image of book goes here
Fran Martin

Situating Sexualities:
Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film and Public Culture

Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003,
384 pages, cloth, ISBN 9622096190

reviewed by Kam Louie

  1. This is a wonderful book, and I use the adjective advisedly. Reading the book, I was struck with wonderment at the liveliness of the culture of dissident sexuality in 1990s Taiwan. I lived there for a year early that decade, and was impressed with the enthusiasm with which the Taiwanese threw themselves into political debates, but I was unaware of the sexual liberation battles being waged. Of course I had read Crystal Boys[1] and visited New Park, but I was essentially blind to the diverse and exciting ideas and images that the queer writers and film directors were producing throughout the 1990s. Fran Martin has done a splendid job in providing a clear exposition of the public emergence and blossoming of tongxinglian culture in Taiwan. As I studied the book, I was also filled with wonder by the deft way in which she showed that while the Taiwanese were eager to be seen as global, they nevertheless maintained unique local characteristics that make their culture different to both Mainland Chinese and Euro-American ones. At the same time, Fran Martin is also careful to show that Taiwanese tongxinglian culture is not static or even happily hybrid, but fluid and mobile.
  2. Martin argues her theoretical position in the lengthy Introduction. This introductory chapter also provides a good overview of the many writers and artists who have contributed to the topic of the manifestations of tongzhi and tongxinglian in Taiwan. Martin shows how these concepts have been used and popularised in Taiwan. She also demonstrates that the terms themselves signify new and dissident sexual formations that are unique to the island. The Introduction is followed by three sections, dealing in turn with the nation, the family and the individual. It is to her credit that in keeping with her thesis that words like 'gay,' 'lesbian,' 'homosexual' and 'queer' carry Eurocentric connotations that are not always found in the words tongzhi and tongxinglian, Martin consistently uses the Chinese words throughout the book so that by the end, the reader has 'naturalised' the italicised words and no longer sees them as foreign.
  3. The contestations between local and global are discussed in the first section of the book. In this section, Pai Hsien-yung's 1983 novel Crystal Boys is first discussed (and this is appropriate even though the novel is not a product of the 1990s), followed by a chapter on the fate of New Park, made famous by Pai's novel, as it transformed into a 'happy, hopeful' place in the bid to make Taipei a global city. Part of the argument to modernise this public space advanced by the Taipei City government, then under Chen Shui-bian, was to celebrate the democratisation and new-found confidence in Taiwanese identity, and hence its renaming to 'The February 28 Memorial Park.' Martin skillfully explores the revival of local consciousness and political liberalisation and their impact on the growth and well-being of the tongzhi. This discussion is not meant to indicate that liberalisation and globalisation will create a nation of tolerant, contented urban dwellers. The third and final chapter of the section deals with Chu T'ien-wen's 1994 novel Notes of a Desolate Man. Here, the tongzhi are depicted as drifting and rootless, but they nevertheless represent the modern condition of contemporary city living.
  4. Section 2 is also divided into three chapters, centering in turn on Chen Xue's 1995 story 'Searching for the Lost Wings of the Angel,' Lee Ang's 1993 film The Wedding Banquet and Tsai Ming-liang's 1996 film The River. Martin analyses these three works with refinement and sophistication. She focuses on what they reveal about changed perceptions of family and nation in Taiwan. Most readers would have seen The Wedding Banquet: it is a feel-good movie suitable for family viewing. And plenty has been written about it. However, the works by Chen Xue and Tsai Ming-liang discussed here are less well-known to Western audiences and more controversial, as the former portrays mother-daughter love and the latter depicts a father-son relationship that includes having sex together. Martin neatly shows how these texts disturb the hegemonic power of the family, though that disturbance is seen as perverse and utopian by their authors.
  5. The final section zooms in on the subject of tongxinglian as individuals. Martin contrasts the difference between the Western use of the closet and the Taiwanese use of the mask for queers. She thus shows that even for the individuals concerned, Taiwanese ideas and lived experience of being a tongxinglian person are subtly different to that of being queer in the West. From the use of the mask by the tongzhi, Martin discusses at length the concepts of 'face' in Chinese as mian and lian and how they are different. Pursuing this line of analysis, Martin concludes by showing why the idea of 'coming out' as an unmasking process is expressed in the word 'xianshen,' literally meaning revealing one's body, and how these concepts differ. The book succeeds in pushing the boundaries of queer studies. As well as being a wonderful read, it is illustrated by photographs of Taiwanese people (such as masked tongzhi demonstrators) and places (such as New Park) and stills from films such as The Wedding Banquet and The River). It also has a useful Chinese character list with translations and pinyin of terms used in the book. Anyone interested in queer studies should read it.


    [1] First published in Taiwan in 1983, Pai Hsien-yung's Crystal Boys is commonly seen as the first Taiwanese novel to deal with the theme of homosexuality. It was translated into English by Howard Goldblatt and published by Gay Sunshine Press in 1989.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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