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7 Oct 2011

Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan

Hans Tao-Ming Huang's new book seeks to chronicle five decades of queer related cultural history and politics of sexuality in Taiwan by examining literary works including Pai Hsien-yung's Crystal Boys, one of Taiwan's first recognised gay novels; Taiwanese newspaper observations of same-sex issues; the influence the feminist movement has in Taiwan; among others.

Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan
By Hans Tao-Ming Huang
The Seventh Volume in the Queer Asia Series Published by the Hong Kong University Press, 2011 

There are times when it is good for a reviewer to be brought face to face with a book with a text which grates on his sensibilities and which includes arguments with which he disagrees. In such fashion one is brought to think, an unsettling process but almost certainly a profitable one. Whether this is good for the reader of the resulting review is a different matter. A reviewer’s duty is to describe and comment upon a book so that the reader can consider whether to read it, rather than to take issue with it and by argument obscure its scope and value. So I should warn those who have reached this far in this review that I did not warm to Queer Politics and Sexual Modernity in Taiwan, Hong Kong University Press’s seventh volume in its fine Queer Asia series. I will, though, attempt my duty to be fair! 

Hans Tao-Ming Huang
Hans Tao-Ming Huang began this book as his PhD thesis at the University of Sussex (UK), though the later years of the period 1996-2001 in which he wrote his thesis were spent at the National Central University of Taiwan. The book “seeks to construct a cultural history and politics of sexuality in Taiwan by looking at the interface between queerness and national/state culture.” This makes for an interesting study, for the state in Taiwan has concentrated, and in some ways continues to concentrate, upon the deliberate delineation and enforcement of ethical and cultural policies by which it has sought to differentiate itself from the Communist Mainland and to build a robust, unique society. This kind of state building is, of course, not uncommon in the world, but the thoroughness with which such policies are pursued in Taiwan, and the depth of the historical roots from which they derive, is unusual. That queer politics there is in some degree formed by this milieu, and finds itself automatically in conflict with it, is therefore unsurprising. 

Huang draws out the history of this interaction in chronological phases, using key literary works to elucidate his themes, the first of these The Man Who Escapes Marriage, Taiwan’s first tongxinglian or ‘homosexual’ popular novel by Guang Tai, published in 1976. The second is Pai Hsien-yung’s internationally renowned Crystal Boys (Niezi, better translated as The Sinful Son) of 1983. Huang also uses Taiwanese newspaper comment on same-sex issues from the 1950s to the 1990s to fill out his theme. In outline, he draws a picture of repression of homosexuals stemming not so much from conservative Chinese tradition but rather from the mental hygiene movements of the 1960s and 1970s which were encouraged and adopted by the state as part of its nation building policies (and which had their roots in similar pre-2nd World War Guomingdang movements). In these, homosexuality was, with other sexual issues like masturbation, seen as a weakening diversion from the normative culture, an obsession (pi) and a perversion. Lurid newspaper reporting of cut sleeve pi and renyao (freaks) linked with, and reinforced, campaigns to clean up the thriving red-light districts that had grown up in Taiwan’s cities due to the country’s rapid urbanisation, red-light areas where male prostitutes plied their trade. This linkage was so powerful in these decades that homosexuality seems to have been thought of in the public mind largely in terms of male prostitution. The low esteem in which homosexuals were held was worsened by this, as well as by the HIV epidemic which reached Taiwan in the mid 1980s. 

This link with prostitution has done queerness no good at all, as the state, seeking to inculcate a “normative” civil morality, has continued to struggle with more general issues of prostitution until today and issues of homosexuality continue to be coloured by it. Crystal Boys was written in this context, a story of boys who turn to prostitution in and around Taipei’s New Park in order to survive after they have fled, or been thrown out of, their family homes. Whilst the book and its resulting film and TV series did much to create sympathy with the lot of those it portrays, Huang sees the tale as one that reinforces the linkage of homosexuality with prostitution at the same time as it postulates a “normative” social view by showing that “redemption” of the lost souls in the New Park is achieved when they cease to sell their bodies for sex and revert to a conformist life. 

Huang continues this theme to the present day in his examination of the influence the feminist movement has in Taiwan’s social affairs. Taiwanese feminists, as is the case elsewhere, see prostitution as an evil feature of the patriarchal society, one which needs eradication by criminalising all sides involved in it. In his final chapters, Huang examines the authoritarian and regulatory impulses which derive from the ideas promulgated by Taiwan’s powerful “anti-prostitution/obscenity bloc” and links them with the provisions of the Police Offence Law and its 1979 successor, the Social Order Maintenance Law, a law which gives Taiwanese police officers a duty both to manage and to punish social “vices” including prostitution. It is a law that still effectively means that any unmarried persons may be called upon to justify sleeping together to prove that they are not doing so for commercial gain. 

Huang’s discussion of these themes is thorough and his analysis of the published sources he cites is careful and persuasive. His book is a welcome elucidation of these themes. 

So, what is it that I dislike about Huang’s account? I will start with perhaps the least important, for this is a matter of personal view, rather than a criticism of the book itself. This is the fact that Huang’s concentration upon the linkage of prostitution and homosexuality in the Taiwanese mind results in a book which projects prostitution positively, rather than just neutrally. He does not quite get around to saying that the crystal boys of the novel should have stayed where they were in the park rather than sought “redemption” in conforming to “normative” social pressures by getting a salaried job, but he makes pretty clear that his views tend in that direction. Whilst I would, and again this is my personal view, side with Huang in rejecting any negative characterisation of prostitution as “immoral”, I nevertheless find it difficult to avoid seeing harm in many of its manifestations. Prostitution is emphatically not a career with a real prospect of a happy ending. There is nothing in Huang’s account of the social and personal ills that derive from prostitution, ills that explain the negative connotations inherent in the link in the Taiwanese public’s mind between it and homosexuality. It is the downsides of prostitution that largely drive feminist theories, and which account, of course, for at least some of the distress of the crystal boys of the New Park. Prostitution is not just “an alternative lifestyle” for queers.

