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58. 黃崇嘏 - Huang Chonggu (Chinese Legend)

In our second Pride Month episode, we get into gender politics with the story of China's famous cross-dressing poet, Huang Chonggu! We dive deep into the various theatrical texts that depict her story, and examine what they have to say about sexuality and the performance of gender in society.


Sources

The Red Brush: Writing Women of Imperial China by Wilt Idema & Beata Grant

Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Tang Through Ming, 618-1644 

The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature (Vol. 2)

Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei's Four Cries of a Gibbon by Shiamin Kwa

“Gender and Representations of Women in Three Chinese Dramatic Texts of the Sixteenth Century” by Ann-Marie Hsiung

Ballad of Mulan - Wikisource, the free online library.

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Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux.  You can find her and more of her  work on Instagram @helena.cailleaux.illustratrice. Our theme song was  composed and performed by Icarus Tyree. To hear more of their music,  check out icarust.bandcamp.com.

Transcript

[musical intro]

 

Zoe 

Hello, and welcome to Mytholadies, the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all over the world. We're your hosts.

 

Lizzie 

I'm Lizzie.

 

Zoe 

And I'm Zoe. Lizzie, how are you today?

 

Lizzie 

Um, I'm fine. I'm going to Scotland next week, which is fun.

 

Zoe 

Ooh, That is exciting.

 

Lizzie 

It's gonna be--I think it's gonna be rainy the entire time I'm there. I'm very excited.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Um, do you have any fun plans for when you're going to Scotland?

 

Lizzie 

I think I'm gonna meet up with a friend from my college who lives in Edinburgh. And other than that, just chilling.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Cool.

 

Lizzie 

Anyway, how are you?

 

Zoe 

I'm good. It's kind of cold today, which is weird, because last week it was like in the eighties.

 

Lizzie 

Cannot relate.

 

Zoe 

Is it hot there?

 

Lizzie 

So hot here. Yeah, it's really hot.

 

Zoe 

So hot. Mm. Yeah, well, it's like in the low fifties right now, so it's quite cold. Which isn't bad, but it's unexpected. So I'm wearing, like, long pants and a sweater, um, which is nice, but weird. What else was I gonna say? I got my nose pierced. That was exciting.

 

Lizzie 

That's awesome.

 

Zoe 

Um, it hurt.

 

Lizzie 

I know (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Like, it did. A lot. But it's over now. So that's good. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Really? I was in pain for like, a couple of days after I got my ears pierced.

 

Zoe 

I mean, it hurts if I, like, accidentally wipe my nose or something with my hands, you know, but besides that, it doesn't really hurt.

 

Lizzie 

Nice.

 

Zoe 

Anyways, um, before we begin, I just want to remind everyone that we have a Ko-fi you can donate to, uh, to support us. We do everything ourselves--all the research, recording, editing, transcribing alongside our school stuff, our work stuff. So if you want to donate, that would be super helpful to help us keep things going. Also, we have a bonus episode available now. And we're gonna have more bonus episodes in the future, so--which will only be available if you donate. So, feel free to get on that and get some extra bonus Mytholadies content.

 

Lizzie 

Yes.

 

Zoe 

And now, Lizzie, who are we talking about today?

 

Lizzie 

So as we said in the previous episode, it's Pride Month right now. And so we decided to do women with LGBT themes.

 

Lizzie 

And so today we're going to talk about the legendary female cross-dressing poet called 黃崇嘏 (Huang Chonggu).

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Oh, cool!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So she was born in the year 885 in Linqiong, in present-day Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. And she was born towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, which ended in 907. And, um--so she began dressing as a boy in her childhood, and no one outside of her family knew that she was the girl.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

According to this-the legend. And her father had been a commander or a prefect during the final years of the Tang Dynasty. But she was orphaned very young and raised by a wet nurse.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And she somehow received the education that a boy in a literati family would have received, and she wore men's clothes and passed as a boy to those who knew her.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And at one point, she was accused of criminal negligence that resulted in a fire and composed a poem to read for the Prime Minister, whose name is Zhou Xiang. And i-it's four lines, and here it is. "It was by chance I left my hidden hermitage to live in Linqiong, / My deportment is as firm and true as the pine tree in the valley. / Why would you, whose justice is as pure as water and mirror, / want to shackle a crane from the wilds and lock it in a cage?"

 

Zoe 

Wow. Very powerful.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Very. And so then after she--or after Zhou Xiang read that poem, he summoned Huang Chonggu into his office. And she claimed to be 30 years old and a provincial graduate. And Zhou Xiang was so impressed by her intelligence that she [sic] ordered for her to be released, and sent her to study at the local academy.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And so Huang Chonggu was very talented. She was good at chess, she could play the guqin, and she was skilled at painting and calligraphy. And so Zhou Xiang ended up appointing her to the position of acting revenue administrator, and she had an excellent reputation among her subordinates.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

In fact, Zhou Xiang thought so highly of Huang Chonggu that he offered her his daughter's hand in marriage.

