Gender Manipulation in China

The story of the Butterfly Lovers (Li), raises critical questions about gender and identity. Reading it led me to wonder if gender manipulation is a source of real power. In the story, Zhu, a young girl posing as a young boy, comes to know and love Liang. When she reveals her true identity to Liang, he is overjoyed and seeks Zhu’s hand in marriage. Her parents, however, have already chosen a spouse for Zhu. Liang dies of heartbreak and Zhu settles for the arranged marriage. On the day of the wedding, Zhu visits Liang’s tomb, and as she mourns the loss of her true love, the tomb breaks open and Liang emerges in the form of a butterfly. Zhu is also transformed into a butterfly, and the two fly off together, having been given a second chance at happiness. This story led me to wonder whether or not reality is as kind to those who have stretch the boundaries of gender in China. Has androgyny brought any kind of real advantage? Does cross-casting create advantages for Chinese women? Does it create advantages for Chinese men? In this essay, I hope to examine androgyny and cross-casting in China with these questions in mind. In my studies, I have come to the conclusion that gender manipulation in China has not truly empowered either sex.

Mei Lanfang led an interesting life, carving his way out in the history of China as one of the most successful actors in Peking Opera. In the film Forever Enthralled, we watch Mei Lanfang’s interactions with his wife, mistress and colleagues. All of these people make it their business to tell Mei what to do. Mei’s own desires are overshadowed––even neglected––until something as simple as going to a matinée becomes impossible for Mei. On the gender spectrum given to us in class, Mei’s portrayals of women would be considered a form of condescension. He is giving up his power as a man to inhabit a female character. Ultimately, the consequence of this was a loss of self for Mei. He gave up much of his autonomy for his career. Even though some may see Mei’s career as playing a critical role in advancing women’s rights in China by creating the huashan female character (Goldstein), Mei paid dearly for his career. He even admits in the film that at times, he has forgotten whether he is male or female. I believe this confusion and loss of identity played a great role in his loss of autonomy.

Many would argue that while Mei’s career had drastic personal consequences, he contributed to the greater good by advancing women’s rights in China with the huashan character. I would argue that a man’s portrayal of a woman could only have a very limited capacity to advance women’s rights. Take, for example, some of the women in Chinese literature. McMahon talks about the image of the talented and independent woman in Chinese literature, saying “Such a woman often dresses as a man in order to move about more freely than custom ordinarily allows; she goes out to get what she wants rather than waiting for things to come to her in her inner chambers. One of her mottoes is, ‘though in body I am a woman, in ambition I surpass men’” (233). This image of a woman is radical. Her power comes not only from her talent and ambition, but from her androgyny. These women neglect tradition, leave the realm they have been confined to and search out opportunity. They dress as men, arrange their own marriages and solve the problems of the men around them (McMahon). However, these women do not exist in Chinese culture. They exist only in the literature. This literature has depicted female androgyny as a source of power, but the authors of these stories are male, making these depictions little more than another male-generated idea about femininity. Mei’s performances, too, are a male-generated idea of femininity. On the surface these things may seem empowering, but beneath is more patriarchy.

China embraced female androgyny as a source of power from the 1960s to the 1980s. A State-led feminist movement instituted equal pay, maternity leave and reasonable work loads for pregnant women; the State also banned prostitution and created laws that prohibited a man from divorcing a pregnant woman (Yang, 37). Behind these leaps forward was a deep-rooted sense of nationalism. Having women in the work force did wonders for the country economically, something the very new People’s Republic of China needed. During this time of reform and transition, women were encouraged to take on an androgynous appearance in a movement now known as “gender erasure.” One woman, Han Lina, remembered this period saying if any woman “was dressed in ‘bourgeois style’––dresses too short, blouse too revealing, high heels, or permed hair––[the Red Guard] would forcibly cut your hair or your dress on the spot” (Yang, 41). The women’s rights movement in China was not led by women, and as a result, women were denied of their own femininity. Again, we find patriarchy beneath what may seem like advances for women.

These instances of male-instituted androgyny and cross-casting did not advance the rights of anyone involved. As we saw with Mei Lanfang, a career playing a women can be emotionally and mentally taxing for male actors. Chinese literature showed us that empowering depictions of women are meaningless when generated by men and operate very similarly to male depictions of women on the stage. And gender erasure in China taught us that forced androgyny did not equalize men and women; it only denied women of their own femininity. We can clearly see that gender manipulation in China’s history has not empowered either sex.

Works Cited

Goldstein, Joshua. Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-Creation of Peking Opera 1870-1937. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 55-62; 237-280. 2007.

Li, Siu Leung. Cross Dressing in Chinese Opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, pp

67-81;109-118;164; 169; 191-213. 2007.

