by Rebecca Catching, for China Now, the British Council China arts and culture platform.
Last month, while browsing a small artist-run space called InterAccess in Toronto, I came upon an exhibition of three women artists. Three women artists on their own are not really that remarkable. But these three women artists were also queer and Aboriginal and the work they presented all dealt with the queer experience on a personal and social level. As a curator myself, I marveled at the ability of this exhibition to showcase three different bodies of work which examined the intersectionality of three different identities.
My first reaction was one of culture shock thinking, “This would never happen in China.” A blunt statement for sure, but most observers of the Chinese art world would agree that there is little discourse or debate regarding the visibility and participation of women, minority or LGBTQ artists in China; identity politics is not a driving concern of the Chinese art world. This is in part due to social conservatism, part due to a rejection of diversity as a “Western value,” part due to the strong presence of the state but also in part personal choice of artists to focus on other concerns.
Feeling the Stones as We Cross the River: Curating an Exhibition on Gender in 2010
Understanding the debate or lack thereof around gender can be something of a learning curve. When in 2010, I took on the position of director of an experimental art gallery in Shanghai (OV Gallery), I naively thought that curating a show on the topic of gender was by no means radical act. But as it turned out, this show was not only quite difficult to curate but also drew much-unwanted attention from the Shanghai censorship and surveillance apparatus. In the West, finding enough artists to populate a small gallery space, would represent little or no challenge with young artists already sufficiently “woke” and highly politicized around the issue of gender from the time they enter art school. Today in New York and London, in the wake of the Me Too movement, queer and women artists and their concerns are taking centre stage. China, as well, is having its own Me Too moments, with figures such as professor Gary Xu Gang (former curator of the Shenzhen Biennale) being accused of sexual harassment and curator and critic Li Bowen, who resigned from his position at the online publication Ocula after being accused of coercing women into sex, emotional manipulation and gaslighting.[i] (Such incidents are really only the tip of the ice-burg.[ii])
In any case, attempting to curate a show on gender in China in 2010, proved to be almost as challenging as writing this article—requiring a deep search into nooks and crannies, lifting up carpets and looking behind wardrobes to search for small signs activity, flickers of light in the darkness. When curating this exhibition, I actually struggled to find female Chinese artists, let alone female artists who were addressing the topic of gender in a direct manner[iii]. I did not want to put up the kind of bog-standard “women artists,” show typical of that time—a motley collection of artists who had little in common beyond a shared XX chromosome.
Part of my aim was to broaden the feminist discourse by reaching out to a number of male artists in my circle. One artist whose work had shown a profound understanding about socio-political issues told me, “I don’t know much about that [women’s issues].” I said, “But you have aunties. You have a mother and a grandmother. Maybe you can ask them about their experiences?”
He declined. I did eventually pull together a show of courageous artists seemingly unafraid to speak the unspoken. Artist and theatre practitioner Wu Meng displayed her work “Gravity” which made reference to the case of Deng Yujiao, a pedicurist who was attacked by a government official who used as a wad of RMB to smack her in the face when she refused his advances.[iv] He then tried to rape her and she stabbed him three times with a knife and killed him. Deng’s arrest created an internet uproar. Wu Meng’s series of photographs (2009), featured poems about this incident and other incidents of gender violence, printed on items of clothing and hung in public.[v]
Shanghai-based American artist Monica Lin presented “Shadow Count” (2010)—an installation of ceramic water-lilies nestled within a Plexiglass pool—their small, dwarfed ceramic roots hanging below the surface. The gnarled roots look very much like bound feet, while the beautiful flowes on the surface remind us of the colourful slippers which covered the deformed stumps which remained after binding. The work references the dichotomy of beauty and sexual violence inherent within the patriarchal narratives of traditional culture, for instane that brothels were described as “flower and card houses” 花牌楼, and golden lilies being a metaphor for bound feet 金莲. The late Cui Xiuwen exhibited her video Ladies’ Room, which was first shown, at the Tate in 2004. The video was filmed in the bathroom of a KTV nightclub (hostess club) and featured footage of the sex workers as they preened and chatted up their clients on the phone.
Speaking from a male perspective Shaw Xu Zhifeng created an installation “Mona Lisa Smile-less” which featured a Chinese Mona-Lisa brand toilet embedded within a wall. A microphone in the toilet would pick up voices from one side wall and broadcast them out the other side—in reference to the barriers between the genders and also providing a probing exploration of the constructions of femininity in art history and taking a post-gender stance at a time when the word “post-gender” was not really part of artistic discourse in China .
Xu’s Artist statement explains:
“Mona Lisa Smileless” uses a squat toilet placed in the wall to look like a urinal in a reference to Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1919) and “Fountain,” (1917). “Mona Lisa” expresses Leonardo’s belief in the “sacred feminine;” the title is a coded reference to the Egyptian gods Amon and Isis, “Mona” being an anagram of the former and “Lisa” being a contraction of l’Isa, meaning Isis. This hidden reference is supposed to signify Leonardo’s secret opposition to Orthodox Christianity and his belief in the ideal union of masculine and feminine principles, as does the sitter’s androgynous features.”
The installation takes the squat toilet (something used by both sexes) and transforms it into a urinal (primarily for male use) but one which also looks like some kind of niche where sacred things are placed, thus signalling the codification of gender norms by the church and other social institutions.
This rather low-key exhibition “Shifting Definitions,” attracted perhaps more attention from the local security apparatus, than from the art world itself. The gallery was restricted from conducting our public programming, and Cui Xiuwen’s Ladies’ Room was censored, the excuse being given that there was a campaign to sao huang, 扫黄 “sweep away the yellow”—a euphemism for the rounding up of salacious material.[vi]
Making Gestures Towards Feminism
Given this climate, most exhibitions focusing on women’s art in the past decade have tended toward vague gestures towards of “elevating” women. A typical example of this was “She: International Women Artists Exhibition,” (2016) at the Long Museum, which took a very anodyne approach to a thorny topic. The exhibition even featured a fashion show at the opening which was distinctly un-ironic.