 

Zoe 

Mm!

 

Lizzie 

And--yeah, so obviously she had to decline, and she offered Joe Xiang another poem. This one is eight lines long, and it goes, "Since I stopped gathering Kingfisher feathers along the emerald river, / I have kept to my poor and humble abode, just chanting my poems. / Since donning the blue gown of office and living the life of a clerk, / I have forever forsworn the phoenix mirror and the painting of brows. / My deportment is extraordinary, displaying the virtue of the green pine, / My ambition is out of the ordinary, manifesting the beauty of white jade. / But if you, Governor, deign to accept me as your 'bare-bellied guy', /-" (which means son-in-law)--

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

"We'll have to first beg heaven to quickly turn me into a man."

 

Zoe 

Hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So yeah, like, declaring her real identity.

 

Zoe 

Okay!

 

Lizzie 

That she's a woman. And so Zhou Xiang was shocked, but he was not angry.

 

Lizzie 

He was actually impressed by her chastity and purity.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Zoe 

Hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And after this, Huang Chonggu requested to be dismissed from her position and went back to her hometown of Linqiong, and after that, it's unknown what happened to her.

 

Zoe 

I see. Okay.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So, preliminary thoughts?

 

Zoe 

So her parents must have known what she was doing, then, and been like, okay with it, or--

 

Lizzie 

They-they were dead. They were dead.

 

Zoe 

Oh. Oh, but, like--

 

Lizzie 

 She was an orphan.

 

Zoe 

Oh! Okay, you didn't mention that. So.

 

Lizzie 

I act--I said that she was orphaned. It's fine.

 

Zoe 

I don't think you did.

 

Lizzie 

I did! It was in my notes!

 

Zoe 

Huh. Well, I missed it. Well, anyways--but you said no one outside of her family knew that she was secretly a girl. So they must--whoever was in her family--

 

Lizzie 

Right.

 

Zoe 

--must have known that she was, uh, doing that.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, I don't-I don't know, because--I'm not sure, honestly (laughs). Cuz that's what it said. I-I don't really know because she was raised by her nurse.

 

Zoe 

Oh, okay.

 

Lizzie 

She didn't have, like, family from what I read.

 

Zoe 

Okay. Right.

 

Lizzie 

But maybe-maybe--she was young, but not like, super, super young when she was orphaned. I don't know.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

But--I don't. Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Well, anyways, forget, forget any of that. But that's interesting. And so--but also, she--well, she was dressing as a man for social advancement, or probably, like, safety, I guess, if she was an orphan? Um, is that the--

 

Lizzie 

I mean yeah, she did it because she didn't have any other means of support for herself. And she didn't have any other way of making money.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. But not for any gender fulfilment is the general conclusion?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Yeah, it was more--

 

Zoe 

Or are you gonna talk about that?

 

Lizzie 

I mean-- uh, well, I--my read is that she really only does it so that she can become a worker in the government to like, you know, get her out of poverty, but also like, she's really, really smart.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

She didn't really have a chance to display her intelligence as a woman.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, for sure.

 

Lizzie 

Really--yeah. So--but I think her primary motivation was because she didn't have any other way of--

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Uh huh.

 

Lizzie 

 --providing for herself.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, absolutely. All righty. Please continue.

 

Lizzie 

Okay, so, her story has been retold a lot over the centuries. The earliest version I saw evidence of is from the Jin Dynasty. So that was from 1115 to 1234. And it is now lost, but it was called Chuntao the Female Principal Graduate. And obviously I don't have that. It's lost to time.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yes.

 

Lizzie 

And then the most well-known (laughs)--the most well-known adaptation of her story is from the author Xu Wei in the 16th century. So it's the last in the cycle of four plays by Xu Wei that are collectively known as a Four Cries of a Gibbon.

 

Zoe 

Ooh!

 

Lizzie 

Um, its his most famous work, and the third play is called--okay, so there's a sequence of four plays. Third play is The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of Her Father. So it tells the story of Mulan.

 

Zoe 

Uh huh.

 

Lizzie 

The fourth play--the last one is Girl Graduate Rejects the Female Phoenix and Gains the Male Phoenix, which I will henceforth refer to as Girl Graduate.

 

Zoe 

Yes.

 

Lizzie 

It's a very long title. Which tells the story of Huang Chonggu.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And so--I'm actually curious about your thoughts on this play, I'm gonna talk more about it--just like, as a theatre person.

 

Zoe 

I haven't read it.

