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  • The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China
  • Jens Damm (bio)
Tze-lan D. Sang . The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003. 392 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 0-226-73748-1. Paperback $17.00, ISBN 0-226-73480-3.

In this book, which is based on her Ph.D. thesis, Tze-lan D. Sang discusses the transformation of female-female relationships within a public discourse in a historical context. Covering a wide range of relationships, she describes the change in female-female intimacy from "feeling (qing) among sisters (jiemei) and friends" to "erotic desire (se)" (p. 5).

Her research is centered on the significant changes related to ideas of gender and sex during the May Fourth era in 1919. She considers this crucial period within a wider range of historical and modern discourses of female-female desire: "What I am interested in are discourses in Chinese rather than a fixed physical space" (p. 12). Although this perhaps leaves her vulnerable to charges of arbitrariness in choosing certain discourses and omitting others, it is still a valid method of showing the variety and multiplicity of discourses; Sang is thus able to offer a more detailed analysis of periods such as "Premodern China" (pp. 37-95), with a focus on Pu Songling's "Tales of the Strange"; "Republican China" (pp. 99-160), with a consideration of intellectual discourses and fiction; "China after Mao" (pp. 163-122), again with a focus on literature; and finally "Taiwan after Martial Law" (pp. 225-274), which is separated into "Lesbian Activism in the Mediated Public Sphere" and representations in literature. Her research is primarily concerned with the "elite literature" of the respective discourses, and with regard to the twentieth century in particular she states that "literature . . . is relatively . . . independent from the state and capitalist interests" (p. 13).

First of all, Sang elaborates on the problem of carrying out research into the historical past and also on the problems of what Dennis Altman has called the internationalization of Western sexual identities in a globalized world. Research into the Chinese past was often based on assumptions derived from twentieth-century Western influence, so that, not surprisingly, the first "modern sexologists" in China referred to Western scientists (particularly medical experts), and the first detailed descriptions of Chinese homosexuality in the past were written by Hong Kong authors (pp. 37-39). The shift that occurred during the Republican period is described as follows: "Female-female intimacy, formerly negligible and insignificant in the patriarchal family organization of traditional China, became distinctly associated with feminism, on the one hand, and psychobiological abnormality, on the other" (pp. 6-7). [End Page 166]

With regard to the premodern period, Sang succeeds in showing that most presentations of female same-sex desire were intended for a male audience living in a society where polygamous marriage was acceptable; sexual activities between females were not considered to be a threat to the patriarchal society if they took place within the socially accepted boundaries of family.

She then jumps to the Republican period, not only showing the role of translators and mediators, which explicitly refers to Western discourse, but also describing the underlying social changes that had occurred in China during the second half of the Qing dynasty and that had already paved the way for a medi-calization of the discourse. Descriptions of Republican China usually assume that discriminatory medical writings dominated or monopolized the discourse of homosexuality during that period; Sang demonstrates, however, that this discourse was characterized by a vibrant diversity in terms of genre, discipline, conceptualization, and political stance,1 even going so far as to call this "a discourse of alternative modernity."2

Sang offers a feasible explanation for the critical stance toward same-sex behavior that had been adopted by many "progressive" intellectuals at that time: "It is possible that, precisely because Chen [Chen Dongyuan, known for his lengthy studies on women in Chinese history] took women's demand for emancipation seriously, he could not but feel threatened by their same-sex relations" (p. 130).

Sang is extremely critical of the policies of the People's...


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