SOPHIE XIAOFEI GUO // Doubting Sex: Examining the Biomedical Gaze in Lu Yang’s UterusMan

In her 2013 work UterusMan, Lu Yang playfully imagines a confounding superhero with an ambiguous gender identity. Though proclaiming the character as ‘asexual’, the artist inserts numerous biomedical representations of the uterus throughout her part-science-fiction, part-sexual-anatomy documentary film. Using Lu Yang’s work as a case study, this paper situates the contemporary condition of gender and sexuality since the 1990s at the centre of its enquiry. It examines how Lu Yang articulates, or rather, dis-articulates sexuality in her biomedical images of the female body, in an example of how reproductive technologies and biomedicine reshape the cultural imaginings of the body, sexuality and reproduction in China from the 1990s. Situated at the heart of Lu’s three-dimensional animation is the body conceptualised as a site of codes – a body that is entangled in an overlapping matrix of genetics and information technology. This paper analyses the tropes of genetics, XY chromosomes and hereditary disease in relation to the implementation and consequences of China’s notorious one-child policy that had a huge impact on the Balinghou (post-1980s) generation.

Fig. 1: Hhuuaazzii and Lu Yang, Diagram of Uterus Man, 2013, manga. © Lu Yang.
Fig. 1: Hhuuaazzii and Lu Yang, Diagram of Uterus Man, 2013, manga. © Lu Yang.


A caped superhero figure is standing in a standard Y-shaped posture with arms open and legs closed, closely resembling the silhouette of the uterus (2013, Fig. 1). His body appears to have been turned inside out, the skin stripped off, exposing the visceral flesh and tissue underneath. Yet, his flesh does not emerge as soft substance, but is charged with power and strength. This curious, anime-style character is called Uterus Man, the protagonist of a franchise that encompasses an eponymous part-science-fiction, part-sexual-anatomy documentary animation work that Chinese artist Lu Yang (陆扬) made in 2013, a limited edition manga book that the Shanghai-based illustrator Hhuuaazzii drew by commission, and a fully operational video game produced by the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Uterus Man has an ambiguous gender identity, appearing to be male, but drawing superpowers from the female reproductive organ. The result conveys the idea of asexuality (wuxing) – and ultimately, Lu Yang’s own doubts concerning gender and sex.[1] ‘I am only playing around with gender labels. Whether to be male or female doesn’t matter to me. I want to be asexual myself’, the artist once contended.[2] Her resistance to gender labels finds a kindred spirit in Mao Sugiyama, a gender non-conforming Japanese manga artist who willingly received genital-removal surgery in order to become what he self-defined as ‘asexual’.[3] For Lu Yang, Sugiyama is the ‘human embodiment’ of Uterus Man.[4] She invited the artist to cosplay as the character in Tokyo the year after her animation work came out.[5]

Fig. 2: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 1:27, 1:53, 1:38, 1:58]. © Lu Yang.
Fig. 2: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 1:27, 1:53, 1:38, 1:58]. © Lu Yang.

Despite the fact that the idea of asexuality is proclaimed by the artist, UterusMan features a large number of biomedical representations of the female reproductive organ and, more precisely, images linked to gynaecology. Lu Yang’s three-dimensional (3D) animation video work begins with the superhero in his uterus position. A green pointer swiftly moves over the body, painstakingly matching each component to a part of the female reproductive system. We see the sacks under the superhero’s armpits corresponding to the ovaries, the arms to the fallopian tubes, the legs to the vagina, and so forth. Spectacular medical images revealing the inside and the functioning of the female reproductive organ appear, one after another at a rapid pace, accompanying the animated presentation of this strange-looking protagonist throughout the work (2013, Fig. 2). The bombardment of medical images continues as the short film unfolds with a compilation of scenes showcasing Uterus Man’s various abilities. Without a distinguishable narrative, the eleven-minute animation is roughly divided into four sections, titled ‘Blood Energy Skill Series’, ‘DNA Attack’, ‘Pelvis Chariot’, and ‘Baby Series Attack’ respectively. Lasting only a few minutes, each episode introduces a set of abilities or items associated with a specific aspect of the female anatomy. Menstruation is reimagined as the driving force for flight, ova as charged with radioactive power. In the subsection titled ‘Summoning the Baby Weapon’, Uterus Man’s entire body jarringly swells and then delivers a monstrous baby through the gap between his feet (2013, Fig. 3). As the baby weapon is leaping back and forth ferociously like an attack dog, brief footage of the in vitro fertilisation (IVF) process is played (2013, Fig. 4).

Fig. 3: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 7:27, 7:35, 9:02]. © Lu Yang.
Fig. 3: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 7:27, 7:35, 9:02]. © Lu Yang.

