Shaoxing Opera Star Proposes in the Session
2011-02-18Editor:Zhao Chenxi 
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Sarah Siddons astonished 18th and 19th Century audiences by appearing as Hamlet, a role she played for 30 years. She was just one of many actresses that have played on men's theatrical roles. East China's Zhejiang province gave us Shaoxing Opera's Mao Weitao, who specializes in the xiaosheng, or young man's role. During her thirty-year acting career, Mao has become famous as an outstanding male impersonator with an ardent following of women. She uses the centuries-old operatic tradition of cross gender expression to create for herself another world on stage wherein she incarnates into dozens of male characters, from talented poet, to frustrated scholar to intrepid general.

Mao Weitao is master -- or mistress-- of the Shaoxing opera character of xiaosheng, or young man.

Shaoxing Opera master Mao Weitao
 Shaoxing Opera master Mao Weitao

"In Shaoxing opera, male roles played by actresses are distinct for their poetic, elegant temperament that you seldom find in real life. Idealism plays a part here. My interpretation of a male character portrays a man who is perfect in a woman's eyes. That explains why Shaoxing opera fans are mostly women. It presents them with the Mr. Right of their dreams," Mao Weitao explained.

Shaoxing Opera takes its name from the region of its origins in Zhejiang Province where, in around 1906, itinerant performers began entertaining farmers with shows combining singing and story-telling. 

The stories were mostly based on local romantic folklore and sung in local dialect. Its popularity grew, and several years later, Shaoxing opera found its way to theaters in bigger cities such as Shanghai and Hangzhou.
 Shaoxing Opera was an all-male production until 1923, when a group of teenage girls from poor families were recruited and given strict training. It was soon apparent just how well-suited the female timbre and delicate manner are for operas with romantic themes. An all-women cast has since been a signature of Shaoxing Opera.

As for Mao Weitao, she has had a strong penchant for acting, especially male characters, since childhood, before she knew anything about Shaoxing Opera.

Mao Weitao said, "When watching the movie A Dream of Red Mansions, I preferred the male characters such as Jia Baoyu and Qi Guan to the female ones of Lin Daiyu and Xue Baochai. I thought it would be wonderful to play these good, handsome boys on stage. No one has been able to explain why."

Shaoxing Opera master and NPC deputy Mao Weitao (L) speaks with deputies at a panel discussion on March 8 during the 2011 NPC session. [Women of China / Fan Wenjun]

Shaoxing Opera master and NPC deputy Mao Weitao (L) speaks with deputies at a panel discussion on March 8 during the 2011 NPC session. [Women of China / Fan Wenjun]

Mao failed the college entrance exam when she was 17, but was to her great delight selected for the Zhejiang Shaoxing Opera Troupe. Her mezzo-soprano vocals and striking beauty gave her the makings of an ideal xiaosheng.

Mao shot to stardom in her supporting role in the popular Shaoxing opera movie Celebrating Mother's Birthday. She has since gradually built up a reputation as China's top male impersonator.

Song Punan, Mao Weitao's teacher, said, "As she'd had no training before age 17, Mao had no acting foundation. But she was extremely industrious and self-disciplined. Once she has set on a goal, she won't give up until she succeeds."

In 1999, Mao was assigned to the helm of the Zhejiang Shaoxing Opera Company. But it was hardly an honor.

Like most traditional arts, Shaoxing Opera was at that time struggling to survive amid a difficult downturn. The shrinking market and fading interest weighed heavily on Mao Weitao, both as a performer and a supervisor. 

But at her time of crisis, a hero appeared -- director Guo Xiaonan, who was drawn to Mao by her charisma both on and off stage. That this admiration was mutual is clear; the pair married in 2000.

Director Guo Xiaonan said, "Mao Weitao has created a bizarre art phenomenon. A woman who portrays so many men so vividly on stage offers audiences a lot of aesthetic leeway. Mao is loved for the images she portrays in different plays. But off stage she has nothing at all in common with them. To me this signifies that she is a true artist. "

The couple teamed up to push Shaoxing Opera across new frontiers. Together they've produced new plays that break away from the traditional romance-centered formula.

Mao Weitao finds in this new repertoire of plays a broader scope for her abilities. In Bookworm Family she is cast as Fan Rong, staunch protector of his family's valuable book collection, even though facing starvation. In Cold Feeling Mao takes on the role of Jin Ke, a historic hero who fails in a brave attempt to assassinate the invading emperor.

"Mao's performance in each of the plays is unique. By 'unique' I mean she never repeats herself. And no other actresses can imitate her," Guo Xiaonan said.

For opera purists, Mao's operatic rebellion peaked in the 2000 play Kong Yiji, when she shaved her head to get into character for the destitute Qing Dynasty scholar whose bitter life mirrors the decadent old society. 
For a time, Mao's bald pate generated even more publicity than the bitingly realistic play itself.

Mao Weitao said, "It was actually not necessary for me to cut my hair. A bald head can be achieved with modern cosmetology techniques that are used in most films and TV dramas, so no one would have blamed me. But I wanted an overthrow, a revolution. Through Kong Yiji I wanted to prove to everybody that Shaoxing Opera has greater possibilities."

Kong Yiji has drawn mixed reviews. Many hail it as a successful departure from the norm; others blast it for failing to live up to what Shaoxing Opera originally promised its fans: poetry, romance and elegance.

But Mao Weitao is not to be held back in her exploration of Shaoxing Opera, which has provided a medium for a mysterious part of her inner self.

A woman who plays Xiaosheng knows all about apparent contradictions.

"I define myself as a pessimistic idealist. The 'pessimistic' part of me holds low expectations of success. But the 'idealist' part drives me to try something that seems impossible. Whatever the critics say, I feel liberated after each new role," Mao Weitao said.

Proposal in the 2008 NPC Session

Mao Weitao proposed at the 2008 NPC session including aspects of traditional culture such as Peking Opera into the education system. Shortly before, the Ministry of Education had announced that Peking Opera Class trials would be carried out in primary and middle schools in ten provinces and municipalities, including Beijing and Tianjin, from March 2008 to July 2009. Mao Weitao endorsed the experiment, saying traditional opera classes would help nurture children's artistic interests to the extent that they might in future become consumers of China's traditional opera market.

Mao said that primary and middle schools in Zhejiang Province had since 1993 supplemented their curricula with Yue Opera activities such as lectures and shows and performances by the  Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe.

Mao proposed making use of arts education resources in schools carrying out these activities. For example, in 2006 Xiaobaihua troupe established a base at a middle school through which to provide free teachers for the school's selective arts course. "Many students began performing on the stage after just a dozen classes. " "The point is not to show them how to perform but to give them the more traditional approach to performance art," Mao said at the session.

Mao said that opera classes were just a start, and that she hoped public cultural entities such as libraries, galleries and museums, as well as schools and art troupes, would participate in improving the public cultural service system, hence her suggestion that traditional artistic education be included in the national education system.

(Source:, Translated and edited by

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