The Male Dan In Chinese Opera

2065 words - 8 pages

The film, Farewell My Concubine, directed by Chen Kaige drew the attention of the western world onto Chinese Opera at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival by winning the Palme d’Or award that year. Farewell My Concubine is one of the most famous plays in Beijing Opera in which the loyalty of Yu Ji (Beauty Yu) is contested by the King of Chu when his state is defeated. The main character, Cheng Dieyi, mirrors both Mei Langfan and Yu Ji. Mei Langfan is considered the most representative artist in Beijing Opera because of his perfection as a female impersonator. Cheng Dieyi, much like Mei Langfan, is the most popular male dan(female role) at the time in the film. The most intriguing aspect of the film is the similarity between Yu Ji’s life and Cheng’s. As Director Chen explains in an interview with BOMB Magazine, “He (Cheng) blurs the distinction between theater and life, male and female. He’s addicted to his art. He’s a tragic man who only wants to pursue an ideal of beauty, to become Yu Ji, the concubine in the opera.” The film raises many questions about female impersonators’ gender identity, because in order to portray the femininity, they must think and act like women even in daily life. Many of them might undergo similar struggles Cheng suffers. While many people associate them with homosexuality and prostitution, let us examine male dans’ gender identities in various aspects.
The practice of male dan could be dated back to as early as Han dynasty (206 B.C. – A.D. 219) in which a source cites female impersonators’ performance. (Tian 79) During Tang dynasty (618-906), the Empress banned females from theatrical performances. Her order resulted in separation of “male players and female singers and dancers employed at the court.” As Tian cites, “Emperor Xuan Zong (r. 712-756) created the Liyuan (Pear Garden) and Yuchunyuan (Pleasure House): the former had only male performers while the latter had female singers and dancers. It is highly possible that the performances by the Liyuan actors might have involved female impersonation.” (79) Many other sources indicate that the practice of female impersonation continues as women are prohibited to act intermittently. However, in Yuan dynasty (1277-1367), which was ruled by Mongolians, overthrowing the Confucian ethics held for thousands of years by the Chinese (Han), “It was actresses rather than actors who predominated in theatrical performances.”(Tian 80) As Tian points out, the Ming dynasty (1368-1643) reestablished a society based on Confucianism and thus women were banned from performance and “female impersonation once again became significant as an alternative.”(80)
In the book, Striking Their Own Poses: The History of Cross-Dressing on the Chinese Stage, Chou Hui-ling explains, “In most societies actors live under suspicion because their craft of "not being themselves" is morally slippery, dangerous, and somehow thought to be dishonest.”(135) The same ideology applied to the traditional Chinese social...

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