mulan, 2020. linocut on paper. 8" x 11".
mulan pays homage to the Chinese poem "Ballad of Mulan" and the tradition of Chinese woodblock printing. In my search for trans ancestors of the Chinese diaspora, I felt a connection to the mythology of Mulan as a folk hero.
My interpretation of Mulan gives voice to the queer and trans undertones in her story that I felt were obvious to me from a young age, but went unnoticed in mainstream portrayals. Something about a young girl cutting off her hair, binding, and passing as a man to go fight in the war, all strikes me as gender non conforming, if not trans, behaviour were Mulan to exist in our time.
In my examination of the original text of the Ballad of Mulan, I was drawn to the last two lines: "The buck bounds here and there, Whilst the doe has narrow eyes. But when the two rabbits run side by side, How can you tell the female from the male?" What if those lines meant Mulan rejected a false gender binary?
The Chinese idiom "扑朔迷离" comes from these two lines. It means something confusing that is impossible to unravel. The words that convinced me of Mulan's transness actually signified confusion to ancient Chinese society.
Mulan is shown wading in a rippling pool of water, moonlight illuminating the surface behind her. The associations that the moon and water have with femininity, as in Yin-Yang theory, are juxtaposed with the masculinity in Mulan's sword and the physicality of cutting off her hair. The magnolia branch echoes Mulan's name, which literally means magnolia
It was important to me that Mulan was shown in the moment right before she cuts her hair, and that the anticipation of the act was more prominent than her hair actually being shorn. I feel that the trans experience is often one of liminality and being in-between one state or another. This representation of Mulan speaks to the strength, power, and determination of our trans ancestors.
tu'er shen, 2020. linocut on paper. 9" x 11".
Published in Sine Theta Magazine, Issue #18 "MORNING 朝".
How can I commune with my queer ancestors? How can I thank them for the way I live my life today?
Chinese folk religion is based on ancestor worship. My last name is 巫 (cantonese: mo), which means 'witch.' My ancestors were shamans, the practitioners of ritual, religion, who would come into contact with 'the holy.'
In Chinese tradition, there exists a concept of 靈 (líng), which approximates to 'numen,' 'the sacred' or 'the holy'. Líng takes hold in what we think of as the in-between. It is found in the unexplainable, the confusing natural phenomena — albino animals, amphibious snakes. It is the substance that dualities move through, where the opposing forces of yin and yang meet.
So holiness lives in this place between yin and yang, between the masculine and the feminine. This liminal in-between space is where my queerness and transness reside.
For my queer ancestors and for me, queerness is holiness.
And in this in-between place is where I wanted to imagine this temple* where my queer ancestors would have worshipped at, and where they would have been worshipped. But this temple doesn't physically exist, so it is this process of carving the burning incense, invoking the rabbit god** — the Chinese god of gay love — that builds their temple. In making this print, I continue their rituals in my way and leave tu'er shen as my offering.
*Above the archway, where the temple's name would be, reads 断袖之癖 (duàn xiù zhī pǐ), an idiom that means "the passion of the cut sleeve." It also means "gay love." According to folklore, the emperor was napping with his male lover but had to leave. Rather than wake him, the emperor chose to cut the sleeve off of his robe.
**In my print, a black rabbit and a white rabbit emerge, yin and yang bathed in the líng of incense smoke. The two rabbits are for 兔兒神 (tù er shén), the rabbit god, the Chinese deity of gay marriage. "Rabbit" is also used as a derogatory slang term for gay men.
family seal, 2020. linocut on paper. 6" x 6".
Published in Sine Theta Magazine, Issue #18 "MORNING 朝".
This print is an imagined family seal, traditionally used in China for signing important documents or verifying identity. This seal is a visual play on my last name, 巫. The original pictograph for 巫 is derived from two people sitting in a house, and the closest English translation is 'shaman'. In my seal, the two figures in the house lean in to share a peach and a kiss.
There is a Chinese idiom (fēn táo zhī lǐ) which literally translates to "sharing a peach." The idiom comes from a story of an emperor and his male lover. His lover bit into a peach and it was so delicious he gave the rest to the emperor. Usually, this would mean death or dishonour, but since the emperor loved him so much it only increased his love for him. This phrase took on a more general meaning of "homosexuality" but has since fallen out of colloquial speech after the introduction of Western ideals into Chinese society.
By sharing a peach, the two figures re-enact this story, and putting this seal into use is my way of revitalising Chinese folklore's forgotten gay stories. I wanted to make a family seal that honoured my queer ancestors. There are many well-known seals of important figures in Chinese history, and the creation of this seal is my act of mythologising my queer ancestors, inserting them into the Chinese art historical canon.
húlijīng, 2021. linocut on paper. 10" x 10".
The fox spirit (húlijīng) is a mythological creature from Chinese folklore, capable of shifting form. These spirits are supposedly tricksters, taking the shapes of beautiful women to seduce men for mischief or other nefarious purposes.
According to legend, the fox can turn into a beautiful woman at age 50, a man at age 100, and when it's 1000 years old, the fox ascends to heaven to become a celestial being.
Traditional Chinese folklore usually frames these trickers as the "bad guys" that the hero triumphs over. But the nature of a trickster -- having secret knowledge, using it to disobey conventions and bend rules -- resonated with me, and seemed so inherently queer. I can see my queer and trans ancestors in the fox spirit much more than in the tiger who defeats it.
My print takes the form of a Chinese rank badge (or Mandarin square), which is a large embroidered badge sewn onto the surcoat of an official in Imperial China. They are ornamented with detailed, colourful "legendary" animals according to the official's rank. There are rank badges with dragons (for the emperor only), lions, tigers, cranes, even rhinos, which are all revered creatures in Chinese folklore. Obviously, none had a fox.
So I made a rank badge depicting the fox spirit. The celestial fox floats in heaven, adorned by a sea of clouds. I imagine this is what the rank badge would have been for my queer ancestors, a nine-tailed fox to signify mysticism and mischief. Pink and pale blue are not used in traditional embroidery, but rather my weaving of present-day trans flag colours into my vision of my trans ancestors.