Drag shows are not at all unusual or alien in modern China, and feature in the clubs that form part of ordinary night life in most large cities. The photographs of the Gao Brothers document a group of drag queens. It was more by coincidence that they encountered such a show in Jinan, the provincial capital of Shandong, a middling city of six million inhabitants.
Gao Brothers 高氏兄弟
1956: Gao Zhen 高兟 born in Jinan, Shandong
1962: Gao Qiang 高强 born in Jinan, Shandong
Live and work in Jinan and Beijing
I am not sure to what extent these shows are influenced by Western bar culture, but one thing is certain: that men dressed as women and women dressed as men appearing and singing on a stage is a Chinese cultural tradition. In Beijing opera, both female and male roles have traditionally been performed by men, and in Huangmei opera, women also play male roles. They have always been seen and respected as artists, not "drag queens" or "drag kings". Today, many view Beijing opera as a cultural antique, preferring reality TV. Two of the most famous winners in the recent Chinese counterpart to Idol are Li Yugang and Li Yuchun. The former is a man, but appeared as a female singer. Li Yuchun is a young girl who appeared as a boy. There are many of these artists; some have been in ensemble casts and toured abroad, and nobody ever thought of it as having anything to do with drag shows. It has been even less associated with transvestism or homosexuality. Could it be that if you are successful, you are called an artist, but if you fail to break through, you are labelled a drag queen, transvestite, homosexual?
The Gao brothers strive for artistic freedom in their work, but the title they gave this video piece is worth considering. It is clearly about drag queens, but the Chinese name means "Chinese homosexuals" and the English title for the video is Chinese Transvestites. This indicates that the difference is not clear. Resistance to restrictions in political freedom are not necessarily synonymous with moral openness and understanding in these matters. But the attention they have given this group is worth endorsing. I hope that this work by the two world-famous brothers can raise thoughts and lead to critical reflection among viewers.
The Gao Brothers are a pair of artist brothers based in Jinan and Beijing. They have been collaborating on painting, installation, performance, sculpture, photography and writing since the mid-1980s. Their work has been exhibited all over the world, and is held in private and museum collections, such as The China National Museum, Centre Georges Pompidou, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and The Princeton University Art Museum.
Si Han, Curator