I attended a lecture recently here in Hawaii on the subject of cross-dressing in traditional Chinese drama. It was quite interesting to see how the nandan (男旦, female impersonators) of the various forms of Chinese opera differ from the onnagata of kabuki.
While I am sure there are a great many differences, one which stood out for me was that cross-dressing offstage was seen as disruptive to the natural order of things, and was very much frowned upon. Cross-dressers are still today called 人妖 (ren’yao, lit. “human monsters”), and, as in many cultures, cross-dressing is closely associated with homosexuality, transsexuality, and sexual deviance. A document from the Northern & Southern Dynasties (c. 5th-6th century) states that “yin should not become yang” or something to that effect (I apologize; I’m working from memory of the lecture here), and that cross-dressing is a serious disruption of the natural order of things and of societal norms. While I am sure that such beliefs held in Japan as well to some extent, the onnagata pioneer Yoshizawa Ayame famously lived life as a woman offstage, and wrote about the necessity of doing this in order to more fully embody the role of the woman onstage.
The lecture also addressed women who played men on stage (女生, nusheng), and a few famous historical/legendary figures who dressed as men in order to challenge societal norms, or in the case of Mulan, to fight for her country when she otherwise would not have been able to. Though Mulan’s story should (could) be rather subversive, highlighting the oppressive restrictions placed upon women by society, it is of course instead twisted into a tale of nationalism by the CCP propaganda machine. But that’s neither here nor there. … In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there were apparently a great many private troupes consisting of either all boys or all girls – co-ed troupes were considered morally dangerous, lascivious, or whatever the right term should be – until at some point in the mid-Qing all-boy troupes fell out of favor.
At the very end of the Qing period, a single nandan actor emerged who would go on to have great success and fame from the 1920s or so up until his death in the 1950s. Mei Lanfang remains today one of the most famous and beloved of all Chinese actors, and most if not all nandan, as well as at least one onnagata, claim some kind of lineage or inspirational descent from him.
Training of nandan was banned in 1949, and has only come to be revived beginning in the 1980s. Only six formally trained nandan are active today, of whom only two were born before the late 70s. This is, of course, in contrast to the case of kabuki, where a great many onnagata are active, with new ones being trained all the time.
Now, I have not yet managed to find any particular video of him which stands out above the rest, but Li Yugang (李玉刚), the 3rd place runner-up in a recent edition of some Chinese version of American Idol, is an amateur nandan with no professional, official nandan training, who is just amazing.
It’s one thing to simply dress as a woman, move gracefully, and have a beautiful face like the Japanese taishû engeki stars Tachibana Daigorô and Saotome Taichi, who I adore, but Li Yugang does all of that and sings as well, in that super high-pitched way that women in Chinese opera do. It’s really incredible.