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Desire is back in China.

AN ANTHROPOLOGIST and a China scholar, Lisa Rofel has written several ethnographies on contemporary Chinese culture and politics. Her most recent book, Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality and Public Culture, published last year by Duke University Press (reviewed in the Nov.-Dec. 07 issue of this magazine), explores the cultural implications of the economic boom that began after Tiananmen Square in 1989 and continues to transform the country today. Rofel sees China moving toward a cosmopolitan consumer culture that mixes various cultural elements both East and West. But along with the desire for goods, other desires begin to find expression in public spaces, including sexual ones. Thus there has been a general loosening of attitudes on sexual activity in general and homosexuality in particular. Rofel devotes a substantial portion of her book to exploring the rise of a visible GLBT presence in the context of China's growing consumer culture.

Dr. Rofel is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. This interview was conducted by phone in January 2008.

Gay & Lesbian Review: In your book, Desiring China, you discuss China's extremely rapid economic development and the rise of a consumer-driven society. The Chinese people are now being encouraged to become what you call "desiring subjects," which seems close to a Western model of consumerism. Before we talk about specifically GLBT issues, could you talk about this aspect of your research and your analysis of today's China?

Lisa Rofel: After the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), as you can imagine, the government of China did not have a very high esteem in the eyes of Chinese citizens. In order to foster support for itself it went to encouraging both this kind of consumer society and, as well, a kind of virulent nationalism. So those two have really gone together over the past 25 or thirty years. I'm dating the end of socialism to the beginning of the 1980's. Socialism under Mao had a certain asceticism to it, and the ups and downs of the policies led to various problems with filling people's basic needs. So there was a sense of wanting just to have some basic ability to consume food without rationing, to get some different kinds of clothing. So in the beginning it was really in response to a sense that socialism had deprived them of these things.

But now it's a whole different ballgame. I believe China has the biggest mall in the world, which they built in Beijing a few years ago. Some of these malls are extravaganzas, temples to consumption. What I critique in the book is what I call "consumer fundamentalism": the belief that consumption in the market is going to answer people's basic human dilemmas, desires, or needs. I certainly don't subscribe to that neo-orientalist view that the Chinese people should deny themselves things that we have because they can show us a better way to live. I'm happy for them to have the things they were denied before. But it's like religious fundamentalism--it's this consumer fundamentalism that I'm worried about, that what's happening in China is not just a florescence of consumption but a cutting off of other ways of thinking about social justice, social inequality.

G & LR: It's like a "bread and circus" situation in which people are willing to forego civil liberties in exchange for the goodies of a modern economy.

LR: That's the hope of the government leaders. But the Chinese people have always been incredibly resilient, and in a way that I find deliciously ironic, the government has over the years given the people the tools for actually developing political critiques. They force everyone to learn about politics and so people are given these tools, basic analytical tools, for thinking about politics that American citizens are not given. So there are lots of critiques about what's going on, not to mention huge numbers of protests, especially by peasants, about government corruption.

So it's not the case that all people have become passive consumers. These two things are flourishing side by side, and the situation in China is incredibly dynamic. When you go there you really feel how dynamic the situation is, and it's changing constantly. So there are people who are quite capable of developing these critiques; it's just not clear yet where people are going to go with them.

G & LR: Let's shift to the question of LGBT rights. Where to begin? It seems there are two separate issues: one concerns the political and legal situation, the state of gay rights in China; and the other is about culture and attitudes and how these are evolving.

LR: I'll start with the first one. There are some things that I want to emphasize. Although I do not think that LGBT-identified folks have an easy time in China, it's simplistic to say that the government merely represses them. There's no law against homosexuality in China. And there isn't the kind of religious fanaticism that we have in the U.S. and that drives homophobia here. They don't have any of that. What they do have is sort of ad hoc enforcement: specific cases will come up, like a bathhouse will be shut down. There was a legal case that I write about in the book in which a bar owner sued a journalist who wrote a sympathetic book about LGBT folks in China but semi-outed the bar owner. In the midst of that case, the judge said that homosexuality is against social norms and should be condemned. This has to do with the legal system in China in general, which is not really based on precedent but takes a more ad hoc approach. So there's no overarching governmental repression of LGBT folks.

When people started coming out more in the 80's, they experienced what every society has had: a lot of corruption by the police, harassment at the bars and elsewhere. Initially there was a lot of that, but this has died down. I think where people find their most oppressive limitations is in social morality. And that does bleed over into jobs, housing, and pressures to get married to someone of the opposite sex.

G & LR: And that presumably comes largely from the family.

