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Queer in China: Not So Secret Anymore

by Helm de Laat in Lifestyle & Fashion , 03 December 2013

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 11 minuten

At the moment, our focus is on the developments in the Russian Federation. But Putin’s homophobia does not only have to do with the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. Stalin’s legacy plays an equally important part. Just as Hitler put a stop to the comparatively tolerant attitude towards homosexuality in the Weimar Republic, Stalin put a stop to the last remnants of freedom after the October revolution of 1917.

In the year Hitler organized the Olympic Games, some prisons in Berlin held more homosexual inmates than political prisoners. But at that time, Stalin had already adopted an anti-gay law. In the first prosecution wave, this law caused approximately 250 fatalities. In The Netherlands, nobody discussed this prosecution of homosexuals.

In the constitutional state of The Netherlands, the introduction of Christian moral laws in 1911 had made any expression of homosexuality almost impossible, and homosexuals were virtually without rights. But in a democratic society, several forms of resistance are possible. This discriminatory law was abolished in 1971 after visible and loud protests. Four decades later, the battle for equal rights is not over still.

In a totalitarian state, the letter of the law hardly matters. Every citizen is entirely at the mercy of the arbitrariness of the state and its representatives. And resistance is virtually impossible and often perilous. Even with Gorbatsjov’s glasnost and perestroika, Russia is far from being a democracy. And Putin’s efforts to crush any opposition are not inspired by the patriarch, but by former comrade Stalin. But there is a difference with this situation in the past.

The international art world is part of the global economy, and - with a grateful nod to the Internet - if there is anything that can be compared to a political International, it is pink: the GLBTQ movement. At the moment, there are two exhibitions that show the current situation in that other totalitarian superpower. But also in China, a lot has changed, mostly because of the Internet: information that used to be illegal has become available, networking is leading to new forms of organization, and there is the visual temptation of freedom. But the communist party consists of a class of regents that is running the show.

Article 31

In the Groninger Museum, the exhibition “Fuck Off 2” ran til November 17. The show is compiled by Chinese artists, including the internationally famous Ai Wei Wei. The title refers to an exhibition held in Shanghai in the year 2000. “Fuck Off” was organized as a counterpart of the art biennale by the official art circuit in an attempt by the Chinese state to join the Western art market. Of course, this alternative exhibition was promptly forbidden.

The exhibition in the Groninger Museum starts with “Article 31,” a work of art by Jin Feng. It consists of a series of notice boards with Chinese characters. They show article 31 of the Chinese constitution in which the rights of civilians are laid down. All these rights are trampled on by the state, including the right to file a complaint against violations by the government and its civil servants. According to Ai Wei Wei and his fellow artists, hardly any progress has been made since 2000.

In China, the state controls almost all means of communication, and according to Ai Wei Wei and others, it is up to artists to reveal the truth. Art should make the voice of resistance heard. About “Fuck Off 2” he says: “We shouldn’t really call this an exhibition, but a glimpse of reality.”

Fuck Off 2

Chinese history has a homosexual tradition that is much richer than ours. Only with the rise of the Manchu dynasty in the eighteenth century, forms of sexual repression were introduced that can be compared to those in the “civilized” West. It was the beginning of Chinese prudishness, and also of the sexual hypocrisy of the great leader Mao. Mao embraced the fundamentally Stalinist idea that homosexuality was a decadent bourgeois phenomenon from pre-revolutionary times. In the new China after the communists seized power, there was no room for homosexuality, and it was strictly forbidden. Only years after his death in 1976, the situation became somewhat more open. Since 1997, homosexuality is no longer punishable by law. Just as in other parts of the world, this was the starting signal for the GLBTQ movement.

The words gay and queer are not used in the exhibition “Fuck Off 2.” But homosexuality isn’t entirely invisible. The Xiong Huang Group, for example, paints everyday objects in rainbow colors. Xiong Huang means Yellow Bear, the nickname of one of the legendary founders of China. He was a son of the rainbow. They did give their work the title “Pride,” but only artists of the group itself were allowed to see it. They veil their work in the old seventh century Song time and talk about “art for the people.” Until recently, this masque game of ambiguity was a dire necessity. But whether you can interpret this work in a queer way, now that everyone can see it, remains unclear.

Every totalitarian state interferes with the sex life of its citizens. The way in which the one-child policy was implemented in Mao’s China is unparalleled. “Fuck Off 2” has a separate space devoted to what the prudish Chinese think of this sex policy. Most likely it is not a coincidence that the work of the few women artists in “Fuck Off 2” can be found here. The idea that the political is much more important than the personal, no longer applies here. Sexuality, AIDS, birth control, adultery, prostitution, pornography, hypocrisy and... prudishness. Almost all these aspects are dealt with. Well, almost all of them. It is clear that they are beyond heterosexual shame.

But gay photographers Lin Zhipeng and the young Ren Hang keep their lips sealed. Their imagery, which has been taken from the Internet, may look heterosexual at first glance, but is too naughty to be truly labeled straight.

Yet not everything is conservative and straight. The group Double Fly Art Center sings a totally different tune. This is a group of young artists who met at art academy. They did everything to join in with the international art scene. The Internet played a very important part in this. And so, they opened up new fields and unknown media to China. In their imagery, elements of glamrock and adolescent porn struggle for dominance. They would shamelessly strive for their own pleasure and broke a number of the rules of the official art world and the street. No wonder Ai Wei Wei loves them. Double Fly Art Center resembles a gang of Dutch red rebel gays from the seventies, but also follows Chinese tradition. They resemble the new “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” who in politically dangerous times only wanted to be occupied with drink, debate and art. Among the group is a well-known gay couple. They are now spreading their wings over China...

