Louise Edwards '16: The Art of Being Queer
Louise Edwards is the 2016-2018 Shansi Fellow at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is her second year narrative.
When I first arrived in the Beijing airport at the beginning of my Shansi Fellowship, I was overwhelmed by the noisy sprawling city. Sweat dripped from my brow as I struggled onto a crowded airport shuttle bus. We left and I fought to keep my two large suitcases upright as the bus jerked in the city’s stop-and-go traffic. Smog hung low on the busy highway as we made our way to Beijing’s Haidian District where I’d start my language training. Yet as my Mandarin skills progressed, I found that what was hardest for me about living in Beijing was not the common complaints of traffic, noise, and pollution. What I missed most was the LGBTQ community at Oberlin.
In Beijing I felt isolated from the LGBTQ community, not because there isn’t an LGBTQ community in Beijing — there is if you seek it out. I just didn’t know how to seek it out with my limited Mandarin, nor did I have time to when I was trying to memorize upwards of 40 characters every day for class. I also had no idea how Chinese people would react to my queerness and bisexuality, so I tended to keep quiet about it.
I successfully “graduated” from my language training program in Beijing with my classmates.
But the summer soon came to an end and I packed up my suitcases and got ready to head to my fellowship site in Shanxi Province. I was excited to be in a quieter setting than Beijing, but nervous about being in a place that supposedly leaned more traditional and conservative. However, despite my anxieties, my first semester in Taigu was relatively comfortable. I became friends with the other foreign teachers easily and I was back to a small campus where you know the people walking down the street. During the semester, a few times people voiced their dislike of LGBTQ people, but a highlight of the semester was when one of my students chose to talk about Chinese LGBTQ youth as a topic
for their final exam — a one-on-one conversation with me. She talked about how it’s extremely difficult for LGBTQ youth in China when their parents don’t agree with their sexuality. There is a lot of pressure on youth to get married and have children to fulfill their filial duty. Sometimes LGBTQ people will have sham heterosexual-like marriages just to please their family. From the conversation it was clear there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of acceptance of LGBTQ people in China, but I was excited that my student was willing to talk openly about a sensitive topic.
That semester, Maisy, one of my senior fellows, also introduced me to Ren Hang, a well-known queer photographer and poet. I scanned through the photos on his website: his mom sleeping next to the head of a dead pig, a snake coiled on a woman’s back, a man eating watermelon upside down in a shower room. His pieces, often nude or semi-nude portraits of his friends, question what is natural and what is perverse. Bodies are placed in strange positions — sometimes you can’t tell what part of the body you’re looking at, which makes the compositions all the more attention-grabbing. Gender falls away in such creations. The models also pose in natural settings — their bodies bend the same way as long grasses or their hair blows in the wind imitating the flowering twigs in the background. The natural curves of bodies laid side by side become a mountain landscape. Ren Hang takes the traditional peaceful nature scenes in Chinese ink paintings and places them in a modern context where gender norms are washed away and sexualities are fluid.
Though Hang has had exhibits across Europe, Asia and the U.S. and is a world-renowned photographer, the Chinese government censors his artwork. He was arrested several times for shooting nude photographs in public places and for the content of his photographs which the government considers “pornographic images.” Despite the government branding Hang’s photographs as a political statement, he consistently denies that his photographs are meant to be political or controversial. In an interview he says, “I don’t really view my work as taboo, because I don’t think so much in cultural context or political context. I don’t intentionally push boundaries, I just do what I do.” At first his casual attitude irked me. I wanted him to claim that his art was part of something bigger whether it was for sexual liberation, anti-censorship, or the LGBTQ rights movement. I didn’t want him to distance the cultural and political context from his work. Yet, I came to realize this distancing emphasizes that his photographs are portraits of the natural beauty he sees in his friends, not something meant to cause outrage or offense.
Even though I think Ren Hang’s work is bizarre in many ways, I also find the strangeness comforting. Living abroad and traveling, I feel like I often seek to find beauty in what I find strange or unexpected, so Hang’s work felt like a familiar perspective. The images of Beijing and landscapes of queerness were also recognizable and relatable. I was hopeful that despite Hang’s long-term depression, he also found solace in his own photography and friendship in Beijing’s queer community.
In January, I found myself in Beijing again visiting my sister at the height of the Chinese New Years’ celebration. Though one might think Beijing during Chinese New Year would be festive, to me, the city felt desolate. Though Beijing is a city of work and education, many people who live there don’t claim it as their hometown. During Chinese New Year there is a mass exodus from the city and many students and workers go home to usually smaller more rural towns where their parents, grandparents, or relatives live. Shops in Beijing close down and the city feels too big for the people left in it. Booms of firecrackers echo down the streets and fireworks skyrocket along with pollution levels. The entire city is covered in gray smog interspersed with bright red new years’ doorway decorations. My sister and I both got sick from walking around in the cold and pollution.
Despite our sickness, one night we went out to dinner with my sister’s queer friends that she had met in Beijing — some from her language program and others from an LGBTQ event she had attended. We met at a famous hot pot restaurant called Haidilao in Sanlitun, a hip expat hub of the city. The meal was wholesome. The steam and spices cleared the congestion in my nose and as part of the dinner we ordered a handmade noodle. A waiter danced to Chinese pop music as he pulled the noodle in a series of fancy spins and twirls before he dropped it in the boiling water. We talked easily, fluidly switching between English and Chinese. The conversation flowed from applying to U.S. graduate schools to language learning to conversion therapy in Chinese hospitals to how to define romantic love. We talked late and as we left the restaurant we rushed to catch the subway. I started coughing up gray mucus again, but I was glad to have had a Beijing night filled with warmth and new friends. It felt so distant from the hot muggy summer I’d spent secluded in my dorm studying Chinese. I felt included.
