China Mountain Zhang and the concept of Passing

Trigger warning: The book I’m reviewing contains depictions of sex, rape, suicide, racism, and homophobia. The book also contains persecution of sexual minorities. Proceed with caution if any of that is triggering for you.

Also, spoilers. Lots of Spoilers.

                Welcome to my first non-anime review and my first book review on this blog. Today I’ll be looking at the book China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh, published in 1992. This story takes place in a possible future where America has gone through a Second Great Depression and thus a communist revolution has taken place. The U.S.A is now a second world country with China being the first world (‘everyone wants to go to China they think’). The Chinese and those of Chinese ancestry are here the privileged racial category in society. The protagonist of the story is a gay man who is a mix of Chinese and Hispanic heritage. His Chinese name is Zhang Zhong Shan and his Spanish name is Rafael. Living in this alternative world he passes both as both Chinese and as heterosexual. Some chapters are told from the point of view of characters he meets. Such as San Xiang an ugly girl he is briefly coerced into dating. There is also Angel a kite rider, future sport that is dangerous often resulting in death. Finally, there is a Martian couple of Alexi and Martine. This is not a narrative about people who change the world but about people who are trying to find a way to live in it. Each of these characters struggle with this but for different reasons and they have different methods of doing so. One of these methods is passing but that method brings about its own problems.

                The concept of passing is something that is central to Zhang’s story. Before he was even conceived his parents used gene-splicing to make him look as Chinese as possible. He feels that he and his mother most be more like cousins then parent and child because he only has so many of her genes. He knows this is irrational though and logically knows that she is his mother. This something that haunts ‘my face is a lie’ he thinks. However, appearing to be an ABC (American Born Chinese) is not always a good thing when one is not especially when one is also a gay man (Intersectionality anyone). At the start of the novel Zhang works for Foremen Quin as a construction-tech. Foremen Quin sets Zhang up with his daughter San Xiang. Zhang goes along with this because he does not want to lose his job but knows it is a problem because of his homosexuality. As the situation escalates Zhang eventually reveals that he is in face not ABC, that his mother is Hispanic. This ends his faux-relationship with San Xiang and loses him his job along with his apartment. While passing as ABC and as straight clearly gives Zhang certain privileges it also complicates his life and creates obstacles he would not face otherwise.

But of course, he and his parents are not the only ones using technology to pass as something he is not (or at least something he is wholly not). San Xiang is considered ugly both by herself and everyone she meets. Her face is described like that of a chipmunk with eyes too big and no chin. She seeks to correct this and later does by changing her face to fit into her society of beauty standards. However once San Xiang is considered a pretty girl she then starts to receive attention from men she is not used to. This leads to horrific results when she is the victim of date rape. San Xiang begins to miss her old ugly face because it allowed her to be invisible. Both characters pass as something they are not to gain perceived benefits of belonging a more privileged group of people. However, both also discover that passing brings it’s changes and complications with it that can be deadly.

                The idea of passing as a racial group you’re not is not something that belongs just to sci fi. Take for example how some biracial Americans have passed as only white to gain access to education, employment and to survive. What is new here is how this concept has been altered in this science fiction tale. Instead of having characters passing as white, there is a character with Hispanic Ancestry passing as an American Born Chinese to gain work, education and to survive. But as the books shows it is not that simply. While I did enjoy this twist on the idea of racial passing I was less impressed with San Xiang’s story. The idea of a girl using technology to make herself fit into beauty standards is not new and is everywhere. Try googling plastic surgery. A critical look at this has a lot of potential to draw some interesting conclusions. But instead the idea is that being ugly protected San Xiang from predatory men. But as a naïve pretty girl she becomes the victim of date rape. The problem with this depiction is very simple: being ugly does not protect you from predatory rapists. The idea that men like Bobby would never tried to take advantage of San Xiang because she was too ugly is ridiculous. For more on that go here ( I won’t say anything more about it because that link does a better job of it then I can.

                So, with that out of the way I’ll move on to the other types of passing in this story. That of passing as straight and as passing as another gender. I’ll start with passing as straight as I’ve already briefly touched on it and it is much more prominent in the story. Zhang is not open about his homosexuality while in New York except with some gay friends and his mother. Later when he goes to China he must actively hide it because his sexuality is illegal. He becomes lovers with his tutor Haitao and through him meets Liu Wen another gay man. These men pass as straight and live with the constant fear of being found out. The scene that best demonstrates this is when Zhang, Haitao and Liu Wen visit a secret gay bar one night. While at the bar they experience as sense of community but they know they are under threat. This threat later becomes a reality when the bar is raided. Resulting in a desperate scramble to escape. While Zhang and Haitao escape they are scarred and further tragedy awaits them. The idea of gendered passing however only appears in once during the story. In the gay bar when Zhang admires a pretty girl only to realize she is a boy. He is not aroused nor disgusted by this act of cross dressing (as he calls it) only interested in this display of femaleness he has not seen before. He takes note of her body language and style of dress. Fascinated by this woman/boy. It is more of an odd to gendered passing than anything else. But even though it Is only brief this nod to gender passing shows another way many Queer people pass and the tremendous effort they often put into doing so.

The concept of passing of course is not the only subject explored in China Mountain Zhang. Themes such as migration, history, politics, race, and more are all woven into the narrative. So why did I focus so much on the idea of passing? Because it is something I have a lot of personal experience except for passing as a different race (I’m white). As bisexual, transgender, and a woman with (invisible) disabilities and health conditions I’ve passed as many different things. So, I found a novel that spent it’s time dealing in depth with characters who passed as so many different things fascinating. The only part of the book I really disliked was San Xiang’s sub plot but I won’t repeat myself. If you like alternative history, soft science fiction, queer characters and stories about the average joe or jane check this book out but take San Xiang’s subplot with some salt.


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