Asian Theatre Journal 22.1 (2005) 158-161
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"Cross-dressing" is a loaded term designating a complex phenomenon. Its fundamental concept is "transvestism," a term that Magnus Hirschfeld coined in 1910 in his book titled Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross Dress, translated by Michael Lombardi-Nash (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991). Aseries of terms emerged later to reflect multiple layers of its meanings, such as "eonism," "gynemimesis," "andromimesis," "gender dysphoria," "female or male impersonation," "transgenderist," "femmiphile," "androphile," "demme," "mimic," "fetishist," "crossing," "transsexual" (both pre- and postoperative).
Cross-dressing is culturally and historically connoted. Its practice evokes ambiguity and rouses dissention because it deals with identity—specifically, gender identity. In such performance, gender identity is dual and correlated with the sex of the performer him/herself and that of the role enacted. Cross-dressing on stage is complex and characteristic of many traditional theatre genres. Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera presents an innovative reading of cross-dressing performance in traditional Chinese theatre.
Siu Leung Li did his graduate and postgraduate work at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Brown University and is associate professor [End Page 158] of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. In this book, he uses comparative and interdisciplinary approaches to undertake an informative mapping of the turbulent changes of gender role and crisis-ridden human scenes registered in the Chinese stage. Li scrutinizes the prominent configuration of cross-dressing in both traditional Chinese theatre and contemporary regional operas, "placing them in larger intercultural contexts of (trans)gender, theatre, and literary studies" (p. 2). Many books on traditional Chinese theatre concentrate either on the evolution of the theatre and its unique performing methodology or on Chinese theatrical culture per se. Li's reading is more than historical narrative or appreciation. He starts by revisiting the "history of the potential resistance of Chinese female players as agents in negotiating patriarchal containment and male ideological authority in performance, with special attention given to the historical and cultural specificities of Chinese theatre in various periods" (p. 3). His analysis is informed by theoretical frameworks: Foucault's historical assertions, Dolan's feminist spectatorship, Mulvey's scopophilia/ visual pleasure, Judith Butler's notion of body, and queer theory of performativity. Li avoids the slavish use of theory that unfortunately mars much scholarly work and instead applies theory in a judicious and enlightening way. He illuminating remarks of Chinese theatre practice cause the reader to reformulate ideas of gender portrayal in Chinese cultural production.
Cross-Dressing in Chinese Opera consists of an introduction and six sections: "Prologue," "History," "Text," "Artifact," "Acting," and "Body." The introduction provides a general picture of cross-dressing in traditional theatre—Chinese opera in particular. Siu Leung Li recharts cross-dressing by examining the three most celebrated figures in Chinese opera: the concubine, the woman warrior, and the butterfly lovers. Li's project reappropriates of these theatrical figures not only on the Chinese stage, but also in the globalization of media culture.
"Prologue" challenges Lu Xun, one of the most noted figures in modern Chinese literary and cultural production, by critiquing Lu Xun's straightforward bias against male cross-dressing in his article titled "The Most Artistic Country" (30 March 1933). Li states that Lu Xun's work undermines male transvestism as a cultural practice. He asks,
How far are these assumptions, sanctioned and/or contended in various specific historical moments in the history of Chinese opera? If monolithic, unitary and linear concepts in cultural analysis are highly questionable, then what do the complexities and contradictions in the construction and reproduction of gender relations tell us about Chinese opera, not merely as a literary-aesthetic form, but as an institution participating in, and helping to create, the struggle of power in culture and society in various historical moments?
"Prologue" and "History" trace the evolution of cross-dressing and examine the queer world of Chinese opera, bringing in Western counterparts to illuminate the practice in a cross-cultural...