Editor’s note: Dr. Jih-Fei Cheng is Associate Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Scripps College. After obtaining an M.A. in Asian American studies from UCLA, Dr. Cheng pursued a PhD from USC in American Studies and Ethnicity. He has worked in HIV/AIDS social services in Los Angeles and New York City. He also managed the Asian and Pacific Islander Student Center at Cal Poly Pomona. In 2022, Jih-Fei was interviewed by Slate magazine about the monkeypox pandemic and its roots in racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, and homophobia.

Dr. Jih-Fei Cheng.

In 1989, as I turned thirteen years old, I became obsessed with reading about the events of World War II. That year, while I was in the seventh grade, the Velvet Revolution ended the communist rule of Czechoslovakia. The Berlin Wall fell, signaling the end of the Cold War. In the capital of Beijing, pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square clashed with the armed soldiers and military tanks of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, and the religious and political leader of Tibet received the Nobel Peace Prize. Playwright David Henry Hwang won the Tony Award for Best Play for M. Butterfly. Nintendo released its first edition of Game Boy. The US supertanker, Exxon Valdez, spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil off the coast of Alaska. Two years earlier, in 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in response to HIV/AIDS and U.S. government neglect under then-President Ronald Reagan, which led to widespread stigma, death, and the ongoing global pandemic. As a young avid reader of history, John Hershey’s Hiroshima and The Diary of Anne Frank helped me make sense of the looming threat (then and now) of fascism, eugenics, genocide, environmental devastation, and global nuclear war. These books restaged for me the dreadful theater of war and human-made disasters. They also helped frame the historical background of the black and white family photos that hung in my adolescent home in the ultra-conservative town of Placentia, California – settled on the traditional and unceded lands of the Tongva people – and the silences that surround these photos to this day.

My paternal grandfather stands proudly – in my memory and displayed in my elderly parents’ current home at the edge of Orange County, California – as a decorated Republic of China Air Force veteran in full military regalia. He is next to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.[1] As the military leader of the Kuomintang Party (KMT), Chiang helped end the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and over eight years of massacre and mass rape under imperial Japan’s invasion and occupation. In its stead, however, Chiang maintained himself as dictator of the relatively new Republic of China (ROC). The KMT was subsequently defeated by the CCP, ending the concurrent Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). Chiang’s KMT evacuated and occupied Taiwan where Indigenous groups have existed for over six millennia. Han Chinese began to settle the island in increasing numbers during the seventeenth-century end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China. My parents arrived in Taiwan as toddlers and as part of the KMT-led exodus from China in 1949.

To enforce KMT colonial rule over the island, Chiang commenced the “White Terror” and implemented martial law. His government persecuted and murdered suspected leftists, independence activists, and pro-Japanese factions. Although Chiang passed in 1975, martial law was not lifted until 1987. Almost a year and a half after Chiang’s death, then-leader of the CCP, Mao Zedong, died in 1976. These successive deaths occurred four to five years after the passing of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 2758 in 1971, which declared “the Government of the People’s Republic of China [as] the only lawful representatives of China to the United Nations and…one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.” The U.N. “expel[led] forthwith the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek from the place which they unlawfully occup[ied] at the United Nations and in all the organizations related to it.” Amidst these tumultuous changes in leadership and political and economic relations, my parents left Taiwan in 1971 and immigrated to the United States seeking opportunities in higher education.

My parents were both born in Nanjing, China, towards the end of WWII and the Chinese Civil War. As children of the KMT, they were raised in Taiwan. Although they had become briefly acquainted while attending an elementary school for military families, they immigrated separately as adults around 1971 after African American-led social movements pressured the United States to strike down its anti-Asian immigration laws with the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. My mother and father immigrated from Taiwan seeking education in accounting and public health, respectively, and were introduced by a professor in Houston, Texas, where I was born in 1976. Once my brother was born in 1978, we moved to Austin and remained there until my father’s job for a pharmaceutical company prompted us to relocate to Southern California in 1987. Shortly thereafter, my mom began working as a financial officer for a nearby university.

Over fifty years after their initial arrival to the United States, my parents have now lived and resided in the United States as citizens longer than they lived in Taiwan. Still, they experience alienation in a White supremacist nation and remain KMT loyalists to the present. They remember profound tales of imperial Japan’s occupation and the CCP persecution of relatives who have been tortured, murdered, or gone missing since my parents’ exit as children from China over 70 years ago. They retain their Taiwanese citizenship and return regularly to vote in elections for the conservative pan-Blue coalition candidates and against Taiwanese independence from the People’s Republic of China. When I think of the old photo of my particularly tall paternal grandfather standing upright and positioned between a seated Chiang and the Republic of China flag, I can’t help but see my parents as nationalists without a nation. As traditional Confucians and descendants of a failed democratic revolution, it must be a struggle to imagine, and even harder to stomach, how their first- and U.S.-born son became a leftist, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and feminist queer.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek with Cheng’s grandfather.
Photo courtesy of Jih-Fei Cheng.

