Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera

Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera

Siu Leung Li
Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 316
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jc2n9
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  • Book Info
    Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera
    Book Description:

    The enchantment of the figure of the "male dan" – female impersonator – remains a residual element in the cultural imagination of many contemporary Chinese societies. The various kinds of interpretive possibilities in the commanding tradition of cross-dressing Chinese opera have yet to be examined in-depth. In order to discuss "mistaken identity" and gender issues as they relate to cross-dressing on the Chinese operatic stage, this book examines a wide range of materials, including traditional dramatic texts, modern literary writings, critical writings (for example, quhua), opera paintings, and contemporary movies. The book explores gendering and gender differences that are constructed, reproduced, dismantled, and contested in this particularly rich site of Chinese culture.

    eISBN: 978-988-220-093-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-8)

    The history of Chinese opera can, among many possible characterizations, be instructively described as a series of narrative fragments of “gender trouble.” In the beginning (of its textual history), Chinese theatre was to a significant extent constituted in and through gender b(l)ending. The enchantment of the figure of the “male dan” [nandan/qiandan] — female impersonator — remains a stubborn residual element in the cultural imagination in some layers of contemporary Chinese societies. The various kinds of queer possibilities in the social and cultural locality of Chinese opera, epitomized in its commanding tradition of cross-dressing, have yet to be examined in...

  6. NOTE ON TRANSLATION AND ROMANIZATION
    (pp. 9-12)
  7. PROLOGUE
    • ONE LU XUN’S STRAIGHT WORDS AND THE QUEER WORLD OF CHINESE OPERA
      (pp. 15-26)

      Lu Xun (1881–1936), arguably the best known modern Chinese writer in his own country as well as in the West, once drew an analogy between theatre and politics by way of a critique of the cultural practice of the female impersonator in Chinese opera.¹ In a short article entitled “Zui yishu de guojia” [The most artistic country] (March 30, 1933), Lu Xun gives a scathing criticism of the hypocrisy and deception in the politics of Republican China. According to him, the Republican government and the corrupt politicians participating in the game of power had hitherto been reluctant to give...

  8. HISTORY
    • TWO A THEATRE OF CROSS-DRESSING: A REVISIONIST HISTORY
      (pp. 29-64)

      Beginning with classical Greece, theatre in Europe was characterized by the absence of women and the silence of their voices (Case). European theatre has been criticized as male-generated, with one-sided male cross-dressing, and for excluding women from the stage for two thousand years (Ferris, Acting Women). It was not until the seventeenth century that actresses were gradually accepted on the stage, yet they were often commodified as objects of desire for the pleasure of the male audience. After all the reason for putting women on the stage to begin with, as well as for dressing actresses in men’s clothes in...

  9. TEXT
    • THREE A THEATRE OF DESIRE: THE CONCUBINE AND THE HEGEMON KING
      (pp. 67-82)

      Lasciatemi morir” (“Let me die”) — Catherine Clément opens the “prelude” to her engaging book, L’opéra ou la défaite des femmes (1979)¹ with these delirious words from Vincenzo Bellini’s heroine Elvira in the opera I Puritani.² Koestenbaum says that, European opera not only kills its women, “opera kills the things it loves” (199). This is not the common pattern however in the tradition of Chinese opera, although from time to time there are heroines killed on stage. The Chinese operatic tradition represents happy union as a general structural device. However, the expression chosen by Clément to epitomize her feminist-psychoanalytic critique...

    • FOUR (CROSS-)DRESSING UP TO POWER: WOMAN WARRIORS
      (pp. 83-108)

      The woman warrior is one of the most threatening unconventional female figures to the patriarchal imagination. There has been no lack of this unsettling “warlike woman,” to use Edmund Spenser’s phrase, in literature and theatre from different corners of the world: Hua Mulan from a Chinese poem of the Northern Dynasties (386–550) who reappears in fiction and on the stage (in traditional opera and spoken drama) to the present time; Spenser’s Britomart who carries on a mission that involves saving British civilization (Shepherd 10) and the sexually threatening “Amazon” Radigund in the Faerie Queen; Ludovico Ariosto’s Bradamante (Orlando Furioso)...