 

Lizzie 

I know you haven't read it (both laugh). I'm gonna tell you more about it.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

So in this five-act play--side note, it's actually the longest of the four plays. The first play is one act long, the second and third are two acts long, and the last one is five acts long. The one about Chonggu. So yeah, anyway, though. So in this five-act play, Huang Chonggu's original name is Chuntao, and she changes it to Chonggu when she started dressing up as a man.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Which she does because she has no means of making money. And she and her wet nurse, who's called Auntie Huang, are destitute. And, um, actually, her aunt also dresses up as a man. It's not as big a deal--

 

Zoe 

Oh! Okay.

 

Lizzie 

--but she does. Anyway, so.

 

Zoe 

That's interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And she-she assumes the name of Huang Ke while Chuntao is Chonggu. Yeah. Anyway.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So--so she takes the imperial exam, and she impresses Zhou Xiang. As I said before, he was like a official. And so he begins acting as her teacher and benefactor.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

 In the middle part of the play, like, in act three, Chonggu is tasked with reviewing the cases of three convicted criminals who had appealed their cases and like--this isn't related to the Huang Chonggu story, specifically.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Um, it turns into, like, a bit of a courtroom drama type of thing in the middle there.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

And then the audience as well as Zhou Xiang is left sort of thinking about how wise and clever Huang Chonggu is because she figured out the flaws in the accusations, and they're all judged as innocent.

 

Zoe 

Nice.

 

Lizzie 

Which, according to Shiamin Kwa in Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei's Four Cries of a Gibbon, Huang Chonggu's cross dressing is not the main topic of the play, but a dramatic device used to emphasize the themes of the play.

 

Zoe 

Mm!

 

Lizzie 

And of the collection in general.

 

Lizzie 

 So quote from her, "The problem, a basic one of recognition that transcends questions of gender, is this: it is difficult to understand another person, and it is difficult to make oneself understood. The ubiquity of costume and disguise are given immediate concreteness when represented on a cross-dressed heroine, making gender an expedient dramatic device." So--end quote. This is why I think the entire third act is dedicated to a courtroom scene.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Like, the play explores themes of identity and, like, the unreliability of judging people based on appearance, and uses Huang Chonggu's cross-dressing to explore this, rather than it being purely a play about Huang Chonggu's life. So yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah! Cool!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So in this version, when Zhou Xiang learns that Huang Chonggu was actually a woman, he decides to promise her to his son instead.

 

Zoe 

Okay, that makes sense.

 

Lizzie 

And so--yeah. Because he's just like, well, I can't take you for, like, a son-in-law, I'll just take you for a daughter-in-law. It's fine. And, um, Huang Chonggu reluctantly agrees, and the two are married.

 

Zoe 

Reluctantly agrees?

 

Lizzie 

I say--I-I say reluctantly. That's kind of like my interpretation, 'cause--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--she-well at first, she was like, I'm too ashamed. Like, I deceived you, you know, and he's like, I don't care. I think you were virtuous.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And then she's like, oh, but this is like--we're doing it today, like, that's so fast. And he's like, yep! She didn't seem like she was super into it to me. But that was my interpretation. Anyway, though.

 

Zoe 

Okay, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

But then she's forced to leave her position. And she, you know, becomes a wife--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--to Zhou Xiang's son. And then the last lines of the play are: "On whom do the good deeds of the world depend? / If not a man, then a girl."

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

End scene. Yeah (Zoe laughs). And so, in the late Ming Dynasty, so like 1500s, or like 1600s, the courtesan writer Liang Xiaoyu also adapted Huang Chonggu's story into a play.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

United Primes (Heyuan ji). And this play is now last.

 

Lizzie 

But scholars think that it ended probably the same way as Xu Wei's did, so with Huang Chonggu marrying Zhou Xiang's son.

 

Zoe 

Oh!

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And--yeah. So according to the Cambridge History of Chinese Literature, most female writers in the late Ming were either courtesans or women from elite families.

 

Zoe 

Mmm.

 

Lizzie 

And Liang Xiaoyu is one example. She was a courtesan. And evidently, cross dressing was not an uncommon theme among women writers at this time.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie  

Which makes sense, 'cause if most of them were courtesans, I also read that at this time, it was not uncommon for courtesans to dress up as like, elite men when they went out in public.

 

Zoe 

That makes sense.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

You know, just for the safety aspects, you know.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah! But they were really--well, I feel, some of the only people that really had like, agency, I feel like.

 

Lizzie 

They were some of the people--the only women who were allowed to fraternize with men freely. Anyway. And then another adaptation of her story by a female author is the 1717 play by the author Zhang Yinli. And this version is also lost. But she--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Mm!

