In this episode, producer Jason Lee explores the history of intersex health in Taiwan that complicates conversations we have around gender, sex, health, and ethics. He focuses on the story of the intersex soldier Xie Jianshun, who was born in Chaozhou, Guangdong and forced to undergo a sex change surgery.
JASON LEE: This is Metastasis. I'm your host, Jason Lee.
In this episode, we explore the history of intersex health in Taiwan to complicate the conversations we have around gender, sex, health, and ethics.
For a while now, I’ve been interested in LGBTQ health in Asia. Trans and intersex health, in particular, because we don't usually talk about these topics.
A lot of queer activism in Taiwan over the past several decades has been propelled by Taiwan’s democratization. But trans and intersex rights have not received as much attention although there has been some recent effort to address these issues.
To learn more about how activists have talked about intersex rights, I did some research and came across a 2017 article about the intersex activist Hiker Chiu.
Chiu shared their experiences with intersex surgery and compared it to the story of Xie Jianshun (謝尖順), an intersex soldier in the 1950s, who was forced to transition into being a woman despite identifying as a man.
In their interview, Hiker said that people should **not** undergo unnecessary surgeries due to societal expectations.
This piqued my interest. I wanted to know more. I found a link to an entire archive of news reports about Xie and also came across a book by historian Howard Chiang who dedicated a chapter to Xie. As it turns out, in the 1950s, Xie was also known as the "Chinese Christine."
So I asked myself: Who **was** Xie Jianshun?
There are two versions of this story.
The short version is that he was born in Chaozhou, Guangdong in 1918. Growing up, he liked to watch Cantonese operas. After joining the army at the age of 16, he moved to Taiwan in 1949 following the Chinese Civil War.
But there's more.
A Quick Note about Terminologies and Translations.
So in the 1950s, instead of using the term intersex, which we are discussing today, an intersex individual was either categorized as a true hermaphrodite or a pseudohermaphrodite. This started in scientific and medical literature before becoming part of general colloquialism.
Meanwhile in Taiwan, the existence of the terms yinyang ren (陰陽人) in Mandarin or puànn iam iûnn á (半陰陽仔) in Taiwanese Hokkien both indicated that there has already been some awareness of intersex people.
Unfortunately, these terms were often used as slurs against intersex people and non-binary people in general.
Initial news reports use yinyang ren when depicting Xie's status as intersex. However, journalists also used the word bianxing ren (變性人) or transsexual to account for how novel surgeries have the ability to alter one's sex. In this episode, I use the contemporary terms intersex and transgender to describe these accounts from the past.
Now on with the story.
The Good Transsexual
In the 1950s, journalists often compared Xie to a celebrity trans woman named Christine Jorgensen. They would call Xie the "Chinese Christine" or the "Christine of Free China." The comparison wasn't entirely fair. Unlike Xie, Christine Jorgensen was an ex GI who was the first American to have undergone gender affirming surgery in 1952.
Jorgensen: As one of my doctors said, it's utterly preposterous to think that one should undergo such an operation of this kind simply to satisfy a newspaper. And he's perfectly right.
JASON LEE: After her surgery, Jorgensen gained a considerable amount of fame. Even when people were still grappling with whether Jorgensen should be regarded as a woman or not, most accounts seemed to have granted Jorgensen status as a woman.
Everyone loved her and her story.
Jorgensen's success certainly stood out in 1952, a time when queer and trans people were largely oppressed. Oddly enough, the press celebrated Jorgensen as a good transsexual. Especially during a post-war era of shifting gender roles, Jorgensen aligned with feminine appearances and behaviors that reinforced gender norms.
This way, the media could still enforce ideal tropes of femininity and masculinity.
Jorgensen: It's utterly preposterous.
JASON LEE: It's a mistake to think of Xie and Jorgensen as fitting in the same sex category. Many media reports misrepresented Jorgensen as intersex and Xie as transgender. In turn, the continued fixation over whether Jorgensen and Xie were true hermaphrodites or pseudo-hermaphrodites ultimately became a critical question for the surgeons who would operate on Xie.
Xie's first surgery was an exploratory laparotomy for the surgeons to examine whether Xie had both male and female reproductive organs. This turned out to be a key turning point in how the media depicted Xie.
To be clear, before the surgery, Xie expressed a strong wish to remain a man, but this only meant that the news media would construct an image of Xie as a heterosexual man with an unfortunate birth defect.
When the exploratory laparotomy revealed that Xie had both ovaries and intact fallopian tubes, Xie's physician and the media abruptly decided that Xie needed to transition into a woman.
