Queer Dan 群妖會
By Agnus Tam (26th June 2023, Vierte Welt)
Queer Dan marks an end of a chapter of Ming Poon´s »Nan Dan« research. I had the luck to join the workshop and to witness the first research outcome. Both occasions sparked off thoughts like fireworks in my head. What I manage to capture on paper is the provocation of each piece left in me. In doing this I make my best effort not to oversimplify or underrepresent the works of each investigator in the “Nan Dan” research.
Stemming from the form of Nan Dan (cross-dress performance, for the sake of visualization) and in the spirit of Queer, queer Dan is to debase and to destabilize, for a simple need to manifest. Although all queer dans look Chinese, they are in fact different Chinese-se. They have varying degree of affiliation to Chinese-ness. It can be positive, it can be negative. The contingency that we are born into certain Chinese culture and into a Chinese skin dictates how we negotiate with Chinese culture. At this point I have to turn to the Chinese title 群妖會. 妖, abstractly translated as queer in the direction of evil spirit, is derogatory in itself. Among the many terms that built on 妖 is 妖言惑眾, that the ill speech (e.g. fake news, false information) delude the public. Language is personal is political.
Language: Written – Spoken – Visual
Language is a discriminatory tool because it is a code that primarily to unite but it at the same time estranges. It is obvious that Chinese language is not too common a language in Berlin, the visual language that has strong cultural connotation can be more challenging.
Four out of the eight performances in the presentation have spoken or written words, the other four without. According to Ming Poon, the artistic direction of this presentation, each of the performance is themed on one Chinese female character of each performer´s choice. Based on the choice, each queer Dan developed their piece that responds to Nan Dan, as however they interpret it.
As a result, it is a personal and individualistic cultural negotiation where “Chinese-ness” is the point of entry is the point of departure. As an audience originally from Hong Kong, with Cantonese as mother tongue and received education of Chinese language and culture up to end of secondary school, each dialog (as in the context of cultural negotiation) is intimately heimlich to me. Yet, it is at once unfamiliar to me because my attachment to the eight motifs in each performance were different from that of the respective queer Dans. If I were to describe the performances/ presentation holistically, it was like walking into a hall of mirror. Each performance reflects a different facet of “me” – the subject-object. It feels like everything – everywhere – all at once. In the same structure I would reflect how each piece speaks to me, then I would conclude with few thoughts the spatial and temporal dimensions of the presentation.
1. 李清照 Li Qingzhao by Jianyu Wang
I was surprised when I realised the segment by Jianyu´s piece was based on the Song Dynasty poet, Li Qingzhao (1084-1155). Because his appearance struck me as「書生」( male scholar role).
On second thought, I also realised that I like the poet for her “male” qualities: being articulate about her love and yearning for her husband who was away from home. She liked to drink and was a keen Mahjong player. The first part of the performance much reflects Li Qingzhao’s upper class life à la Song Dynasty style.
The second part was a complete change of mood from carefree effortlessly elegant life to a struggle. The ink was no longer red but black and the brush from “handheld” to a mop-sized. With the changeover, the dynamic between the literatus and literature also changed. The sharp divide reminds me of the poet´s move from north to south (Shandong to Jiangsu in nowadays geography) , due to Song Dynasty´s war with the Jin ethnic group. Shortly after the move, the husband died, and Li remarried.
For the second part of the performance, I was keenly reminded of Ronald C. Egan´s »Burden of Female Talent«(2014), a research on Li, Qingzhao. The “burden”, i.e. the social expectation, that had long been imposed on the poet. The book examines the manipulation of Li´s image “accommodate her to cultural norms, molding her “talent” to make it compatible with ideals of womanly conduct and identity.” (Harvard University Press).
Li as a role model poet, female, was given the burdened of female virtues: a devoted and loyal wife. That was a sharp contrast to the male poets of her time. They mainly gathered in brothel as their “creative hubs” and their works sung by courtesans, who were trained in music to entertain customers. When the society accepted that men of letter were leisure-seeking, is the expectation on the woman of letter as faithful housewife legitimate? Fitting Li Qingqiao into the social mores, and that her fidelity was only directed to the first husband, her second marriage does not sit well with her literary biography. Li has gradually become the container of all female virtues but no room for her subjectivity.
