With the Reform and Opening Up1 of the late 1980s, China saw an increase in the visibility of queer representation. Chinese queer cinema in the early 1990s created unique cinematic aesthetics through these groundbreaking socio-cultural narratives. Focusing on the two of the most influential queer films in China, Farewell, My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993) and East Palace, West Palace (Zhang Yuan, 1996), this essay argues that the imagination of queer space represents both the protagonists’ dilemma and the challenging relationship between queer film festivals (QFFs) and authorities. In considering the significance of space, it explores the role that the queer film festival plays in the reception of these films and argues that the tension that the queer protagonists face mirrors the realities of the early Chinese QFFs. Stepping beyond the physical, this article analyses imaginary queer spaces that draw on the distinct aesthetics of Chinese opera. Through examining such space as part of a critical discourse, I explore how they serve a unique function in allowing us to sense the protagonists’ internal journeys through a particular chronotope.2 This essay illuminates the struggle and hope of queer filmmakers, which are symbolically projected onto the screen, in the contexts of the early period of the Beijing Queer Film Festival (BJQFF). I discuss how queer imagination is aestheticised and explore how confined physical spaces and social limitations are extended and freed through theatrical mapping of the queer film festival environment.

The concept of the imagined queer space is crucial in the discussion of Chinese queer social movements as homosexuality has been a taboo subject in contemporary China from the post-monarchy period in the 1910s to the 1990s. Xuxin Zhang argues that “the introduction of monogamy from the West, the establishment of institutions and ‘ethical standards’ regulated homosexual behaviour, thus shaping contemporary Chinese attitudes and social values.”3 Imaginary queer space is the mental remapping of the social sphere, the abstract and illusory place that queer characters fantasise and conceive in order to attain a state of ideal perfection or to withstand external resistance, which is generally private and personal.4 Moreover, with films such as Palace, Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan, 2001) and Old Testament (Cui Zi’en, 2001) premiering at BJQFF in 2001,5 the festival itself could also be viewed as an alternative method of distribution for queer art and identity.

Contrastingly, queer film festivals, the haven of queer cinema, were no longer the imaginary realm for the queer artists. Although challenging the mainstream narrative, the themes of queerness that play out in the queer space of the BJQFF do address real-world social issues, such as the lesbian march in Dyke March (Shi Tou, 2002), the life of a lesbian travelling singer in Shasha (Liu Bo, 2006), and the social burden faced by a gay who pretends to be living with his “girl friend” in The Personals (Zhou Yaowu, 2006). And even in Farewell and Palace, in which fantasy space plays a dominant role, the films underline the gay protagonists’ trauma, suffering and disorientation stemming from the very nature of the repressed, social reality.

Palace and Farewell are set in mainland China during the post-monarchy period [from 1911 to 1949] and the 1990s, respectively. During these periods, China’s attitude towards homosexuality was very conservative with homosexuality being considered a sin. At the beginning of Farewell, the protagonist isn’t presented as gay. Forced to play female roles as a Peking Opera performer, he gradually finds himself in love with his on-stage partner. In Palace, the protagonist’s queer identity is associated with the excessive maternal care of his childhood and his masochistic desire from experiences of male violence. Both of their queer identities are affected by external forces or situations and both characters live in oppressed and constrained circumstances where homosexuality is something to be punished. The people that they love are heterosexual men who repel queer relationships. 

The concept of imaginary queer space has been formulated by Aaron Betsky as one that is “at the center of your experience, a world shot through with desire and fulfillment for yourself out of the past and for the future in a secure environment; it is an unreal space and artificial environment, yet is very real”.6 I will develop this idea and explore how this aspect is crucial to the construction and depiction of queer space, how it influences the protagonists’ queer desires. My argument builds upon Betsky’s position that imaginary queer spaces grow from one’s past experience, in which the protagonists’ queer feelings and desires are strongly influenced by their past. Yingjin Zhang argues that the imaginary queer space is “a remapping of the non-physical space, a particular mode of spatial imaginary that aims at the exile of the sexual others,”7 by which he means that it is an alternative space that is constructed by queer imaginations and allows sexual minorities to express their identities in a different sphere, away from the heteronormative realm. The notion of “exile” in Zhang’s argument inspires my view; this essay will utilise this term by exploring how the queer protagonists actively choose to be emotional refugees and exile themselves, rather than being forced by external powers, to the space of their own queer imaginations. 

