Reviews

The Real Lives of China’s Eunuchs

Jeremiah Jenne reviews two books that humanize a much-maligned group

In 2005, an elderly man in a wheelchair visited the Forbidden City. Entering through the northern Gate of Divine Prowess (神武门 shenwumen), 83-year-old Sun Yaoting began giving his helpers a tour of the back garden and courtyards of Beijing’s Palace Museum. There was the doorway threshold removed to make way for the last emperor Puyi’s bicycle. In another yard, two brass rings still embedded in an old tree were part of a long-removed swing once beloved by Puyi’s empress Wanrong. The man in the wheelchair was Sun Yaoting, and he was no ordinary tourist but a former resident returning to his place of employment. Sun Yaoting was China’s last living imperial eunuch.

History has been cruel to China’s eunuchs. Chinese literature is filled with stories of avaricious and ambitious eunuchs exploiting their position for personal gain and power to the detriment of the social and political order. Society treated eunuchs with a mix of fascination and revulsion. They were a source of anxiety for the court and its officials. They were third-sex creatures marked by their relative lack of facial hair and perceived physical deformities (early castration often resulted in eunuchs being taller, with longer hands and limbs). In the foreign gaze, eunuchs became an analog for a decrepit China, feminine symbols of a decaying imperial system – a view perpetuated by 20th-century Chinese reformers and revolutionaries. Today, when thought of at all, it is as stock villains or comic foils in palace costume dramas.

Reviews

Perverse Pasts and Queer Futures in Taiwan

Brandon Kemp reviews the academic essay collection Perverse Taiwan

When Taiwan’s government became the first in Asia to legalize gay marriage last May, the de facto island-nation received a flurry of positive press from international media. For a brief moment, coverage of Taiwan was not dominated by its relationship with neighboring China. Yet the open question remained of what exactly it means to be Taiwanese. The island, once home to an indigenous majority, was colonized variously by the Dutch, the Japanese, and the Chinese and still calls itself the Republic of China decades after the end of the exiled Chinese Nationalists’ one-party rule. This is despite the fact that its population increasingly identifies not as Chinese but Taiwanese.

Taiwan, in short, is a queer subject. By this, I don’t mean to repeat the cliché that it’s a gay Mecca, though it’s certainly true that Taiwan boasts a rich tradition of cultural and artistic LGBT expression. Rather, I mean that Taiwan today, with its political ambiguity, cultural syncretism, and peripheral status, seems almost impossible, or impermissible. 

Reviews

What Xi Thinks

Tanner Greer reviews Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping by François Bougon

General Secretary Xi Jinping is a Chinese renaissance man. Self-assured, self-possessed and utterly unflappable, Xi appears equally at home on the hearths of struggling farmers and in the greeting halls of foreign capitals. State media likes to juxtapose the years he spent in the caves of Shanxi with the months he spent governing Shanghai's glittering towers. Here is a man as men should be: a leader who can grasp both the plow and the bond market.

Though Xi majored in chemical engineering, he presents himself as a litterateur. When in Russia, he peppers his speeches with the words of Dostoevsky and Golgol; when in France, of Molière and Maupassant. To better understand the meaning of The Old Man and the Sea, Xi traveled to Hemingway's favorite bar in Havana. Xi has a hankering for historical sites like these, especially those associated with famous scenes from the stories of Chinese antiquity. He cultivates a reputation for taking history seriously; his speeches are filled with allusions to obscure sages and statesmen from China's past.

Reviews

Politicians and Poets

John Gittings reviews two new books on the Chinese Revolution

In June 1959 Mao Zedong returned to Shaoshan, his home village in Hunan province, for the first time in over thirty years. He was there to find out what the local farmers really thought of the Great Leap Forward – his policy intended to leapfrog China’s countryside into the future, which backfired disastrously leading to a three-year famine from 1959-1962. After visiting his parents' grave, Mao threw a dinner for the village elders and local cadres, and could not help noticing how hungrily they fell upon the food. Then came the complaints – cautious at first but soon spilling out furiously. The wasteful public mess-halls, the orders to plant crops too close, the useless backyard furnaces, and above all the lack of food.

Reviews

Four Young Chinese Artists, 25 Years On

Richard Kraus looks at two documentaries on Chinese art by Lydia Chen

In her spellbinding 1993 documentary Inner Visions, Lydia Chen interviewed three struggling, idealistic young Chinese artists. Twenty-five years later, the same profilees are back in Chen’s latest film, Art in Smog, to discuss their careers again – this time as mature artists who worked hard to find their places in China’s now prosperous arts scene. Chen’s long-term relationship with them is unique, and makes for two very special documentaries which anyone who cares about the evolution of Chinese art over the past quarter century should watch.