As anyone who has written a book can tell you, when you finally finish wrestling with it and it is confined between covers, or tucked away in e-book form, it goes on to have an afterlife, sometimes quite a complicated one, which the author may glimpse only in intermittent and fragmentary form. An original and provocative book such as Judith Butler's Gender Trouble will travel to places its author never anticipated and become embroiled in conversations the author may not overhear. A book's influence on another field far from its point of origin is not best assessed by a citation index—though Gender Trouble's numbers are massive. To take the measure of the work that Gender Trouble has done for scholars working in Asian studies (itself a constructed and constantly morphing category, like gender), we should ask how the book traveled. Which pieces were taken up by scholars of Asia, and what conversations and challenges did the book enable, not as a blueprint but as an incubator of locally grounded thinking? How has it been adapted, pruned down to one or two insights, or expanded into new domains?

As anyone who has written a book can tell you, when you finally finish wrestling with it and it is confined between covers, or tucked away in e-book form, it goes on to have an afterlife, sometimes quite a complicated one, which the author may glimpse only in intermittent and fragmentary form. An original and provocative book such as Judith Butler's Gender Trouble will travel to places its author never anticipated and become embroiled in conversations the author may not overhear. A book's influence on another field far from its point of origin is not best assessed by a citation index—though Gender Trouble's numbers are massive. To take the measure of the work that Gender Trouble has done for scholars working in Asian studies (itself a constructed and constantly morphing category, like gender), we should ask how the book traveled. Which pieces were taken up by scholars of Asia, and what conversations and challenges did the book enable, not as a blueprint but as an incubator of locally grounded thinking? How has it been adapted, pruned down to one or two insights, or expanded into new domains?

In these comments, I will ask what work those insights are doing in China scholarship in particular. I cannot hope to do a comprehensive survey, and the bibliography I assembled for this essay was far too long to discuss each relevant work. Here I will offer a few instances, drawn mainly from scholarship on China's modern and contemporary history, in which Gender Trouble has been informative and sometimes formative.

But first, since it has been thirty years since Gender Trouble was published, and Butler has elaborated on some of its themes in subsequent works, we should remind ourselves what this book in particular was about. Butler was writing at a moment when much feminist thinking within and beyond the academy was concerned with questions of identity—woman's identity, in particular, as a potential locus for transformative feminist political action. Much scholarship at the time talked about gender as a social or cultural construct that took shape on the fixed ground of biological difference: the sexed bodies of male and female, irreducibly distinct, with culture assigning to those bodies meanings that varied greatly across place and time.

Butler posed a different and more destabilizing proposition, that “foundational categories of identity—the binary of sex, gender, and the body—can be shown as productions that create the effect of the natural, the original, and the inevitable.”1 This inquiry proceeded in three chapters. The first chapter, engaging the French theorists Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig, examined the sex/gender distinction by considering how language constructs the categories of sex. Butler's question was how the category of woman as the subject of feminism was produced, and how attempts to construct woman as a coherent and stable subject (sometimes in order to take political action in her name) ended by reifying and regulating gender relations,2 even coming to constitute identity itself.3 This chapter also suggested that sex itself was a gendered category, that “bodies cannot be said to have signifiable existence prior to the mark of their gender,”4 and that persons whose gender appeared as non-normative called into question the very notion of the person.5 The chapter concluded with the observation that Woman should be understood not as a fixed identity, but as a term in process, a becoming.6

The second chapter of Gender Trouble centered on psychoanalytic theory, with a very useful excursus into structural anthropology. Of particular interest to Butler were Jacques Lacan's understandings of incest and female homosexuality, as well as how male autonomy was founded on women's constant reflection back to men of that autonomy and its power; the British psychoanalyst Joan Riviere's “notion of femininity as masquerade”;7 and Sigmund Freud's discussion of gender consolidation and culturally assumed heterosexuality. In each case, Butler pointed to moments when masculinity, femininity, bisexuality, and other identifications might be understood not as preexisting dispositions, but rather as produced, mainly through prohibitions. In place of a “fixed and founding Law,” Butler suggested, we might draw on psychoanalytic theory to examine the “conflicts, convergences, and innovative dissonances within gender configurations which context the fixity of masculine and feminine placements with respect to the paternal law.”8 Butler also showed how Michel Foucault's central insight about power as not merely repressive, but also always productive, could help to analyze the gendered and sexed world around us.9

The final chapter of the book considered theories of the body. These include Julia Kristeva's notion of the maternal body as prior to both culture and desire; Foucault's account of sexuality as a “historically specific organization of power, discourse, bodies, and affectivity” that, in turn, helps construct categories of bodily sex and sexual difference;10 and Wittig's conceptualization of sex as a gendered category and her understanding of bodies as culturally constituted. Butler pointed out that sex and gender are difficult to distinguish in part because the language of biology is itself a cultural product: gendered questions frame inquiries, even scientific ones, into how sex should be determined.11 Bodies that appear outside a binary norm, Butler observed, give us “a way of understanding the taken-for-granted world of sexual categorization as a constructed one, indeed, as one that might well be constructed differently.”12 The body, Butler argued, is not an inert, passive entity awaiting its inscription by culture.13 Rather, what we understand as the body, with its boundaries and interiority, is figured through a language of “inner” and “outer.”14 The chapter ended with one of Butler's signature contributions, elaborated in later work: “a performative theory of gender acts that disrupt the categories of the body, sex, gender, and sexuality and occasion their subversive resignification and proliferation beyond the binary frame.”15 Coherent gender is an arduous achievement in which “acts and gestures, articulated and enacted desires” are repeated to produce the illusion of a core gender identity, masking the “political regulations and disciplinary practices” that shape gender and punish violations in its performance.16

Gender Trouble was a useful and lucid engagement with French feminist theory. It parsed often oblique insights from Irigaray, Wittig, and Kristeva, as well as Freud and Foucault, drawing out their implications for how a subject is formed and the political implications of that formation. But beyond these specific engagements, what turned out to be most productive—and portable for scholars thinking about Asia—was Butler's insistence on asking at every turn: how did we get here? How did the features of the world that we take most for granted—the apparent immovable facticity of sexed bodies, the construction of gender as the most naturalized feature of a human self—come to seem immutable, to the point that thinking outside those conceptual categories is almost inconceivable?

