Zhang Yuan East Palace, West Palace queer film THINK IAFOR

May 2, 2016

Qin Qin examines the setbacks, progress and influence of queer film in China, from Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace of the 1990s, to the new media regulations of 2016 which prohibit representation of “abnormal sexual relationships”.

Recently, two web dramas Go Princess Go (1) and Addiction (2), both of which are centrally concerned with homosexuality (or “queer”, a collective term describing the vast array of human sexualities that exist outside heterosexuality), have become phenomenally popular in PRC China. Compared with traditional television channels or theatrical films, web drama in China was more lightly censored, hence, it once took diversified forms. Just when the development of web dramas was in full swing, unexpectedly, these series have been taken offline due to the new regulations proposed by China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television in March 2016. The new guidelines prohibit “abnormal sexual relationships and sexual behavior”, including homosexuality, incest, puppy love, sexual assault, sexual abuse, extramarital affairs and so forth. Online dramas dealing with gay/queer storylines were subsequently banned.

The regulations have aggravated many queer activists in China, who have long advocated for the equalized acceptance of the queer community, such as film critic Cheng Qingsong, and gay activist Fan Popo. As is well known, filmmaking is tightly linked to social, economic and political contexts as it involves a series of processes including production, distribution and exhibition. Once films are strictly censored by the authorities, some filmmakers make independent films or hold grassroots film festivals/screening events in order to realize their personal artistic vision. Accordingly, I attempt to examine queer films of China (3) since the 1990s, concentrating on Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace for the purpose of investigating independent queer filmmaking and the queer grassroots movement in China. By introducing the development of queer films in three different phases, I aim to answer the question: “What do the queer films in PRC China tell about the political and social changes?”

Embryonic Phase (1990-2000)

During the 1990s, theoretical research and literary works on homosexuality gradually increased, such as socialist Li Yinhe and Wang Xiaobo’s Their World: A Study of Homosexuality in China (1992) and scholar Zhang Beichuan’s Homosexuality (1994). During the earlier days, the queer community was invisible in the public arena or general discussion on homosexuality was merely in the psychiatry realm. In 1997, decriminalization of homosexuality in China promoted the development of domestic queer social movements. During the period, most of the queer films were underground and independent, screened in some private coffee houses or personal gay bars. Representative works include Zhang Yuan’s East Palace, West Palace (1996), and Cui Zi’en’s Men and Women (1999).

East Palace, West Palace (see header image) was the first feature film (4) of PRC China to deal with realistic gay lives there today. It not only shows independent filmmaker Zhang Yuan’s concern for the marginal community but also draws an analogy between homosexuality and power relations. Its creation of a gay character has far-reaching implications for both Chinese queer film history and queer rights struggle throughout history. The title “East Palace” and “West Palace” stems from two public toilets near the Forbidden City located on the northern fringe of Tiananmen Square. “East Palace” and “West Palace”, are also famous for being places of nighttime gathering for homosexuals in Beijing.

The main focus of the story is the conflict between A Lan (played by Si Han), a young gay man and Shi Xiaohua (played by Hu Jun), the policeman who conducts A Lan’s interrogation. In the film, many flashbacks, fantasies and opera scenes are inserted into A Lan’s own narrations and, also, into tense dialogues that happen between the two protagonists, A Lan and Shi Xiaohua. In these scenes, different aspects of A Lan’s performative perversity are portrayed. He is sometimes a masochist, sometimes a drag performer, and sometimes is compared to the female thief of a Beijing opera.

Scholar Chris Berry’s emphasis on A Lan’s performative perversity, such as his masochistic desire is twofold. The first is how performative perversity attempts to reconstruct and resignify A Lan’s own identity differently. The second is the question of access to and regulation of public discourse (5). Berry emphatically elaborates on the relationship between performative perversity and the issue of public discourse. He states that the film highlights “the power-play and surveillance.” (6) But what is the significance of performative acts such as drag performance and masochism, and why are they repeated in this movie? By exploring A Lan’s androgyny, masochistic desire and his drag performance presented in the scenes of flashbacks (which mingles with fantasy), of the opera and of the run-ins between him and Shi, I assess Berry’s argument about A Lan’s performative perversity. Furthermore, I attempt to enquire into protagonist A Lan’s psychological changes which successively experience self-doubt, self-recognition and, self-esteem toward his own homosexual desire.

