Review by: Wik Wikholm
Reviewed on: July 01, 2010
Queer China, 'Comrade' China is a talking-head documentary that features interviews with some of the leading scholars, activists, and authors working for gay and lesbian equal rights in the People's Republic of China today. Queer China describes Chinese constructions of sexualities and genders, provides a capsule history of recent Chinese queer activism, and reveals the Communist and Chinese cultural justifications for the officially-sanctioned homophobia gay men and lesbians have endured since the Communist revolution. The audio is in Mandarin; English subtitles are provided.
Like Western sexual minorities who have adopted terms like "gay," "lesbian," or "queer" in preference to the clinical term homosexual, Chinese gay men and lesbians have appropriated the term tonghzi, translated "comrade" in English. Leading Chinese queer theorist Cui Zi'en and others explain that while homosexuality was decriminalized by the government of Mao Tse Tung in 1949, tonghzi have been victimized under laws against hooliganism, a catch-all criminal category that has been applied to anyone who, in the opinion of authorities, contributes to social or moral disorder.
The film lists and dates the key changes in Chinese law and culture that have allowed a movement for tonghzi equality to emerge. These changes include alterations in the application of laws against hooliganism and the removal of homosexuality from Chinese psychiatry's official list of mental diseases. While the film presents this information and more about other important historical milestones, it does so in a somewhat haphazard way. That, combined with low-quality English subtitles, makes it easy for English speakers to miss key points.
Perhaps the greatest lesson Queer China teaches Western audiences is that constructions of genders and sexualities and the rationale for homophobia in China are quite different from those familiar in the West. Unlike in the United States, for example, transsexuals have been more readily accepted in China than gay men and lesbians. This difference means that the coalition between lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and the transgendered so familiar to Western LGBT activists is not an easy fit in China. Similarly, state-sanctioned unequal treatment and even persecution of male tonghzi have been justified not by the traditional Christian proscriptions Westerners face, but by Communist fears that male-male sex results in marital infidelity and the unequal treatment of women.
The film is an expression of activist energy and enthusiasm rather than virtuoso filmmaking. Its technical flaws can make Queer China, 'Comrade' China difficult for English speakers to fully comprehend in a single viewing, but its unique contents make it worth the required effort.