QUEER IR AND ANCIENT ASIA: An Intellectual, Normative, and Political Alignment

Cynthia Weber has elegantly and painstakingly articulated a “queer intellectual curiosity” for IR. It refers to a spirit of exploration, especially of received wisdom, from a position that is multiple in-between. This queer curiosity builds on dissident theorizing from contemporary thinkers in the West, ranging from those who question gender as a discourse (Foucault, Haraway, Butler) to language as a site of power (Barthes), and “statecraft” as “mancraft” (Ashley). She draws on Neuwirth/Wurst, winner of the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest, to demonstrate the “performative embodiment” of a “plural logoi” (10). It encompasses either/or (e.g., boy or girl) and both/and (e.g., girl and boy) and more (e.g., combinations of genders, sexes, parentage, states, civilizations). The last conveys “queerness” in its fullest sense: that is, “[an] open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses, and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Sedgwick quoted in Weber, 3). From this basis, Queer IR aims to produce a less hegemonic and therefore less violent regime of global governance, even when legal protections – like gay rights – are offered to those with so-called non-mainstream, plural subjectivities.  Put differently, Weber argues, homonormativity cannot replace heteronormativity.  Each on its own merely reproduces the violence of another binary.

What elates me in this line of inquiry is its resonance with ancient Asian thought – and it’s about time we recognize this intellectual, normative, and political solidarity. Some of these philosophies come from what our Westphalian world order categorizes as “India” and “China.” But monks and nuns, merchants and soldiers, cooks and scribes and others from all over (Gordon 2009) have forged over “twenty centuries of civilizational interactions and vibrations” (Tan and Geng 2005), along the Silk Roads and across the Himalayas, to transmit what Westphalia considers a “religion” – Buddhism – but which more fully constitutes an alternative ontology and epistemology. And it is this culmination of advaita (Shahi and Ascione 2015) and daoism (Ling 2014), both expressed in Buddhism, that has the potential to de-center IR from its hegemonic perch of Hypermasculine-Eurocentric Whiteness (Ling 2015), rendering it as one of many rather than the only One (Ling 2016a). Solidarity with “epistemologies of the South” (Ling and Pinheiro forthcoming) offers one way.  Another comes from Queer IR.

Indeed, both Queer IR and ancient Asian thought seek to overcome binaries. Buddhism provides specific teachings on how to do so. I refer, specifically, to the five-rank protocol in Zen Buddhism (Loori 2009). Here, I supplement the five ranks with Neuwirth/Wurst as example. The first two ranks – (1) “the relative within the absolute” and (2) “the absolute within the relative” – caution, in effect, that appearances can be deceiving. Things may seem different on the surface but they share a common essence underneath (e.g., Neuwirth and Wurst share the same body). Even so, the common essence in different things does not negate each entity’s unique qualities (e.g., Neuwirth is an urban man from Germany; Wurst is a rural woman from Colombia). From these two ranks, the third one – (3) “coming from within the absolute” – becomes possible. Here, we begin to see and treat the two parts, relative (Wurst) and absolute (Neuwirth), as one (Neuwirth/Wurst). From this basis, compassion arises and enlightenment begins. A fourth rank – (4) “arriving at mutual integration” – urges action based on this insight (e.g., Neuwirth/Wurst enters the Eurovision Song Contest and wins). “At this stage, the absolute and relative are integrated, but they’re still two things” (Loori 2009: xxvii). For this reason, we need a fifth rank – (5) “unity attained” – to affirm “[t]here is no more duality.  [Neuwirth/Wurst] is one thing – neither absolute [Neuwirth] nor relative [Wurst], up [North] nor down [South], profane [homosexual] nor holy [heterosexual], good [normal] nor bad [perverse], male [Tom] nor female [Conchita]” (Loori 2009: xxvii).

Affirmation of “unity attained,” however, does not freeze the entity.  On the contrary, the five-rank protocol proceeds from a profound insight: that is, non-duality cannot remain so without consideration of duality; otherwise, non-duality becomes another duality. It is this tension and the creative possibilities that arise from it that sustains Buddhist enlightenment as “awakened wisdom and selfless compassion” (Hori 2003: 6).

Such integration aims not only to stay on the right path or avoid making the same mistakes over and again, as underscored by Weber.  That is, simply including LGBTQ rights as human rights does not eliminate the binary between the “normal” (e.g., “advanced” Western states with liberal, gay rights) and the “perverse” (e.g., “rogue” or “backward” states with anti-gay policies). On the contrary, unthinking inclusiveness tends to reinforce these binaries. Rather, finding the multiple in-between benefits a variety of crises resolution in world politics. Where the very Westphalian notion of “sovereignty” can be loosened from its individualistic, territorial, and white-patriarchal moorings to something more multiple and culturally dynamic, we may find transformational emancipation in more ways than one (Ling 2016b).





Gordon, Stewart. (2009) When Asia Was the World: Traveling Merchants, Scholars, Warriors, and Monks Who Created the “Riches of the East.” Philadelphia: Da Capo Press.

Hori, Victor Sōgen. (2003) Zen Sand: The Book of Capping Phrases for Kōan Practice. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Ling, L.H.M. (2014) The Dao of World Politics: Towards a Post-Westphalian, Worldist International Relations. London: Routledge.


Ling, L.H.M. (2015) “Don’t Flatter Yourself: World Politics is Changing and So Must Disciplinary IR.” Paper delivered at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of International Relations at the University of Sussex, “What’s the Point of IR?” 10-11 December 2015.


Ling, L.H.M. (2016a) “Kōanizing IR: Flipping the Logic of Epistemic Violence.” Keynote address for a symposium on “Beyond the West and Rest: A Critical Inquiry into the Dichotomized Ontology of International Relations,” Ryukoku University, Kyoto, 27 February 2016.

Ling, L.H.M. (2016b) “Orientalism ReFashioned: ‘Eastern Moon’ on ‘Western Waters’ Reflecting on the East China Sea.” In Andreas Behnke (ed.), The International Politics of Fashion: Being Fab in a Dangerous World. London and New York: Rouledge.

Ling, L.H.M. and Carolina M. Pinheiro. (forthcoming) “South-South Talk: Worldism and Epistemologies of the South.” In L.H.M. Ling, Nizar Messari, and Arlene B. Tickner (eds), Theorizing International Politics from the Global South: Worlds of Difference. London: Routledge.

Loori, John Daido. (2009) The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s Three Hundred Kōans, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori. Boston: Shambhala.

Shahi, Deepshikha and Gennaro Ascione. (2015) “Rethinking the Absence of Post-Western International Relations Theory in India: ‘Advaitic Monism’ as an Alternative Epistemological Resource.” European Journal of International Relations 22 July: 1-22.


Tan, Chung and Geng Yinzeng. (2005) India and China: Twenty Centuries of Civilizational Interactions and Vibrations. Delhi: Centre for Study of Civilizations.

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