To scholars who felt they were standing on solid ground by basing explanations on the physicality or physiology of the body, Gender Trouble said: watch that ground shift, and think again. To social scientists and psychoanalytic thinkers who argued that persons were created as gendered and desiring beings because of a taboo on incest or a practice of exogamy, Butler suggested that they explore how and where each of those concepts was installed. Where it appeared that some disembodied entity such as “The Law” had put these taboos in place, Butler asked how “The Law” appeared and came to seem immutable. This kind of “turtles all the way down” interrogation—which takes Friedrich Nietzsche's genealogical method17 to places he never thought to go—unsettled attempts to ground our gendered arrangements, and indeed our bodies and desires, in timeless or otherwise universal principles. But at the same time, it incited all of us to produce knowledge, as best we can, with scrupulous awareness of the limitations on what we can know and say.


Given the mainly psychoanalytic orientation of the theorists with whom Butler engaged in Gender Trouble, we learned most about how gender might have been constructed over a long period of time in largely invisible processes of psychic formation. Perhaps because modern Chinese history has entailed such rapid epistemic ruptures (as well, of course, as less acknowledged epistemic continuities), those working in the China field have had the opportunity to view the discursive formations of gender exposed in plain sight as they were openly repudiated or reworked. Across the long twentieth century, the social and political processes of redoing gender, and sometimes the individual psychic effects, were topics of passionate interest and debate, leaving a rich paper trail for later scholars to mull over. This brief essay is not the place to rehearse the gender discourses of the late Qing, or the early Republic, or the People's Republic of China (PRC). Nor is it the place to ask whether those political regimes are the best or only way to periodize the transformations of gender.18 But no one who has worked in this field can fail to notice that troubling and reconfiguring the boundaries of gender was a project taken up enthusiastically by men across the political spectrum, as well as a smaller but vocal number of women intellectuals and activists in the long twentieth century. To them, it appeared that current gender arrangements were nothing but trouble, and those arrangements were on everyone's short list of things that needed to be undone and redone as rapidly as possible. In that sense, Butler's account of the vast effort required to stabilize gender as a feature of human society has helped us articulate the importance of a process that many of us could see unfolding piecemeal in our sources.

What follows is an attempt to trace clusters of conversation inflected by Butler's work. None of the categories below is stable or cleanly sealed off from the others; they overlap and blur. Most of the works discussed here cite Gender Trouble explicitly; all participate in conversations inaugurated by the questions it crystallized about sex, sexuality, and gender. For some, the book provided a connection to questions being asked beyond the China field, which even now (though less than it used to) can constitute a contained discursive world.

Where Is the Woman?

Toward the end of Gender Trouble, Butler includes a sentence that sums up many of the ways that the gendering of Woman has been enforced in Chinese history: “the very injunction to be a given gender takes place through discursive routes: to be a good mother, to be a heterosexually desirable object, to be a fit worker, in sum, to signify a multiplicity of guarantees in response to a variety of different demands all at once.”19 The proliferation of these demands, some articulated within liberatory discourses, and the requirement that each be performatively enacted have formed the social matrix within which modern woman was expected to become intelligible and to be conscripted for various projects of nation, modernity, and socialism. This was not just a matter of performing the right kind and amount of labor—it was also, for state authorities and nonstate reformers as well, a concern that women should have the appropriately gendered interiority. National narrative was not a problem that Butler addressed in Gender Trouble, but the book's relentless questioning of the origins of seemingly foundational categories inspired our own locally grounded troublemaking.

In her 2004 book The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, Tani Barlow begins a chapter on “Theorizing Women” with an epigraph from Gender Trouble: that gender is “the very apparatus of production whereby the sexes themselves are established.”20 Much of Barlow's book is an elaboration of that argument, tracing the terms used for woman in all their heterogeneity across the twentieth century and establishing not only “the sexes” but also the patriline and the state itself as founded on gendered categories of relationship.21

This argument is prefigured in two of Barlow's 1994 essays.22 In “Theorizing Woman, Funü, Guojia, Jiating,” three historically specific ideas of Woman are each embedded in a distinct social matrix.23 The funü of the later imperial period is understood in relationship to her larger kin group, for instance, as a daughter, wife, or mother. The nüxing of the Republican period is closest to the gender binary that is naturalized in much Anglophone writing—woman in relationship to man, each with their own distinct physiology—but here it is shown to be shaped in part by translated Victorian concepts, making it possible to trace the moments in which that gender binary becomes naturalized. And it is soon supplemented, and in part supplanted, by funü in PRC discourse, which Barlow glosses as “Woman as state subject,” suggesting that the main social relationship is one linking women, as a collectivity, to the state, where the latter becomes the arbiter of what women should be and do. Given these rapidly changing gender formations, Barlow cautions against treating “Chinese women” as an unchanging category over time.24