The second part of the performance is where the burden lies. It is when writing is instrumentalized to serve a bigger system and literature becomes canon that regulates and disciplines, the individual subject becomes a social object and inevitably becomes a political beings. Part one and Part two are clearly defined private and the public spheres. When the private person goes into public sphere, that is to be visible, he has to deal with the burden of social norms. In this sense, the pleasure and leisure in calligraphy turned into a physical and mental struggle. The single word靜 /quiet written in this part appeared unfinished to me because of the not quite apparent the right half of the word: 爭/ battle. The ambivalence to my eyes struck me as a liminal space as the “margin” in the legend » Water Margin «. Perhaps I read too much into the performance. But I do celebrate the liminal space (cf. Homi Bhabha), where non-conformity is where potential and possibility lie.
2. 梅艷芳Anita Mui – by Lee Mun Wai
I think I was the lucky few who have the ears for the Cantonese in this piece. Mun Wai opened the performance with a speech by Lee Kuan Yew in English. As Singapore’s first prime minister after the forced independence, being separated from Malaya, language policy was a tool to unify the multiple racial groups in the country. Alongside with English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil are official languages, Malay the national language. Each school child is assigned a mother tongue that corresponds to their race. By that, no one race is favoured although English is privileged. One has to ask: is that any different from the colonial time? Educated in colonial Hong Kong, I do not have a definite answer for the question. If it were only a moral question, the answer would be obvious. But English, as Mun Wai makes it clear that it is what pop culture, the bigger world, speaks. It gives you the tools to define yourself in your formative years. Besides, “English allows you more choices. It gives you opportunities” – standard sentences must have written in their composition for “Why do we need to learn English?”.
In the process, your mother tongue, and more importantly, those who speak it around you, becomes the sunk cost. It is not that the mother tongue is lost. But that as you move up on the social ladder, and your social circle expands to, for example, overseas, you probably would not be bothered/ able to maintain the connection with the language your mother or your grandmother speaks. But would we want to trade this lost intimacy with the achievement that English brought us? Unfortunately, neither colonization nor lost connection can be reverse engineered.
Crossing the line from the colonial object to decolonized subject can be considered as emancipation – what Rancière defines as “emergence from a state of minority” (»The Emanicipated Spectator«). Being thrown to experience both sides, we should be careful not to equate a political agenda with a productive tool. English is a colonial legacy and is instrumentalized to give out the vision/ image of social harmony. But we know that the core of class issue and cross-racial conflicts does not lie in language. And therefore, reversing the logic misses the point.
Man Wai’s piece inspires me to consider Rancière further:
That is why a genuine ´critique of critique´ cannot be a further inversion of its logic. It takes the form of a re-examination of its concepts and its procedures, their genealogy and the way in which they became intertwined with the logic of social emancipation. (“the Misadventure of Critical Thought”)
Colonization takes place over generations of time, otherwise, it would have been called occupation. I want to highlight the “genealogy” and “intertwined” that coloniality is embedded in our cultural gene. We can perhaps edit the gene as we hand down and spread our culture, but we cannot simply axe it as if were an external entity. There is no undo button to de-colonize. Because it would be equally inorganic as the random violence colonizers exercise. And this kind of violence should not be reproduced.
Frustrated with the bureaucracy, I recently came to think that migrants are quite like mermaids (unrelated to Merlion in Singapore) in that when they have their freedom to explore the land, they lose their voice. Hence when Mun Wai left the performance space and walked out to the open, I was happy to see that he did not trade his legs, nor his voice, nor the pink, nor the gold for this transcendence. At some point, he look like a child playing in a playground, being watched ove by the grandmother.
3. 山鬼 Mountain Spirit by Sichi Li / 李思驰
Sichi’s choice is a poem written by poet, Qu Yuan (屈原, c. 340 BC – 278 BC), “Mountain Spirit” in »Nine Songs«. The poem tells about ritual in which a witch, a medium, is dressed as Mountain Spirit goes into the mountain. When the real Mountain Spirit sees its lookalike, it would possess the body, so to take on a physical form to receive offerings from people. As the poem goes, the Mountain Spirit does not appear as expected. The witch is disappointed and leaves the mountain. A footnote is always added to this story that it is not clear whether the Mountain Spirit is a god or goddess. Here I must bring in a small background note about Qu Yuan the poet. He was a politician, and it is said that Qu Yuan expressed his love for the emperor in some his works. This information is always added to Qu Yuan, perhaps to suggest another layer of reading.
This story of a doppelgänger had a very smooth transitions – of persona and the mood. It is impressive that Sichi delivered the story with great subtlety and the ambivalence was meticulous. Sichi began the performance by showing the floral fingernails. Then he appears in a persona of an old man. After he took off the beard, the dance continued, now with more seductive details (show of leg and a seductive smile). That accentuated the human side of the witch (which was said to invoke the empathy of the spirits), bringing the audience out of context. Whereas the witch could have another chance, the poet could never consummate with his love object.