To Lu Yang, it is precisely this contradiction between Uterus Man’s appearance as man and his feminine source of power that renders the character asexual.[6] Not transgender or bisexual, but asexual, the artist’s claim is as strange and provocative as the mind-bending image of the Uterus Man. How is sexuality articulated, or rather, dis-articulated, in the ways in which the body is presented and represented in this work?

Born into a medical family in 1984, growing up in a hospital environment because of asthma at a young age, Lu Yang developed an interest in medical treatment and the body.[7] Despite the fact that Lu Yang has achieved international success following her participation in the 56th Venice Biennale and has gained worldwide media exposure, there has not been much scholarship on work by this millennial artist that grapples with issues of gender and sexuality under the contemporary conditions of biomedicine. Drawing upon feminist theories of technoscience, this paper examines how the biomedical gaze defines and remakes the female body, and indeed sexuality. It will argue that the image and superpowers of the contradictory superhero, Uterus Man, serve as an effective metaphor to reveal how biomedical technologies transform the female body, obliterating what Michel Foucault calls ‘ars erotica’, or the knowledge derived from the phenomenological experience of sex, and thereby produce the asexual being.[8]

On the ideas behind her animation, the artist explained,

I think that all questions pertaining to the doubts about gender and sex, inheritance, reproduction, and problems with evolution are hidden in the entire set-up of the Uterus Man. These are ambiguous concepts that are hard to explain with words…so I throw out these questions that linger on my mind by creating a fictional character.[9]

The tropes of genetics, gender and heredity set in after the ‘Blood Energy Skill Series’ episode. According to the artist, some of the uniquely supercharged abilities of this superhero have genetic, or hereditary attributes. We can see that in this work, the character can use his so-called ‘XY chromosome attack’ to alter an opponent’s sex, turning a male opponent into a tearful woman (2013, Fig. 5). Attacks with genetic attributes change the opponent’s species to a weaker kind, whereas those with hereditary attributes of a genetic nature change the enemy’s gender or endow the enemy with hereditary diseases in order to reduce the opponent’s strength level.[10]

Fig. 4: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 7:28, 8:17]. © Lu Yang.
Fig. 4: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 7:28, 8:17]. © Lu Yang.

In an interview, Lu Yang explained: ‘my work… highlights the biological and material determinants of our condition.’[11] Given that she belongs to the Balinghou, or post-1980s generation that experienced the heyday of China’s eugenic and one-child policies, my paper takes the genetic code as one of the ‘biological determinants of our condition’ and positions my analysis in relation to China’s social history of eugenics. In doing so, I argue that the genetic attributes and tropes attached to Uterus Man’s abilities constitute the very paradox about this superhero, because what they reflect is exactly the problematic effect of genetics on population control and a series of social issues intricately linked to eugenic policies.

Fig. 5: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 4:22, 5:26, 4:10]. © Lu Yang.
Fig. 5: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 4:22, 5:26, 4:10]. © Lu Yang.

Organs without Bodies, Reproduction without Sex

The artist has mentioned that she sees the body as ‘objective’, and therefore takes on a ‘cold and calm approach’ to its representation in her work.[12] What this approach produces is, I argue, a fantastical rendering of this character built on the premise of the living body as a system of information under the biomedical gaze. An image in Uterus Man’s manga edition, the Diagram of Uterus Man, resembles an anatomical diagram wherein the character’s body parts are meticulously mapped onto a flat illustration chart (Fig. 1). Rendered in pink and red – the colours of flesh and blood –Uterus Man seems more an object for scientific inspection than a natural body. This visceral image is designed so that it closely resembles a digital reproduction of the uterus. The Diagram shows how the medical paradigm renders the human body as – and so transforms the human body into – a demonstrative visual text. The conversion of a natural object ‘into visual text about the object’ is, according to Bruno Latour, a shared purpose of the entire scientific enterprise.[13] Scientists produce standardised representations, whether they be diagrams, tables or formulae, from their study of natural objects in order for other scientists to learn from them and ultimately to reproduce, build on and manipulate the information within them[14] This regulatory impulse towards the body corresponds to the argument made by Michel Foucault and taken up by Rosi Braidotti, that modernity marks the triumph of ‘the simultaneous sexualization and medicalization of the body, in a new configuration of power which [Foucault] describes as “bio-power” – the power of normativity over the living organism.’[15]

