With popular reality TV shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, the term ‘drag’ has come into the public attention in recent years. However, as Mark Edward and Stephen Farrier, editors of Contemporary Drag Practices and Performers, pointed out, drag as a global form of performance culture has long histories, rich heritages and multiple genealogies.1 It is therefore important to look at the local, indigenous, regional and hybrid forms of drag culture alongside its global forms to appreciate its diversity and richness. This also helps to identify the discourses and power relations that construct a dominant form of drag culture.
This short essay examines the multiple genealogies and diverse forms of drag culture in contemporary China. I will draw examples from queer Chinese cinema, performance and activism. These examples and the forms they represent are by no means exhaustive, but they can offer an insight into the diversity of drag cultures in the contemporary Chinese context. In doing so, this essay hopes to contribute to a more open and capacious understanding global drag culture.
The diversity of the drag culture in China is manifested by the different terms used to translate drag. Fanchuan （反串）and bianzhuang （变装）are two of the most common terms used to describe drag in Mandarin Chinese. Fachuan – meaning crossdressing – is usually seen as a sophisticated art form of gender reversal performance deeply rooted in traditional Chinese theatre and Southeast Asia performance. Bianzhuang – usually translated as drag – refers primarily to contemporary drag performance in popular entertainment venues such as bars and clubs and its aesthetics is more akin to the American drag culture portrayed in Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning.
Fanchuan is often used in relation to crossdressing in traditional Chinese theatre. It is often seen as an art form that entails years of hard training, often beginning in one’s childhood. It is a performance art form that requires transformation in one’s body, voice, movement and mind until one attains artistic perfection and becomes the character on stage. Fanchuan is seen in different types of traditional Chinese opera, including the male-to-female crossdressing dan performer in Peking Opera and the female-to-male crossdressing performer in Yue Opera. Although crossdressing performance was banned in the Mao era, it exists as a subcultural form in many parts of China today. The LGBTQ+ community sometimes uses the dan imagery in its public performance. This functions at once as an acknowledgement of the indigenous queer cultural tradition and as a ‘masking’ strategy for those who have not yet come out. Figure 1 and Figure 2 feature crossdressing male-to-female dan performers in the inaugural Shanghai Pride in 2009.
The historical and theatrical forms of fanchuan performance also find their contemporary expressions in bars, clubs and cabaret performances, which are often but not exclusively queer venues. Qiu Jiongjiong’s 2010 documentary Madame documents the life of Madame Bi Langda, a day-time male tailor and night-time female crossdressing cabaret performer (Figure 3 and 4). Like most of her fanchuan peers, Madame Bi Langda sang, instead of lip-synching, on stage in falsetto. Real voice singing is often seen as a distinguishing feature between fanchuan and bianzhuang performers.
Besides inspired by the traditional Chinese theatre tradition, fanchuan also draws on Chinese ethnic dances and the Southeast Asian style of crossdressing performance. Located in Southwest China’s Nanjing city, the now defunct Chun’ai bar was once China’s biggest crossdressing performance venue. The bar hosted fanchuan performances of diverse styles, as documented by Fan Popo’s 2011 documentary Be A Woman (Figure 5 and Figure 6).
In recent years, a more global form of drag performance has appeared in urban China, primarily in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. This type of ‘global drag’ is closer to the American underground ball culture in the late twentieth century . Some performers align themselves more closely with RuPaul’s Drag Race and others remain critical about the RuPaul style; some even explores the notion of ‘radical drag’. This ‘global drag’ style is often translated into bianzhuang, as in phrases such as bianzhuang huanghou (drag queen) and bianzhuang guowang (drag king). As is the case with many other parts of the world, drag queens enjoy more public visibility than drag kings in entertainment venues. The pictures below showcase different drag personalities and practices in Shanghai (Figure 7 and 8) and Beijing in the late 2010s (Figures 9-11).
These drag performances are queer not simply because they dramatize the plurality and inconsistency between gender, sexuality and identity on a theoretical and philosophical level. Many of the participants – including performers and audiences – are queer or queer-friendly people themselves. In a country where LGBTQ+ rights are not recognised and queer topics are constantly censored in mainstream media, these performances become rare opportunities through which queer people meet and support one another, form affective communities, and express their identities. Many of these performance venues function as queer community spaces: although many are set up as commercial, entertainment venues, the queer use of these spaces cannot be boiled down to simple concepts such as homocapitalism or pink economy. Through performance, queer performers create a queer world, and they also help people imagine a more diverse and pluralist society.
The rise of bianzhuang, which I call the ‘global drag’, and the decline of local and regional forms of fanchuan is worth noting. Fachuan is sometimes seen to be old-fashioned and not cosmopolitan enough. It is often associated with working-class, older generation and small cities. In contract, bianzhuang often conjures up a sense of cosmopolitanism and middle-class distinction because of its close association with Western popular culture. In recent years, there have been community efforts to localise drag, to hybridise fanchuan and bianzhuang, and to articulate a more radical form of ‘global drag’ in urban China.
Meanwhile, there has been a trans consciousness in the urban queer communities. Trans-identified people harbour different attitudes towards drag performance: some see drag as inherently trans and therefore part of trans culture; others see drag as ‘not trans enough’ and the drag performance of gender ‘not authentic enough’. The meanings of drag are constantly shifting and redefined. But one thing is clear: on stage and runways, Chinese drag performers articulate their gender, sexuality and desire through affective performance; as they transform their appearances, their performance also transforms the world in which they live.
Hongwei Bao (he/him) grew up in China and lives in Nottingham, UK. He trained in Gender and Cultural Studies and currently teaches Media Studies at the University of Nottingham. He is the author of Contemporary Chinese Queer Performance (Routledge, 2022). He uses short stories, poems, reviews and essays to explore issues concerning queer desire, Asian identity, feminist politics, diasporic positionality and transcultural intimacy. His creative work has appeared in Allegheny, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Messy Misfits Club, Shanghai Literary Review, The AutoEthnographer, The Hooghly Review, The Ponder Review, The Sociological Review Magazine, the other side of hope, The Voice & Verse and Write On.
- Mark Edward and Stephen Farrier (eds)., Contemporary Drag Practices and Performers: Drag in a Changing Scene, Volume 1 (London: Bloomsbury Methuen, 2020) ↩