The catalog essay, written by museum General Director and wealthy socialite Wang Wei, seems to express a basic sympathy for the condition of women, but makes references to their emotional lives and the domestic pressures, in a way that would make the hair of card-carrying feminist’s stand on end.
“She/Era” 她时代 at Beijing Times Museum from 2013-2016, also seems to express the same kind of patronizing sympathy, with carefully-worded curatorial statements, included themes such as family—one wonders if this topic would be considered for an exhibition of male artists . . . or “Self-Portrait: Women’s Art in China 1920-2010” at CAFAM in Beijing in 2010, which featured mostly portraits of women painted by women, which brings to mind the Guerrilla Girl’s issue with women only gaining access to the museum as painted “subjects.” Though one might expect more from a museum attached to a teaching institution, the CAFAM show seems to nullify the power of these female artists in a kind of strategy of objectification as a means of neutralization.
More charitably one might see these kinds of “women artist” shows as a way to forcibly inject the topic of feminism into the greater discourse, through a powerful woman or institution in a position of power. After all, it is still a topic not discussed in polite company in China.
Exploring the Nature of Gender
Amongst these more “polite” exhibitions, there were as well a number of shows which really attempted to push the boundaries. “Genders Engender” at Taikang Space in Beijing presents one of the most nuanced explorations of gender to in China we have seen to date; even the title is presented as a clever post-gender wordplay: “制性造别” —a mashup of “制造” manufacture and gender “性别”. Slicing two words in half, they are rearranged in a way that creates a double meaning “manufacturing gender and/or sex,” “making other.”
In the exhibition, artist Li Shuang explores this concept of “making other” in a quite literal mode with her video work “T” which speaks to the construction and commodification of gender through the story of a young man hired to work a Taobao shop selling socks (Taobao is an e-commerce platform). The end of the video features an awkward electronic female voiceover reading the lines “’You should start talking like a girl now. The customers they like that,’ the boss told him. “But I’m a man!’ he said. ‘Well now you have no gender.’” The video not only recounts this act of gender performance at the hands of the capitalist system but also the man’s experience of being a man, of different rituals of coming of age and the gendering of various professions.
Already the text accompanying the show is much more progressive than some of these earlier shows. Curator Li Jia describes gender as a “symptom or phenomenon, rather than the cause or standard, which we are required to read and understand.” The show involved 11 newly-commissioned artworks and a series of workshops which did much to re-awaken the conversation around gender.
Feminist Activism In China
In recent years we are starting to see a small but radical contingent of women artists who are speaking passionately about women’s issues in their work. The purposely blunt “Jian, Rape: Gender Violence Cultural Codes” went on show at Gingko Space in Beijing in 2015 and was timed with the UN-sponsored National Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, using the #HeForShe hashtag initiated by the UN to raise awareness of gender violence.
The show was shuttered even before it opened, although reports are unclear as to the reasons for closing, citing censorship, self-censorship or a disagreement between the gallery and the curator. What’s remarkable about the exhibition is that by showing an equal number of male and female artists, the show tried to make a point about the usual gender ratios and how curatorial decisions are often not made with diversity in mind. Groups such as United Motion—a collective of artists and curators—have been advocating, agitating and creating workshops to generate awareness about labour issues, Me Too issues, the glass ceiling and the underrepresentation of women artists.
This year we saw the issue of representation brought to the fore at Art Basel Hong Kong when the American feminist collective Guerilla Girls made an appearance, conducting events and creating a booth at the fair to highlight the continuing inequalities in the art world of Hong Kong. They pointed out that while 82% of the graduates of Hong Kong art schools are women, only 22% of the artists on show in the galleries were female. Their publicity and booth focused on calling out various institutions—Hong Kong Museum of Art (19%), M+ (16%) and Asia Art Archive (6%)—for their very poor commitment to showing women artists.
Caught Between a Definition and a Hard Place: the Challenges of Feminism in China
Despite this growing awareness, feminism still seems to be something of a dirty word, with artists such as Lu Yang[vii] and Lin Tianmao rejecting the label of feminism despite fairly obvious leanings of their work.[viii] This rejection of feminism, however, is not confined merely to the visual arts. Literary scholar Wu Hui explains that this reaction is not unique amongst Chinese creators:
“[Chinese women authors in the post-Mao Era] have been writing passionately about women in their fiction, speaking for women in other forms, and vehemently criticizing gender discrimination. Almost all of their works can be considered feminist in the sense that they showcase Chinese women’s issues and daily material lives. Yet baffling their Western sisters, almost all Post-Mao women writers deny that they are feminists. For example, Wang Anyi declares that she is not a feminist (Z. Wang 165), and reflects on her contact with feminism: ‘The feminist standpoint I know is mostly imported from the West. [italics mine]’[ix]
Some reactions against feminism, Lu Yang’s for instance, come across as a rejection of the importance of gender—a kind of post-gender stance—though this is often a label applied after the fact by western critics and curators. While this denial of feminism has confounded Western critics and scholars, on the other hand, there is often a genuine sense of irritation on the part of Chinese artists being asked by Western, journalists, scholars and curators who refuse to dismount that particular hobbyhorse. In their attempts to understand Chinese art, they insist on fitting artists into terms which are understandable in the West when artists may prefer to be defined on their own terms—or in many cases, not categorized at all.
