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Artistic transcendence meets gender politics

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2013-10-26 08:04

In fact, cross-dressing performances in today's China are tolerated mainly in the framework of traditional opera or as part of the revival of traditional culture. In the old days, men and women were not allowed to appear together on the stage, thus giving rise to all-male or all-female performing styles, as in Elizabethan England. With the founding of New China, males and females could, and indeed were encouraged to, perform together. For a while, gender-disguising practices seemed a thing of the past.

Now I'm sure Western readers will laugh that all these elaborate traditions are but a pretense for transvestism or homosexuality. But the truth is probably more complicated.

In the Golden Palm-winning film Farewell My Concubine there are hints that the boy was straight when he was first enrolled in an opera school. It was literally beaten into him that he must take himself as a girl since he was assigned to play exclusively female roles. While empirical evidence shows the percentage of gays in this profession is higher than the general population, it would be wrong to make sweeping assumptions. By simply talking to some of the models who appear on the TV show in drag, it was pretty obvious to me some of them took it for nothing more than a job. If playing male roles would get them more money, they wouldn't think twice but switch gender roles.

Artistic transcendence meets gender politics

More than the rationale for female impersonation is the analysis of the audience, an area where China diverges sharply from a Western country. While drag shows in San Francisco, for example, attract predominantly young males or gays, the most loyal audience in China for an artist like Li Yugang is made up of females and the elderly, the more conservative strata of society. I queried a few of them, and their answers were illuminating.

They totally accept men as men and women as women. That is the norm on stage or on screen. But when a man plays a woman so exquisitely, he is actually "more feminine than a woman". This is a refrain heard all around. It dawned on me that it's the transcendence that makes the magic. Think of all the Hollywood actors who drastically changed their looks and brought home the golden statuettes. Well, Chinese audiences tend to give extra points for credible turnouts that transform the actor's gender in appearance or singing voice.

That is why Mei Lanfang was a national treasure and cross-dressing opera performance a high art. The actor has to be "more feminine than a woman" but he must not cross over into farce. There is often a restraint in the sumptuousness of the costume and makeup.

Still, authorities are not yet comfortable with all cross-dressing shows, inadvertently making such shows in Thailand wildly popular with Chinese tourists, who harbor a mixture of curiosity, mild put-down and secret admiration. It remains to be seen whether Li Yugang, now enshrined in State sponsorship, will be an isolated case or a pioneer like Mei. (Unlike Mei, he dons both male and female garb.)

Outside the pantheon of high art or the shelter of low comedy are few discussions about the meaning of such gender-twisting attempts. Of course there are people who are concerned with the loss of masculinity, not just of a few performers, but of a whole nation. But looked at another way, the scale is tipped slightly toward women as men dressed as women are inherently perceived a peg down from their traditional male dominance and therefore are more embraced by women. It's almost a visualization of exploring one's "feminine side".

As long as people are not forced into such practices, how one dresses or how one identifies with gender roles is ultimately a private matter. Like all experiments or obsessions, it could be a fad or it could have psychological roots. But only a few can elevate it into art. And only then will the public find beauty in it.

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