PRISM 18.1 Themed Cluster: Queering the Confucian Family

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ISSN 2578-3491
EISSN 2578-3505

Research Articles


These essays grew out of an Association for Asian Studies panel with four presenters, for which I served as a discussant. Prior to my travels to attend the conference, when I mentioned the title of the panel to a colleague, my interlocutor asked with some bewilderment: what might “queer renditions” from late imperial China and the contemporary Sinophone world possibly have in common? As it turns out, I would submit, a great deal. However, as these essays demonstrate, such common threads do not derive from a unified sense of Chineseness, a “genealogic connection” between queer pasts and presents, or from an “unchanging traditionality” or a “copycat modernity.” As will become readily apparent, these four essays, if anything, are deeply committed to problematizing any notion of an overarching queerness and instead seek out richly contextualized readings of queer moments that defy assimilation to any reductionist,…

The Death of His Husband: Contesting Desires in Li Yu’s (1610–1680) Two Huaben Stories on Male Homoeroticism 

Zhaokun Xin

Prism (2021) 18 (1): 9–26.

Li Yu’s two huaben stories, “A Male Mencius’s Mother Raises Her Son Properly by Moving House Three Times” and “House of Gathered Refinements,” stand out from the writer’s brief yet highly novel dabbling in the genre thanks to their similar concern with male same-sex desire. But rarely have the two stories been examined in tandem. Furthermore, both stories feature a shared character of a dead penetrator, which is scarcely seen in homoerotic fiction of early modern China. This article first probes factors contributing to such casualties and singles out the contestation between the monopolizing penetrators and the homoerotic public over the penetrated. It further argues that the penetrators’ fatal failure in the struggle with the desiring public for the penetrated evidences consistent disapprobation of self-interested monopolization in both stories. Nonetheless, the male homoerotic public similarly suffers from frustration, being unable to keep the objects of desire due to the penetrated characters’ efforts to escape from the homoerotic economy. Only successful via the mediation of state power, such eschewal in turn reveals that the homoerotic public is both vulnerable to the monopolizer’s external threats and prone to collapse into possessive claims to the penetrated.

Hybrid Subjects, Fluid Bonds: Envisioning the Early Modern Queer in Phoenixes Flying Together 

Li Guo

Prism (2021) 18 (1): 27–48.

This essay offers a study of male homoeroticism in an unconventional and yet seminal nineteenth-century woman-authored tanci work, Fengshuangfei 鳳雙飛 (Phoenixes Flying Together; preface dated 1899) by Cheng Huiying 程蕙英 (before 1859–after 1899). Perhaps the only tanci known today that focuses centrally on male same-sex relations, Phoenixes Flying Together offers a vital example of early modern queer literary tradition by illustrating fluid male-male bonds and hybrid ideals of homosexuality. Such textual representations shift Confucian cardinal relations, redefine the power of nanse, and demonstrate queer identifications beyond heteronormative relations. Reading women’s tanci through the intersectional lenses of early modernity, queer theory, and narrativity, this study examines such narratives as an inspiration to initiate a more contextualized epistemological, historical, and methodical understanding of the dynamic textual spaces that harbor same-sex intimacies, erotic desires, and clandestine longings in vernacular traditions. Narratives of male intimacy, camaraderie, and homosexual love in Cheng’s text facilitate the construction of queer subjectivities through character focalization and embedded frames of storytelling and thereby reconfigure patrilineal norms of personal, familial, societal, and political relations. Ultimately, when engaged in conversation with global queer discourses, early modern Chinese vernacular narratives foster a culturally situated understanding of queer historiography, as well as the shifting social structures of power that often condition and facilitate nonnormative expressions of gender and sexuality.

“Queering” the Nation?: Gendered Chineseness, Cross-Dressing, and the Reception of Love Eterne in Taiwan

Jasmine Yu-Hsing Chen

Prism (2021) 18 (1): 49–69.

This article explores how gendered Chineseness is represented, circulated, and received in Huangmei musical films for audiences in martial-law Taiwan. Focusing on Love Eterne (1963), the analysis examines how theatrical impersonations in the film provided a “queer” social commentary on aspects of Chinese nationalism that conflicted with the Kuomintang’s military masculinities. Love Eterne features dual layers of male impersonations: diegetically, the female character Zhu Yingtai masquerades as a man to attend school with other men; nondiegetically, the actress Ling Po performs the male character Liang Shanbo, Zhu’s lover. In addition to the “queer” imagination generated by Ling’s cross-dressing performance, the author considers how the feminine tone of Love Eterne allowed the Taiwanese audience to escape from masculine war preparations. Although the Kuomintang promoted Ling as a model patriotic actress, it was her background, similar to many Taiwanese adopted daughters, that attracted the most attention from female audiences. This female empathy and the queer subjectivity arguably disturbed the Kuomintang’s political propaganda. Hence, this study adds to the breadth of queerness in studies on the cinematic performance of same-sex subjectivities and invites new understandings of queer performance in Love Eterne as a vehicle that can inspire alternative imaginings of gendered selfhoods and nations.

The Male Dan at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century: Wu Jiwen’s Fin-de-siècle Boylove Reader

Jie Guo

Prism (2021) 18 (1): 70–88.

Reading the Taiwanese author Wu Jiwen’s 1996 novel Fin-de-siècle Boylove Reader (Shijimo shaonian’ai duben), this essay considers the age-old figure of the male dan and the critical role it played in the emerging gay scene in the Sinophone world at the turn of the twenty-first century. Based on the Qing author Chen Sen’s novel Precious Mirror for the Appreciation of Flowers (Pinhua baojian), Wu’s version resorts to the figure of the male dan, often referred to as xianggong, to explore male same-sex intimacies, which were gaining increasing visibility in the 1990s Sinophone world. While scholars generally agree that the male dan in Wu’s novel bears considerable resemblance to the figure of the contemporary gay man, some read the ending of Wu’s novel, where the two protagonists, Mei Ziyu and Du Qinyan, part ways, as representing a compromise. I contend that this “unhappy ending” points to Wu’s most radical departure from Chen’s novel. The original novel’s ending, where Ziyu lives happily ever after with both his wife and Qinyan, reaffirms the centrality of the “polygamous” patron-patronized relationship in the late imperial imagination of male-male relations. In contrast, the failed relationship between Ziyu and Qinyan in Wu’s version points to the obsoleteness of the xiangong system, as well as the polygamous mode in the 1990s, which required new modes, categories, and symbols for the imagination of male same-sex relationships. Arguing that in this novel forces past and present, local and global converge, the author uses it to explore the larger question of how to approach the queer Sinophone.

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