Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 14, November 2006

Tze-lan D. Sang

The Emerging Lesbian:
Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China

Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press,
2003, 380 pages;
ISBN 0-226-73480-3 (paper) US$17
ISBN: 0-226-73478-1 (cloth) US$45

reviewed by Hui Xiao

  1. In the past decade, a large amount of scholarly works on feminism and the women's movement have touched upon issues of homoeroticism and lesbianism in China. In her book Cainü cheye weimian: Jindai zhongguo nüxing xushi wenxue de xingqi [Burning the midnight oil: the rise of female narrative in early modern China] (2003), Hu Siao-chen spends a chapter on the late Qing women's literary writings about woman's cross-dressing and homosocial relationships.[1] Dai Jinhua, one of the leading feminist theorists in China, explores how both modern Chinese literature and cinema represent women's rising gender consciousness and their non-conformist sexuality.[2] Li Yinhe and Lisa Rofel's sociological and anthropological works deal with gay and lesbian communities in China.[3] Yet, Tze-lan D. Sang's The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China as the first one in both Chinese and North American academia is the first full-length English work devoted to the studies of Chinese lesbianism.
  2. As a scholar with solid background in literary studies, Sang marks her book with an innovative approach. Different from Li's or Rofel's sociological studies, Sang's book focuses on reading the lesbianism in elite literature. On the other hand, what distinguishes her book from other literary studies on Chinese homosexuality is that Sang not only discusses the representation of female-female relationship in literary works, but also connects it with emerging lesbian activism in Taiwan and the mainland China. Borrowing Jürgen Habermas' famous concept of the public sphere, Sang argues for a transnational public sphere inscribed in elite literature that can serve as a venue conducive to the alliance of lesbian activism across time and space. In later sections I will elaborate more on how this elitist orientation could jeopardise the political alliance formed in grassroots lesbian movements.
  3. With all the credit we should give to Sang's theorising of lesbian alliance, I have to say that it is a pity that Sang reduces the validity and richness of this transnational space of Chinese lesbianism with her dismissal of the productivity of Hong Kong queer literature, theories, and political activities. Speaking of a cross-cultural Chinese lesbianism, Li Bihua [Lillian Lee] and Huang Biyun, the two prolific Hong Kong women writers should not be overlooked. While in her novel Bawang bieji [Farewell my Concubine] (1986) the emasculated protagonist's identity is still ambiguously resting on the borderlines of gay and lesbian body politics, Qingshe [Black Snake] (1985), another widely-read work of Li Bihua's, clearly rewrites a classic heterosexual Chinese folktale into a modernised tale of female-female love and desire. Compared to Li's enigmatic style and premodern temporal setting, Huang Biyun's stories such as 'Ta shi nüzi, wo ye shi nüzi' [She is a woman, I am a woman too] (1994) and 'Yige liuluo bali de zhongguo nüzi' [A Chinese woman exiled to Paris] (1997), are more relevant to our everyday reality with their urban settings, realistic narratives and strong gender consciousness. The absence of Hong Kong literature might not be accidental if we connect this with the author's silence on the public influence and literary achievements obtained by some young and less elitist lesbian-identified writers in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. Sang's elitist politics of selection excludes these works and thus sets limitations on the accessibility of her proposed 'transnational public sphere' for lesbian activism.
  4. Even given its negligence of Hong Kong queer literature, Sang's book is still quite an ambitious and comprehensive analysis of lesbianism unfolding in different periods and localities. '[T]o investigate the shifting terms of the representations of female-female relations through time and their varied constructive and/or regulatory effects,' Sang maps the topography of female-female relationships and public discourses in late imperial China, republican China, post-Mao China and post-martial law Taiwan (p. 15). In this light, Sang's rereading of the seventeenth century Liaozhai zhiyi [Liaozhai's tales of the strange], in the first section of her book is fresh and inspiring. Traditionally this collection of supernatural tales is often interpreted as the male heterosexual literati's fantasies for exotic sexual objects under the disguise of fox spirits and other supernatural beings. Rather than reinforce this male-centered heterosexual fantasy, Sang chooses the long ignored sections of Liaozhai zhiyi as her target of literary analysis—that is she focuses on stories depicting female-female love and desire. Through a close reading of 'Feng san niang' [The third female child of the Feng family] and other tales about 'odd girls' in Liaozhai zhiyi, Sang concludes that in premodern China 'the polygamous arrangement of compulsory cross-sex sexuality sets the limit' for male literati's tolerance and acceptance of female-female love and desire (p. 89).
  5. This is indeed a very perceptive observation. However, Sang's critique of the lack of 'carnal desire and genital sexuality' in male representations of female-female romance is more problematic than supportive for her argument. According to Rey Chow, the long sentimental-erotic tradition in Chinese literature requires 'reading of a different kind' to 'register the melodramatic physical restraint of the Chinese lovers as signifying gestures in themselves.'[4] Eager to situate premodern representations of women-preferring women in her big project of establishing a genealogy of Chinese lesbianism, Sang assumes that 'passion should be expressed universally in the "Western" mode of physically spontaneity.'[5] This practice of imposing Euro-American lesbian identity on traditional Chinese narratives reduces the multi-layered richness of female-female love relationships to an analysis of a local history of sexuality.
