For generations, Chinese culture has traditionally enjoyed and celebrated cross-gender artists. Peking opera is the most well-known of all Chinese operas, which finds its home in Beijing. But in Peking opera, men have played the part of women for centuries.
The practice began during the Chinese Feudal Society period (BCE 475 to CE 1840), when women’s roles in public were limited, and during the Ming Dynasty (CE 1368 – 1644) when women were not allowed to appear on stage.
The tradition continued during the Qing Dynasty (CE 1644 – 1911), in which women were not even allowed to attend public performances. Peking opera had strictly become a male-dominated art; however, women played major roles in society, and no opera or story could be complete without them. Women needed to be represented in plays and operas.
The Chinese word “Dan” (旦 ) was the title given to Chinese opera female actresses, or “divas.” As men began to interpret the female roles, they were referred to as “Nandan” (男旦) or “male diva.” Nandan were not only expected to look like women, but they were also expected to take on the actions, habits, and mindset of a woman. The most successful Nandan experienced years of training, and in the moment he put on female clothing, there was no differentiating him from a real woman. In fact, Nandan even took on the roles of women who accompanied men in drinking and socializing.
The most renown of all Nandan was Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳 (April 1915 to August 1961). Born in Beijing, he traveled the world to share the tradition of Nandan. Over the years, Mei Lanfang established the Mei School of Nandan, leaving a trove of knowledge on the practice.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the practice of Nandan began to fade. Women appeared on stage welcoming more equal status compared to the traditional feudalistic social practices.
Now, after decades, the art of Nandan has encountered a resurgence through the talent of a man named Li Yugang. His name, 玉刚, meaning Jade Steel, reveals a sense of balance between yin and yang.
It was in 2006, when Li Yugang participated in a Chinese talent show called “Star Beams,” that he first captivated the audience with his song and intimation. Despite the performance receiving some criticism, Li Yugang had sparked the traditional memory of an art form not seen on stage for generations.
For years, Li Yugang researched and perfected the Chinese tradition of Nandan, connecting with the spirit of Peking opera. He had touched the heart of his culture and the people of his country through the expression of an art that had all but been forgotten.
“I understood my family and the place I grew up; no one would believe that I am doing this — performing as a Nandan,” he said.Li Yugang in a television interview
Many see Li Yugang as an overnight sensation, but his story is one of sleepless nights and emotional challenges. After graduating high school, he was accepted into a performing arts college, but because of his family’s financial struggles, he was unable to afford the tuition. Nonetheless, he embraced his desire to revive the traditional art form.
The conflicting emotions he experienced to learn the Nandan tradition nearly caused him to take his own life. Li Yugang left his rural home in northeast China for Beijing because he knew that if he would find success, it would be where the Nandan had been revered before. Yet each trip home, Li Yugang struggled to hide his reality from his family, to the point that he would leave costumes in a train station locker when visiting his family’s village. He feared them finding women’s clothing in his luggage.
In 2006, still wanting to hide from his parents, he opened up to his older sister about the “Star Beams” competition. Finally, he decided on a less invasive way. “I understood my family and the place I grew up; no one would believe that I am doing this — performing as a Nandan,” he said in a television interview.
The night of the competition, his sister called her mother suggesting she come to her home to watch the competition. She didn’t recognize her son on TV because she saw a woman. His sister asked her mother what she thought of the performance, “She’s a good singer and performer,” her mother replied. Her daughter told her the performer was her little brother, Yugang. Li Yugang’s mother looked again and recognized her son. Through the excitement, she also understood the challenges and difficulties her son had faced over the years.
Li Yugang experienced periods of homelessness and confusion. He took odd jobs, he spent nights at karaoke clubs singing popular songs, and he perfected high notes, as he experimented with songs sung by Mei Lanfang and other famous Nandan of the Peking opera.
It was through hard work and persistence that Li Yugang succeeded at reviving a traditional Chinese art, an expression of what many would consider cross-gender — and he achieved it in a culture remembering their love for the tradition of Nandan, an art that Li Yugang brought back to life.
Li Yugang has realized a contemporary expression of a traditional art form based on stories of flowers and women passed down from dynasties gone by. His every hand gesture, dip of the head, and elusive glance takes his audience on a journey back to days of glamour and sublime expression in the depths of the Chinese soul.
Following multiple international performances, including the Sydney Opera House in 2002; in 2009, Li Yugang was recognized as a premier performing artist in China.