Perhaps this is also just a moment in Chinese history where these terms seem odd or strange. For instance in America, the female abstract expressionists, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler had similar attitudes to the label of “women artist” writes author Mary Gabriel:
They just didn’t think of themselves that way. They were artists. They weren’t women artists. And in fact, they were really annoyed when anyone asked them about that. They were at a party when a man came up to them and said, ‘How does it feel to be women artists?’ and Joan said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’[x]
Is Feminism in Conflict with Chinese Identity?
Critics Zhang Qing and An Duoli in their excellent review of “Genders Engender,” get down to the root of the problem in terms of the adoption of feminist approaches—though there are those who might willingly embrace these values, the hegemonic implementation of these concepts by Western organizations often stands in the way. (This notion of hegemonic interference is at once perceived and also very real, as the UN #Him for Her campaign demonstrates). To place the issue in perspective, Zhang and An roll back the clock almost a century to the writings of theorist, anarchist, and feminist He-yin Zhen, who simultaneously criticized the Western hegemonic implementation of feminist values, while lambasting the Chinese patriarchy over the issue of foot binding.
Zhang Qing and An Duoli argue that there is no reason for China to produce Western cognitive forms which merely arrive on a later timeline, but rather China must create its own. They also note that Post-90s generation of artists is more comfortable with the term “feminist” and “women artist” and that they need to be heard.[xi]
In other words, they are arguing for feminism with Chinese characteristics—which is a wholly logical strategy given the development of feminism in China. To begin with, there are vastly different philosophical traditions, while both Buddhism and Taoism have welcomed women into the religious order, the Taoist cosmology which focuses on the inherent naturalistic differences in men and women the “yin and yang,” was adopted by Confucianism as a way to subjugate women, to make them into symbolic ideals of “chastity” and motherhood,[xii] placing them squarely in a social hierarchy, one rung above children. [xiii] Even prominent historical figures such as Empress Dowager Cixi and Hua Mulan are seen as having navigated into positions of power due to “desperate circumstances.”
Modern feminism really emerged with the birth of the Republic of China in 1912, due to the fact that several women’s brigades had led the fight against the Qing Dynasty, fighting alongside male units and also as a result of the more enlightened social values of the May Fourth Movement. In terms of the record of the Chinese Communist Party, the rhetoric may be more impressive than the CCP’s actual record on gender rights[xiv]. Despite grand proclamations of “holding up half the sky,” the country was still quite late to enshrine the rights of women into law. For instance, up until 2001, abuse was not sufficient grounds for filing for divorce, vs. the UK (1976) and laws on gender discrimination were only passed in 2013 vs. the UK 1975. Today, China still ranks below the global average on the Global Gender Gap Report produced by the World Economic Forum, and is dragged down because of the lack of participation of women in the political process and wage inequality.[xv]
Due to both social conservatism and the political system, China has had difficulty in embracing feminism—a difficulty that is encoded right into the language. Scholar Wu Hui explains that “nuquanzhuyi” 女权主义 (female power/rights-ism) is a term associated with the Western Suffragist Movement but later, a different term, nuxingzhuyi 女性主义 (female-gender-ism) emerged. Wu writes that the first term nuquanzhuyi seemed incompatible under the context of Mao’s emancipation proclamation “that women hold up half the sky”—which in both real and tokenistic manner granted women equality. Yet, at the same time, Mao stole women’s rights to express their femininity, dressing them in unisex clothing—proclaiming their bodies as the property of the state. Some feminists felt that this Western nuquanzhuyi promotes gender same-ness in a way similar to the Maoist conception of femininity. By contrast, the term nuxingzhuyi focuses more on the uniqueness of the sexes and femininity, feminine qualities over innate abilities—a stance which would make most feminists cringe. So Chinese feminists are caught between the cramped space provided by these two terms.
The lesson here is that concepts cannot be simply imported and applied to local populations. While American feminists burned their bras, many Chinese proponents of nuxingzhuyi took to wearing, lipstick and heels—what one might call performing femininity—but something which was also an act of resistance against the patriarchal state. Critic Ara Wilson warns us to be wary of “import-export calculus” in our understanding of gender and in particular LGBTQ orientations. While in the liberal Western democratic societies, we seem to think of ourselves as inventors of such concepts, in fact, the first modern usage of the word “gay” appeared in a Thai newspaper in 1965, a time which predates the gay liberation movement in the West. The point of critics such as Wilson is to highlight the fact that China’s path to LGBTQ emancipation may not follow the same timeline as that of the West. China possesses its own very fascinating timelines which should be understood and respected.
China’s Fascinating LGBTQ History
In China in the Han Dynasty, just as in Rome (there was actually chronological overlap), male homosexuality was well documented in court annals, with many emperors demonstrating bisexual behavior and some, such as Emperor Ai of the Tang dynasty, preferring men only. Male homosexuality or bisexuality was not considered strange at all and was usually only mentioned in the annals when there was some kind of scandal or treachery attached. Though many of these court romances involved certain power dynamics, beyond these master-slave relationships, there also existed long-term egalitarian partnerships such as that of Ruan Li and Ji Kang—two scholars from the Third Century—but in general, this lenience seemed to extend only to male homosexuality—instances of female homosexuality are quite rare given women’s proscribed role as child-bearers and virtuous mothers.
Towards the Tang Dynasty, China became influenced by the mores of the foreign powers Central Asian and otherwise, and gay courtesans and lovers became less important players in the politics of the court. In 716 (the Tang Dynasty), Esoteric Buddhism was established in China and soon became the religion often favored by the court. Buddhism discouraged sexuality in general and by the late Song dynasty, we seldom see references to non-heteronormative behaviors. That said, in 17th Century Fujian, there evolved a unique system of male marriages, complete with marital tea ceremonies identical to those in heterosexual marriages.
