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By Tze-lan D. Sang.
The academic literature on same-sex desire in Chinese cultures and societies has been growing, but it is almost exclusively focused on men. In the last year or two, this embarrassing imbalance has begun to be addressed by the appearance of works such as Patricia Sieber's and Fran Martin's collections of lesbian and queer fiction. However, Sang Tzelan's The Emerging Lesbian is the long-awaited foundational study of female same-sex desire in Chinese literature and its cultural contexts. Precise in its choice of texts but broad in its coverage and implications, this is a rich and rewarding book that will occupy center stage for everyone interested in the topic and its ramifications for many years to come
Readers should not be misled by the book's subtitle into thinking that The Emerging Lesbian only addresses what is conventionally designated as the "modern" era, i.e. 1911-1949. In fact, Sang's work covers four periods of Chinese history: premodern China, Republican China, China after Mao, and Taiwan after the end of martial law. In each of these sections, her meticulous research provides a solid foundation for her arguments, be they original analyses of literary texts or corrections to existing work. Taken as a whole, The Emerging Lesbian remaps our understanding of Chinese sexual culture in at least two ways. First, it refutes the common impression that while there is much documentary evidence of male same-sex desire throughout Chinese history, Chinese female same-sex desire is almost invisible. second, Sang accomplishes this without falling into the trap of constructing a grand and continuous (as well as ahistorical and Eurocentric) tradition of Chinese lesbianism. Instead, she produces a history whose accuracy and sophistication is marked by disjuncture and incommensurability between different paradigms and apprehensions of different practices in different eras.
Sang's work on premodern China challenges two rather contradictory assumptions about the relative paucity of records from this time concerning Chinese female same-sex desire. On the one hand, Bret Hinsch assumes this paucity means that female same-sex love itself was rare because women had little social freedom to form such bonds. On the other hand, Chou Wah-shan's Utopian nationalist position assumes that the record is sparse because prior to imperialism both male and female same-sex love were highly tolerated in Chinese culture. Sang's examination of literary traces uncovers patterns in the late Ming and Qing periods that suggest that there may be more material to examine than is usually thought and that both Hinsch and Chou may be jumping to conclusions. Sang discovers in literature by men a recurrent fantasy in which female same-sex desire smoothes polygamy when two wives desire each other without being jealous of their husband. However, when this literature represents women who desire each other to the degree that they cannot accept conventional marriage, their only option is death. Among women writers of the Qing, she finds that expressions of emotional attachment among women abound, but sex itself never appears, and compromise consistently leads women to marriage. In other words, while there is more evidence of female same-sex desire than writers following Hinsch's reasoning might expect, this desire is consistently subordinated to the demands of Confucian patriarchy in away that refutes Chou's optimism.
On Republican China, Sang's focus on literature complicates the picture we have from Frank Diköttcr's work on the period, which relies almost entirely on the writings of Chinese sexologists. Sang points out that Dikötter takes what amounts to a Eurocentric position by understanding differences from Western knowledge only as backwardness and misunderstanding. In contrast, Sang notes that the many different terms used to translate the many foreign-language terms for same-sex desire proliferating during this period indicate a lively debate in China in the 1920s and 1930s. This is particularly obvious if one remembers how this debate disappeared during the Maoist era. The common use of the term longxing ai ("same-sex love") is of particular interest to Sang because-in keeping with the general idealization of romantic love prevalent in early twentieth-century China -it emphasizes emotion rather than the earlier exclusively carnal and sensual understanding characterizing male-male eroticism.
Furthermore, Sang argues that, in emphasizing inter-subjectivity rather than individual identity, tongxingai "can be viewed as [part of] an alternative modern discourse on homosexuality rather than as a deformed, deficient, and uninformed version of Western sexology," adding that "the refusal of sexual identity may represent yet another tactic for demanding diversity in a globalizing world" (p. 124). However, Sang also argues that even with the general idealization of egalitarian love during this period female same-sex love was potentially threatening to men: while men wanted to believe their partners had an autonomous sex drive, they worried that it might not be directed to them. This contradictory combination is evidenced in the frequent depiction of female same-sex desire in Republican-era fiction, but also its frequent dismissal and denigration, even in the writings of women authors such as Lu Ym, Ling Shuhua, and Ding Ling.
