22.00-22.09. Images from the film The Perfumed Arrow: the scene with playful bantering between Zizhong and Junqing by the lakeside


22.00. This sequence follows on from the previous bedroom scene. Here the two playfully banter. Zizhong sings: “On the water are two wonderful Mandarin ducks.” In Chinese culture, Mandarin ducks symbolize undying love: apparently once they couple up, they will not part or look for another mate ever again.



22.01. Pointing to the ducks, Zizhong sings, “The drake looks at you, laughing in a charming and asinine way.” (Cut).



22.02.Same lyric as above. Zizhong and Junqing’s reflection in the water is a visual metaphor characterizing them as two Mandarin ducks. (Tilt up).



22.03. Zizhong sings: “It (the drake) finds it amusing that you, a female, wants to pass for a male.” (Cut).



22.04. Junqing feels slighted and so in reply, sings: “Older Brother needs to reflect on his choice of words.”



22.05. Junqing continues: Why do you compare me to a girl?” (Cut).



22.06. Zizhong replies in an insistent way, singing: “You are a girl.”



22.07. Junqing snaps back, singing: “You are a lady.”



22.08. Zizhong sings: “If I were a girl, I'd marry you.” The song then ends with Zizhong adding: “It does not matter if you are a girl.”



22.09. Junqing shrugs him off.


23.00-23.15. Scene from The Perfumed Arrow: Zizhong intitates more banter with Junquing at the Mountain God Temple, some distance from the lake:

23.00. Zizhong sings, “Pray tell, why is the Mountain God single?” (Cut).

23.01. Junqing laughs and sings: “He who is without a wife has much freedom.”

23.02. Zizhong sings in reply: “Who then makes the bed and folds the blanket?”

23.03. Junqing avoids the question and sings: “Every word you mouth speaks of your desire for a wife.” (Cut).


23.04.  Junqing sings: “What do you want a wife for?” (Cut).


23.05. Zizhong sings in reply: “When young, a wife is a partner. When old, a wife is a companion.”


23.06. Zizhong continues: “A wife breeds, and sustains the family lineage.” (Cut).



23.07. Junqing repeats the above line word for word, “his” tone verging on sarcasm. Then “he” laughs heartily. Finally “he” sings: “The world offers you many pretty girls to choose from.” (Cut.)



23.08. Zizhong snaps back, singing: “But none is bright and lovely like my dear younger brother.” (End of banter).



23.09. Zizhong makes a sudden move for Junqing, and pulls off “his” hat. (Cut).


23.10. Junqing reacts in surprise, “his” long hair tumbling over “his” shoulders.

23.11. Junqing tries to get the hat back from Zizhong. (Cut).

23.12.  Zizhong asks, “My dear younger brother, nay, my younger sister, why do you impersonate a male to mock me?” Lost for words, Junqing covers “his” ears.

23.15. Junqing retrieves “his” hat while Zizhong stares at “him.” Junqing then puts on “his” hat, with Fei-E’s long hair tugged away under it. Earlier in the film, Fei-E sought to “divine” her future husband by shooting a “perfumed arrow” based on the finders-keepers principle. The temple scene eventually ends with Fei-E (Junqing) accepting Zizhong’s offer of marriage when Zizhong proves that he is the “finder-keeper” of her “perfumed arrow.”

24.00-24.03. Scene from near the end of The Perfumed Arrow: at Wen Fei-E’s home when Junqing reverts to Fei-E.

24.00. Here Fei-E sings to Jing Fuchun: “Fei-E is Wen Junqing.” (Cut). Fuchun, as we might recall, is the woman whom Junqing saved from rape.

24.01. Jin Fuchun (right) replies: “You may have changed into women’s clothes. I will still marry no one else.” (Dolly out). She is presently in Junqing’s house with her parents. To her right is her mother; her father is somewhere else in the house. The Jin family has come with the demand that Junqing makes good his earlier “agreement” to marry Fuchun. This provides a narrative motivation for Junqing’s reversion to Fei-E.