Overall, we can say that the history of homosexuality in Ancient China waxed and waned in response to different socio-political factors, yet it bears no resemblance to the strict code of heteronormativity which we see being imposed today. In fact, we have the West to thank for this as homophobia was imported as part of the basket of values in the “Self-Strengthening Movement” in the 1860s writes scholar Guo Ting:
. . .the emphasis on the masculine image of Chinese men in China’s pursuit of modernity led to the stigmatization and policing of male same-sex relationships in Chinese society, which echoed and reinforced the western critique of homosexuality at that time.[xvi]
LGBTQ Life in China Today
The CCP was not especially kind to LBGTQ people, given that homosexuality was still treated as a disease to be cured with shock treatments, although Mao was thought to have had sexual liaisons with Chinese men in the military. In the 80s and 90s, a small underground scene began to develop with gay dance halls (mostly for men) and a small number of gay bars (again mostly for men) in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. The current situation is characterized by stark contradictions. Though more and more Chinese are identifying as part of the LGBTQ spectrum and same-sex intercourse was decriminalized in 1997 and taken off the DSM list as a mental disorder (2001)—there are no laws against discrimination and a persistent current of harassment exists—the “official” approach has been described as “no-approval, no-disapproval, no promotion.”
There are many gay venues, websites, and platforms, yet every year Pride events in major cities are shut down and individuals are censored for expressing their sexuality. (In 2015 the government actually issued a ban on depictions of homosexual relationships on television.)
Family pressures dictate that LGBTQ people must marry the opposite sex and 80-90% of gay men are married to either straight or lesbian women in what is in effect a marital facade to placate relatives.
This heteronormativity has bled into the museum system, which though staffed by many LBGTQ people still replicates straight narratives. Jonathan Katz and Änne Köll writing on the global situation explain that:
Queer “presents a challenge to the museum as a normalizing, meaning-making entity and asks how these concerns can be addressed in museum-practices, that have, for the most part, silently and unknowingly reproduced and solidified heteronormative structures and desires.”
Not just in China but on a global scale, LBGTQ issues and concerns continue to be marginalized. “Even today, queer exhibitions are quite rare” writes curator Brian Curtain—”there have been a total of under 50 across the world—and in many nations they are still contentious”[xvii]
A Watershed Moment in Taiwan
Last year many supporters of the LBGTQ cause from the Mainland and Greater China went to Taipei to witness the vernissage of “Spectrosynthesis-Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now” at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The exhibition was a milestone of LBGTQ art in the region and was held in recognition of the lifting of the ban on same-sex marriage in Taiwan. The museum itself is under the management of the Taipei government, thus the show had governmental approval. In addition, the exhibition was co-produced with the support of the SUNDPRIDE FOUNDATION—a Hong Kong organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Queer art.
Though many applauded this effort, there were questions about the academic rigor of the exhibition and its failures in equal representation. Critic Alvin Li pointed out that of the exhibition’s 22 artists there was only one trans person and three women[xviii].
The exhibition in a way seems to replicate the situation queerness of ancient China despite its progressive aims. Li also continues to write that the exhibition was “positioned, awkwardly, as both a public awareness campaign and art-historical survey–and it struggles curatorially to reconcile both aims.”
The historical survey element may not have succeeded, but the show did shine a spotlight on some of the specificities of the queer experience in greater China. Writes Li:
Door (2017) [by Xi Ya Die] depicts two men engaging in oral sex outside a household; through the window, we see a woman—the artist’s wife—in bed with their children. This clash between individuality (the pursuit of pleasure) and heteronormative precept masked as social responsibility (marriage was considered indispensable for those of Xi’s generation) is representative of the queer struggle of many generations across the Sinosphere.
LGBTQ Art in China—One Foot Out of the Closet
Taiwan is one of the most gay-friendly countries in Asia, but showing work related to LBGTQ themes on the Mainland is still a somewhat risky practice. We’ve seen relatively few exhibitions and most are in far-flung or non-official venues which are off the radar. For instance, in 2009 “Difference•Gender” was held at the Pingmin Photography studio in remote Songzhuang two hours outside of Beijing. It employed the Chinese title bie xing “别性” which could be loosely translated as “don’t gender”—a reversal of the character for sex or gender xingbie 性别 and was organized with the support of les+ magazine and the Beijing Gay Cultural Activity Center 北京同志文化活动中心. The exhibition attracted over 400 visitors and queer filmmaker Cui Zi’en, also the artistic director, proclaimed it to be the first successful exhibition of queer art in China. The authorities threatened closure of the exhibition but in the end, the curators were successful at negotiating for it to remain open.
In 2014, another exhibition was held at the Gay club and event space Destination, organized by prominent gay curator and editor Li Qi. The exhibition “Conditions” bore the Chinese title of shenti houtai身体后台 or “the back end of the body”—back-end meaning the back-end of a website, the scaffolding where pages are created—in contrast to the front or public-facing end. The exhibition was held in conjunction with the queer issue of Leap magazine and featured both queer and non-queer artists, Chinese and international names such as Chen Tianzhuo, Lu Yang, Ming Wong, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and the collective Double-fly. The works both intentionally and sometimes unintentionally speak to queer subcultures and the title of the exhibition reflects the continuing status of invisibility of such-culture.
Also this year in Shanghai, Capsule Gallery made a statement in showing the provocative work by Wang Haiyang during the high-profile Shanghai Art week. The venue is located in the depths of a lane-house complex in the Former French Concession—and the content both queer and sexual in nature—would be difficult to show in a more public venue. Capsule which commits to showing LBGTQ artists presented a provocative exhibition replete with art historical references and plenty of visual double entendre. Wang seems to be asking what the line is between human, animal, and microbe through the trope of eroticism/sex and reproduction—a sort of Posthuman pondering executed in the mediums of video, water-color, and pastel drawing.
