When we think of drag, we may not necessarily think of China. However, sexuality and gender fluidity are very much alive in China’s rapidly changing social landscape, as is the slowly-rising drag queen scene. Temper tasty Emily Aspinall explores the country’s evolving relationship with non-binary identification.
The Evolution Of Drag In The East
Contemporary China is what we can describe as a rapidly developing country, but not just in an economic sense, a social one too, and over the past few decades an ardent desire for sex equality has developed. However, this hasn’t always been the case- it is important to remember the past. Let’s begin by taking the Peking opera as an example which, at the outset, was initially an exclusively male pursuit. The Qianlong Emperor had banned all female performers in Beijing in 1772 but that didn’t stop men playing iconic female roles. In fact, these roles were held in the highest of esteem. Indeed, at this time, such an approach was not exclusive to the Chinese nation. In Elizabethan England women were not allowed to act on stage, female roles being played by males — preferably boys due to their higher pitched voices and prepubescent skin.
Back in the East, it’s tricky to define when drag queen culture became prevalent, as the first recorded use of “drag” referred to actors dressed in women’s clothing is from 1870.
Back East, it’s tricky to define when drag queen culture became prevalent, as the first recorded use of “drag” referred to actors dressed in women’s clothing is from 1870. Chinese actor and cultural treasure Mei Lanfang is a good starting point. Lanfang was one of the most internationally famous Peking opera artists in modern Chinese theatre. He was exclusively known for his female lead roles (dan) and particularly his “verdant-robed girls” (qingyi), young or middle-aged women of grace and refinement. Donning his intricately beautiful head ware and blushed painted pink cheeks, Mei’s iconic and flawless movement from handsome man to elegant women was a fascination of, not only the Chinese, but audiences around the world. He was even lucky enough to have a cigarette brand named after him. So, with all that, I guess this perhaps makes Mei the first household ‘drag’ queen name in Chinese history (though they didn’t know it back then). Mei is like a century-old open expression of LGBT identity and drag style.
VICE China recently highlighted the situation of drag queens in the East with their documentary about drag and gender diversity: “Young People: Making Your Own Empress”. One protagonist in the show is Frozen Lolita, a “futuristic androgyny”-themed drag queen from Beijing.
Drag, A Western ‘Phenomenon’?
Venturing into the 20th century, drag queens are now a more visible part of art and culture. Particularly in the West, drag culture is bigger than it ever has been, with exposed platforms like reality TV are providing us with series “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. Last year, the show had its most successful season, building incredible viewing figures and followings via social media. This means drag queens are no longer something we must actively seek out, fans can now be exposed to a broad range of aesthetics and styles from the click of button. Before this, drag was submerged in underground clubs and back-alley bars. It is these mainstream shows that remove the stigma around drag- all around the world.
Drag queens have in the West over the years become household names, with Dame Edna Everage and Pepper LaBeija just two at the forefront of my mind. This got me thinking… What, then, is the Chinese equivalent to these famous drag queens? And does that even exist?
Well, only very recently, VICE China highlighted the situation of drag queens in the East with their documentary about drag and gender diversity. “Young People: Making Your Own Empress” discusses how Chinese young people will recognize “another me” when Western culture enters a repressed Chinese context.” One of the two protagonists in the show is Frozen Lolita, a “futuristic androgyny”-themed drag queen from Beijing.
The documentary shows that drag is way more than just glitz, glamour and two puffs of blusher. In fact, Frozen Lolita spends a meticulous amount of time planning and creating her make-up and costumes. Squeezing into tight corsets, shaving and plucking to absolute perfection. Much time, thought and energy goes into making themselves look stage-ready. The documentary depicts how preparation doesn’t always come easy.
And don’t stop me now as I present you with more evidence of broadminded drag culture in China. In 2017, Shanghai witnessed its biggest annual drag show at LGBT venue Lucca. Events like this speak of a positive and optimistic future for drag in China. A free pass for all to step outside the comfort and express yourself! There we have it- proof that progressive drag culture in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing is strong and prosperous.
Who knows, it might not be long until “Frozen Lolita” is a household name across China — just as “RuPaul: has become a brand in herself across the U.S.
China’s Sina Weibo platform in April of 2018 announced that — for the next three months — it would be having a “clean up”, removing pictures “with pornographic implications, promoting bloody violence, or related to homosexuality”.
A Censored Identity
China’s ever changing social landscape, does produce some issues, though. China’s Sina Weibo platform in April 2018 stated that — for the next three months — it would be having a “clean up”, removing pictures “with pornographic implications, promoting bloody violence, or related to homosexuality”. In response, Weibo users posted photos with their partners and families, under the #iamgay. This backlash from the Chinese citizens is refreshing, a positive outcome (Weibo changed course) and a chance to eliminate discrimination. But, the ban still speaks of the pressure media companies face in China to produce content deemed ‘proper’ by the authorities.