In the flashbacks and scenes which are mixed with semi-illusions and semi-memories, teenager A Lan could not accept his own feminine qualities. When recalling his middle school life, first romance with a male classmate and the girl “Bus”, A Lan says, “I told him (a male classmate) that I would be the girl, that I was the Bus.” The scene in which teenager A Lan happened to meet the girl “Bus” on the narrow stairs and tried to escape is meaningful (see picture 4). The actor Ye Jing playing teenager A Lan is vigorous, masculine, and is quite different from the feminine temperament of adult A Lan’s actor Si Han. Maybe director Zhang Yuan purposely forms a contrast of masculine teenager A Lan and feminine adult A Lan. In teenager A Lan’s subconscious, he knew that the girl “Bus” was himself. However, his efforts of escaping “Bus” (or escaping another self) show that he tried to conceal the femininity attached to himself.

A Lan’s masochistic desires, ingrained and long-standing, are emphatically portrayed both in the flashbacks and in the scenes of run-ins. Since childhood, A Lan has dreamed of being caught by the policemen, and those “were some of my happiest moments.” He has had masochistic pleasure from being beaten by others. The climax comes in the final scene, when A Lan is hardly beaten by Shi, and he loudly declares “I am not sick, but I love you.” To him, his masochistic desire is not despicable, but love. In Gender Trouble, Butler states that “Gender performativity is not a matter of choosing which gender one will be today,…it is a compulsory repetition of prior and subjectivating norms…” A Lan’s masochistic behavior not only repeats the perversion by which he is constituted but also empowers his gay identity.

Performative acts are “forms of authoritative speech” (Butler 1993, 17). Drag performance, served as a kind of performative act in the film, first, is an effort to negotiate cross-gendered identification. A Lan’s drag performance is jointly assumed by himself as well as by the imaginative thief, who is another embodiment of himself. When A Lan tells the story of the thief and guard, three characters—the female thief of the Beijing Opera, the girl “Bus” and A Lan are overlapped. The female and male qualities are twisted together, as a result, sexual binary is broken. The second authoritative power of the drag performance is the true expression of A Lan’s own intention. The drag performance of the final part makes A Lan change from a subordinate confessor to a successful seducer, and to a greater degree, throws Shi into the confusion of being homosexual and being homophobic.

East Palace, West Palace plays a vanguard role in building up a real gay image which was stereotyped in an abusively disparaging manner in other mainstream films. It is indeed a representation of realistic gay lives in China. Furthermore, the portrait of A Lan and the construction of his homosexual desire also deserves re-examination. The same-sex desire had been latent since childhood. And then, as a teenager, he took an ambivalent attitude towards his own perversity until finally A Lan affirmatively, or even proudly declares, “I am a gay!” His own identity is assured after enduring self-questioning and self-identification.

Booming Phase (2001-2010)

In 2001, homosexuality was deleted from the list of Chinese Classification of Mental Disorder-Second Revision. This event was thought to be depathologization of homosexuality in China. Since then, there have been increasing queer activists and social events, overcoming the substantial stigma in China against non-heterosexuals. Queer films during this period, developed in leaps and bounds, with examples such as Fish and Elephant (Li Yu, 2001), the first film dealing with lesbian characters in China and the celebrated Spring Fever (Lou Ye,2009), honored in several international film festivals. Although these films initiated a fever for Chinese films in the global film circle, they were still underground and strictly censored by the domestic authorities.

Owing to the strict censorship, many co-produced films emerged to meet the audiences’ demand, such as China-France co-produced film The Chinese Botanist’s Daughter (Dai Sijie, 2006), China-Hong Kong co-productions Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan, 2001) and Butterfly (Yan Yan Mak, 2004) to name a few. Apart from films, other grassroots movements and organizations have also progressed steadily, such as Beijing Queer Film Festival (2001- ), the first LGBT film festival founded by some activists, and “queer comrade” a non-profit online organization producing queer videos. The case of Beijing Queer Film Festival has been considered to be quite interesting by many scholars working in fields such as East Asian Studies, and Film Festival Studies. Some, such as Zhang Yinjing, take the view that the development of Chinese independent film festivals, together with international recognition of Chinese independent films, is generally attributed to the progress of the Beijing Queer Film Festival. The festival, in common with queer films, has been prohibited in many public places in PRC China. Consequently, organizers have employed a “guerrilla” strategy to avoid the government repression. They create several temporary platforms for screening queer films, sometimes in a private bar, sometimes in a personal studio or even in a bus.

