17.00. Lady Jade Locket (1966) is a period drama about a love story between a male scholar and a female ghost, with Li Lihua (right) of The Magnificent Concubine (1960) playing the scholar, while Li Jing of The West Chamber performs the ghost. The film contains occasional Huangmei tunes. Li Lihua’s other notable cross-sex role is Liang Shanbo in MP & GI (Hong Kong)’s production of the Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (1964), some two years earlier. MP & GI was Shaw Brothers’ major competitor.


18.00-18.02. The Dawn Will Come (1966)


18.00.Ling Bo plays wife Wen Shuzhen (right): This is her only female role without a cross-dressing theme. In this film, she is a virtuous wife, a dutiful daughter-in-law, and above all, a fighter for justice.



18.01. Here Shuzhen vows to seek justice for the young lady, Yang Qiurong, who here dies in Shuzhen 's arms. The latter is murdered by Gai Liangcai who is Shuzhen’s unfaithful husband. Both Suzhen and Yang’s maid (left) witness the deed. Note: In this film, the Chinese subtitles all read from right to left, as in The Perfumed Arrow.



18.02. The chorus sings: “A fresh flower is being ruthlessly trampled upon.” That line, together with the image of the rain pelting pitilessly on the lotus flower on a stormy night, is a metaphor for rape and the trauma of rape. The imagery depicts metaphorically Gai Liangcai’s sexual assault on Yang Qiurong; the latter is helpless like the lotus flower because she has unknowingly drunk a drug-laced potion.


19.00-19.02. Images from the film The Perfumed Arrow (1967): the proof of masculinity scene


19.00. In this film Ling Bo plays a wenwudan, a female (dan) skilled in both martial (wu) and literary (wen) arts. Here she is Wen Junqing, or rather Wen Fei-E in male disguise. Junqing shows “his” masculine prowess by lifting a set of exercise weights. Meanwhile “his” buddies, Du Zizhong (actor Jin Feng) and Wei Zhuangzhi (actor He Fan), watch him. The film-to-video transfer has cropped out Zhuangzhi.



19.01. Junqing then displays “his” martial art skills, while singing at the same time. "His" role model is Hua Mulan. See Images 13.00 to 13.02. Note: In this film, the Chinese subtitles all read from right to left, as in The Dawn Will Come.


20.00-20.07. Images from the film The Perfumed Arrow: the agression and rescue scene.


20.00. The cai hua zei bends over Jing Fuchun, and kisses her lips.


20.01. The cai hua zei looks at Fuchun lustfully.

20.02. The cai hua zei undoes a string on Fuchun’s dress.

20.03. The cai hua zei sees Fuchun’s breast.

20.04. Fuchun lays unconscious but recovers in time to scream for help.

20.05. Fuchun’s cries for help attract the attention of Junqing. Presently “he” is outside the room. “He” first pierces the door with “his” sword, and then crashes through it.

20.06. Sword in hand, Junqing executes a somersault and finally lands on “his” feet.

20.07. Wen Junqing (facing camera) bravely fights the cai hua zei. “He” eventually kills the villain and saves Fuchun (foremost front; back to camera) from rape. The fight sequence here, unlike that in The Mermaid (1965), shows a close affinity to the new-style wuxia film. Its rise to prominence eventually caused the Huangmei opera film to decline among Shaw Brothers’ flagship productions. Compare with Image 15.00.

21.00-21.09. Images from the film The Perfumed Arrow: the scene of gender revelation

21.00. In Du Zizhong’s bedroom, Zizhong (actor Jin Feng in a male role) wakes up in the morning. To his left is his close friend, Wen Junqing (Ling Bo as female playing a male); the latter is fast asleep. Junqing’s long flowing hair hangs from the bed.

21.01. Something on the floor catches Zizhong’s attention. He bends down to retrieve it.

21.02. Zizhong picks up a hat. This hat belongs to Junqing.

21.03.  Zizhong places the hat on the bed, and catches sight of the long flowing hair.

21.04. Zizhong reaches for the hair. (Dolly in).

21.05. Zizhong touches the hair. (Cut).

21.06. (Reverse shot): Zizhong staggers back baffled.

