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Men for Women: Fatal Question for Beijing Opera

It was not a question over the past centuries to whether female character types in Beijing Opera were played only by men. But it is a fatal question now: are men going to lose their jobs in the next century?

Wen Ruhua, a male master of Beijing opera, who has starred in female roles since childhood, gave only one stage performance last year. This year, he did not perform at all.

"I feel that I am still capable of playing female, and I am eager to do so," grumbled Wen, 53, the youngest of the six Beijing Opera "male for female" actors in China, in Chinese as "Nandan".

The 200-year-old Beijing Opera is a national treasure like the giant panda. A combination of poetic recitations, martial arts, songs and romantic dances, it was a product of the feudal Chinese empire, where women were inferior, and were banned from doing a great number of activities, from politics to performing on the stage.

The women's liberation movement this century has been shattering the old tradition, particularly, after 1949 when the Communists seized power, women were given equal rights with men.

As a result, Beijing Opera troupes have employed an increased number of actresses. The training of qualified female roles has also become much easier.

"Although men's stage style is still attractive, we girls have already developed our own artistic touch," said Wang Rongrong, a Beijing Opera actress.

Currently, it is impossible to find a boy in the prestigious Beijing Opera College or the China Opera College who is being trained to play a girl in Beijing Opera. On the stage, women have out performed their male competitors in all aspects.

Even theater-goers are preferring women to men. Zhang Xuefeng, a Beijing Opera fan, said that he often feels disgusted when viewing men playing women, and that "woman as woman" demonstrates an authentic taste.

Should men continue to dress in women's costumes on stage? This question is an increasingly heated debate topic nationwide as the new century approaches.

Some people argue that "man for woman" is a traditional characteristic of Beijing Opera, and many artistic schools evolved from this basis. The most famous Beijing Opera master is a man that plays female characters, Mei Lanfang, who has starred nearly every famous beautiful women in Chinese history.

On stage, Mei looks like a real woman in all aspects. His achievements were even praised by some of the world's top artists such as Charles Chaplin.

"It is a pity that we are saying good-bye to this special performing art," said Mei Baojiu, son of Mei Lanfang, who is training his nephew to be a "man for woman" actor at home.

Mei insisted that women cannot replace men because they lack the body and voice strengths, which are vital to complete performances usually lasting several hours.

Some people believe that actors like Mei are effeminate in real life and have homosexual tendencies. However, "a distinguished artist can easily tell art from life,", said master Wen Ruhua.

The major disagreement comes from academic circles. Huang Zaimin, a researcher of Beijing Opera, said that people now prefer natural things to the artificial as society has modernized, and " man for woman" is an abnormal aesthetic taste.

"The disappearance of "man for woman" performance represents a health consideration for humanitarianism," Huang said.

However, to many people's surprise, man for woman actors are still popular overseas. Whenever masters like Wen Ruhua and Song Changrong give performances outside of China, they cause a great stir. Japanese opera artists have even asked Mei Baojiu to be their teacher. A British male engineer and a fan of Beijing Opera played a female role in a recent show.

There is also another unexplained phenomenon. Yue Opera, an ancient local opera popular in south China, features women playing men's roles. The reform encouraging men to play men in Yue Opera is always strongly opposed by fans.

"It is a good thing that people have different tastes toward the same artistic tradition and air their views freely," said Wang Ankui, director of the Opera Research Institute at the Ministry of Culture.

Yin Xiaodong, an official with the Committee for Thriving Beijing Opera under the Ministry of Culture, said that the Chinese government is trying to avoid interfering in a specified artistic form through use of administrative means.

"In an open society, the fate of the man for woman tradition in Beijing Opera can only be decided by itself," he said.

(Xinhua 11/16/2000)

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