Nowadays (2010-present)

Queer characters in the Chinese theatrical films were once discriminated against and stereotyped. Take the If You Are the One (Feng Xiaogang, 2008) as an example – it deliberately depicts a feminine gay character, just to entertain audiences. Queer images in some theatrical films underwent some drastic changes after 2010. Finding Mr. Right, a 2013 romantic comedy directed by Xue Xiaolu, provides non-stereotypical, non-negative lesbian images which were not previously seen in mainstream films. Subsequent Sweet Eighteen (He Wenchao, 2013), presents a warm, affirming portrait of two girls’ love. Some kissing scenes in Sweet Eighteen were deleted or replaced, however, it is the first time that a film exploring lesbian romance could be seen a public theater. In the meantime, underground queer films continue to thrive. An increasing number of screening events have provided more platforms for queer films, such as newly launched Shanghai Pride Film Festival (2015-) and domestic and overseas screening tours to name a few.

Adopting a retrospective view of queer films in PRC China, we can see that development of queer films has moved forward through twists and turns. Chinese queer films have been recognized in the international film circuit since China’s first gay film, East Palace, West Palace, appeared in 1996. Nowadays, Chinese society is becoming more tolerant towards sexualities. However, the new 2016 regulations proposed by the Chinese authorities have put queer activists and independent filmmakers in a predicament again. Chinese sexual minorities have remained in a difficult predicament through a winding and tortuous process of struggle. In some other Chinese societies, grassroots events like Taiwan International Queer Film Festival and Hong Kong International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival are characteristic of official support and commercial activities due to official leniency towards queer sexuality and queer grassroots activism. In recent years, cooperation among different queer organizations is often seen, such as the Hong Kong-Beijing independent filmmakers, Taipei-Shanghai queer activists. In the future, when and how will PRC China’s marginalized communities and underground filmmakers find a way out to freely voice their opinion? It is still uncertain.

Image | Sinematopya


1. Go Princess Go ( Lvhao Jiji, 2015) tells about a modern playboy who accidentally goes back to an unknown dynasty and becomes the wife of a crown prince.

2. Addiction (Ding Wei, 2016) Based on the Boys’ love novel, “Are You Addicted?” by Chai Jidan follows two high school students in gay relationships.

3. I only discuss queer films which are produced by independent filmmakers in the PRC China despite the fact that queer films of Chinese language could be commonly found in other Chinese societies like Hong Kong and Taiwan.

4. Although the renowned Farewell My Concubine (Cheng Kaige, 1993) tells a love story between two male protagonists, it is a China-Hong Kong co-production emphasizing China’s social turmoil during the mid-20th century. It explores the stories of personal fate, families, and their living environment rather than a realistic representation of gay people. Accordingly, East Palace, West Palace is generally considered to be China’s first feature film dealing with realistic gay character.

5. The original text is “what I want to emphasize here is not only the way in which A Lan’s performative perversity attempts to reconstruct and resignify his own identity differently, but also how that attempt depends on the ability to seek out and obtain access to public space, public discourse and public record, however unpromising the particular circumstances might seem.”

6. The original text is “the power-play and surveillance is the film’s general ambiance.”


Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer”, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1, 1993, pp.17-32

—. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge. 1999.

Chris Berry. “East Palace, West Palace-Staging gay life in China”, Jump Cut, no. 42, December 1998, pp. 84-89.

Jenny Kwok Wah Lau, “Globalization and Youthful Subculture: the Chinese Sixth Generation Films at the Dawn of the New Century”, Multiple Modernities: Cinemas & Popular Media In Transcultural East Asia, Temple University Press, 2002.

Zhang, Yingjin. Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in A Globalizing China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010.

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About Qin Qin

Originally from China, Qin Qin is a doctoral student of at Nagoya University, Japan, majoring in film studies with a particular focus on queer theory and queer film festival.

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