21.07. Zizhong mumbles to himself, singing: “[The hair] looks like a woman’s, not a man’s.” (Cut).

21.08. Zizhong sees the sleeping figure of Junqing, and continues to sing: “Her long hair is fragrant and soft.” Note: the third person pronoun in the Chinese subtitle for the song lyrics is “her,” not “his.” (Dolly in).

21.09. Zizhong takes a closer look at Junqing and the hair. Subject to the male gaze, the cross-dresser is caught in the act of cross-sexing. Zizhong does not expose Junqing. According to Confucian teaching, it is not proper for a single man and an unmarried woman to be (seen) in the same bedroom. So Zizhong leaves the room immediately.


Love and marriage — Confucian-style,
or take a chance on the wild side?

The highly versatile Ling Bo has made a total of 15 Huangmei opera films (between 1963 and 1982), all featuring the theme of love and marriage in traditional Confucian society. [46][open notes in new window] Of these, 12 are Shaw Brothers productions, while her company, Jin Ri, produced two, with Yu Feng of Taiwan making the last one. In these productions, Ling played the female lead roles (four times);[47] only one of these is not a cross-dresser. Otherwise she is the male lead (11 times).[48] The casting variation clearly capitalizes on Ling’s gender malleability, while her proclivity for fanchuan (cross-sex) performances, whether within or external to the narrative world, has relied on a skillful combination of what I (and my co-writer) have elsewhere identified as the performative techniques of “kaiguang”and “female maling.”[49] This in turn grants her the allure of gender flexibility.

In her Huangmei opera films, she mostly plays a man (e.g. Liang Shanbo), or a male impersonator (e.g. Hua Mulan in Lady General Hua Mulan). (Image 13.00). As male, Ling is invariably wen xiaosheng (e.g. Liang Shanbo), that is, a young male scholarly-type figure, whose companion role-type is the wen dan — a young gifted literary female (e.g. Zhu Yingtai).[50] (Image 10.04). As discussed elsewhere, the two figures are sometimes called caizi and jiaren, respectively.[51] Though less frequent, Ling has played jiaren characters as well: Qin Fengxiao (Image 14.00) in The Female Prince; Wen Shuzhen (Images 18.00 and 18.01) in The Dawn Will Come (dir. Kao Li, 1966); Hua Mulan in Lady General Hua Mulan; and Wen Fei-E in The Perfumed Arrow. The first two are wendan, while the latter two are wudan and wenwudan respectively. Wu dan is the military female. Wenwu dan is wen dan and wu dan combined, a talented female who is skilled in both literary and martial arts: Wen Fei-E (Image 24.00) would thus execute somersaults, engage in combat, sing love duets, cite poetries and make exquisite embroideries, by turn. When cross-dressed as a man, she takes the male name of Wen Junqing. Of these four female parts, only Wen Shuzhen is not a cross-dresser.

In the narrative world of Ling’s Huangmei opera films (or for that matter, that of Chinese opera/opera films in general), the jiaren and caizi are the perfect couple. Conventionally the two seek romantic love and their ultimate goal is marriage based on free will and free choice. Sometimes, they conveniently find each other through the Confucian practice of arranged marriage (e.g. The Female Prince), though this type of arrangement can occasionally yield tragic consequences (e.g. The Love Eterne). Sometimes, they meet by chance and fall in love, but parental approval is absolute; without which, tragedies would surely ensue (e.g. The Love Eterne). Though frowned upon as anti-Confucian behavior, matrimonial arrangement that is independently reached by the caizi and jiaren is occasionally tolerated, even accepted, but it must eventually have the blessing of the parents (e.g. The Perfumed Arrow). In any case, the path to true love is typically never smooth.

Chance often plays the cupid since the jiaren and caizi are compelled by “legalized Confucianism”[52] to live in gender-segregated spaces. The jiaren typically stays at home, while the caizi generally can go anywhere, except the jiaren’s boudoir. A gender-neutral public place like the temple is thus a likely location where they would chance upon each other (e.g. The West Chamber). Here the jiaren would appear as her sex, usually in the company of family members and trusted maids. In public places that are marked off as exclusively male, such as a school (e.g. The Perfumed Arrow), a wilderness path (e.g. The Love Eterne), or a battlefield (Lady General Hua Mulan), the jiaren is usually in male disguise — a ploy she uses to circumscribe Confucian patriarchal laws that restrict her movements outside the familial or matrimonial home.

