He's a Woman, She's a Man : Cross-dressing and Androgyny in China

By M.

Back in 1995, "He's a Woman, She's a Man" created something of a stir in Hongkong. It was considered impressive enough to warrant a spot in the New York Gay Film Festival, though the movie itself is far less suggestive than either the title or the poster may lead you to think. A good-natured Hongkong pop remix of Victor/Victoria and Pygmalion with none of the bite, its reputation for transgressiveness relied more on casting than plot. Leslie Cheung (left), who in the movie played the producer who believed that he has fallen for a man, had just come out as gay in Hongkong. Added to the fact that he had recently played an opera singer who specialized in female roles in "Farewell My Concubine", and even the mildest line in the movie resonated with subtext.

Poster for He's a Woman...

Yet when I first came across the poster, it was Anita Yeun (right) who first caught my eyes. Next to the prettiness of Leslie Cheung and the femininity of Carina Liu (center), it was not difficult to believe that she could be a man. Unfortunately, none of the style and cool she projected in the poster made it into the movie. Anita Yeun made for a charming and reasonably convincing boy. She was sweet and adorable in a bumbling and puppyish way, but 'boy' remains the operative word here.

The character she plays is a Western archetype. In the West, a crossing-dressing woman is always a charming boy. An object of desire for men, not for women. When in fiction a woman dresses as a man, not a boy, there is often misogynous overtones to the story. But China, a cross-dressing woman brings up a completely different set of associations.

Chinese scholars often like to point out that the traditional concept of masculinity in China is a shaky one at best. The ideal man is not a warrior, but a scholar who lives by his brain instead of brawn. And ideal manly beauty is no different from that of a woman.

This emphasis on androgyny is unwittingly compounded by the Communist Party's attempt to promoted the equality of women. Growing up in China, we were surrounded by images of women dressed as The Actress as a Court Noblemanmen and men played by women. In its laudable zeal to create suitable role models for young girls, the Party unearthed stories of female generals, scientists, and poets from the dusty pages of history, and unsurprisingly, most of them had to dressed as men to do their job. Mulan was only the tip of the iceberg.

Unlike the rather dreary and utilitarian modern heroines, these were figures of romance and fantasy.  And to give them face and voice, we had Yueju, a regional opera of the Shanghai and Jiang-Ze region. Unlike the more familiar and strident Beijing opera, Yueju originated in the milder waters of the Yangtze delta. Whereas in Beijing Opera all the females roles were taken by men, in Yueju all the male roles were taken by women. The stories the operas told were also more romantic in tone, though there was no lack of tales of warriors and enactment of battles. But the most representative title of Yu Opera must be the tale of the butterfly lovers, familiarly known as Liang Zhu.

In this story, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Zhu Ying-Tai, dressed as a man in order to attend a famous school. At the school, she met and fell in love with a fellow student, Liang Shan-Po. Scene from CixiangjiEventually, she revealed her secret to him, and they promised to marry each other. But Zhu Ying-tai's father, disdaining the poor Liang Shan-po, promised her hand to a rich man's son instead. In the Romeo and Juliet style ending, the lovers were reincarnated as butterflies to keep their vows to each other in their former live.

The story is probably familiar to many, but what few have pointed out is that the Liang Shan-Po is one character who is always performed by a woman. Even in the Hongkong movie version of the sixties, the role was taken by an actress. But Shan-Po is hardly the only character who should be played by a woman. Thinking back, if I had ever envisioned the impossibly elegant scholars and heroes of the classic novels, I would have seen them as characters played by women. Not that they are in female in anyway except their beauty, but it seems that just as in Kabuki, where only an onnagata could capture the essence of femininity, so only a woman could capture the spirit of the quintessential romantic hero.

A few years ago, when I came across a Takarazuka magazine while browsing in Kinokuniya, it was something of a revelation. But of Scene from 'Me and My Girl' in Takarazuka revuecourse, if there's a fantasy, the Japanese would have created a fandom for it, was my first thought. I stood in the bookstore and leafed through the whole magazine, cringing happily all the time. Flashy and exaggerated as the display may be, there was still something compelling about the whole concept.

Still, I did spend my teenage years in America, and learnt, among other things, to see with American eyes. Though I never lusted after Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson, I did learn to appreciate Daniel Day Lewis' neck, and acknowledge the attractions of Liam Neeson. And perhaps as we grow older we see with a more critical eye, so what was beautiful and flawless when we were young now looks stilted and silly. Looking at the Takarazuka magazine, I couldn't help but think that the actresses looked nothing like men, and in fact most of them are unattractive as either male or female. But perhaps it is simply an acquired taste, like wasabi and Beijing Opera, and maybe even yaoi. For Yueju is just as exaggerated, yet I am able to watch its theatrics without cringing at all.

And if you find both unpalatable, there's always yaoi.

Browsing idly on the web, I noticed that Yueju, alone among the many moribund traditional art forms in China, is enjoying a huge revival, and sites dedicated to its stars are springing up all over the net. Not surprisingly, its fans are mostly women, and their devotions to the artform is no less than that of the Takarazuka fans. If you have a Chinese-capable browser, or if you just want to see some pictures, here are a few links.

"He's a Woman, She's a Man" and its sequel, "Who's the Man, Who's the Woman", are both available in English subtitle. "Peking Opera Blues", starring the imitable Brigitte Lin, is also highly recommended. For more information on Leslie Cheung and other Hongkong actors, visit IMDB or the Hongkong Movie Database.

A Yueju actress from the 30's