Secret Love

For art that connects with contemporary queer art, the visitor needs go one floor up. There, visitors can find photos by Chi Peng from the permanent collection. The museum hardly says anything about the prominent role homosexuality plays in his work. Despite the fact that Chi Peng does not try to hide this. He does not take part in “Fuck Off 2.”

Current Queer Art from China can be found in the Världskulturmuseet in Göteborg. Here, the exhibition “Secret Love” is open to the public until January 14, 2014. It is a group show in which over twenty-five GLBTQ and straight artists take part with approximately 150 art works. It includes work by Lin Zhipeng and Ren Hang, and a well-known photo of a gay couple with a child by Chi Peng (also at the exhibition in Groningen). A number of now internationally renowned artists also take part in the exposition. The brothers Gao, for example, show work on transsexuality. Other artists are the gender crossing performance artist Ma Liuming and the film-maker Zhang Yuan, whose work is also shown in Groningen. But also Li Xiaofeng, who has lived in The Netherlands at the start of his career, and who is openly gay. As he was when he was living in The Netherlands. He is not world-famous, but is a renowned painter in his own country, making colorful paintings. The work looks very traditional, yet has a lot of elements of gay imagery.


Even though homosexuality is no longer punishable in China, homosexuals should keep their mouths shut, just like any other upstanding member of society. Otherwise citizens run the risk of being picked up for “disturbing the social peace and order” or “hooliganism.” And work may be banned forever on the basis of a law that prohibits “making or distributing pornography.” Because of a performance in the nude, Ma Liuming was sentenced to prison. A ban on “unhealthy” performances is still in place today. In 1997, Zhang Yuan made the first Chinese gay film, the widely recognized “East Palace, West Palace.” He was placed under house arrest, but kept making critical films, for example with Ai Wei Wei. Si Han, the curator of “Secret Love,” was studying art history in Beijing at the time and played one of the leading roles. Si Han says that the censors work very randomly, but that the threat is always there.

It is one of the reasons that very little work with nudity is made in China. Every printer is afraid of the law on pornography. They risk four years in a penal colony. Depiction of homosexuality is also illegal. But criticizing the government and its politics is even worse. Political work, such as the work shown in Groningen, is almost entirely missing in Göteborg. A photo like the one by Chi Peng seems to refer to gay marriage, but according to Chi Peng it is about something else. It is family tradition that the oldest son is the keeper of the family name. He and his friend are thinking about adopting a child. That explains it. And to give in to this pressure, ninety percent of gay men will get married to a woman. Gay marriage is on the political agenda, but at the moment, the GLBTQ movement has its hands full with the fight for more personal freedom. Because of Internet however, there now is a network of approximately two thousand GLBTQ groups in China.

Tradition or Not and Which One?

A lot of the work that is on display in Groningen refers to the rich history of ancient China. In “Secret Love,” even references to China’s rich homosexual tradition are missing. Some men from the older generation refer to figures from Western gay history. For young people such as Ren Hang, those role models are not important. The Internet is their source of inspiration.

An exception to this is the photographer Shi Tou, one of the few female artists who call themselves a lesbian feminist. She is inspired by glamorous adverting photos from the 1930s and shoots portraits of herself and her girlfriend Ming Ming in that style.

Traditional Chinese painting did not know the male nude as a genre. And when art academies started to include drawing from life, this led to fierce resistance in prudish China. “Secret Love” shows the work of some artists who have embraced this theme. Here, the old Chinese techniques, such as painting in ink, were used to show new images. The queer paper cuttings by Xi Yadie (a nickname that means Siberian Butterfly) are very special. He is one of the last artists who have mastered this form of art, and certainly the only man who has done so.

Identity and Gender

In the exhibition, familiar themes as coming out, the body and identity are addressed. But the theme identity is not really about development: references to a fetish or BDSM scene are missing, for example. Lin Zhipeng explains this as follows: “It looks as if we are free, but we are only free to look for our freedom.” It’s about releasing yourself from your former self, your family, the collective. Only when you have done that, you can develop your own identity as a homosexual. There is some criticism on this individualist approach. Only some look beyond their own privileged group. Their work questions whether the ordinary homosexual in Beijing or the invisible gays that live in the country benefit at all from these new developments.

The fact that gender plays such a pivotal part in a lot of the works is very exciting. In China, different views on masculinity and femininity have always coexisted. In Taoism, the male and female principles were considered equal, as qualities everyone has to a higher or lesser degree. Confucianism viewed each person as either male or female, and women as inferior to men. Mao saw more in Confucius than in Taoism. But doctrine is often defeated by life. There are different traditions in theater in which female parts are played by men (the “Beijing” Opera), while in others, the male parts are played by women (Huangmei Opera). That is also the background of the drag scene that developed in Beijing and which we associate with the gay infrastructure in bars and at parties. However, young people’s experiments with gender have different roots. This witch brew of acting and the subcultural drag scene may develop into China’s greatest contribution to queer art. It is a shame this exhibition will not come to The Netherlands.

- Ai Wei Wei, and others, “Fuck Off 2: Chinese Contemporary Art Document.” Groningen, 2013. ISBN: 9789071691003. €34.
- Si Han, “Secret Love.” Göteborg/Stockholm, 2013. ISBN: 9789197903752. €20 (including shipping). Available via:
- “Fuck Off 2” in Groningen. More info:
- “Secret Love” in Göteborg until January 14, 2014. More info:



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