  6. This problem persists in the following two sections. In the section on republican China, Sang makes detailed analysis mainly of Lu Yin, Ding Ling and Ling Shuhua's pieces on women's same-sex love. Unlike premodern China, in this period modern sexology was imported from Europe and the US, often via Japan. As a result, medical stigma started to be attached to homosexuality. On the other hand, numerous translated European works of fiction have introduced the discursive construct of Western-style romantic love. Out of a mixed attitude of conservatism and liberalism, women writers' representations of female-female love have emphasised sentimentality and interiority over sexuality. This excessive emphasis on 'lesbian spirituality' and the lack of description of physical sex, according to Sang, should be attributed to the control of women's body and sexuality by male-centred heterosexual power structures and the emerging regime of Enlightenment scientific knowledge. Acknowledging the validity of this theory, I also want to point out that the female-female love is more utopian in nature than any real lesbian politics. In other words, just because of its positionality outside of the patriarchal marriage and the family system, the female-female relationship can be represented and understood as women's resistance to male-centred power structures.
  7. Returning to the contemporary era, in the last two chapters, Sang makes a comparative study of lesbianism of mainland China with that of Taiwan. Under the Mao regime, Sang suggests, homosexuality was silenced by the legal discourse and practice of heterosexual monogamy. After the Mao era, as China has re-opened up to the West, Chinese society has gone through a new wave of re-sexualisation of the individual body; and the lesbian community has begun to become visible in the public sphere. Against this historical backdrop, Sang reads the writing of female homoerotic desire in Lin Bai and Chen Ran's literary works, particularly Lin's Yigeren de zhanzheng [One person's war] (1998), and Chen's Siren shenghuo [Private life] (1996). Coincidentally or not, the titles of both women writers' novels feature certain terms such as 'individual' and 'private.' In this sense, their writings are actually more about a clash between individuated desires and memories and grand narratives of male-centred history than lesbian activism in a strict sense. Therefore, it is no wonder that Sang discovers frequently displaced lesbian eros in Lin's novel and gender-transcendent consciousness in Chen's. However, what Sang misses in her reading of the works of Chen and Lin is the account of the emergence and development of lesbian communities in late 1990s China. The knowledge of this growing new lesbian politics could have contributed much to her interpretations of female-female desire in the literature as well as her central argument for a transnational public sphere.
  8. According to Sang, compared to the mainland situation, Taiwan lesbianism is far more active and politically involved. Since the lifting of martial law, lesbianism has joined forces with feminism to resist both Confucian patriarchal family ethics and the commercial voyeurism of the mass media. Combining translated Western queer theories and local specificities, Taiwanese cosmopolitan lesbian subjects are in the process of formation. Sang pays particular attention to the new transnational public sphere of the Internet, on which electronic feminist-lesbian journals (for example Hong peiji/G-zine) serve a critical function. Though Taiwan is one of the most progressive and open spaces for lesbian activism among Asian societies, still we should not be over-optimistic about the situation. Sang's reading of Qiu Miaojin's autobiographical writing, Eyu shouji [The crocodile's journal] (1994), reveals a picture of bleak reality. In this half realistic, half allegorical novel, the author tries to re-humanise lesbians who are stigmatised by both modern medical sciences and Confucian family ethics while at the same time exoticised by the consumerist mass media. Though having succeeded in her attempt at literary representation, in reality the author failed to resist social pressure against lesbians and committed suicide in Paris in 1995, one year after the publication of Eyu shouji.
  9. This sad contrast between literature and reality reminds us that lesbian activism is still an ongoing struggle against heterosexual dominance. Out of this urgent need, we should acknowledge Sang's achievements in terms of cross-cultural lesbian studies while looking forward to more works in this field. However, as inspiring and provocative as it is, the central argument of Sang's book could be further strengthened if the author could more deeply explore the following two aspects. First, the dimension of class should be considered seriously in the book's critique of gender-based social hierarchy. The approach of discussing lesbianism through elite literature implies a risk of erasing the grassroots practice of homoeroticism. For example, representations of lesbians during the Cultural Revolution in the diasporic woman writer Yan Geling's novels, challenge Sang's view of total suppression and invisibility of homosexuality during the Mao years.[6] What might be even worse is that the overemphasis on the formation of an elite cosmopolitan lesbian subject could marginalise lesbians of lower social status, whose sexual life is connected more with violence, poverty and venereal diseases rather than bar life, transnational travels, avant-garde literature and arts. As a result of internal hierarchy within the lesbian community, it will be hard for elite lesbians to 'forge coalition with other grassroots social movements' as Sang hopefully proposes (p. 244). Second, since Sang emphasises transnational lesbian activism a great deal, I am a little disappointed that she does not make a more in-depth analysis about how importations of queer cultural products function in shaping a cosmopolitan lesbian subject as well as people's shifting perception of lesbian community. As far as my knowledge goes, Japanese so-called 'boy's love' manga, which depicts beautiful male youths in romantic and/or sexual relationships with each other, is extremely popular among urban Chinese women, many of whom are self-identified heterosexuals. A study of audience reception of this circulation of Japanese pop culture products on a regional scale might be very productive in discussing how an emerging lesbian subject articulates its homoerotic desire through transplanting and rewriting gay or sometimes even heterosexual culture in a transnational public sphere.