Nationalism without a Nation: A Queer History of Patrilineality

In my parents’ home, family history is rarely addressed beyond the context of WWII and the Japanese occupation of China. Thus, there is my obsession with WWII and the significance it retains in framing our contemporary kinship dynamics. My parents tend to retell history from the Han 漢 perspective, an ethnocentric view that has preoccupied the official annals of Chinese history itself. Their main concern is in bolstering Han Chinese nationalism, an ethnonationalist identity and movement which gained its start with the intellectual and political debates of the late nineteenth-century and helped transformed imperial China into a modern nation-state by 1912. Many of these ideals were drawn from liberal Western principles about modern nationhood, even though the 1912 dawn of the Republic of China sought to shed the yoke of Western and Japanese imperialisms. Conversations with my parents about the ancient past, as well as discussions about U.S. race relations and present-day geopolitics, have most often ended in stark disagreement, anger, and silence. What I have left, then, are remnants of the past to which I’ve committed my own research in order to piece together and reflect upon my own involvement in today’s revolutionary social movements. This includes anti-colonial, anti-racist, and feminist-queer-trans activism surrounding HIV/AIDS, prison abolition, Indigenous “land back” movements, Taiwan independence, Palestinian solidarity and the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and more.

The term “Han” derives from the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-9 CE, 25-220 CE), which is considered one of the golden eras of imperial Chinese history. Today, Han peoples remain the dominant ethnic group living in modern China. They are also the majority ethnicity among those who have migrated out of China. Moreover, Han peoples constitute the world’s largest ethnic group. The Han ethnicity is oftentimes conflated with the phrase 中國人 meaning “Chinese” or “Chinese citizen;” its literal translation meaning “people of the Middle Kingdom.” Arguably, “Han” should be considered distinct from the English term “Chinese,” which more broadly designates anyone whose family has historical ties to China and/or is a citizen of China. Of course, resistance to Han hegemony and the histories of Han conquer across Asia Pacific have led many ethnic groups and minorities to reject identification with China and Chineseness. While there are many languages and topolects spoken by the various Chinese peoples, the standardized and official Chinese written and spoken language is 漢字 and 漢語, which literally refer to “the written and spoken language of the Han” but is commonly referred to in English as “the Chinese written and spoken language,” or simply “Mandarin.” Understanding the Han-dominated past and present has impacted the way that I research and learn about my own family history.

Scholar Shu-mei Shih coined the phrase “Sinophone” to inaugurate a field of study that critically considers the multiplicity of races, ethnicities, languages, cultures, and worldviews that have been shunted under the terms “China,” “Chinese,” and “Chinese studies.” The field of Sinophone studies underscores the role “Hanification” plays in naturalizing the enduring history of Han empire and settler colonialism. Shih defines “Sinophone” as the field of study that attends to the cultural productions, experiences, and worldviews of minoritized peoples living within the People’s Republic of China under Han Chinese domination. For instance, the largely Muslim population of Uyghurs form a part of the Turkic ethnicities. They have ancestral ties in Central and East Asia, including the Xinjiang Autonomous Region that currently exists under PRC colonial administration. Xinjiang remains disputed territory as the dominant Han group continues to settle on Uyghur lands with support from the Chinese Communist Party. To facilitate Uyghur removal and control, the CCP has detained at least 1 million Uyghurs and imprisoned them in concentration campus under the guise of vocational training while forcing them to learn Mandarin and to acculturate to Han society. Sinophone studies also attends to the cultural productions of peoples who may identify with “China” or “Chineseness,” but live outside of the PRC and write or speak in the dominant language of their country of residence. This includes books and films produced by Chinese-identified peoples outside of the PRC and written in other dominant languages such as English, Japanese, Spanish, or Portuguese. This writing might be considered Sinophone literature.

When my maternal and paternal families swiftly evacuated China at the end of the Chinese Civil War, they left behind most of their belongings, including material possessions, documents, and ancestral memories. They also abandoned the many languages and topolects they spoke in favor of Mandarin, which was made the official language of Taiwan under KMT rule. With little to grasp and learn about my family’s history, I have salvaged the past through the few stories that my paternal grandfather relayed during our rare visits across the Pacific Ocean, the VHS tapes of 1980s and 1990s Taiwanese television series that he dutifully recorded and shipped to our Placentia home for nearly a decade, and the name with which he left me. I grew up on stories about well-known historical figures that share our surname or parts of my given name. Tales about ancient battles as well as spiritual and mythological worlds shaped my morals and worldview in ways beyond my parents’ imaginations. Taiwanese TV shows depicting women martial arts protagonists who wear men’s clothes and take on traditionally male leadership positions became role models for my queer adolescent self.