A second Barlow essay continues this genealogy of Woman into the post-Mao reform era, when “Woman as state subject” (funü) still circulated in daily usage but was partially supplanted by nüxing, this time meaning Woman-as-the-other-of-Man, and by nüren, woman who might become a category of social history within women's studies written in China.25 Whereas Gender Trouble calls attention to the contingent and historically specific creation of categories of gender and sexuality—man, woman, homosexual, heterosexual—Barlow and others pinpoint specific moments when these and other categories entered China as part of Western sexology, much of it imported through Japanese translations.26

In the Mao-era silk mills of Hangzhou, Lisa Rofel finds, women weavers took on silk-weaving jobs formerly dominated by men, deploying a Maoist language of liberation to expose past gender hierarchies as superannuated rather than natural and unchanging.27 Rofel understands this to be a “materialization of sex” in which, following Butler,28 “the materiality of the ‘sex’ of bodies [was] produced by highly gendered regulatory schemas,”29 which at this moment of rapid change were unusually visible.

And yet, as the work of Rofel and other scholars suggests, this Maoist language of liberation, derived in part from Friedrich Engels, had unacknowledged limitations. Here, too, the work of Butler is helpful. In Gender Trouble, Butler notes that feminists, imagining a time before patriarchy, have searched for “past traces of a utopian future,”30 but cautions that this imagined state of “before” is already full of assumptions about how femininity really was (and presumably how it might be recovered), rather than “formulat[ing] an account of gender as a complex cultural construction.”31

Butler points out that the thinking of Engels (as well as some socialist feminism) falls into this category and asks “whether these powerful critiques of gender hierarchy make use of presuppositional fictions that entail problematic normative ideals.”32 Since Engels played a profound role in shaping notions of gender and the discourse of women's emancipation among Chinese Communists both before and after the revolution of 1949, this question is worth lingering with. Engels, even as he attended to broad patterns of change in women's roles across history, analyzed gender hierarchy as fundamentally grounded in the body and women's reproductive capacities, in the context of emergent private property regimes. He observed that when a man had private property to pass on to his sons, he needed to make sure that the sons were his, with deleterious consequences for the control of women who birthed those sons. The way out for women, in Engels's view, would be an end to private property and women's emergence into the sphere of socially recognizable labor, where they could be properly compensated and therefore take control of their own personhood. As Harriet Evans, Tina Mai Chen, Gail Hershatter, and others have found,33 this language of liberation concentrated on the mobilization of women for state projects, leaving intact the connection of women's reproductive function to their social roles and labor beyond the hours of the socially recognizable work day.

Evans offers a sustained examination of the formation of gendered subjects across two generations: mothers born and brought up in the Mao era and daughters who came of age during the post-Mao reforms.34 She draws upon Butler's insight that gender is not “constituted coherently or consistently in different historical contexts”35 and that it is shaped by social critique and transformation and not simply by individual agency. Evans finds new configurations of gender in bodily performance, dress, daily activity, travel, and digital communication. Women of the younger urban generation often assert a critical difference from the gendered behaviors embodied by their mothers in the Mao years, such as endless hours in the workplace or away from home, incessant labor at domestic tasks in the interstices of the workday, and silence about bodies and sex.36 She notes that “the effects of state policy in . . . separating them from their daughters left a legacy of loss and anger that daughters sought to overcome by becoming different kinds of women, mothering their own daughters in different ways.”37 And yet, Evans also points out that “undoing gender” in the reform era is not a straightforward matter of breaking with the Maoist past. Young women continue to identify in complex ways with their mothers, applying “many of the terms they attributed to their mothers in their descriptions of themselves, their imagined futures, and other women.”38

Butler's work in Undoing Gender also informs a recent translation and analysis of the early twentieth-century anarcho-feminist He-Yin Zhen.39 He-Yin deployed the term nannü (man/woman, male/female) “to name her world as an always-already gendered time-space of social activity, production, and life.”40 The editors cite Butler's discussion of sexual difference as a “border concept. . . . not a thing, not a fact, not a presupposition, but rather a demand for rearticulation that never quite vanishes—but also never quite appears.”41 For He-Yin, nannü served as a “foundational material and metaphysical mechanism of power” in Chinese social life and a basis for domination. She argued that it was a distinction constantly rearticulated, not only in China but also in foreign nations that were regarded by many Chinese thinkers (but not He-Yin) as models of how to modernize.42


Butler's writing on bodies has informed work such as the essays in Angela Zito and Tani Barlow's volume Body, Subject and Power in China,43 which understand bodies “not as transparent, stable objects of analysis, but rather as variable knowledge formations constructed through historically specific regimes of discourse and social discipline.”44 Zito's essay in particular, which focuses on Chinese practices of bodily boundary making, cites Butler on “the liberating possibilities of moving from metaphysics of gender essence to the cultural construction of gender as performance.”45 Charlotte Furth's foundational study of gender in China's medical history from the Song through the early Qing dynasties also draws inspiration from Butler's work, which suggests to Furth “that the categories of male and female are literally invented in the course of discursive cultural practices.”46 Furth aims as well to take account of bodily functions associated with gestation “as stable, materially grounded forms of human embodiment,” but one important achievement of her work is a rich sense of the varied ways those bodily functions were conceptualized, and associated with gendered difference, across seven centuries.47

