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Unmaking Identity: Male-to-Female Transgenderism in Southwest China

Zhang, Shunyuan (2016)
Dissertation (344 pages)
Committee Chair / Thesis Advisers: Peletz, Michael; Freeman, Carla
Committee Members: Huffer, Lynne R ; Sinnott, Megan (Georgia State University);
Research Fields: Cultural anthropology; GLBT studies; Asian studies
Keywords: transgendered practices; identity; queer anthropology; China studies
Program: Laney Graduate School, Anthropology
Permanent url:


China has long been regarded as an authoritarian Party-state where economic growth has been accompanied by stringent control of civil society, including LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) human rights. Intriguingly, in my field research in the southwestern city of Kunming from November 2011 to July 2013, a thriving business of transgendered sex work and performance coexisted with transgendered individuals' non-recognition of and/or nonchalance towards a transgender identity. My dissertation thus looks into the space of (un)becoming with regard to the constitution of a Chinese transgender identity and community from the perspective of a diverse array of social processes in mainland China, including international and national HIV/AIDS intervention projects, the emergence of transnational LGBT identity-based human rights movements, the neoliberal turn to cultural economy that embraces desires, and the trajectory that state-individual relationships have gone through. I argue that the indifference (or non-recognition) I discerned from many of my transgendered informants with regard to their gender/sexual identities is contingent upon an assemblage of social processes that have given rise to the confusing and even contradictory condition of life with which transgendered individuals have struggled.

Through traversing the different domains of life where transgendered practices appear and are submerged, I aim to achieve two conceptual goals. First, rather than present the constitution of a transgender identity in China, my project demonstrates the dispersion of it via ongoing ethnographic encounters that constantly sidestep, if not disregard, seemingly apparent practices of transgenderism. This problematization of identity as a valid analytic category leads to the second conceptual goal of my dissertation, i.e. the use of queer perspective that can better capture the ways in which lived experience overflows analytic categories. While queer studies have made as almost paradigmatic the analytic and political commitment to antinormativity (or typically anti-heteronormativity), my ethnographic encounters suggest that queerness can be more fruitfully deployed to problematize heteronormativity from within rather than carve out an alternative space to it.

Theorizing through ethnography, this project brings into conversation cross-disciplinary concerns that include international public health intervention, neoliberal globalization, China studies, and feminist and queer studies.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Chapter One: The Community in the Making 51

Chapter Two: Emerging LGBT Identity Politics 85

Chapter Three: "Joining the Workforce" 138

Chapter Four: The Political is Personal 208

Chapter Five: Queering the Quotidian 262

Conclusion 304

Bibliography 319


Access restricted until 2022-05-22

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