Even now, he couldn’t tell me the full story. Among the limbs of an apple tree orchard in a northern Chinese village, Xiyadie fell in love with his male classmate. Xiyadie means Siberian Butterfly, a name he chose after his move to Beijing in the 1990s as a migrant worker. Cut Sleeve, Split Peach shows a selection of his works, traditional paper-cuts free snipped and hand dyed. An entanglement of forms, he lacerates duos and trios of lovers caught in the reaching tendrils of lush gardens. As a personal testament to his own coming out, the splitting of blank sheets holds secrets only Xiyadie can tell. As Siberian Butterfly, he flits between spaces, crafting a queer proposal for other worlds that are already possible.
The passion of the cut sleeve and split peach began in predynastic China, when Mizi Xia tasted a peach so sweet, he had to share it with the Duke Ling of Wei. Later, in the Han Dynasty, Emperor Ai’s lover Dong Xian fell asleep on his sleeve. He could not bear to wake him. Instead, he cut through the silk fabric. In the search beyond the pleasures of this moment, queer desire disrupts normal patterns of love that govern the social order. Informed by Chinese-specific processes of modernization following the Cultural Revolution, queerness in this region today is mapped more according to the structural formation of power rather than through the intersections of social identity. As theorist Petrus Liu suggests, “to raise the question of queer desire in this context is also to examine the incomplete project of decolonization in Asia, the achievements and failures of socialist democracy, the contradictory process of capitalist modernization, and the uneven exchange of capital and goods.”
The Siberian Butterfly is a northern creature. It survives in the harshest conditions, maintaining its vanity and pursuit of freedom. Xiyadie’s mother was a papercut artist but he became a farmer. He married a woman and had two children, the elder born with cerebral palsy and requiring constant attention. Xiyadie came out to his wife, yet remains married. Before their children grew up, he would send money back to his hometown every month to support them. In Gate (2016), two figures make love outside an entryway. A woman takes care of a child inside. The violence of rupture, in the pursuit of free love, falls on all the figures in the frame. Romance between men is naturalized through the transformation of vines and flowers into fluid streams. Everywhere, Xiyadie sees other butterflies.
Paper-cutting was first introduced in the ancient worship of ancestors and gods. Hung on the panes of windows and doors as symbols of luck and happiness, paper-cuts filter dancing shadows into the home. Archaeological records show this folk art originating in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 CE), though many believe they date to the Warring States period, around 3 BCE. “Sometimes I imagine cutting the vault of the night’s black sky into a flaming sun. Sometimes people like to fight with nature. Sometimes you have to work with it,” the artist commented on working in this medium in a 2012 profile with Advocate.
Homesexuality was decriminalized in 1997 and removed from the country’s list of mental illnesses in 2001. But, queer life remains largely unaccepted under strict family structures and in social life. Many move to city centres to find their communities. Xiyadie sought out a doctor when he moved to Beijing, asking him to cure him of male desire. The diagnosis came back clean. He was instead directed towards community groups. Soon after, Xiyadie’s first exhibition was held at the Beijing LGBT Center. In Gate (Tiananmen) (2016), male lovers intertwine between the open Gates of Heavenly Peace– an illicit love at the main site where the legal love of the nation is performed. A version of China’s Open Door Policy, Xiyadie’s lovers embrace. “It was in this square that Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and it is here that generations have protested: in 1919 during the May Fourth Movement, in 1976 after the death of Zhou Enlai, in 1989 when thousands were murdered in the Tiananmen Square Massacre. Now, mass gatherings take the form of military parades.
Resistant to the structures of Chinese state policy, Xiyadie falls only half in love with his surroundings. His deeply personal and romantic stories exist in chambers that are always between opening and closing doors. The repetition of forms and the flourishing of unruly garden landscapes is marked by perceived ruptures in the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Turning towards the everyday, the fantasy of his paper-cuts follow his own experiences. His life and works refuse the grammar of the grand narrative of nation-building, forming instead an aesthetic possibility for rearrangement of the social order in an East Asian context. Everytime Xiyadie makes a cut, it is as if he is writing his name for the first time.