Male parts female roles
Updated: 2011-10-26 07:56
By Zhang Zixuan (China Daily)
Yang Lei goes through the stages of transformation to play a female role. [Zou Hong / China Daily]
Cross-dressing has been an integral part of Peking Opera from the beginning and remains so today. Zhang Zixuan reports.
Yang Lei's thick eyebrows belie his smooth jaw till the Peking Opera performer reveals he shaves before applying makeup, to make sure there is no stubble. After all, stubble just won't do when the 33-year-old goes on stage dressed in dazzling costumes and sings a soprano aria. Yang is one of the nation's young nan dan (man who plays a female role), a practice forged at a time when women were forbidden to take the stage. The heyday of nan dan was the first half of the 20th century, when Mei Lanfang, Shang Xiaoyun, Cheng Yanqiu and Xun Huisheng - dubbed the "Four Great Dan" - established the four dan styles of mei, shang, cheng and xun. Bi Guyun, 80, a senior nan dan performer, witnessed the boom of this art form in the 1940s and 1950s.
"The four masters were all active at that time. Shows were on every night at more than 10 theaters in Beijing," Bi recalls, saying that Peking Opera was the leading form of entertainment then.
But the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) dealt a death blow to the opera, and along with it the nan dan. Although the 1980s saw a gradual revival, the nan dan remained in the shadows with the rise of women performers on the Peking Opera stage, leaving only about 10 male dan.
But Yang, who belongs to the cheng school, believes the nan dan is irreplaceable, even if there are more female performers.
"Every single detail of the dan role presumed it would be a man playing this role," Yang says, pointing to the characteristic hand gesture that was designed to make the hand look smaller and softer.
Also, the foot-shaped stilts that male performers walked on in some plays, were meant to imitate women's bound feet.
"More importantly, men have better sounding falsettos given their wider vocal range and also have more stamina," Yang adds.
Mu Yuandi, 28, who started his nan dan journey when he was 9 and belongs to the shang school, agrees that women cannot cope with the martial arts that distinguishes this style.
"My waist and legs still carry the scars of my injuries," he says.
Hu Wenge, 44, is the only nan dan apprentice of 77-year-old Peking Opera master Mei Baojiu - son of the legendary Mei Lanfang.
Hu took to Peking Opera at the rather late age of 34 and therefore had to try even harder to master the repertoire.
"I may have given up but for my teacher's encouragement," Hu says.
The dan is the only female role of the five main roles in a Peking Opera show, so the issue of men playing these roles often gives rise to curiosity and questions about their sexual orientation.
Hu, who earned fame as a pop singer dressing and singing as a woman, is candid about switching to Peking Opera in his quest for more respect from audiences. At the peak of his career as a singer, Chinese society was more conservative than it is now, he explains.
"Peking Opera is a stylized art," says nan dan performer Bi. "We don't imitate real women but only present an abstract image, based on classic novels and paintings."
Yang, meanwhile, is offended when asked about his sexual orientation, and insists it is a private matter.
"Onstage and offstage are two separate lives for me," he says.
He also stresses a real man is one who is tolerant and takes responsibility for himself, his family, and society.
Yin Jun, 23, from the xun school, is the youngest of the new-generation nan dan. An undergraduate student at the National Academy of Chinese Theater Arts, he is preparing to enroll for the post-graduate exam.
Hu, meanwhile, held six solo concerts in the United States in March, reprising the time when Mei Lanfang toured there in 1930.
Hu Wenge, Yang Lei, Mu Yuandi and Yin Jun are often called today's "Four Young Dan".
A concert of their joint performances that started at the beginning of October at Chang'an Grand Theater marks the eighth round of their joint-performances in Beijing and Shanghai since March 2010.
As the curtains open, backstage, 77-year-old Mei Baojiu adjusts Hu's headgear one more time and gives him some last minute pointers.
Five minutes later, Mei lifts Hu's right arm and escorts him onto the stage.
Standing behind the curtain he observes his protg's every move with an air of anticipation.
"These young (Peking Opera artists) have won the first battle," he says. "But it's a long road ahead."