The juxtaposition of ‘uterus’ and ‘man’, then, emerges as a quintessentially disruptive gesture that reflects the idiosyncratic, uncompromising manner by which Lu Yang works with the body and the digital media. Her video work UterusMan is, as I argue, a profound reflection of how sexuality has mutated under the biomedical gaze and technologies that are loaded with the desire of manipulating the body and sex. With female sexual anatomy being featured throughout the film in the form of what Braidotti called the ‘body image’ – the image of the body produced by digital and medical technologies – UterusMan is not only a work of science fiction, but also a documentary on sexual anatomy.[16] In line with the textualisation of body parts in the Diagram of Uterus Man, the body images in the animation version that look like ultrasound scans of the uterine cavity further transform the reproductive organ into a schematic and textual rendering (Fig. 2). Based on Foucault’s seminal notion of biopower, Braidotti pointed out that body images – scientific representations of the body – whether they be ultrasound scans or microscope images, are instrumental in the medicalisation and sexualisation of the human body. The aim for producing body images is to make the standardised body visible and intelligible.[17] The medical imaging techniques represent the desire to control and manipulate the female body through dismemberment, producing an instance of what she called ‘organs without bodies.’[18]

It is the loss of bodily integrity under the biomedical gaze that produces the Uterus Man’s asexual status. Feminist discussion of the body and the self is largely based upon the notions of the embodied nature and the situatedness of subjectivity.[19] Foucault emphasised the fact that the embodied subject has been located at the centre of the techniques of rational control and manipulation since the Enlightenment, and thus ‘becomes the site of proliferating discourses, forms of knowledge and of normativity.’[20] Unsatisfied with Foucault’s inattentiveness to the specific case of women’s bodies, Braidotti casts her gaze upon the medicalisation of the female reproductive body. The feminist theorist noted that the relationship between subjectivity, sexuality, and reproduction has been (and continues to be) increasingly problematised by advances in biomedicine. She argues that the body has been reduced to an ‘organ-ism’, or ‘a mosaic of detachable pieces’ since the dawn of clinical anatomy.[21] The desire to inspect the smallest units of the body expresses itself through the incessant development of techniques for observation and visualisation. This scopic drive, the essence of modern science, is the result of a desire to place the body under the detached scientific gaze. It is ‘a gesture of epistemological domination and control’ that transforms the body into a ‘mass of detachable parts’, resulting in the subject’s loss of bodily integrity. Braidotti’s interpretation of the political implications of technological representation of the female body helps us understand how this relationship between subjectivity, reproduction and sexuality is addressed and reimagined through the UterusMan character.

From the images of endoscopy penetrating the body into the ovary, to that of echography visualising the invisible uterine cavity, the footage shows multifarious techniques and different degrees of medical visualisation about the body. At the opening scene of the anime, a fast-moving green pointer swiftly locates the different components of the uterus. When the green pointer fixes on, for instance, the uterine artery, a short medical text unfolds to describe what this is, and this description box is juxtaposed with an image of a three-dimensional model of the uterine artery (Fig. 2). This is followed by footage that shows the medical imaging of the artery. Presented as separate components, Uterus Man’s body is conceptualised as an assembly of interlocking and tessellating pieces like jigsaw puzzles, virtually dissected under the medical gaze. The fragmentary and isolated condition of the female body in the medical representations embodies the production of what Braidotti calls ‘a mosaic of detachable pieces’ under the scopic drive.

Foucault’s distinction regarding the epistemology of sexuality is useful to understand how the links between reproduction, subjectivity and sexuality are severed under the biomedical gaze. He defines scientia sexualis as designating the scientific knowledge about the sexuality of others, and ars erotica denoting the knowledge derived from the phenomenological experience of sex.[22] Developed from Foucault, Braidotti’s concept of scientia sexualis is concerned with ‘the techniques of medicalization of the reproductive body’, whereas ars erotica is ‘the arts of existence or practices of the self.’[23] In her view, the scopic drive foreshadows the development of reproductive technologies that break the tie between reproduction, or scientia sexualis and sexuality, or ars erotica.[24] If the integrity of the female subject and sexuality rests upon the integrity of the female body, what the biomedical gaze produces is a fractured subject, asexual in essence.

Though modern techniques of visualising the female reproductive organs are featured throughout the film UterusMan, it is worth noting that ‘qihengzhifu’ (奇恒之腑) is inscribed on the character’s chest (Fig. 1). It is a Chinese medical term that represents the systematic correspondence of the individual’s organs to the bodily whole via the mediums of qi (气, energy) and blood. With regard to why this lesser-known term for uterus is written on the hero’s body, the artist explained that it came up when she was trying to search for a term other than zigong (子宫, uterus) online.[25] While zigong – as it is written on the hero’s cape and pelvis – was coined by the medical missionary Benjamin Hobson in the process of introducing western medicine to the Chinese audience, qihengzhifu registers a more holistic indigenous knowledge about the functioning of the internal organs. In Chinese medicine, the uterus and testes (胞, bao) both belong to the category of qihengzhifu that gather, store, and transform the energy (qi and blood) for reproduction.[26] Unlike how it is understood in western biomedicine, the uterus is not considered an isolated and independent organ but is entangled in a visceral system loosely associating liver, heart, spleen, lungs and kidneys. According to the foundational text for Chinese medicine Huangdi Neijing (Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor), the kidneys are the most important of the five viscera that supply the life force qi to sustain both male and female vitality and reproductive capabilities. Since the Yellow Emperor’s body is ‘more truly androgynous’ because it ‘has no morphological sex, but only gender,’[27] Chinese doctors never used any isolated organ as a marker for sexual difference, nor did they visually represent the male and female bodies separately on that basis.[28] It was not until the nineteenth century, when the western reproductive anatomy was introduced in China, that sexual difference become a visual knowledge enabled by medical observation.

