1.00-1.01. Photos by the author.
Image 1.00. An excerpt from Yang Guifei: The Imperial Concubine performed by a Huangmei opera troupe from Anhui Province, PRC, at the St. Paul Ruins in Macao (March 2004). Here the concubine is drunk. She has two eunuchs attending her; to her left are two palace maids. See Image 8.00.
1.01. Another short act by the same troupe, part of the 2004 Macao Festival of the Arts. Later the main show, a full-length stage production, was held at the state-of-the-arts theatre. Characters here are peasants and so wear shirt and trousers. Flared pantaloons, pleated at the knees, are a sartorial convention of Huangmei opera. In English writing, the terms—Shanghai opera, Shaoxing opera and Yueju (Yue opera)—are often used interchangeably.
2.00-2.02. Images from the film Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (1954)
2.00. Produced by Shanghai Film Studio, this Shanghai opera film is New China’s first color feature. Adapted from a Shanghai opera of the same name, it stars the original cast, including Yuan Xuefen (right) and Fan Ruijuan, who respectively play Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. The film has an all-female cast, typical of Shanghai opera. Here Shangbo and Yingtai (in male disguise) study together at school.
2.01. The 18-li Farewell Act: Yin Xin (with pink sash) and Si Jiu admire the lakeside scenery, while their respective masters, Yingtai (in red) and Shanbo, watch from behind. Like Yingtai, Yin Xin is also in male disguise. The film set has a painted backdrop, as in traditional opera. See Image 10.02.
2.02. The Transmogrification to Butterflies Act: Here Shanbo (right) and Yingtai celebrate their reunion as eternal butterflies in heaven. The subtitle—Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai—is the last line of chorus for film’s finale. See Images 4.01 and 10.06.
4.00-4.01. The Tragic Story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (1958)
4.00. A Cantonese version of the Liang-Zhu story in a Hong Kong production features two well-known opera divas, Ren Jianhui (right) and Fang Yanfen, also Cantonese film stars, who play Shanbo and Yingtai respectively. Here they meet in Yingtai’s boudoir where Shanbo plans to ask for her hand. He soon discovers, much to his distress, that Yingtai’s father has already betrothed her to someone else. See Image 10.04.
4.01. The butterfly lovers, Shanbo (right) and Yingtai, reunite in heaven. See Images 2.02 and 10.06.
5.00. Film ad for To Borrow a Wife (1958), the first Hong Kong-made Huangmei opera film: According to the film ad (Sing Dao Daily, a Hong Kong Chinese newspaper, May 17, 1958), this color feature has been playing to a full house for days. Produced by Great Wall, it has “Subtitles For Every Line So That Everyone Can Sing Along.” The tagline is, “Borrowing Rice And Money Is A Commonplace Occurrence/Who In The World Borrows a Wife!” The film stars Shi Hui and Fu Qi, two of the biggest names from the leftwing camp of Hong Kong’s postwar film industry.
6.00. This publicity shot of Xiao Juan (Sing Dao Daily, June 12, 1958) promotes her as the “New Xiamen Movie Queen” and the “Number One Actress In Xiamen Movies.” It announces she's recently completed four films. Xiamen movies have been variously called Minnanhua, Amoy or Fujianese films. Xiao Juan changed her screen name to Ivy Ling Bo around 1963 and went on to become a superstar of the 1960s Mandarin screen in the Chinese diaspora.
7.00. The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959): Shaw Brothers’ first Huangmei opera film, featuring Lin Dai (foreground) and Zhao Lei, both of Diau Charn of the Three Kingdoms (1958). The two stars play an innocent innkeeper’s daughter and a playboy-emperor whose chance meeting yields a tragic love story. Directed by Li Hanxiang, also the director of Diau Charn of the Three Kingdom, the blockbuster's cast all appear in roles that correspond to their gender, as in Marriage of the Fairy Princess (1955) and To Borrow A Wife (1958).
8.00. The Magnificent Concubine (1961) is a multiple-award winning, extravagant historical epic that stars Li Lihua (middle) as the Imperial Concubine. It contains occasional Huangmei tunes. Here the concubine performs a dance for the emperor. See Image 1.00.
