Some might think of
cross-dressing as high
camp, but in China these days it could
also be considered high art, or at the very least a bit of good clean
In the most high-profile example of this growing trend, a recent talent
contest on China Central Television (CCTV) featured a young man who
dressed like a woman and sang like a nightingale. This young showman so
enchanted audiences that he walked away with third prize.
Though Li Yugang's set consisted mainly of folk songs, he seemed to
channel the spirit of Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), the great Peking Opera
master who carved out a place for the national art form in the world
pantheon of esteemed art.
Indeed, the 28-year-old from the countryside of Jilin Province got his
start by taking lessons from Mei's disciples. Despite these historical
roots, Li has had to struggle against the longstanding stigma of men
performing female roles, a technique that has fallen out of favour in the
past half century.
People in China generally frown on transvestite performances, known locally as
fanchuan, except when they are done for comic effect. But that
did not stop television audiences from marvelling at Li's beauty and grace
as he sang and danced. A fan club quickly sprung up online and called on
the performer to take the starring role in a forthcoming biopic of Mei Lanfang.
CCTV's producer said the network usually categorically barred
cross-dressers from appearing on the show, but it made an exception after
seeing Li's performance.
So why the sudden acceptance of fanchuan?
According to Li Yinhe, China's top expert on gender issues, the
tradition of Peking Opera played a crucial role.
"If there had been no Mei Lanfang, things would have been different,"
Li Yinhe added that Li Yugang is not a transvestite "he does it as a
She noted that cross-dressing as a manifestation of blurred gender
lines had become something of a trend in the world of popular music. Boy
George and Michael Jackson could be considered examples of the style.
It seems to be catching on
in China. A photography shop in Shanghai called Ji He Photo Studio
specializes in cross-dressing. Owner Tsai Bi-hwa is a plastic artist who opened her first
photography studio in Taiwan 13 years ago. That shop also shoots photos of
men impersonating women.
"Whatever women like tends to be popular with men, too. And the wedding
dress is everyone's favourite," she laughed.
While it is true that not everyone turns into a drag queen when they
are feeling stressed out, many young people do seem to be caught up in the
fad of androgyny.
"The popularity of such androgynous idols is the result of public
fatigue with conventional aesthetics," said Li Yinhe, the sociologist. "It
also shows that Chinese society is increasingly tolerant when it comes to