DANSHAN co-founder Danxia Liu was raised as a boy under China’s one-child policy; here she talks identity, fashion, gender and more
Last year China ended its one-child policy, allowing all couples to have two children for the first time since the punitive family planning rules were implemented during the late seventies. The decision came after a four-day Communist party summit in Beijing, where the country’s top leaders debated their concerns surrounding the economy as the result of an ageing population.
But after almost four decades under the family planning system, what have the humanitarian consequences been for China? In an article on the one-child policy, Guardian journalist Tom Philips writes how people have been subjected to “forced sterilisations, infanticide and sex-selective abortions (which) have caused a dramatic gender imbalance that means millions of men will never find female partners”. In traditional Chinese culture sons are favoured, and because of the one-child policy it has meant tens of thousands of baby girls were disapproved of and even abandoned by their families.
One person with experience of this aspect of China’s gender politics is Danxia Liu, a recent Central Saint Martins graduate and co-founder of emerging menswear label DANSHAN. Liu, who is from Guangzhou in the south of China, was born female, but was brought up as a boy until the age of 12 by her father due to traditional societal pressures. Liu’s unconventional upbringing has shaped her values and informs her practice as a menswear designer, where she strives to disregard gender archetypes and instead explore what is beneath the facade of machoism and strength. Here, she shares her poignant childhood experience and discusses why she thinks it’s important to embrace vulnerability.
Why did your father dress you as a boy?
When I was born, my paternal grandmother asked my dad to divorce my mum because she wanted a grandson. At the time, it was considered a failure when a man doesn’t have a son. My dad would always take me to the barber to cut my hair really short, only dressed me in boys’ clothes and encouraged me to play sports like football. When his friends commented on how cute his ‘son’ was, he never denied it. For a long time, a lot of his friends thought he had a son.
At what point did you become aware that you were being dressed as a boy?
It was probably when I started to notice other little girls in dresses and I realised that I didn’t have anything like that. My hair was so short, it could never be braided or have a traditional girly hairstyle. Most of the time, my family friends would comment on how cute this little boy was.
What did you have to undergo to conceal your identity?
I was encouraged to play all sorts of ‘boys’ sports’. Before puberty, if you had seen me in the playground, no one would have doubted that I was not a boy. All my best friends were boys and I would only choose to play with boys’ toys in school despite the fact I never had toys at home.
How did you feel about your true identity?
I was frustrated. I thought my direct family was ashamed of me. I felt like I was not a complete person and thought it would have been amazing if I was a boy. I was very detached from my emotions, I was not able to express what I really thought and wanted.
Did you have to keep your identity completely secret?
When anyone would first meet me they would assume I was a boy, but as soon as I spoke they would know that I was a girl. There was no need to hide it. But, that was the most difficult aspect of it for me because people would think that I was strange, which obviously created a lot of difficulties for me.
How did this experience impact your relationship with your family?
I don’t remember how it was at the beginning, though from all the evidence, I know that I wasn’t speaking much. In kindergarten, the teachers would write that I was extremely arrogant and not speaking to anyone. When I was two years old I was sent away to live with my aunt’s family and from the age of 12 I went to boarding school. Going to boarding school sort of saved me. At the beginning, it was extremely difficult due to my social skills, but I was so lucky to have so many female encounters to teach me how to be a human, to be a good and kind person. My relationship with my direct family started very strangely, but as I grew up, I began to understand how relationships work and I took a lot of initiative and worked very hard to keep my family together.
How do you express yourself now?
I think I was so lucky to become who I am today. I now feel that I am very good at expressing my own emotions and I love to live as who I really am. I could have turned out a lot of worse or completely opposite to how I am now. I know how people can’t express their true feelings. I am a good ‘ice breaker’ when in conversation, because I had to make so much effort to win the acknowledgment from my family, I have become very determined and tenacious.
What drew you to fashion?
I wanted to be a fine art artist but accidently ended up in fashion. I studied womenswear at CSM because I am a feminist and like many other designers I wanted to do something to empower women. However, the more I studied women, the more I realised how very little has evolved in terms of masculinity and that’s how I ended up doing menswear after graduation. Fashion for me was never about being pretty, it is about identity.
You founded your label DANSHAN with Shan Peng Wong, how did that come about?
I met Shan in foundation year and he has been a great inspiration for me ever since. He is very unique and we understand one another really well, despite the fact we don’t always agree on everything. We were flatmates for four years and we both worked for the same company before deciding to leave our jobs and form a brand together. His upbringing made him so different, Shan has so many beautiful traits that I value and I feel are buried in traditional notions of masculinity. This became our statement, it was something we could both strongly relate to and explore through menswear.
How have you explored this through your work?
We are trying to create a space to explore the hidden intricacies of masculinity, to allow room for emotion, vulnerability, and sensitivity. We want to create something that comes from being human, something that is raw and beautiful – characteristics that everyone has.
Why have you looked at the sensitivity of men rather than the oppression of women?
Life has not been fair for everyone. I have met so many great females in my life, who were encouraged to be anything they like, to even be nothing, not having the pressure to achieve anything. Whilst there is only one stereotype that men have to strive for, to be successful and wealthy, otherwise you are usually considered a failure.
When my grandmother passed away, I didn’t see a single tear drop from my father’s eyes. That was the moment I realised that there is something very wrong society’s expectation of what it means to be a man. Of course, I know there was no-one more heartbroken than my dad, but men are not supposed to cry. I cried so much even though I had only met this woman twice in my life. I just knew I loved her so much, no matter what happened in the past. After all, I am a woman and I can be openly emotional, sensitive and vulnerable. Without a space where men can be vulnerable so many things become pent up and explode, which has endless impacts on society.
Do you think attitudes have changed in China?
In terms of traditional masculine values, I don’t think the issue of double standards used to criticise men and women has changed in China but I do think the preference for male children has changed a lot. I have asked my male friends – all of whom I admire – why they choose to build their lives so far away from home. All of their answers are the same, it’s because being close to home doesn’t allow them to be themselves.