In his compelling study on the genealogy of sex in modern China, historian Howard Chiang shows how the introduction of modern scientific knowledge brought about an epistemological change in the term ‘xing’ (性) and a new understanding of gender difference. Traditionally carrying meanings such as ‘natural instincts,’ ‘inherent tendencies,’ ‘disposition,’ ‘temperament,’ ‘the nature of something (or of someone)’ and ‘life’ in premodern China, xing did not come to mean sex until the twentieth century.[29] For Chiang, ‘the modern formulation of xing qua sex’ is entangled in an ‘epistemic nexus,’ which is a new regime of knowledge built around the relationship between the representation of life, the empirical experience of desire and the malleability of the body. Braidotti’s concept of scopic epistemology echoes what Chiang called ‘the visual objectivity of sex,’ one of the factors in the ‘epistemic nexus’ that contributes to the modern formulation of xing qua sex in his study of the formation of sex as a scientific concept in Chinese modernity. According to him, the visual objectivity of sex emerged from the introduction of western reproductive anatomy in the form of medical illustrations to China. The anatomical illustrations provided concrete visual references to explain the differentiation of sexes. As such, they facilitated an epistemic shift in how sexual differentiation came to be conceptualised in a way that was entirely different from the abstractly theoretical terms of Chinese medicine.[30] This scientific understanding of sex triggered a conceptual evolution in which the reproductive organs (the uterus and testes) were no longer only seen as the result of the congregation of cosmological force, but also as the major determinant of sexual difference.

With the term qihengzhifu, Lu Yang is playing with the contentious discourses of gender, sex and sexuality. But despite its inscription, the malleability of Uterus Man’s sex bears closer association with western biomedical knowledge than with that of classic Chinese medicine in an ontological sense. Medical images of the body are instrumental in the medicalisation and sexualisation of the human body. Furthermore, Uterus Man’s body is transformed into a pure surface in a clinical representation. The medical gaze flattens out the body, producing a representation that has only surface. This hyper-abstraction of the body is what Braidotti described as physical reduction to ‘exteriority without depth, a movable theatre of the self.’[31] As the inside goes outside, hidden depths move to the surface in the tradition of medical representation and the private, interior space of the body is endowed with the characteristics of coding and classification that are, as art historian Cadence Kinsey noted, commonly embedded in ‘the logic of the exterior, social body’.[32] Indeed, what makes Uterus Man a fantastical figure of science-fiction fantasy is this fact that his body is turned inside-out – with the usually untouchable flesh, veins, and blood ‘hardened’ and turned into unbreakable armour and shield. The flattening out of his body in medical-text style coincides with the flattening out of everything in the medium of animation, which, as the anime critic Susan Napier points out, ‘privileges simulation over representation.’[33]

The phosphorous green pointer and the head-up display (HUD) in the film indicate the machine-like quality of Uterus Man (Fig. 2). Phosphorous green is the tint that is often associated with chilling sci-fi films like Ghost in the Shell or the Matrix trilogy, perhaps because green was the colour of computer-generated text on the old monochrome monitor commonly used in the early days of computing, for example the Apple IIe released in the early 1980s. The HUD that appears constantly on the screen further endows the anime with the tension of sci-fi, in that the HUD was initially developed for military aviation and was later found commonly in video gaming as a game’s user interface. In the demonstration of Uterus Man’s superpower, the ‘blood energy altitude flying’, the HUD mimics the normal transparent display in the gameplay that presents information about the flying superhero for the invisible player. Entangled in these visual (con)texts, Uterus Man is recognised as a cyborg, whose malleable body can be disassembled, transformed and regenerated at will.

