Tongzhi, Tongxinglian, Ku’er: Translating Queer at the Festival

The BJQFF name has undergone several changes over the past decade: from the originally proposed China Comrade Cultural Festival (Zhongguo tongzhi wenhuajie) to the actually used China Homosexual Film Festival (Zhongguo tongxinglian dianyingjie) in 2001 to the “Beijing Gay and Lesbian Film Festival” (Beijing tongxinglian dianyingjie) in 2005; to the Beijing Queer Film Forum (Beijing ku’er dianying luntan) in 2007; and then, since 2009, to its current name, the Beijing Queer Film Festival (Beijing ku’er ying- zhan). One of the biggest differences between these names lies in the different ways of translating the word “queer” from English to Chinese, and the queer subjectivities these terms denote. As J.L. Austin reminds us, words are not simply constative, but also performative—they make things happen and create social realities.15 For Barlow, funu, nuxing, and nuren denote different female subjects created by certain discourses and configurations of power. I argue that the words tongzhi (literally “comrade,” meaning queer), tongxinglian (homosexual or gay), and ku’er (the Chinese transliteration of the English term queer) also function in the same way: They point to different types of queer subjectivities. Indeed, BJQFF, together with other discourses in contemporary China, has brought different types of queer subjects into being. These subjectivities, in turn, have helped construct social change in China over time.

The first edition of BJQFF was held in 2001, immediately after the publication of the third edition of the Classification of Mental Disorders (CCMD-3), in which ego-syntonic (ziwo hexie de) homosexuality was no longer seen as a mental health problem that required medical treatment. The previous year, Cui Zi’en and Shi Tou, a lesbian artist and filmmaker, were invited onto Hunan Satellite Television for an interview, thus symbolizing the “outing” of lesbians and gays to the Chinese public. This was a time when knowledge of sexual minorities was limited; prejudice against homosexuality loomed large, particularly as a result of the long-lasting pathological and criminalizing discourses surrounding it.16 But it was also a time full of hope and optimism, with China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) suggesting the prospect of a more open society. The emergence of the tongxinglian subject—the term for homosexual initially used in the first edition of the festival—must be situated at this particular historical juncture. It was a subject created by the legal and medical discourses of the 1980s, intertwined with the state discourse of “opening up.” However, its optimistic and promising future did not obscure its hidden and stigmatized past. Indeed, public attitudes toward sexual minorities in China remain ambivalent: They are hailed as a sign of China’s social progress via the championing of universal humanity, while at the same time such practices are criticized as incompatible with traditional Chinese values.

Although the first edition of BJQFF received official approval from the Peking University authorities for a China Comrade (tongzhi) Cultural Festival, it actually went public with a more ambitious, risky name: China Homosexual (tongxinglian) Film Festival. In doing so, it explicitly named the homosexual subject as the focus of the event. The nature of this subject was reflected in the festival’s programming. While some films screened were directed by identifiably gay directors, many—for example, Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace and Li Yu’s Fish and Elephant—were not. In these latter films, the tongxinglian subject is rarely explored for its own sake, in relation to same-sex identity and pleasure. Instead, it usually appears as a national allegory for the state-society relationship and power relations in China, as in Zhang’s film; as a footnote to other “grand narratives,” such as women’s liberation from patriarchy in Li Yu’s work; or as “a site of per?sonal pain, national trauma, and voyeuristic pleasure.”17 These films also present the tongxinglian subject as alone and lonely, helplessly trapped in a repressive social system. There is no queer community in these cinematic representations; the tones of these films are dark, offering no solution to the problems explored. Chris Berry makes a compelling point about the “sad young men” trope in Chinese cinema: These figures become symbols for existential alienation in contemporary urban China, helping to define a self-fluctuating between the outmoded Confucian family and a fractured Chinese nationhood.18 The tongxinglian subject thus became a subject of political and social critique in China’s perpetual quest for modernity.

