A Queer Chinese Artist Finds Liberation Through Folk Art

In the years he hid his sexuality from his children and village neighbors, Xiyadie would take short-bladed scissors to rice paper and give shape to unfulfilled dreams.

At first glance, his creations conform to traditional cutout designs of animals and auspicious symbols adorning doorways and windows in China. But a closer look at the shapes — birds, butterflies and blossoms perched on twisty vines — reveals bodies conjoined in the throes of intimacy or separated by brick walls.

The artist, 60, who goes by the pseudonym Xiyadie, was born in a farming village in northern China, and he creates queer paper cuts. Paper cutting is a folk tradition dating from the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220 C.E.) that involves cutting crisp lines and shapes into folded layers of rice paper. It’s about excising the negative space to reveal the picture inside.

Xiyadie’s home province of Shanxi was a hub for folk art; in his hometown, paper cuts marked births, weddings and Lunar New Year celebrations. The women in the village passed on the craft to their daughters and daughters-in-law. Xiyadie said he learned it by observing his mother and village matriarchs.

He mostly cut freehand, sometimes using indentations he made with his fingernails as outlines, then dyed his creations with green, pink, red and yellow pigments. He began making homoerotic paper cuts in the 1980s as he struggled with his closeted sexuality, but for many years he kept these works to himself.

Until 1997, gay people in China risked being persecuted; homosexuality was not removed from the official list of mental disorders, maintained by the Chinese Society of Psychiatry, until 2001.

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