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Pet Sins June 2000

Transgender Casting in the Hong Kong film world

There has been quite a number of women playing male or gender-ambiguous characters in Hong Kong movies. The same-sex dynamics and identity confusion so common in Hong Kong film are rarely seen in Western movies, at least not in the same context. According to the Aestheticism.com article He's a Woman, She's a Man : Cross-dressing and Androgyny in China:

In the West, a crossing-dressing woman is always a charming boy. An object of desire for men, not for women. When in fiction a woman dresses as a man, not a boy, there is often misogynous overtones to the story. But China, a cross-dressing woman brings up a completely different set of associations.

Chinese scholars often like to point out that the traditional concept of masculinity in China is a shaky one at best. The ideal man is not a warrior, but a scholar who lives by his brain instead of brawn. And ideal manly beauty is no different from that of a woman.

This emphasis on androgyny is unwittingly compounded by the Communist Party's attempt to promoted the equality of women...

In Yueju, a form of southern Chinese opera, all actors were traditionally female, so women played men's roles. In the northern opera form of Jingju, all actors were male and men played women's roles. In modern times, barriers to men and women working in the same theater company have gone down, so men and women do work together and play roles reflecting their real life gender. But the role of the male romantic lead in Yueju (even in film adaptations of traditional operas) continues to be largely reserved for women. Supporting male roles (such as villains and servants) are more easily given to real-life men. M writes in He's a Woman, She's a Man : Cross-dressing and Androgyny in China:

Thinking back, if I had ever envisioned the impossibly elegant scholars and heroes of the classic novels, I would have seen them as characters played by women. Not that they are in female in anyway except their beauty, but it seems that just as in Kabuki, where only an onnagata could capture the essence of femininity, so only a woman could capture the spirit of the quintessential romantic hero.

The medieval fascination with and even romanticization of the crossdresser or androgynous character carries over into modern times. A recent period costume action film Blade of Fury (1993) stars former Taiwanese martial arts champion Cynthia Khan (Yeung Lai-Ching) as a scholar's gender-neutral assistant/bodyguard. Yeung dresses like a man but the question of the character's gender is never answered, and is not relevant to the plot. Male or female, the character's role is only to fight. The same film features another female martial artist in a cameo role as a diminutive Japanese karate master. The character's voice was dubbed by a man.

The Swordsman Series

The Swordsman trilogy (filmed between the late 1980s and early 1990s) is loosely based on Xiao Ao Jiang Hu (Laughing Proudly at the Rivers and Lakes) by Taiwanese novelist Jin Yong. The story follows a Chinese swordsman's adventures in Hmong territory. The original Hong Kong martial arts movie Swordsman was very popular with Chinese audiences all over Asia. Swordsman had a subplot in which a Hmong woman tried to seduce what she thought was a handsome Chinese man. After getting him drunk and taking him home, she discovered the man was a woman in disguise. When her nation's elders castigated her for "disgracing [our people] in front of the Chinese" she retorted unrepentantly, "Such a pity she is a girl, she would have been a handsome youth!"

Lin Qingxia as the gender-ambiguous Dong Fang Bu BaiIn the early 1990s, Swordsman's hit sequel Swordsman 2 (Mandarin: Dong Fang Bu Bai, Cantonese: Dong Fong Pat Pai) featured Bridgitte Lin as a powerful self-castrated Hmong leader who has the appearance of a beautiful woman. A traveling Chinese swordsman played by Jet Li falls in love with him. As yet, no mainstream American movie has so nonchalantly featured an eunuch as the central character. A male-to-female transgender warrior who easily defeats straight men is simply an abomination to the sissy-hating white-male dominated culture of American media.

The homosexual relationship between the Hmong cult leader and the Chinese swordsman did even not raise an eyebrow among East Asian audiences. The film also contains love scenes between 2 actresses. This lavish period costume piece was screened as The East is Red at international gay and lesbian film festivals, including gay and lesbian film festivals in the United States..

The sequel to Swordsman 2 again stars Lin Ching Hsia as the beautiful eunuch. The powerful Hmong cult figure returns from the dead to help Chinese government troops win a battle against Spanish conquistadors. Dong Fang Bu Bai defeats the bullets of the European imperialists with his mystical powers. In the US movie industry, a female or gender minority character would never have been endowed with so much power. A male Chinese military officer vies with the eunuch prince for the affections of a beautiful woman. The woman had no regard for the officer; she only loved the eunuch. "Greater masculinity" is not necessarily equated with "superiority" or even "desirability."

In Hong Kong entertainment, gender identity melds and bends in ways unimaginable to mainstream heterosexist white America. The assumption that gender roles are/were necessarily always more 'liberated' in the West than in the East is a shaky one at best. For more on the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender history of ancient and medieval China, see Sexual and Gender Minorities in Chinese History.