- Cross-Gender China: Across Yin-Yang, Across Cultures, and Beyond Jingju by Huai Bao aka H. B. Dhawa
Utilizing nandan, or "male-to-female cross-gender performers" (p. 2) to impersonate female roles is a time-honored practice on the stage of xiqu (indigenous Chinese theatre). The prototype of nandan dates back to the use of fake women (nong jia furen) initiated by the late Tang actors;1 while nandan, as a considerable force in the theatre, was not full-fledged until the historic development of the chuanqi (literally "transforming of the marvellous", romance) style of xiqu during the Ming period (1368–1644). During the whole of the Qing period (1644–1912), nandan dominated the theatrical market as the Qing court forbade women from theatrical attendance. Despite the appearance of the earliest all-female troupes (mao'er ban) in the 1870s, males still maintained their dominance for a prolonged period of time. However, in the wake of the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, not only was the training of nandan prohibited at official institutions by means of political intervention, but also existing nandan were stigmatized and forbidden to perform due to the radicalized political campaigns that culminated in the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). Fortunately, the tradition of nandan revived after the Reform and Opening set forth by the second leadership of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) by the end of the 1970s; but how would nandan performers fit themselves into the drastically changed society after their protracted absence?
There are a few current scholars dealing with the historical issue of nandan,2 while fewer efforts have been made to scrutinize the younger generation of nandan's status quo in contemporary Chinese society. As an outcome of his two-decade investigation, specifically follow-up interviews with over thirty informants, Huai Bao's book offers a new perspective delving into the lives of cross-dressing actors including, but not limited to, the nandan of xiqu. Through meticulous narrative analyses within the Jungian psychology, Bao's study actually transcends the theatrical level and concerns the "transgressive potential of performing out of one's biological sex" (p. x)—a desire that he believes to be ubiquitous for the whole of the humankind.
Huai Bao's Cross-Gender China: Across Yin-Yang, Across Cultures, and Beyond Jingju (Peking/Beijing opera) is divided into seven chapters. In the introduction, Bao sets the tone for the book by raising one page of rhetorical questions, querying the widely accepted social constructionist understanding that gender identity is not a preexistence from [End Page 281] the perspective of xiqu (p. 2). Bao finds in the perceived theatrical conventions (chengshi) of jingju an "original" that serves to distinguish fe/male genders. Besides consciously mimicking women on the façade, the nandan, more or less, combines into their performance a "sense of gendered [feminine] self" that lurks in their unconscious as an anima. In this way, cross-dressing practice "reflects a desire to seek transgressive pleasure" and "may serve as a way of self-justification." The nandan tradition of xiqu precisely creates "a safe space" for this kind of transgressive practice (pp. 3–4).
In chapters 2 and 3, Bao describes the rise and fall of nandan in the history that primarily spanned the period from the Republic (1912–1949) to the early People's Republic. During the Republican period, the leading dan actors brought jingju artistry to a new apogee through developing its performance and enriching its repertoire. Mei Lanfang (1894–1961), arguably the best nandan amongst his contemporaries, even won for nandan an international reputation through his overseas performance to Japan, the United States, and the Soviet Union. However, the ensuing political intervention after the establishment of the People's Republic turned the theatre into an increasingly politicized venue (p.29). As nandan was recognized as a representative of China's "feudal" remnant, its training was firmly called off at the official level. During the Cultural Revolution, a group of...