When I was little, I was surprised to find that a certain Peking opera singer named Chen Yang Lin was extraordinarily handsome. At the time, I did not know that Chen was actually an actress playing male roles. I just thought that she had a certain quality men did not usually have. I secretly wished that my future boyfriend would be like him. Later, thanks to Young Li Hwa , Taiwanese opera on TV became very popular. Each time my grandmother, mother and I watched her perform, we were like teenage girls in love. We were crazy about her. So many times, mother said she wanted to go to Taipei to see Young because she could not believe the “rumor” about Young being a woman.
In the year of 1991, I watched Taiwanese opera singer Shei Yuei Sha on stage for the first time. She always played the handsome young men on stage whom had his ways with women. I was so fascinated by her that I visited her soon after the performance. When the door opened, I saw an old woman in her pajamas. The vision in front of me could hardly match the passion in my heart. Yet, after we started talking, I was charmed. I could not help but thinking that I was actually talking with a handsome man. When I excused myself to the restroom, I found my face flushed like a love-crazed woman with moisture in my eyes. More surprisingly, when I finally had the chance of working with the opera crew, I realized that many male musicians were also enchanted by Sei---a man in our eyes on stage or off. These men all blossomed around her and wanted to take her out for a date. I was so surprised. How did she do it? How could she play the two opposite genders so well? Could it be that we all have both Ying and Yang inside us, if capable, we can call out either character by will?
April 2002, I produced “My Journey”---a play based on Shei’s story.
Shei started her training at the age of five. She studied all kinds of different roles. When she turned sixteen, she became, officially, an actress playing the male parts on stage. Now she is sixty years old, remembering the inner struggles and conflicts playing the male roles, remembering how the teachers asked her to behave like a man and how other actresses treated her as a man and flirted with her, she still harbors some regrets. That young woman could not express her feminine side either on stage or in her daily life. She used to sit in front of the mirror in her room, secretly playing out the most beautiful female roles. With the use of long sleeves, fans, spears and scarves, she switched back and forth between male and female characters. After seeing the most beautiful side of herself, she saw the many possibilities within. She was no longer scared or hesitant. She courageously played the complex characters on the stage of her real life.
Female characters in traditional Chinese theatres have always been stereotypical. They are mostly good women who follow the social doctrines. A century ago, Peking opera used actors to play the females roles simply because people could not perceive actresses playing bad women such as Pang Zhin Lein, who was mean, had affairs with other men and committed murder at the end. How inappropriate it would be for a woman to play this kind of roles. These actors who played female roles all rely on their impression of stereotypical women. In the past fifty years, less and less actors dedicated themselves to traditional operas and actresses got a chance to go on stage, sometimes even playing male roles. Women finally had a chance to portrait the “ideal male character” according to their own wish. No wonder my grandmother, my mother and I were so enchanted by these male-like actresses.
Women wanted their men to be just like these men played by actresses, with their looks and charismas. An ideal man should be just as smart and charming as these make-believe men on the stage. These actresses created the image of an ideal man in women’s hearts. The audience was pacified and satisfied. They could later go back to the reality and continued their lives ruled by men.
What kind of relationships exist between these women in plays? Half of them are mothers and daughters with loving relationships and half are mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws with hateful codependent relationships (ex. The Peacock Flew Southeast). This is art mimicking reality.
November 2001, I produced a play about five generations of mothers and daughters. In field study, I discovered that each generation of mothers repeated what they did not want from their own mothers onto their daughters. There were few mothers able to break this cycle. In the play, I gave words to the daughters: “She is like my guardian angel, but sometimes she is like a witch. In some ways I am so much like her and in some ways I wish not to be like her. I like to cuddle up in her arms but more often, I want to cut loose from her and fly away.” When possible, women often wanted to “fly away”, but where to? Where was the place for them to express themselves? They could not play the idealistic males like these actresses in Taiwanese opera, could they?
A new generation of females are still torn between traditional responsibilities and self-fulfillment. They are like candles burning from both ends, or clowns on high wires. Divorce rate in Taiwan has reached 25%. There is plenty of room for us to explore for new images of women and for the new ways men perceive women. We no longer consider Mei Lang Fun the image of a modern Chinese beauty. We do not like the image of Gon Li, a movie star created by Western consumerism. The new generation of women in Taiwan are still feeling and searching for their way out, like the rivers in the darkness of night.


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