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Date 2021-03-12


Translation/Public: AIDS, “Tongzhi,” and “Ku’er”


Chi, Ta-Wei

Assistant Professor, Graduate Institute of Taiwan Literature, National Chengchi University


Taiwan distinguishes itself in Asia with its vibrant LGBT culture, including its abundant LGBT literature, locally known as “tongzhi literature.” Traceable to the early 1960s, tongzhi literature suddenly became a widely discussed phenomenon by the end of the twentieth century. This article contends that the tongzhi literature boom was enabled by the local reception of such foreign words as AIDS, “tongzhi” and “ku’er,” the latter two being local renditions of “LGBT” and “queer.” While many scholars consider that the tongzhi literature boom has resulted from the 1987 lifting of Martial Law, I emphasize that this boom also resulted from the emergence of AIDS in the early 1980s, which spawned a number of what I call “translation/public.” By “translation/public,” I refer to the mutual constitution of translation and the Habermasian public: as translation gives birth to publics (such as the conferences in response to AIDS as a novelty), it is also constantly revised in the process of being publicized or localized. Whereas “AIDS,” “tongzhi,” and “ku’er” help give birth to a public sphere where a new wave of tongzhi literature takes place, these three new words are also creatively misread by locals in Taiwan. The assumed superiority of the original to the translation – a subject common in translation studies – also dominates the local uses of AIDS, “tongzhi,” and “ku’er.” One aim of this article is to critically examine the myth that idolizes what and who are respected as seminal. Two beliefs are widely assumed in Taiwan and abroad: that the word “tongzhi” originates from the Hongkongese writer Edward Lam’s queer reading of “comrade” as habitually solemn in modern Chinese politics; that Lam’s “tongzhi” originates from a patriotic slogan created by Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of modern China. A major effect of these beliefs is to consolidate the authority of the reputedly seminal. The meanings of “AIDS,” “tongzhi,” and “ku’er” are decided less by the idolized originators and more by local writers who consistently redefine the words that are resistant to being written in stone.

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Bulletin of Taiwanese Literature