Chinese queer film grew with the rise of independent filmmaking in China in the 1990s with the reduction in state funding and the change in social structure that prioritised individuality and feelings. In 2001, Cui Zi’en, a pioneer queer filmmaker and producer, organised the first queer film festival in China at Beijing University. Being a lesbian herself who was active during the transforming period of film culture in the 1990s in China, Cui went on to make digital video films with innovative technologies showcasing avant-garde imagery that connected queer feelings and sensations to fantasy and artistic aesthetics. However, the event was shut down by the authorities. The second queer film festival was held in 2005 but was forced to change venues at the last minute, when Beijing University withdrew its permission for the festival.8 In 2005, queer film festivals in China were still considered the products of Western capitalist culture, which would distort the socio-cultural and political progress of the country.9 These circumstances establish the socio-cultural context for Chinese queer cinema during this period as fraught. 

The Imaginary Queer Space

The relationship between Chinese opera and homosexuality is integral to the construction of queer spaces in these films. In Farewell, the love story and Peking Opera are interwoven with the historical and social changes in contemporary China; the theatre, which marks the protagonists’ mutual experience, frames their relationship and Dieyi’s homosexuality. E. Ann Kaplan indicates there are two types of melodrama in queer cinema: “the aesthetic discourse is mainly interested in the cultural repression of unconscious desire, whereas the political one concerns repressed social prohibitions. Both rely on the notion of expressing what cannot be said and demand inadmissible in the codes of social and psychological discourse”.10 She argues that the melodramatic quality of queer cinema deals with both personal desires and social issues that contribute to the taboo nature of queerness. That is to say, the interaction of the external force from society and the internal psychological struggle of the characters constructs the emotional conflict in queer cinema. It shapes the “worlding practices” of queer cinema which displays a “combination of highly fictional, emotionally and formally overwrought texuality with socially engaged activism”.11 Farewell is both an aesthetic and a political queer melodrama. Dieyi’s sexual identity is shaped by his structural role as a dan actor;12 his initial unconscious queer feeling is bred from this particular culture. In the opening training scenes, we repeatedly see young Dieyi being beaten up by the opera tutor because he refuses to say the line ‘I’m naturally a girl’; his extra finger is removed by the tutor in order to do the ‘orchid hand’ gesture when playing female roles; and a smoking pipe is forced into his mouth when he refuses to play the female hero. The images of violence, blood, and children are presented at a fast pace compared to other scenes, illustrating how the disastrous process of a symbolic castration influences Dieyi from his childhood. This passive adaptation of feminization implies that his queer feelings are inevitable, and he can only imagine himself in the fictional female position in his relationship with Xiaolou. The excessive training process and Dieyi’s repressed love for Xiaolou forces him to blur the boundary between onstage and offstage identities. This causes internal turmoil as homosexuality is seen as a perverse and repressed subject in the Chinese patriarchal culture dominated by heteronormative values. This repression is especially evident during the Cultural Revolution, the time when the second half of the film is set, when openly gay men were humiliated and tortured in public, and sentenced to hard labor; some reportedly were beaten to death or committed suicide.13

Dieyi’s blended on-stage and off-stage identity

Moreover, opera, which was also seen as a national weakness during the Cultural Revolution, was considered something to be cracked down along with homosexuality; traditional Peking opera was forced into an art form with revolutionary themes for propaganda purposes.14 Dieyi’s personal sexual identity as a homosexual and his public role as an opera actor make him face both internal and external struggles: he has to repress his love for Xiaolou, who marries a woman; and to be tortured by the authorities later as an “opera tyrant”. Therefore, Dieyi chooses to blur and ignore the boundary between his stage role as Xiaolou’s lover and his bitter and painful position in reality in order to create a fantasy queer space for himself to survive. Xiaolou repeatedly accuses Dieyi of being “too serious” or “so obsessed” with his role-playing. Dieyi, who brings his stage character to real life, lives by theatrical role and identity and immerses himself in his stage relationship with Xiaolou in reality. 