The exception is the supernatural jiaren. She has magical powers, and so goes wherever she pleases. In A Maid from Heaven, Qi Xiannü (Seventh Fairy Daughter; played by actress Fang Ying) actually stages her initial encounter with male protagonist Dong Yong (played by Ling Bo in a male role), as if it were a chance meeting. Unbeknown to the latter, her self-appointed mission in the mortal world is to marry him (Images 11.00 and 11.01). Wen Fei-E in The Perfumed Arrow, on the other hand,uses a different tactic: she shoots a “perfumed arrow” into Wen Junqing (her male alter-ego)’s school yard as a way to divine her future husband. As it so happens, Du Zizhong (played by actor Jin Feng in a male role), Wen’s close friend and schoolmate, is the first to pick up the arrow, and not the anonymous old sweeper who sees it first. The dictum of finders-keepers holds here.

Normally the jiaren and caizi abide by the code of patriarchal familism, or the “law of the father,” and its attendant practices of filial piety, gender segregation, arranged marriage, and female chastity. In the matter of love and marriage, parental approval is — as just mentioned — a pre-requisite. Thus Wen’s finders-keepers ploy concludes with a happy matrimony because her parents gladly endorse the outcome. This happy ending eludes Qi and Dong in A Maid from Heaven because their marriage does not have the approval of her father, the Celestial Emperor. (Dong is an orphan.) Qi has little choice but finally to leave Dong: “If not, we'll kill him,” warn the Heavenly Guards who have come to fetch her at her father’s command. In Ling’s Huangmei opera films, narrative tension inevitably arises when “affairs of the heart” run counter the “law of the father.” This can yield suspense (e.g. The Mirror and the Lichee in which the father reneges on the arranged marriage much to the disappointment of the jiaren and caizen), tragedy (e.g. The Love Eterne in which the father agrees to an arranged marriage, against the wishes of his jiaren-daughter), or comedy based on the playful breaching and restoring of Confucian norms (e.g. The Perfumed Arrow in which the father tolerates the jiaren’s playful finders-keepers ploy).

The father-figure is the most ardent defender of legalized Confucianism, and he is often portrayed as the most major obstacle to the caizi and jiaren’s quest for love and marriage based on free will. In this sense, he is a symbol of patriarchal oppression. Occasionally he is called upon to arbitrate on Confucian morality, and he is accordingly forced to abide by its ethical code, even if this means executing his own son (The Dawn Will Come). In the event of an “absent” father-figure, the mother-figure can step in as a de facto patriarch (e.g. The West Chamber). This scenario is rare. More often, she is supportive of her child’s aspirations and pursuits, albeit discretely (e.g. The Love Eterne). Or in the case of A Maid from Heaven, Qi’s six older fairy sisters have a hand in making the miracle of love happen (between Qi and Dong).

In Ling’s Huangmei opera films, contesting the “law of the father” does not have an Oedipal dimension, largely because the caizi-son — whether played by Ling or others — almost invariably has no father: he either has a widowed mother (e.g. The Love Eterne) or is an orphan (e.g. The Mermaid). The only exception is Gai Liangcai (played by actor Lei Ming) in The Dawn Will Come, but Gai is more interested in pursuing carnal pleasures than setting his eyes on the father’s throne. In contrast, the jiaren-daughter always has a patriarchal figure to keep her in check. This figure may be her father (e.g. The Love Eterne), or his proxy — for example, a patriarch-like mother (West Chamber), a patriarch-like female employer (Three Smiles), or three Heavenly Guards (A Maid from Heaven). So when the heart, mind and desires of the young are at loggerheads with the “law of the father,” the battleline lies firmly in her hands. In such instances, she would become increasingly more yang (masculinized) so as to offset or provide a counter-balance to her generally yang-deficient romantic hero. As a consequence, she is often portrayed as bolder in deed, if not the most rebellious in action: she may be a daughter (e.g. Zhu Yingtai) or a wife (Wen Shuzhen).

