Published in Artomity, Summer 2016
In 2005, Massachusetts-born, LA-based performance artist Wu Tsang set off for China to trace her ethnic roots. Her father, who was born in Chongqing, fled China as a child with his journalist parents in 1949, on the cusp of the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. They travelled through Hong Kong, the first port of call for thousands fleeing persecution and fearing the onset of the Communist regime, and made their way to the US. Almost 70 years later, Tsang took the same journey back to China, and it was to prove serendipitous creatively.
“I grew up in a white American part of the States. We were the only Asians, so I had a mythical notion of my heritage,” she says. Coming across the story of Qiu Jin led to a decade of research and artistic discovery. “I had an awakening,” she says. “I researched everything I could about her.”
Tsang worked collaboratively with fellow performance artist Boychild, who portrays Qiu in the film, and the film is rooted in performance; this has long been the backbone of the duo’s work. Boychild’s performance career grew out of the San Francisco drag scene, while Tsang has been a seminal fixture in and driving force behind the Los Angeles LGBT scene. Tsang was one of the creators of LA’s legendary Wildness parties, frequented by the city’s LGBT community, which were the subject of her award-winning documentary Wildness (2012). Transformation, appropriation and the construction of alternative stories have always been part of queer nightlife and drag culture, and Duilian continues playing with these tropes.
Qiu’s rumoured lesbian love affair, and the broader theme of queer history and its invisibility, were the point of departure for Tsang, who describes herself as a transactivist and whose work has long explored and celebrated gender and sexual identity. “Qiu Jin for me in a sense is a trans figure. Of course there’s the surface thing: she dressed in men’s clothing and carried a sword, and had this persona of a male figure, like a knight. But in a deeper sense she really created a way of being that didn’t exist at the time.”
The film itself is a fictitious exploration of the women’s supposed love affair, usually omitted from official histories, which is represented through dramatised scenes of the couple together. But it is also about language, the power it has in shaping our relationships with one another, how it can construct or reconstruct truths, and how it shapes history. “The writing has been healing for me, working with the poetry,” says Tsang. “It makes me think a lot about how language can escape from its time period and from the constraints of society. It can allow us to express desire or ways of being. I am trying to create a language here to communicate with others.” Rather than providing a faithful account of Qiu’s life, the film cracks open and deconstructs the apparatus of storytelling, and does so with humour and beauty. “I love the folklore,” says Tsang. “I don’t care how much is true. History is just a distortion anyway,” framed by those in power, she adds.
The film has a narcotic quality, enveloping us, inviting us to slip into this world of sorrow, love and revolution as we are rocked gently by the undulating rhythms of waves, the sound of rain pattering down, and dolorously toned poetry. Water is omnipresent in the film: it is the backdrop against which the story and relationship unfold. Water becomes a metaphor for the fluidity of time and place, and of identity: Qiu the martyr, the lover, the poet, the transgressive queer revolutionary. Through water we are transported from one time and place to another, from the floating theatre of a colonial- style interior of a Hong Kong junk, suggestive of turn-of-the-20th-century China, to a modern-day Hong Kong landscape crowded with drab high-rises – and from Qiu as a historical figure to one that has just as much relevance today.
Tsang combines performance with research and her own personal imagery to reflect on questions of authenticity and artifice. After all, she says, the reconstruction of history can be as important as the supposedly real thing. Driven by rich visuals and a doleful, Duilian speaks to and of many identities, for “there is no one authentic identity”, says Tsang. It is an evocative tapestry of desires and hopes, a story of identity slippage and the power of words.