Dieyi’s fantasy is further reflected in the themes of the play itself. In one scene, Xiaolou tells Dieyi that he is engaged with Juxian; Dieyi gets extremely furious and questions Xiaolou if he has obeyed what their tutor told them about the idea of “being loyal to one from the beginning to the end”. This idea stems from their play, which is based on the folktale where Concubine Yu kills herself in front of the king to show her loyalty. This story is now used by Dieyi to criticize Xiaolou for his behaviour in real life on behalf of Xiaolou’s real lover. Dieyi is not jealous of Juxian; he simply thinks that Xiaolou betrays him as he cannot step out of his fictional position. Dieyi’s obsession with his stage role as Concubine Yu and his repressed love for Xiaolou turns the opera into a mask that enables him to express his unspoken queer desire. In Farewell, art is seen as a fantasy, an illusory state where the queer protagonist masks himself with their queer identity in a fictional world. 

The protagonist A-Lan in Palace also uses Chinese opera and folktales to construct his imaginary queer space. A-Lan’s fantasy of being a female prisoner who is caught by a strong prison guard comes from the Qunqu performance, another type of Chinese opera. The opera passages are repeatedly inserted at different stages in the film and are set aside from the narrative thread and the diegetic time and space, making “the dramatic structure more unconventional and the focus more psychological”.15 In the opera scenes, we are sure that it is the protagonist’s illusory state, as the stage for the opera performers is lit in a theatrical way, and the fake snow adds to its fictionality. In the folktale associated with this performance, the female thief falls in love with the male prison guard. Like Dieyi who imagines himself as the king’s concubine, A-Lan imagines himself as the female thief. 

A-Lan describes his fantasy during his confession to the policeman, Shi, echoing the criminal-authority relationship in his imagined space. In the second opera scene, A-Lan enters the frame where the two performers are on stage. He watches them through a window shade and becomes the narrator of the plot. We note that Shi is absent in this space and it seems that A-Lan is the director of the play, manipulating the performers with his complete control and imagination. However, in the first opera scene, where it is clear that Shi is listening to him, A-Lan is not visible; we only hear his voice-over. It is shot from a low angle, as if it were viewed by someone who is lying down and looking up. Then we see A-Lan in his flashback: his memory of being beaten up by the factory men as they discovered he was a homosexual. He is pushed onto the floor while the men are standing; this physical position echoes that of the female prisoner and the prison guard in the earlier fantasy sequence. Furthermore, A-Lan’s torn red shirt  parallels what the female prisoner wears. These flashbacks follow the shot of him lying down and looking up in a close-up, as if he is watching the opera performance from the previous scene. Although the opera is narratively disconnected from these flashbacks, the two are thematically connected through the lens of a queer imaginary space. As such, this flashback sequence conveys a sense that the same fantasy has been in A-Lan’s mind from the past to the present.

Imaginary Queer Space as Metaphor

As the first queer film in China, Palace is loaded with the burden of significance. Although avant-garde and art house aesthetics dominate the form and style of the film, they are set against the theme of the police surveillance and investigation of the gay protagonist, making the film even more politically and socially relevant. Importantly, the film’s release was also characterised by police violence: the film was screened at the first Beijing Queer Film Festival. The event was scheduled for ten days, yet it was forced to close after only three days due to “pressure from the school, government, and police”.16 We can argue that the theme of authority versus the vulnerable yet strong-willed gay protagonist matches the external milieu in which LGBT filmmakers were courageously exhibiting their films while being inevitably stifled by police. Cui’s collaborator, Yang Yang expressed deep disappointment as the once liberal university and cutting-edge place, Beijing University, had died along with the forced closure of the festival.17 With the shutdown of the event, young artists’ desire for liberty, through the exhibition of queer film, had also been demolished. 

