Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 31, December 2012

Hans Tao-Ming Huang

Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan

Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press,
Queer Asia Series, 2011
ISBN 978-988-8083-08-4 (pbk); vii + 275 pp.

reviewed by Fran Martin

  1. This is a rare book. Presenting a Foucauldian-style queer historiography of the deployment of sexuality in Taiwan over the past five decades through a dual focus on the categories of male homosexuality and prostitution, the book is theoretically sophisticated, authoritatively argued, and full of extremely acute insights into the organisation of sexuality vis-à-vis state and cultural power. It draws into its analytic orbit an impressive range of genres and materials, from popular and highbrow fiction to tabloid journalism to medical discourse to Taiwan's legal code and the public self-representations of spokespeople from GLBTQ and feminist movements. But even more than all this, from start to finish, this is a work of passionate engagement. Writing about sexuality, for Huang, is more than a matter of intellectual interest: it is a mission animated by political urgency and deep personal commitment. This echoes the orientation of the group of scholars affiliated with the Centre for the Study of Sexualities at Taiwan's National Central University where Huang is located: especially Josephine Chuen-juei Ho, Naifei Ding, Jenpeng Liu, Karl Yin-bin Ning and Amie Parry, the collective thought of whom closely informs Huang's analyses throughout. To read Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan is to follow Huang on an ardent though always closely reasoned quest to understand exactly how the current conditions of sexual life and culture in Taiwan came to be.
  2. What are the historical and political conditions that led to male homosexuality's cultural journey from the darkness of deepest abjection into the 'sunlight' of (uneven) tolerance and respectability? How has the figure of the prostitute closely shadowed normative sexual discourse, exercising a decisive shaping influence that has stretched right from the Cold War period to the present? How have certain formations of feminism colluded with the state to ensure that the sentimentalised conjugal family remains effectively at the centre of public culture, to the detriment of non-familial modes of sexual and social organisation? These are among the key questions that propel Huang on his search for historical understanding of the roots of today's sexual oppression and sexual dissidence. The journey on which he takes the reader in finding out the answers is gripping, and the answers he uncovers are both compelling and provocative. They inspire a wholly new understanding of the compact between sexuality and power in modern Taiwan. Like all of the best work in queer studies, this book has implications for the understanding of all formations of sexuality, revealing through its focus on homosexuality in particular the central animating logics that produce and regulate sexualities in general.
  3. The book commences with an introductory essay that frames its intellectual project and positions it in relation to both the relevant fields of scholarship and the social and political Taiwanese histories of the decades with which it deals. Chapters 1, 2 and 3 make extremely valuable contributions to the field of (trans-)Chinese sexuality studies with their presentation of original research on, and compelling analysis of, materials from the Cold War era. Chapter 1 focuses on the 1960s and 1970s to track the construction of the categories 'homosexuality' (同性戀) and 'sexuality' (persuasively rendered as 性心理, literally sexual psychology) through the institutional discourse of mental hygiene. This chapter offers a reading of Taiwan's first male-homosexual popular novel, Guang Tai's The Man Who Escapes Marriage (1976),[1] as symptomatic of homosexuality's constitutive links with medico-psychiatric discourse, and as essentially operating within that discourse's regulatory terms. This chapter's finely nuanced discussion of the history, etymology and complex connotations of the term pi (癖, meaning addiction, compulsion or weakness for) —in conversation with the previous works of both Judith Zeitlin and Wenqing Kang—is especially strong.[2] Huang's analysis of pi's psychologisation in the mental hygiene discourse of the Cold War era in Taiwan provides a telling historical link to this classical concept's modern afterlife.
  4. Based on sensationalist journalistic accounts of male homosexuality between the 1950s and the 1980s in national newspapers, Chapter 2 examines the construction of male homosexuality as sexual deviance through the language of renyao (人妖, human freak, indicating a feminised man), jijian (雞姦, chicken lewdness, indicating sodomy), duanxiu pi (短袖癖, passion of the cut sleeve, indicating male same-sex love), and boli quan (玻璃圈, glass clique, indicating male homosexuals). The chapter also underscores the early linkage established in these accounts between male homosexuality and prostitution, which continued into the 1980s through the pop-journalistic discourse on an always-homosexualised AIDS. A crucial point about gender is made in Huang's detailed socio-linguistic and discourse analyses in this chapter; namely that:

      male same-sex relations and genital acts, designated by the epithets of modern or premodern origins, signify through a language game that is both masculinist and paternalist, and are invariably adjudicated in accordance with the grid of gender and sexual norms in national culture (p. 81).

  5. Although this observation pertains specifically to Cold War era iterations of sexuality, the remaining chapters show how these dual links—with paternalism and with national culture—continue, in more veiled form, to shape normative sexualities into the contemporary period. Ironically, this is the case even when (as currently) it is state feminism that is doing much of the work of defining sex-gender normativity.
  6. Chapter 3 moves on to interrogate the legal production of male homosexuality through the Cold War era Police Offense Law (1950s–1990s), which framed both homosexuality and prostitution as contrary to 'virtuous custom' (善良風俗), and policed other marginal sexual subjects (transgenders; unmarried women) on implied suspicion of potential prostitution (p. 104). Illustrating how the Kuomintang (KMT) state drew indirectly on a reconstructed (neo-) Confucianism to morally support its political and cultural projects in this era, Huang shows how:

      'virtuous custom' is an ideological construct predicated upon the Confucian sage-king moral hierarchy…[and] operates as a norm of sex through which moral ratings are made, with those working in the sex industry, especially women, being disciplined, punished, and categorized as the shameful class (p. 26).

