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  • After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China by Howard Chiang
  • Emily Baum
Howard Chiang. After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 416 pp. $65.00 (978-0-2311-8578-3).

In the past few years, Howard Chiang has edited or co-edited an astounding number of scholarly volumes on topics ranging from psychiatry and sexuality in China to Sinophone studies. In his first single-authored monograph, Chiang brings together these various intellectual projects to chart a genealogy of sex in Republican-era China and 1950s Taiwan. Chiang's goal in After Eunuchs is to [End Page 631] demonstrate how sexual knowledge became a crucial element in Chinese modernity. As he argues, the historical transformations of twentieth-century China coevolved with changing conceptions of sex and gender. Progressing from Confucian kinship relations to a more scientific and naturalized vision of sex, these transformations in sexual epistemology were enabled by the gradual rise of bio-medicine in China and its attendant ways of visualizing (and pathologizing) the human body.

One of Chiang's most creative claims is that it is possible to trace a direct lineage from the demise of eunuchism in the early twentieth century to the emergence of transsexuality in the Cold War era. (In an explanatory footnote, Chiang justifies his use of the term "transsexual" by appealing to historical accuracy.) The book therefore proceeds chronologically, emphasizing subsequent modes of understanding sex and sexuality as they were translated from Western sources and expounded in Chinese-language texts and medical journals. Throughout, Chiang draws from gender and queer theory to substantiate his claim that the 1920s were a pivotal turning point in the history of Chinese sexual science.

The bodily experience of eunuchs is the focus of chapter 1. Despite their physical inability to reproduce, eunuchs retained a masculine identity and contributed to their own social reproduction by overseeing the castration of other eunuchs. Chapter 2 explores the rise of new visual techniques that enabled sex to become an object of biomedical observation. By depicting the anatomical sex differences of higher level organisms, Western physicians like Benjamin Hobson introduced new understandings of sex dimorphism in which all species could be divided into ci (female) or xiong (male). This new vision of naturalized gender was enabled, Chiang insists, through a "dissection-based realism" (p. 75) that allowed for novel ways of seeing the body. Chapter 3 charts the rise of sexology in China in the 1920s. Relying on Michel Foucault's concept of scientia sexualis, whereby sex was integrated into secular scientific discourse, Chiang evaluates the work of early sexologists like Zhang Jingsheng and Pan Guangdan who sought to understand sex through the analysis of scientific "facts."

The final two chapters foreground the plausibility of sex transformation and the possibility that men and women inhabited two versions of a "universal body" (p. 178). Between the 1920s and 1940s, Chinese sexologists turned from an anatomical to a chemical understanding of sex, one in which sex was measured quantitatively rather than qualitatively. These ideas attracted the attention of the general public through popularly circulating stories like that of Yao Jinping, a woman who claimed (falsely) to have developed the genitalia of a man. The final chapter turns to 1950s Taiwan and the story of Xie Jianshun, an intersex male soldier who, under the lens of medical science, is revealed to be biologically female. Billed as the "Chinese Christine [Jorgenson]," Xie's story is at once revelatory and disturbing. Despite Xie's desire to remain a heterosexual man, physicians give precedence to her perceived biology over her gendered identity and undertake several surgeries to transform her into a woman. Xie's sexual marginality, Chiang concludes, maps neatly onto Taiwan's global marginality "on the fringes of Chinese-ness" (p. 238). [End Page 632]

While Chiang is mainly concerned with foregrounding major intellectual shifts in Chinese sexual science, I am curious about the persistence of earlier sociomedical constructions of sex and gender and the ways these may have influenced popular understandings of Western discourse. For example, it strikes me that the ease with which sex transformation was accepted...


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