 

Lizzie 

--but, like, the preface that she wrote for the play does survive.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And I have it. And it is: "Intelligent and talented as Huang Chonggu was, in the end, she did not achieve her ambition and eventually had to revert to her original [female] dress. But could she just return to making herself up with rouge and powder, serving her husband with towel and comb and begging others for pity?"

 

Zoe 

Hmm.

 

Lizzie 

"It is for this reason that I, basing myself on the images of the divine immortals, have made her into a lofty bird [soaring] amidst leisurely clouds free from the fetters of qian and kun" (Or yin and yang, the whole cosmos). So yeah. And I--like as much as--I know we cannot read her play, but I feel like this sort of gives an indication of, like, the thought of women writers, sort of-of, like, it's a shame that she--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--had to go back to this, like, feminine role.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So then there continued to be interest in writing about cross-dressing women and the tradition of Huang Chonggu. In 1778, the female author Wang Yun wrote a play called Dream of Splendor, or Fanhuameng, about a woman named Wang Menglin who dresses up as a man, takes a civil exams and ends up marrying one or more wives.

 

Zoe 

Ooh, wow! That's bold.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah! Isn't that awesome?

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And so in this play, the protagonist recites the following line: "My heart's manly energy / Yearns to soar to heaven. / But I am not predestined for the deeds of a Mulan or a Huang Chonggu."

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Which I think is cool because it directly references Huang Chonggu.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

But Wang Menglin doesn't only want a governmental position, she also expresses desire to marry a woman.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

She hangs up a painting of a beautiful woman on her wall and says, "If I were a man, I would definitely find myself a beauty like this for a wife. Let me pray to her--who knows, she may step down from the painting." Which I think is really awesome.

 

Zoe 

Interesting. Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

Right.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And so then she falls asleep and dreams that she's a man. And then as a man, she marries a woman her parents picked out, as well as two courtesans.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And she also passes the civil exam. And she wakes up from the dream realizes that she's still a woman, and is deeply disappointed.

 

Zoe 

Okay, interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

So is she desiring to be a man because she wants to marry a woman, do you think?

 

Lizzie 

I feel like from what I know about the play, which is relatively little, it's kind of open for interpretation.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

My personal thought is that she wants--like, she resents her place as a woman, just in general, but also she clearly desires women as well. And like, the only way you can really desire a woman is, like, as a man,

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--kind of like, oh, she married these women! Oh, but she also passed the civil exam. Like, it seems like it's more of an afterthought.

 

Zoe 

Okay. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, I feel like it's open for interpretation.

 

Zoe 

Okay, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Anyway, that's my interpretation. But.

 

Zoe 

For sure, yeah. That--I mean, that makes sense.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And so those are, like, two examples of cross-dressing stories from Imperial China. There's also obviously Mulan, which is super famous, we all know Mulan, and some others.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So one other really famous example is Zhu Yingtai, who is from the folktale of The Butterfly Lovers. Have you heard of that?

 

Zoe 

Oh! Yes, I am familiar with it. I didn't remember there was cross-dressing in it. But now that you say it, it sort of sounds familiar.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So basically, it's about this girl, Zhu Yingtai, who falls in love with her classmate while she's dressed as a boy to attend an academy. But the story ends in tragedy, and then the two of them are transformed into butterflies. They die so that they can never be separated again.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

That's the barest summary. I'm skipping over details. But yeah, sounds familiar?

 

Zoe 

Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember the tragedy ending, but I forgot how they met.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah (laughs). Yeah, they-they went to school, and they were bros, and then she fell in love! Anyway.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. That's very interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah (laughs). And, I mean, I think it's a really interesting topic. I mean, I don't know. I think it's really cool, like, to learn that there's not just Mulan, there's also a bunch of other stories about cross-dressing.

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

Specifically about women cross-dressing. And--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--and some of them have kind of gay undertones, some of them don't.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

It's cool.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Anyway. So what are your thoughts?

 

Zoe 

Well, so I--can you go back and remind me of the dates of the plays again?

 

Lizzie 

Yes. So the one I described that I actually was able to read by Xu Wei, that one was in the 1500s. I don't know exactly the year.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

But--and then the one by the courtesan, writer, Liang Xiaoyu, was, um, in the late Ming, so it's like, probably, I think--which I think is from 1577 to 1644.

 

Zoe 

Okay, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

So I think it was, like, a little bit after Xu Wei's play.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And then the one by Zhang Lingyi, 1717. That's the one with the preface that we have. And then the one about Wang Menglin was 1778.

 

Zoe 

Okay. So the first two plays, um, it's interesting, because in that time, there was just a general--I mean, so I'm speaking--talking about Europe right now. But it's interesting, there was a general theme of writing plays about cross-dressing women at the time.