9.00. The Dream of the Red Chamber (1962): Based on the literary classic of the same name, this lavishly produced Huangmei opera film was the first to feature a cross-sex performance when it cast actress Ren Jie (front) in the male lead role of Xia Baoyu. Actress Le Di plays the female lead, Lin Daiyu. Here the two discuss an erotic novel, The Record of the West Chamber (Xi Xiang Ji). Shaw Brothers’ 1965 production of The West Chamber is based on this novel. See Images 16.00 –16.10.
10.00-10.06. Images from the film The Love Eterne (1963)
10.00. The Love Eterne (1963) catapulted Ling Bo, who plays Liang Shanbo, to fame in the Chinese diaspora. She won the “Best Acting Award in a Special Category” at the 2nd Golden Horse Film Festival (Taipei, 1963). Shanbo sits to the right of Zhu Yingtai (Le Di), presently in male disguise (foremost front) since girls were not allowed to go to school at the time. Shaw Brothers' trainee actors and starlets cameo for this take, with many actresses dressed as male students. The subtitle — “Three long years rush by” — is the first line of the chorus which narrates Shanbo and Yingtai’s time together at school.
10.01. Shanbo (right) praises Yingtai (presently in male disguise), “Not bad, you have better sewing skills than women do!”
10.02. The 18-li Farewell Act: Yingtai (in yellow) has to go home, so Shanbo (to the left of Yingtai) sends his friend off. They walk for 18 li (Chinese miles) before parting. The lake is one of the many stops along the way. In the foreground are Si Jiu (actor Li Kun; furthest front) and Yin Xin (actress Ren Jie). Like her mistress Yingtai, Yin Xin is also in male disguise. See Image 2.01.
10.03. The 18-li Farewell Act: Shanbo and Yingtai cross a bridge. Their clothes indicate class, social status and gender. Yingtai wears the most elaborate costume, so “he” is the most well-to-do of the lot. The flowing robe, hat and fan are symbols of the literati. Si Jiu and Yin Xin (in the background) are servants, so they wear shirt and trousers.
10.04. The Boudoir Meeting Act: Yingtai (right) reverts to her female sex. She wears female clothes and an elaborate hair-do adorned with jewels. Eyebrows also denote gender difference: Yingtai’s arch like a pair of crescent moons, while Shanbo’s are willow leaf-shaped. See Image 4.00.
10.05. The Boudoir Meeting Act: Both are presently distraught since they cannot marry. Yingtai’s father has betrothed her to another man, against her wishes, and she tries to console Shanbo.
10.06. In death, Shanbo and Yingtai soar to the heavens as butterfly spirits. The long red ribbon across their shoulders symbolizes matrimonial union. Compare with Images 2.02 and 4.01.
by Tan See-Kam
A long, long time ago, a young girl called Zhu Yingtai[open notes in new window] wanted to go to school. So she donned a male disguise, and went to a boarding school in Hangzhou. Along the way, she befriended Liang Shanbo, and was delighted that they were going to the same school. The next three years, they became the best of friends, studying and playing together, taking care of each other. Yet Shanbo never once saw through Yingtai’s disguise. In the meantime, Yingtai fell in love with Shanbo. One day, she was summoned home. On the day of her departure, Shanbo walked with her for 18 li (Chinese miles). Along the way, Yingtai dropped hints about her true sex, her love for him, and her wish to marry him, but to no avail. They eventually parted at the pavilion where they first met. Later Shanbo visited Yingtai at her home. When he discovered that his best friend was a girl, he proposed marriage. But Yingtai's father had already betrothed her to the son of a rich man. Distraught, Shanbo left for home. He soon died of lovesickness. When Yingtai heard the news, she was sad. On her wedding day, Yingtai visited Shanbo’s gravesite. A storm started to blow furiously. The grave cracked open. Yingtai leaped into it. After the storm, two butterflies emerged from the grave. They flew into the sky. The butterflies were the spirit of the two lovers. Yingtai and Shanbo thus lived happily ever after, as eternal butterflies.
Chinese folklore has long immortalized this romance which according to legends, happened some time during the Eastern Jin Dynasty era (317-420). The cracked grave at Ningbo, Zhejiang, and the temple built there in honor of Zhu Yingtai’s and Liang Shanbo’s undying love for each other have attracted tourists, including pilgrims of romantic love, by the drove. Their bittersweet story has been fodder for popular consumption — from Yuan-Ming plays in the distant past to contemporary dance, ballet, and musical. It has been a source of inspiration for classical poetry and prose, traditional opera and paintings, folk ballads and concertos, comic magazines, modern novels, films and TV dramas, paper cuttings, stamps and theme parks — the list could continue. It is also the subject matter for academic studies and collection, with the four-volume and 3224-page Grand Collection of Liang-Zhu Culture, published by Zhong Hua (Beijing) in 1999, marking a monumental peak. In sum, this awesome romance is cultural legacy.
