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 performance.
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 said.
Li Yinhe added that Li Yugang is not a transvestite "he does it as a performing art."
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 androgyny.
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."
(China Daily 11/13/2006 page3)