24.02. Fuchun continues in an insistent tone, “I will marry only you.”

24.03. Fei-E asks: “How can two women have the Praying to Earth and Heaven Ceremony?” In Chinese marriage culture, this ceremony formalizes matrimony. So Fei-E’s question is tantamount to asking: How do or can two women properly marry? Fuchun eventually replies, “That is not my problem. You reap what you sow!” The film conforms to compulsory heterosexuality, ending in a double wedding with Fei-E marrying Zizhong, and Fuchun marrying their friend, Wei Zhuangzhi. But as I suggest in this paper, there is something very queer about the four.

25.00. Three Smiles (1969) is Ling Bo’s last Huangmei opera film for Shaw Brothers. In this film, she plays legendary poet Tang Bohu (left), with Qiu Xiang (actress Li Jing) as his object of love. In order to woo Xiang, Tangbo sells himself as an interned laborer to the Prime Minister's household where she is a maid. Here Bohu tries to impress Qiu Xiang, but unsuccessfully.

25.01. Three Smiles (1969): Bohu (right) finally marries Xiang. In the wedding chamber, Bohu makes an amorous move at Xiang, who smiles coyly.

26.00. Butterfly Lovers 40 (2002): This stage musical adaptation of The Love Eterne formed part of the 2002 Taiwan-wide commemoration of The Love Eterne cult. It features surviving members of the original cast: namely, Ling Bo (as Liang Shanbo), Li Kun (as Si Jiu) and Ren Jie (as Yin Xin). The DVD cover has two images of Ling Bo’s Liang Xiong: one sits on the balcony, the other is the foremost front figure on the right-hand side of the sleeve. Behind the figure is Hu Jin who appears as Zhu Yingtai, followed by Li Kun and Ren Jie.


A sexless sex-free gender-play?
Questions of spectatorship

The final part of my paper addresses issues of spectatorship along sex, gender and sexual-orientation lines in regards to Ling’s Huangmei opera films. Most particularly it takes issue with the view that the male characters which Ling Bo plays in her Huangmei opera films are sexless figures, and as such, gender free. Such a position can representatively be found in Ang Lee’s interview with Rick Lyman for The New York Times (2001), and Peggy Chiao’s essay for Wong Ain-ling’s The Shaw Screen (2005).[60][open notes in new window] Although Lee (a well-known transnational Taiwanese film director) and Chiao (an influential Taiwanese critic and essayist of film) specifically discuss Ling Bo in relation to The Love Eterne and its cult following in the 1960s Taiwan where they grew up, it bears emphasizing, of course, that since that film Ling Bo the fanchuaner has gone on to play other male characters. And as my present discussion of Ling’s Huangmei opera films in general shows, it would indeed be a mistake to see Ling’s cross-sex performances as characterizing a sexless sex-free gender-play. A critical intervention is therefore necessary to correct Lee and Chiao’s gender-blind recollection of a monumental moment in Huangmei opera film history (in the Chinese diaspora).

In her essay, Peggy Chiao makes the assertion that the Ling Bo/Liang Shanbo persona denotes “no ‘gender’ or ‘gender difference’”[61] for the audience. This assertion derives from a notion that “[t]he 1960s was a morally conservative era in Taiwan.”[62] By this she appears to suggest that gender difference was then a non-issue for the audience, or an issue for widespread social concern. (Here, Lee would not disagree with Chiao.) Chiao’s second line of attribution goes like this:

"… the playing of reverse sexual identities is commonplace in Chinese [opera] culture … [so much so that] the sexual threat posed by the cross dresser who departs from normal convention is automatically erased, leading the audience into the willful and spiritual realm of gender liberation [in which there is no gender or gender difference]."[63]

Ang Lee likewise construes the spectatorial identificatory process in regards to the Ling Bo/Liang Shanbo persona as a non-gendered one. Unlike Chiao though, he attributes the cult to Ling Bo’s talent for gender-transcending acting. As he tells Rick Lyman of The New Times (2001) unequivocally:

"The audience was not confused. They saw the man [Liang Shanbo] as a man, not as a woman pretending to be a man, although at the same time they also appreciate that it was a woman [Ling Bo] pretending to be a man. Part of the appreciation was watching how well the woman could pretend to be a man."[64]

This, together with Lee's insistence that “audiences at the time” would not have found the love story and the casting “kinky” or “very sexy” (in a sexual or sexualized way),[65] presumes a universe of prudish viewers. As I and my co-writer have commented elsewhere:

"[Lee’s] assumption of a universe of prudish viewers is at issue. Lee claims that the film’s 'pure' and 'sexless' love story conveys 'no sense of lust for the audience,' and that the performance has the innocence of 'an all-boys choir' because it has two actresses … in the lead roles. These claims reach ridiculous heights when he asserts that the sight of 'a real man expressing romantic feelings for a woman on the screen … would have too strong for the audiences then' then …"[66]

In addition to misconstruing the audience as non-gendered, Lee also turns a blind eye to the matter of same-sex and trans-gendered identification in the spectatorial process in regards to cinematic experiences. This seems odd for a filmmaker who has made films featuring gay protagonists, namely, The Wedding Banquet (1992) and Brokeback Mountain (2006).But then, Lee on occasions has been hesitant to label them as gay films.[67] In any case, Lee’s particular non-gendered take on the audience lends, in an uncanny and ironic way, credence to Chiao’s notion of an automatic canceling out of gendered identification based on sex and sexual difference.

Problematic as it is, this notion then allows Chiao to explain the cult following for the Ling/Liang persona in the terms of this persona’s capacity to function as a “surrogate male” for female viewers, thus:

"Falling for a surrogate male figure, who represents no 'gender' or 'gender difference' is indeed the closest to a safe extramarital affair … Ling Bo’s most loyal and ardent fans come from the ranks of middle-aged women, and the reason for this lies somewhere in their unfavourable social situations."[68]

Although Chiao also notes that “both males and females worshipped [Ling Bo],”[69] she avoids the subject of male viewership in her paper. She is similarly silent on the matter of same-sex and trans-gendered spectatorial identification; this is in spite of the fact that she has wondered at one point in her paper if the Liang Shanbo character in The Love Eterne might have been a latent homosexual who “cannot accept [Zhu Yingtai’s] notion of transforming [male] friendship into love.”[70] Finally her paper belies class-bias when it suggests that the “grand sing-along” which Chiao witnessed at a screening of the film’s restored version in Taiwan, some 40 years after the film was first released there, shows that “the social values of [the] lower classes have not changed much after all."

To sum up then, Lee and Chiao’s non-gendered take on the cult for Ling Bo and The Love Eterne underscores a discourse of essentialism. It also belies the endurance of their childhood memories for the phenomenon on the one hand, and on the other, underscores the nostalgia of adults who can’t break away from such memories. This is evident when Chiao writes, “The Love Eterne evokes many sweet memories of our childhood. It is also apparent in Lee’s remark that the film “reminds me always of my innocence.”[71] To address the blind-spots in Lee’s and Chiao’s nostalgic and sentimental recollection then, the rest of this paper trains a focus on queer subtexts that linger underneath the heterosexual gloss of The Love Eterne and other Ling’s Huangmei opera movies. Indeed for those who care to delve beyond the films’ spectacle of lavish sets, dazzling costumes, delightful songs and highly romanticized love stories, they would detect a subterranean realm of polymorphous desires, from the heterosexist to the queer, that speak to and of not one but many universals of viewers.

Sexual expression in the films

High romance carries the caizi-jiaren love-stories that populate Ling’s Huangmei opera films. The stories are chaste and innocent but not to the extent that they become depleted of sexual wishes and lustful desires. Short of showing acts of copulation, in explicit ways, varied themes sex and desires abound. Though taken for granted, relational presentations of jiaren Yingtai as the daughter of the Zhu family and caizi Shanbo as the son of the Liang family, for example, highlight procreative sex and its consequences, and are indexes to social sexing, gendering and stereotyping. Moreover, while it is true that the love-story in The Love Eterne has the quality of chaste purity, in a Barbara Cartland-kind of way, this is so precisely because the story steers Shanbo and Yingtai away from the realm of carnal knowledge.

Pure as the case may be, their love for each other is not devoid of no sexual desires that make them gendered people. While at school, Yingtai falls for Shanbo. It is — and remains — a secret love because she is not above the social decorum of her time, with her situation as a male impersonator complicating the matter further. This is why she seeks out the help of her teacher’s wife as her go-between in regards to the affairs of her heart. She hands the latter a butterfly-shaped jade pendant as a love token for Shanbo, with the request that she passes it to him after she has left for home. Her subsequent recourse to innuendoes and insinuations during the 18-li Farewell Act offers tactical maneuvers for negotiating the dilemma that she is in: how to tell Shanbo about her true identity and her love for him at the same time? “My garden is full of mudan hua (peonies)/Since you like mudan hua/come to my home,” she thus says to Shanbo (in a song), adding a teaser:

“Elder Brother Liang,
Always pick the hua (flowers) when the hua are ready for picking.
Don’t wait till the hua have withered.
You will have a troubled heart when that happens.”