Matthew Kohrman's 2005 study of disability in 1990s China cites Butler, among others, to support his central argument that “the lived body (that which exists in everyday action) both influence[s] and [is] influenced by domains of sociopolitical formation.”48 Kohrman also uses Butler's notion of gender performativity to examine the identity formation and gendering of disabled persons. He explores why disabled men used motorized tricycles to get around, reinforcing an association of masculinity with speed and machines, while women eschewed the machines to avoid public scrutiny of what they understood as their own physical imperfection.49

In Embodied Modernities, editors Fran Martin and (Ari) Larissa Heinrich observe that in China “the body has been subject to particularly rapid and thorough-going reconceptualizations over the past century,” including the introduction of new scientific discourses, and the representation of the Chinese nation “allegorized as body representations.” Attending to representations of the body can allow us to follow the figuring of “cultural modernities” in China and its diaspora.50 But the troubling of gender in twentieth-century China was not always meant to destabilize the category. The incorporation of science and eugenics into Chinese discourses meant that intellectuals often understood national modernity as requiring that men should be men and women should be women, each grounding their modern gendered behavior on the irreducible and unambiguous basis of scientifically determined sex. Epstein finds that the 1929 version of a famous eighteenth-century novel emphasizes the grounding of gender in sexed bodies in a way that the original did not, pointing out that “attempts to essentialize gender were a project of twentieth-century modernization.”51 Same-sex desire, expressed in neologisms and newly embodied in figures such as the self-consciously modern schoolgirl, was categorized and stigmatized as disruptive and potentially criminal.52

Eugenics linked sexual intercourse between optimized (natural-footed, physically fit, educated) women and appropriately qualified men to the ultimate fate of the “race” and the nation.53 Evans limns “the scientific construction of sexual difference” in scientific and popular writings in the 1950s PRC, which portrayed women as having fundamentally different emotional and sexual needs from men, needs grounded in biology that could only be satisfied by men as sexual initiators.54 This scientistic division of labor between active men and responsive women carried over into much post-Mao discussion, even as gendered bodies and sexual desire received far more extensive representation than they had in the Mao years. Concern with eugenics also endured in the post-Mao era, informing the single-child campaign, concerns with population “quality” (suzhi), and the current government injunctions that educated married heterosexual couples should reproduce.

In Gender Trouble, Butler has a brief wry and skeptical section called “Concluding Unscientific Postscript,”55 pointing out that not only do many bodies fail to conform to the standard external signs by which sex is determined, but also that the attempt to ground a sex binary in genetics is framed by cultural assumptions about gender. A sexed body, it appears, is always already a gendered body, and neither category completely exhausts the possibilities for a sense of self or perception by others.

That insight, as well as Butler's observation that gender is performative and must be reiterated to maintain social legibility, have helped scholars reconsider the imperial Chinese practice of footbinding. As Dorothy Ko points out,56 everything we know about footbinding we have learned from the people who agitated to bring the practice to an end (Chinese and foreign, mostly but not exclusively men), or who mourned it in a nostalgic mode after it began to disappear. In the writings of reformers, footbinding was a purely repressive practice, designed to keep women confined, and China's survival in a competitive world of nations required that women's bodies be liberated into a “natural” state in which the body's machinery could function optimally and a nation peopled by economically productive men and women could flourish. Women before the anti-footbinding era left no written records of what the practice meant to them, and yet it seems clear that producing a body as recognizably sexed and properly gendered required the initial binding of feet followed by incessant maintenance, all performed by women.57 A woman without properly bound feet risked unmarriageability and, indeed, unrecognizability as a proper woman, inviting social scorn that could only be avoided by the daily labor of binding.

As Zito has argued, this bodily regime was called into question by missionaries and others who had an equally constructed notion of the natural, universal body.58 They (and others who followed, including twentieth-century feminists) fetishized the bound foot in isolation from the physical body to which it was attached and the social relations that made it legible. The abolition of footbinding—entailing a fundamental alteration in the daily bodily habitus of several hundred million girls and women—once achieved, would mark China's positioning at an imagined entrance to modernity. In footbinding, which was regarded as socially unproblematic until it was not, we can see the operation of dispersed power producing bodies that were culturally legible as women and available to perform their reproductive role.59

Gender Performance and Proliferation of Sexualities

Scholars have drawn upon Butler to analyze situations in which gender is constituted through repetition of gestures, behaviors, and desires. Sometimes these situations are literally about performance—for example, late imperial and Republican-era operatic roles that did not align with the performer's gender in offstage life. These included men playing women onstage,60 while public discourse alternately affirmed and slyly questioned their offstage heterosexuality and that of their audience,61 as well as women playing men while simultaneously “exploring feminine aesthetics and women's narratives” through their performances.62 Paola Zamperini invokes gender performativity to analyze an 1898 novel by Wu Jianren in which four brothers, each one a guardian god, are born into the human world as Shanghai's four most beautiful courtesans.63 Much dissonance (and some hilarity) ensues as the brothers learn the normative behaviors appropriate to their new anatomical configurations while retaining the awareness that each has “an original self lurking underneath his mutated body,”64 to which they will all return after living out their incarnations as women. Jing M. Wang examines women's autobiographies as a practice of gender performativity.65 Chunmei Du extends Butler's work on performativity in her analysis of Gu Hongming (1857–1928), the Penang-born, Edinburgh-educated man of letters who devoted his adult life in China to the construction of “an authentic Chinese identity” complete with queue, scholar's gown, and enthusiastic defense of concubinage and footbinding.66

