Paper cutting is a form of traditional Chinese folk art, with a history dating back to at least 1,500 years. At the New Year and weddings, cuttings are pasted onto doorframes, walls and cupboards to wish for good fortune and a long life, or just as decorations. Popular subjects include flowers and birds, Chinese symbols, or are taken from folk tales. Xiyadie has developed this traditional folk art from the expression of collective cultural memories to the depiction and expression of the life and emotions of the individual. His paper cuttings are fearless depictions of same-sex life and his particular path out of the closet. This old traditional art, which faced extinction, becomes a lively modern art form in Xiyadie's hands.
Xiyadie was born in a small village in the northern Shaanxi province. He is 48, and now works in Beijing as a doorman, cook and cleaner. He sends the greater part of his earnings to his family in Shanxii, hundreds of miles away, every month. Like so many other gay Chinese of his age, he is married. He has two children in their 20s. His oldest son has been disabled since birth and cannot manage on his own. According to sociological studies, some 90% of all gay men in China are married. 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. "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 is a pseudonym, meaning "Siberian butterfly". He uses it to protect his identity. He was recently honest with his wife, who became very tearful but now seems to have come to terms with the situation. The two children still do not know. Xiyadie says with great candour: "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."
Today, it is mostly older rural women who dedicate themselves to paper cutting; the young make their way to the cities to make money, and the traditional art form is dying out. Xiyadie learnt cutting from his mother. 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.
Prison 1 is a fairly early work: a young man is pressed between to large rocks, a depiction of Xiyadie's first awareness of his homosexuality. Joy 1 depicts his first gay experience, with a man who worked aboard a train (and later for period was his boyfriend). In the right-hand corner, we see a rabbit, traditionally symbolising a guardian angel for homosexuals. But the realities of life included many difficulties for him. Door 1 showcases this dilemma: the Moon lights up a farmer's home, and two swallows (symbolising "home") build their nest under the roof ridge. Indoors, a woman with long tresses sits on the bed carrying a child. The inside is warm and quietly calm. But outside the door stands a man performing oral sex on another. If you look closely, you see that the man has two faces, one turned towards the lover outside and one towards the wife and child within.
"There's a Chinese proverb that says: 'you eat from the bowl while you look at the pot'. I already have a family, a wife and children, so why would I also want a boyfriend? You might say I'm greedy, but that's my inner opposition." The subject of the door exists in several of his cuttings (Door 2-3). The door is an opportunity but can also be a trap, and the contrast between the life within and outside the door is an image of the inner struggle in his double life.
In Prison 2, he wants to take control of his urges (he sews his penis together using a needle and thread). But his eyes can't let go of "him" (a 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 (Fly 1).
Xiyadie never dared show these cuttings others. But one day two film directors, a married couple, arrived in the village. They wanted to make a documentary about the paper cutting tradition, and had heard of his skill. They happened to see some of these cuttings, and started asking him prudently about them. Xiyadie finally told them his story, which resulted in the couple helping him to get to Beijing.
Once in Beijing, he got a job as a doorman and cleaner in a large private villa in the mountains in the outskirts of Beijing. Here he met a man who would become the first boyfriend he had a long-term relationship with. The series Cave and Joy depict the happiest years of his life. They lived together, cooked food, grew vegetables, took care of each other in times of illness, and had fun together. In his imagination, this would be a happiness to last the rest of their lives, until they were both old and grey. But his boyfriend left him. In one image, reminiscent of the final scene in the film Brokeback Mountain, he smells an article of clothing his boyfriend left behind. Innumerable hands stretch upwards, he is exposed, his grief can be felt throughout his body.
Xiyadie later went to Songzhuang, a large area in east Beijing where many artists keep their studios. Here he works as a doorman and got to know the city's gay life, and encountered openness to his sexuality (Disco 1-2). He was helped to start selling his paper cuttings, and also made cuttings for some activities. Drag Queen was created for the opening of Fan Popo's film Be a Woman. Above the stairs is the city with its high-rise buildings, below them are the bars where the drag queens appear – underground.
Now Xiyadie lives where he works as a doorman. His room is small – two metres by five, really a passage between two homes, but there's a roof above it, so it's become a home against the rain. There is a bed and a small table, above which is a shelf filled with piles of paper cuttings. I note the photograph of his ex-boyfriend and a diploma on the shelf. It's a tight squeeze as we stand selecting paper cuttings, and we regularly have to go out into the yard for fresh air.
He has received awards for his art, and every time I visit him in Songzhuang, he proudly displays his diplomas. Experts have admired his art and say he is contributing to rescuing the art form, but they are not referring to the cuttings with homosexual themes, which cannot be shown at public exhibitions.
Out in the yard getting fresh air, we can talk in a more relaxed manner. Xiyadie speaks frankly and freely. I ask him what his plans are. This man who is a son, a husband and a father is quiet for a while. "I don't have any plans, I suppose I'll keep living. I have my paper cuttings, which I create when I'm sad and when I'm happy. I don't do it for money or fame. As long as I can speak, I'm alive, and as long as I'm alive, everything's all right."
Before leaving, I choose another two cuttings: two recent ones using the Chinese symbol "double happiness", a subject used to celebrate newlyweds. In one cutting, the sign is made of red paper, in the other of white paper that has been coloured, as per tradition. The symbols are fastened to a vase full of flowers; inside the vase, two men are depicted, one just on the verge of looking out at the world outside. There's still hope.
1963: born in Shaanxi
Lives and works in Beijing