In Ling’s Huangmei opera movies, love and marriage also have a horrific dimension. There are two such instances. In The Dawn Will Come, the horror figure comes in the form of Wen Shuzhen’s husband, Gai Liangcai, who is a rapist-murder. In Forever and Ever,the horror figure is a leper, the newly-wedded wife of Li Xiaowen (played by Ling in a male role). Li does not know of the bride’s (Liu Zhenlian, played by actress Lin Yü) condition, prior to the marriage. As a fan recalls, s/he attended a midnight screening of this film, fully expecting to see a typical caizi jiaren story; so the sight of the hideously disfigured Liu sitting alone in the living room came as a shock, a nightmare.[53] But all’s well ends well: Liu is miraculously cured of leprosy by the end of the film, thereby conforming to the genre’s penchant for high romance.

High romance also characterizes The Dawn Will Come, albeit in a different way. This film’s story-line is more about crime and punishment than love and marriage. In the film, Wen Shuzhen (played by Ling in a female role) has an unhappy marriage. As a dutiful wife (in the Confucian sense), she nonetheless tries to make the loveless marriage work. She also attempts to reform her unfaithful husband, eventually drawing the line when she witnesses his murderous deed (Image 18.01). Outraged, she hauls him before a magistrate who happens to her father-in-law and who eventually proves his righteousness by executing his son for his crimes, thereby helming in a melodrama about love and duty, law and justice, and finally crime and retribution. This melodrama variously works to challenge Confucian patriarchy and as it turns out, upholds it as well (more below).

Female mobility:
have “disguise” will travel

Tapping into the Confucian patriarchal notion that the woman’s place is (to stay) at home, the world outside her boudoir or home compound is commonly portrayed as unsafe for the female sex. Because of this, female characters in Ling’s Huangmei opera films generally do not venture far from home, the exception being supernatural Qi Xiannü. If they do, they typically assume a male disguise; without it, they risk being raped or killed, as in the respective case of Jing Fuchun (played by actress Jin Fei) in The Perfumed Arrow and Wen Shuzhen (The Dawn Will Come). Fuchun becomes a rape target when she spends a night in an inn, while Shuzhen nearly dies when she trails her unfaithful husband, Gai Liangcai, to a riverside late one wintry night where the latter attempts to murder her by pushing her into the freezing river. Yan Qiurong (played by actress Li Xiangjun) of The Dawn Will Come meets with the worst fate: Liangcai drug-raped her in her home, and later in the film, murdered her in a deserted temple; she was pregnant with Liangcai’s child at the time.

More crucially, sartorial disguise grants the cross-dresser privileges otherwise exclusively enjoyed by men. Apart from safe passage, she can receive formal education (Zhu Yingtai and Wen Fei-E/Wen Junqing). She can defend her country and become a general (Hua Mulan). She can also become a warrior-errant who bravely fights off the villains (Wen Fei-E/Wen Junqing). Or else, she competes in the male-exclusive Civil Examinations, and earns an appointment as a Court official (Ling’s Qin Fengxiao in The Female Prince). Disguised as male, women thus get to travel and variously prove themselves equal to, if not better than, men in the areas of literary or military excellence, thereby demonstrating their resourcefulness and courage as well as their will for self-determination. As Tan and Aw argue elsewhere:

"To achieve these via recourse to sartorial disguise highlights female marginalization within the Confucian society at large. This marginalization … points to an aspect of social injustice that needs addressing, including gender discrimination. At the same time, it also points to the possibility of alternatives."[54]

These alternatives obviously include doing male things and enjoying male achievements. The significance of the “man” whom the cross-dresser performs can indeed be understood as “a crucial part not only of subject formation, but of the ongoing contestation and reformulation of the subject,” which yields a performativity based on “the carnivalesque power [of] a woman-man.”[55] Within the story world of Ling’s Huangmei opera films, this power enables not only female mobility, but it also serves as a critique of Confucian masculinist practices, drawing attention to their oppressive effects and consequences. A close “real-life” analogy to feminist consciousness as such might be Ling’s career as an actress in an otherwise male-dominated film industry.

