Sex and Its Transformation in Chinese Modernity

March 30, 2018

Destiny was not anatomy. Before the twentieth century, men and women in China rarely pleaded their social division based on biological “facts” alone. This began to change circa 1900, when the concept of sex slowly entered the Chinese lexicon. Already in the Self-Strengthening movement (1861–1895), when the urban center of Chinese culture and society relocated from the heartland to the shore, missionary doctors dedicated themselves to introducing Western-style medicine, including the establishment of new asylums and the translation of modern anatomical knowledge. Their contributions stamped the first sustained effort to redefine Chinese understandings of sexual difference in terms of Western reproductive anatomy.


The gradual spread of Western biomedical epistemology from elite medical circles to vernacular culture reached a crescendo in the 1920s. Learning from their Euro-American colleagues, Chinese biologists promoted a vision of sex dimorphism, which construed the bodily morphology and function of the two sexes as opposite, complementary, and fundamentally different. Their writings endowed the concept of xing (性, sex) with an integral feature of visuality by foregrounding epistemic connections between what they called “primary,” “secondary,” and “tertiary” sexual characteristics. They extended these connections to all life forms across the human/nonhuman divide, and they tried to explain hermaphroditism with genetic theories of sex determination. Over time the visual evidence of bioscience recast existing boundaries and polarities of gender in a new normative light.


The bioscientific naturalization of gender coincided with the collapse of the Qing imperium as well as the unprecedented success of the feminist and education reform movements. Against this political backdrop, the demise of eunuchism paralleled certain rhetorical features of the anti-footbinding discourse such as the exposing and display of bare bodies. Three voices contributed to the making of an “archive” documenting the methods of Chinese castration, a repository of evidence that was decisively lacking before the late nineteenth century: that of Western spectators, eunuchs themselves, and members of the last imperial family. An anti-eunuch sentiment arose out of the photographic, textual, and oral records these voices left behind, and as the gender identity of eunuchs was evaluated anew in the modern era through the lens of Western biomedicine, China’s association with the metaphor of a “castrated civilization” intensified over time. The hegemony of Western biomedicine, in other words, cultivated the increasingly common association of eunuchs with the nominal label of the “third sex.” The demise of eunuchism indexed the birth of the concept of sex itself.


And the meaning of sex soon began to change. At the dawn of the century, the word “xing” carried visual connotations of male and female biology. In scientific and popular formulations, women and men were simply understood, respectively, as human equivalents of the ci (雌, female) and xiong (雄, male) types of lower organisms. Most observers adhered to a biological determinism. In various efforts to delineate different components of sex, they considered reproductive anatomy, morphological characteristics, and sexual chromosomes on different levels of visual representation. But in the aftermath of the New Culture movement (1915–1919), iconoclastic intellectuals such as Zhang Jingsheng (張競生, 1888–1970) and Pan Guangdan (潘光旦, 1899–1967) contended that the hidden nature of human erotic preference could also be discovered and known in a scientific way. Sex, they argued, was not merely an observable trait, but it was something to be desired as well. These May Fourth public intellectuals participated in a new concerted effort, though not without dissent from their interlocutors, to emulate European sexological science. Their translation of Western sexological texts, concepts, methodologies, and styles of reasoning added a new element of carnality to the scientific meaning of sex.


By the second third of the century, the vocabulary of sex had expanded to encompass an intrinsic magnitude of malleability. The idea of hormones provided Chinese sex researchers, tabloid writers, popular authors, and social commentators a new scientific basis for discussing gender and the human body. Beginning in the mid-1920s, they appropriated from Western endocrinologists the theory of universal bisexuality, which posited that everyone was partly male and partly female. This chemical and quantitative definition of sex was supported by findings arising from selected laboratories in Europe and the United States, where famous animal sex reversal experiments were conducted. In the early twentieth century, the intriguing results of these experiments reached a global community of scientists. As Chinese scientists entertained the possibility of sex transformation based on these foreign ideas and experimental findings, they referred to indigenous examples of reproductive anomalies—such as eunuchs and hermaphrodites—as points of reference and, most importantly, redescribed these old phenomena in the new language of biological sex. Meanwhile, in the mid-1930s the explosion of journalistic sensationalism on Yao Jinping (姚錦屏, b. 1915), a woman from Tianjin who allegedly claimed to have turned into a man overnight, greatly amplified people’s awareness of the possibility of human sex alteration. By the 1940s these epistemological shifts found some of their loudest pronouncements in the depiction of sex change in popular fictions.


