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A review of Siu Leung Li's provocative book

From THAT'S SHANGHAI April 2007 Print & Web Edition


By Mina Choi


“The history of Chinese opera can…be described as a series of narrative fragments of ‘gender trouble.’” Siu Leung Li

When one thinks of cross-dressing in Chinese opera, the image of Mei Lanfang immediately pop up in mind, the exquisite star of the 1910’s and 1920’s whose feminine gestures and refined singing, coupled with his beautiful face, took China and the world by storm. That Mei Lanfang was a man, and married with children, hardly mattered. What mattered was his mastery and reinterpretation of the legendary female roles of Chinese Opera. Mei Lanfang was a famous dan, a male transvestite performer, a product of a tradition that has been long hailed and celebrated in the traditional Chinese culture since the Yuan dynasty.

One of the most vehement critics of the cross-dressing tradition was Lu Xun, whom many consider the father of modern Chinese literature. Lu Xun decried the tradition of cross-dressing in despair: “Our country China’s greatest, most eternal and universal ‘art’ is man playing woman.” Lu Xun condemned the age-old venerated tradition of the male dan, likening it to the decrepitude and corruption of the old regime, and called for a new China. His views were shared by many and after the 1949 revolution, the tradition of the male dan declined to a near extinction in China. This and other intriguing bits about cross-dressing history in Chinese Opera can be found in Siu Leung Li’s book.

Unlike Elizabethan Theater, which also had a tradition of male cross-dressers to accommodate the prohibition of women on the stage, Chinese opera had a tradition of cross-dressing in both sides: both the all-female troupes and the all-male troupe cross-dressed to fill out the both the female and male roles necessary to the story. However, the two troupes did not mix, and never performed jointly. During the Yuan dynasty, one of the golden ages of Chinese Opera, much was done to pass of certain star performers as “female” or “male” according to the gender needs of the troupe, as in the instance of one female troupe, which even incorporated two male performers who were being passed off as females with their bound feet.

But why did the cross-dressing continue to be a celebrated fixture in China right into the mid 20th century, even after the appearance of mixed-sex troupes, when cross-dressing in Elizabethan Theater ended in the 17th century?

Li’s answer is that “the traditional Chinese culture still flourished very late into the 19th century and early 20th century. For the average spectator, who were usually from a lower strata of society, the tradition of the male dan was what they cherished.” It could be also be attributed to the fact that Chinese opera is highly stylized and conventionalized, and many preferred to watch a man successfully affecting all the feminine traits of a woman than a woman acting a woman. In his book, Li sites one of the most common arguments for promoting the art of the dan: “that it is exactly because a male actor is not female, that he excessively observes, reflects upon, and studies femininity, resulting in the most meticulous performance of the particularities of “woman” on stage.”

And when the story line of the opera features cross-dressing, then the gender-play becomes dizzingly complicated: as in the case of Mei Lanfang when he has to act the role of Mulan, a girl who pretends to be a boy to fight on behalf of her father. In Mei’s case, it was a man, playing woman who is playing a man. This gender play becomes surreal when the all-female troupe of Yue opera annually stage their popular The Butterfly Lovers, a story of young girl Zhu Yingtai who dresses up as a young man to study in Hangzhou. There, she falls in love with a fellow scholar Liang Shanbo, who doesn’t realize that she is a girl. But in fact, on stage, it is a woman playing a man; while another actress is playing a girl pretending to be a man. Li cites yet another modern interpretation of this tale, told as a musical by Hong Kong director Raymond To, who added a queer elements added to the story. Instead of it being a heterosexual love story, To presents Liang-Zhu as a gay tragedy: Liang Shanbo is a gay man in love with a man, i.e. Zhu. Zhu Yingtai is a straight girl in love with a gay man. Now, that's very complicated.

Perhaps, it is Li’s statements itself that enlightens: “Chinese Opera is turned into an unstable site of gender contestations.” What does it mean to perform a woman after all? With androgynous pop-stars on the rise, and a revival of the male dan in recent Chinese Opera repertoire, the art of the female essence may just be up for grabs.

For a complete list of Articles on Books by Mina Choi click HERE