The queering of gender evokes a moving in-betweenness in which the protagonists (and metaphorically, the artists) are constantly mobile, trying to seek refuge. This sense of personal fluidity and of reshaping oneself echoes Audrey Yue’s concept of “mobile intimacy,” which reveals “gay intimacy as a site of movement between sign, image and constituency”.18 Both A-Lan and Dieyi’s nature stemmed from excessive femininity in their upbringings. Chris Berry suggests that A-Lan’s single parent household and lack of fathering “invoke Freudian pop psychology-style that is implied to be a search for a father substitute when he seeks out older men as he grows up”.19 Furthermore, what develops his queer desire is the experience of violence and the encounter with the girl Public Bus. He enjoys the feeling of being violently treated by the factory men and imagines himself as the girl who has sexual intercourse with various men. Thus, A-Lan constructs an imaginary queer space to achieve the gay desire he has had since his childhood. He chooses to become a masochist and makes such a space a battle for survival and a space where his wishes become possible. Contrary to A-Lan who actively adapts to his homosexual identity and imagination, Dieyi’s queer fantasy is due to a “forced submissive formulation as a result of the cultural self”.20 He is trained into a forced femininity to become a dan actor. As Helen Leung suggests, Dieyi’s imaginary queer space is his “unflinching refusal to compromise between life and stage”.21 Thus, such a space also becomes a battle between art and life, which parallels the queer filmmakers’ struggle to balance those two aspects in their production during the period. 

This notion of shifting identity connects the queer protagonists and the filmmakers as if they mirror each other, especially during the time when the filmmakers’ glimpse of hope and their inner home, BJQFF, was under strong criticism and forced to close. This special fluidity indicates the filmmakers’ strong will for artistic and personal expressions, which eventually have nowhere to be situated. Despite the difficulty, BJQFF still aimed to serve as a home for queer artists, activists and communities. The organisers did not merely wish to display the films, but to “widen repertoires of acquaintance” through tangible urban experiences and real social issues.22 Just as the imaginary space for the queer protagonists representing their unfulfilled desire pushes them to fight for change, the early queer film festivals of China fought for their own space, echoing Hongwei Bao’s idea of “queer as catechresis”.23 Bao suggests that queer culture in China is practised in a transcultural context through BJQFF occurring through social movement, cultural exhibition, spatial politics. The “incompleteness of signs and the openness of the social”24 articulates the still-emerging queer culture in China. Therefore, queer culture and queer film festivals in China can be seen as the product of social transformation and the emerging dialogue between China’s own cultural specificities and neoliberal governance, signalling a step towards socio-cultural consciousness. In this sense, just as the imaginary space in the films, the queer film festival is a ritualised space of celebration fused with resistance and challenge.


This essay has examined the differences between various types of imaginary queer spaces and how they are shaped against the social backdrop of the queer film festival. For the queer characters, imaginary queer space is a space to survive social critiques, governmental punishments, and unrequited love. More importantly, such a space locates their fighting for their desires for liberty. Such a space is personal, artificial, and illusory, yet it is an important space attached to people’s mental and emotional states; a space constructed by queer communities who actively choose to distance themselves from a heteronormative realm that symbolises the mainstream narrative and ideology that suppress them. The films’ heightened emphasis on spatiality and the in-betweenness challenges the restrictions imposed upon queer communities and artistic expressions. Through challenging the representations of binaries of the oppressor and the oppressed, femininity and male power, and theatrical and real spaces, the initially vulnerable and marginalised queer protagonists eventually gain their strength and power, albeit through imaginary means. Such intricate and symbolic spatial logic and narrative are interwoven into the space of BJQFF in China, which projects the artists’ strong desire for identity and aesthetic liberty that requires a shelter against the suppressive external environment. The filmmakers are still shaping a distinct space of their own, moving in between the binaries as the protagonists do. 

Now, two decades after the first festival was held, with an increasingly inclusive and open society in China, BJQFF is thriving. The latest event, the 15th BJQFF held last year, screened 75 outstanding Chinese and international films, with 47 Chinese and 28 foreign language films from over 20 countries and regions, including France, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Brazil, Japan, Argentina, Iran, Panama and India. Diverse themes of the films presented a panoramic view of queer cinematic creations from around the world, looking at the unique and invisible pain and joy of the queer community. The festival also invited its partner film festival – the Queer East Film Festival. Filmmakers representing 17 films participated in face-to-face or online panel discussions. With an attendance rate of 70%, the 10-day event highlighted and celebrated queer culture and cinema from a variety of perspectives, meeting the needs and experiences of different audiences.