    • FIVE UN/QUEERING THE LATENTLY QUEER AND TRANSGENDER PERFORMANCE: THE BUTTERFLY LOVER(S)
      (pp. 109-134)

      Of the two best known stories of cross-dressing in traditional Chinese culture — the heroic adventure of Hua Mulan and the tragic love story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai — the latter, best known as “the Butterfly Lovers” in English, has recently been in the spotlight of contemporary cultural politics in connection with the ambivalent queer tensions derived from the multi-level cross-dressing performance in the cultural representations of this tragic romance. Arguably the most celebrated folk tale in Chinese culture, surpassing Mulan and the White Snake, the earliest textual record of the “Liang-Zhu” story has been traced back to...

  10. ARTIFACT
    • SIX THE CRISIS OF GENDER REPRESENTATION: THE YUAN THEATRE MURAL
      (pp. 137-152)

      Gender is often an unsettling cultural category that resists stable interpretations. Just as the continuous reinventions of the Liang-Zhu story have effected further problematization of the inherent ambiguity of sexuality in the texts, the “gender trouble” of the players in Yuan theatre has caused ruptures in the conventional discourse on Chinese theatre, a discourse that strives to construct a unitary plane and to sidestep its own representational incoherences. The debate on the gender of the leading singer-player in Yuan theatre (chapter 2) points to the uncertainty of reconstructed textual history, which can only be a representation of a representation. No...

  11. ACTING
    • SEVEN GENDER AND PERFORMANCE: CROSSING REALITY/FICTION AND ACTING THE OTHER SEX
      (pp. 155-170)

      If cross-dressing and theatre are already subversive in their own making as cultural practices in the realm of performance, the inevitable interlocking relation between gender and performance is almost expected. The beginnings of theatre in various cultures seem to be inseparable from cross-dressing and especially male into female cross-dressing. Male transvestite theatres often appear more as the “norm,” instead of theatres following the order of mimesis which put women in female roles and men in male roles. What does Chinese opera, a theatre so rooted in cross-dressing, signify in epistemological terms? How does it operate as a site of contestation...

  12. BODY
    • EIGHT AESTHETICS AND POLITICS OF THE PERFORMING BODY: FEMALE SCHOLAR AND MALE QUEEN
      (pp. 173-190)

      Chinese theatre has been accused by moralists of corrupting women, among other things; however, it is notable that Chinese theatre itself has been gendered as feminine and narrated by way of feminine tropes. As for the player, Sophie Volpp has argued that the actor in seventeenth century Chinese theatre was “symbolically coded feminine,” and that the “feminization of actors” was “one of the primary themes in late-imperial Chinese representations of the actor” (139). In traditional critical writing, it was not just the theatre but also dramatic lyrics that were feminine-gendered. Indeed, it may well be proposed that the entire theatre...

    • NINE “THE LAST FEMALE IMPERSONATOR”: WEN RUHUA AND HIS AESTHETICS OF MALE TRANSVESTISM
      (pp. 191-214)

      The gender and sexual perplexity derived from “the body beneath” draws our attention to the tripartite structure of “player – role-type – character” in the performance practice of the Chinese theatrical tradition. Throughout the history of this theatre, there have been different manifestations of this transgender performance convention, in different historical moments from the Yuan period through the Ming and Qing. In contemporary China, we can see a bifurcated development in cross-dressing; the gradual demise of the male dan across all forms of regional opera, and the continual flourishing of the female sheng, particularly in Yueju opera. Pei Yanling, a...

  13. EPILOGUE
    (pp. 215-218)

    Cross-dressed plays such as the various Liang-Zhu operas, The Male Queen, and Shadow of Disguise, constitute texts mirroring and complementing each other in disturbing the rigid categories that support gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality. The radical indeterminacy of the boundaries between fiction and reality, and between the male and female gender categories in the Chinese theatrical and literary tradition has absurdly and ironically been put into practice in contemporary real life, most conspicuously in the “Butterfly Scandal” of Shi Pei-pu and Bernard Boursicot. The relevance of traditional Chinese theatre to contemporary society lies significantly in the self-(un)masking of this art...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 219-246)
  15. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 247-280)
  16. GLOSSARY
    (pp. 281-290)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 291-294)