- Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture
Should young women in China express their newfound postsocialist freedom and cosmopolitanism through consumption of transnational goods and services? Can intellectuals represent the nation, and are their desires legitimate? Should gay men in China follow a Western model of “coming out,” and, if so, what does such a model imply? Have consumers replaced workers as the new “heroes” of the nation? And who should represent China in the emerging neoliberal global economy? These questions, with which Chinese citizens in a post-Mao China are currently grappling, allude to larger questions about the relationship between multiple desires and neoliberal economic policies. In Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture, Lisa Rofel explores citizens’ [End Page 258] ambivalence over these themes as she examines the ways in which analyses of public culture in China offer new ways to read desire. Rofel’s chronologically ordered chapters manage to bring together the seemingly disparate themes of a popular television miniseries that aired in China in the early 1990s, a women’s museum founded by a controversial Chinese feminist scholar, expressions of sexual identity for gay men in postsocialist China, the aspirations of young heterosexual women, legal cases which established guidelines for proper sexual behavior in China, and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The book’s title is a clever play on words, highlighting the wide range of longings and aspirations on the part of Chinese citizens (as “new desiring subjects”), the significance of desire for postsocialist subjects in a desiring nation-state, and the varied desires for China within a global market economy. Desiring China also engages with recent trends within transnational feminist and queer studies and foregrounds the ways in which productions of desire are central to global processes, including neoliberal economies and transnational encounters. In pushing queer studies to consider global contexts and in suggesting that sexual politics are integral to our understandings of transnational encounters, Rofel engages the work of other scholars of transnational sexualities, including Martin Manalansan, Gayatri Gopinath, and Neferti Xina Tadiar. And in challenging notions of neoliberalism in relation to constructions of sexuality, Rofel engages and extends of the work of David Harvey, Aihwa Ong, Nikolas Rose, and Wendy Brown.
In the first chapter, Rofel offers an analysis of the dramatic television miniseries, Yearnings, which aired in China in the early 1990s, as an allegory for the nation’s yearnings and for individual citizens’ public and private desires regarding gender, class, and what she refers to as “nationness.” The television drama engaged viewers in lengthy controversial discussions about China’s future, suggestive of the ambivalent feelings, longing, and desires within postsocialist China. In particular, viewers were compelled to struggle for ways to define themselves within a newly emerging cultural context that included neoliberal policies producing increased privatization, economic reform, foreign investment, and consumerism. In her analysis, Rofel demonstrates an astute sense of postsocialist political culture in China, suggesting that Yearnings became a pivotal public forum for contestations over who should represent the nation to the world and to itself—who counts as truly “Chinese.”
Continuing with questions about how public culture intersects with emerging identifications within postsocialist China, Rofel examines the emergence of gay identity and culture within China. In chapter 3, “Qualities of Desire: Imagining Gay Identities,” she takes issue with Western theories and frameworks of gay identity that imply a universal way to express and represent sexuality. While Rofel does suggest that the [End Page 259] emergence of gay identities and practices within China is connected to transnational networks of gay men and lesbians, she is critical of the Western developmental narrative which suggests that gay men in China will soon “catch up” with the level of liberation and politicization of gay men in the West. She offers a cogent critique of the notion that there is a singular, homogenous “global gay identity,” asking, “What kinds of investments lead to the assumption that such a subjectivity—a global gay identity—exists?” (88...