McMahon, Keith. “The Classic “Beauty-Scholar” Romance and the Superiority of the Talented Woman,” in Body, Subject and Power in China. Ed. Angela Zito and Tani E. Barlow. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 227-234. 1994.

Orientalism and the Geisha

Geisha are a source of controversy in the West, being both misunderstood and misrepresented. What few people understand is that geisha, contrary to popular belief, are not repressed women. Rather, geisha are among the few women in Japan who have attained economic self-sufficiency (Dalby). They are respected for their intellect, wit, and musical and artistic talent. Most Westerners, however, don’t see it this way. It is because of our own overly sexualized society and lack of appreciation for Japanese music and art that “geisha” and “prostitute” have become synonymous in the West.

The reality is that geisha are profoundly intelligent and independent women. While it’s true that their job is to entertain men, such entertainment does not have the same sexual connotations it might have in Western society. Japanese prostitutes who call themselves geisha exist only to meet the demands and expectations of western men. Some believe that this trend can be traced back to GIs in Japan, who fundamentally misunderstood the art of geisha and demanded sexual entertainment rather than artistic entertainment.

What led to this misunderstanding was two-fold. It is possible that our perception of geisha as sexual objects is simply a projection of our own society’s view of women onto Japanese society. Kelly Foreman quoted Edward Said, the great critic of Orientalism, who suggested that the Orient is often “used for the purposes of self-definition” (12). It is by examining another culture that we come to understand our own, but paradoxically, we can’t ever understand other cultures without comparing them to ours. As a result, our understanding of other cultures is always distorted. In an instance where our culture lacks parallel conventions or traditions, we will inevitably misunderstand by trying to assign inaccurate parallels. This is the case with the Western perception of geisha. Our understanding of geisha is not based in the realities of Japanese culture, but rather the realities of our own. It is only natural that in a culture where prostitution abounds and the primary “entertainment” women have to offer in a private setting is sexual, that we would misunderstand the role geisha play in their own culture. By being so critical of geisha, we are projecting our own horror at prostitution in Western society onto Japanese culture.

We lack a parallel to geisha in Western society. Japanese culture, with its rich and varied artistic and musical traditions does not compare to the West. It is because of our lack of appreciation for Japanese music and art––the specialty area of geisha––that we have inaccurately classified them as prostitutes. Geisha aim to entertain, both with their wit and music. The private, exclusive nature of their performances is aimed to please their very wealthy clients. However, without any sort of understanding or appreciation for Japanese music performances, most Westerners would meet a geisha’s performance only with bewilderment. Without any other sort of explanation or parallel, Westerners have classified geisha performances as Japanese erotic entertainment. The reality, however, is that Japanese the men frequenting these tea houses may or may not be having sex with the geisha. Any sexual encounters that geisha do have are of their own volition, separate from their professional lives as entertainers.

Geisha and wives play very different roles in Japanese society. According to Dalby, a wife is socially confined to the home; a wife is expected to be sober and ordinary, even serious. Geisha on the other, Darby insisted, are sexy, artistic and witty. In Western society, we bristle at the thought of a wife being confined to the home or being expected to be sober and ordinary, however we are again projecting our own cultural biases onto the Japanese way of life. We assume that because Japanese women in the home play a different role than Western wives, they must be repressed. While this assumption isn’t necessarily untrue, it has still and contributed to our misunderstanding of an entire class of independent and strong women.

We have made the assumption that Japanese wives and geisha are being mistreated by men. The reality, however, is that geisha are very independent women––in fact, some of the only truly self-sufficient women in Japan. They are talented and intelligent women who have used the art of entertaining men to their advantage. They are not being manipulated or abused. This fundamental misunderstanding has hurt both Western and Japanese culture. Before we begin examining other cultures, we must first reach the understanding that we have an inherent bias as outsiders. This bias is something we can work with so long as we know to distrust it. At the core of Orientalism is a certain arrogance; this arrogance not only inhibits our understanding––it can cause harm to the cultures we study as well.

Works Cited

Foreman, Kelly M. The Gei of Geisha: Music, Identity and Meaning. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 1-14. 2008

Dalby, Eliza Crihfield. Geisha. NY: Vintage Books, pp. xiii-15. 1985


Au revoir

One of the last things I did for work was visit a homeless shelter with Kathryn and Miroslav in Bormes-les-Mimosas. And the following is not an understatement: Bormes-les-Mimosas is the most beautiful place I have ever been. My photos don’t do it justice at all. You should google it right now. IMG_3855

This was the homeless shelter. It was on top of this mountain with an ocean view that would take your breath away. The view was unbelievable. Everything was so green. Sadly, I only got to meet one homeless person because we were there pretty early in the morning and then we left again. On our way home we picked up my first hitchhiker. She was super nice. IMG_3878

Here I am, still in Bormes-les-Mimosas. It was so windy. You can sort of see the beautiful village behind me, but again, just google it. This place had great beaches too. The only downside was there were so many tourists. But can you blame them?

