Written by Ta-Wei Chi
LGBTQ history is beginning to be remembered in a variety of formats. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality (1967), numerous prestigious venues in the United Kingdom, such as the British Museum and Tate Britain, exhibited works showcasing the history of British LGBTQ art. In the United States, Vito Russo’s classic book, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies and many subsequent studies, traced the history of American LGBTQ cinema by salvaging old movies. Similar to these chronicles of British art and American cinema, Taiwanese literature helps sheds light on its LGBTQ history.
My main focus is on Taiwan’s literary works during the period of martial law (1949–1987) in Taiwan, primarily because I have found that memories of LGBTQ culture before and during this period have remained largely undiscovered. I maintain that during the long imposition of martial law, an obscure but abundant history of LGBTQ culture was recorded in literature. Whilst art forms, such as film and theatre faced strict government censorship, literature was granted more freedom during this period.
Some people trace Taiwanese LGBTQ history back to the first half of the twentieth century, when Taiwan was under Japanese rule, or in the nineteenth century, when the Qing Empire ruled Taiwan. However, I am more inclined to trace Taiwanese LGBTQ history back to the era of martial law that began in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek arrived in Taiwan. It was then when homosexuality started to be viewed as an illness necessitating psychiatric treatment, and when sexual dissidents began to be singled out as patients who required correction, lest they endanger the nation and race.
This pathologisation of LGBTQ individuals was part of the legacy of McCarthyism that prevailed in the United States during the 1950s. As soon as the Korean War broke out and the United States started to consider Taiwan as an anti-communist ally, the major newspapers in Taiwan quickly and diligently accepted and disseminated American news and ideologies, including McCarthyism. Such large-scale popularisation of homophobia was unprecedented in Taiwan before the 1950s.
During the Cold War, Taiwanese writers frequently attempted to visualise homosexuality by looking up to the illustrations of non-normative desires in American and European cultures. For instance, when the period of martial law began, local elites were already familiar with German author Thomas Mann. At least seven local authors have referred to Mann’s novella Death in Venice or its film adaptation in 1972, as if the title Death in Venice were a code word of homosexuality. Since mainstream society has always linked homosexuality with flesh and sensuality, to a certain extent, writers have been able to cite Death in Venice, which prioritises emotional engagement rather than carnal gratification, as a means of resisting the stereotypical preconception of homosexuality in mainstream society.
The literary works published during the period of martial law often allude to American and European films, such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Cabaret (1972), and Death in Venice, to help the reader visualise marginalised sexualities. Local writers habitually adopted foreign films as examples and conjured for readers a concrete picture of homosexuality using images of movies stars, their bodies, and sexual innuendos in foreign films. Pre-1987 literature did not refer to domestic films, however, for they did not shine a light on outlandish sexualities like foreign films did.
However, I must add that some local literary works referring to non-normative sexualities were adapted into domestic films. In 1984, two movies – Jade Love and The Last Night of Madam Chin – adapted from Hsien-yung Pai’s stories from the 1960s, achieved critical success. Pai, who authored the 1983 novel Crystal Boys on gay hustlers in downtown Taipei, is the most celebrated writer on homosexuality in Taiwanese literature. Until today, discussions concerning gay-themed movies and television programmes still make reference to Pai’s Crystal Boys (also movie, tv show, and theatrical production) and Love’s Lone Flower (a movie and tv show based on Pai’s short story on lesbianism). Both works portray easily recognisable homosexuality.
I note that portrayals of homosexuality in literature, film, and other art forms are not always as explicit and recognisable; instead, they are occasionally camouflaged and present a challenge for the viewers to distinguish from. The viewers need to adopt the strategy of “queer reading” to find the portrayals of ‘sexual dissidents’. Some good examples of supposedly camp movies include Jade Love and The Last Night of Madam Chin, both of which feature a female protagonist who is betrayed by the man they love. During the period of martial law, ‘Jade’ and ‘Madam Chin’ were two spectacular femmes fatales, whose fascination with alluring men and male bodies rendered them perfect spokeswomen for gay men.
Those who are interested in LGBTQ history in Taiwan might check out the relevant historical materials, which are scattered and hidden deep in different formats, including within university libraries, online bookstores, old magazines, VHS tapes, and so on. These materials are waiting to be unearthed and cherished. The LGBTQ cultural assets produced under the imposition of martial law especially deserve greater attention. Otherwise, Taiwanese LGBTQ history will remain largely untold.
Ta-wei Chi (PhD, Comparative Literature, UCLA) is associate professor of Taiwanese literature at National Chengchi University in Taipei. His monograph on the history of “tongzhi literature” in Taiwan was published in 2017. His queer science fiction novella, Membranes, is translated and published in France and Japan. Image Credit: CC by Wikipedia Commons.