Butler's attention to the production of gender, sexuality, and sex has helped provide a critical framework for scholars investigating masculinity in China. Gender Trouble has informed recent investigations of how heterosexual men perform masculine gender in reform-era China, “producing non-cohesive, unstable, fluid notions of self and subjectivity” in a larger discursive environment dominated by resurgent notions of human nature.67 Xueping Zhong's discussion of male subjectivity in post-Mao literature centers on “male reactions, manifested in literature, toward the issue of male weakness.”68 Zhong draws from Butler's model of a “melancholic formation of gender” to argue that “the modern Chinese preoccupation with male weakness is itself the very point where an identification with what is not weak is originated, preserved, and established as the object of (male) desire.”69 Nancy Chen invokes the reiterative performances of gender norms in her study of how qigong masters in post-Mao China perform masculinity and the embodiment of power.70

If the Republican period and the Mao years sought to stabilize and modernize gender, and to mobilize Woman in the service of strengthening various national regimes, post-Mao China and contemporary Taiwan have both seen a proliferation of non-normative gender possibilities and desires. In her discussion of Lin Bai's post-Mao fiction depicting lesbian desire and the fear it engenders, Tze-lan Deborah Sang draws upon Butler's account of how boundaries are established around a body by the forced expulsion of unacceptable elements of the self.71 In his study of Chinese male homosexualities in contemporary Hong Kong, London, and China, Travis Kong takes Gender Trouble as a canonical text of queer theory, which regards identity as “permanently open, hybrid and fluid” and analyzes how a “heterosexual/homosexual binary [serves] as a master framework for constructing the self, sexual knowledge and social institutions.”72 Both Kong and Rofel explore gay male urban communities in China, their particularities and points of connection with an imagined global gay culture, and their relationship to local practices of family, class, and consumption.73 Rachel Leng employs Butler's analysis of abjected bodies, those not recognized as fully human in contemporary culture, to explain the homoerotic desires of two young men in the 1999 internet novella Huizi.74 Leng “finds a dialectical relationship between growing acceptance of homoeroticism, on one hand, and the vestigial legacies of earlier, less tolerant regimes, on the other. . . . These legacies of prejudicial attitudes are manifested in the form of figures of abjection,”75 who can subsequently be reworked into political visibility and defiance,76 a process described by Butler.77 Butler's writings feature in discussions of T-po lesbian role-playing in Taiwan78 and of the meanings of queer and queer writing in the portrayal of Taiwan family relationships, centering on the work of the writer Chen Xue.79

Butler's insights in Gender Trouble and subsequent works helped enable what has now become a globally dispersed discussion of trans/nonbinary identities. In his introduction to the edited volume Transgender China, Howard Chiang cites Butler's discussion of drag as a departure point for queer studies as a rubric under which transgender studies developed.80 Essays in this volume that draw on Butler's work include Alvin Ka Hin Wong's piece on queer viewing pleasures in adaptations of the Ming work Legends of the White Snake81; Carlos Rojas's work on transgendered performance by Beijing performance artist Ma Liuming82; and Chao-Jung Wu's study of the Redtop male cross-dressing actors in Taiwan.83


The trajectory of Gender Trouble in Chinese translation requires a study of its own, one beyond the scope of this already sprawling survey. Gender Trouble was translated in full on the mainland in 2009, published by the Shanghai Sanlian bookstore.84 Excerpts from Butler's writing and summaries of key ideas, however, were presented much earlier in a series of workshops organized by Wang Zheng, Du Fangqin, and other feminist scholars for Chinese scholars and activists seeking to develop the field of women's studies and to incorporate broader consideration of gender into state policies and development initiatives.85

Gender Trouble's move to destabilize understandings of gender and the body was less compelling to many Chinese feminist scholar-activists of the 1990s and 2000s than the move to enlarge the category of gender beyond Woman-as-state-subject. In the process, they sometimes reconfigured gender by naturalizing it. Literary scholar Li Xiaojiang, for instance, criticized the Maoist vision of women's liberation and argued in response that woman had a different nature from man and that women needed to learn to articulate their own interests rather than receiving a notion of women's liberation formulated by the Party-state and transmitted by the All-China Women's Federation. The work of Li and many others to establish a field of women's studies in China was neither univocal nor uncritical of contemporary gender arrangements—in fact, it sprang from dissatisfaction with those arrangements. Nevertheless, emerging from a very different set of circumstances than those that Butler sought to critique, Li's work was centered on establishing woman as a subject of transformative consciousness and political activity, and to enlarge the scope of women's gendered concerns rather than questioning the category of gender itself.86 Similarly, the work by many women within and beyond the Women's Federation in the preparation for the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, and the women's studies programs and NGOs established in its aftermath, sought to bring gender to visibility as a socially and politically salient category. When scholars asked how contemporary gender arrangements had come to be, they often did so in the name of reinstantiating gender and sex difference, not destabilizing them.

