Hong Shen and the “Natural Death” of
Female Impersonation: Rethinking the History of
Gender-Appropriate Performance in Huaju

By Megan Ammirati

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 27, no.2  (Fall 2015), pp. 172-207

According to standard theater history, on September 22, 1923 Hong Shen permanently altered the way modern Chinese drama approached the performance of gender. He directed a production of Ouyang Yuqian’s The Shrew (Pofu) that cast actresses in the female roles. The relative realism of that one-act was disastrous for the female impersonators who subsequently performed Hu Shi’s The Main Event of Life (Zhongshen Dashi) and were laughed off the stage. It was this juxtaposition of “natural” female bodies and “artificial” male impersonators that purportedly demonstrated the necessity for gender-appropriate casting, leading Hong Shen to declare that, after that date, female impersonation “died a natural death” (shouzhong zhengqin).

This essay complicates that claim. The author argues that Hong Shen’s Freudian rejection of the cross-dressed stage affixed a thread of essentialism to the foundation of Chinese spoken drama. A rigid assumption about the correspondence between a female character and a female body has flattened out much of the germinal fluidity and variety of Republican-era drama. However, a reading of Hong Shen’s own “all-male” soldier play Yama Zhao (Zhao Yanwang) finds new meaning in the moments the script alludes to feminine impersonation. Even an advocate of gender-appropriate casting like Hong Shen practiced drama in a more flexible and experimental manner than his own rhetorical essays would allow.

This process of complicating the narrative of Hong Shen’s institutionalization of gender-straight casting ultimately transcends a binary in which a play’s realistic engagement with women is defined by the absence or presence of women on stage. To put it another way, the author resists the assumption than an actress’s performance of a female character is immediately aligned with naturalness and rejects the theory that a female impersonator’s citation of femininity is its binary opposite.