That’s how Li Yugang (李玉刚) always introduces himself. An average-looking young man in his early 30s, Li has classic eyes and a humble, polite smile. His obvious Northeastern accent can be a little jarring when paired with his quiet mannerisms.
It’s hard to connect this individual to the roles Li plays on stage: women from Chinese history well-known for their romantic beauty, bedecked in elaborate, lavish costumes, singing about love and loss, happiness and laments. Li beams, frowns, looks and walks with a delicate femininity that would make any woman jealous. His specialty is playing “The Drunken Princess Yang” (《贵妃醉酒》, Guìfēi Zuìjiǔ, wife of Emperor Li Longji during the Tang Dynasty), a classical Peking opera character. During her solos, Li swirls like the center of a silk whirlwind in a pair of 22-meter-long shuixiu (水袖, water sleeves), the longest any Peking opera performer has ever used.
“Please stop waving those sleeves… or I’ll feel too shy to speak to you,” joked the host of CCTV talent show “Star Avenue” (《星光大道》) after Li performed on the show in 2006. Li’s half-opera, half-pop repertoire in both male and female voices won him third place on the show.
While he is at his best—and most beloved—when singing female opera roles, for many years, he kept his talents a secret.
For 10 years prior to achieving fame, Li played female roles without telling any of his family or friends. Coming from rural Dongbei, where machismo is pervasive, he feared his profession would bring them shame.
“So many insults have been thrown at me over the past 10 years, and many of them are too dirty to repeat,” he often said in interviews at the time.
Adoration for his radiant beauty eventually outweighed the prejudices against cross dressing, but Li was confronted with new controversies. In 2007, Mei Baojiu (梅葆玖), a 72-year-old Peking opera performer, opened fire on Li. Mei’s father and master was is Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳, 1894-1961), the insurmountable Peking opera artist of the 20th century, best known for his performances as a nandan (男旦, a male performer playing a female character).
“Li is distorting Peking opera,” said Mei’s spokesperson. “Nandan is a highbrow art. Some talent show contestant came out wearing a bra, dressed in female costumes and swaying his hips and thought he was a nandan, but he isn’t.” Mei accused Li of being “a clown,” and announced that he would submit a proposal to the 15th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference suggesting to purge talent shows of “vulgarity.”
Almost immediately, Li had the nation’s sympathy. Part of his magnetic appeal is that when stripped of his makeup, he still looks like a boy from Dongbei. Interviews with him typically leave both host and audience in tears, as he tells of traveling with circuses, begging by the roadside and singing in cheap clubs. Unable to afford conservatory tuitions, he honed his skills over the course of 10 years with no systematic training, just sheer talent and perseverance. Instead of agreeing with the blue-blood opera master’s accusations, news headlines read “Mei Baojiu Intolerant of Li Yugang.” In online forums, people agreed that people wouldn’t listen to “The Drunken Princess Yang” at all if not for Li Yugang and that Mei Baojiu should be grateful for Li’s contribution to the art.
Li himself reacted humbly to the old master’s criticism, emphasizing that he respected Peking opera and was only drawing on its elements for inspirations for his music. As to whether he is a nandan, Li actually agrees with Mei that he is not, despite having put himself through laborious training to master the movements of a dan character.
“I’m not exactly an opera singer,” Li explained in a CCTV interview. “I don’t wear oil painting makeup, and I make my own costumes, which are different from traditional Peking opera costumes.”
Ever since Li stepped off the stage of that talent show, he began to seriously develop his own style, becoming an artist who crosses the boundaries of both genders and genres, his experimentation making Peking opera more accessible to a wider audience, including pop music lovers.
Li’s 2012 performance of “A Portrait of Four Beauties” (四美图).
Li’s 2010 concert, “Flower in Mirror, Moon in Water” (镜花水月).