- Tongzhi Living: Men Attracted to Men in Postsocialist China by Tiantian Zheng
It is always welcome to see new work emerging on Chinese queer/tongzhi communities, considering the substantial development of this research field since the turn of the twenty-first century. Researching a gay male community as a self-identified heterosexual woman presents certain challenges to the ethnographer, as Tiantian Zheng reveals in her investigation of a gay community in the city of Dalian in Northeast China, when the issue of gender and sexuality is central to both the ethnographic fieldwork (pp. 23–27) and the lived experience of same-sex attracted men (pp. 75–95). I will return to this point at the end of this review.
Zheng’s book maps out a territory where economic differences, social stratifications, and political discourses constantly shape and reshape “tongzhi living” (the lived experiences of same-sex attracted men in China). The book starts with a brief historical review of same-sex desire in China, from imperial and republican periods to the Maoist past and the postsocialist present. This is followed by a discussion of public discrimination against homosexuality in today’s China, based on Zheng’s interview with “sixty randomly selected, self-identified straight people” (p. 52) and on her analysis of news reports and opinion articles in the mass media [End Page 195] (p. 47). The data almost exclusively show a homophobic and sexist attitude toward same-sex attracted men and “effeminate boys,” indicating a moral panic toward “the crisis of manhood” in today’s China (p. 73) and a widespread perception that women are intrinsically “weak” and “passive” (p. 55). The data also reveal a tendency in the general public to stereotype same-sex attracted men as “effeminate,” and to conflate effeminate men with homosexuals, where gendered behavior is not separated from sexual preference.
Zheng’s discussion of her ethnographic findings starts in chapter 3 by depicting the top/bottom roles in gay male sex as “gender differences.” This is rather problematic for several reasons, which I outline below. This chapter engages previous studies on gender and sexuality in Oceania, Latin America, and South and Southeast Asia; however, unfortunately it overlooks a substantial amount of the extant Chinese queer/tongzhi studies literature. In chapter 4, Zheng casts a rare light on the “red collar” (government employees) and the “gold collar” (the rich) in the local tongzhi community, in contrast to regular wage earners (“white collar”), college students (“gray collar”), and the working class (“blue collar”). Her ethnographic recount reveals how some same-sex attracted Chinese men with higher social status satisfy their sexual desires through covert and discreet commercial sex while carefully maintaining a heteronormative public image in their families and work places. The hierarchy among the local money boys (male-to-male sex workers) is also discussed, complementing previous studies on this topic. Chapter 5 deals with organized tongzhi activism against state discrimination, based mainly on anecdotal data from the media and the ethnographic field, rather than any substantive, systematic study of tongzhi activist practices. Chapter 6 focuses on gay men’s devotion to the heteronormative ideal. Here, disappointingly, “tongzhiness” seems to be simplified as gay men’s effeminate behavior, and “performing masculinity” is reduced to people’s restrained public display of same-sex intimacy. Chapter 7 contains a valuable discussion of condom use among local same-sex attracted men, although the analysis is once again based on a small handful of case studies.
Given that this research was conducted in Northeast China, a region known for its distinctive dialect and culture, as a reader I felt curious to understand more about how the regional culture has shaped the local tongzhi community and the public attitude toward same-sex intimacy. Considering the distinctive internal differences within China, this is a rather significant issue. A recent study has shown considerable variation in people’s attitudes toward homosexuality across different provinces in today’s China...