"Zhang Huan, “½” (1998)." The New Criterion.
Accessed April 24, 2017. http://www.newcriterion.com
"Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end." – bell hooks, "Theory as Liberatory Practice"
Karl Marx wrote a workers' manifesto; Betty Friedan wrote of the housewife's discontent. Communist thought was originated by a white man who never worked a day in his life; second-wave feminism was originated by an established leftist radical. Similarly, queer identity has been viewed as a primarily Western construction. Are the histories of our theories as important as their uses?
In Queer Marxism in Two Chinas, Petrus Liu problematizes the narrative of globalization, homonormativity and neoliberalism that dominates the study of sexuality. This "postsocialist" discourse minimizes the role that postwar communism played in shaping conceptions of sexuality unique to China and Chinese cultures. Though he only discusses these issues in relation to the mainland and Taiwan as a means of "historicizing the implications of their coexistence for queer practice" (4), Liu offers an alternative framework for defining sexual political consciousness in a "non-Western" context. Rather than positioning Chinese queerness as an imperfect carbon copy of the "original" gay liberation of the West (thus obscuring China's own history and agency in the development of its sexual politics), Liu pushes us to examine the interiority of our cultures and the theories forged within them.
Liu opens his second chapter ("Chinese Queer Theory") with an acerbic critique of ABC Aibai columnist Damien Lu. Lu scorns queer theory as a Western import that undermines "born this way" rhetoric, which he views as essential to the defense of the LGBT community. Liu calls out Lu's conflation of the nature/nurture debate (arguing the "innateness" of homoerotic desire as a means of promoting its acceptance) with the clash between essentialist/constructionist frameworks (maintaining that the definition of such desire is fixed) (35). Liu censures Lu, an American-educated sexologist, for promoting the medicalization of queer identities – an infamously "slippery slope" that has historically led to the pathologization of homosexuality (and may explain the proliferation of "gay conversion therapy" in Chinese societies). [Indeed, despite Lu's nationalism, his vehement promotion of "modern scientific thought" harkens back to a tradition of Chinese elites disparaging indigenous scientific frameworks in favor of the Western model.] Additionally, Liu challenges the basis of Lu's entire argument – questioning whether queer theory is inherently Western: "anyone writing in Chinese on queer topics ... is assumed to be working with a translated Western concept rather than articulating an original thought" (35).
Liu uses this second issue as a point of departure, entering a discussion of how capitalism has not so much "liberated" us, but constructed and fit us into easily definable identities ("liberal pluralism") and forced us to institutionalize these identities – thus assimilating into the "formal correctives" of the state, such as marriage. In opposition to this process, Liu describes how Chinese theorists have conceived of queerness as recontextualizing, boundless and relational to both "an unequal structure of power" (40) and to the myriad unnameable/unknowable manifestations of sexuality across cultures and time. Simultaneously, this queer Marxian tradition exists at the contested linguistic intersection of Chineseness and the appropriation of tongzhi, such that the latter term was first popularized in Hong Kong and Taiwan, "where a cultural Marxism, decoupled from state ideology and bureaucracy, flourished in a way that made it easier to imagine and articulate" (42).
I conclude with the question of how we direct this theorizing towards a specific end (as bell hooks stipulates). In "Constructing Sexual Citizenship: Theorizing Sexual Rights," Diane Richardson outlines what Liu would describe as a trinity of liberal pluralist practices: conduct-based rights claims (freedom of sexual practice), identity-based rights claims (the freedom of "self-definition"), and relationship-based rights claims (public validation of sexual relations) (2). How does queer Marxism disrupt the entirety of this framework – such that we would not be obligated to petition the state for "rights" on any basis? The amorphousness of theory is difficult to apply to our lived realities.