Some might think of cross-dressing as high camp, but in China these days it
could also be considered high art, or at the very least a bit of good clean fun.
In the most high-profile example of this growing trend, a recent talent
contest on China Central Television (CCTV) featured a young man who dressed like
a woman and sang like a nightingale. This young showman so enchanted audiences
that he walked away with third prize.
Though Li Yugang's set consisted mainly of folk songs, he seemed to channel
the spirit of Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), the great Peking Opera master who carved
out a place for the national art form in the world pantheon of esteemed art.
Indeed, the 28-year-old from the countryside of Jilin Province got his start
by taking lessons from Mei's disciples. Despite these historical roots, Li has
had to struggle against the longstanding stigma of men performing female roles,
a technique that has fallen out of favour in the past half century.
People in China generally frown on transvestite performances, known locally
as fanchuan, except when they are done for comic effect. But that did not stop
television audiences from marvelling at Li's beauty and grace as he sang and
danced. A fan club quickly sprung up online and called on the performer to take
the starring role in a forthcoming biopic of Mei Lanfang.
CCTV's producer said the network usually categorically barred cross-dressers
from appearing on the show, but it made an exception after seeing Li's
So why the sudden acceptance of fanchuan?
According to Li Yinhe, China's top expert on gender issues, the tradition of
Peking Opera played a crucial role.
"If there had been no Mei Lanfang, things would have been different," she
Li Yinhe added that Li Yugang is not a transvestite "he does it as a
She noted that cross-dressing as a manifestation of blurred gender lines had
become something of a trend in the world of popular music. Boy George and
Michael Jackson could be considered examples of the style.
It seems to be catching on in China. A photography shop in Shanghai called Ji
He Photo Studio specializes in cross-dressing. Owner Tsai Bi-hwa is a plastic
artist who opened her first photography studio in Taiwan 13 years ago. That shop
also shoots photos of men impersonating women.
"For many men, pretending to be a woman is good fun. From a psychological
point of view, it can help people relieve their stress," Tsai said, adding that
men in Shanghai are "suppressed" because they have lower social status and are
therefore more in need of an outlet for their anxieties.
To prepare the Shanghai shop, Tsai imported 200 outfits of women's costume
clothing from Taiwan.
"Whatever women like tends to be popular with men, too. And the wedding dress
is everyone's favourite," she laughed.
While it is true that not everyone turns into a drag queen when they are
feeling stressed out, many young people do seem to be caught up in the fad of
Last year, Supergirl champion Li Yuchun captivated millions thanks more to
her tomboyish demeanour than her vocal talent. A recent Shanghai-based TV
contest for men featured a candidate who was so feminine that some joked that he
could have been Li Yuchun's sister.
"The popularity of such androgynous idols is the result of public fatigue
with conventional aesthetics," said Li Yinhe, the sociologist. "It also shows
that Chinese society is increasingly tolerant when it comes to sexual identity."