"A Volatile Alliance": Queer Sinophone synergies across literature, film, and culture

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    Abstract

    For fields that have been struggling famously for decades with the problem of “China”—how to define it, how to define “modern,” what to make of the shifting sands of disciplinary affiliation and access to archives, what to teach studentsShih Shu-mei’s development of the idea of the Sinophone has provided a muchneeded critical solution. As a scholar with a background in nineteenth-century medical and visual cultural history, I was initially attracted to the idea of the Sinophone because it provided a flexible alternative to the clunky amalgam of postcolonial theory and qualified “transnationalism” that had evolved to accommodate shifting understandings about the meaning of “China” in late imperial interactions with (Western) science and cultures. Shih’s notion of the Sinophone could accommodate a diversity of research materials regardless of geography; it exploded once and for all the possibility of any binary model of “China and the West” while sidestepping the trap of accidentally reifying these terms even as it seeks to undermine them. If attempts to unseat this powerful dimorphism bear a resemblance to attempts to challenge the insistent dimorphisms of sex and gender-and if we allow that the idea of the Sinophone, despite or even because of the questions it raises, has enabled works and concepts to be placed productively in dialogue without restriction by category, discipline, location, and convention-perhaps we could argue that Shih’s project succeeds, at least in part, in “queering” Chinese studies. As Andrea Bachner observes in this volume, “ ‘Sinophone,’ not unlike ‘queer’ . . . both contests identitarian formations . . . and signifies as a contestation of essentialism itself.” Sinophone as a critical framework may not have set out specifically to address questions of gender and sexuality, but as part of larger movements in postcoloniality, and as something that has been essentially coeval with the emergence of queer studies, it certainly has a critical affinity for (or even debt to) these questions; Sinophone studies, lacking a “queer” focus, is an inherently queer project. If the idea of the Sinophone has provided a workaround for long-standing challenges to defining “China” across the spectrum of fields related to Chinese studies, perhaps queer studies can offer non-specialists (such as Chinese studies scholars) a means of assimilating a complex theoretical vocabulary of gender and sexuality that might otherwise remain inaccessible behind a firewall of disciplinary and area studies divisions. A value of queer studies may be that bydefinition it is not, or does not have to be, provincial, bound to discipline; rather it “stands in opposition to the very notions of dualism, clear-cut boundaries, and categorical purity” (Bachner, this volume). However, just as gender and sexuality have yet to take on an authorial role within Sinophone studies, so too has it been difficult to home the Sinophone within queer studies frameworks without reproducing the freeze and thaw of a China/West dimorphism and its subsequent deconstruction. As Chiang writes in this volume, when a given academic project eitherlabels some form of queerness [as] distinctively Chinese, or [by contrast] identifies some aspects of Chinese culture as distinctively queer yet not in any Western sense of the word, [paradoxically it only] unveils the very constructive nature of queerness and Chineseness by fixing [these terms to an] analytical presumption. Like the way Sinologists can (and often do) romanticize a preordained fact of Chineseness, queer scholars can (and often do) easily re-essentialize the very object of their analysis, queerness.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationQueer Sinophone Cultures
    Editors Howard Chiang & Ari Larissa Heinrich
    Place of PublicationLondon
    PublisherRoutledge, London
    Pages3-16
    Edition1st
    ISBN (Print)9780203590928
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 2014

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