Zheng. Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 272. pp. ISBN
Zheng’s Tongzhi Living is an
ethnographic inquiry into the recent lives and experiences of
same-sex-attracted, or tongzhi,
men in Dalian – an urban city in northeast China – from 2005 to 2013.
Based on the assumption that “the Chinese tongzhi is not a category nor a
structure, but rather a complex, dialectic process of making and
remaking” (p. 12), Zheng’s study ambitiously sets out to examine the
current configuration of male same-sex desires in the postsocialist era
as a product of continuing historical transformation since the imperial
period. Organized into seven major chapters, the book consists of a
critical overview of the historical backgrounds and popular perceptions
of same-sex desire in China (Chapters 1 to 2), and a collection of case
studies encompassing the multiple dimensions of tongzhi culture (Chapters 3 to 7).
While most, if not all, of the topical issues discussed in this
ethnography have previously been researched at great length by scholars
(e.g. family, identity management, marriage to women, and HIV/AIDS
activism), Zheng has produced some revisionist insights through her
observation of various aspects of tongzhi
men’s lives. In particular, her discussions on the differences in
gender roles and social class are remarkably worthwhile.
In her analysis of class, for instance, Zheng outlines a new social
hierarchy based on the occupations of her informants: namely, 1) gold-
and red-collar 2) white-, blue- and gray-collar and 3) money boys.
Instead of simply arguing that such class division creates conflict
within the tongzhi community,
Zheng has articulated the ways in which class governs sexual practices
through socio-spatial segregation. While the gold- and red-collar tongzhi men’s economic privileges
enable them to achieve sexual pleasures in private transactional
relationships, their white-, blue- and gray-collar counterparts have to
risk jeopardizing their identity in public cruising areas in order to
satisfy their desires. Furthermore, Zheng has examined how the
collective desire for upward mobility in the postsocialist era has
empowered lower class tongzhi
men to navigate social and economic survival. Under the current
state-perpetuated neoliberal ideology where “economic development takes
precedence over everything else” (p. 97), money boys of rural origin,
she argues, receive a certain freedom to appropriate the definition of
“success in purely economic terms” (ibid.) as a moral justification for
their engagement in sex work.
Other than providing a critical reading of the above-mentioned
phenomena, what also distinguishes Tongzhi
Living from other qualitative studies on similar research
populations and subject matters is the wide array of primary sources
Zheng uses in constructing her analysis. In fact, compared to the
growing number of works on contemporary Chinese same-sex cultures
published in the last decade, Zheng’s study is relatively large-scale
and comprehensive. It triangulates between her extensive fieldwork
engagement with tongzhi men,
interviews with heterosexual-identified members of the general public,
and her own self-reflexive accounts as a filial daughter who is “caught
between personal desires and cultural constraints” (p. 24). By
empathetically highlighting the docility of the different parties
involved, including the parents and heterosexual wives of tongzhi men, the book makes an
important intervention to challenge the demonizing representations in
public and popular discourses where “homosexuality has become a
scapegoat onto which anxiety over current social problems such as
dissolved marriages is displaced” (p. 12).
Although Tongzhi Living makes
a significant contribution to advancing the investigation of same-sex
cultures in urban China, readers should be aware of two interrelated
epistemological issues which have implications for knowledge
production. First, Zheng’s study has, noticeably and rather
surprisingly, reproduced a self-orientalizing, evolutionary narrative
of Chinese same-sex culture as projected through a Chinese-Western,
ancient-modern binary. In contrast to Tongzhi
Living, a sizable amount of recent, extensive studies,
particularly those focusing on the geopolitical peripheries of the
Sinophone sphere such as Taiwan,1 have challenged
the reductionist views of the previously scholarly generation. The
latter had assumed homophobia was solely the result of Western
influences from the Republican Era onwards.2 Rather than
problematizing the contestations between the sex/gender systems of
China and the West, interestingly, Zheng has affirmed this dualistic
conception of homophobia in her historical background (Chapter 1) which
contextualizes the discussion throughout the book.
Second, as with the previous critique, while Zheng has continuously
compared tongzhi men to a
wide array of same-sex expressions in the West, Latin America,
Melanesia, and Southeast Asia (predominantly using the works of
scholars located in North America), existing literature focusing on
other Chinese communities (e.g. Hong Kong and Taiwan) has rarely been
deployed as a frame of reference. This scarcity of dialogues with
theories and case studies of cultural and geographical proximities
marks Tongzhi Living as an
anthropological text that reflects the uneven power relationships that
mediate the production of local queer knowledge. Indeed, can any
studies of same-sex cultures in transnational Chinese societies claim
equal legitimacy without referencing parallel case studies in the PRC?
Despite these shortcomings, Tongzhi
Living is, nevertheless, an exceptional ethnography in its own
right which substantially contributes to our understanding of
same-sex-attracted men in urban China.
See, e.g. Hans Tao-Ming Huang. Queer Politics and
Sexual Modernity in Taiwan. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press,
2011; Liu, Jen-peng, and Ding Naifei. "Reticent Poetics, Queer
Politics." Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6.1 (2005): 30-55; Fran Martin.
Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film
and Public Culture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003.
See, e.g. Chou Wah-shan. Hou zhi min tong zhi (Postcolonial
Tongzhi). Hong Kong: Xianggang tong zhi yanjiu she, 1997; Bret Hinsch.
Passions of the Cut Sleeve. Berkeley: University of California Press,