In her seminal 1985 work ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, Donna Haraway notes that science fiction is full of cyborgs, and so is modern medicine.[34] In the context of art and design, technology has been likened to a prosthesis that can enhance vision, just as it does in modern warfare.[35] It functions as an actual prosthesis in medicine, and modern medicine is, of course, a crucial source of inspiration for sci-fi culture producers.[36] With the word ‘ren lei (人类, human)’ appearing throughout the film, Uterus Man is a combination of science fiction and medical science that envisions a radical potential version of the human body. Also, as Haraway and the speculative fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin maintained, science fiction is not ‘predictive’ but ‘descriptive’ – ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion’ – one could argue that the fantasy in the film is but a dramatised version of the body and sexuality under biomedical conditions.[37] Uterus Man’s very status as a hybrid of machine and organism is demonstrated in his pelvis chariot – a quadrupedal mount that implies the malleability, versatility and the transformative power of the human body (2013, Fig. 6). The sequel to the scene of Uterus Man driving his pelvis chariot is footage that features a machine towing a real pelvic skeleton, making it rotate as if to showcase its working mechanism. This process of removing the bony pelvis from where it is originally located in the body and then mechanically transforming it into something that equips the subject with speed and power evokes the trope of the body being modified and enhanced by transactable biotechnologies, such as organ transplant, skin graft and plastination.

Fig. 6: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 6:16, 6:30]. © Lu Yang.
Fig. 6: Lu Yang, UterusMan, 2013, single-channel video [Film stills, 6:16, 6:30]. © Lu Yang.

Although the physiology of the female reproductive system is dramatised and turned into Uterus Man’s supercharged abilities, Lu Yang has denied that her work is concerned with feminism. In fact, what she finds ironic is that gender elements and differences have always been teased out and emphasised in the process of reading a work of art, especially one made by a woman artist.[38] She is amongst the women artists from China who oppose being reductively labelled as feminist artists, or arbitrarily included in an exhibition that vaguely explores tropes about femininity.[39] Her playfully contradictory conception of Uterus Man is in fact an antagonistic move against essentialist gender divisions based on biology.

Early feminist art and criticism of the mid-1980s and early 1990s built on the discourse of difference, in conjunction with a larger cultural tendency of deviating from the Maoist cultural politics, which celebrated an undistinguished, massified subject. Under Maoism, women were symbolised as the revolutionary subject who would ‘hold up half the sky’ but were in fact symbolically hyper-abstracted and professionally marginalised. Driven by a desire to shift their position from the object of gaze to the subject of artistic creation, women artists of the 1990s actively explored aspects of femininity and female body experience, as a way to question the male-dominated discourse about female sexuality. However, nüxing yishu (women’s art) in the 1990s was a short-lived response to marginalisation. During the second half of the 2000s many of the women artists, despite having exhibited under its auspices, started to avoid the association of their work with the feminist ‘women’s art’ label and to avoid participation in feminist discourse. The reason why women artists in China almost collectively avoid the attachment of the term ‘feminism’ is related to their disadvantageous situation: artists who openly engage with feminist ideas remain marginalised, and even unwelcome within the academic and institutional system that is male dominated.[40]

Lu Yang’s rejection of gender labels is actually part of this degendering phenomenon in the fields of contemporary art and art criticism in China. In her recent book, Sasha Su-Ling Welland demonstrates convincingly how nüxing yishu as a category lost its political potency over the course of its institutionalisation both within and beyond the nation.[41] As she explains, the term became re-domesticated and depoliticised, charged with a restrictive vision requiring that any art made by women affiliated with this category must be inward-looking and must lack public political consciousness.[42] The feminist attentiveness to female experience and female gender identity, central to the feminist art and criticism of the 1990s, became contaminated and domesticated in the 2000s, and women artists from the pre- and post-1980s generation widely disavowed the application of gender terms like women’s art and feminist to their work.

This does not mean, however, that feminism has ceased to exist in Chinese contemporary art. Despite gender terms having gone out of favour, many of the women artists, including those who decisively turned their backs on women’s art (such as Lin Tianmiao 林天苗, Yin Xiuzhen 尹秀珍, and Xiang Jing 向京), continued to challenge gender stereotypes about women and to explore women’s living conditions in the early 2010s. The problematic situation within the community of Chinese women artists, where there is both a rejection of the practice of gender labelling and a prolonged concern about the living conditions and experience of women, is, I believe, a crucial narrative to which Lu Yang responds with her creation of this asexual superhero.

The figure of Uterus Man, I argue, simultaneously articulates a utopian imagination of a world free from gender binarism and embodies what Braidotti calls ‘the pornography of representation’. As mentioned, the scopic drive foreshadows the development of reproductive technologies that sever the link between reproduction and sexuality. Footage of IVF is put together with ultrasound footage in this film, while ultrasound images have been featured throughout the episode that shows every step of Uterus Man’s gestation in the sub-section ‘Summoning the Baby Weapon’ (Fig. 4). The alienated if not alien-like ultrasound image of the foetus in the pregnancy stage that precedes the clip of IVF seemingly suggests that the ultrasound technology anticipates the use of IVF, which then gives rise to the beast mode of the baby as weapon. In actual IVF, the process is indeed performed with the aid of ultrasound, which is used to monitor the proceedings. For Braidotti, ultrasound imaging is an extreme form of voyeurism that goes beyond the mere idea of visibility to a culture of visualisation. It produces what she calls ‘medical pornography, resting as it does on the detachment of the foetus from the mother’s body, on the dismemberment of bodily unity’.[43] Pornography, as she uses the term, refers to a system of representation that helps to understand the medicalisation of the reproductive body, especially within the ‘profit-making logic of the capitalist market economy.’[44] Like other reproductive technologies, ultrasound ‘should encourage the masculine fantasy of self-generation’,[45] promoting belief in (or fantasising about) an ‘interchangeability of the organs’ that could enable male pregnancies.[46]

