Chi Peng “Sprinting-Forward”. Photo via Tropenmuseum

Secret Love: Sexual Diversity in China

Exhibition poster. Photo by Yang Guowei.

The Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam is currently showing Secret Love: Sexual Diversity in China, a thought-provoking and most necessary contemporary art exhibition (on show until 8 May 2016).

Through 45 works by 10 renowned Chinese artists such as Ma Liuming, Gao Brothers, Li Xiaofeng and Chi Peng, the exhibition explores subjects like sexuality, desire and taboo, emphasising in particular the artists’ commitment to creating change. The focus of the exhibition is especially about taboos surrounding lesbian, homosexual, bisexual and transgender (LGBTs) identities in China.

Originally curated by the National Museums of World Culture in Sweden, Secret Love asks “How do positive changes towards sexual diversity in China affect LGBTs?”

“We have done extensive research in preparation for this exhibition. This is something that nobody has done before. You could say that this exhibition is a new chapter in Chinese artistic history.” — Si Han, Exhibition Curator
Photography by Chi Peng in the exhibition

The introduction to the exhibition explains that Chinese society has been experiencing rapid changes, resulting in shifting views on sexuality and identity. This change has been particularly evident when it comes to the LGBTQ community. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997 and is since 2001 no longer regarded as a mental illness. But (as in many other societies, including in the Western world) many taboos remain. The internet and a more open society have brought greater awareness of individual rights.

The stories of the artists presented in Secret Love are very moving and offer a deep perspective on the many emotional levels and complexities of LGBTQ people in China.

Left: video by Cheng Juanzi & Song Jianing. Right: video by Fan Popo

Xiyadie’s paper cuttings are particularly moving. Born in 1963, Xiyadie is an artist from a small village in the northern Shaanxi province, living and working in Bejing. He learnt cutting from his mother. In a 2012 interview with Advocate he explains that he was fascinated by the paper cutting done by the old women in his village. He adds, “Paper cutting is my own spiritual world. It is my world.” During his years in the village, he felt great mental pressure and had no one to unburden his heart to; for him, paper cutting became a way of expressing his pain and his joy.

“I knew I liked men from an early age, but in the country, it’s completely unthinkable to come out as gay, it’s even seen as criminal.”— Xiyadie

According to sociological studies, some 90% of all gay men in China are married, and so is Xiyadie. He has two children in their twenties. His oldest son has been disabled since birth and cannot manage on his own. In Confucian tradition, there are three types of lack of filial respect, and the worst is not to provide for the family line’s continuation. It is a strong social pressure.

Xiyadie’s paper cuttings.
“A divorce is out of the question; my wife and children live in the village and a divorce would hit them hard. Tradition is harsher than the winds in Siberia. But I’ve heard that there is a type of butterfly there that can survive in the cold. I wish I had the wings of a Siberian butterfly so that I could fly away from all the difficulty. I like cutting out butterflies very much; I long for freedom.”— Xiyadie

Xiyadie is a pseudonym, meaning “Siberian butterfly”. He uses it to protect his identity. He recently came out to his wife, who became very tearful but has apparently come to terms with the situation. The two children still do not know.

Xiyadie never dared show these cuttings to anyone. One day two film directors, a married couple, arrived in the village to make a documentary about the paper cutting tradition. They had heard of his skill and wanted to talk to him. After seeing some of these cuttings, they started asking him prudently about them. Xiyadie finally told them his story, which resulted in the couple helping him to get to Beijing where he started working as a doorman, cook and cleaner. He sends the greater part of his earnings to his family back in Shanxii every month.

Xiyadie’s paper cuttings

His pieces are deeply moving: the fragility of paper, the precision required in the art of paper cutting and the use of colours — prominent black and red, but also colourful pieces including pink, white and yellow, all together express an innocent yet painful, romantic yet erotic depictions of homosexuality.

Xiyadie’s paper cuttings (on the left: Prison 2)

In Prison 2 (pictured above), Xiyadie wants to take control of his urges, so in this piece, he sews his penis together using a needle and thread, but his eyes can’t let go of the picture of his boyfriend (in the left corner), so he sits uncomfortably, as if on the edge of a sword. To live as if in a cage, wishing to fly away but unable to do so. This piece has a strong violence within it and yet bears so much love.

Visa to the USA by Ma Liuming
“…we judge a person by their clothes and other cultural markers, and not by who that person is. The attitude with which one encounters outward appearance often dictates how one encounters the inner personality.” — Ma Liuming

Artist Ma Liuming (1969)’s work Visa to the USA is also fascinating and explores well how gender is judged according to visual experience. In the image above you see three enlarged copies of his US visa: one describing his sex as F, the second one with F stamped “cancelled without prejudice” and the third one with M. In 1998, Ma Liuming applied for a visa to the USA to travel to New York for his exhibition PS1. When he received the visa, he discovered that he had been registered as “female” rather than “male”.

“They just looked at my photo and didn’t feel they needed to check what it said in my application.”

He went back to the US embassy in Beijing to get his visa. It was stamped with an “M”.

Fen Ma Liuming Series No. 1 (1993)

Very well curated, the exhibition ends with an afterword acknowledging the absence of the many feature films with gay, lesbian and transsexual themes or roles produced in China since 1996, and explaining apologetically that it has been difficult to identify more female artists for the exhibition (only three out of the twelve female artists presented in Sweden are on show in Amsterdam). This acknowledgement is much appreciated, especially in view of the theme. I usually am very sensitive about gender balance in public events but here, I must say, I didn’t think much about it. Maybe it is because the themes around gender and sexuality are already central to the exhibition, and that the curation allows the viewer to delve deeply into these questions through the art. All in all, the images are powerful and the exploration of themes around gender and sexuality through art is necessary across nations and cultures. I hope to see more of such stories and deep creative expressions.

Secret Love: Sexual Diversity in China is open until 8 May 2016 at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. For further details about the artists and their work, visit the exhibition’s webpage.

Reviewed version of an article originally published at