Transtopia: A Book Talk with Howard Chiang

Is the figure experiencing gender euphoria or dysphoria? So hard to tell.

About this event

Join us to hear Dr. Howard Chiang discuss his new monograph, Transtopia in the Sinophone Pacific.

This talk proposes a new paradigm for doing transgender history in which geopolitics assumes central importance. Defined as the antidote to transphobia, transtopia challenges a minoritarian view of transgender experience and makes room for the variability of transness on a historical continuum. A range of sources from the Chinese-speaking communities across the Pacific—in science, journalism, popular culture, and activism—will be examined to reorient anti-transphobic inquiry at the crossroads of area studies, medical humanities, and queer theory. 

Dr. Howard Chiang is an Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Davis.

From the blurb

False Start

Dr Chiang gave a preface to his talk which completely unsettled me as it was nuanced, intellectual and interesting.

He told us that for a long time that Taiwan had been thought of as a place of insignificance, as just a small island off the coast of China, previously colonised by Japan and then during the Cold War affiliated to the United States. Taiwan was often the subject of comparative analysis and rarely was it regarded intrinsically interesting in and of itself. By the late 20th Century intellectuals were asking whether Taiwan could be the site of ‘theoretical production’, despite the fact it had been colonised by a series of regimes (including Spain and the Dutch further back in history).

Dr Chiang said in 1972 the seat for Taiwan at the United Nations was given over to the People’s Republic of China, a decision heavily supported by the US, resulting Taiwan losing its official recognition in the world, despite having its own passport and being the first state in Asia to legalise same sex marriage. This demonstrated the contradictions – on the one hand it was regarded as globally insignificant, on the other, thinking about it requires an intellectual vigour because of its history.

He told us that keywords were essential (Chiang has published a book ‘Keywords in Sinophone Studies’) and that the word ‘Sinophone’ was not quite analogous to anglophone or francophone, but meant ‘a network of places and cultural production outside China and on the margins of China and Chineseness’.

Normal service resumes

Therefore what he is arguing for is that we can in fact homogenise places like Taiwan and Hong Kong, and other Chinese outposts, and use China as the overriding characteristic of them, which seems a bit unfair when the language of the aboriginal people in Taiwan is Formosan, part of the Austronesian language family and is completely separate from Mandarin, which currently dominates. Thus, I was relieved to see him put his clown make-up on, even if it did take ten minutes. A good decision, which I’m sure will keep the United Front Work Department happy (aka as China’s ‘magic weapon’).

Transtopia, like transgender but queerer

Another keyword was ‘transtopia’, clearly based on the word ‘utopia’. According to queer theory, new words need to be made up to create the impression that queer theory isn’t really a Western concept. Transtopia means transgender, but with a pinch of Sinophonia thrown in and a slice of decolonisation taken out. It also means anything which ‘exceeds transphobia’ – another way of saying ‘gender euphoria’ basically. According to Wikipedia, utopia was bought into the English language by Sir Thomas More, so not exactly a great fit for decolonisation – oops. Euphoria is another concept rooted in Ancient Greek.

Dr Chiang has also used Transtopia to describe different levels of ‘gender transgression’ which aren’t always recognisable to the Western mindset. Someone could be more trans or less trans. He showed us photos of ‘four well known examples’, which he described as a ‘two spirit’ Native American man, Hijra, a Mexican man and an Indonesian warrior who were both ‘third gender’. Should we really call them ‘transgender’, he asked? Well, it might be a bit rude he argued, but on the other hand it would help build a global movement of solidarity, so why not? But let’s use the word Transtopia instead because that’s better.

Never forget the underlying ideology

What if transgenderism is not the exception, but the norm, by which all embodied subjects can be measured and understood?

Dr Howard Chiang

Dr Chiang’s talk had three strands:

  • Global sex change.
  • History of renyao (a Chinese word meaning ‘human prodigy’).
  • The queering of the Chinese word tongzhi, which meant something like comrade or same-will, in the context of LGBTQ politics in post-millenial Taiwan.

He didn’t state if these words were Mandarin or Cantonese in origin, so much for his decolonial credentials.

The ‘Global Christine’ phenomenon

Dr Chiang referred to Xie Jianshun as a ‘transsexual’ but the story given on Wikipedia is confusing. Jianshun appears to have been a genetic female affected by a Disorder of Sexual Development and raised male in Taiwan, who went onto have some sort of reconstructive vaginoplasty surgery in 1953.

Dr Chiang said that in many reports Jianshun was referred to as the ‘Chinese Christine’, vis-á-vis Christine Jorgenson who famously underwent castration and vaginoplasty in 1952 in the US. Dr Chiang said that Jorgenson and Harry Benjamin (his sexologist) were responsible for making transsexualism a household term. Jorgenson was a homosexual man.