Followed by a rapid succession of different ultrasound images that show the foetus and its pumping heart, Uterus Man’s entire body suddenly swells and then delivers a monstrous baby from the end of his closed feet (Fig. 3). The idea of self-generation is indeed articulated in this dramatic process that is at once purely biological and mechanical—in the sense that Uterus Man is only presented as a disembodied medical subject showing no sign of pain or distress and showing no sign of motherhood beyond (painlessly) giving birth. Therefore, despite the centralisation of the female reproductive organ in Lu Yang’s film, the asexuality of Uterus Man is manifested in the trope of reproduction without sex – an extreme form of organs without bodies under the visual regime of biomedical technologies.


Genetic Tropes and China’s Social History of Eugenics

Though the womb is anthropomorphised, the process of menstruation, pregnancy and giving birth is not in the least bit embodied. Isolated from the rest of the body, the uterus is presented as a mechanised and disembodied object for medical scrutiny and manipulation. Ontologically if not epistemologically, the fact that a gender-neutral character personifies the stand-alone female reproductive organ mirrors the dissociation of sexuality from reproduction in the age of biotechnology. The disembodiment of the womb in Lu Yang’s work carries echoes of female mother-machines in the case of commercial surrogacy, and male pregnancies in the case of transsexuals. In the former case, the non-paid reproductive labour of gestational surrogacy is made possible by IVF technology; the woman’s body becomes no different from an incubator. In Braidotti’s word, by lending out her organic component, the woman is engaged in a form of ‘prostitutional swap.’[47] The birth mother does not assume the status of a biological mother. Not unlike the broken link of the gestational surrogate’s female sexuality to her motherhood, Uterus Man’s asexuality is also dramatised in the absence of a maternal behaviour vis-à-vis his baby. After the baby is born, Uterus Man the non-mother walks out holding the umbilical cord connected to the baby as if holding a meteor hammer, an ancient Chinese weapon that often appears in Japanese animations. Then he throws the baby around and orders it to bite into his enemy like an attack dog: ‘Control’, ‘Command’, ‘Enhance’, ‘Attack’! Words of command used in contemporary warfare are indeed attached here to the baby, thereby turning it into a biological weapon, a transformed cyberbaby subjected to instrumentalisation.

Fig. 7: Lu Yang, UterusMan Game, 2013, videogame [Film stills, 3:53, 4:48]. © Lu Yang.
Fig. 7: Lu Yang, UterusMan Game, 2013, videogame [Film stills, 3:53, 4:48]. © Lu Yang.

Alongside her anime-inspired video work, the artist has made a fully operational video game. In this interactive work, Uterus Man also uses genetics-related attack techniques against his enemies. In one move, he uses the so-called DNA attack to turn his enemy into the so-called cancer baby – that is, a tumour cell imagined as a doll (2013, Fig. 7). In another, he uses his XY chromosome attack to change his enemy’s sex. It appears that the genetic tropes in Lu Yang’s work are intricately related to the eugenic discourse prevalent in China since the Reform. The video and video game embody a biologically deterministic position that sex is purely contingent upon the arrangement of X and Y chromosomes, and that hereditary disease is caused by genetic disorder. This rendering reflects what the artist and science writer Nell Tenhaaf called ‘code fixation’, the supremacy of DNA ruling the somatic matrix.[48]

Fig. 8: Julia Waterlow, China Qinghai Xining Birth control family planning poster promoting the one child policy, n.d. © Eye Ubiquitous / Alamy Stock Photo 2020.
Fig. 8: Julia Waterlow, China Qinghai Xining Birth control family planning poster promoting the one child policy, n.d. © Eye Ubiquitous / Alamy Stock Photo 2020.