 

Lizzie 

Oh, yeah, yeah, like in Shakespeare!

 

Zoe 

Yeah! In Shakespeare is obviously a good example. There's a few other playwrights, um, from the time period who also were writing plays, like Aphra Behn, in which women were cross-dressing a lot. And so--I mean, I don't--obviously they're two different places with different, like, ideas going on at the time, like China was just off doing its own thing--

 

Lizzie 

(overlapping) Yeah, it was probably different--different cultural contexts--

 

Zoe 

--especially during the 1500s but--

 

Zoe 

But it's interesting that there's like different themes and ideas. I mean, there is cultural exchange going on, of course in the 1500s between the two places. Um, so--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, like, like Shiamin Kwa, the academic I referenced earlier, she actually wrote about Merchant of Venice in her, um--and a little bit in her analysis of Girl Graduate.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Like, I actually didn't include it. But like she-she compared Huang Chonggu's, like, court trial scene--

 

Zoe 

Oh!

 

Lizzie 

--to a similar scene of the Merchant of Venice where Portia--

 

Zoe 

That makes sense.

 

Lizzie 

--dresses as a man and, like, grills people in a trial.

 

Zoe 

Oh, yeah. Yeah. So I just think that's interesting--

 

Lizzie 

And kind of, like, similar themes of, like, deception and whatever. Yeah,

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Isn't it? Yeah, I kind of wasn't thinking about that. But like, they were kind of around the same time-ish.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. I mean, I don't know a ton about, like, Chinese Theater. Um, especially not, like, straight plays that are being performed. Like these are, like, just plays, right? They're not, like--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, they're plays. Well, there were--there's

 

Lizzie 

They're not operas, but they did include singing elements.

 

Zoe 

--operas or anything.

 

Zoe 

Okay! Yeah, I mean, that makes sense. And another thing it's-it's always interesting to think about is that I'm pretty sure most of the performer--pretty much if not all the performers were men at this point.

 

Lizzie 

Actually, it was a mix.

 

Zoe 

It was a mix? Okay.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, because in the--in the play, which I read, it would say, like, the gender of the performer. And, like, there, there, there was cross-dressing in theatre, is the thing.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Like I know there was also cross-dressing in, like, Shakespeare because all the actors were men. Women were not allowed, like to act?

 

Zoe 

Oh, yeah, all the actors were men and Shakespeare's theater. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

In this case, there actually were female actors. But I guess it was, like, pretty common to cross-dress on stage for whatever reason, not necessarily talking about cross-dressing, but just in the play.

 

Zoe 

Like, to play a role that's different than the gender that you are?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. That's-that's my impression.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah, I mean, that's just--that's kind of beside the point of what we're talking about.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah (laughs).

 

Zoe 

But that's just always an interesting thing when it comes to thinking about the gender that's being portrayed and whether or not--like, in Shakespeare, for example, when you're talking about Twelfth Night, and Viola, who's playing a man--you're gonna be having in the actual Globe Theater during Shakespeare's time, it's a man playing a woman playing a man, and how that influences, like, the--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, true.

 

Zoe 

--comedy and the depiction and stuff.

 

Lizzie 

Oh, yeah. I--how does that even work? It's like Victor Victoria.

 

Zoe 

I don't know.

 

Lizzie 

Fair enough. You weren't there.

 

Zoe 

It's just interesting for me to think about. But yeah. But yeah, I thought it was interesting that it's clear that there's, like, a lot of themes of cross-dressing going on, like, in that four play cycle.

 

Lizzie 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

It's not even the only play that involves cross-dressing, because there's also the story of Mulan going on there, too, which is a--

 

Lizzie 

Exactly.

 

Zoe 

--another very important story.

 

Lizzie 

And the second play has not exactly cross-dressing, but there's like a gender theme. It's like--okay, well, basically, it's about this monk, and he gets reincarnated as a woman.

 

Zoe 

Uh, huh. Interesting!

 

Lizzie 

And then, like, as a woman that he's been reincarnated into, she tries to put on men's clothes and she realizes that her past life she was like this monk guy. And then she's just kind of like, oh, no, I'm just like a woman now. So that's kind of like, kind of cross-dressing-y themes. Gender themes.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Mm hmm. For sure.

 

Lizzie 

Which is definitely interesting. Like, I have to wonder about like, Xu Wei's, like, intention to talk about gender.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

I don't know his intentions, but like, if you want to talk about gender, he did a great job. It's very gender-y.