Suddenly, all news reports following the laparotomy started referring to Xie as Miss Xie.
Despite having never referred to himself as a woman, let alone the Chinese Christine, Xie's story was sensationalized. The media had linked him to Jorgensen's story.
This was the violence.
Xie underwent multiple surgeries that removed his male organs. The details are murky here. He must have protested each time, but he ultimately gave in.
Jorgensen: We seem to assume that every person is either a man or a woman, but we don't take into account this true scientific value that each person is actually both in varying degrees. Now, this sounds a little evasive and I don't mean it to be when in all actuality, my only answer to that is that I am more of a woman than I am a man.
JASON LEE: Xie was an intersex individual and not a transgender individual. His surgery was not based on a personal desire for change that aligned with his gender identity.
Here is an excerpt from a news report published on October 18th, 1955 titled "Remarkably Fair and Soft Skin."
Although she is almost a middle-aged woman, her skin is still as beautiful as that of a young girl. Even in the presence of a nurse, she said to a male comrade in a shy yet gloating manner, “Look at how fair and soft my skin is. It looks healthier than a lot of women’s.”
Based on this quote, we can infer how strikingly beautiful Ms. Xie’s skin is. On the other hand, we can also tell how extremely proud Ms. Xie is of the beauty of her skin. (United Daily News 1955).
Looking back, we can see how these descriptions tried to paint Xie as hyper-feminine. Most reports at the time emphasized Xie's adherence to gender stereotypes which corresponded to media reports describing Jorgensen as the good transsexual.
These people had turned into good women.
The most striking similarity between Xie and Jorgensen is that even when new surgical technologies could alter biological sex, media reports in both cases still clung to the belief that such advancements in science and medicine did not challenge pre-existing heterocisnormative ideologies.
Here was another kind of violence.
Looking for Xie
After his surgery, Xie's former comrades tried to dress him in a qipao, the classical Manchu outfit with a high collar and fine embroidery usually decorated with peonies, dragons, and phoenixes.
Xie didn't ask for this.
Here was their conversation.
“Why do I need a qipao? I don’t want it.“
“You’re a woman now. As a woman, you need to wear women’s clothes.”
“The higher-ups gave me the money. I can do whatever I want with it. Who do you all have to it so hard for me?”
“Of course, the money was given to you. You can use it however you want. But, for your sake, you can’t keep wearing men’s clothes or else people will make fun of you.”
“What is there to make fun of? I’ve worn men’s clothes for over thirty years. If you make me start wearing women’s clothes, and my former comrades see me, how am I supposed to face them?”
“People already know about your situation. They won’t make fun of you.”
“No means no. If you get a qipao, I won’t wear it. You can wear it yourself.”
Xie later changed his name to Xie Shun and kept a low profile. Although he never announced any plans, the media was eager to speculate whether Xie could still marry a man or have children in the near future.
All news of him has since gone silent.
When I first learned about Xie and Hiker, I was surprised to see this kind of social and medical violence in a cycle of sorts. In many cases, there are these same issues of stigma that conflate trans and intersex identities. In the case of Jorgensen and Xie, medicine can cut both ways.
While the development of gender affirming surgeries has allowed trans people to have bodies that align better with their gender identities, intersex individuals don't fit this narrative.
Without asking about and listening to stories like Xie's, we give the narratives of medical surgery as a liberating device too much credit. Credit, instead, needs to go to expanding narratives about different gender identities.
As scholars and activists have long pointed out, we need to go beyond the simple sliding scale of two sexes.
Jorgensen: We don't take into account this true scientific value that each person is actually both in varying degrees.
Chiang, Howard. After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformation of Sex in Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.
Guidotto, Nadia. “Monsters in the Closet: Biopolitics and Intersexuality” in Wagadu. Intersecting Gender and Disability Perspectives in Rethinking Postcolonial Identities, edited by Naidu Parekh, 48-64. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corp, 2008.
Liu, Michael Shiyung. “Transforming Medical Paradigms in 1950s Taiwan.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society 11, no. 4 (2017): 477–97. https://doi.org/10.1215/18752160-4197874.
Meyerowitz, Joanna. “Transforming Sex: Christine Jorgensen in the Postwar U.S.” OAH Magazine of History 20, no. 2 (2006): 16–20. https://doi.org/10.1093/maghis/20.2.16.
Skidmore, Emily “Constructing the “Good Transsexual”: Christine Jorgensen, Whiteness, and Heteronormativity in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Press” Feminist Studies 37, no. 2 (2011): 270-300.