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Art Biography Critique Essay History Humanities Nonfiction Social Sciences Theory

Performance and the politics of gender: transgender performance in contemporary Chinese films

By Chengzhou He, 2011

This article focuses on two different genres of gender transitivity or impersonation. First, male actors who impersonate female characters. The two examples used to examine these impersonations are Chinese films Farewell My Concubine (Ba Wang Bie Ji 1993) and Forever Enthralled (Mei Lanfang 2009). Both films are based on the historical practice of dan in Peking Opera. Second, women who cross-dress as men for the sake of transgressing into the public sphere that had traditionally been forbidden for women. The main example of this is Hua Mulan (2009), a live action movie based on a Chinese legend of a female warrior called Hua Mulan, who disguises herself as a man to replace her father in the military service. Based on my close reading of the transgender performance in these Chinese films, the article will engage discussions of Western gender theories by Garber, Butler and Halberstam to examine the discourse and politics of gender and sexuality in contemporary China. To be more specific, a critical analysis will be carried out in the following three aspects: first, gender performativity is not necessarily subversive, but only suggests that heterosexual norms are arbitrary and unnatural. Second, rather than challenging heterosexism and gender binarism in contemporary China, the three films seem to support and consolidate the gender hierarchy. Thirdly, the category of transgender is intersected with art, identity and ideology in the specific social and historical settings. The contextualized analysis not only sheds new light on the implications of transgender in contemporary Chinese culture and politics but also questions the universalism of Western gender theories in cross-cultural contexts.

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