For hundreds of years, when it was unthinkable that a woman would appear on stage, all the female roles in Peking Opera and other traditional Chinese operas were played by men who specialized in particular types of women, down to the most minute gesture, the flick of a finger, the lifting of a hem.
In fact, there were mainly five traditional female (dan) roles played by men (generally called nandan). There were old women (laodan), martial women (wudan), young female warriors (daomadan), virtuous noble women (qingyi) and spirited unmarried women (huadan). All played by men.
They learned to move their hands in such a way as to minimize the size of their hands so they would appear smaller, like women's hands. They walked on uncomfortable high-heeled shoes to imitate the swaying, mincing steps of a woman with bound feet. In short, they played the idealized woman, the beautiful, graceful concubine or noblewoman depicted in poetry, paintings and literature.
Today, not only are highly stylized Peking Opera and other traditional operas fading, but all those female roles are being taken by actresses, who sing, speak, act and perform acrobatics, and, of course, portray charming women.
Are women better at portraying women in the classics, or do men (who wrote all the classic operas) devoting their lives to nandan bring something special to the role, something women cannot tap? That's an open question.
Certainly, some say that men may have an edge when it comes to stamina and stunts; some like the male falsetto. Many women tend to become stout in middle age, making portrayal of supple creatures difficult and shortening their careers.
No boys or young men are studying for nandan roles in the Shanghai Theater Academy or at the Peking Opera School in Beijing.
Only a half-dozen nandan artists around the country are still active on the Peking Opera stage. Few families today would allow a young boy and only child to undertake many years of arduous training for a low-paying stage career - and worse, playing a woman. Today, that choice raises eyebrows about masculinity and sexual orientation. As a result, opera trainees for any role tend to come from relatively poor families or families with a long operatic tradition. And when a handsome boy's voice breaks in puberty - and if he cannot control it and restore a high pitch, or falsetto - he may well be out of a job.
But middle-aged and elderly opera fans are enthusiastic about nandan, appreciating the artistry and getting lost in the tale.
Surprisingly, there was a huge nandan Peking Opera hit in Shanghai last month when Bi Guyun and Mou Yundi, currently the only two nandan performers in Shanghai, presented the classic "The Fall of Lady Green Beads" at the Yifu Theater. It's the tale of Lady Green Beads who seeks revenge against the people who killed her parents and turns to an official for justice. But when he demands sexual favors, she "falls," committing suicide by jumping from a building to defend her chastity. On stage, it was a four-meter jump, requiring training to land without injury.
Green Beads was played by the 29-year-old Mou, who received strict nandan training starting at the age of nine. Bi, Mou's 82-year-old teacher, gave artistic direction to the show.
The show had not received much advance publicity, but the theater was nearly full. There were six curtain calls.
"The success of the show strengthened our confidence as nandan today," Mou says. "To win the hearts of our audience we must perform extraordinary stunts on stage and really do better than our female counterparts."
To imitate the mincing step of a woman with bound feet, Mou walked in high-heeled wooden shoes for two hours. He also jumped from a four-meter-high "building."
"Compared with female performers, nandan have a stronger physique and can do many more complicated stunts," says Bi, who broke a lumbar vertebra severely when performing the same scene in 1983.
The performance last month was the first time the play was performed since then, 30 years later.
Peking Opera actress Shi Xiaojun, who plays the role of Huan Feng, a good friend of Green Beads, says, "Nandan is a profound art, since nandan performers usually spend much more time than women studying their roles and their portrayal of women is more delicate and artistic after long-time observation."
But 28-year-old Shi is "not optimistic" about the art's future. "Nandan actors face bigger challenges than Peking Opera actresses. Many are eliminated because of voice change during puberty."
Though nandan today is a lonely profession, it enjoyed a golden period when Peking Opera flourished in the 1920s and 30s and nandan artists Mei Lanfang, Cheng Yanqiu, Shang Xiaoyun, Xun Huisheng and Xu Biyun were treated like celebrities and superstars.