 

Zoe 

Yeah! For sure.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. I mean, I-I did sort of mention, um, the stuff about actors playing roles and like the role of costuming and stuff. Not, like, super in-depth. Anyway, but like--okay. So I wanted to talk about Xu Wei's play first. So first of all, it's important that Xu Wei's Mulan comes right before Girl Graduate. Um, Shiamin Kwa argues that Mulan serves as a sort of preface for Girl Graduate.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

The two stories are a natural pair. They're both about women who cross-dress, but Mulan's story takes place on the battlefield, and Huang Chonggu's takes place in the civil domain. And there's also several parallels and references to Mulan within Girl Graduate. In the fourth act, Chonggu was asked to write a poem and she writes about Mulan, praising her bravery and filial piety. And she even directly references The Ballad of Mulan, which is the very famous poem from around 400 CE, which is like the oldest known version of the Mulan story, so.

 

Zoe 

Interesting.

 

Lizzie 

In Girl Graduate, there's the following line: "You emerged pure from the mud. / A pair of rabbits, side by side on the ground, / It is hard to tell apart male from female." Which is a reference to the last few lines of The Ballad of Mulan, which are: "The buck bounds here and there, / whilst the doe has narrow eyes. / But when two rabbits run side by side, / How can you tell the female from the male?"

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

Which is about her comrades in arms sort of expressing disbelief and being like, how did we not know she was a woman? That's what she says and then, end poem.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, it sounds--I really liked that. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Which--I really liked that quote, by the way. I think it's really cool that it was referenced in Girl Graduate because I think it's a great poem.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

It's very short, actually. You can just find it online. Anyway, so later, when Chonggu confesses her true identity and she expresses shame about her deceit, Zhou Xiang says to her, "You yourself spoke of Mulan's situation as something for heroes alone, as glorious rather than shameful." Referring to when she wrote the poem. "How can you see things so topsy-turvy now?" So like, the Mulan parallel is stressing the idea that Huang Chonggu, like, what she did was, like, brave and, like, noble--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--because she did it, you know, to escape poverty for herself and her aunt. Like, she didn't do it just because she's a weird, deviant woman or something. But she did it to save herself and her aunt, and that's noble.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Anyways, so something important in both of the stories of Mulan and Huang Chonggu is the fact that both of them end up going back to living as women in the end. They're exempt from scrutiny because they cross-dress for noble reasons, like I said. Huang Chonggu does it to be able to feed herself and her nurse, and Mulan does it to save her father.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

But they're also excused because they both revert back to traditional feminine roles. And their willingness to go back to the roles that are expected of them is key to their integrity and purity, as well as, like, the fact that both texts stress that they remained virgins as part of their--

 

Zoe 

Hmm.

 

Lizzie 

 --their, uh, virtuousness.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah. For sure

 

Lizzie 

They remained chaste, you know?

 

Zoe 

Yeah. While they were living amongst men as men, you know.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) Yeah. Ann-Marie Hsung offers another perspective in her article, "Gender and Representations of Women in the Three Chinese Dramatic Texts of the 16th Century." She talks about how this reverting back to feminine roles, while it does also reinforce societal roles for women, it also undermines the idea that social roles are determined by gender.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

The fact that Huang Chonggu switches back to her feminine role as easily as changing her outfit highlights the arbitrariness of gender-based social norms.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Like, her role in life was determined by social norms, like, basically just the way that she dresses rather than capabilities, or like even her desires, and the fact that her role changes as easily as she changes clothes challenges the idea that gender roles are, like, biologically determined. And--

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I mean, it's very clear that she is capable of doing all the jobs that she was assigned to do as a man.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

But once she reveals that she's a woman, she can't do them anymore, simply because now everyone knows she's a woman. And that's not allowed.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And it's like, oh, now you can just get married. It's fine. Like, you don't need to do this anymore.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

We're gonna find a husband for you, you know?

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

But I do find it interesting that, like, in the play, Zhou Xiang, he kind of like, celebrates it a little bit. He's like, oh, how amazing, I'll just marry you off to my son. But he doesn't seem to, like, mourn the loss of his talented official, and it's like, you know, she could still keep doing the job. She was really good at it. Like, why does nobody seem to care about that?

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Anyway, so Hsiung also references this quote from Virginia Woolf--

 

Zoe 

Mm!

 

Lizzie 

"In every human being, a vacillation from one sex to another takes place. And often it is clothes that keep the male or female likeness."

 

Zoe 

Mm. That's interesting, because it--one of the stories, the one with the dream, reminded me of Orlando a lot. So--

 

Lizzie 

Oh really?

 

Zoe 

That's interesting that we're bringing Virginia Woolf into this now.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) That's awesome. I-I actually haven't read Orlando.

 

Zoe 

I haven't either. But it's a story basically about a man who is immortal. And also, at some point in his immortality transforms one day into a woman and suddenly has to live life differently, because she's now a woman.