When Sichi stepped on the mountain prop but did not quite go over it, it was Qu Yuan´s story. Because the poem is set in the mountain, an encircled place. But as the performance went on, the upward structure of the stage became apparent: the mountain prop > queer Dan > rainbow sky, it breaks out from a circle/ cycle, to project a sense of hope.
4. 鐵扇公主 Princess Iron Fan by Tim Chia Wu / 吳挺嘉
The Princess is a character in the Chinese classical novel »Journey to the West« written in circa 16th century. Iron Fan is her magic wand. As it takes the shape of banana leaf as 芭蕉扇, literally, banana leaf fan, here is where the association with banana, and then penis stems.
The fact that Princess Iron Fan is a mythical figure turns my head to consider myth and it function, along Levi-Strauss´s lecture on “Myth and Meaning”, especially that this karaoke session leads us to relate myth-history-music. Maybe we could begin with Ferdinand de Saussure for the arbitrariness between word and meaning/signifier and signified. In our case here, it is the word 蕉 banana. The sound and meaning corelation is arbitrarily assigned in the first place. But this pairing is strengthened through time. Adding to this social convention is the „consensus“ of banana – penis association. We are now a step closer to the link between myth and history. Myths were invented and told as history, to reason our existence, up to certain point of time. When written, instead of oral, history (documentation) begins. With the set of keywords and concepts, we can re-join Tim Chia’s performance. In the video, the sexually desperate Princess had all the symptoms of a menopause woman, as any advertisement for supplements for this target group would have it. The Princess role that was shared between three different queer dans reminds me of the modern “myth” that everything that goes wrong with an adult woman is rooted in her uterus – either her menstruation or her menopause. Such myth, reinforced by the marketing of products associated to it, works to single out an organ as female marker. In the same vein, all queer bodies are boiled down to their sexual practice. Here is where myth and science intersect, but there cannot be a clearcut when myth ends and science starts (Levi-Strauss). But science, in the form of statistics, can be extracted to support the myth – such as in the case of mad menstruating woman.
History appears scientific as opposed to myth that it is “documented”. But when we break down the formula that history is distinguished by its written format, minus that language started as an arbitrary construct, minus that history is always written by the victor, we should be careful to rate the creditability of history the scientific document.
So the Princess (myth) holding a karaoke mic (tech) is like her iron-fanning a provocation: have we invested our belief in a wrong place? Have we retreated to superstition in face of the so-called “knowledge system”?
5. Joan Ling-Li Nesbit-Chang / 常林丽 by Joan Ling-Li Nesbit-Chang / 常林丽
As half-Chinese, Joan shared their reflection on their relationship with Chinese culture. They set the stage for themselves with four hanging scrolls with Chinese words on each. Their performance took place within these four corners, as if they were speaking to us in their private study.
Regardless of our origin and family history, all of us have also gone through the same stage of identity-searching/-forming. When Joan´s issues arose from race, back then I had class issue. My eyes were fixed on the scroll “落葉歸根“, literally, fallen leaves return to the root. I am quite critical of this longing to return. Besides, there is an opposite opinion, namely, “落地生根“, literally, grow the root in where you are. These two different longings are incompatible with each other as their destination are located at two extremes, although their share the same longings to belong.
Historian Wang Gungwu devotes his lifetime researching Chinese migration since pre-modern time. He contests the term “diaspora” because of its connotation of dispersal (which was initially used in the context of Jews) that implies a yearning for return. But a Greek speaker once told me that “diaspora” associates with spreading the seeds and hence quite a positive word. Without going too far into organic farming, what I want to highlight is the risk of being hijacked by “origin”: the homeland or the indigenous of the new homeland. The hierarchical thinking is another patriarchy. With such background information in mind, the “落葉歸根” in the performance was puzzling to me. But only up to the point – when Joan came to tell us about their community in Berlin, I was knocked over.
The idea of “community” lands at the sweet spot to strike out the (or maybe just my) discontents with落葉歸根 and 落地生根. It is not a compromise nor an expediency, but an affective space that is not essentially available to you because that is your birthplace or you have the skin colour majority has.
This “community” talk was a wake-up call to me. Before that, as Joan were sharing with us, I was thinking – “been there, done that”. By doing that I took up a superior place in a hierarchy, relying on my senior age. What a shame. Intergenerational communication has been famously missing in Chinese culture. I am now made aware how much work is to be done.
