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Crossover Success

Once assaulted and discriminated against for his unique cross-gender performances, Li Yugang has won acclaim at home and abroad for bringing new life to an ancient performance tradition

By Li Jing Updated Feb.1

'Wan Jiang’ has hit 10 billion views on social media,” music producer Ma Hua told Li Yugang. “Oh, really?” said the singer as he changed costumes for his next show. There was a touch of exhaustion in his voice. He had been working for 12 hours since 7am.  

“Wan Jiang” is Li Yugang’s new single. Released on May 4, the track features him singing in his signature cross-gender technique, where he freely switches between a lighter, feminine voice and a thicker, masculine tone.  

The 43-year-old pop vocalist is well known for fanchuan, or crossgender performances in traditional Chinese opera. His style draws heavily from nandan, a Peking opera practice where male actors specialize in playing female roles.  

Li’s career has been a long battle against conservative social views. In the 1990s and the early 2000s, his gender-defying performance was considered anathema to conservative audiences. Li lived in poverty for his art, faced discrimination and suffered violence. At his lowest point, he attempted to end his life in a river.  

His fate changed after he won the China Central Television (CCTV) talent show Avenue of Stars in 2006. Now he is a national first-class performer at the China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater, and has since toured top venues in Europe, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, the US and Canada.  

“I spent my time and effort all these years just to prove that this form of performance deserves the best stages,” Li told NewsChina.  

Odd and Out
Li Yugang feels he was “born in the wrong place.”  

That place was a small village in Northeast China’s Jilin Province. Li describes his father as a farmer with a poet’s heart and the most educated person in the village.  

“My father told me that he was not a local. He was from the ‘outside.’ That was the first time I had a faint sense of the outside world,” Li told NewsChina.  

Li’s father liked reciting poems for the family. The first poem he taught Li was “Miscellaneous” by Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Wang Wei. The poem expresses a nostalgia for home – “Because you just came back from my town / You ought to know about the place; The day you left, did you observe / My plum by windows shown its grace?” “I learned the poem before I was old enough for school,” Li recalled those days.  

He felt very different from his friends. Li loved singing, reading poems and watching an old village man practice calligraphy. His friends, however, were not interested.  

“One time, my friends and I got together to do something fun. I said, ‘how about we read poetry?’ They frowned at me and immediately walked away, leaving me alone right then and there,” Li said, “Feelings of loneliness haunted me all the time.”  

The boy found comfort in singing. His mother, a performer of errenzhuan, a folk song-and-dance genre popular in Northeast China, was his first mentor. “My mother had a sweet, crystal clear voice. She could sing very high without much effort. I don’t think I could beat her even after turning professional. I need to practice and rehearse a lot before going on stage, but my mother didn’t need to at all. She just sang anytime, anywhere, and always did it well,” Li said. 

In 1996, Li was admitted to Jilin University of Arts in Changchun, the capital of Jilin Province. But his family was too poor to afford tuition. Not wanting to work the family farm, Li left for the city at 18 to pursue his dream of becoming a club singer.  

In the late 1990s, Changchun was an aging fixture of China’s northeastern rust belt with a population of around 7 million. 

To Li, it was “a dreamlike metropolis.” To make a living, he worked odd jobs during the day and performed bars in the evening with a female singer. Li later got a job in a record shop, where he had access to music from around the world. He imitated different singers and learned different ways to use his voice. Li gradually discovered his talent for falsetto and imitating female singers.  

One night, the woman in his duet didn’t show up for a gig. Instead of canceling, Li performed both parts as a one-man show. It was a surprise hit.  

Inspired by the success, he developed a cross-gender performance. Wearing lavish costumes and women’s clothing, Li’s song-and-dance act blends pop music with traditional opera.  

Accompanied by Changchun Film Studio Orchestra, Li Yugang sings his new song ”The Red Opera Singer,” Changchun Film Studio Music Hall, Changchun, Jilin Province, September 12, 2021

Yin and Yang
China has a long history of cross-gender performance, particularly during the rise of Peking opera in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  

As women were strictly forbidden from performing in operas, female roles were performed by men. Male actors who specialized in female roles were called nandan.  

Nandan were trained from youth not only to imitate women’s expressions and movements, but also how to think as women in their roles. Peking opera has seen many celebrated cross-gender performers. The most well-known is Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), an opera superstar who toured the world, rubbed elbows with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, and is the subject of director Chen Kaige’s 2008 biopic Forever Enthralled.  