In Chinese culture, flowers are gendered female, and the term, flower, is also slang for the female sex. It is therefore common for women to be named after a flower, or to have a flower motif in their name — for example, Jin Mudan of The Mermaid and Jing Fuchun of The Perfumed Arrow: Funchun means spring (Chun) lotus or hibiscus (Fu), while Mudan is peony. In the context of the “18-li Farewell” scene, both the terms, “mudan hua” and “hua,” have a self-referential meaning: it is Yingtai’s way of hinting to Shanbao that she is in actuality a female person, that she desires him as lover and mate, and that she wants him to pick up her the “hua”(woman) of his life, and take her as his wife. While showing the film’s affinity to high romanticism, this most coy way of expressing romantic love and sexual desire has gendered underpinnings as well.

In Ling’s other Huangmei opera films, pre-marital sex scenarios abound. For example, viewers would surmise that Ling’s Zhang Zhen and Li Jing’s Carp Spirit in The Mermaid have had pre-marital sex when the latter mumbles shyly to former, “Wo yi jing yu le” — transliterally meaning “I already have” which is an euphemism for pregnancy. (Would this count for bestiality?) No overt sex is shown in the scene where Gai drug-rapes Yan (The Dawn Will Come); the trauma of rape is mirrored in the shot showing raindrops pelting pitilessly on a lotus flower (Image 18.02).

Pre-martial sex is a major theme in The West Chamber, and is alluded to in the coyest and most eloquent way (Images 16.00 to 16.10), using analogies (e.g. they make love like “fish to water”), metaphors (e.g. “the well-trodden crooked bridge” as an index for recurrent secret rendezvous between the young lovers) and euphemisms (e.g. “spring night” for sexual fun). Although this montage has no clashing waves to analogize wild and orgasmic pleasure, it nonetheless conveys, in a quiet and leisurely way, the idea that the protagonists, Zhang Shen and Cui Yingying, enjoy the pleasure of the flesh, behind closed doors. In a later scene, to stop the beating, Hong Niang finally says to Cui Yingying’s furious mother (in a song):

“Madam, the raw rice has become cooked rice.”[72]

The Perfumed Arrow contains a flash of female nudity. This unveiling of the heretofore mystery-shrouded clothes that have kept the matter of sex (in the physiological sense) under tight warp is unprecedented in this genre of films. The montage (Images 20.00 to 20.04 ) shows a cai hua zei looking and leering at Jing Fuchun with lust. In Chinese, cai hua zei is appellation for rapist — a thief (zei) who picks (cai) flowers (hua), against their will. As just mentioned, hua metaphorizes the female sex.

The above scenarios give a representative sampling of sexual desires along gendered lines with respect to Ling Bo’s Huangmei opera films, from the coy to the not-so-coy. They show that these desires have a correlate to sex physiology, as evinced by Fuchun’s exposed torso which reveals the biology of a woman, and also the pregnancy theme (A Maid from Heaven, The Mermaid and The Dawn Will Come). The portrayed desires are overtly heterosexual, and conform to the logic of compulsive heterosexuality, or heteronormativity, which demands that, as Judith Butler would put it, “if one identifies as a given gender, one must desire a different gender.”[73]

The flipside of this kind of portrayal, however, ironically has the effect of destabilizing heteronormativity precisely because the heterosexual matrix in Ling Bo’s Huangmei opera films necessitates the suspense of disbelief, the denial that the physiology of Ling the “man” is in fact a woman in the non-reel world. This kind of denial however cannot prevent viewers from contrarily bringing queer readings to Ling Bo’s carnivalesque cross-sex play, or of intentionally imbuing the “spring night” scenarios in her Huangmei opera films with queer desires, if they so wish. Though hidden from public view, the unseen acts of making love that occur inside a dark bedroom in The West Chamber lends to queering precisely because the caizi and a jiaren, gendered male and female respectively, are also two actresses who go by the name of Ling Bo and Fang Ying. Speculations, innuendoes and conjectures of queer kind thus come to play at the extra-narrative level.

