copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

Huangmei opera films,
Shaw Brothers and Ling Bo —
chaste love stories,
genderless cross-dressers
and sexless gender-plays?

by Tan See-Kam

A long, long time ago, a young girl called Zhu Yingtai[1][open notes in new window] wanted to go to school. So she donned a male disguise, and went to a boarding school in Hangzhou.[2] 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.[3]

Chinese folklore has long immortalized this romance which according to lengends, 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in erstwhile Shaw[9] 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).[10] 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.”[11] 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, [12] 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),[13] and adds to my extant research apropos cross-dresser figures in postwar Hong Kong Cantonese and Huangmei opera movies.[14] 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[16] 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:
from mainland China to the diaspora

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).[17]

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.[18] 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).[19] 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:

…Most had to sing for food and pittance, begging from house to house. Since that time, or as [Huangmei] legends have it, we, Huangmei people, have the habit of “leaving home to sell our songs” (chu wai mai chang).[20]

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.[21] 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.[22]

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.”[23] The former comprised studios such as Great Wall (which made To Borrow a Wife [1958], 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.[24] 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 (soft-porn) film which Shaw Brothers was to make popular in the early 1970s.

Convergence and divergence

In the realm of Huangmei opera films, Ivy Ling Bo could be considered a cross-sex fanchuaner. Cross-sex fanchuaners, or professional cross-sex performers, are not uncommon in traditional Chinese opera.[25] They are in fact a trademark of Yueju (Shaoxing) opera, which has had a long tradition of training and employing only female performers. One most notable cross-sex performer of this theatre, concurrent with the time of the postwar Huangmei opera film cycle, was Yuan Xuefen (Image 2.00), who plays the male lead of Liang Shanbo in PRC’s first Shaoxing opera film, Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai. Also the first color feature of New China, this film is a forerunner to Ling Bo’s signature film, The Love Eterne. The latter in turn was inspired by three opera librettos from the Republican China period, namely The Willow Shade Account (Sichuan opera), Liang Zhu (Shaoxing Opera) and Butterflies on a Skirt Hem (Cantonese opera).[26]

In other Chinese opera traditions, mixed troupes are more typical, with performers usually appearing in roles that corresponded with their physiological sex. But exceptionally talented female impersonators have arisen from such troupes; the most famous was Mei Lanfang whose cross-sex performances awed Beijing opera fans during the second quarter of the last century.[27] More contemporaneous was Yam Kim-fei (Ren Jianhui) of postwar Hong Kong. She was the foremost male impersonator of the Cantonese opera stage and screen scene, and had a huge loyal following in the Cantonese communities of the Chinese diaspora. Like Yuan Xuefen of New China, Ren Jianhui would be a “shi jie”to Ling Bo — that is, an “older sister” in the profession of opera film acting. She (Image 4.00) too had the male lead role of Liang Shanbo to her acting credit, having appeared in Li Tie’s The Tragic Story Of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (1958). Unlike her two predecessors, including Mei Lanfang, Ling Bo has no formal opera training.

All-male Huangmei opera troupes were not usual prior to 1949. This type of troupes disappeared in New China: a mixed cast with players in gender-matching parts such as that seen in Marriage of the Fairy Princess became the norm. This gender-matching casting pattern has remained a constant in PRC’s Huangmei opera/opera film productions, including their latter-day TV equivalent. Initially Hong Kong’s Huangmei opera films, such as To Borrow a Wife and Diau Charn of Three Kingdoms, typically had a gender-matching cast. Shaw Brothers’ production of The Dream of the Red Chamber (1962) marked a departure when its director cast actress Ren Jie in the male lead role of Jia Baoyu (Image 9.00). This departure paved the way for Ling Bo’s Liang Xiong character in The Love Eterne (more below). Ling’s highly successful debut as a cross-sex actress, however, led to her being pigeonholed, for she was almost always typecast as a male or a female cross-dresser; this holds true only for her Huangmei opera film corpus. Her success concurrently made cross-sex acting a trendy pursuit for actresses of the Mandarin screen. Li Lihua (Image 17.00) thus plays male scholar Yang Yuwei in Lady Jade Locket (Yan Jun, 1966), while Lin Dai appears in the twin-role of mother and son in Shaw Brothers’ The Lotus Lamp (1963-1965), with Zheng Peipei as the father (Image 12.00).[28] To a certain extent, the trend helped build a bridge to Hong Kong’s postwar Cantonese opera films, especially those starring Ren Jianhui, but the bridge was not long enough to interface with PRC’s all-female Shaoxing opera films of the time, even though those male parts are invariably played by actresses.

At the time, Hong Kong had no professional Huangmei opera troupe. Unlike their PRC counterparts, Hong Kong Mandarin studios such as Great Wall and Shaw Brothers thus did not have a ready pool of trained opera performers to draw on when making Huangmei opera films.[29] (In this regard, they also differed from the Cantonese studios which had a steady supply of trained performers from the Cantonese stage.) Huangmei opera film actors and actresses accordingly had to undergo appropriate training or retraining. Fu Qi, an established (male) actor of the Great Wall studio with a knack for contemporary romantic comedies — who plays the male lead in To Borrow a Wife,for instance — took a crash course in opera postures, steps, movements and singing techniques with a Beijing opera-trained master, Zhou Wenwei.[30] On the other hand, by the time of The Love Eterne production, Ling Bo was already a relatively more versatile actress. Prior to this, she had appeared in some 50 Minnanhua or Fujianese films in various genres, including Minnanhua opera films, under the screen-name of Siew Kuan (Xiao Jun; Image 6.00; more below). For her male lead role in The Love Eterne, also her first major role in a Shaw Brothers production, she similarly had to be retrained. Nonetheless she had a flair for singing Huangmei tunes, unlike most actors and actresses associated with the genre. For the latter, including Zhao Lei, Lin Dai, Li Lihua, Ren Jie and Zheng Peipei, the use of ghost-singers and voice-dubbing was a very common practice. In contrast, all performers in PRC opera films and Hong Kong Cantonese opera movies were trained in the art of the opera, so they sang their parts themselves.

In terms of make-up and costumes, Hong Kong Huangmei opera films diverge even more from their PRC equivalents, including Huangmei Xi. In the latter, for instance, performers typically don heavy make-up and pantaloons with flared bottoms, whereas their Hong Kong counterparts tend to spot a (more) naturalistic look, wearing straight-cut, pencil-thin, tight-fitting trousers (Image 11.00). Musical composition and arrangement vary even more. In Hong Kong Huangmei opera films, the songs are relatively more upbeat with a quasi-modern arrangement, which in turn gives the tunes a pop-like quality consistent with Mandarin pop-songs of the day.[31] This simultaneously traditional (folk) and modern (pop) mix then yields a populist quality that stands in contrast to the pastoral aura characteristic of the Huangmei folk music used in PRC Huangmei opera movies.

In terms of production numbers in postwar Hong Kong films, Huangmei opera movies second to Cantonese ones, but the Huangmei opera films were mostly shot in color and had considerably higher production values, with infinitely more lavish props and extravagant sets. Their producers typically enjoyed an economy of scale that came with a large capital investment, unlike Cantonese and other dialect studios. Great Wall received backing from PRC-friendly banks; thus, when making To Borrow a Wife, it was able to mobilize production resources five times over the amount it would normally allocate for a single film.[32] Financially well-endowed Shaw, on the other hand, made the claim that their allocated budget was as high as HK$1 million per production.[33] According to I. C. Jarvie, a Cantonese feature film of 10,000 feet long typically cost between HK$40,000 and HK$50,000, but the average cost for the standard Mandarin production was higher, between HK$100,000 and HK$200,000.[34] If so, then the production cost for Huangmei opera movies and other period Mandarin films would be even higher: the set alone has been known to run up a bill of as much as HK$300,000.[35] Given this, dialect opera films generally looked like poor distant cousins, bar those made by PRC studios and to a certain extent, Hong Kong’s “left-wing” Mandarin studios as well.

Huangmei opera films also enjoyed a considerably wider following largely because they were in Mandarin, as opposed to Cantonese and Minnanhua (Hokkeinese) or other regional- or community-specific Chinese dialects such as those spoken in Shanghai or Beijing. This linguistic advantage enabled the genre to reach multiple “pockets” of audiences in the Chinese diaspora. By comparison, dialect opera films had less extra- or inter-pocket appeal. Their producers tried to overcome this language-related limitation by providing Chinese subtitles (this being the norm for all opera films). But that did not help overcome the taint of regionality which marked them as provincial. This was a problem which Huangmei opera films “transcended” with the help of Mandarin, deemed the most widely used and understood Chinese language and also considered the “national” language of the Chinese diaspora. Though popular to a similar degree in the Chinese diaspora (except in Taiwan where they were banned), PRC Huangmei opera films were, however, too few and far between to make a more enduring impact. Using highly trained opera performers had its merits, but this also gave the productions a sense of stilted staginess, which populist screen actors/actresses had long learnt to downplay. This sense of staginess afflicted the Cantonese opera film as well.

Related to the "Mandarin factor" is the performance of songs in a natural voice. Such a performance style gives Huangmei opera films a decisive edge over the rest. Run Run Shaw, helmsman of Shaw Brothers, purportedly chose to make Huangmei diao pian rather than other types of opera films because of the “natural voice” factor.[36] Runde Shaw of Shaw and Sons appeared to take a similar line of reasoning when he agreed to produce Shaw’s first Huangmei opera film, Diau Charn of Three Kingdoms. This apparently happened after director Li Hanxiang told him about an “unusual” occurrence at a local cinema where Marriage of the Fairy Princess was playing. Viewers were singing along with the film, an occurrence that surprised Li. Had the movie been a Cantonese picture, he would have been less taken aback, since Cantonese opera, whether on stage or on screen, had relatively more ready accessibility in postwar Hong Kong since it was a predominantly Cantonese place, both language and cultural-wise speaking. In any case, he later found out from colleagues that the Marriage of the Fairy Princess had a cult following, with some viewers watching it over and over again, up to “seven or eight times.” Sensing a potential market for Huangmei opera movies, Li thus pitched a proposal for Diau Charn of Three Kingdoms to Runde Shaw who accepted it on the condition that the film be “filled with songs from start to end,” just like Marriage of the Fairy Princess.[37]

If China-born Li was awed by what he saw in that cinema-house in Hong Kong, then — as his Huangmei opera film corpus shows — the director was quick to learn the lesson. His most successful Huangmei opera film, The Love Eterne (produced by Run Run Shaw), for example, has a record 34 songs. Taiwan-raised film critic/essayist Peggy Chiao conceivably had never seen Marriage of the Fairy Princess or any other PRC films as a child, but she was to bear witness to a similar type of cult following, this time in relation to The Love Eterne. As Chiao recalls: “Inside the cinema, the audience [were singing] along with the stars on the screen.” She then adds,

"Before it, films were seen only once. The Love Eterne prompted the practice of viewing and re-reviewing a film. Everyone compared how many times he or she had seen The Love Eterne. And there were many who saw it twenty or thirty times. The newspapers reported that an elderly woman the film 120 times … Housewives, young women, and children memorized the lyrics …"[38]

The Love Eterne,
Ivy Ling Bo and Liang Xiong

In The Love Eterne, Ivy Ling Bo succeeded when Ren Jie of The Dream of the Red Chamber failed. Originally cast as the film’s male lead, Ren was relegated to the supporting female role of Yin Xin when director Li Hanxiang recast the former role in favor of Ling.[39] This turn of events sounded a knell on Ren’s acting career, but changed Ling’s fortunes forever. Heretofore she was to become popularly known as Liang Xiong which means Elder Brother Liang, also Zhu Yingtai’s pet-name for Liang Shanbo. The name of the female and male lead characters respectively, Zhu Yingtai (played by actress Le Di) and Liang Shanbo are the star-crossed romantic couple in The Love Eterne, who eventually find eternal love as butterfly spirits (Images 10.00 to 10.06).

Central to the urban myth for the Ling Bo-Liang Xiong cult phenomenon is the “ugly duckling” story. Before joining Shaw Brothers, Ling Bo was Siew Kuan, nee Jun Haitang (born 1939). Siew Kuan’s acting career began as early as 1954, first as a precocious child-actor, then as a leading actress in Minnanhua films (or Amoy films as they are more commonly called in Taiwan).[40] Although a darling of the Minnanhua film circuit, she lingered on the fringe of the cinematic mainstream in the Chinese diaspora (Image 6.00). In Hong Kong, Minnanhua studios were the poorest, capital- and resource-wise, when compared to their Mandarin and Cantonese counterparts, and as such, were thought to be third-rate. Seeking to break into the mainstream limelight, Siew Kuan began to work for Shaw around 1960, initially as a freelancer, accepting bit-parts in the Cantonese productions of Shaw affiliates, as well as shadow-singing for Shaw Brothers’ Huangmei opera films. Indeed, the best offer she could land at Shaw, prior to The Love Eterne,was the female supporting role in Hung Niang (Hong Niang, 1961). This Huangmei film production was never completed; but it gave her a chance to work with Li Hanxiang, who was one of Hong Niang’s co-directors. The meeting eventually led to their collaboration in The Love Eterne; during this time, Siew Kuan changed her screen-name to Ivy Ling Bo, an infinitely savvier appellation than Siew Kuan which sounded unsophisticated and provincial — “Ling Bo the person is like her name: a fairy.”[41]

In the ensuing nine years, Ling Bo was contracted to Shaw Brothers, making a total of 33 films of various genres, including The Love Eterne for which she won the “Best Acting Award in a Special Category” award (2nd Golden Horse Film Festival, Taiwan, 1963).[42] In these films, as well as those which she made during her post-Shaw Brothers years as a freelance-actress, she has performed a diverse array of cross-sex and gender-matching roles. Despite winning four other major acting awards (between 1964 and 1974), Ling Bo could not escape from the long shadow of Liang Xiong.

After leaving Shaw Brothers in 1972, Ling immediately gave an extended reprise of her signature role for Taiwan’s Central Television System (CTS) production of The Seven Lives of a Husband and Wife (1972), a 91-part Huangmei opera TV serial.[43] This serial and others, including the Liang-Zhu Farewell Concert (1991) and Liang-Zhu 40 Concert (2002), are testimonies to the persistence of the Ling Bo-Liang Xiong cult following. (Liang-Zhu is shorthand for Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.) The last concert — a full-scale stage production of The Love Eterne, featuring Ling Bo and other surviving members of the Shaw Brothers cast in their original role — capped Taiwan’s island-wide commemoration of the 40th anniversary of The Love Eterne phenomenon (Image 26.00). This commemorative event and others thus affirm Ling’s status as the most eminent Huangmei opera film actress in the Chinese diaspora; of her diverse film repertoire, her Huangmei opera films have likewise remained the best-known, or the best-remembered. If popular memory has kept the Ling Bo/Liang Xiong/The Love Eterne “screen miracle” alive, it is because popular demand has persisted, in a both corresponding and relenting way.

In postwar Hong Kong film industry (as in traditional Chinese opera), cross-sex acting was a career option. This was more the case for actresses than actors, with very few exceptions. Female-to-male cross-sex acting was sometimes regarded as a vocation; here Ren Jianhui’s lineage of female disciples is a point in case. Professional cross-sex fanchuaners such as Ling and Ren are distinct to narrative cross-dressers. In this paradigm are the Zhu Yingtai character in The Love Eterne (played by actress Le Di in a female role) who cross-dresses as a male in order to go to school; or Master Plen (played by actor Qiao Zhuang in a male role) in Wife-napping (dir. Yan Jun, 1962) who impersonates his fiancée so as to thwart a lascivious villain’s plan to kidnap her and make her his wife.

The prevalence of sex/gender reversals, whether integral or external to the narrative world, in Hong Kong’s Huangmei (and other) opera films thus suggests a strong degree of social tolerance, if not acceptance, in regards to transgender gallivanting on the screen. The public recognition accorded to professional cross-sex fanchuaners (e.g. Ling/Liang) or narrative cross-dressers (e.g. Le/Zhu) by way of acting awards further attests to this. There was, for instance, no indignant protest when both Le/Zhu and Ling/Liang respectively walked away with the “Best Actress” and “Best Acting Award in a Special Category” awards at the 2nd Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, 1963. Neither were there cries of moral outrage when Ling went on to accept the “Best Actress” and “Most Versatile Talent” awards for her respective performance of the titular cross-dresser in Lady General Hua Mulan (dir. Yue Feng, 1964) at the 11th Asian Film Festival (Taipei), and the male lead in The Mermaid (dir. Gao Li, 1965) at the 12th Asian Film Festival in Kyoto (Images 13.00 to 13.02, and 14.00).

The proclamation in the newspaper headline in a Hong Kong daily, “1963 Belongs to Ling Bo,” both expressed and reflected a similar sentiment of acceptance and celebration, also the year of The Love Eterne. The accompanying article elaborates:

“[Liang Xiong conveys] the pains of youth in the most piercingly sharp way. Awed by Ling’s [cross-sex] performance, people would often make the remark that men see Ling/Liang as woman, while women view Ling/Liang as a man.”[44]

This commentary fell short of making a mention in regards to same-sex spectatorial identification, however. The silence here does not demonstrate a correspondent absence of same-sex discourses elsewhere. Nor can it, as I shall argue in the last section of this chapter, impede queer spectatorship, even though the notion of queer, as the term is presently understood, was not yet fashionable then. Though unspoken of in the past, queer subtexts do exist Ling’s Huangmei opera films, including The Love Eterne. After the long silence, The Love Eterne eventually becomes the subject of a queer reclamation when, for instance, the 15th Queer Melbourne Film Festival (2005) unabashedly and unapologetically promotes the film as an “unmissable queer cinematic event.”[45] To a certain extent, Ling Bo has helped push the reclamation process, though in both ironic and indirect ways, when this star of past queer films made cameos for the award-winning Rice Rhapsody (Hainan Ji Fan; dir. Kenneth Bi, 2004), along with hubby Jin Han, previously also a Shaw Brothers actor who once played the role of Mulan’s love interest in Lady General Hua Mulan (Images 13.01 to 13.02). Filmed and set in contemporary Singapore, this comedy has no cross-dressing themes or cross-sex acting: it is about two apparently out and proud young gay Singaporeans and their somewhat sexually ambivalent younger brother; it is ambivalent because it is never clear which way he would swing eventually, sexual-wise. The film is Canadian Kenneth Bi’s directorial debut. Bi also happens to be Ling Bo and Jin Han’s son.

Finally it bears noting that Ling Bo’s achievements as a prominent cross-sex fanchuaner have not put a cap on her repertoire range, or range of acting roles. In her non-Huangmei opera films, Ling too has created memorable female characters in her time. They include the female lead in Too Late For Love (dir. Lo Chen, 1966) and Father, Husband, Son (dir. Bai Jinrui, 1973), for which she won the Best Actress Award (6th Golden Horse, Taiwan, 1967) and the “Outstanding Acting Award” (20th Asian Film Festival, 1974).

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] 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 which (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’sHuangmeifilms 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).

To page 2, text version

To topJC 49 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.