As scientists and doctors sought to pin down the technical definitions of sex, non-experts took a more serious interest in broadening its social valence. Emerging from the domains of biology, sex psychology, and endocrinology, the multiple interpretations of sex saturated the Chinese cultural agenda in the Republican period. The anti-footbinding movement and the demise of castration had already acquainted the public with images of “natural” male and female bodies. The new idea of romantic love had begun to push people to break from conventional arranged marriages and to form nuclear families. Popular versions of Freud and other sexologists bolstered the recognition of psychosexual development as the cornerstone of individual subjectivity. Narratives of male and female same-sex relations called up complex associations from ideologies of proper and imprudent gender orientation. Similarly, stories on prostitutes surged and reappeared with conflicting messages about decent sexual behaviour in the popular press. And the mass media had made sex and its possible transmutation a mainstay of visual culture. In broad outline and narrow, Chinese society had “sexualized” during the first half of the twentieth century.


When the boundaries of sex no longer appeared as impermeable as they once had seemed, the Chinese-speaking community met its first transsexual, Xie Jianshun (謝尖順, b. 1918). In 1953, four years after Mao Zedong’s political regime took over mainland China and the Republican state was forced to relocate its base, the success of native doctors in converting a man into a woman made news headlines in Taiwan. Enthusiasts frequently labeled Xie the “Chinese Christine.” This was an allusion to the contemporaneous American ex-G.I. transsexual celebrity, Christine Jorgensen (1926–1989), who had traveled to Denmark for her sex reassignment surgery in the spring of 1950 and became a worldwide household name immediately afterward due to her self-fashioned glamorous, feminine look. Within a week, the characterization of Xie in the Taiwanese press changed from an average citizen whose ambiguous sex provoked uncertainty and national anxiety to a transsexual cultural icon whose fate would indisputably contribute to the global staging of Taiwan in the neo-imperial shadow of the United States.


The saga of Xie Jianshun and other sex-change stories illustrate how the Republican government regained sovereignty in Taiwan by inheriting a Western biomedical epistemology of sex from Republican-era scientific globalism—a medical worldview especially conducive to the prevailing American model of health care in the early Cold War era. In other words, the reciprocal relationship between medical scientific knowledge and the transformation of the body—in terms of both corporeal and geopolitical arrangements—culminated, historically, in the conditions under which transsexuality emerged first and foremost in places like Taiwan across the postcolonial Pacific Rim, which was geographically and culturally situated at the overlapping margins of Chineseness and transpacific U.S. hegemony.


Narrating a history of sex change from eunuchs to transsexuals, my forthcoming monograph, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China (Columbia University Press, 2018), revises the view that China “opened up” to the global circulation of sexual ideas and practices only after the economic reforms of the late 1970s. Building on a growing body of revisionist historical scholarship, the bulk of my study highlights the 1920s as an earlier, more pivotal turning point in the modern definitions of Chinese sexual identity and desire. Weaving together intellectual, social, and cultural history, After Eunuchs aims to accomplish three goals: it shows how sexual knowledge became a crucial element in the formulation of Chinese modernity; it highlights the role of the body as a catalyst in the mutual transformations of Chinese nationalism and the social significance of sex; and, grounded in the visual and conceptual analysis of sexual science, it establishes a genealogical relationship between the demise of eunuchism and the emergence of transsexuality in China. This genealogy maps the underexplored history of China’s modern geobody onto the more focused history of the biomedicalized human body.


This blog is adapted from the introduction to my forthcoming book, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China, and is included here with the Courtesy of Columbia University Press copyright 2018.

Howard Chiang is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on modern Chinese history, the history of science and medicine, the history of gender and sexuality, global and transnational history, and Sinophone studies. He is the editor of Sexuality in China: Histories of Power and Pleasure (University of Washington Press, 2018). Image Caption: Lili Elbe (the "Danish Girl"): An Example of Male to Female Transformation.Source: Chen Yucang (陳雨蒼), Shenghuo yu shengli(生活與生理) [Life and physiology] (Shanghai: Zhengzhong shuju, 1937), p. 246.







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