6. 觀音 Guanyin by Liam Li / 李
Guanyin is usually presented as goddess, although in fact she is also a god.
I recalled having seen the paintings of Virgin Mary in Hong Kong that looked very much like Guanyin. I took it as a localization of the missionaries. After a quick internet search, I found that Japanese catholics did use 送子觀音, the version of Guanyin that rules fertility, as covert Virgin Mary statue when the Japanese government banned Christianity. The so-called Maria-Kannon, who is symbolized by her holding a child in her lap, was mainly imported from China. Surprise – no surprise! Guanyin´s mercy is so boundless that even people of other faiths were also under her protection. But back to the 17th century Japan, the Maria-Kannon could also be said to be a 妖 / queer in the eyes of the government because its an obvious breach of the ban on Christian faith. The government imposed the ban because they did not want the status quo to be disturbed. But the status quo was already collapsed, only the appearance of it was not.
What comes to my mind now is Michel de Certeau´s »Practice of Everyday Life«. de Certeau uses walking in the city as example. He calls the city’s street and road “strategy” whereas walking not according to (city’s) plan, such as taking side-way instead of the state-designed routes “tactics”. Tactic is essentially a sabotage, but it is unnoticeable from the surface. De Certeau advocates a rebellion as such to be practiced in everyday life. It can be as effortless as daily routine but at the same time as fundamental/persistent as daily habit.
Liam´s Guanyin embodies an interface between cultures. He also sheds light on how 妖 /queer can be an effortless tactic to lead a life faithful to ourselves.
7. Snake by Andrea Tian Lei / 雷田
Snake appears in Chinese stories, such as »White Snake« in Xiqu and »聊齋«/ Liaozhai, usually as female spirits as 蛇精. The word “精“ refers to a condensed essence. So the snake spirit is so named because the creature took long time to accumulate the energy from heaven and earth and sublimate it to a craft. In Chinese stories, there are 精 developed from a number of animal families, such as, spider, fox, clam. They appear in the stories as beautiful woman. Except the clam, they are consistently depicted as sluts.
The performance started with Andrea hatching out from the egg. As Ming Poon was leading the egg to the stage, I was thinking to myself, consistent to my practice-of-everyday-life mindset, “Should this egg prop go to Gelber Sack or Hausmüll ?”.
Gelber Sack. Yellow Bag. A love at first sight word. Because it is my like in Germany (perhaps also in other parts of the world). The yellow bag can churn usable materials from rubbish. It makes irresponsible consumers feel good because the wonderful Gelber Sack could resolve all the problems on earth. The recycle policy is a batch of honour for progressive countries. They can give themselves a pad on the shoulder for taking measures to achieve whatever noble target to combat global warming – as long as the global south continues to receive their toxic waste.
Have I drifted away too far from the topic? If we look at the most cited reference of snake spirit: »White Snake«, we will see a similarity there. In the story of »White Snake«, the snake is a self-sacrificing figure. She goes out of her way to save the man who had saved her in previous life.
For people who cannot quite empathize with the »White Snake« story, a contemporary reference comes to mind: »Bladerunner 2049« (2017). There is a scene of a replicant´s birth. An adult woman, wrapped in a transparent bubble, naturally drops on ground. She is covered in slime, struggles to stand on her feeble feet. Within a minute of her birth, her lifecycle ends. Because her maker, slitting open her abdomen with his hand, finds her reproductive organ not up to his expectation. The life/the body is as functional as that. And the loop goes on.
Andrea danced to the music in the way the beat and sound made us “expect”. Only up to a point. As she ended the performance with a “no, no Britney tonight”, it was highly appreciated.
8. 天女散花 by Po-fu Wu / 吳柏甫
The grand finale was tasked to Po-fu. Like Jianyu´s calligraphy performance, I only realized afterwards that this piece references 天女散花, fairy throwing flowers. And this fairy is a lady-in-waiting of Guanyin.
With that, one would expect to see some gravity defying objects. The performance however gave an impression of masculinity. The female figure Po-fu dressed in did not last. Underneath the veil, his face was painted as male character in Xiqu. After shedding off the Xiqu outfit, except the face paint, he took a pee (he poured water out from a copper teapot), then put on a tight black warrior outfit, body pads with pink cartoon characters. As he put on further protective gears, he stood on a wooden stool. That little space was not unlike the Xiqu stage which is very minimal and there is hardly mis-en-scene to speak of. The scenes literally exist in the actors´ heads only. I tend to think that this little act of locating a stage is a situationist act to assert visibility.