Genetic research has been intimately related to eugenics from the very beginning of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform. At the China Genetics Institute’s first conference, held in 1978, it was proposed that eugenic research be made a priority.[49] Eugenics went hand-in-hand with the one-child policy launched a year later. It aimed to create a new generation of healthy and smart young people to transform the nation into a wealthy, modern global power. The Eugenics Law was officially passed in 1995 and was later euphemistically renamed the Maternal and Infant Health Law due to international pressure.[50] The ordinance required ‘“the implementation of premarital medical checkups” to ensure neither partner had any hereditary, reproductive, or mental disorder in order to prevent “inferior births.”’[51] Posters and billboards promoting the benefit of the one-child policy and of eugenics were ubiquitous in cities, towns and villages. The poster that reads ‘Shaosheng Yousheng Zhenxing Zhonghua (少生优生振兴中华) (Fewer births, better births, to develop China vigorously)’ is a typical example (n.d., Fig. 8). Promotion material and specialist booklets were available in monitoring units and hospitals that provided detailed lists of birth defects thought to have a hereditary basis.[52] According to the historian Frank Dikötter, health manuals issued following the guidelines of the Marriage Law of 1950 and 1980 ‘generally identify certain categories of people as unfit for reproduction’ and this is based on whether they have a family history of hereditary diseases.[53] Published in 1992, the popular booklet titled 200 Questions about Foetal Education and Superior Birth even asserts that people afflicted with inheritable diseases ‘should be barred from marrying.’[54] As an artist who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, Lu Yang was very likely to be familiar with these notions, for she has said that her interest in biomedicine and biotechnologies were developed from her frequent visits to hospitals due to illness when she was a child.[55] The construct that Uterus Man’s genetic attacks weaken the power of his enemies by afflicting the opponent with genetic disorders reflects a set of prevailing values attached to the eugenic society—those with inherited diseases were meant to be the losers.

As mentioned, ‘Control’, ‘Command’, ‘Enhance’ are the keywords that appear frequently in Lu Yang’s video, especially in the ‘Baby Series Attack’ episode where Uterus Man gives birth to a super-baby. The idea of control lies at the heart of eugenics, and the purpose is to enhance the quality of new-born babies. Screening techniques, especially ultrasound detectors, are instrumental in the monitoring process. Since superior births are fetishised, newfangled medical technologies such as embryo transplants, artificial insemination, external fertilisation, and test-tube babies are often considered useful. UterusMan embodies the tropes of eugenics enabled by advanced medical technologies. The issue of control – particularly control over women’s bodies – was central to China’s birth control policies from the 1980s to 2000s. It placed women in a disadvantaged position. Lu Yang appears to reference this gender inequality in various episodes of her video, including enhancing Uterus Man’s power by turning his opponent female. The one-child policy has exacerbated discrimination against infant girls in rural regions, where male members of the family constitute the major workforce. The implementation of eugenics policies has made women a site for the control of reproductive health. As Dikötter noted, ‘a woman ceases to be a person as soon as she becomes pregnant but is mainly considered a carrier of a baby.’[56] The notion of a woman’s body as a functional container is reflected in the video, for example when Uterus Man’s body instantly swells and delivers a baby, the long and complex process of pregnancy is entirely eliminated.


To conclude, while the disintegration of gender and sex on this confounding superhero conveys the artist’s disavowal of the essentialist conflation of sexuality with gender, Uterus Man, with his nominally male identification and body contours but a total embodiment of the female reproductive organ, serves as a metaphor for the severed link between reproduction and sexuality under the biomedical gaze. With connections to cybernetics, genetic and biomedical technologies, UterusMan is a witty reflection on the condition of the female body in a eugenic society. What is provocative about this work is its unabashed showcase of contentious approaches to the female body, thereby showing us what the body has become in the scientific scopic regime, and its treatment of unsettling tropes such as inherited diseases, cancer and female vulnerability. Indeed, the real paradox about this character is embedded in the articulation of medical determinism throughout the video. It mirrors eugenics as fully dependent upon medical knowledge, which the Chinese authorities have taken in and rendered as a united and homogeneous system. Uterus Man is a complex and multifaceted character, entangled in the contested epistemic nexus of gender and sex. The biomedical gaze generates an embodiment of asexuality, for what it produces are precisely the organs without bodies, reproduction without sex.


Sophie Xiaofei Guo is a PhD candidate working under the supervision of Wenny Teo at The Courtauld Institute of Art. Her doctoral thesis examines how biotechnology and biomedicine transform image making in sinophone cultures from the late 1980s to the present day. She previously completed her MA and BA degrees in History of Art at the University College London.