In The Perfumed Arrow, Ling Bo’s Wen Fei-E character — an occasional male impersonator — is caught in the act. In the context of Ling’s Huangmei opera films, this is an exceptional occurrence. Du Zizhong stumbles upon Wen Fei-E’s secret inadvertently (Images 21.00 to 21.09). The male friend, Wen Junqing, whom he has slept with in the same bed the night before, turns out to be a woman the morning after. Wen Fei-E’s “long,” “soft” and “fragrant” hair gives the game away: “[The hair] looks like a woman’s not a man’s,” says Zizhong to himself, as he staggers away from the bed quietly. For him, the sleeping figure of Junqing now has the “aura” of a woman. Rather than confronting Junqing there and then, he leaves the room.

The night before, Zizhong had invited Junqing to stay over, after dinner. Junqing was initially reluctant. Then realizing that it was too late in the night to find a suitable alternative, “he” accepted the invitation. When Zizhong took “him” to his bedroom, the latter tried to make a hasty retreat when “he” saw that the room had only one big bed. The latter shrugged off Junqing’s protest, telling “him” that Master Wei would sleep in this same bed with him whenever he stayed over, implying therefore he saw nothing improper about two men sharing the same bed. (Master Wei is Wei Zhuangzhi, their close friend from school.) Then Zizhong locked the door, leaving Junqing with no choice but to make the best of the situation. So Junqing immediately placed an object in the middle of bed, as a divider. Zizhong objected, saying: “How inconvenient!” But Junqing would not relent. As Zizhong changed into his nightclothes, Junqing quickly crawled into “his” side of the bed, and fell, or rather pretended to fall, asleep. Before turning in, Zizhong noted that Junqing was still fully clothed and thought it even odder that “he” slept with “his” hat on. Above all, he was disappointed that the two would not have late night conversation in bed. Is Zizhong a latent homosexual? May be there is something more to him.

In The Perfumed Arrow, the breasts of a lady and the long hair of a cross-dresser, when exposed, are dead giveaway to the sex of wrapped-up genders, while the “aura” of a sleeping figure tantalizes in a different way. If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, what does the beholder of an “aura” see? Zizhong looks at the fast-asleep Junqing; he detects an aura and senses a woman. What might viewers make of the aura of “effete” romantic caizi-heroes such as Zizhong and Junqing who profusely populate this genre of film, including those that star Ling Bo? Some look at their aura, and see a man. Others may detect something else. While I certainly do not want to suggest that the physiological sex of male-actors such as Jin Feng who plays Zizhong be called to question, or for that matter, that of the male characters which Ling Bo play since they can occasionally help the procreative process along, what I do want to suggest is that the aura of “effete” romantic caizi-heroes as such is fertile ground for harvesting speculative conjectures of the queer kind.

This is so precisely because the characteristic play with themes of transvestitism and mistaken sexual identity in these films, together with the frequent use of ambivalence and equivocal speech, is generative of multiple desires and multifarious points of identification — some colluding with the genre’s theme of compulsive heterosexuality; others may take the “aura” in different directions. Let us therefore re-visit the bedroom scene. Viewers do not know for sure what kind of late night conversation Zizhong has in mind, but they know he is disappointed when Junqing falls asleep before he could broach the subject. But curious ones might wander about the conversations Zizhong and Zhizhuang had before in this bed, while laying together without a divider between them. What did the two men talk about? Did they just talk? Did they simply fall asleep, afterwards? Did they do something else? The answers are left to the viewers’ imagination.

The two banters which Zizhong has with Junqing, while accompanying the latter home, are likewise interesting in a queer way. This trip follows on from the “discovery” scene. Along the way, Zizhong and Junqing make two stops — the first is by a picturesque lake (Images 22.00 to 22.09), and the second is at the deserted Mountain God Temple (Images 23.00 to 23.15). Initiated by Zizhong, both banters have the quality of a love duet. The first banter (by the lake) ostensibly takes the Mandarin ducks as a topic for discussion, but the song ends with Zizhong saying to Junqing:

“If I were a girl,
I would marry you.
It does not matter if you are a girl.”

Does Zizhong have trans-gendered desires?

The second banter (at the temple), on the other hand, reveals a markedly ambivalent attitude in regards to the matter of love and marriage. This attitude deviates from the genre’s penchant for high romanticism in that it uncharacteristically lacks romantic passion. For caizi Zizhong, a wife is partner, companion and baby maker, period. In the film, Wen Fei-E generally does not come across as a jiaren who is passionate about the matter of love and marriage.

Indeed, as seen earlier in the film, it is her parents who push her to look for a husband, and she does so by shooting a perfumed arrow into her schoolyard. This mode of “arrowing in” a husband is based on the emotionally detached finders-keepers principle. In short, she has left the matter of love and marriage completely to chance. And as she is to tell Zizhong later in the Mountain God Temple scene, she is a firm believer of fate and destiny.

-- --
23.13. Angry, Zizhong tosses the hat away. (Pan right and then cut.) 23.14. Junqing walks towards “his” hat somewhat defiantly while Zizhong looks on from a distance.

Her particular dispassion may well stem from her phobia for marriage because it restricts freedom of movement (“He who is without a wife has much freedom.”) (Image 23.01). To be sure, Junqing would have less freedom to move around and about when Fei-E becomes a wife. In any case, this scene ends with her accepting Zizhong’s marriage proposal. Her reason is simple: Zizhong is the “finder-keeper” of her perfumed arrow, period. If the eventual marriage of Zizhong and Fei-E is not based on romantic love that stands the test of time, what then? The two marry out of a sense of filial duty: where Fei-E obeys her parents to find a husband, Zizhong wants a wife for breeding the Du line. But could the matrimony be a marriage of convenience as well? If so, what does that means?

The circumstances that lead to Wei Zhuangzhi and Jing Fuchun’s matrimony are likewise hilarious, and in specific regards to the Huangmei opera film, equally odd and peculiar because the matrimonial base is built on the principle of love at first alone. In short, it is atypically founded on untested love. Indeed like Zizhong and Fei-E, the two have treated the affairs of the heart rather frivolously, in more ways than one. To begin with Zhuangzhi: Near the beginning of the film, Zhuangzhi has asked Junqing to act as a matchmaker for him when he learns of Fei-E’s existence during a conversation with Junqing. From this conversation, he suddenly wants to marry Fei-E, even though he has never met her in person. He does not know at the time that Junqing is Fei-E in disguise. He finally gets to meet Fei-E near the end of the movie, and becomes cross with Junqing/Fei-E for taking him for a fool; but he quickly forgets Fei-E as an “object of love” when Fei-E introduces him to Jing Fuchun.

Fuchun and Zhuangzhi both fall in love at first sight. Where Zhuangzhi wanted to marry Fei-E (or Junqing’s “fictitious sister”), Fuchun had — prior to her meeting with Zhuangzhi — had desired Junqing as husband. The latter situation occurs in the scene where Junqing rescues her from rape. Grateful, Fuchun offers herself to "him," in marriage. Junqing turns down the offer, and escorts her home: "he" enjoys playing the role of a chivalrous knight. Later at Fuchun’s behest, her parents pursue the matter with Junqing, first at their home, and then at Junqing’s abode. With Fuchun and her parents hot on "his" tail, Junqing thus decides to reveal her sex (Image 24.00). Upon seeing Fei-E instead of Junqing, Fuchun cries,

“You may have changed into women's clothes,
I will still marry no one else,
I will marry only you” (Images 24.01 and 24.02).

Fei-E then asks her, how can two women be properly married since they can’t use the Earth and Heaven Ceremony to formalize the marriage? (Image 24.03). Fuchun finally retorts, saying:

“That is not my problem — you sow what you reap!”

At this point, Zhuangzhi enters the picture which allows the film to end, in a rather hasty way, with a double wedding celebration, explicitly and conveniently casting the multiple-way “tug-of-hearts” between the four jiarens and caizis in favor of heteronormativity: Fei-E thus marries Zizhong, while Zhuangzhi hurriedly takes Fuchun as wife.

The overt expediency and the insistent heteronormativity's logic notwithstanding, The Perfumed Arrow nonetheless lends itself to the queer gaze; it also avails to queering. Ambivalent language and equivocal speech based on double entendres, euphemisms and sexual innuendoes inundate the film, yielding narrative gaps and fissures that invite viewers to delve beneath the gloss of compulsive heterosexuality and ask the following question: Could the marriages be a cover for the love which dares not speak its name? Let us therefore generate more queer questions by looking at the relationship between the two men, Du Zizhong and Wei Zhuangzhi. They are classmates and close friends who like to hang out with Junqing. They occasionally share a bed together. Could they be closet homosexuals? In addition to fulfilling filial duties, does Zizhong see a wifely Fei-E as a provider of (mutual) sexual pleasure as well? If so, who does he prefer? The “bright and lovely” girl he sees in Fei-E (Image 24.00)? The “dear younger brother” he sees in Junqing (Images 23.07 and 23.08)? Or the androgynous Junqing/Fei-E in his bed — that sleeping male figure who has the aura of a woman (Images 21.08 and 21.09)? In short, whom exactly does he desire sexually: Fei-E, Junqing, or all of the above? At the same time, and as mentioned in the above, Zizhong appears to have latent transgender desires as well (Image 22.08).

Fei-E, on the other hand, enjoys cross-sex romps. Fei-E stays at home, while Junqing has the freedom to do whatever “he” pleases, go wherever “he” wishes, play with whomever “he” wants to; "he" can even becomes a chivalrous hero. Fei-E has no friends, but not Junqing. Junqing thus has all the fun; or to put this in another way, it is more fun to be Junqing than Fei-E. Moreover, Fei-E is not fussy about choosing her future husband carefully: the finders-keepers principle will do. Given her general ambivalence towards love and marriage, would she have consented to marrying Fuchun if there were proper procedures for same-sex marriage?. A viable extension of this question would be this: what if Fuchun were the first to find her perfumed arrow? The film’s narrative compulsion in regards to the matter that the finder has to be a young man belies both ageist (that is why the old sweeper who spots the arrow first does not pick it up) and heterosexist (that is why the school compound has no female figures) underpinnings.

Fuchun marries Zhuangzhi after falling in love with him at first sight. Yet she would tell Fei-E, only seconds before she meets Zhuangzhi, that she would marry Junqing/Fei-E regardless of whether Junqing has changed into a woman or whether Fei-E is female Junqing (Images 24.01 and 24.0). Does Fuchun have latent lesbian desires? Indeed does Fei-E correspondingly see in Fuchun’s tearful outburst a fleeting sense of her own lesbian desires — one that provokes her question or observation about the lack of marriage procedure for two women desiring marriage? (Image 24.03). At the same time, Fuchun appear to have bisexual inclination as well; this is suggested in her desire to marry Junqing at first, and then Fei-E. One is not sure. Nor can one be sure. But if seen in the genre’s characteristic penchant for using analogies, metaphors and euphemisms, including double entendres, to allude to things sexual, then one might be tempted to take the queer route and answer all the above questions in the affirmative. Moreover, Fuchun’s marrying Zhuangzhi carries certain advantages. For starter, Fuchun does not have to go back to her family home, with her parents. That would mean she will never ever see Fei-E (whom she seems to desire in a lesbian way), Junqing (whom she wants to marry as well), or both. Secondly as Zhuangzhi’s wife, Fuchun would be within close proximity of Fei-E, Junqing, or both, since her husband Zhuangzhi usually hangs out with Zizhong (Zhuangzhi’s close friend/Fei-E’s husband) and Fei-E (Zizhong’s wife)/Junqing (Zhuangzhi’s close friend). Now, that would make a party (of four). The party may well be or become a polymorphous “five-way” tug-of-love-and-desire, if one were to include Fuchun’s unnamed maid, first seen at the inn where Fuchun was kidnapped by the cai hua zei, into the configuration.This queer thought rests on the following que(er)stion: Why were Fuchun and her maid staying overnight in an inn? Or more particularly, why were they in a bedroom that was away from the gaze of Fuchun’s parents? The film does not give a narrative motivation for the occurrence which with afterthought would seem rather unusual: insofar as (Ling Bo’s) Huangmei opera films are concerned, any respectable jiaren would firstly not wander away from the patriarchal home without explicit parental permission and secondly without donning a male disguise. That is a very queer situation indeed.

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