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(Trans)Culturally Transgendered: Reading Transgender Narratives in (Late) Imperial China Open Access


Other title
sex transformation
Transgender studies
Chinese transgender stories
Chinese transgender
transcultural transgender
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Xie, Wenjuan
Supervisor and department
Fried, Daniel (MLCS/East Asian Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Verdicchio, Massimo (MLCS)
Braz, Albert (MLCS)
Cisneros, Odile (MLCS)
Laforest, Daniel (MLCS)
Hurley, Natasha (English and Film Studies)
Comparative Literature

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Abstract This dissertation takes as its subject of study transcultural and historical investigations of the production and meanings of transgender in imperial China. I see this dissertation as part of the Chinese transgender studies scholarship pioneered by “beginning” works, such as Transgender China, that try to respond to this “transcultural turn” facing contemporary Anglophone-dominant transgender scholarship. My dissertation takes as its task not only to sketch out, for the first time in the English language, the largely understudied body of transgender existences in the Chinese texts of premodern China, but to systematically reexamine the lives of some transgendered individuals that survived its time via these texts and their significance in shaping a premodern Chinese transgender history, and to open up new approaches to world transgender experience of existences and formations as a whole. Throughout my analysis, I specify “transgender in imperial China” as an analytical term to describe people whose sex identity, gender identity or expression is perceived and/or interpreted to be ambiguous or transformable. For more effective discussion and for concerns of length, this dissertation will organize the discussion around three major types of transgender existences in imperial China, particularly in the later imperial Ming-Qing era: erxing (two-shaped), nü hua nan (FTM), and nan hua nü (MTF), as exemplifications of the historical Chineseness of transgender in global transgender history. Following my threefold organization of Chinese transgender phenomena, I structure the discussion into five parts. Chapter One, “Understanding erxing, nan hua nü, and nü hua nan: Competing Discourses,” provides a textual journey of erxing, nan hua nü, and nü hua nan records and accounts. Chapter Two, “The Threat of the Hidden Penis: The Criminalization of Erxing”, investigates a group of early Chinese transgender individuals: the two-shaped erxing (roughly equal to the modern term of intersex), who were, more often than not, portrayed as sex criminals who lived in one sex, yet possessed both female and male genitals at the same time. Chapter Three, “The Absence of the Penis: The Li Liangyu Cycle and the Homoerotic Turn of Nan hua nü”, turns to the reverse MTF accounts. In the last chapter, Chapter Four, “The Allure of the Penis: ‘Getting a Son’ and Nü hua nan”, looks into a prevalent formula demonstrated by many of the Ming-Qing accounts of FTM sex transformation, particularly their sudden discursive outburst in the Qing dynasty. My conclusion, “The Promise of the Strange: Transgender in Imperial China as Ethical Objects as Ethical Beings,” offers a holistic look at the three types of transgender existences discussed in this project and summarizes the major aspects of different modes of recognizing transgender in imperial China that these existences have collectively demonstrated. This study elaborates on the malleability, constructedness, and the historicity of sex that are inherent in transgender narratives in imperial China, particularly in late imperial China of the Ming and Qing discourses of the strange. The dissertation proposes that being constantly projected onto the discursive realm as the subject of “the strange” rather than the creator of discourses, being constantly projected onto the discursive realm as the subject of “the strange” rather than the creator of discourses, they constitute what I take to be “ethical objects.” As ethical objects, earlier Chinese transgenders, such as erxing, nan hua nü, and nü hua nan, are never subjects, but the objects, of “the morality of behaviors.” They are critical to the operation of morality only when they become the content that moral codes are exercised upon. To summarize, this dissertation marks an effort to locate both the dissonance and the alliance among earlier and late imperial Chinese transgender narratives, and different modes of moral behaviors that these ethical objects of strange reveal and rely on. Certainly, I am also well aware that my work has its own limitation and constraints. Yet, Chinese transgender studies, and transcultural transgender studies at large, can be greatly enriched if scholars can further explore the potential of the field.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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