In specific regards to film versions of the legend, Shanghai Film Studio’s Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (co-dir. Sang Hu and Huang Sha, 1954), Shi Li (Zhi Li)’s The Tragic Story Of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (dir. Li Tie, 1958), and Shaw Brothers’ The Love Eterne (dir. Li Hanxiang, 1963) are some better-known titles (Images 2.00 to 2.02, 4.00 to 4.01 and 10.00 to 10.06). They are Yueju (Shaoxing), Yueju (Cantonese) and Huangmei diao (tune) opera films respectively—in Chinese, the term “Yue’ in the first two categories is written differently, but sounds alike and so has the same pinyin; “ju,” on the other hand, simply means opera. They all cast a female in the role of the Liang Shanbo character, played by opera divas Yuan Xuefen and Ren Jianhui (Yam Kim-fei), and actress Ivy Ling Boh (aka Ling Bo, or Ling Po) respectively. The matter of cross-dressing, whether internal (an actress playing a female playing a male) or external (an actress playing a male) to the enacted story, inevitably raises questions about gender, masquerade and identity, in multiple ways. It should therefore come as no surprise when Raymond To’s stage musical, The Lover/Liang Zhu (1999), sought to queer the story by creating a gay Liang Shanbo whose heart broke when he discovered that the “boy,” Zhu Yingtai, whom he has loved dearly and deeply turned out to a girl. The queering here hinges on the much-mused question: how is it possible for Liang to not know Zhu’s true sex, having been in close proximity with her for three years? To’s answer is that he must be gay.
Of the three film productions, the Shaw Brothers version — in all likelihood — enjoyed the widest circulation in the Chinese diaspora since it played in Taiwan as well, where the cult following for The Love Eterne first emerged. Overseen by the Shaw Organisation (Singapore), the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio was both kingpin of and trend-setter for the Mandarin screen in the Chinese diaspora from around 1960 onwards through to the 1970s. Its mode of operation was akin to the classic Hollywood studio system. It had a vertically integrated structure, kept a stable of stars on exclusive contracts, and made blockbuster films. For a time, Huangmei opera blockbusters were its flagship productions.
Shaw Brothers, or for that matter, the Shaw Organisation, had the habit of vaulting its productions, once they had made their usual run. Up to the late 1970s, it would still periodically re-release memorable classics such as The Love Eterne (Images 10.00 to 10.06), The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959; Image 7.00), The Magnificent Concubine (1961; Image 8.00) — all directed by Li Hanxiang. This practice stopped with the advent of video and related reproduction technologies. Into the 1980s, Shaw Brothers’ new releases began to dwindle in supply as the studio started to scale down its production operation, eventually closing down in 1985. This, together with the notable absence of Shaw films in the broadcast media and the video markets, precipitated their disappearance from the Chinese language media-scape, save for the few that video bootleggers in Malaysia and Taiwan somehow managed to gain access to.
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in erstwhile Shaw productions, including Shaw’s Huangmei opera films. This is largely attributable to the efforts of Usaha Tegas Sdn. Bhd. In 1999, this Malaysian multimedia and multinational infotainment content provider acquired the exclusive worldwide distribution rights to the Shaw’s 760-film library at the cost of HK$600 million. Its Hong Kong-based company, Celestial Pictures, then worked to restore the collection, releasing its first batch in November 2002. Since then, erstwhile Shaw productions — now digitally restored — are sold in home entertainment stores across Europe, Latin America, North America and Australasia, including the People’s Republic of China where Shaw films were once banned, with on-line streaming granting them even wider transnational circulation. They were also broadcast on television, for the first time, via various hookups which Celestial Movies (a subsidiary of Celestial Pictures) has progressively fostered. Over the last few years, the Shaw films have been picked up by cable TV providers such as StarHub (Singapore) and Jadeworld (Australia), satellite broadcasters such as Astro (Malaysia), or commercial TV stations such as TVB (Hong Kong). In the midst of these developments, selected digitally restored film-prints from the Shaw library find various outlets in retrospective screenings at international film festivals, from Cannes to Melbourne, from Tokyo to New York and, of course, in Hong Kong.