The “sex” of Ling’s male characters is never in question, but this is not so for the male impersonators in Ling’s Huangmei opera films. Whether played by Ling or other actresses, they must take utmost care to avert or throw off suspicion that they are in fact a woman in male disguise. (There is no female impersonator in Ling’s Huangmei opera films.) Those in the know either help “him” maintain the disguise or choose not to expose it, and they are usually women — for example, Zhu’s maid, Yin Xin (played by actress Ren Jie), and the teacher’s wife (played by actress Gao Baoshu) in The Love Eterne. More frequently, the cross-dresser’s “sex” would be/become a subject of curious interest and speculation. When this happens, “he” would cleverly ward off the potential threat of exposure with play-acting and/or witty stories. In The Perfumed Arrow, when schoolmate Wei Zhuangzhi (played by He Fan, an actor in a male role) calls “him” girlie, Wen Fei-E/Wen Junqing who takes the historical Hua Mulan as her role model challenges “his” schoolmate to compete in a weight lifting, spear fighting and archery contest. “He” takes him to “his” exercise courtyard at home, bringing along their mutual (male) friend, Du Zizhong as a witness. At the courtyard, “he” shows off “his manliness” by lifting a set of heavy concrete bar-bells (Image 19.00), executing a mock-fight with “his” spear (Image 19.01), and finally by shooting three arrows into the bull's-eye. Wei, on the other hand, cannot even lift the barbells over his knees; so he apologizes to “him” and agrees not to call “him” girlie again. Does this therefore make Wen “more man than a man,” and by the same token, Wei somewhat “less than a girl”? (Later in the film, however, Zizhong accidentally discovers Wen’s true sex—more later.) In the case of Hua Mulan, in addition to being adept at fighting, she would drink with “his” male pals and fellow-soldiers, drinking being another marker of masculinity, or masculine traits (Image 13.00).

Equally typical is when the cross-dresser becomes the subject/object of unwanted amorous attention from other female characters (e.g. Wen Junqing/Wen Fei-E). A variation on this is when “he” receives a marriage proposition made on behalf of a spoken but unseen female (Hua Mulan). Ling Bo’s Qing Fengxiao character actually marries a princess in The Female Prince. Mistaken identity is fertile ground for comedy, but it also puts the cross-dresser in a dire quandary. In any case, when the truth is finally revealed, the cross-dresser is always forgiven, and the misplaced amorous attention invariably forgotten. Such forgive-and-forget scenarios as narrative resolutions positively affirm female compassion and solidarity.

Overall, in Ling’s Huangmei opera films, women tend to be cast in a more positive light than men. They are beauties with substance, and so they variously embody highly desirable traits such as heroic valor (e.g. Hua Mulan), intellectual prowess(e.g. Zhu Yingtai), outstanding moral virtues (e.g. Wen Shuzhen), and undying devotion (e.g. Wang Qianjin, played by actress Qin Ping in a female role, in The Crimson Palm). They can be witty (e.g. Qiu Xiang, played by actress Li Jing in a female role, in Three Smiles), or humble (e.g. Qi Xiannü).Or else they are women with a steel will (e.g. Huang Biju). They are never a snob, unlike Jin Mudan (played by actress Li Jing in a female role) in The Mermaid. The latter is a shallow spoiled brat who has the looks of a jiaren, but not what it takes to be one; she is inauthentic because she rejects her betrothed, Zhang Zhen (played by Ling), on the grounds that he is poor. An “authentic” jiaren, on the other hand, would choose her man (caizi) solely on the basis of his moral character, never his wealth, or the lack of it (e.g. Carp Spirit in The Mermaid, also played by actress Li Jing).[56] She would stand by her man, going so far as to give him travel money to sit for the Civil Examinations in the distant capital city so that he may return to her in glory (Wang Qianjin). Otherwise, she would embark on a rescue mission to save her man (e.g. Qin Fengxiao; Image 14.00).

The jiaren also has a strong sense of right and wrong, and if necessary, would pursue justice resolutely (e.g. Wan Shuzhen); this trait is extended to female supporting characters as well (e.g. Ling Mu in The Crimson Palm). Some may be naive but they cherish lives — Yan Qiurong, for example, refuses to commit suicide because her unborn child will die with her too. Others would help the jiaren escape from the oppressive patriarchal home (e.g. Huang Biju’s mother in The Mirror and The Lichee).By contrast, the male supporting equivalent would be a staunchly conservative father (Zhu Yingtai’s father), or at best, a benevolent one (Wen Suzhen’s father-in-law). Otherwise he is a comedic figure (e.g. Liang Shanbo’s servant), or a compliant employee (Gai Liangcai’s attendant).

