TRANSGENDER STUDIES AND THE ‘C’ WORD
Dr Howard Chiang, Department of History
The enthusiasm that has fuelled the making of transgender studies has been confined mainly to North American and European academic circles. Dr Howard Chiang discusses his work on Chinese transgender studies: emerging critical thought on gender and sexuality in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China.
By the 1990s, transgender studies came to be consolidated and widely recognized as an independent area of academic inquiry. Of course, debates ensued among activists, popular authors, academics and other writers regarding what “transgender” means precisely (and the more general question of who fits into what categories has deeper historical ramifications in gay activism, feminism, and the civil rights movement). But with an expansive (even ambiguous), institutionalized and collective notion of transgender, these actors nonetheless shared a commitment to advancing the political and epistemological interests of gender variant people. Moreover, as the twentieth century drew to an end, it seemed rather useful—and perhaps helpful—to distinguish the range of community, political and intellectual work centered on trans folks from those centered on gays and lesbians.
In the emerging field of transgender studies, transgender-identified scholars took the lead in breaking the ground of research; contributors came from diverse disciplinary backgrounds with a heterogeneous set of theoretical, rhetorical, and methodological positions and, most importantly, fruitful conversations have been largely enriched by self-reflexive insights on and a unique preference for novel interpretations of the meaning of embodiment, specifically, and the possible boundaries of human experience more broadly. As David Valentine puts it, “The capacity to stand in for an unspecified group of people is, indeed, one of the seductive things about ‘transgender’ in trying to describe a wide range of people, both historical and contemporary, Western and non-Western.”
Despite Valentine’s promising remark, the considerable measure of enthusiasm that fuelled the making of transgender studies has been confined mainly to North American and European academic circles. It logically follows that this area of scholarship is heavily oriented toward exploring Anglo-American society and culture. The only exception is the still growing literature that uses anthropological data on gender diversity to elucidate the limitations of Western-centric frameworks of gender dimorphism. But even here, the primary focus has been Native American and Southeast Asian. Scholarly, activist, and creative work on transgender issues in Northeast Asia remains relatively scarce. With a few notable exceptions, gay and lesbian topics—alongside the translation of Western queer theoretical texts—continue to dominate critical studies of gender and sexuality in Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. Particularly missing from the field of queer studies is a sustained critical engagement with Chinese transgender identity, practice, embodiment, history, and culture.
Recently, a number of Sinologists from different disciplines have begun to balance the analytical horizon of transgender studies. A China-centered perspective makes it possible to expand the scope of transgender scholarship in terms of historical nuance, cultural-geographical coverage, and methodological refinement. It is in the spirit of providing this long overdue perspective that my book, Transgender China, brings together these Sinologists for the first time.
One way to imagine Chinese transgender studies is by adopting a focused definition of transgender to refer to practices of embodiment that cross or transcend normative boundaries of gender. This approach lends itself easily to identifying specific trans figures based on their self-representation, bringing to light concrete historical and cultural examples in which such identification occur, and stressing the importance of agency both in cultural production and with respect to the historical actors themselves who self-identify as trans.
An alternative approach to Chinese transgender studies is by building on case studies of gender ambiguity or androgyny, rather than concrete examples of gender transgression. This method considers transgender practices not simply as the root of cultural identity, but also in terms of their relationship to broader circuits of knowledge and power.
By making a distinct departure from a “trans/gender” epistemology rooted in Western culture, we are also reconceptualizing our categories from a fundamentally global viewpoint.
The most radical approach to developing something that we might want to call Chinese transgender studies is perhaps by leaving behind Western-derived meanings of gender altogether—or at least problematizing them. This would make an important step in identifying and understanding Chinese “gender” variance on its own unexpected terms. By making a distinct departure from a “trans/gender” epistemology rooted in Western culture, we are also reconceptualizing our categories from a fundamentally global viewpoint. Taken together, these studies reorient the imagining of a transgender China by not assigning Western notions of gender and transgender an epistemologically and ontologically privileged position.
In the emerging field of queer Asian studies, scholars are envisioning an ever more expansive apparatus that could account for the myriad potentials and possibilities within cross-cultural configurations of gender and sexuality as they play out in Asia and elsewhere, in scholarly discourses, subcultural practices, grassroots movements or otherwise. Studies are leaving behind the homogenizing/heterogenizing debate on global identity categories, looking for new avenues of research that transcend traditional disciplinary and methodological constraints, and, above all, addressing and building new alliances across the globe to make post-Orientalist regimes of cross-cultural thinking possible. If the animating force of transgender studies comes from a broad, collective, and always mutating definition of transgender, the view from China only makes the promise of transformation all the more meaningful to our imagination.
Howard Chiang is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Warwick. He is the editor of Transgender China (2012) and, with Ari Larissa Heinrich, Queer Sinophone Cultures (2013).
Image: Jin Xing, Founder, Shanghai Jin Xing Dance Theatre.