It is important to remember that in China, gender equality has come a long way. Confucianism, the ancient religion and philosophy of China, had a strong belief in maintaining men’s dominance over women; trans women were therefore viewed as shameful for expressing a lower status.
Homosexuality was decriminalised in 1997 and in 2001 removed from the government’s list of mental disorders. This means China’s drag scene has evolved relatively quickly. However, the drag scene is in its comparative infancy here and despite the ongoing media and censorship issues, it doesn’t seem to stop the rhetoric in China surrounding the rise of drag. What’s more, technological advancements in China have also helped promote greater awareness about drag in youth culture- WeChat groups are rife, and we can see more and more trans-identifying characters in movies (which we can now access through western media, score!).
“The Shanghai drag scene is booming. More and more drag queens will emerge from behind the curtains, this is with the help of new venues, parties and designers all coming out to support drag.” Timothy Parent
The Tidal Waves Of Time
As Bob Dylan predicted in his 1964 hit, times, they are very much changing. But, I’m sure were all wondering, is drag still an underground culture in the modern metropolis of Shanghai?
Temper spoke to our much beloved Timothy Parent from China Fashion Bloggers to get his opinion on the matters at hand. If he were to describe drag in Shanghai in one word, it would be “booming”. Parent, a judge on several a drag show jury in China said, “You used to be able to count the known drag queens on one hand and now there are dozens in Shanghai.” According to him, in the past two years, we have seen an upsurge of new drag queens emerging onto the scene, as the interest in drag, competitions and parties grows. Optimistic, huh!
Looking towards the future, Parent predicts more and more drag queens will emerge from behind the curtains, this is with the help of new venues, parties and designers all coming out to support drag. Take Medusa for example, a club night in Shanghai, they support drag queens by letting them into their parties for free. Their ‘glitter soaked monthly queer rave’ is a space for self-expression and all round wholesome fun, where your ‘fantasy can come reality’. AND… there is more! DKNSTRKT (which stands for “deconstruct” for those who aren’t down with the kids) are a Shanghai based collective of gender fluid drag lovers who challenge and deconstruct gender through drag. They believe in drag for all, no matter your sexuality or gender identity. There you have it, diverse and exciting drag community right here in Shanghai.
Androgynous style, or gender fluidity has always been markedly popular in China (somewhat unknowingly), with gender-fluid looks dating as far back as the Mao suit.
The Art Of/In/From Drag
Views on sexuality in China can be confusing, but they are changing and very much alive. With the post 1990 generation becoming more open minded about the concept of gender, art and drag go hand in hand. Tom Selmon is a photographer of drag queens who was until very recently parked in Beijing. He captures the ‘everydayness’ of drag in this huge city; a real juxtaposition to the more ‘extreme’ hair and makeup we may be used to seeing and associating with drag. His photography becomes more about the people, the individuals and male beauty.
Androgynous style, or gender fluidity has always been markedly popular in China (somewhat unknowingly), with gender-fluid looks dating as far back as the Mao suit. In 2012, high fashion got involved when Vivienne Westwood adopted the suit with a sexy, floral edge. Turning a symbol of communism into high fashion, darling.
And as for street style, the young Chinese generation are constantly on the lookout for that ‘shock value’ whether it be matching couple outfits, or pyjamas in the middle of the day. My predictions are, this impressionable generation will embrace a more gender fluid style, insipid by drag, on a more day to day basis.
With drag art, fashion, networks and nightclubs galore in Beijing and Shanghai, lets hope to see this immersive scene extending outside of these big cities and around China. Who knows? We may see the glitz and glamour of drag hitting the streets and catwalks of China very soon
The sky is the limit for drag in China, and we wouldn’t expect any less of this ever-changing country.
Written by Emily Aspinall for Temper Magazine
Featured Image: Courtesy of Shenzhen’s very own viral drag sensation Sister Tomato
Copyright@Temper Magazine, 2018. All rights reserved
As a freelance journalist, she specializes in Chinese society and fashion, her fascination surrounding the East grew since living and working in a rural ex-fishing village on the outskirts of Shanghai.
Aspinall aims to capture a sense of the colourful and dynamic contemporary China, which continues to revolutionise and evolve.
Aspinall holds an English Literature degree from Sheffield University. She explored the literary canon, starting with old English and ending with the contemporary period, her area of speciality and research is post-war British social realism. While studying, she also on gained experience at the BBC, local publishing houses and copy edited the student newspaper.
Since moving to China, she has written regularly for Temper Magazine,The Shanghaiist and her personal blog. Her interests include gender fluidity, the modern representation of women, sustainability and the underground scene in China.
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