Beyond these small galleries and art spaces, we are starting to see LBGTQ-themed work in more public venues, such as the Rockbund Art Museum which recently staged a show of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (2016) and the 2016 Biennale, held at the state-run Power Station of Art, which featured the work of Tao Hui, whose video takes aim at the Han heteronormative hegemony, examining the intersectionality of race, gender, and orientation in one very powerful work. Writes scholar Francesca Tarocco:
“Talk about Body” (2013) stages, with devastating intimacy, the double burden of gender and of what anthropologist Louisa Schein has termed China’s ‘internal orientalism.’ In this absorbing piece, the artist impersonates a youth dressed modestly in black to resemble a Chinese Muslim woman. Sitting on the edge of a bed in a sparsely furnished room, s/he meticulously describes her/his body to a group of observers using the pseudoscientific language of racial classification and anthropometry. The work alludes to the ways in which the Han-dominated Chinese state portrays minority nationalities–such as the Muslim Hui–as socially backward and ‘feminine,’ in need of ‘masculine’ Han guidance.[xix]
This provocative piece touches on the casual habit of commenting on the stereotypical body types associated with different regions of China, comments such as “Men from Dongbei are tall,” or “Sichuan ladies are the most beautiful in China.” While most of this talk is light-hearted in nature, it does convey the very casual way in which race and gender are discussed and defined but also the intersectionality of these different states of marginalization.
Han vs. Other: Understanding Race in China
In embarking on this article, I discussed with my editor, the use of the term “race”. I think we both felt it was somewhat awkward, and during the early aughts, it was common to hear the story that “We have no racism in China, because we have no Black people,” as if to say that Americans held the patent on racism. But however awkward, it is nonetheless a relevant framework to understand the various kinds of prejudice which continue to influence museums in China.
Though China is made up of 95% Han Chinese, there are 55 other officially recognized minorities, the largest numbers being the Zhuang, Hui, Manchu, Uighur, and Miao. These minorities collectively account for over 113 million people (almost double entire the population of the UK), and though government policy emphasizes multiculturalism, it is under Han terms.
Yet surprisingly, the concept of the Han ethnicity is itself is largely new construct:
Like the category of whiteness in the United States,’ writes scholar James Liebold, “Han is historically contingent: constructed, performed and institutionalized within the specific cultural framework of ethnic difference in Chinese tradition. One cannot speak of the Han as a distinct nationality, ethnicity or race (what is today rendered in Chinese as either the Hanzu or Han minzu) prior to the first decade of the 20th century.’[xx]
When the term first emerged, it was used to define the sedentary agriculturalists of the China central plane, believers in Confucianism, from the nomadic peoples of the northern steppes, which were known as yi夷 or barbarians.
This notion, Liebold says, re-emerged during the early years of the Republic “Here a new generation of Chinese elites grafted the Western discourse of race (minzu renzhong 人中and zhongzu 种族) on to this exclusivist tradition, reconfiguring a pure and untainted Han racial community which was now constructed in opposition to what the 18-year-old revolutionary Zou Rong termed the “furry and horned” Manchu race (Manzu 满族).” Here we can see how racial supremacy was used as a means of wresting power from the throne and this rhetoric was used to ignite the passions of “young revolutionaries [who] meted out racial vengeance, resulting in the death of tens of thousands of Manchu bannermen and officials.”[xxi]
During the Mao Era, it was recognized that this dahanzhuyi 大汉注意 or Han chauvinism, would provide a stumbling block to the unity of the nation. The Party first set out to catalogue and identify minority groups then proceeded to set up many minority interest groups, commissions, websites, universities, presses, autonomous councils and even “trading cards” with drawings of minorities in national dress, all in the aim of preserving minority cultures. This also extended to a series of “affirmative action-type” policies to improve access to education, political office, tax breaks and exemptions from the one-child policy[xxii]. Yet, as with affirmative action in the US, (known as “reservations” in India), these policies generated a backlash amongst Han who felt that the state’s resources were being squandered. In the late 90s and early aughts, a Han Nationalist movement sprung up, proclaiming Han supremacy and promoting Han culture through a series of websites and online forums which proclaimed that the Han were one of the purest races in the world and stated a commitment to preserving the boundaries between the Han and the so-called barbarians.[xxiii]
Identity Construction: Ethnographical Museums in China
Certainly, these extreme statements should not be taken as a pure barometer of public sentiment; more tolerant views are held by many. But there does seem to be a tendency on the part of the media to spend little time to really understand the history and culture of China’s minorities beyond the elements which might help boost interregional tourism. Their unique stories do not seem to be a priority of China’s museums, which tend to focus on the more exotic or picturesque elements of their existence.
Scholar Marzia Varutti explores the idealistic and one-dimensional portrayals of minorities in her excellent comparison of the presentation of ethnic minorities in three Yunnan Museums “Politics of Imagining and Forgetting in Chinese Ethnic Minority Museums”:
The visitor of museums of ethnic minorities in China might be easily struck by the homogeneity of displays in the museums of the various Provinces of the country. In Beijing as in Shanghai, in Chengdu as in Kunming, museums of ethnic minorities display arrays of colorful ethnic costumes, textiles and embroideries, cooking and smoking tools, and musical instruments. The visitor will learn that a certain ethnic group wears a certain kind of clothes, consumes a certain kind of food, and is ‘good at’ a certain kind of music, dance or performance. Overall, it will be emphasized that all Chinese ethnic groups are equal, actively contributing to the prosperity of the country and living in harmony, far away. [xxiv]
Varutti comments on a topic that many have noticed, which is that a Wunderkammer, Victorianmode of exhibition design, seems to be the default mode in most Chinese museums. Part of this is related to the fact that Chinese museums tend to speak with the voice of the state—a state which has many ongoing conflicts with various minorities, particularly in Xinjiang and Tibet.