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And all too soon it was time to say goodbye to beaches like this…Processed with VSCOcam with f2 preset

and beachside attractions like this…
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and commutes to work like this…
Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetand sunsets like this.IMG_3907

Goodbye, Toulon! Thanks for the memories!

La Garde, Part 2

After the evening at the medieval festival, Kathryn and I went back for round two. (By the way, that festival was a lot more interesting than I led on my last post. That evening began with a drunk man lecturing me on faith for about twenty minutes and ended with a near-kidnapping. But if you want that whole story, you’re going to have to buy me dinner.)

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This is the outside of my favorite shop in the South of France. It’s called Bois d’Olivier. It has hand crafted items. Everything is made by the man and wife who own the place and they work exclusively with olive wood that is over 400 years old. We got pretty friendly with the man and woman who owned this place. The old man kind of reminded me of my grandpa.
IMG_3756This is the inside of Bois d’Olivier. You can see some of their items they have for sale here. You can also see the shop itself, which used to be part of a canal system before something happened and it was turned into this shop. Processed with VSCOcam with m5 preset

We found the castle!Processed with VSCOcam with g3 preset

Fit for a princess. Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

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After we stormed the castle, we crashed a wedding downtown.

The third time I went back to La Garde, I didn’t bring my camera and I met the most magical artist and his wife in their shop. He was working in his shop sculpting. He had art all around. He and his wife invited all of us in and talked to us for close to an hour. He was a very interesting man and had worked with Mother Theresa in India when he was younger. Before we left, he gave us all prints of his calligraphy.

La Garde is kind of magical.

La Garde

Perhaps my favorite little town in the South of France is La Garde. I was introduced to it at a medieval festival that I went to for work and then went back a couple of times on my own to explore further. It’s about as picturesque as it gets. Allow me to demonstrate:IMG_3671 Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset Processed with VSCOcam with a5 preset

Now is that a medieval festival or is that a medieval festival? These are all photos from the parade and it was so much fun! After the parade, we explored the city for a bit.


And we weren’t disappointed. If I ever own a tandem bike, I will definitely grow flowers all over it.

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Please take note of the castle in the background.
IMG_3722“The Little German Tavern” It’s unclear whether this was part of the medieval festival or is always there. I think it might always be there.

14 juillet

Haaaaaappy Bastille Day! Vive la France! Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!

I got to spend Bastille Day in France, which is sort of funny because I have this really vivid memory of being in French 102 learning about Bastille day and thinking, “How cool would it be to be in France on the 14 juillet?” And then, boom! A year later, there I was! In France, on 14 juillet. And it really was so cool.


We woke up to find French flags everywhere! These ones are strung across the street. Aren’t they cute?


It was pretty quiet on the streets of Toulon that day. Later there would be a parade on this street. It was in the afternoon, probably around 2:00 or 3:00, during what was probably the hottest part of the day. It was all very serious, there was no throwing of candy or anything. There were, however, a lot of military trucks and people fainting from the heat. Sadly, I didn’t get any pictures of the parade.😦
DSC_0879These are the flags on the port. Usually those flag poles have the flags of every country in the EU, but not today! Today is all about France. I took this picture while I was waiting for the ferry to take me to the next city over, La Seyne. On the ferry we ran into our very best friends, the sister missionaries! You may think I’m joking, but I’m not. It was their day off, and Kathryn and I were overjoyed to have a couple of buds to hang out with.


It was even quieter in La Seyne than it was in Toulon. Makes sense. It’s considerably smaller. So, we just walked around the city instead. We stumbled upon this odd street art, even though it is rather high up. I remember saying that this looked like something I would have made when I was little only to have my mom be like, “Cool. Can I throw it away now?”


Umbrellas! Also, you’ll notice that man in the background is not dressed in France’s colors. Apparently that’s only an American thing? Who knew. After walking around La Seyne for a little while, we caught the ferry back, grabbed some grub, watched the parade and then watched the fireworks from Mont Faron with my buddy Miroslav from work and the sister missionaries. It was a good day.

Tinder in Toulon

Not long after I got to Toulon, I joined Tinder. IMG_3345

I was, in a word, bored. And on top of that, I had developed a slightly unhealthy obsession with cats.

IMG_3387IMG_3386DSC_0795DSC_0688So, I turned to technology to help get me out of the rut I was in. Kathryn and I were hoping to make American friends. We didn’t realize it, and we didn’t know how to name it, but what we were actually going through was probably some mild culture shock. We were the only two Americans we knew, and we were just looking for others like us out there. When we didn’t find any, I got off Tinder. Thankfully, I never met up with any of those weirdos and Kathryn and I adjusted to a slower-paced life in the South of France just fine without them.