There is a structural problem in Huang’s book. His heavy investment of time and analysis in the Taiwanese women’s movement, though fascinating in itself, remains un-anchored by any explanation of exactly how influential that movement and its views are. The chapters on feminism need placing in their historical and political context if one is to understand their significance. Reading these chapters, I felt the need for some form of historical framework for the LGBT movements in Taiwan to enable me to judge the effect of the political, social and literary theories of which he writes so persuasively. Just what effect have all these powerful women and their views had?

Queer theorists are bedevilled by the way they write. Huang’s work is sadly far from being the only book of its genre in which the syntax is so difficult at times as to obscure the meaning and where the misuse of ordinary (or not so ordinary) English words, and the invention of new ones, infuriates rather than impresses. One example from the conclusion of the book will suffice here:

I suggest that we understand the profound moralism that state feminists enact as a specific form of feminist melancholia, further reformulating the auratic truth of ‘sexual autonomy’ as constituted through “melancholic foreclosure”.

I would suggest that we don’t “understand” this at all. Why do queer theorists make such a meal of their English? Of course all disciplines evolve their own ways of writing, but I doubt it possible to evade the old saw that if you can’t say what you mean, you may be taken to not mean what you say. Hiding meaning in sloppy and pretentious English is lazy and serves only to cast doubt on the intellectual abilities of the writer. And why oh why do we need a quotation from Foucault in almost every chapter of almost every work of queer theory? 

Queer theory’s mode of discourse exaggerates its tendency to drift away from reality, and it is on this last point that I would take issue with Huang’s book, not, this time, wearing my hat of reviewer, but rather that of an activist. In his Epilogue, Huang makes very clear his discontent with the “cry for normality” which he says the Taiwanese tongzhi movement makes by its “appeal for wider public support for tongzhi rights through the rhetoric of love”. Instead, Huang concludes, “one must continually interrogate, from the space of political society, the notion of tongzhi citizenship so as to resist the violence of melancholic sexual modernity”. In other words (I think), the movement should follow the path of radical queer politics and reject all existing social structures, all attempts to participate in society as it is, all wishes to “conform” in any way. I take grave issue with this as I believe the argument is damaging to the advancement of LGBT rights. 

Aside from the fact that most LGBT people have no desire to spend their lives as permanent pariahs in the New Parks of the countries in which they live, the idea that political progress can be made by overturning “the system” is a totally anachronistic one. In a democracy, where the majority of the population has to be persuaded and enlisted, not alienated and frightened, in order that any form of change may be achieved, trying to get that population to accept that we are all “queer”, and should therefore let go of our “conformist” lives, is pure utopianism. Huang’s argument may be rational, logical, Foucaultian even, but it is an unreasonable one. It flows from much of the unrealities and unreal discourse of queer theory itself. “Normal” LGBT people have to fight for their rights on the streets of the world as it is, not as its academics would have it!

读者回应

1. 2011-10-07 20:57  
Thanks Nigel, I've never read any "queer theory" , and you've confirmed I don't need to start. Though I doubt many people will rush out to buy a copy of someone's phd, whatever it's about.
2. 2011-10-07 23:07  
Sad loss, I am in disbelief that Steve Jobs has actually died.
I thought that people were talking about the death of Apple and ITunes. Rest In Peace Steve
3. 2011-10-08 01:13  
Interesting book and review. Let me start by drawing Fridae's attention to the improper abbreviations used in this article and that on Rachel Maddow. The proper abbreviation for "Doctor of Philosophy" used by both Oxford and Sussex Universities is "D.Phil." instead of the most common one, "Ph.D.", for this degree.

I agree with the reviewer that writers should try to use simple English which readers can understand easily. The purpose of writing is to inform, not confuse, the readers. Often, the inability to write in simple English is an indication of confusion .
4. 2011-10-08 10:12  
I believe 95 percent of LGBT community in most of the world's countries are not prostitutes, so why is the author so persistent in enforcing the notion vice versa? Or maybe it is only true for Asian societies, or Taiwan specifically.
5. 2011-10-08 17:10  
Let us not forget that selling sex is currently illegal in Taiwan and that this was enacted by a group of feminists under the presidency of Chen Shui-bien. In the real world this has brought harm poverty and distress to some of the most marginal and poor in Taiwan society, if it needs books written in complex language that do not subscribe to the idea that gay men are now normal mainstream to challenge these injustices then so be it. We would love to forget that it was rioting drag queens and prostitutes that pushed us towards the idea of liberation. ....
6. 2011-10-09 15:39  
i always have the impression that Taipei is one of the more gay-friendly place in the world.

and some of the best looking Asians. wink!

Kirk
http://sexytenga.wordpress.com
http://www.facebook.com/sexytenga
7. 2011-10-11 17:31  
'queer' how low brow and sooooooooooooooo last century
8. 2011-10-11 18:01  
Nigel, please use fewer prepositional phrases. Your document is littered with them -- the first sentence contains ten! Since you criticize syntax and hidden meaning, you should know that too many prepositional phrases obscure the sentence subject and make reading tedious.
9. 2011-10-13 17:10  
The criticism that Hans Tao-Ming Huang's work is hard to read is generally a problem with Queer Theory.

Anyone tried to read Judith Butler's "Gender Trouble" recently?

It took me many attempts and, finally a completely isolated environment and a lot of alcohol and even then I needed to check Wikipedia's condensed explanations to finally warp my head around it. After all that effort, I had forgotten the crux of her arguments within days :-(.

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