“Museums play an active role . . . in the processes of memory and identity engineering,” writes Varutti, “ . . . .to support collective imagination about ethnic minorities’ identities . . . and manipulate ethnic minorities’ identities.”[xxv]
In these museums, the “minorities” their lives and culture are “museified”—seen through an anthropological lens and reduced to the position of being objects of study. There is very little to explain their struggles, challenges, victories, heroes and contemporary existence. These voices are not heard within historical narratives or ethnographic museums and they are seldom heard in the art museums either. Living artists of minority backgrounds often face formidable barriers to entering the contemporary art system unless that is they choose to reproduce this mode of the picturesque or exotic in the depictions of their own culture.
Self-Orientalism: Ethnographical Museums vs. Artist Self-portrayal
For instance, an exhibition sponsored by the China International Cultural Association offers an interesting case study as to the position of minorities within the ecology of the “official art system.” To begin with, let’s look at the name of this association in Chinese 中国对外文化交流协会. It includes the characters 对外 duiwai, meaning external. So this is an association has a mission to conduct exchange with those outside of China. The exhibition featured artists mostly from China’s western regions: Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Yunnan, and Guizhou. The language is typically anodyne, with few hints of criticality. The curators write of a Qinghai artist Ma Yongjin (no mention of this artist’s ethnicity only that they are from Qinghai): “The artist carries out an open visual expression of Muslim culture”—which is essentially paintings of people in exotic costumes on horseback. Another exhibition sponsored by the National Arts Foundation, the Federation of Literary and Art Circles of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Zone China and the Artists Association of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Zone, features the kind of assimilatory rhetoric one would expect from an organization whose title is 22-words long. From the exhibition announcement:
Xu Li says, in regards to the direction of the minority topic, the artistic creation of the minorities is an act of conservation of the traditions and the genetic materials of the minorities, and emphasizes their aspirations and strong efforts towards a modern and civilized life, at the same time expressing a spirit of dedication towards being united members of the Chinese Nation, this also reflects the differences and diversity of the material culture of these different minority cultures.[xxvi][italics added]
It is difficult to find exhibitions that deal with the issue of race or ethnicity in a critical manner. Certainly, it is a sensitive issue—especially given the cultural genocide in Xinjiang—but minority artists are also forced to assimilate into the Han-dominated art world for career reasons. They must first get admitted to a state-run art college, which is hard for any young artist, let alone those living in remote areas with little exposure to art beyond dusty state museums in second and third-tier cities.
Though we do see the beginnings of some debate with Tao Hui’s work at the 2016 Shanghai Biennale, and also in the work of Huang Jingyuan who presented work at “Genders Engender” mentioned earlier in this article. Huang, who is a Zhuang minority, but who has lived in Canada and the US, is both intimately aware of this issue and also more familiar with discourses surrounding gender and race in a North American context. For the exhibition she presented digital prints of this genre of mystical paintings of minority women, exploring the use of the female image in the construction of culture and tradition. (Artists such as He Duoling and Chen Yifei built their careers on this kind of genre painting and these kinds of works still dominate the halls of second-tier museums and private clubs or “huisuo” in the suburban zones of Shanghai or Beijing.)
Going Forward: How to Improve Diversity in Chinese Museums
In order to give greater visibility to these artists, and other artists of diverse backgrounds, institutions need to make a commitment to representation at the highest levels beginning with the staffing plan. The contemporary art world, for example, seems to have no shortage of female, and LGBTQ staff[xxvii]. Just within Shanghai, I can think of a gay museum director, a gay art fair director, and several high-level gay curators, magazine editors and gallery personnel. In other categories of museum (history and general museums), we tend to see less diversity. Minorities are underrepresented in both categories of museums but estimates are difficult to find.
Instituting a diversity policy means more than just ticking boxes. For instance, a major art institution in New York recently went on a spree “diversity hiring” which resulted in three new hires, three individuals who resigned a few months later when they realized that their positions had been created to create the appearance of diversity, yet they had no power to effectively carry out projects.
But diversity goes beyond mere representation. It also implies exploring the issues and the experiences which are central to these distinct communities. As Jonathan Katz and Änne Söll write in their discussion of queer artist representation “The question here, in short, isn’t about literal presence; it’s about discursive presence, about how often, or not often, queerness is named, defined, or referenced.”[xxviii]
Outside of the realm of art museums, there are other measures that can be taken, for instance, to highlight the achievements of women, minorities and LGBT people in history. Beyond figures such as Soong Ching-ling and Zheng He, the Muslim Hui minority explorer, these voices are rarely heard. For instance, the Hakka minorities have produced an extraordinary number of political leaders, including Sun Yat-Sen, but it’s rare to find their voices in state museums. In addition, this interest in diversity should also be reflected in the collections policy so that these histories and the objects associated with them are preserved.
Sometimes these stories are easier to tell within dedicated museums which focus not only on the legacy but also the living culture of these communities. Museums such as Baba House or Peranakan Museum in Singapore are examples of vibrant institutions that not only depict the Peranakans people as a powerful and unique group but also contribute to the place-making of Singapore.
Focusing on these untold stories also offers a way to reach new audiences, marginalized groups who feel that the museum is “not for them” or doesn’t speak to them—to begin to reach beyond the dedicating following of Han history buffs or guoxue (Chinese Classics)fans.
