The Chinese Christine: Xie Jianshun, Sex Change, and the Politics of Chineseness in Cold War Taiwan

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:50 PM
Boulevard C (Hilton Chicago)
Howard Chiang, University of California, Davis
In the summer of 1953, the United Daily News in Taiwan announced the sex change surgery of the thirty-six years old soldier, Xie Jianshun. Considered by many as the “first” Chinese transsexual, Xie was frequently dubbed as the “Chinese Christine.” This was an allusion to the American ex-G.I. transsexual star Christine Jorgensen, who received her sex reassignment surgery in Denmark two years prior and became a worldwide household name immediately afterward due to her personality and glamorous looks. The analogy reflected the growing influence of American culture on the Republic of China at the peak of the Cold War. Within a week, the characterization of Xie in the Taiwanese press changed from an average citizen whose ambiguous sex provoked uncertainty and national anxiety to a transsexual icon whose fate contributed to the global staging of Taiwan on a par with the United States. Xie’s story soon triggered an avalanche of media sensationalism in postwar Taiwan. In its aftermath, the press brought to light stories of gender transgression, defects of the reproductive system, uncommon problems related to pregnancy, the marriages of individuals with cross-gender identification, transsexual childbirth, human intersexuality, and sex metamorphosis itself, emanating from both domestic contexts and abroad. Centering on the making of Xie’s celebrity, this paper argues that the publicity surrounding her transition worked as a pivotal fulcrum in shifting common understandings of transsexuality, the role of medical science, and their evolving relation to the popular press in mid-twentieth-century Sinophone culture.