China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Reading the Taiwanese author Wu Jiwen’s 1996 novel Fin-de-siècle Boylove Reader (Shijimo shaonian ai duben), this paper considers the age-old figure of the male dan and the critical role he played in the emerging gay scene at the turn of the twenty-first century. Adapted from the Qing author Chen Sen’s Precious Mirror for the Appreciation of Flowers (Pinhua baojian), Wu’s novel resorts to the figure of the male dan, often referred to as xianggong, to explore male same-sex intimacies, which were gaining increasing visibility in the 1990s Sinophone world. While scholars generally agree that the male dan in Wu’s novel bears considerable resemblance to the figure of the contemporary gay man, some read the ending of Wu’s novel, where the two protagonists Mei Ziyu and Du Qinyan part their ways, as representing a compromise. I contend that it is this “unhappy ending” that points to Wu’s most radical departure from Chen’s novel. The original novel’s ending, where Ziyu lives happily ever after with both his wife and Qinyan, reaffirms the centrality of the “polygamous” patron-patronized relationship in late imperial imagination of male-male relations. In contrast, the failed relationship between Ziyu and Qinyan in Wu’s version points to the obsoleteness of the xiangong system as well as the “polygamous” mode in the 1990s, which required new modes, categories, and symbols for the imagination of male same-sex relationships.