Given the films' relatively greater availability in the new millennium, it comes as no surprise that an agenda of Shaw research has developed within Asia/Chinese/Hong Kong film studies and related areas. As Wong Ain-ling puts it sharply in The Shaw Screen (2003), “With the re-release of the Shaw library in digitalized version, Shaws will be a focus of local cinema stud[ies] for a long time to come.” And if I might add, a "Shaw focus" will occur in transnational cinema studies, diasporic studies and queer studies as well — the list could go on. Wong’s The Shaw Screen collection offers a comprehensive study of Shaw studios and their various filmmaking practices. This book crucially fills gaps of knowledge in extant Hong Kong cinema scholarship (in English), which has, for the most part, tended to focus on this cinema’s post-1970 trends and canons. Being Shaw’s flagship productions, Huangmei (Yellow Plum) opera films, or Huangmei diao pian, understandably form a significant focus of Wong’s anthology.
My paper takes this lead from Wong’s anthology, on the one hand,  to train a yet sharper focus on one genre of films, on the other hand, paying particular attention to those made between 1963 and 1969 which star Ivy Ling Bo, also known as the Queen of Huangmei diao pian. Such a focus offers a supplement to Chen Weizhi’s and Ng Ho’s general survey of the genre (2005), and adds to my extant research apropos cross-dresser figures in postwar Hong Kong Cantonese and Huangmei opera movies. Finally, I seek to engage with the ongoing debate that has ensued from Ang Lee’s New York Times (2001) discussion of The Love Eterne, which stars Ling Bo in a cross-sexed role. Lee’s discussion raises questions of spectatorial identification and related issues of genders/sexualities in regards to the genre. It, together with Peggy Chiao’s essay on the same film in Wong’s anthology, epitomizes a critical standpoint that the genre characteristically features genderless cross-dressers and sexless gender-plays. My study of Ling’s Huangmei opera films here would suggest otherwise. To this end then, my paper explores the genre at the intersections of Hong Kong filmmaking histories and Chinese cultural histories that pertain to Huangmei Xi (Huangmei opera) in the mainland, a precursor to Huangmei opera films; I also explore the phenomenon of cross-sex fanchuaners in traditional Chinese opera. I hope to show — in a corresponding inter-referential and indexical way — the contemporary discursive relevance of a now-defunct film genre in relation to current transnational film studies, star studies, diasporic studies, and queer studies.
Huangmei opera cultures:
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) made the first Huangmei opera movie, namely Marriage of the Fairy Princess (co-dir. Sang Hu and Shi Hui), in 1955 (Images 3.00 and 3.01), but it was in Hong Kong, then a British Colony, where the genre developed. Marriage of the Fairy Princess is based on the award-winning stage production of the same name, which Anhui Huangmei Opera Troupe took to the East China Opera Convention held in Shanghai the year before. Made in black and white, the film features the original cast in the same roles.
Marriage of the Fairy Princess played in Hong Kong in 1956. About two years later, Hong Kong-made Huangmei opera films — or Huangmei diao pian — surfaced, beginning with To Borrow a Wife (dir. Huang Yu, 1958; Image 5.00). This was closely followed by Shaw and Sons’ Diau Charn of Three Kingdoms (dir. Li Hanxiang, 1958), which opened about two weeks later. The following summer saw the release of Li Hanxiang’s The Kingdom and the Beauty (Image 7.00). Produced by the newly-founded Shaw Brothers, formed through an amalgamation with Shaw and Sons in 1958, this film — together with the combined critical and commercial success of the three preceding movies — consolidated a raging fad for the Huangmei opera film in the Chinese diaspora, with film producers in Taiwan (aka Republic of China, or ROC) jumping on the bandwagon around 1963. This fad ended around 1970. Huangmei opera film productions were sporadic throughout the 1970s. Most were made in Taiwan, with the exception of Shaw Brother’s Jin Yu Liang Yuan Hong Lou Meng (The Dream of the Red Chamber; starring Brigette Lin Qingxia and Sylvia Zhang Aijia; dir. Li Hanxiang, 1977), a “new-style” Huangmei opera film which Shaw Brothers had hoped would revive the genre. The PRC’s efforts in the early 1980s also did not last long. Nowadays the Huangmei opera film is a relic of the past, a defunct genre. Huangmei opera troupes continue to strive however (Images 1.00 and 1.01).