Po-fu strong stage presence reminded me of the Nan Dan workshop as part of the longer research. There I had a taste of the body work of Dan. Without that, I would never know that Dan is very much a masculine job – if I have to assign a gender to it, because of the physical requirement. Informed by the workshop experience, I realize that everyone on stage, regardless of gender and role, is literally flexing their muscle. I wonder if Dan is not also a kind queering for female practitioners, as they quite literally do a lot of weightlifting beneath their princess gown and feather-light costumes.
Looking at Po-fu on the stool, as though he would trip any moment, I must think of Contemporary Legend Theatre who adapted the legend of »Water Margin« 蕩蔻誌. A story about distressed citizens turned to rebels. There is a scene of the group taking bath after a battle. The scene comes with a song. As these war heroes dance, playfully and flirtingly, the lyric 坦蕩蕩 repeat over and over again. 坦蕩蕩/ bighearted, unspiteful, is definition of a gentleman (君子). The word “坦” also associates with showing, laying bare. And in that piece uses the naked body to reflect their genuine-ness and open character.
For what Po-fu laid out under the themes of Dan and “fairy throwing flowers”, it might not seem Dan or feminine enough. But when we consider that it was his genuine presentation of his thought (坦蕩蕩) – he was not yielding to the expected form of Dan or queer. That said, queer Dan does not lie in performance, or does it have a form. Perhaps it is a method.
Spatial Temporal Dimension
This constellation of queer Dans is Chinese-es from different regions, who are not necessarily the ethnic majority. I would venture to say that their affinity to Chinese culture/language ranges from “pro forma” to “immersive”.
They nonetheless have to deal with the burden of being Chinese. The weight comes our heritage, if we allow ourselves to subject to it, as well as external. “Don´t pretend that you are not Asian!” – so is the expectation from Asian on Asian, from white on Asian. That tells a lot about the persisting white dominance. The dominant voice claims a legitimate expectation on you; your fellow minority expects certain gesture of solidarity from you. Both asks a performance from you, neither allows you much room to be 坦蕩蕩 (pardon my obsessed repetition).
As the eight Chinese-es come together to address the issue of performance and decolonization, a transnational and transgenerational dialog is organically emerged.
Jianyu´s Li Qinqiao was pained by the facelift that fit her into a virtuous female intellect role. And we hardly saw Joan´s face as they were shooting questions for themselves within the four corners of Chinese study. As Joan were ping-ing with the walls, I picked up a “pong” (“Community” vs. 落葉歸根/ fallen leave returning to root) – a wakeup call to look for answers in intergenerational conversation.
Mun Wai (Anita Mui), Liam (Guanyin) and Andrea (Snake) conjured a deep conversation regarding Chinese-ness. They examined their nativity in past-present-future tenses. In these performances, we see that language is political as a power structure. Language organizes our cognition. Although the language I speak is not a major language, it does avail an extra code register I can reach to. The case in point is Guanyin, which was appropriated by the 17th Century Catholics in Japan to sustain their freedom of religion. Cultural appropriation is more an expediency during the course of cultural negotiation. The latter is an ever-on-going process alongside evolution. Mun Wai’s delineation on language attitude points us to a right direction in the decolonization project. It gives us the temporal dimension of how the attitude is built on sediment of preference and prejudice. As complicated as it is, it is to be approached from a variety of aspects, but not an undo. Otherwise, we would only be repeating the barbarism inflicted on us. Thinking outside of the temporal dimension, reference is to be drawn from other geographies. The Guanyin/ Maria-Kannon is one example. Another dimension is literature and oral history. This is where we can work on to demystify. Tim Chia´s Princess Iron Fan pokes fun on the modern myth about women. The karaoke set highlights the discrepancy between the persistent narrow definition of gender and the ever-advancing technology. Adding to that we must not overlook the accomplice of consumer society.
The myth of Mountain Spirit as depicted in Qu Yuan´s poem has a swift plot development and is reciprocated by Sichi´s fluid switch between the witch/medium and the spirit. Because of the undetermined gender of the Mountain Spirit, critics would not fail to miss to point out that Qu Yuan was said to write his love for the emperor into his works. The great poet´s practice of everyday life. That stitches to Sichi’s off-stage robe that I had a glimpse of: little flowers and ivy-like runner plant draped from the collar and hem. It is the same in English – manifestation is what we wear on our sleeves. It is a subtle business but we must build as a habit.
The business of decolonization cannot proceed, relying on a handful of number of audience. Thought provoking as it is, when this Nan Dan research result is not circulated further to wider audience, including non-Chinese audience, its concept cannot be proved, let alone to gather momentum.