East Palace, West Palace—A Rebellion on the screen

“I’m not despicable, I’m just like you,” was the first battlecry of the Chinese queer community against its on-screen marginalisation.

Art by Jocelin Chan.

Although queer cinema has been forced to exist underground in China due to political censorship, the exploration of identity and gender on screen has never ceased. For the Chinese queer community, which grew up under cultural and political oppression, the screen constitutes a weapon to fight against discrimination with images and pleasure.

Playing on themes of power, masochism, drag and sexual fantasy, East Palace, West Palace (1996) was one of the first radical and rebellious steps for Chinese queer cinema. Revolving around the interrogation and recollections of Alan, a cis gay man, after his arrest by Xiao Shi, a police officer, the film reveals the marginalisation and defiance of the Chinese gay community in the 1990s under bureaucracy and the heteronormative order.

As a gay man, Alan does not conform to traditional notions of  ‘masculinity’. Instead, he is a slim man with a soft voice who was caught having sex with another man. It is these feminine transgressions that bring scorn and correction upon him. In response to heteronormativity, Alan’s linguistic resistance takes a form of confession; by recounting his experience as a homosexual, he denounces stigmatisation from Shi and consequently reconstructs an authentic discourse of queer life.

The relationship between Shi, representing the authority of the state, and Alan, who is marginalised, controlled and intimidated, is also an embodiment of the reality of the general aphasia of the queer community in China. When Alan changes into a dress and wig left behind by a previously-arrested transgender man during the interrogation and declares his prisoner-police sexual fantasies, the political power relations of the pair are reversed. Shi, as the masculine counterpart, becomes flustered, rather than sexually confident and authoritative. This scene alone powerfully dissolves fixed connotations of gender and identity, revealing the constructedness of both societal and gender norms. 

Notably, the actor who plays Alan, Si Han, is gay in real life. Therefore, his character’s line, “I’m not despicable, I’m just like you,” also constitutes the first time that the Chinese queer community has been able to refuse its stigmatisation on screen.

However, as Chinese cinema seeks to increase queer acceptance and visibilities in mainstream culture, the radical expression of gender and identity in queer cinema gave way to more romance. 

From Happy Together (1997) to Lan Yu (2001), these narratives instead follow a stereotypical (traditionally heterosexual) love story template of tribulations and love. Gender identity is downplayed; experiences and meanings of queer identity are no longer the focus of the narrative. Although decentring queerness in these stories arguably creates a common ground with the heterosexual majority, it paradoxically conforms and reinforces the legitimacy of the heteronormative order. This in turn further marginalises the exploration of queer identity in film.

Nevertheless, the Chinese queer community’s on-screen resistance is far from over and even extends beyond. The film A Dog Barking At the Moon (2019), a direct discussion of the condition of queer people in rural China in the 1980s, won the Teddy Award at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival. When asked to censor scenes for screening qualification back in China, director Xiang Zi refused and released the film in full length on social media. 

“I hope my country and government will one day understand that one can love anyone without censorship,” said a defiant Xiang. 

For over 20 years, Chinese queer cinema has been through trials and silencing, but its defiance on and off-screen still echoes beneath the iron curtain of Chinese political censorship.

Mandarin Translation:




作为生理性别的男性,阿兰不符合传统的 “男性气质 “规范。相反,他是一个纤细与柔弱的男性,在公园与同性交欢时被当场逮捕。而也正是这些女性化的举止让他成为众矢之的。为了回应异性恋霸权,阿兰用自白的形式进行语言上的反抗;通过诉说他作为同性恋者的经历,他拒绝了小史对他身份的污名,并由此重新构建了一个真实的酷儿话语。