In addition starring in classics such as "Farewell, My Concubine" and "The Drunken Concubine," they presented new performances based on legends, such as "Hua Mulan Joins the Army" and "Nie Yinniang" (about a female assassin). Their characters were mostly charming women performing martial arts.
Bi, a student of both Mei and Xu, says nandan performers are chosen at a young age, perhaps 7 or 9, based on comely appearance, height, slender build, poise, voice and appearance in makeup and costume. Then begins rigorous training in martial arts, nandan posture and movement, as well as speaking and singing.
"At the beginning, I took up the career to make a living, but then I fell in love with it," Bi says.
The art is considered much more complicated than the shows of popular cross-dressing singer Li Yugang, who also has staged highly popular vignettes of China's great beauties and has performed "The Flowers in the Mirror, the Moon in the Water" at the Sydney Opera House.
Bi says it usually takes several months to work on the detailed personality traits of a young female "so he will offer his unique interpretation of the beautiful girl." An artist must continuously improve his aesthetic taste by reading and watching films of the classics, studying various portrayals of ancient ladies, he says.
The adolescent voice change, when a male voice begins to "crack" and then deepen, is considered the biggest challenge.
Xu Hongqing, a 38-year-old costume artist with the Shanghai Kunqu Opera Troupe, used to perform xiaosheng, or young male roles, for eight years. But puberty forced him to abandon his career and work backstage, where he has achieved some distinction.
Peking Opera nandan Mou, who played Lady Green Beads in Shanghai, describes the ordeal as that began when his voice changed when he was 15.
"During those dark years, I couldn't sing high notes," Mou recalls. "I appeared in small 'extra' roles such as maid and vendor. It took almost five years to overcome my fear and anxiety and to get my confidence back with more intense practice and exercises. Many boys couldn't persevere and had no choice but to quit."
Despite aches and pains, Mou says he can twist his waist almost 180 degrees and execute 54 different "orchid-like" finger gestures.
"A woman playing a woman is life, while a man playing a woman is art," says Mou, adding that "a perceptive, objective man is more likely to discover, appreciate and depict a woman's grace and softness."
Xu Ziyan, a retired teacher and a Peking Opera fan, says that female characters portrayed by men are "more tender and exquisite since every posture and gesture is considered." She says nandan artists "truly know the most attractive side of women."
Li Ying, an accountant in her 20s, says she doesn't care whether female roles are played by men or women, as long as they are lovely and touching.
Nandan artist Mou, who also teaches at the Shanghai Theater Academy, says that when women enjoy equal rights on stage, nandan doesn't seem necessary to many people.
"Very few parents today are willing to send their children to learn difficult lessons of Peking Opera, especially for a life's role as nandan," Mou says. "It's a challenging and risky career since a student may never achieve fame after decades of effort and hardship."
Mou estimates that only around five of his 70 students today will be capable of major roles. Most come from small towns and rural areas. He expects many to quit and seek better pay and prospects.
Because people have so many entertainment options, Peking Opera and other traditional theater need to adapt plays and create new ones to appeal to younger audiences, he says.
"The Fall of Green Beads" was the first attempt of Mou and his teacher Bi. They condensed the four and a half hour play into two hours, simplified the plot, emphasized the conflict and drama and used simple but evocative stage settings and props.
Critic Chen Daming from the Shanghai Dramatists Association says lack of good scripts about ancient ladies is a challenge for nandan performers. "Nandan players do have advantages in performing classics because of their energy, louder voice, stronger physique and better martial arts skills," he says.
But most modern plays and adaptations emphasize a more natural and true-to-life performance style, he observes, "so men don't have an advantage compared with female singers in depicting women.
"Some people today may feel uncomfortable to see men playing women."
Today, the nandan tradition flourishes Japan's highly stylized kabuki theater. In Kunqu and some traditional Chinese operas, comic female roles such as matchmaker and procurer are also played by men.
But Chinese experts say the nandan tradition will rarely be accepted by mainstream audiences though it will still have aesthetic and academic value.
Though some people are sceptical about nandan performers' masculinity, Mou says there's no gender confusion for him.
"Portraying women on stage is a job. In my leisure time, I am no different from my post-80s peers. I like watching films, going to parties and being with friends."