 

Lizzie 

Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, that is actually similar-sounding. So like, this is definitely supported by Xu Wei's play where there's emphasis on Chonggu's change of clothing as part of her transformation, um, like even from the very beginning. At one point, her nurse asks what she's going to do about her girlish face, and she replies that she will change into her father's clothes, and no one will be able to tell. So here, female identity is associated with adornments, and she can just as easily take them off as put them on.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And once her costume has changed, she's able to fill the role of a male academic.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. It's just, like, gender is performance and all that.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. It, like, is and it's, I mean--I feel like that's--it reminds me of how in like the sixties, there was that law in New York that was like, you have to wear a certain amount of clothes that match this gender that you were assigned at birth in order--or else you would, like, get fined or arrested.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. I didn't even know that.

 

Zoe 

Oh, yeah. And that was like 100% about, like, policing gender expression and, um, oppressing, like, LGBT people. Um, and, you know, it's just sort of like thinking how clothes have changed a lot and how like, 50 years ago, it was like, kind of still weird for women to wear pants all the time.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

But now women wear pants and it's not, like, even that weird even for women to wear, like, suits anymore.

 

Lizzie 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

I don't know and just how, like, clothes have always been, like, heavily associated with the policing of gender and--

 

Lizzie 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

--and it's been really forced for people to perform gender in a specific way based on how they dress.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

But it's also very much literally just clothes.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, like it really doesn't matter very much. But like so much focus is put on clothing. Like, it's crazy. And even now, but like, I can't even imagine--like, in the--

 

Zoe 

I mean, there's still a lot of focus on clothes now because it's still very much frowned on for like--

 

Zoe 

--men to wear dresses, or skirts, or whatever. And it's still very much, like, a thing if a guy, like, shows up at a, you know, a red carpet event wearing a dress, or--

 

Lizzie 

I mean, of course.

 

Zoe 

Then there's, like, a million thinkpieces written about it. But it's like--

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Harry Styles (laughs).

 

Lizzie 

--if we all just say anything about it, then it would be fine. Like, let's stop.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Talking about it, and then it'll just be normal (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Anyway, though (laughs). So, like you mentioned earlier, Girl Graduate is not purely about a woman cross-dressing. But cross-dressing is used as a dramatic device to explore further themes related to like, authenticity, deception, and truth.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And these are themes that are found throughout the other plays in The Four Cries of a Gibbon, and explored in varying ways in each different work. And since plays are a visual medium, cross-dressing is an effective dramatic choice to convey this, since the audience can very easily see that the actor is cross-dressing.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

They just can use costumes and makeup to help convey this deception, and sort of making use of, like, dramatic irony that the audience can see something that the other characters can't, you know?

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And so, my point is that the character of Huang Chonggu was a cross-dresser. But that doesn't make it a play about cross-dressing. Cross-dressing is just an effective way of exploring the themes that Xu wei wanted to explore, though that being said, I-I'm not trying to say, like, he didn't have the intention of exploring gender. I don't know.

 

Lizzie 

But just that it wasn't the overarching focus or the only focus. I think if he had wanted to, like, explore gender he did a great job. Like--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, gender-ful.

 

Lizzie 

Very gender-y, like I said before (Zoe laughs). I'm saying "gender-y" so many times this episode (laughs). It's gender-ful.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Gender-esque.

 

Lizzie 

(laughs) Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I mean, I think it's interesting, um, because it--because it's sort of like he's using the story in order to make his own point about, like, identity and knowing, like, the true self and stuff, and it sort of was like this story of--the cross-dressing doesn't even matter, but also it does because this is a society that's very much regulated by one's gender. Like, that he's writing in.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, no, it definitely matters, and, like, sort of talking about like, Okay, what is truth? What is, like, identity, whatever, everything and like--yeah, I mean, she didn't necessarily like she was dressed up as a man to succeed.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

It wasn't necessarily, like, a big statement. But--

 

Zoe 

Yeah. He's choosing, like, the most--the biggest example you can think of of, like, what you can you, like, not realize about someone.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

I think, which goes to emphasize the importance that the society places on gender, I-I would say.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Analytically.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And there's overarching themes that you can't judge someone from appearances. And, like, it critiques the way we perceive authenticity and sort of asks the question of how we define truth.

 

Zoe 

Nice.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

During the examination scene, a character referred to as Balderdash--his name in Chinese is Hu Yan, which is a homophone of nonsense--

 

Lizzie 

--Balderdash in English--right (laughs)? Isn't it?

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

He's told that his poem doesn't rhyme and he responds, "What is so absolute about rhymes? Poetry rhymes are just like fates. If the examiner says that it rhymes well, then even if the rhyme doesn't rhyme, it will rhyme! If the examiner says that the rhyme is no good, even if the rhyme rhymes, it won't rhyme." It's so hard to say! (laughs)

 

Zoe 

Wow.

