Bai Niu and the Women of Quyi:
Appropriating Metaphysical Feminimity and Reclaiming the Feminine Voice in Republican China

By Francesca R. Sborgi Lawson

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 26, no.1 (Spring 2014), pp. 41-70

After the fall of the Yuan dynasty, the ban against female actors in public performances eventually gave female impersonators unusual powers as androgynous characters, allowing them to represent an idealized femininity that superseded the real-world experiences of actual women. This “metaphysical femininity” also influenced male writers, who used idealized feminine icons to represent their own feelings of disenfranchisement and marginalization, but did little to change the fates or careers of women until the Republican period. By the early decades of the twentieth century, progressive political changes allowed women to assume the stage and follow in the footsteps of female impersonators, who opened doors for a new generation of female performers.

Although Chinese female actors in the Western theatrical tradition and female singers in Chinese opera began to perform during the early years of the Republic, the female narrative singers in the Quyi tradition were in the best position to take advantage of modernizing trends and still reap the benefits of performing traditional repertoire. Hence, for a brief time in the first half of the twentieth century, the women of Quyi were able to reclaim their voices, appropriate the metaphysical femininity that had eluded other female performers, and assume performance careers in spite of the “body problem” that plagued so many of their contemporaries in Chinese opera and theater.