Many museums in the West have tried to overcome a stuffy public image to reach out to communities that would normally never set foot inside their walls. For instance, the Royal Ontario Museum—an encyclopedic museum focusing on art and archaeology—was often thought of as “that place you went on a school field trip in Grade Five.” But the museum is now also the place where 20-year-olds go for an exciting night out on the town. In celebration of Black History Month—the museum organized an excellent exhibition highlighting the history of slavery in a North American context—including Canada’s role—combined with a food fair featuring several of the cities’ prime Caribbean F&B outlets—and entertainment from a local reggae band. Toronto has a large Afro-Caribbean Diaspora—not typically the core of the ROM’s membership—which turned out in great numbers to the event. In fact, it attracted people from a range of different backgrounds, dressed to the nines as if they were attending an event at a downtown nightclub.
London’s National Portrait Gallery provides another strong example of how to overcome one’s stuffy institutional character. The institution was literally founded on a collection of portraits of dead white men—so it had some formidable barriers in terms of attracting a diverse and especially a younger audience. The gallery made a pointed effort to have their collection reflect the robust diversity that is London by engaging the Qatar Museums Authority for the loan of a portrait of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo—a freed-slave from an educated family of Muslim clerics in West Africa. This inclusion in their galleries was accompanied by other initiatives such as the “Black Is The New Black”—a photography exhibition of influential Black Britons which featured an app whereby viewers could hear audio recordings from these inspiring individuals. The recordings not only helped animate the photographs but made the exhibition more about the people and their accomplishments rather than as objects of anthropological study.
This approach to reframing existing collections produces more compelling storytelling. The stories we typically hear in general museums are very broad—they reflect the stories that we hear in school or through popular culture but seem to not go beyond that. These more precise, more defined stories of individual communities actually make for better narratives drawing us in with their specificity.
In crafting a diversity strategy, each museum needs to take a hard look at its institutional track record. For instance, it’s not enough for a museum to stage a show of women, LBGTQ or ethnic minorities when all of the solo exhibitions studiously avoid showing the work of these groups. Institutions must make showing a diverse selection of artists part of the program going forward.
It can involve the simple act of questioning (which occurs during the curatorial process), for instance, “are all the artists in the exhibition, Han and cis-males?” A diversity chairperson can be appointed to help keep these criteria at the front of the agenda, be it in terms of exhibition content, programming, acquisitions, outreach, and research. New management tools need to be created to help guide decision-making processes. If fitting, diversity can be incorporated into a museum’s vision statement. This vision statement could be something like “X museum seeks to generate awareness and enthusiasm of all of the robust art traditions which emerge from various communities within China.” This vision statement can be used to guide all decisions made within the museum and diversity can be incorporated as a staff key performance indicator (KPI) to create an incentive. For more information on diversity strategies ICOM has produced a helpful guide available here: http://archives.icom.museum/diversity.html).
One of the key points in this ICOM guide is the issue of intersectionality—the idea that being female, LGBTQ or of an ethnic minority all have something in common which is the systems of power which unite and collude to deny opportunities to marginalized peoples. We cannot merely address one category of a marginalized group. (This article did not touch on the elderly or disabled but it should have—needless to say there is an infinite amount of work needed on this topic, and museum workers need to scramble to keep up.)
But in a sense, we mustn’t see this work as some kind of social labor—it is more a matter of survival. As museums all over the world struggle to remain relevant in a world of virtual entertainment, part of their appeal is a curated experience that speaks to diversity, inclusivity, tolerance and the quest for knowledge. This is part of the museum brand—to promote a more progressive and forward-thinking world. Museums can make the decision to merely walk in step with the commonly-held values, or they can be trailblazers, tuned into what the younger, millennials and post-90s generation is thinking. They can get ahead of the curve to learn about how to attract young people to their spaces, projecting open values, and inspiring provocative conversations, to help set the stage for meaningful change and a greater sense of inclusivity and fairness.
These might sound like lofty goals, but museums do shoulder the weighty responsibility of meaning production and value production for society as a whole. They are also the scribes of art history, the makers of the artistic canon. As it is now, the task of “diversity” seems to be unevenly shouldered by a small number of curators and institutions in a few nations around the globe. But it should not be solely the job of Western nations, or the few “woke” curators to determine China’s great artists. After all, Western curators and collectors have already exercised a disproportionate influence on the early history of Chinese art.
This rallying cry to local curators, however, does not mean that influential Western institutions should not exercise their power to select more Chinese artists of diverse backgrounds. On the contrary, these institutions provide a valuable platform for Chinese artists to rise above the existing glass ceilings. That said, Western art professionals need to be mindful of China’s specific histories and political contexts and understand that any cross-cultural collaboration may be fraught with misunderstandings and mistranslations in regards to different concepts and terms.
Yet as more and more Chinese artists graduate from institutions
abroad, Goldsmiths, RCA and others, we have seen an assimilation Western modes
of art interpretation. It is certainly easy to be drawn to these artists who
can articulate their vision in such a clear manner, but this doesn’t mean we
need to ignore artists who choose a more oblique method of explaining their
works. As co-creators of the cannon with their Chinese colleagues, Western
curators cannot take the easy way out. They need to apply the same rigorous
standards of diversity when exporting British art to China, and they needn’t be
afraid to broach thorny topics—as it is often expected of foreign artists who
are held to a different standard. Such endeavors, however, need to budget time
and personnel to examine what is the most culturally-sensitive way of executing
such exhibitions, while at the same championing the achievements and exploring
the experiences of these talented and unique individuals.
[i] Movius, Lisa, “Chinese Curator and Critic Li Bowen Resigns Editor Post After Anonymous Allegations,” The Art Newspaper, (last accessed December 5, 2018, https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/chinese-curator-and-critic-li-bowen-resigns-editor-post-following-anonymous-allegations)
[ii] It is quite common for professors to date their students and for older curators to have relationships with their younger colleagues and assistants. The men perpetrating these acts do not seem to see it as shameful.