LR: Family pressures, and larger social pressures too. You can get fired from your job if you come out. It's all about social networks, which are important because people can be shunned if they come out. So then you end up feeling that you don't have a place exactly in society. On the other hand, there are also lots of LGBT networks that are being built, which is quite wonderful to see. In the big cities there are many bars and other gatherings places. However, I was surprised: in Shanghai it took a lot of doing to find out where lesbians were meeting. So at least for lesbians it's still much more underground. For gay men it's pretty obvious in the major cities which restaurants and bars to go to.

There's a huge change in attitude among the younger generation, even among straight people. I've talked to a lot of them. This is the upside of the creation of this "desiring subject." If you're really going to support the idea that people should be able to pursue their desires, then people should not be condemned for homosexuality. A lot of young people feel that way.

G & LR: So this is how the gay issue ties in with the rise of consumerism--the idea that people should be allowed to express their varied desires, whether for goods or for sex.

LR: Oh, yeah. And young people are flocking to these night clubs and disco. There are various "scenes." In the art and film world, for example, which I know a bit about, straight film students envy gay people as more artistically inclined, more creative.

G & LR: You also talk in your book about "identity formation" and note that in China they're toying with the idea of a Western, or what you call a "global gay" identity. But then there's also a notion of "Chineseness." You talk in your book about the tension between these two approaches.

LR: I actually think that the gay scene over there is much more cosmopolitan than here in many ways. I think it's much easier for people of all sorts of nationalities to come together into a gay scene in China. Here we have a lot more ethnic separatism and a history of racism that separates different groups. And that is not true in China. I've had LGBT friends from China come here and be surprised initially at these kinds of differentiations. It's confusing to them. What you do have is some class differentiation, and rural-urban differentiation.

G & LR: You mentioned before that every once in a while you may hear about like the closing of a bath house, which surprised me. I'm so used to thinking of China as a rather puritanical society where sex is a very private matter. Is that changing; are there public expressions of sexuality?

LR: There have been tea rooms for a long time in China. Before the 90's, men sought each other out in public bathrooms.

G & LR: I have an odd question and there may be no way that you could have an answer, but it's something that intrigues me. In China they started the one child policy in the 80's. So now there's a generation of adolescent and young adults with a surfeit of males. Will this increase the amount of homosexuality? What happens in a society when suddenly you have a surfeit of men?

LR: Well, this is getting back to my thing about the kind of subterranean spectrum from friendship to eroticism. There's always been, at least for gay men, a lot of sexual experimentation--that's the wrong word--sexual affection among men in China. It happens in the army, it happens between boyhood friends, something that people just chalked up to adolescence. I think that still goes on in China in the rural areas. But with the surplus of males, I'm curious if there's going to be some informal type of polyandry where two brothers share a wife. Because what else are they going to do? But if we look at the issue historically in China over several centuries, what has happened in the past is that a percentage of men just end up without wives.

G & LR: You mentioned that people are forming private networks in China as never before. How big factor is the Internet?

LR: Huge. People network--especially young people, of course--mainly through the Internet. There's a lot of erotic stuff on the Internet. Now, of course, the government is very good at jamming the Internet. But people are also very well-versed in moving around from website to website. So that is really a key way for them to network.

G & LR: Is there a gay political movement in China with organizations and demonstrations and broadsheets and the like?

LR: They don't have demonstrations. Demonstrations are definitely not allowed by the government. The way they organize around social issues is a little quieter. But they do talk a lot! They will protest specific situations that they think are unfair. For example, the closing of a gay bathhouse led to some protests--because bathhouses are common in China. Everybody goes to bathhouses. For some people they're just bathhouses, but they are places where men can have sex with each other. Also, if there's a legal case people may come forward and orchestrate specific protests. For example, gay people in China successfully organized to get the psychological association to state that they no longer think that homosexuality is abnormal.

G & LR: Here in U.S. we know clearly who the enemy is. But in China, where does opposition to gay rights come from? Is it organized? Who doesn't want there to be GLBT equality?

LR: There's no group that clearly states that they're against homosexuality. It's much more diffuse. It relates to a longstanding debate about whether or not this is part of Chinese culture, part of Chinese morality.

G & LR: Does Confucianism ever come into play?

LR: For some people it does now. Confucianism was discredited, not just by the Communists, but early in the 20th century by people who wanted to make a modern nation. It's been making a kind of comeback recently. I know people who are interested in Confucian thought because they feel people in China need a moral anchor. But they still accept homosexuality. For most people it's less an issue of morality than they just think it's abnormal. It isn't evil, it's just against the social mores. I don't want to undervalue how hard that makes it for some LGBT folks, to feel as if they're not accepted in society. But it's better than feeling that you're deeply immoral because you're gay.
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Title Annotation:'Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality and Public Culture' by Lisa Rofel
Author:Rofel, Lisa
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Mar 1, 2008
Words:2149
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