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Peking Opera: Male parts female roles

By Zhang Zixuan (China Daily)

15:34, October 26, 2011

Yang Lei goes through the stages of transformation to play a female role. Zou Hong / China Daily

Cross-dressing has been an integral part of Peking Opera from the beginning and remains so today. Zhang Zixuan reports.

Yang Lei's thick eyebrows belie his smooth jaw till the Peking Opera performer reveals he shaves before applying makeup, to make sure there is no stubble. After all, stubble just won't do when the 33-year-old goes on stage dressed in dazzling costumes and sings a soprano aria. Yang is one of the nation's young nan dan (man who plays a female role), a practice forged at a time when women were forbidden to take the stage. The heyday of nan dan was the first half of the 20th century, when Mei Lanfang, Shang Xiaoyun, Cheng Yanqiu and Xun Huisheng - dubbed the "Four Great Dan" - established the four dan styles of mei, shang, cheng and xun. Bi Guyun, 80, a senior nan dan performer, witnessed the boom of this art form in the 1940s and 1950s.

"The four masters were all active at that time. Shows were on every night at more than 10 theaters in Beijing," Bi recalls, saying that Peking Opera was the leading form of entertainment then.

But the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976) dealt a death blow to the opera, and along with it the nan dan. Although the 1980s saw a gradual revival, the nan dan remained in the shadows with the rise of women performers on the Peking Opera stage, leaving only about 10 male dan.

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