Finally, the jiaren is a rebel with a cause in that she seeks equal opportunity and self-determination. In so doing, she may find social and upward mobility (Hua Mulan and Qin Fengxiao). Above all, she has unmovable convictions; and when it comes to love, she is prepared to pay the ultimate price: to die for it (Zhu Yingtai). While this decision impedes her transformation into a revolutionary heroine who can break from all social restrictions, her suicide is never portrayed as the result of a rash decision. Instead it is depicted as an action of the last resort, occurring only when she has exhausted all avenues to negotiate a suitable arrangement that serves her interests. Her suicide is therefore as much a defiant assertion of self-autonomy and a reasoned refusal of victim-hood as it is a powerful indictment of Confucian feudalist patriarchy.

The alternative to death is to flee the patriarchal home and to start her life anew with the man of her heart (e.g. Huang Biju). One fan finds this inspiring, saying: Huang Biju shows that women have a stubborn will to live, despite the odds.[57] Or else, as in the case of Wen Shuzhen, she makes the decision to stay put in the matrimonial home with her benevolent father-in-law, but not before convincing him to execute her husband for his crimes, even if this means she never marries again and remains childless. One must ultimately uphold justice, Wen reminds her father-in-law, as he deliberates over her charges against her husband/his son.

The jiaren’s romantic significant other, the caizi, on the other hand, is less decisive or resolute. He is also less likely a martyr of love: he probably dies of love-sickness instead (Liang Shanbo). While he awaits death, bedridden with a broken heart, the jiaren continues to fight the system which her father-figure embodies (dogmatism, conservativism, and masculinism), on their behalf, so as to find ways for them to be together, in life (Huang Biju and Carp Spirit)[58], or in death (Zhu Yingtai). Whereas she does not give up a fight easily, he most likely faints at the sight of an impending combat (e.g. Dong Yong and Zhang Zhen).

Furthermore, he is portrayed as somewhat less intelligent than she. Both love literature, yet he would take to it in an overly bookish and uncritical way (Zhu Yingtai versus Liang Shanbo). Or else, he would be a pathetic bookworm who complains endlessly about his personal misery and misfortune (Zhang Zhen). He broods, but she acts. For example, bored with “her” life as a 500-year-old carp in lake, next to Zhang Zhen’s study, Carp Spirit makes a midnight call on Zhang Zhen. They fall in love; this silences his pitiable grumbles about loneliness and desertion. If Carp Spirit embodies the ultimate delight of a caizi — that he has given his heart to the right woman, never mind if she is not a human to start with, then Gai Liangcai in The Dawn Will Come would epitomize the jiaren’s utmost dread: that she might give her heart to the wrong man. As if purposefully eschewing the male role in this film, Ling “sticks” to her gender as a “straight-playing” woman, and delivers Gai his comeuppance as his wife: I must avenge the death of my “sister,” vows Wen Shuzhen, as Yan Qiurong dies before her eyes. (As mentioned before, Gai stabs her in a deserted temple.) Like all “authentic” jiarens, Wen shows yet again that women are intellectually and morally more superior than men. This can also occur in the battlefield: the man may be a brave soldier, but it is the woman who fights more bravely, more skillfully and more strategically (General Li versus Lady General Hua Mulan).

In sum, the caizi in Ling’s Huangmei films is generally somewhat “flawed” or not as “wholesome” as his companion-jiaren. More often than not, he is passive, indecisive, sickly, feeble, weak in the knees and/or prone to melancholy; or in the words of Stephen Teo, an “effete romantic hero.” [59] Indeed he is at times almost akin to the male equivalent of the damsel-in-distress. The rescue in Ling’s Huangmei films thus comes with an ironic twist. It is the strong and resourceful woman — whether a lover (The Mermaid), a betrothed (The Female Prince), a mother (The Crimson Palm), a distant female cousin (Three Smiles), or a female carp spirit (The Mermaid) — who saves the “caizi-in-distress” (Images 14.00 and 15.00).

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