  1. The Reform and Opening Up policy was launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, implementing a number of economic changes known as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “socialist market economy”. The period was featured by increased agricultural and industrial productivity and income, China’s openness to globalisation and foreign trade and investment, privatisation of business sectors and liberalised financial services.
  2. Simon Dentith states that “chronotope” is a term that describes the manner in which literature or a work of art represents time and space. In different kinds of art form there are differing chronotopes, by which changing historical conceptions of time and space are realised. (Simon Dentitih (2001), “The Literary Encyclopedia.” Volume Slavic and Russian Writing and Culture: Old, Medieval and Tsarist, 700-1917).
  3. Xuxin Zhang, “China’s Misunderstood History of Gay Tolerance,” The Diplomat, June 2015.
  4. Gordon Ingram, Anne-Marie Bouthillette, and Yolanda Retter, “Strategies for (Re)constructing Queer Communities,” Queers in Space: Communities, Public Place, Sites of Resistance, (Washington D.C.: Bay Press, 1997).
  5. Cui Zi’en is a co-founder of BJQFF
  6. Aaron Betsky, Queer Space: Architecture and Same-sex Desire (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997).
  7. Yingjin Zhang, “Space of Polylocality,” in Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in a Globalizing China (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 2009).
  8. David Pendleton, “China, Filmmaking,”in Routledge International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  9. Cui Zi’en and Ying Zhu, “China, Tongzhi Literature”, in Routledge International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  10. Ann Kaplan, “Melodrama/subjectivity/ideology: Western melodrama theories and their relevance to recent Chinese cinema,” in Melodrama and Asian Cinema (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
  11. Karl Schoonover and Rosalind Galt, Queer Cinema in the World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
  12. Dan is the name for female roles in Chinese opera and were usually played by men in early Peking opera
  13. Wenqing Kang, (2022), “Seeking Pleasure in Peril: Male Same-Sex Relations during the Cultural Revolution.” Positions: Asian Critique, 30:1, p.61-84.
  14. Xing Lu, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, (Los Angeles: University of South California Press, 2004).
  15. Tony Rayns (1996), “Provoking Desire,” Sight and Sound, 6:7, p.26.
  16. Nicholas de Villiers, Sexography: Sex Work in Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
  17. Yang Yang, Our Story—the 10 Years”Guerrilla Warfare” of Bejing Queer Film Festival (Wo mende gu shi), DVD (Beijing: Beijing Queer Film Festival Committee, 2011).
  18. Audrey Yu, (2012), “Mobile intimacies in the queer Sinophone films of Cui Zi’en.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 6.1: 95-108.
  19. Chris Berry, “Happy Alone? Sad Young Men in East Asian Gay Cinema,” Journal of Homosexuality (New York: The Haworth Press, 2008).
  20. Jen-hao Hsu, “Queering Chineseness: The Queer Sphere of Feelings in Farewell, My Concubine and Green Snake,” Asian Studies Review, 36, March (2012), p.7.
  21.   Helen Leung, Farewell, My Concubine: A Queer Classic (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2010).
  22. Qin Qin (2022), “The Beijing Rainbow Film Festival: between depoliticisation and performative activism,” Culture, Health & Sexuality, 24:10, p.1438-1450.
  23. Bao, Hongwei. “Queer as catachresis: the Beijing Queer Film Festival in cultural translation.” Chinese film festivals: Sites of translation, 2017,p.79-100.
  24. Bao, Hongwei. “Queer as catachresis: the Beijing Queer Film Festival in cultural translation.” Chinese film festivals: Sites of translation, 2017, p.79-100.

About The Author

Graduating from University College London with a PhD in History, Nashuyuan Wang is now an engineer and journal editor for an academic journal, Railway Sciences. She had worked as the media journalist for the European Times and Chinese weekly, the judge and film reviewer for Beloit International Film Festival, cultural writer and PR manager for Chinese Food Festival, and the Cultural Media Chief Editor at FusionPay.

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