[iii] To be fair, as a gallery I had restrictions on which artists with whom I could work, but there were and still are a dearth of female artists, who upon graduating fail to negotiate their way through the highly patriarchal network of the Chinese art world.
[iv] This scene would later be re-enacted in the Jia Zhangke film A Touch of Sin 2013.
[v] Wu Meng used these items of clothing in her “Sad Clown” performance at the German Pavilion in the Shanghai Expo in 2010, where followed by a crowd of plainclothes policemen, she incorporated them into her performance, dressing one of them in these clothes and tying his shoelaces together in a bold act of defiance.
[vi] For more details on the surveillance aspect of this incident see, Catching, Rebecca, “The New Face of State Censorship: Control of the Visual Arts in Shanghai” Journal of Visual Art Practice, Vol. 11, issue 2-3, 2012, (last accessed December 7, 2018 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1386/jvap.11.2-3.231_1)
[vii] “Interview with Lu Yang and Jin Shan” Asia Society, (last accessed December 5, 2016, https://asiasociety.org/texas/interview-jin-shan-and-lu-yang)
[viii] To be fair, artists should have the right to define themselves in whatever way they please, but I am merely pointing out that this refusal might seem quite at odds with the dominant discourse of the art world in the West.
[ix] Hui, Wu, “Post-Mao Chinese Literary Women’s Rhetoric Revisited: A Case for an Enlightened Feminist Rhetorical Theory,” College English, Vol. 72, No. 4, Special Topic: Studying Chinese Rhetoric in the Twenty-First Century (March 2010), pp. 407
[x] Mary Gabriel, speaking on her book “Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art” on the podcast “Ninth Street Women,” Museum Confidential, (last accessed December 18, 2018, https://www.publicradiotulsa.org/post/studiotulsa-presents-museum-confidential-ninth-street-women)
[xii] For Instance, Gu Wenda’s Work “Genetics and Metamorphosis 2” performance involved the writing out of the classic of filial piety by an army of primary school students and a ritual hair-cutting performance for mother’s and daughters which emphasized the role of women in this Confucian hierarchy. (For more information see, last accessed December 5, 2019, http://www.wendagu.com/home/product/product/catid/255/parentid/136.html)
[xiii] Alder, Joseph, A., “Daughter/Wife/Mother or Sage/Immortal/Bodhisattva? Women in the Teaching of Chinese Religions,” ASIANetwork Exchange, vol. XIV, no. 2 (Winter 2006), (last accessed, December 5, 2019https://www2.kenyon.edu/Depts/Religion/Fac/Adler/Writings/Women.htm)
[xiv] Though to be fair, Chinese women seem to have a much higher social standing than women in Japan or Korea, countries still burdened by Confucian legacies.
[xv] “Global Gender Gap Report 2018,” World Economic Forum, (last accessed December 5, 2019, http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2018/)
[xvi] T, Guo, “Translating Homosexuality into Chinese: A Case Study of Pan Guangdan’s Translation of Havelock Ellis’ Psychology of Sex: A Manual for students (1933,)”Asia Pacific Translation and Intercultural Studies, February 12, 2016
[xvii] Katz, Jonathan and Söll, Änne, “Editorial” On Curating, Issue 37 / May 2018 Notes on Curating(Last accessed Nov. 18, 2018, http://www.on-curating.org/files/oc/dateiverwaltung/issue-38/PDF_To_Download/oncurating_37_queer_WEB.pdf)
[xviii] Li Alvin, “Spectralosynthesis Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now,” Frieze, December 15, 2017 (last accessed December 13 https://frieze.com/article/spectrosynthesis-asian-lgbtq-issues-and-art-now)
[xix] Tarocco, Francesca, “New Cities, Old Troubles,” Frieze, Nov 6, 2017, (last accessed December 7, 2018, https://frieze.com/article/new-cities-old-troubles)
[xx] Liebold, James, “More Than a Category: Han Supremacism on the Chinese Internet, “ The China Quarterly, 203, September 2010, pp. 542
[xxi] Liebold, James, “More Than a Category: Han Supremacism on the Chinese Internet, “ The China Quarterly, 203, September 2010, pp. 543
[xxii] Liebold, James, “More Than a Category: Han Supremacism on the Chinese Internet, “ The China Quarterly, 203, September 2010, pp. 544
[xxiii] Liebold, James, “More Than a Category: Han Supremacism on the Chinese Internet, “ The China Quarterly, 203, September 2010, pp. 549
[xxiv]Varutti, Marzia, “Politics of Imagining and Forgetting in Chinese Ethnic Minority Museums” OUTLINES—CRITICAL PRACTICE STUDIES, No. 2, 2010, p 69, 70
[xxv]Varutti, Marzia, “Politics of Imagining and Forgetting in Chinese Ethnic Minority Museums” OUTLINES—CRITICAL PRACTICE STUDIES, No. 2, 2010, p 69, 70
[xxvi] Exhibition Announcement, “Fanhua•Liying, Contemporary Art Women Minority Painters, Chinese Painting, Artworks, National Travelling Show, Kunming Exhibition” 凡华·丽影”当代少数民族女性题材（中国画）美术作品全国巡展-昆明站, artron, (Last accessed December 7, 2018, http://exhibit.artron.net/exhibition-53281.html)
[xxvii] I do not have any statistics for the participation rate of minorities in Chinese museums. My assessment of LBGTQ and women is based on anecdotal evidence and personal experience.
[xxviii] Katz, Jonathan and Söll, Änne, “On Curating, Issue 37 / May 2018 Notes on Curating(Last accessed Nov. 18, 2018, http://www.on-curating.org/files/oc/dateiverwaltung/issue-38/PDF_To_Download/oncurating_37_queer_WEB.pdf)