Constituting a sub-set of Chinese language musicals, Huangmei opera films were undisputedly a mainstay of Hong Kong’s Mandarin cinema between the late 1950s and late 1960s. The film genre draws heavily on Huangmei opera, which came into being in Anhui Province, East China, in the late 1920s. In the context of traditional Chinese theatre, Huangmei Xi would count as a new opera form; it manifested a strong proclivity for co-opting, in refreshingly creative ways, the narrative, performance and staging conventions of its da xi (big or established opera) counterparts such as Kun Qu, Peking opera and Shanghai (Shaoxing) opera. Huangmei Xi remained a xiao xi (small opera) until the founding of the PRC in 1949, or soon thereafter. The communist government’s subsequent moves to institute it as one of the state cultural apparatuses for New China had the effect and consequence of turning it into a da xi-form, a status it enjoys to the present-day.
Huangmei tunes are what most distinguish this relatively new opera form, or for that matter, the Huangmei opera movies, from the rest. These tunes are derived from the folk music of the Huangmei locality in the Hubei Province (next to Anhui), most noted for its tea-picking songs (cai cha ge) and mournful ditties (ai su). The former generally deal with love bantering and romantic songs about pastoral life, while the latter treat natural calamities, peasantry hardship and exilic existence.
Huangmei folk music spread to the lower region of the Yangtze River around 1785 — when a succession of severe droughts and floods forced the Huangmei peasants to flee, en masse, to Jiangxi, Anhui and other provinces in East China. “[Some refugees] found work as labourers,” recalls one Huangmei elder in an interview:
In time, itinerant Huangmei musicians incorporated lian xian (bamboo clapper music), hua gu (flower drum music), Jiangnan Qu (Southern River ditties) and other folk music of the lower Yangtze region as part of their act. Some eventually settled in Anhui: they were the forerunners to the Huangmei Xi troupes. Building on co-opted da xi conventions, Huangmei Xi additionally features hybrid musical repertoire. Nourished by a multitude of theatrical and musical traditions, including Huangmei folk music as its signature, then, Huangmei Xi is not a pure and unadulterated opera form. Its performance language has changed over time, too. Initially Huangmei tunes were sung in the Hubei dialect. As Huangmei opera troupes emerged in Anhui, they replaced it with the Anhui dialect. In New China, Mandarin (putonghua) becomes the norm. And in the Huangmei opera film, the dialogue and songs are invariably delivered in Mandarin (putonghua).
From Hubei to Anhui, then to Shanghai and Hong Kong, and finally, via Hong Kong, to Taiwan and elsewhere in the Chinese diaspora, Huangmei tunes (in Mandarin) became a craze in the diasporic Chinese pop/folk music scene from the late 1950s onwards, with celluloid and vinyl as two chief modes of dissemination. Music shows on radio and TV undoubtedly helped push the fever a few notches higher. In terms of popularity, they were on a par with Mandarin pop songs of the day, making household name out of Huangmei song singers such as Jing Ting of Hong Kong, Teresa Teng (Deng Lijun) of Taiwan, and Chen Jie of Singapore. In addition to being a staple in the Huangmei opera film, they have been known to make occasional appearances in Mandarin period dramas (non-musical), including lavishly-produced historical epics such as Shaw Brothers’ The Magnificent Concubine and Da Ji (The Last Woman of Shang; dir. Yue Feng, 1964).
A regional co-production made in conjunction with Shin’s of Korea, the latter film brings together Shin Young-kyun, an A-list actor from Korea, and Hong Kong movie queen, Linda Lin Dai of Diau Charn of the Three Kingdoms and The Kingdom and the Beauty. It tells the story of Imperial Concubine Da Ji (played by Lin) who according to historical annals was responsible for the collapse of the Shang Dynasty (1600 — 1100 BC). The Magnificent Concubine (Image 8.00) is based on another legendary Imperial concubine: Yang Guifei (played by star Li Lihua, Lin Dai’s screen rival) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Like Da Ji, Yang Guifei also caused a popular uprising against the reigning Emperor. In the latter situation, the people's anger was primarily directed at the concubine more than at the emperor: unlike the Shang Emperor, the Tang Emperor was not a brutal tyrant. To appease the mutinous Emperor’s military forces who wanted her dead, Yang hanged herself; and with that, the widespread revolt subsidized and soon ended. The Magnificent Concubine went on to become the first Chinese-language film to win a Cannes award, namely the Grand Prix de la Commission Superieure Technique du Cinéma (1962), generating cultural kudos for the rising kingpin of Mandarin filmmaking. Historical epics such as these show, albeit in an indirect way, the important role Huangmei tunes played in Shaw Brothers’ blockbuster films, and by extension, their widespread popularity in the Chinese diaspora; they also give inklings to that studio’s regional and global ambitions.