 

Lizzie 

"My fate resides with the examiner, not with me." Which like, he is right.

 

Zoe 

That's very interesting.

 

Lizzie 

Like he's sort of a comedic--he's sort of--the purpose of him is definitely, like, comedy. His name is Balderdash.

 

Zoe 

Uh huh.

 

Lizzie 

Um, his name's nonsense (laughs), but, I mean, it doesn't--

 

Zoe 

But he's making a point! Right?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, he's making a good point!

 

Zoe 

Like, who gets to decide what truth is, you know, who gets to decide--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah!

 

Zoe 

--what's right.

 

Lizzie 

And that truth and meaning-making are relative.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Like, Zhou Xiang believes that Balderdash, like, his rhymes are, like, good or whatever.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And he ends up passing even though it's clear to the audience that he's stupid (laughs). And Zhou Xiang believes that Huang Chonggu was a man, which means that she's like, meaningfully a man.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And the characters in the play have to, like, reconcile the truth of Huang Chonggu's identity with their view of the world where like--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--she's something that they believe to be impossible, having the talents of a man with the body of a woman, which forces the audience to reconcile their ideas of the truth and the fact that meaning-making can be subjective.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So that's explored in the character of Huang Chonggu.

 

Zoe 

Yeah! Absolutely.

 

Lizzie 

Interesting stuff. And so I think I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the ways that specifically female authors wrote about Huang Chonggu. Like I spent a long time on Xu Wei because he's the only text I actually had--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--and it's a good play. But um--

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So cross-dressing was seen as a deviant behavior and condemned in most circumstances. But I imagine Huang Chonggu and other female cross-dressing characters, you know, Mulan, etc., could actually sort of comfort for women who resented that they were expected to be wives and mothers instead of, like, scholars or leaders, etc.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

I mentioned Dream of Splendor by Wang Yun earlier, the play about a woman who dreams of living the life of a man so that she can take the exams and marry a woman. And so her son wrote in the preface of the play, "The lady, my mother, has an extraordinary disposition." This is the-the author's son, if that wasn't clear.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

"The lady, my mother, has an extraordinary disposition. She understood the histories and other books, and she always regretted that she could not achieve success in the examinations and attain high office. So she wrote this piece in order to give expression to her pent-up feelings."

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

 So I imagine that characters like Huang Chonggu would also be appealing to a woman who wanted to express homosexual desires.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Like, Wang Menglin in Dream of Splendor dreamed of beautiful women and wished to marry one. And another play I came across was Pear Blossom Dream, or Lihuameng, written by the female author He Peizhu, where the heroine is another cross-dressing woman, and she longs to be reunited with her beloved female companion, and she, like, longs for her...female friend.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So--yeah, it wouldn't have been realistic for two women to--in love to run away together, so I think it would make sense for women with these desires to wish she could play the role of a man so that she could be with her beloved.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah! And while there isn't explicit homosexuality in Huang Chonggu's story, I can imagine that her story and similar stories could be a way for women to express their desires and to express their resentment and, you know, their desire to have equal rights, like, have a better role in life.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And--yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, like, I feel like also--I mean, there's no way that she was the only person in history who ever crossed-dressed in order to get education.

 

Lizzie 

I'm sure there were people we didn't even know about because their identities weren't revealed.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, like, you know, in, like, China, she was definitely--there's no way she was the only person ever who cross-dressed in order to get an education and live independently and escape their family.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Like, there's no way, you know. So I think it's just really cool that we have, you know, this one story, and it's just sort of like a shadow of probably all the other people who also did the same-the same thing.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Definitely.

 

Zoe 

And for whatever reason, either to, you know, maybe go in the place of their fathers in war, or to get an education, or to just live independently, or to marry the person that they want to marry, which they wouldn't be able to do unless one of them--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

--was dressed up as a man, you know.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Which is very cool.

 

Lizzie 

Definitely.

 

Zoe 

It's a really interesting story.

 

Lizzie 

Happy Pride Month.

 

Zoe 

Happy Pride Month! Hope you're having a good time. Well, thank you for such an interesting episode, Lizzie. I had a great time. I hope everyone else did, too. And if you liked it, please feel free to donate to our Ko-fi, leave a review, subscribe to us, tell all your friends, and we'll be back here in two weeks with another episode. Thank you so much.

 

Lizzie 

Thank you.

 

Zoe 

Bye.

 

(outro)

 

Zoe 

Mytholadies Podcast is produced by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. Today's episode was researched and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter @Mytholadies, and visit us on our website at mytholadies.com. Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thank you for listening. See you next time.