    [1] See Hu Siao-chen, Cainü cheye weimian: Jindai zhongguo nüxing xushi wenxue de xingqi [Burning the midnight oil: the rise of female narrative in early modern China], Taipei: Maitian renwen, 2003, pp. 229-314.

    [2] See Dai Jinhua, 'Qiyu yu tuwei: Jiushi niandai nüxing xiezuo' [Unexpected encounters and breaking out of a blockade: Female writing in the 1990s], in Wenxue pinglun 5 (September 1996), pp. 95-102; and, in English, Dai Jinhua, Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua, ed. Jing Wang & Tani E. Barlow, London: Verso, 2002.

    [3] See Li Yinhe, Tongxinglian yawenhua [The subculture of homosexuality], Beijing: Jinri zhonggugo chubanshe, 1998; Li Yinhe, Zhongguo nüxing de ganqing yu xing [Chinese women's love and sex], Beijing: Jinri zhonggugo chubanshe, 1998; and Lisa Rofel, 'Qualities of desire: imagining gay identities in China,' GLQ 5(4) (1999):451-74.

    [4] Rey Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity: The Politics of Reading Between West and East, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 70.

    [5] See Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity, p. 70.

    [6] Yan Geling, Baishe [White snake], Beijing: Dangdai shijie chubanshe, 2002, and Yan Geling, Cixing de caodi [Female grassland], Beijing: Dangdai shijie chubanshe, 2002.


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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