However, the nandan tradition faded after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  

While Li Yugang never studied Peking opera, he idolized Mei Lanfang and took painstaking efforts to learn his style.  

However, Li’s performances shocked most audiences in the 1990s. They not only incurred criticism, but also discrimination and even violence.  

Some called Li’s fanchuan style a “ladyboy show.” Sometimes he was booed and hissed off-stage before he even began singing. He was also physically assaulted – stitched scars are still visible on Li’s left arm and leg. “These are wounds from local hooligans. They hacked me with cleavers,” Li told our reporter.  

During his darkest times, Li could not get a single gig. He could only afford to rent the cheapest and darkest motel rooms with little money left over for food. Struggling with poverty, hunger and illness, he contemplated death. He attempted suicide in a river in Yingkou, Jilin Province, but several beggars saw Li jump and rescued him.  

In 2000, Li went south to Shenzhen. The new, vibrant city accepted the unconventional artist with open arms. He performed in small venues and made many friends who later became very popular musicians, such as singer Abao (Zhang Shaochun) and pop duo Phoenix Legend. 
In 2005, Abao and Phoenix Legend shot to stardom after appearing on Avenue of Stars, the CCTV reality talent show. Encouraged, Li appeared in 2006 and won the season title. Reaching audiences nationwide, Li’s fanchuan performances finally garnered the respect they deserved.  
Alone but Not Lonely 
Li joined the China National Opera & Dance Drama Theater in 2009. He currently has 14 albums and several singles under his belt.  

Li has appeared on the most respected stages in China and abroad. In both 2012 and 2013, he performed on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, the country’s most watched television program.  

In 2009, he became the second Chinese artist to perform at the Sydney Opera House in Australia. Over the next decade, Li toured Europe, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, the US and Canada.  

However, Li had bigger plans, and sought to create works that “leave their mark on the history of performance art.”  

The result was Lady Zhaojun, a contemporary staging of the legend of Wang Zhaojun, a famous beauty from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220). She is revered for brokering peace by volunteering to marry the ruler of Xiongnu, or the Hun, a powerful nomadic group far to the north.  

To better understand the heroine’s mindset, Li and the production team spent the summer of 2013 retracing her 3,000-kilometer journey north from her home in Zigui, Hubei Province to the Han capital of Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an), and then to Xiongnu territory (now Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region).  

Li dedicated himself to the production for the next six years. He made over 100 revisions and oversaw everything from costumes and props to choreography, lighting and stage design.  

TV variety shows boomed in China during the mid-2010s and became fast tracks for singers and actors looking to achieve breakout fame. However, Li was reluctant to participate.  

“Many variety shows, including the most popular ones, did invite him, but the problem was that he refused them all,” music producer Ma Hua told NewsChina.  

“No, I did appear on two or three,” Li corrected. “At the time, I was having serious financial issues while making Lady Zhaojun. I needed money to fund it.”  

In 2014, he sold his only property in Beijing to pay for the production.  

“A stage show, no matter how popular, is only performed for thousands. It’s generally thought that producing a stage show is far less effective than appearing on variety shows in terms of influence, popularity and revenue,” Ma said. “As friends, we all understood his choice and persistence. But sometimes we still feel that the road he has chosen is too lonely.”  

“I am alone but not lonely,” Li responded.  

Lady Zhaojun premiered at Beijing Tianqiao Performing Arts Center in April 2019. Audiences were overwhelmed by its gorgeous costumes, stunning stage effects, and particularly Li’s melodious voice and graceful acting. Apart from touring at home, the show was staged at the Thailand Cultural Centre in Bangkok, the San Diego Civic Theatre, and the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, Canada. After his Vancouver performance, Li received a congratulatory letter from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.  

Li’s next project is another musical focused on the story of Yang Guifei, the famous concubine of Tang Dynasty Emperor Xuanzong. Instead of centering on the famous romance between Yang Guifei and Xuanzong, Li’s new production will revolve around the creation of the “Dance of Rainbow and Feather Clothes,” an imperial dance composed by the emperor and performed by Yang Guifei. He hopes the production gives audiences some new insight into Yang Guifei and Xuanzong, not just as an imperial couple, but as two artists.  

He hopes to explore his ideas on philosophy and art in the work. “More than anything, the moment I step on the stage is when I can feel truly happy and be myself,” Li said.