In the final two sections of the book, Sang turns to the recent efflorescence of literature about female same-sex desire in post-Mao China and in Taiwan. On the mainland, she finds a situation where, after the total repression and denial of the existence of homosexuality during the Maoist era, lesbianism has been slow to emerge into public discourse in comparison with male homosexuality and remains heavily disparaged. As a result, it cannot be named or claimed without great opposition and danger, and emphasis on female same-sex relationships appears in the work of various female authors only as part of a broader interest in "female consciousness" and "feminine writing." In close analyses of the work of Lin Bai and Chen Ran, she finds a protest against die homophobia associated with the history of the People's Republic in the former and an emphasis on female same-sex desire as part of a general bisexuality or refusal of gender-specific desire in the work of the latter.
In contrast to the mainland, Taiwan in the 1990s has seen both the development of a vibrant gay, lesbian, and queer social movement and the eager appropriation of queer theory from the West by Taiwan's literary critical establishment. Where female same-sex desire has been subsumed into interest in "female consciousness" on the mainland, in Taiwan there have been heated disputes between heterosexual feminists and lesbian feminists. As Sang points out, "the Taiwanese lesbian feminist persona is notjust a new lesbian identity. It is an unprecedented public female identity, at least as far as the Chinese-speaking world is concerned" (p. 245). At the same time, the commercial mass media has seized upon gays and lesbians as objects of interest to consumers, but not always in a way that works to the advantage of gays and lesbians. The anguish this provokes is the topic of the late Qiu Miaojin's famous novel Eyu Shouji (The Crocodile's Journal), which Sang analyzes in detail.
The detailed research and astute critical thinking in each chapter of The Emerging Lesbian make for rewarding and exciting reading. Of course, one book can do only so much, and it is to be hoped that it will inspire further work on the topic by others. What directions might this take? In her opening chapter Sang contrasts her emphasis on historiography with other work on the globalization of sexuality that is more contemporary in focus. She argues, rightly so, that the latter work runs the risk of implying that SinoWestern encounters around the topic of sexuality did not begin before the post-Mao era, and lier careful construction of a history that avoids the imposition of a false linear progress and continuity is one of the great achievements of this book. But at the same time, her emphasis on the Chinese historical context necessarily limits consideration of how the Chinese experience may add to our general understanding of sexuality as internationally diverse and disjunctive, as il is in China itself. The comments about the emphasis on inter-subjectivity and resistance to identity cited above are a fleeting and tantalizing exception. Other work will have to pursue these questions, and Fran Martin's book on queer Taiwan begins that work. Of course, it is not a case of choosing between one or the other approach; they should be seen as complementary not competitive.
Sang's emphasis on what she repeatedly refers to as "serious" literature also, perhaps necessarily, limits her work. Given the title of her book, The Emerging Lesbian: Female, Same-Sex Desire, in Modern China, one has to ask why only "serious" literature was chosen to access this rather broadly defined topic. Perhaps the judgments implied in the term "serious" betray the prejudices of the field of Asian Studies, which all too often continues to be structured by its nineteenth-century roots. Sang is very careful indeed to avoid the kind of overgeneralization based on a particular discourse that she finds, for example, in Dikötter's work. But it is notable that Sang does not discuss female same-sex desire in Hong Kong, Singapore, and other parts of the Chinese diaspora, presumably because she has not located highbrow literary representations from these places. (Sieber does include one, but only one, short story from Hong Kong in her collection.) Yet the popular current term tongzhi that many Chinese gays and lesbians use to characterize themselves originated in Hong Kong, as may have the earlier T and po (tomboy/butch and femme) Chinese lesbian bar culture. This suggests the strong need for future researchers of Chinese female same-sex desire to contest some of those disciplinary constraints; they could read less "serious" literature, watch television, track websites, conduct oral histories, undertake participant observation, and in general move towards cultural studies and contemporary anthropological work. However, whatever direction they choose to strike out in, Sang Tze-lan's The Emergent Lesbian will be their starting point for many years to come, and her combination of confident and well-supported arguments with a precise understanding both of what conclusions can and cannot bo drawn from the texts she studies will guide their analysis.

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