  7. Foreshadowing the concerns of later chapters, this chapter links this historical argument with the political present, showing how the regulatory regime of 'virtuous custom' continues to shape the agenda of state feminist law-reform advocates in the 1990s and beyond, with the rise of what Huang terms 'sage-queen' feminism.
  8. Chapter 4 is both a turning point and a lynchpin in the book's narrative and focus. Offering a contextualised, against-the-grain re-reading of the narrative and social uses of Pai Hsien-yung's classic homosexual novel Crystal Boys (1983),[3] it demonstrates how contemporary gay (tongzhi 同志) appropriations of the novel sanitise it of the links made in the novel itself between male homosexual shame, prostitution and base femininity. Huang's critical-historical analysis here and indeed throughout the book has something in common with that of Gayle Rubin in her classic essay 'Thinking sex,' in which she charts the historically shifting divide between the 'charmed inner circle' of socially valorised sexualities and the 'way out' realm of those abjected by that system.[4] This chapter charts how homosexuality has managed to travel (in part, and still unevenly) from the realm of the 'way out' (in its 1980s associations with both deep sexual shame and prostitution), to a position at times quite close to the 'inner circle' (with the rise of the tongzhi movement since the mid-1990s)—yet in effecting this remarkable transition toward social respectability, gay activism has had to make sacrifices that, in Huang's view, amount to a dulling of its radical edge. In this anti-normalising argument, Huang shares something in common with the anti-homonormative politics of some US theorists, including Lisa Duggan, Michael Warner and Lauren Berlant (the latter two are several times directly engaged by Huang's arguments).[5]
  9. Chapters 5 and 6 then turn to a sustained critique of state feminism in Taiwan, which Huang positions as a key actor in the establishment of the contemporary normative sexual regime, by means of its abjection of prostitution, obscenity and base femininities, and its (re)centring of a 'seemingly liberal and yet deeply moralistic' 'respectable femininity' (p. 27). Each of these chapters deals with one prominent state feminist and her impacts: Chapter 5 analyses the interventions of National Taiwan University's Liu Yu-hsiu, literary, cultural and political theorist, while Chapter 6 turns to Hwang Shu-ling, the influential anti-prostitution/anti-obscenity sociologist employed at the National Defense Medical Center. Together, these two chapters chart in detail how since the 1990s, state feminism has exerted a decisive influence over the moral regulation of sexual culture in Taiwan, through its re-installation of historically rooted divisions between 'virtuous' and 'base' sexual subjects. State feminism, Huang proposes, operates a priori from the position of the 'woman of respectable family' (良家婦女), a category that was abolished from the Criminal Law code in 1999, ironically, following lobbying by the state feminists themselves. Huang's argument is that in its consistent framing of marital, middle class, monogamous femininity as the default content of the category 'women,' state feminism revives the 'woman of respectable family' despite itself. It is worth making very clear that in this sustained critique of state feminism, Huang is certainly not dispensing with the project of feminism itself. On the contrary, his analysis illustrates the shortcomings of state feminist discourse always with an eye to imagining a more radical and socially equitable version of sex-gender politics; one that would be truly inclusive of, rather than patronising, sentimentalising or censorious of sex-gender minorities such as female sex workers, sexually active unmarried girls, non-monogamous women, and so on. In this very strong respect, Huang's book is a work of feminism as much as one of queer theory and historiography. The book's brief Epilogue synthesises the wide-ranging concerns of the foregoing chapters through a call for the GLBTQ (tongzhi) movement to challenge state feminism's new sexual-moral order, and to remain vigilant about the exclusions entailed in its own endeavours to realise respectable sexual citizenship.
  10. In his erudite and impassioned argument throughout against the politics of moral-sexual 'respectability,' Huang puts his finger on a normalising tendency that is absolutely central, in a range of different ways (and in ways different to those in which homonormativity operates in the US and elsewhere), to contemporary queer politics in Taiwan. In different forms to any of the examples Huang analyses here, this pull toward social inclusion and (perverse?) identification with the censorious, surveillant collective power that so harshly punishes sexual deviance is a current that I have previously discerned in both the late Taiwanese lesbian author Qiu Miaojin's works of fiction, and in the mid-'90s tongzhi strategy of donning face-obscuring masks during pride demonstrations.[6] Huang's book is a heartfelt cry against the lures of social normalisation, and a testament to the immense productive energies of queer ressentiment in Taiwan's dissident sexual politics and theory. It reminds us of the power and potential of a thoroughly socially engaged cultural studies. As the discussion above demonstrates, the book's careful historical explorations and perceptive analyses of the conditions that have led to current entanglements of sexuality, gender and state power in Taiwan today mean that it has much to teach scholars of gender, feminism and broader Taiwan public culture and politics, as well as scholars of sexuality. It should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the complex histories and contemporary configurations of gender and sexuality, both in Asia and beyond.


    [1] Guang Tai's The Man Who Escapes Marriage, Taipei: Haojiao 1990 [1976].

    [2] Judith Zeitlin, Historian of the Strange: Pu Songling and the Chinese Classical Tale, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993; Wenqing Kang, Obsession: Male Same-sex relations in China, 1900–1950, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

    [3] Pai Hsien-yung, Niezi (Crystal Boys), Taipei: Yunchen, 1992 [1983].

    [4] Gayle Rubin, 'Thinking sex: notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality,' in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, ed. Carole S. Vance, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, pp. 267–319.

    [5] Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy, Boston: Beacon Press, 2003; Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, Durham: Duke University Press, 1997; Michael Warner, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics and the Ethics of Queer Life, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2000.

    [6] Fran Martin, Situating Sexualities: Queer Representation in Taiwanese Fiction, Film and Public Culture, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003, pp. 185–251.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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Last modified: 5 December 2012 1110