There were also other ‘Christines’ around the world at the same time, Nagai Akiko (1951) was the ‘Japanese Christine’ and apparently had a penile cancer prior to vaginoplasty. Martha Olmos Ramero (1954) in Mexico another homosexual man.

Dr Chiang argued then that these surgeries were spontaneously happening around the world, independent of Western influence, and that the ‘original Christine’ was not the ‘yardstick for the historical production of transness’ (despite Jorgenson preceding pretty much all the cases we have ever heard about in the public domain).

He was clearly unbothered by the ethical implications of these individual cases.

History of renyao

The word is composed of ren, meaning human, and yao, meaning monster – so together it roughly translates as non-human or human-monster. However, Dr Chiang felt that human prodigy was a better fit, though Mr Google informed me that it was slang for transvestite. All very confusing.

Renyao was apparently first used in the 3rd Century BC in connection to the notion of heaven and then became linked to transvestism in the 7th Century, but could also be used to denote a physical anomaly like a two-headed baby (that’s upping the stakes a bit).

Therefore it was a prototype of ‘queer inhumanism’ – following? No, nor me.

Queer inhumanism

Renyao in the first few decades of the 20th Century, Dr Chiang claimed, became dissociated from its monster meaning and became more analogous to cross dressing.

In 1949 China went ‘silent’ on the topic of Renyao until the late1980s. Dr Chiang didn’t explain that was it was the year of the Chinese Revolution, nor did he mention the intervening period of the ‘Great Leap Forward’, in which even the most modest estimates of deaths from starvation stand at 15 million. I guess it turns out transgenderism is a concern only of developed nations after all.

A celebrity renyao – Zeng Qiuhuang

Would you believe it but Zeng Qiuhuang was a criminal with a history of stealing and fraudulent activities. Born in Taiwan he came to notoriety in the 1950s. Qiuhuang declared an interest in ‘sex change’ surgery in 1954. Dr Chiang said he would use male pronouns for Qiuhuang since there was a possibility that he may have been intersex and ultimately never followed through with the surgery.

Renyao is an ‘insulting transphobic term’ and Dr Chiang likened its history to that of the history of Taiwan.

The affinity between transgender and renyao is precisely what is at stake and precisely what needs to be thought through cautiously. Renyao … can be viewed as an outcome of a historical process. It’s a process in which Taiwan’s stature came to be out of sync with major imperial powers like China, Japan and the United States. Like Taiwan, Renyao has been left out of mainstream historical apprehension …

Dr Chiang expressing a really poor analogy

Tongzhi – ‘queer’ activism in Taiwan

Again in the late 1980s in Hong Kong and Taiwan, in the film and literary scenes respectively, the meaning of tongzhi as comrade was ‘queered’ to mean ‘queer’. It was particularly linked to the rise of activism for transgender rights.

Moments later Chiang contradicted himself to inform us that in the 1990s tongzhi really just meant gay men and lesbians and there was very few examples in which it was applied to the notion of transgender (which makes sense given it was probably Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors published in 1996 which led to its general usage over a decade later).

Gender Equity Education Act (2004) in Taiwan

The first milestone was the Gender Equity Education Act passed in 2004. It was originally drafted as the ‘Equality of the Two Sexes Act’ but was renamed after a male student, Ye Yung-Chih, routinely picked on for being feminine, was murdered in the boy’s toilet. A government investigation into the murder concluded that there were not just two sexes, and that sex was a spectrum and better referred to as ‘gender’. Feminine boys would benefit from such a reframing. The case and the Act elevated gender as a concept, which began to affect LGB politics as a whole. 2003 was the year of the first Pride Festival in Taiwan.

Chen led the Govt. investigation – she apparently also owned a feminist bookshop

Transtopia therefore could cover ‘proto-gender identities’ and was also useful in thinking about the role of transgenderism in geopolitics. (The more logical approach would be to assume the bullying arose from the assumption that he was homosexual, but we know the People’s Republic of China doesn’t like to acknowledge homosexuality, despite the fact that the One Child Policy has resulted in a huge population of bachelor men.)


Therefore, transtopia means transgenderism and it is a way of saying transgender without having to qualify it by adding ‘in the Sino Pacific’ (which must be why he has cunningly called his book Transtopia in the Sino Pacific). It bucks against all Western notions of transgender and it is about history and culture and is anti-colonialism, but it can also mean gender euphoria and can’t be defined in terms of ‘how trans’ someone is.

I suppose that’s much easier than grappling with Chinese imperialism.

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