the entrance of Western-led NGOs and the subsequent definition of Hijras as “Third Gender” or Transgender contributes to the destruction of an already established identity within the Bangladeshi, Indian, and Nepali cultural contexts.

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Ibrahim writes, “‘Third gender’ is an imposed and constructed assemblage of a mythical and primordial subject that fits neatly into the collection of categories that exist in relation to both the West and the gender binary in general. It has significantly sought to homogenize the different variants and strains of gender-deviant subcultures existing in different parts of the subcontinent and beyond.” Bao stood at a moment in time, realizing that, like Ibrahim and the Hijra community of Bangladesh, Queerness in China was being subsumed under far more Westernized and politicized contexts and wished to reverse the trend, or at the very least, preserve the language of the community therein.

As Bao explains, “I was interested in the emergence and development of the tongzhi (literally comrade but meaning gay or queer) identity and the Queer activism it is associated. Unlike other sexual identities such as tongxinglian (homosexual), tongzhi is a politicized term and it demands recognition, equal rights, and social justice. In other words, I was more interested in the conditions and processes of political mobilization within the contemporary LGBTQ+ communities.” Through his preferred Participatory Action Research method, equally supported by researchers and anthropologists in the fields of gender and sexuality studies in the region, Bao illustrates why his being a native of the country, and being so deeply involved in local activism have helped support his prolific works on his Chinese Queer subject matter.

“My personal experience as an individual from the Queer Chinese community has certainly had a huge impact on my research. It gives me a deeper insight into the community and also helps me avoid the orientalist, voyeuristic, and othering gaze often cast upon Queer Chinese people. More importantly, it helps me situate myself and my research more ethically in relation to the community. In the process, I have turned from an objective observer of the community to an active participant in community culture and activism.”

Through his writings, Bao hopes to dispel myths about China and its seemingly embattled media landscape. “As a media studies scholar, I have often been baffled by some overarching claims about Chinese media, such as Chinese media has been controlled by the state and subjected to censorship,” he says while referring to his second publication Queer Media China which explores how the Queer community in China consumes media such as zines, dating Apps, and digital videos, offering the clarification, “These community media are also known as citizen media or alternative media. As they are not mainstream, they do not have to assume the propaganda and commercial roles that mainstream and official media do.”

Bao’s work also raises important questions in the way of activism, as in his debut publication, offering a comparative analysis on whether China needs a “Stonewall type of Queer activism” to which Bao’s response was, “I had some time to reflect critically on the West-centrism of what is often called Queer activism. This allowed me to look at the cultural activities and events (such as Beijing Queer Film Festival and ShanghaiPRIDE) more common in the Queer Chinese community, viewing them as context-specific and culturally sensitive forms of activism – ‘soft activism’ or ‘cultural activism’, as I call them.”

Such terms are important to understand Queer existences and struggles – if any – in the non-Western context, seeing as many of the movements are now judged as per the decriminalization and subsequent struggle for equal rights in countries like the US and the UK. The area is also important to consider in Bao’s most recent work, Contemporary Chinese Queer Performance, which is not only a literary nod to his personal passion for the Beijing theatre scene, but explains Queer existence and performance in said art form and the Chinese Queer community’s contributions to theater arts in China. Far from the Western clichéd stereotype of dramatic little Gay boys sacrificing themselves for their love of theater and the performing arts, Bao’s writing delivers the voices of Chinese Queer individuals with an aim to see them included in the Chinese theater studies scholarship and the more expansive realms of performance studies.

It is Bao’s all-inclusive style of writing unencumbered with academically bombastic turns of phrase, however, when it comes to his subject matter that makes him a preeminent authority on Queerness in China. “I have tried my best to write clearly and jargon-free for a non-specialist readership and for the general public,” Bao offers, as it is the underpinning of his belief that knowledge production, especially about marginalized communities, should not simply become a “minority interest” but should connect to the rest of society and create positive social change. Through a long, convoluted, academic journey, the dream of the young boy born and raised in Inner Mongolia who chose the “safer” option of becoming a teacher has come true.

“Over the years, my writing has become ‘softer’ and more literary, personal, and sentimental. Perhaps being a teacher and an academic does not mean that I have to give up the dream of being a writer,” muses Bao.   

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