At the time, films made in the PRC, Hong Kong or Taiwan faced uneven distribution, even within Chinese-language film circuits. The Cold War standoff between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Guomindang (KMT), which respectively ruled PRC and ROC, had instituted a policy of mutual exclusion since around 1950. The two policies not only defined what constituted “Chinese” arts and culture but also determined the distribution of associated artifacts such as films in territories that came under the direct purview of the CCP or KMT. As a result PRC films were banned in ROC, and vice versa. Needless to say, this type of market segregation strongly impacted filmmaking trends and practices in Hong Kong, which by stark contrast offered a relatively more unrestrictive market place for both PRC and ROC films.
A consequence of the cultural wars between PRC and ROC, the segregation led to and resulted in two (seemingly) opposing filmmaking “camps”: the “left-wingers” versus the “right-wingers.” The former comprised studios such as Great Wall (which made To Borrow a Wife , also Hong Kong’s first Huangmei opera movie). These were deemed “progressive” filmmakers, regarded as pro-PRC, and so had access to the mainland film market as well as to filmmaking resources there, including shooting locations. This kind of privilege meant banishment from the Taiwan market. The reverse was the case for studios such as Shaw Brothers (1958-85) which took the Taiwan path. They were considered champions of the “free” world who made “freedom” films. As these politically-charged labels show, the Cold War at large, including the chill between the PRC and ROC, had a sway over Hong Kong studios and their practices and products, both ideologically and discursively, establishing constraints for Chinese (Mandarin) filmmakers, distributors and exhibitors.
With particular regard to the Huangmei opera film, as it turned out, the PRC made the least while Hong Kong produced the most, with the crown going to Shaw Brothers. Within the Chinese diaspora, the genre’s crown-jewel would be Shaw Brothers’ The Love Eterne(1963). Revered as a “screen miracle”of its time, The Love Eterne catapulted Ivy Ling Bo who played the male role of Liang Shanbo to stardom, engendering cult worship for the actress and the film, especially in Taiwan — where as recently as 2002, the island witnessed widespread celebration of the film’s 40th anniversary (Image 26.00). This multi-award winning film further affirmed Li Hanxiang as the premier director of the genre, and Shaw Brothers as the most foremost trendsetting Mandarin studio of the Chinese diaspora.
The genre's wane set in around the mid-1960s, with Shaw Brother’s Three Smiles (dir. Yue Feng, 1969) marking the end of an era in Hong Kong. (Images 25.00 and 25.01). This film’s combined star-power of Ling Bo and Li Ching (aka Li Jing) — the two reigning queens of the 1960s Mandarin screen who respectively play Tang Bohu (male protagonist) and Qiu Xiang (female protagonist), Tang’s love interest — ironically could not resuscitate interest in the genre. Shaw Brothers’ efforts to keep the genre going also included experiments with genre-mixing, as seen, for example, in the The Perfumed Arrow (dir. Kao Li, 1966) made some three years earlier (Images 19.00 to 24.03). The Perfumed Arrow stars Ling Bo in the lead role of Wen Fei-E as a scholastic female, an occasional cross-dresser, and a brave swordswoman/man. It contains combat scenes closely fashioned after the new-style wuxia (swordplay) film which was growing in popularity at the time (Images 20.05 to 20.07). It also has a flash of female nudity. In the context of Huangmei opera films, that flash of flesh was unprecedented. It not only signaled a stark divergence within a film genre otherwise noted for chaste love stories, and in the matter of sex, tasteful prudence and prudish politeness (more in the final section), but it also foreshadowed the fengyue (softcore porn) film which Shaw Brothers was to make popular in the early 1970s.