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Linqiu Li

February 23rd, 2024

Sexuality and the Rise of China – review

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Linqiu Li

February 23rd, 2024

Sexuality and the Rise of China – review

0 comments | 4 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In Sexuality and the Rise of China, sociologist Travis Kong examines the experiences of post-1990s gay men in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Through interviews and historical analysis, Kong explores the societal values, familial pressures and political influences shaping LGBTQ+ identity in modern China, making a unique contribution to Asian queer studies. writes Linqiu Li .

Sexuality and the Rise of China: The Post-1990s Gay Generation in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mainland China. Travis S. K. Kong. Duke University Press. 2023.


Sexuality and the rise of chinaTravis Kong’s latest book, Sexuality and the Rise of China continues his longstanding research focus on “generational sexualities.” Unlike his previous works that shed light on the life experience of East Asian elderly gay men (Chinese Male Homosexualities, 2012 and Oral Histories of Older Gay Men in Hong Kong, 2019), this book examines the post-90s generation of gay men within three distinct Chinese societies: mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Since 2017, Kong has interviewed 90 young gay men in Shanghai (mainland China), Hong Kong and Taipei (Taiwan). The book begins by providing a brief characterisation of this demographic in the three regions, in the context of The People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s political and economic rise in mainland China, young gay men exhibit confidence and pragmatism, yet “still struggle with their sexual identity.” In Hong Kong, most post-90s gay men express a collective desire to distance themselves to varying degrees from the influence of the Beijing government and “are generally comfortable with their sexual identity,” whereas the participants in Taiwan “are strongly Taiwanese nationalistic and “are generally accepting of their sexual identity and engage with gay communities and gay activism to different degrees” (3).

In Hong Kong’s case, British colonisation influenced the progression of its tongzhi culture.

In the first chapter, Kong adopts a historical perspective, elucidating how factors such as the decriminalisation of homosexual relations in 1991, the pink economy (which refers to the consumer economy of the LGBTQ+ community), the impact of colonisation, religious influence, and government surveillance have shaped the formation of tongzhi (a local parlance for LGBTQ+, which translates as “people who share the common will”)identity in the three regions to varying degrees. In Hong Kong’s case, British colonisation influenced the progression of its tongzhi culture. The rise of LGBTQ+ social groups and the boom of the pink economy have characterised homosexuality in Hong Kong with inclusive and diverse features. In Taiwan, as a consequence of Japanese colonisation and support from the US, the government has skilfully presented Taiwanese society as an open and pro-LGBTQ+ community (in contrast to the PRC government’s perceived human rights abuses) and aimed at gaining international recognition for its independence from China. Mainland China, on the other hand, experienced a void in gay culture from the Maoist era to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Trailing its two counterparts, the tongzhi identity began to develop gradually in the 1990s, but under Xi Jinping’s regime, regulations and restrictions have intensified, leading to the constant constriction of tongzhi populationin recent years.

Kong further highlights the differences between Asian LGBTQ+ communities and Western gay societies [] underscoring the imperative for de-Westernisation in Asian queer studies.

Kong further highlights the differences between Asian LGBTQ+ communities and Western gay societies in Chapter Two, underscoring the imperative for de-Westernisation in Asian queer studies. The application of neoliberalism differs across the three regions: Mainland China promotes the idea that families should support the elderly to alleviate economic burdens for the government, Hong Kong advocates intra-familial assistance over government aid, and Taiwan emphasises familial responsibility for the elderly to address its ageing population. However, these diverse approaches have collectively resulted in the family unit becoming a central regulator for individuals’ private lives in all three places. Thus, in addressing the matters of tongzhi identity and coming out, Kong highlights the perpetual existence of a “double closet” in Chinese tongzhi identity (65). That is to say, in addition to the societal aspect of coming out, unlike in Western societies, gay men in PRC also confront the challenge of being either a good (filial) or bad (unfilial) child within the family.

Kong applies Berlant’s discussion of ‘cruel optimism’ to each of the three societies, pointing out that while one-on-one exclusivity remains the aspiration in gay men’s intimate relationships, most respondents failed to achieve this.

Following the exploration of tongzhi identity, Kong delves into the dynamics of engagement within the tongzhi community in Chapter Three. Here, Kong elaborates on the emergence of a new masculinity hierarchy among young gay men across the three locales. Kong argues the Chinese tongzhi community is characterised by a combination of homonormativity and hegemonic masculinity (91). Gay men who are young and have athletic bodies, practice exclusive one-on-one intimacy, and enjoy a consumerist urban lifestyle are admired within the community. Kong continues the discussion of homonormative masculinity in the Chapter Four, offering insights from the perspective of love and sex. Kong applies Berlant’s discussion of “cruel optimism” to each of the three societies, pointing out that while one-on-one exclusivity remains the aspiration in gay men’s intimate relationships, most respondents failed to achieve this. The possible reasons for this varied across the three societies. The high cost of private space presented a hurdle in Hong Kong, the immense pressure to marry in mainland China, and the flexible gay environment and easy access to online dating in Taiwan all contributed to the difficulty of maintaining monogamous relationships.

The varying degrees of presentation of homonationalism in the three regions is what Kong focuses on in the final chapter. Based on the definition of homonationalism by Puar (2007), that homonationalism is a political ploy by the government to gain support and co-opt LGBTQ+ people. Kong argues that the Taiwanese government exhibit an incorporative form of homonationalism, but with the premise to only recognise gay men who conform to the archetype of the “good citizen”(133). The situation differs in Hong Kong, whose government has a closer relationship with the PRC government compared to Taiwan. Due to the avoidance of addressing homosexuality as a prominent social issue, coupled with an emphasis on traditional Chinese family values, Kong sees Hong Kong’s homonationalism as deficient (141). In the context of mainland China, Kong proposes that PRC’s homonationalism exhibits “Chinese characteristics” or a “pragmatic homonationalism,” which accrued through negotiations with LGBTQ+ nongovernmental organisations, leveraging them as a platform to underscore public health concerns, or emphasising Confucian values such as parental love, and downplaying the sexual aspect in the topic of homosexuality (150).

Kong’s book is a significant contribution as the first study that discusses all three societies together and presents the lives of gay men from a variety of perspectives, including historical, cultural and political contexts.

Although there has been, and continues to be, a growing body of research literature addressing the life experience of LGBTQ+ (or Tongzhi) in the three locales, many of them have concentrated on either one single society or two. Kong’s book is a significant contribution as the first study that discusses all three societies together and presents the lives of gay men from a variety of perspectives, including historical, cultural and political contexts. In addition, acknowledging the intricate historical and political interrelations among the three societies, Kong proposes a new theoretical approach: a transnational queer sociology. This approach allows for a cross-national comparison of LGBTQ+ issues and discourse, combining sociology and cultural studies, and contributes to the de-Westernisation of queer studies in the Asian context. Whether for a general reader who wants to learn more about queer life in Asia or an academic scholar with a research interest in Asian queer studies, this book is definitely worth reading.


This post gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image Credit: Q Wang on Shutterstock.


 

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About the author

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Linqiu Li

Linqiu Li (she/her) is a PhD student in the Department of Communication and New Media (CNM) at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Her research interest is in the study of fake marriage among Chinese sexual minorities, and within the last two years, she began to focus more on Chinese LGBTQ+ immigrants. Her research interests in intercultural gender, sexuality and especially queer women community derive from a larger concern for people and community who are deprived of a voice.

Posted In: Asia | Book Reviews | Gender and Sexuality | Sociology/Anthropology

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This work by LSE Review of Books is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales.