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It's curtains for men playing women (3)

By Xu Wei (Shanghai Daily)

11:28, January 12, 2013

The 4-meter jump scene in "The Fall of Lady Green Beads" in which Mou Yundi plays the female role Green Beads. (Shanghai Daily)

Peking Opera actress Shi Xiaojun, who plays the role of Huan Feng, a good friend of Green Beads, says, "Nandan is a profound art, since nandan performers usually spend much more time than women studying their roles and their portrayal of women is more delicate and artistic after long-time observation."

But 28-year-old Shi is "not optimistic" about the art's future. "Nandan actors face bigger challenges than Peking Opera actresses. Many are eliminated because of voice change during puberty."

Though nandan today is a lonely profession, it enjoyed a golden period when Peking Opera flourished in the 1920s and 30s and nandan artists Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Shang Xiaoyun, Xun Huisheng and Xu Biyun were treated like celebrities and superstars.

In addition starring in classics such as "Farewell, My Concubine" and "The Drunken Concubine," they presented new performances based on legends, such as "Hua Mulan Joins the Army" and "Nie Yinniang" (about a female assassin). Their characters were mostly charming women performing martial arts.

Bi, a student of both Mei and Xu, says nandan performers are chosen at a young age, perhaps 7 or 9, based on comely appearance, height, slender build, poise, voice and appearance in makeup and costume. Then begins rigorous training in martial arts, nandan posture and movement, as well as speaking and singing.

"At the beginning, I took up the career to make a living, but then I fell in love with it," Bi says.

The art is considered much more complicated than the shows of popular cross-dressing singer Li Yugang, who also has staged highly popular vignettes of China's great beauties and has performed "The Flowers in the Mirror, the Moon in the Water" at the Sydney Opera House.

Bi says it usually takes several months to work on the detailed personality traits of a young female "so he will offer his unique interpretation of the beautiful girl." An artist must continuously improve his aesthetic taste by reading and watching films of the classics, studying various portrayals of ancient ladies, he says.

The adolescent voice change, when a male voice begins to "crack" and then deepen, is considered the biggest challenge.

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