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Theatrical Representations of Traditional Chinese Heroines

Left: Wendy Cui visits the Shaanxi History Museum in the Shaanxi province of China.

Left: Wendy Cui visits the Shaanxi History Museum in the Shaanxi province of China.

Photo Credit: Wendy Cui

February 7, 2019 | Wendy Cui (East Asian Studies)

Interested in theatrical representations of traditional Chinese heroines, I conducted research on how Chinese opera construct these heroines with theatrical performance and scripts. These representations of heroines, I believe, not only derived from traditional concepts about gender performance in late imperial China, but also contributed to constructions of race and gender in the modern period. Based on my observation, I concluded that, as Chinese opera played an important role in popular culture, its constructions of heroines were changed by different ideologies and greatly influenced people's perception of gender.

During my trip to Beijing, Xi'an, and Zhengzhou, I had opportunities to watch several plays, such as "Heroines of the Yang Family," "Hua Mulan," and "Princess Shuangcheng." When watching these plays, I noticed that, different from original versions in the late imperial period, in which the heroines perform heroic deeds because of their female duties as wives, daughters, and mothers, in modern versions, these heroines act as individuals with their agency: they decide to protect their country by regarding themselves as patriotic members, who share equal responsibilities as men do. For example, when I watched the play Heroines of the Yang Family in the Mei Lanfang Theatre, I noticed that Mu Guiying clearly states that the reason why she chooses to fight in the battlefield is because of her nationalism, instead of her husband, who is killed in one battle. When I went to the library at Peking University and looked through the original version, which was published in the Qing dynasty, Mu Guiying's heroic endeavor was explained as her revenge for her husband's death.

According to my takeaway, I propose that this change in Chinese plays was due to social trends in modern China, which advocated for nationalism and gender equality in all fields. Through my research activities, I learned that as a student who hopes to become a literary scholar, I need more fieldwork to supplement my study: it is necessary to discover and analyze evidence that comes from different sources.