The Folds of History

My paternal grandfather named me 鄭志飛 or Jih-Fei Cheng. “Jih” 志 meaning “to will” or “willpower” is the generational character that I share with my brother and cousins identified male at birth. “Fei” 飛 means “to fly.” Thus, the literal translation of 志飛 or Jih-Fei means “the will to fly.” The name refers to the ROC Air Force as well as to my grandfather’s affiliation with the WWII U.S.-ROC air force alliance, the Flying Tigers. Figuratively, my name summons “limitless will.” The last character of my name, when combined with my brother’s and that of my two male-identified paternal cousins, creates the poetic phrase: 飛翔豪傑 (“heroes fly high”). I was also named after the early twelfth-century military general, Yue Fei 岳飛, who fought for the Southern Song Dynasty (960-1279) against the Jurchen-ruled Jin dynasty (1115-1234) of northern ancient China. As told to me countless times by my grandparents and parents when I was a child, Yue Fei returned from battle against northern “barbarians” dismayed at the Song government’s corruption. His mother tattooed on his back the four characters 盡忠報國 (“serve the country with the utmost loyalty”) and sent him back to war. Ultimately, Yue Fei was put to death by the Song Dynasty officials under trumped up charges. He entered Chinese history and folktales as the quintessential Han loyalist, patriot, and martyr. My parents toyed with the idea of naming me “Jeff,” but ended up keeping the phonetic translation of my name.

“Jih-Fei Cheng” is the English spelling provided by Taiwan, whose official seal is imprinted on my U.S. birth certificate. (Had my name been translated by officials representing the People’s Republic of China it would likely have read “Zhifei Zheng.”) I am eligible for dual US-Taiwanese citizenship and have held a Taiwanese passport at varying points in my life. However, since I have remained in the United States, my name has endlessly raised eyebrows and inquiries throughout my life: Where is that name from? Where are you from?

These are questions that I’m still trying to answer.

Our patrilineal surname, 鄭 or Cheng, originates from 806 BCE in the city of Xingyang 滎陽市, just south of the Yellow River, in my paternal grandfather’s ancestral province of Henan 河南. The surname was designated by King Xuan 周宣王 of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1045–771 BCE). According to my parents, Chinese surnames distinguish one’s ties to an ancient clan or village. In 1644, the Manchu-led Qing dynasty (1644-1912) defeated the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Ming loyalist Kongxia 鄭成功 drove out Dutch settlers in Taiwan to establish a short-lived kingdom with the intention to re-conquer imperial China. Kongxia’s surname, 鄭, became the emblem for the kingdom’s flag. Yet, there are other histories of the surname which challenge or even exceed its patrilineal history.

The well-known admiral and explorer, Zheng He 鄭和 (1371–1433/1435), served the Ming Dynasty’s third emperor, Yongle. He was born into a family that traced part of its roots to Iranian origins. Zheng He’s father served the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty. Originally, Zheng He’s last name was “Ma” (literally “horse”), which is the surname often associated with the prophet Muhammed and designated among Hui ethnic minorities who are Chinese Muslims of Turkic and/or Mongol ancestry. As a child, Ma He 馬和was captured by Ming officials, castrated, and trained to serve as a eunuch. Eventually, Ma He gained the confidence of the eventual Yongle emperor, who renamed Ma He as Zheng He. It is said that the Yongle emperor conferred the surname Zheng because that was also the name of the emperor’s favorite horse. Zheng He was promoted to the commander in chief of a fleet of powerful ships considered the largest ships in world history. The admiral’s travels took him across the Pacific, South China Seas, Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, extending imperial China’s diplomacy, maritime trade, and expansion. Zheng He is remembered as a figuratively and physically towering and masculine hero at the center of imperial Chinese history. However, the murder of his family, his abduction as a child, and his forced status as a eunuch servant tell of a history of Chinese empire that is anything but benevolent or pluralistic. Rather, in this case, “Zheng” tells of the history of Hanification – the erasures of the Ma surname, the persecution and contributions of Muslims in and to China, the violent assimilation of racial and ethnic minority peoples, languages, and cultures, and the legacies of Han Chinese empire itself.

Although I have spent much time here discussing family and ancient history, it is because I have little to no access to historical and cultural memories otherwise. At this point, I remain largely estranged from my parents, brother, and extended family. Today, I live as a single, 45-year-old queer East Asian/American man who has created family with a 4-year-old poodle-boxer-chihuahua named “Falcor,” which is the name of the Luck Dragon from the 1979 novel and 1984 German film The NeverEnding Story. I have yet to figure out how to refer to myself. Am I Han Chinese? Han Taiwanese? Han Chinese-Taiwanese? Han Chinese-Taiwanese American? This matters to my personal history, but also to how I engage in community organizing, research, writing, and the teaching of history to future students.

As I continue to trace my family’s histories across continents and oceans, I keep in mind that a patrilineal history is insufficient. Moreover, as Black, Indigenous, and other women of color feminists have contended, understanding one’s own subject position requires that one reconcile their own subject position in relation to Indigenous dispossession, anti-Blackness, settler responsibility, and entwined racializations with other minoritized communities – not only here in the United States, but in China, Taiwan, and the world. So, I search for capacious archives that write me, as its queer child, into the margins and creases of the page rather than allow the official record to consign me to an existence outside of time and place.

[1] Chiang Kai-shek, former president of the Republic of China, like many Chinese of his era, has several names. Kuomintang 國民黨 is also referred to as Guomindang (GMD).