In Her New Film, Wu Tsang Unveils the Queer History of One of China’s Most Famous Poets
“I never would have thought I’d end up in Hong Kong doing this project about a Chinese hero,” says Wu Tsang of her latest film Duilian (2016). “But actually, in the end it made so much sense.” Dulian is at the center of the multidisciplinary L.A.-based artist’s exhibition at Spring Workshop, which opened on March 12th and is set to be a standout during Art Basel in Hong Kong.
The Chinese hero in question is the poet, feminist, and revolutionary Qiu Jin (played in Duilian by boychild, a performance artist and frequent collaborator of Tsang). Qiu Jin was executed in 1907 due to her involvement in an attempt to overthrow the imperial Chinese government. Although she is famous in China, memorialized in museums, books, and films, her private life and sexuality have remained obscure. Duilian addresses this lost history by exploring Qiu Jin’s relationship with her female friend, the calligrapher Wu Zhiying (played by Tsang).
Much of the action takes place on a colonial-style junk boat, still a common site in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. “The boat is like a floating theater that contains a constructed reality encompassing different geographies and time periods,” Tsang explains of her choice of location. “In the background you see contemporary Hong Kong, which doesn’t make sense,” she says. “It’s definitely not 1907, you know? But I think it looks beautiful.” Soft, warmly lit scenes of the lovers ensconced on the boat are intercut with sequences of fierce women practicing martial arts. The violence of swords slicing the air suggests that Qiu Jin and Wu Zhiying’s floating idyll isn’t meant to last.
Tsang’s prolific (and frequently collaborative) creative output includes the award-winning documentary Wildness (2012), which focuses on the denizens of L.A.’s historic Latin/LGBT nightclub Silver Platter and the parties organized there by Tsang with DJs NGUZUNGUZU and Total Freedom. Included in the 2012 Whitney Biennial and MoMA’s permanent collection, the film is an exploration of trans identity and the continued marginalization of queer communities. Moved by the Motion is an ongoing performance piece staged with boychild in which Tsang typically sings as boychild dances. Linked to these performances is the film A day in the life of bliss (2014), a sci-fi tale starring boychild as a famous pop star leading a double life as an underground performer, an act of rebellion against the techno-totalitarian government.
Tsang often uses her performances as a testing ground for ideas for her films, Duilian included. In the leadup to a related performance, which took place in preparation for the film, Tsang discovered that a number of Qiu Jin’s poems that she wanted to use weren’t fully translated from traditional Chinese. With the help of Christina Li, the director at Spring Workshop, she did a quick and dirty translation. Next, Tsang and boychild rewrote the poems. “We said, oh these are funny, let’s make them funnier,” Tsang explains.
Following the performance, Tsang had the poems professionally translated, but in the end she preferred her own translation. This discovery was central to the artist’s conception of the film: mistranslation as a method of queering the official narrative by making visible the invisible. When the voiceover in the opening minutes of Duilian intones, Once we slept beside each other / falling asleep to the sound of rain at night, it becomes clear that these translated lines of Qiu Jin’s poetry refer to her relationship with Wu Zhiying, as the viewer watches them leaning together, sharing a cigarette. “Qiu Jin and Wu Zhiying were women who had a very intimate relationship that could have a queer interpretation,” says Tsang. “I’m also not trying to prove that they were lesbians, but I am interested in that angle.” For the artist, mistranslation can actually function like a mirror held up to the amatuer translator. As Tsang puts it, “Translation can be a process through which we discover ourselves.”
In a sense, Duilian has been incubating for at least a decade. When Tsang visited China for the first time in 2005, she discovered the story of Qiu Jin and Wu Zhiying, a moment she describes as a profound encounter. “I was staying in Shanghai with these friends who are lesbians and I told them that I was interested in Qiu Jin, that she was rumoured to be a lesbian. They said, ‘That’s crazy! She’s super famous, but we’ve never heard that she’s gay.’”
The conversation led to a trip to Qiu Jin’s home town of Shaoxing, where a display at the museum dedicated to the poet reinforced Tsang’s suspicions. It seemed obvious that the museum’s account of Qiu Jin and Wu Zhiying’s friendship indicated a romantic connection. “It wasn’t even censored,” Tsang says. “They didn’t even put two and two together. The funny thing was that we were able to find out about it because it was invisible, it didn’t even exist.” That was, of course, until someone came along with the right lens to reveal it.
“Queer histories are always unofficial, always hidden,” Tsang explains, but as covert as these stories are, coded traces remain. It seems fitting that Tsang first traveled to her father’s homeland in search of her roots, but discovered Qiu Jin, a bold, transgressive, and (possibly) queer artist, instead. Watching Duilian allows us to share this lens, to understand Qiu Jin’s life as Tsang did that day at the museum in Shaoxing: through the recognition of a concealed narrative. As Tsang puts it, “It’s a very familiar thing to see it and say to yourself, okay I know what’s really happening here.”