Andrew Thomas Huang: Gravedigger

I buried Cheuk Ning 卓寧. Not once, but in repeated deliberate layers of forgetting.

My grandmother named me after the Chinese olympian Li Ning , “The Prince of Gymnastics.” A national hero. Internet search results for Li Ning reveal photos of his chiseled angles defying gravity on the rings in the 1984 Olympics. His body all deltoids.  Although only 5’5”, Li Ning felt like a Goliath from a distant country. A deity whose name brushed my back, labeling me his. Li Ning embodied a nation. His physique was political. Meat in motion, trophied. Grainy live TV footage of him on the Olympic floor scissoring through the air burned itself into the minds of Chinese abroad, cracking open the possibility: maybe China could be great still…

The legacy of that character ning 寧 crowns my Chinese name as one belonging to a full-bodied athlete. Ning 寧 heralded a towering masculinity that forbade me entry into it. I was a frail gay Chinese kid who preferred to dress up like Disney princesses. I did not grow into a body, but became a drifting head with an English name that hollowed my shape with air, buoying me in an Anglo sea. Sports did not come naturally to me, though I was forced into a lineup of soccer, basketball, and baseball, among other failed endeavors. My parents would encourage me to read the sports section of the local newspaper, just so I had something to talk about with other people. But I was still the kid who picked clovers in upper left field. I could count on my baseball teammates to boo when I stepped up to bat because they knew I would strike out every time. They validated my physical inferiority while sitting there, knocking the hard plastic athletic cups armoring their groins. I was soft and ineffective. My body’s betrayal reliably consistent.

The athletic promise of ning 寧 became a boundary wall. A name I could never earn from a language I couldn’t speak. So I buried him slowly beneath tiers of sediment until he became a fossil, waiting to be discovered, exhumed, named back into existence. My English name became my ghost. Drifting through the land of the living, unbodied. I remember once a girl thought my name was Daniel. The only Daniel I knew at the time was a blue-eyed redhead in my neighborhood. And when she called me Daniel out loud, it was as if by magic, she had painted my eyes blue and my hair cinnamon. Perhaps “Daniel” could save me. Give me a new vessel to hold my weight and let my form take the shape of a name meant for a white kid.

But all names, even buried ones, are the best travelers. They travel through air. Through blood. Through loam. Ning 寧 journeyed back from the grave. Rose through my throat to prove my Cantonese heritage in Taiwan at a temple to a Taoist priest. When the priest heard me, he shook his head and said, “No, surely that is not a Cantonese name.” I unearthed Ning for a moment, but he arrived dead on the scene—a stillborn.

How can a name be resuscitated? Re-embodied? I learned that Chinese can have many names over their lifetime. My grandfather went by a few: Huang Lingshuang 黄凌霜, Huang Wenshan 黃文山. Perhaps I, too, can journey through names, entering them like a tunnel, emerging on the other side a different beast entirely. Ning is the name of a hero. To inhabit his form is to step into a promise unfulfilled. An impossible supposition. A hypothesis. A void. Maybe if I wear him, others will think I am actually Chinese. No longer an impostor, just the puppeteer of a corpse emerging from sifted earth, animated by some ghost limb.

Or maybe he can inhabit me. Like a demon riding what belongs to it. I always wanted to know what it felt like to be possessed. Like those people in church struck by the Holy Spirit. Bodies gyrating in ecstasy. My mom would always tell me not to utter the Devil’s name for fear of what it might summon. I want to summon Ning. Let him step into me like a glove. Run his hands along the inside of my skin. Fill me in the parts where I failed to exist. I’ll wear his name like a second skin. A cloak of feathers. A magic armor to give me flight, just like that tumbling chiseled body defying gravity on the rings on live television in 1984.

The character ning 寧 itself means “serenity.” Perhaps the masculine Goliath behind Ning can be toppled. Maybe the name could embody the sensation of peace. Weightlessness. Levity. Soaring above the clouds, like one of those Taoist sages. Perhaps this is the consequence of burying a name. It will sprout wings beneath the earth—wet and trembling, waiting to be set free at the right time. 寧, I buried him. But I’ll raise the dead. Kneel at his grave and start digging.

Writer-director Andrew Thomas Huang crafts hybrid fantasy worlds and mythical dreamscapes. A Grammy-nominated music video director, Huang’s collaborators include Bjork, FKA Twigs and Thom Yorke among others. His films have been commissioned by and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, NY, The Sydney Opera House and the Museum of Contemporary Art, LA. Inspired by his Chinese heritage and queer Asian mythology and folklore, Huang continues his foray into narrative with his first feature film Tiger Girl which has received support from Film Independent and the Sundance Institute. Huang graduated with a degree in fine art and animation from the University of Southern California.


平行奥运 Olympic Reveries

In tandem with the Tokyo Olympics, Heichi Magazine is hosting a parallel assembly of artist essays. Olympic Reveries emphasizes the cultural spaces opened up by sports and the illusion of spatiotemporal unity created by live broadcasts. We invited artists to extend the ideas of athleticism and national culture into their practices and speculate on real or imagined games that present values different from those of mainstream sporting events.

Published: 2021.07.29