Book Review: Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China

Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China. Tiantian Zheng, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, 244 pp.

In Tongzhi Living, Tiantian Zheng provides a timely contribution to the ethnography of Tongzhi, the Chinese term referring to same-sex-attracted men in contemporary, postsocialist, China. Through engagements with Tongzhi in various locations such as cruising parks, bathhouses, Tongzhi bars, NGOs, as well as hospitals, Zheng presents a complex picture of Tongzhi’s lived realities of desire, pleasure, and hope, as well as stigma, oppression, risk, and pain.

The phenomenon of men attracted to men, observes Zheng, has a long history in China, and attitudes have changed over different periods of time (Chapter 1). Zheng argues that, since the 20th century, Western medical knowledge that pathologizes homosexuality has largely imposed a negative image of same-sex-attracted men in China. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in China in 1997 and subsequently removed from the list of mental illnesses in 2001, in everyday life and in the mass media, homosexuality is still considered behaviorally, psychologically, and morally problematic (Chapter 2). Not only do people attempt to “correct” homosexuality through various behavioral and psychiatric interventions, Tongzhi are also represented as perverted criminals or effeminate men who unsettle the social order. The existence of Tongzhi is perceived by officials and the general public as a threat to Chinese manhood, which is a sign of “social degeneration” (p. 64), disrupting the nation-state’s internal stability and weakening its competiveness in the globalizing world.

Despite the general public and the mass media’s misconception of Tongzhi as a homogeneous group, Zhang demonstrates that the Tongzhi community is, in fact, far more diverse (Chapters 3 and 4). Zhang argues that, unlike LGBT identity politics in the West centered on sexuality, the Tongzhi community is structured around heteronormative gender roles. Among Tongzhi, there are “1s” who take up the male role and penetrate in sex, and “0s,” who assume the female role, are perceived as women, and are penetrated in sex. These gendered divisions within the Tongzhi community manifest in various ways such as style of clothing, volume of speech, and calling one’s partner “husband” or “wife” in a romantic Tongzhi relationship.

In addition to gender roles, the Tongzhi community is also divided by social class, according to Zhang. Depending on one’s place of origin (urban or rural), level of education, income, and wealth, there exists an inner hierarchy of Tongzhi, with those in management or political leadership positions at the top, and “money boys” (male sex workers) or rural-to-urban migrants at the bottom. This hierarchy leads to different lived experiences for Tongzhi, affording some of them protection while subjecting others to stigma, taunting, and suffering. For instance, the social status, wealth, and professions of the “red-collar” (those who hold government-official positions) and “gold-collar” (those in management positions) Tongzhi compel, and indeed allow, these Tongzhi to remain low profile and practice same-sex erotic behaviors covertly, such as purchasing sexual services from money boys. Those Tongzhi at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, in contrast, have to visit cruising parks, bathhouses, or Tongzhi bars to fulfill their homoerotic desires. Police frequently crack down on these places, subjecting these Tongzhi to risks of fines, exposure, ridicule, and detention.

Although the Tongzhi community as a whole is stigmatized and unfairly treated, instead of trying to subvert the oppressive social environment, most Tongzhi strive to be incorporated into the body of “normal” postsocialist subjects; namely, the heterosexual, urban, and cosmopolitan consumers (Chapters 4 and 6). Informed by Foucaultian theory, Zheng shows readers that Tongzhi seek to normalize themselves through various techniques, such as engaging in heterosexual marriage, embracing the state discourse of morality and sexual propriety, and critiquing those Tongzhi that deviate from normal behaviors.

Another salient theme in Zheng’s narrative is HIV/AIDS (Chapters 5 and 7). As probably the only way to acquire recognition and support from the state, members of the Tongzhi community strategically use HIV/AIDS to organize campaigns to fight for the rights of the community. This strategy also reproduces and reinforces the stereotype of Tongzhi as vectors of HIV/AIDS, even though reports of the severity of HIV/AIDS among Tongzhi are not entirely ungrounded. High-risk sexual behaviors, Zheng observes, are prevalent among the community due to political, social, and cultural factors. For example, some of Zheng’s interlocutors, influenced by Taoism, believe that the hot steam in the steam room has therapeutic functions that can expel HIV virus along with other toxins from the body, thereby eliminating the need for condoms. Additionally, Zheng argues that the use of condoms in postsocialist China signals sexual promiscuity and/or a lack of trust in one’s partner. As a consequence, some Tongzhi may choose to have condomless sex to preserve their image and/or relationship.

This beautifully written ethnography also points to future directions for scholarly interventions. For instance, Zheng employs a global perspective and compares Chinese Tongzhi’s movement for rights and recognition, usually organized by Tongzhi NGOs and in the form of online posts or open letters, with those of the West, especially the gay rights movement in the United States. The Tongzhi movements, Zheng argues, are depoliticized and less radical than Western ones. Future interventions may push the comparison further and explore the relationship and connection (or the lack thereof) between these queer movements in different niches of the world. .

However, this kind of comparison between Tongzhi and Western gay rights movements can be slippery. Indeed, one might also take a step back and ask whether Tongzhi movements can be meaningfully compared with Western ones, and what such comparisons can tell us about the trajectories taken by queer movements globally. At times, Zheng’s comparison seems to cast a dichotomy between a modern and liberated West and a China that needs to catch up with the progress and success achieved by Western LBGT movements. A different, or perhaps more fruitful, approach could be to tease out the different trajectories various queer populations take around the world and their implications.

Closely related to queer movements is the issue of resistance in the book. The author laments that Chinese Tongzhi, instead of trying to subvert established social orders, embrace the heteronormative ideologies and conform to the interests of the state, perpetuating the oppression of the Tongzhi community through self-discipline and self-criticism. A fruitful way to continue this discussion may be to explore how these conformist practices could also potentially challenge social norms and state power as less overt micro-resistance that could nevertheless lead to a brighter future for Tongzhi, as the author alludes to at the end of the book. Likewise, instead of understanding Tongzhi’s strategies as compliant and nonconfrontational, one can consider how the diversity and inner division within this community, as Zheng painstakingly portrays, may influence the form(s) of resistance different members of the Tongzhi community take.

Ethnographically rich and theoretically robust, Tongzhi Living covers a broad scope of topics and will be valuable to readers interested in medical anthropology, governmentality, gender and sexuality studies, queer theories, and China studies. With a lucid prose, accessible use of theories, and ample ethnographic details, Tongzhi Living is pedagogically appropriate for both undergraduate- and graduate-level courses.

Leave a Reply