The 1990s and early 2000s was a period of tremendous scholarly and political ferment about gender, both within and beyond state agencies. From the vantage point of the current, much more politically constrained moment in China, it is difficult to reimagine the sense of possibility that animated feminist conversations. Nonetheless, Butler's warning about “feminism as an identity politics” based on a fixed notion of gender is salient for that period: that it “presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate.”87 Since that time, as Nicola Spakowski observes, much discussion among Chinese feminists has centered around how to develop a local feminism that takes account of the global context but is not dominated by concepts imported from Western theory.88 This conundrum about what uses to make of traveling theory is not unique to the Chinese mainland, though it is inflected in locally specific ways there; it is part of discussions, for instance, in Hong Kong as well. Marie-Paule Ha, citing Gender Trouble, asks “what additional trouble would befall gender studies when the discourses and practices that produce gender identities partake of two cultural, albeit unequal, sites—China and the West—as, I would argue, is the case with Hong Kong.”89 Arguing that “contemporary Hong Kong and Chinese gender identities are the effects of both Chinese cosmological and Western biomedical bodily schemas, which envision sexual differences in completely dissimilar ways,” she calls for a research framework that permits scholars to “forsake neither Butler nor difference.”90


Looking back across the decades since Gender Trouble appeared, after the emergence of queer theory and trans politics and nonbinary gender and the rethinking of both sex and gender in everything from child-rearing to cell biology, it becomes apparent how many new habits of thinking Butler helped provide to the worlds of scholarship and politics. Although Gender Trouble inaugurated a conversation, it was not the last word, or even Butler's last word, on the subject. In Bodies That Matter, Undoing Gender, and other subsequent works, Butler elaborated on many of the points first introduced in Gender Trouble, making it clear, for instance, that calling gender “performative” did not mean that a preexisting freestanding agent woke up every morning and decided which gender to wear as a kind of costume. Questions of materiality, of social legibility and acceptability, of thinkability—questions of central interest to historians—all played a role. In asking the central question—“How did we get here, to this particular arrangement of genders, bodies, and desires—and how might we imagine and enact more capacious possibilities?”—Butler joined the concerns of the scholar to those of the engaged and visionary activist. It is not an exaggeration to say that as scholars, politically engaged and materially embodied, we live in the world that Butler's Gender Trouble helped to make.

Postscript: The Glacial but Perceptible Creep of Common-Sense Understandings

In summer 2019, while the panel that led to this essay was being organized, I received an email from JAS editor Vinayak Chaturvedi. It read, in part,

I am in the process of completing the application for the roundtable at the AAS to discuss Judith Butler's book. . . . There is a question on the form that I need your assistance to complete. I would be grateful if you could please let me know how you would prefer that I fill out the following question under the heading of “Demographics: Gender”




So it goes, when academic creation meets institutional rationality. We've got the binary, intact; we've got one additional option. Perhaps someday the options will proliferate. Perhaps someday it will no longer be of interest to ask about gender or to classify people accordingly. Meanwhile, for the foreseeable future, we are apt to continue in the worlds that gender makes, drawing upon the work of Judith Butler as an indispensable guide to their construction—and disruption.



Judith Butler ,
Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
New York
), x
. A second edition of Gender Trouble was published in 1999, containing an additional updated preface by the author. All citations here refer to the 1990 edition.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 5.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 16.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 8.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 17.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 33.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 50.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 67.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 65, 72–77.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 92, 96.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 109.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 110.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 129.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 134.


Butler, Gender Trouble, xii.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 136, 139.


Butler's succinct definition of genealogy: “Genealogy investigates the political stake in designating as an origin and cause those identity categories that are in fact the effects of institutions, practices, discourses with multiple and diffuse points of origin” (Gender Trouble, x–xi).


As Maram Epstein notes, “Histories of embodied and affective selves as part of mundane events and systems of beliefs and practices unfold according to rhythms and timeframes quite distinct from that of the state.”

Maram Epstein , “Rewriting Sexual Ideals in Yesou puyan ,” in
Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation, and Chinese Cultures
, eds. Fran Martin and Larissa Heinrich (
University of Hawaiʻi Press
), 74


Butler, Gender Trouble, 145.


Butler, Gender Trouble, cited in Tani E. Barlow, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2004), 37.


For the ways in which Barlow makes use of Butler's insights on the constitution of gender through performative repetition, and on gender as an open and resignifiable category, see Barlow, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, 380n41, 391n47.


See also

Tani E. Barlow , ed.,
Gender Politics in Modern China: Writing and Feminism
Durham, N.C.
Duke University Press
), 4n4


Tani E. Barlow, “Theorizing Woman: Funü, Guojia, Jiating (Chinese Woman, Chinese State, Chinese Family),” in Body, Subject and Power in China, eds. Angela Zito and Tani E. Barlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 253–89.


For other discussions of this essay, see Fran Martin and Larissa Heinrich, Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation, and Chinese Cultures (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2006), 8; Gail Hershatter, Women in China's Long Twentieth Century (Berkeley: Global, Area, and International Archive, 2007), 90.


Tani E. Barlow, “Politics and Protocols of Funü: (Un)Making National Woman,” in Engendering China: Women, Culture, and the State, eds. Christina K. Gilmartin, Gail Hershatter, Lisa Rofel, and Tyrene White (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 339–59.


Joan Judge, Republican Lens: Everyday Knowledge, Gender, and the Periodical Press in Early-Twentieth Century China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013); Martin and Heinrich, Embodied Modernities, 8.


Lisa Rofel, Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China after Socialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 79.


Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993).


Rofel, Other Modernities, 298n19.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 36.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 36.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 36.


Harriet Evans, “Defining Difference: The ‘Scientific’ Construction of Sexuality and Gender in the People's Republic of China,” Signs 20, no. 2 (1995): 357–94; Harriet Evans, Women and Sexuality in China: Dominant Discourses of Female Sexuality and Gender since 1949 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997); Harriet Evans, “The Language of Liberation: Gender and Jiefang in Early Chinese Communist Party Discourse,” in Twentieth-Century China: New Approaches, ed. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom (New York: Routledge, 2003), 193–220; Tina Mai Chen, “Female Icons, Feminist Iconography? Socialist Rhetoric and Women's Agency in 1950s China,” Gender & History 15, no. 2 (2003): 268–95; Gail Hershatter, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past (Berkeley: University of California, 2011).