From the outset, the seemingly stable tongxinglian subject of the festival was disturbed by a queer presence: Cui Zi’en. Cui has played an important role in shaping the political stance of the festival. Inspired by poststructuralism, he has refused to settle for gay identity politics. Frequently compared to Andy Warhol or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his films are often “droll, pointed, and pleasantly perverse.. .animated by an unholy trinity of themes: the sacred, the profane, and the domestic.”19 As a prolific director, one of the most important organizers of the festival, Cui’s aesthetics and queer politics have played a pivotal role in constructing the Chinese queer subject. The emergence of queer films and queer film festivals in China coincided with the introduction of queer theory from English scholarship to Chinese academia, represented by Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe’s translation in 2000 of articles written by Gayle Rubin, Teresa de Lauretis, and others, a body of texts which Li referred to as ku’er lilun (queer theory); and Li’s publication of her reading notes on Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality in 2001. The ku’er (queer) subject emerged in China’s social discourse at this historical juncture. It has been used and celebrated at BJQFF ever since.20

The second edition of the BJQFF held in 2005 was therefore saturated with queer sentiment. This was reflected in the program. Documentaries such as Beautiful Men and Snake Boy chronicled the life of crossdressers and performers on the burgeoning Chinese bar scene. This reflected both the social visibility of these subjects, but also many Chinese queer filmmakers’ understanding of queer as gender performance (xingbie biaoyan)., a creative misreading of the Butlerian theory of gender performativity.21 However, such a misreading was also productive. In the case of the aforementioned films, the crossdressing queer characters not only parody gender norms, challenge social norms, and imagine new selves and community belongings; they also invoke constellations of historical moments and cultural memories, including the classical Chinese theatrical tradition of transgenderism, the Maoist stereotype of androgyny as a statement of gender equality, and postMao transnational imaginations of a “pink economy.” Other films screened opened up the definition of queer still further, exploring social dystopias (e.g., Andrew Yusu Cheng’s Shanghai Panic) or dismantling traditional identity binaries and taboos (as in Cui Zi’en’s Star Appeal and Withered in a Blooming Season). Here, we see a very open definition of queer: living at the social margins, unyielding, even antagonistic, to social norms. This sentiment was further developed in subsequent editions of BJQFF and was best captured by the blurb for the festival’s first China tour in 2009:

In the past three decades, no word has created so many confusions and paradoxes as ku’er. As the term challenges traditional gender binaries, it also ignores cliched lesbian and gay theory. As it tries to establish new gender identities, it also insists on subverting its own identity politics. As it refuses to submit to the mainstream, it wanders within the mainstream.

Ku’er is rooted in sex and emotions. It encompasses everything nonmainstream and alternative: homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality, and transgenderism. Ku’er is more than these: all independent, marginal, and alternative lifestyles can be accommodated, communicated, and exchanged without distinctions under this umbrella term: anarchists, murderers, drifters, sadomasochists, the afflicted, extraterrestrials...Queer films address queer topics and issues; they also break down these rigid boundaries. Queer is characterized by an independent stance; it is not mainstream but it never refuses the mainstream.22

This is an interesting definition. On the surface, it seems to echo a particular moment in Western queer theory: the popular “antinormativity” stance represented by the work of Michael Warner and Lee Edelman, among others. Examined more closely, though, the text also betrays slippages in cultural translation. It appears that Chinese queer directors are not completely resistant to social norms. Instead, they are trying to find ways to negotiate and reconcile with such norms, to find ways to be queer in and through them. One might accuse these directors of misreading or mistranslating Western queer theory, but my point is not to think about cultural translation in terms of (authentic) originals and (inauthentic) copies. This slippage exposes the incompleteness of the sign “queer,” which is always already an incomplete and insufficient subject that requires constant translations in situated cultural locations and at specific historical moments.

One cannot help but wonder at historical contingency: The tongx- inglian subject could have dominated BJQFF, and BJQFF could have continued with its construction of the tongxinglian subject. In those circumstances, subsequent editions of the festival might have featured a proliferation of sorry-looking gay men suffering from a repressive regime and a suffocating Confucian society, or carefully constructed images of gay middle-class Chinese celebrating “global queering” and “positive identification.” The fact that BJQFF appeared in China in the early 2000s was significant in itself: By this point, the tongxinglian subject was less significant than the ku’er subject, especially with the active involvement of Cui Zi’en and Li Yinhe in the festival, and in China’s queer culture generally.23 Both Cui and Li are intrinsically queer in the theories they advocate and in the lives they live: The former celebrates polyamory and the latter lives with a transgender man. These individual stakeholders, together with social developments in post-2000 China, helped shape queer subjectivities in particular ways. Without these contingent factors, neither BJQFF, nor the queer subjects it constructs, would be what they are today.

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