That same winter in Beijing Ren Hang climbed to the roof of a high rise. He jumped. The jump was 28 floors long. He died on February 24 at 29 years old.
Hang’s death was such a disconnect from my hot pot evening in Beijing that winter. It was a startling reminder to me that though I had found community, for many being queer was lonely.
After his death, I started reading his blog. Though Hang is most well-known for his photography, he is also a poet who has published two collections— one in Chinese published in Taiwan and an English translation published in January 2017 in New York just before his death. His poetry, which discusses sexuality, depression, and love, is vulgar but thought-provoking, dark but honest. I started reading from the first poems posted in 2007 and crudely translated them for myself from Chinese to English. The poems are short, simple and often utilize repetition so it became a good way to practice Chinese for me as well as learn more about Hang.
The next semester I came back from winter break to Shanxi and decided I wanted to teach a lesson about LGBTQ people to my graduate and undergraduate students. I wanted my queer students to feel accepted in my classroom. We made flashcards with LGBTQ-related vocabulary, had partner discussion about LGBTQ issues, and had group conversations about scenarios that included challenges LGBTQ people might have in everyday situations. After a discussion about gender stereotypes, their homework was to draw a picture of someone who was “outside of the box” and then describe why they didn’t conform to gender stereotypes. I told them the person could be any gender and any sexual orientation. The results were exciting because I also learned about gender stereotypes in China. For example, smoking and drinking are considered masculine activities even more so than in the U.S., “cool” is an adjective that is often used only to describe masculine people and there are different adjectives in Chinese that are used to describe the gendered way that people walk.
About a week after I gave the assignment, one of my Chinese friends I had met at the hotpot dinner in Beijing texted me and shared an article that talked about new bans on LGBTQ content in China. A similar Guardian article published in March 2017 explains, “Chinese censors have released new regulations for content that ‘exaggerates the dark side of society’ and now deem homosexuality, extramarital affairs, one-night stands and underage relationships as illegal on screen.” After lamenting the new regulations on LGBTQ content, I sent him some of my students’ drawings hoping they would be a bright spot in a country that was now lacking in public LGBTQ art. He responded enthusiastically, and with my students’ permission, posted some of the drawings on a Beijing LGBTQ blog he regularly contributed to. This made me realize how important art is for the LGBTQ community. Seeing depictions of yourself in media, popular culture and art in general contributes to the mental well-being of the entire community and it is also a means to connect people within the community whether it is through the creation or viewing of it.
To say the least, I was disappointed that China had banned LGBTQ media, but around the same time Taiwan made history when their Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples should have the right to marry. The court has given parliament 2 years to enact or amend laws and if no laws are made that conflict with the ruling, same-sex marriage will automatically become legal. When I visited Taiwan in October that year, I was excited to be in a more open environment. It was clear many LGBTQ people felt comfortable being out and visible there and their history was being celebrated in public venues. The 2/28 Peace Park I visited had a display of rainbow flowers and a plaque that explained that the park had long been a place for LGTBQ people to meet each other and spend time together. At the same time, Taipei MOCA was showing an entire art exhibit that displayed art of LGBTQ artists.
The exhibit, “Spectrosynthesis,” which featured 51 works made by 22 artists from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and Singapore, was hailed as Asia’s first major LGBTQ art exhibition. The themes of the artwork in the show were diverse. Some were dark like Su Hui Yu’s ghostly video Nue Quan, which shows a man sitting on a bed and then later being stuffed in a suitcase. The video is based off a real-life event in 2001 where a man was found dead inside a suitcase after a one night stand he had with another man. Other works were playful, such as Wang Liang Yin’s large sculpture of a cupcake that she describes as a representation of desire. One of my favorites was Hou Chun Ming’s paintings from a series titled “Man Hole.” On facebook the Sunpride Foundation explains, “The work is the result of a string of interviews the artist has been conducting since 2014, in which he invites participants to draw on white background paper, telling their own stories, and then he himself draws a response to them on black background paper.” His art, as well as the entire exhibit, was another example of art being used to heal and bring the LGBTQ community together.
Pagoda in 2/28 Peace Park
Wang Liang Yin’s sculpture Cup Cake with Star (2008)
Though mainland China’s LGBTQ community is much more closeted and underground then Taiwan’s, it’s clear that LGBTQ people are becoming more and more accepted. When I present my LGBTQ lesson to my students there are usually some who express that the content is “weird,” “strange,” “embarrassing” or “not discussed.” Others simply see it as another English lesson. However, more often than not they are passionate about their support for the LGBTQ community, citing that they have friends, classmates and family who are LGBTQ people. It feels like the youth of China are on the cusp of a major shift
in how China thinks about gender and sexuality, that is, if they’re not already there. Though it may be a long time before the Chinese government catches up with the youths’ creativity and ideals, I hope to return to a China where no one is afraid to express their gender and sexual orientation openly. But for today, I’ll be satisfied with being absorbed in the inventive and open-minded world of art, and reading another of Ren Hang’s poems.
Hide and Seek
Where there’s no laws
I’ll just hide there.