Harriet Evans, The Subject of Gender: Daughters and Mothers in Urban China (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).


Evans, The Subject of Gender, 15.


Evans, The Subject of Gender, 5, 35n37, 35n39, 177, 202.


Evans, The Subject of Gender, 202.


Evans, The Subject of Gender, 202. In another register, Lingzhen Wang draws upon Butler's 1997 discussion of the psychic life of power to analyze women's guilt and subject formation in mother-child relationships, as portrayed Chinese fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997), 26, cited in Lingzhen Wang, Personal Matters: Women's Autobiographical Practice in Twentieth-Century China (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004), 79, 221m58; Butler, The Psychic Life of Power, 12, cited in Wang, Personal Matters, 105.


Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004).


Lydia He Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, and Dorothy Ko, eds., The Birth of Chinese Feminism: Essential Texts in Transnational Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 10.


Butler, Undoing Gender, 186, cited in Liu, Karl, and Ko, The Birth of Chinese Feminism, 21.


Liu, Karl, and Ko, The Birth of Chinese Feminism, 21–22.


Angela Zito and Tani E. Barlow, eds., Body, Subject and Power in China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).


This summary is drawn from a later work; see Martin and Heinrich, Embodied Modernities, 7.


Angela Zito, “Silk and Skin: Significant Boundaries,” in Zito and Barlow, Body, Subject and Power in China, 127n33. See also Angela Zito, “Ritualizing Li: Implications for Studying Power and Gender,” positions: east asia cultures critique 1, no. 2 (1993): 321–48; Angela Zito, Of Body and Brush: Grand Sacrifice as Text/performance in Eighteenth-century China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 261n3.


Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China's Medical History, 960–1665 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 12.


Furth, A Flourishing Yin, 12–14 and passim.


Matthew Kohrman, Bodies of Difference: Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 10.


Kohrman, Bodies of Difference, 122–24, 236n2.


Martin and Heinrich, Embodied Modernities, 11.


Epstein, “Rewriting Sexual Ideals in Yesou puyan,” 62. Epstein builds on arguments in her earlier work that “biology was not foundational to traditional views of gender” and that “gender and even the materiality of the body were informed by yin-yang symbolism” in which no absolute boundaries distinguished masculine from feminine (62). Bodies could even move through naturally occurring sex changes (63); on this point, see also Charlotte Furth, “Androgynous Males and Deficient Females: Biology and Gender Boundaries in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century China,” Late Imperial China 9, no. 2 (1988): 1–31.


See Tze-lan Deborah Sang, The Emerging Lesbian: Female Same-Sex Desire in Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Jing Tsu, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895–1937 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2005); Peter J. Carroll, “‘A Problem of Glands and Secretions’: Female Criminality, Murder, and Sexuality in Republican China,” in Sexuality in China: Histories of Power and Pleasure, ed. Howard Chiang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018), 99–124.


Barlow, The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism; Tsu, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature; Hiroko Sakamoto, “The Cult of ‘Love and Eugenics’ in May Fourth Movement Discourse,” positions: east asia cultures critique 12, no. 2 (2004): 329–76.


Evans, Women and Sexuality in China, chap. 2.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 106–11.


Dorothy Ko, Cinderella's Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).


Angela Zito writes, “The organs that were the object of fixation for European gender distinction (the penis, the womb, the breasts) lacked a similar discursive weight and reality in China. Instead, and as a pronounced marker of gender distinction, Chinese women engaged in a process of continual physical transformation, molding a visible part of the body (which was then, of course, wrapped in shoes almost never removed in the sight of another).” She goes on to ask, “How must encountering this process have affected non-Chinese women who believed implicitly that gender distinctions rested naturally in original endowments of genitalia and breasts?” Angela Zito, “Bound to Be Represented: Theorizing/Fetishizing Footbinding,” in Martin and Heinrich, Embodied Modernities 31–32).


Zito, “Bound to Be Represented”; Angela Zito, “Secularizing the Pain of Footbinding in China: Missionary and Medical Stagings of the Universal Body,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75, no. 1 (2007): 1–24.


On footbinding as bodily practice, see also Wang Ping, Aching For Beauty: Footbinding in China (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). For the era well before footbinding, Robin Wang uses Butler's historicization of sex as well as gender to argue for a “concrete and situational” approach to the concepts of yin and yang and to criticize the Han dynasty thinker Dong Zhongshu for regarding them as fixed categories in which women ranked below men in a “rigid gender hierarchy.” Robin Wang, “Dong Zhongshu's Transformation of ‘Yin-Yang’ Theory and Contesting of Gender Identity,” Philosophy East and West 55, no. 2 (2005): 225.


Andrea S. Goldman, Opera and the City: The Politics of Culture in Beijing, 1770–1900 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2012).


Wenqing Kang, Obsession: Male Same-Sex Relations in China, 1900–1950 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009); Cuncun Wu and Mark Stevenson, “Male Love Lost: The Fate of Male Same-Sex Prostitution in Beijing in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries,” in Martin and Heinrich, Embodied Modernities, 42–59; John Zou, “Cross-Dressed Nation: Mei Lanfang and the Clothing of Modern Chinese Men,” in Martin and Heinrich, Embodied Modernities, 79–97; Giovanni Vitiello, The Libertine's Friend: Homosexuality and Masculinity in Late Imperial China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).