[1] Danielle Wu, ‘Huanying laidao yishujia Lu Yang shengjibobo de qiyi dongman shijie (Welcome to Lu Yang’s fantastic world of animation)’, i-D, November 2017,  (accessed 2 February 2019). It is worth noting that Lu Yang uses ‘asexual’(wuxing 无性) to mean having no sex or gender, as opposed to the common English usage indicating non-interest in sexuality. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine.
[2] Wu. Lu Yang’s original quote reads ‘我不在乎你是男是女。我自己想做无性人。’
[3] Amy Qin. ‘Q and A: Lu Yang on Art, “Uterus Man’ and Living Life on the Web,’ The New York Times (27 November 2015, accessed 30 January 2019,
[4] Qin.
[5] Joel Gn defines cosplay as ‘a performance art in which the individual imitates a character from a film, comic book, or video game.’ See Joel Gn, ‘Queer Simulation: The Practice, Performance and Pleasure of Cosplay’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 25.4 (August 2011), 583.
[6] Lu Yang, ‘Lu Yang on Uterus Man’, Time Out Shanghai (14 May 2014, accessed 6 July 2020,
[7] Qin.
[8] See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, transl. Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 51-75.
[9] Lu Yang, ‘Lu Yang zhuanfang: suoyou chuangzuo dongli jiushi weile shixian xinzhong suoxiang (Interview with Lu Yang: The motivation of all my creation is to embody what I think)’, Artsy (15 April 2013, accessed 10 July 2020,
[10] Lu Yang.
[11] Jin Shan and Lu Yang, ‘Interview: Jin Shan and Lu Yang’, Asia Society (n.d., accessed 5 July 2020,
[12] Qin.
[13] Cited in Catherine Walby, ‘The Visible Human Project: Data into Flesh, Flesh into Data’, in Janine Marchessault and Kim Sawchuk (eds), Wild Science: Reading Feminism, Medicine and the Media (New York: Routledge, 2000), 29. Emphasis in original.
[14] Walby, 29.
[15] Rosi Braidotti, ‘Body-images and the Pornography of Representation’, in K. Lennon and M. Whitford (eds) Knowing the Difference: Feminist Perspectives in Epistemology (London and New York: Routledge, 1994a), 17-18.
[16] See Braidotti (1994a), 17-30 and Liv Hausken et al., ‘Introduction: The Processes of Imaging / The Imaging of Processes’, Catalyst, 4.2 (2018), 5-6.
[17] Braidotti (1994a), 20.
[18] Braidotti (1994a), 19.
[19] See, for example, Elizabeth Grosz. Volatile Bodies: Toward A Corporeal Feminism, (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1994) and Braidotti (1994a).
[20] Braidotti (1994a), 18-19.
[21] Braidotti (1994a), 19.
[22] Foucault, 51-75.
[23] Braidotti (1994a), 17.
[24] Braidotti (1994a), 19.
[25] Author’s email conversation with the artist, 20 February 2019.
[26] Xiao Xian, ‘Man tan wuzang yu qihengzhifu de guanxi (On the relationship between qihengzhifu and the five viscera)’, Kaijuanyouyi (qiuyiwenyao), 6 (2004), 12-13, 13.
[27] Quoted in Howard Chiang, After Eunuchs: Science, Medicine, and the Transformations of Sex in Modern China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 84.
[28] Chiang, 74.
[29] Chiang, 8.
[30] Chiang, 86.
[31] Braidotti (1994a), 19-20.
[32] Quoted in Cadence Kinsey, Skins\ Screens\ Circuits: How Technology Remade the Body (PhD dissertation, University College London, 2011), 173.
[33] See chapter 1, note 4, in Susan Napier, Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (New York; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 296.
[34] Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 150. Originally published in 1985.
[35] See, for example, László Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, transl. Janet Seligman (London: Lund Humphris, 1967). Originally published in 1925.
[36] See: Richard Fleischer, Fantastic Voyage (Los Angeles: 20th Century Fox, 1966), feature-length film; Kenichi Suzuki, Hataraku saibō (Cells at Work!) (Tokyo: David Production, 2018), anime television series; Hiroyasu Aoki, Hero Mask  (Tokyo: Pierrot, 2018), original net animation.
[37] Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘Introduction’, The Left Hand of Darkness (London: Gollancz, 2017), xiv; Haraway, 149.
[38] Wang Yiquan, ‘Lu Yang zhuanfang (Interview with Lu Yang)’, Bijutsu techo online (October 2018, accessed 30 January 2019, ).
[39] Wang Yiquan.
[40] Tong Yujie, ‘Zai Zhonguo, nüxingzhuyi yishu zhanlan de jihui henshao (In China, there are few opportunities for feminist art to be exhibited)’, Artron (23 June 2016, accessed 20 February 2019, ).
[41] Sasha Su-Ling Welland, Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 19.
[42] Welland, 28.
[43] Braidotti (1994a), 26.
[44] Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subject: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994b), 200-201.
[45] Braidotti (1994a), 25.
[46] Braidotti, 1994b), 183-184.
[47] Braidotti (1994b), 183.
[48] Nell Tenhaaf, ‘Production and Reproduction’, in Judy Malloy (ed.), Women, Art and Technology (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 365.
[49] Frank Dikötter, Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge, Birth Defects and Eugenics in China (London: Hurst & Co., 1998), 123.
[50] Dikötter, 1.
[51] Dikötter, 1.
[52] Dikötter, 135.
[53] Dikötter, 137-138.
[54] Dikötter,138.
[55] Qin.
[56] Dikötter, 130.