Chinese society in trans-ition 中国的跨性别文化

By Nova Fritz (福清雨)

NANJING, China — Transgenderism is a relatively recent concept to enter Chinese society’s consciousness. Since the Reform and Opening Up period of the 1980s, mainland China has increasingly been exposed to outside cultural influences, and through this avenue, critical concepts of gender and identity have entered the country. However, within the borders of the mainland, the government has resisted this outside influence. China has carried out periodic “anti-spiritual-pollution” campaigns, which have targeted homosexuality and other forms of queer expression. As China has risen as a secondary global hegemon, the government has taken steps to vigorously promote Chinese culture abroad, such as through cultural exchanges as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. To this effect, mainland Chinese film has increasingly sought to reach the international market, where its intolerant censorship standards take on a new significance.


The sinister Madam from A Chinese Ghost Story
Photo credits: Hong-Kong Movie Database/香港影库

Despite the frequent censorship of homosexuality in Chinese film, transgender themes are not altogether uncommon. In “Trans On Screen,” Helen Hok-Sze Leung breaks down transgender representation in Chinese films along three lines. Perhaps the most common is gender-variant characters as a symbol of cultural anxieties or fixations regarding gender. Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the Lambs” is an apt example of this trope, where gender-variant characters are typically underdeveloped and instead function as symbols of cultural anxiety and fascination over gender boundary crossing. Take, for instance, the twisted Madam in the 1987 film “A Chinese Ghost Story.” Her mix of gendered symbols — sporting masculine facial features and voice but feminine clothes and demeanor — is not only sensational, but also denotes her monstrosity. Transgender representation can also occur when characters exhibit transgenderism through relationality, such as with Sister 13 in “Portland City Blues,” who acts as a man among men. Finally, there are characters, such as Dieyi in the well-known “Farewell my Concubine,” whose body and ultimately identity are altered through intensive training and abuse. It goes without saying that these examples are based on some rather problematic assumptions. Even though Dieyi’s portrayal is rather sympathetic, his transgender identity is an outgrowth of his trauma, another note in his disturbed psychological medley alongside his drug abuse and self-destructive tendencies.

尽管中国电影经常对同性恋题材进行审查,但跨性别主题现在并不罕见。在《Trans On Screen》中,Helen Hok-Sze Leung使用三个人物模型剖析了中国电影中的跨性别者形象,其中最普遍的模型是用跨性别人物代表对性别的文化焦虑和刻板印象。《沉默的羔羊》中的水牛比尔可以作为典型,其人物形象往往被过分简化且极其消极,并作为跨越性别边界的象征。另外,以1987年《倩女幽魂》中扭曲的“夫人” 为例,她将性别符号混杂在一起,将男性化的面部及声音特征与女性化的服饰和举止相结合,这种性别象征不仅耸人听闻,也展示了其畸形。此外,除了人物本身外,跨性别也可以通过人物的关联性得到表达。例如《古惑仔情义篇之洪兴十三妹》中的 十三妹,她在男人中行为举止表现得像个男人,又如《霸王别姬》中的 程蝶衣 ,他最终的身体认知是通过强化训练和虐待而被改变的。不可否认的是,这些例子都是基于一些待定假设:虽然蝶衣在《霸王别姬》中的角色颇具同情心,但他的跨性别身份是心理创伤的结果,掺杂着药物滥用和自我毁灭倾向的干扰因素。

Gender-bending movies exist outside of this model, though the degree to which they are “transgender” is sometimes difficult to say. For example, in “Hua Mulan,” although Mulan passes as a male for the majority of the film, her gender identity is never called into question. She returns to acting as female by the end of the film, seemingly unmarked by the experience (watch former Hopkins-Nanjing Center co-director Chengzhou He discuss this film and Chinese gender politics). The comedy movie premieres that annually accompany Chinese New Year, such as “All’s Well, Ends Well Too” likewise commonly feature gender-bending gimmicks or female characters played by men for laughs. Broadly speaking, gender bending is at present a taboo in everyday Chinese society. When carried out in real life, it often results in social alienation, harassment and assault, and this is reflected in its representation in films as a sort of aberration — in the best cases, a comedic one (such as with “All’s Well, Ends Well Too”), and in the worst, a demonic one (such as in “A Chinese Ghost Story”).

此外,还有一些表达“性别错位”(gender bending)的电影,不过有时候很难说它们在多大程度上是“跨性别”的。譬如, 在《花木兰》中,虽然木兰可以短暂地表现出一些男性行为与特征,但其真实的性别认同是毋庸置疑的。电影最后,木兰回归女性身份,这证明她似乎并没有什么特别经历。 (看前中美中心联合主任何成洲讨论这部电影与中国的性别政治)。在中国春节档电影中,幽默可以说是其共同特征 ,比如《花田喜事》中通常伴有性别扭曲的噱头,或者男性通过扮演女性角色来娱乐观众。一般而言,性别错位在中国社会的日常生活中仍然是一个禁忌,在现实生活中还往往导致社会异化、骚扰和攻击,这反映了中国电影中另一反常现象,跨性别的人物表达,最好也不过是一个荒谬且幽默的形象(如《花田喜事》),而在最坏的情况下会被刻画成一个恶魔(如《倩女幽魂》中的夫人)。

A still from Escape
Photo credits: The New York Times

Shifts may be occurring however, as prominent celebrities like fashion model Han Bingbing (寒冰冰 ) or talk show host Jin Xing (金星) have been increasingly vocal about their transgender experience, stirring up interest in the topic in Chinese social media and tabloids. Similarly, “Escape,” a film by a group of Beijing high school students exploring youth transgendered identity,  has received positive coverage in Chinese state-run media. Though it is difficult to be certain, increased visibility, media attention and organization are perhaps beginning to improve things for transgender people in China. In popular film, the 2008 Valentine’s Day film “Mr. High Heels,” though frequently reductive and riddled with cheap laughs, nonetheless manages to make overall tolerant and normalizing statements on gender-bending, depicting it as socially acceptable.

然而,这一切可能正在发生转变,随着时尚模特寒冰冰或脱口秀主持人金星等知名人士越来越多地讨论自己的跨性别经历,一批中国社交媒体和通俗小报开始关注这一话题。同样,由北京高中生拍摄的探索青少年跨性别身份的电影《逃离》在中国官方媒体上也获得了正面报道。尽管如今局势难下定论,但随着该话题的知名度日益提高,媒体和相关组织的关注度日益增强, 中国跨性别者的情况可能会逐渐得到改善。在2008年广受欢迎的情人节电影 《高跟鞋先生》中,虽然一些有关跨性别的情节被过分简化,也充斥着廉价笑话(毕竟这是一个情人节浪漫喜剧),但这部电影总体上对性别错位做出了较为宽容和正常化的表述,将其描述为被社会所接受的内容。

Broadly speaking, I’m hopeful that Chinese society can follow a similar trajectory to that of the United States, in which increased tolerance of transgendered people has come on the heels of more widespread tolerance towards homosexuality. “The Rib” traces this tolerance trajectory, not just in its struggle for the acceptance narrative, but also in its peculiar censorship experience, including being approved by the Film Bureau on the condition that the church be allowed to censor it. Nevertheless, the general outlook toward transgender people in either country remains contested, a situation which spurs a broader cultural, as well as, for me, a deeply personal anxiety.


Nova Fritz is a second-year M.A. student at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center studying energy, resources and environment (ERE).