Jin Jiang, Women Playing Men: Yue Opera and Social Change in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009), 256.


Paola Zamperini, Lost Bodies: Prostitution and Masculinity in Chinese Fiction (Leiden: Brill, 2010).


Zamperini, Lost Bodies, 43.


Jing M. Wang, When “I” Was Born: Women's Autobiography in Modern China (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008).


Chunmei Du, Gu Hongming's Eccentric Chinese Odyssey (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 169.


Geng Song and Derek Hird, Men and Masculinities in Contemporary China (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 18. Song and Hird examine male images in popular television series, men's lifestyle magazines, the internet, at work, in entertainment and sport activities, and at home. The book begins and ends with discussions of Gender Trouble.


Xueping Zhong, Masculinity Besieged? Issues of Modernity and Male Subjectivity in Chinese Literature of Late Twentieth Century (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000), 12.


Zhong, Masculinity Besieged?, 38–39 (quotation from p. 39). Zhong begins the book by referencing Gender Trouble and the debates it engendered about Butler's rethinking of sex and gender. Zhong understands sex as a culturally formed concept while working from the premise that “the human body is at the same time a physiological and biological entity” (173).


Nancy Chen, “Embodying Qi and Masculinities in Post-Mao China,” in Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities: A Reader, eds. Susan Brownell and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 315–33.


Sang, The Emerging Lesbian, 194.


Travis S. K. Kong, Chinese Male Homosexualities: Memba, Tongzhi and Golden Boy (Hoboken, N.J.: Taylor & Francis, 2010), 19, 20.


Kong, Chinese Male Homosexualities; Lisa Rofel, Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007).


Rachel Leng, “Queer Reflections and Recursion in Homoerotic Bildungsroman,” in Ghost Protocol: Development and Displacement in Global China, eds. Carlos Rojas and Ralph A. Litzinger (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2016), 150–63.


Leng, “Queer Reflections and Recursion,” 153.


Leng, “Queer Reflections and Recursion,” 157.


Like several other works cited in this review, Leng draws here upon Butler's 1993 work Bodies That Matter.


Sang, The Emerging Lesbian, 226.


Fran Martin, “Chen Xue's Queer Tactics,” positions: east asia cultures critique 7, no. 1 (1999): 71–94. Martin argues that Chen's use of queer itself queers an order of things arising from Euro-American contexts. Martin's analysis, like that of Leng, draws upon Bodies That Matter.


Howard Chiang, “Imagining Transgender China,” in Transgender China, ed. Howard Chiang (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 3–19.


Alvin Ka Hin Wong, “Transgenderism as a Heuristic Device: On the Cross-Historical and Transnational Adaptations of the Legend of the White Snake,” in Chiang, Transgender China, 127–58.


Carlos Rojas, “Writing the Body,” in Chiang, Transgender China, 199–223.


Chao-Jung Wu, “Peforming Transgender Desire: Male Cross-Dressing Shows in Taiwan,” in Chiang, Transgender China, 225–62.


[美] 朱迪斯⋅巴特勒 (Judith Butler), 性别麻烦女性主义与身份的颠覆 [Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity], trans. 宋素凤 (上海三联书店, 2009). See also https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E6%80%A7%E5%88%AB%E9%BA%BB%E7%83%A6%EF%BC%9A%E5%A5%B3%E6%80%A7%E4%B8%BB%E4%B9%89%E4%B8%8E%E8%BA%AB%E4%BB%BD%E7%9A%84%E9%A2%A0%E8%A6%86/18286744?fromtitle=%E6%80%A7%E5%88%AB%E9%BA%BB%E7%83%A6&fromid=2541022.


A search in the scholarly articles sections of Baidu (xueshu.baidu.com) for Judith Butler (朱迪斯⋅巴特勒) and Gender Trouble (性别麻烦) yields articles in sociology, language and literature, and politics, mostly published within the past several years. See http://xueshu.baidu.com/s?wd=%E6%9C%B1%E8%BF%AA%E6%96%AF%C2%B7%E5%B7%B4%E7%89%B9%E5%8B%92%20%E6%80%A7%E5%88%AB%E9%BA%BB%E7%83%A6&tn=SE_baiduxueshu_c1gjeupa&sc_hit=1&bcp=2&ie=utf-8. Many thanks to Wang Zheng for personal communication about earlier workshops. Ning Wang attempts what he calls “a Chinese perspective” on gender studies. Ning Wang, “Gender Studies in the Post-Theoretical Era: A Chinese Perspective,” Comparative Literature Studies 54, no. 1 (2017): 14–30.


See Gail Hershatter, Women and China's Revolutions (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 275, 337n135 on Li.


Butler, Gender Trouble, 148.


Nicola Spakowski, “‘Gender’ Trouble: Feminism in China under the Impact of Western Theory and the Spatialization of Identity,” positions: east asia cultures critique 19, no. 1 (2011): 31–54. The problem of traveling theory and the Chinese context is explored, among others, in the work of Min Dongchao. For some of her writings in Chinese and English, see Spakowski, “‘Gender’ Trouble,” 49n8. Spakowski writes that Chinese feminist scholars experience “the empowering effect of a long tradition of commitment to women's issues and Chinese (feminist) history as a legacy and ‘resource.’ Many of the scholars discussed here are wary of cutting ties with pre-reform history, which has left deep imprints on the political life of China” (48).


Marie-Paule Ha , “
Double Trouble: Doing Gender in Hong Kong
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society
, no.


Ha, “Double Trouble,” 425.