The limits of liminality: containing gender fluidity in Chinese and Japanese theatre
Illustration: Sarah Jackman
Classic and contemporary Chinese and Japanese theatre negotiates gender liminality. Certain characters – neither ‘wholly’ masculine nor feminine – exercise power and agency, selecting only the advantageous characteristics stereotypically associated with each gender position. On the surface, these ‘gender fluid’ discourses seem to challenge the dominant, patriarchal gender binary. But, despite their progressive, emancipatory potential, these stories often reinforce – rather than subvert – socially-constructed conceptions of masculinity and femininity.
Gender politics have defined the development of traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre. Like their Shakespearean contemporaries, women (onna-kabuki) - and later young boys (wakashū-kabuki) - were banned from stages in the early 1600s. This fostered modern all-male (yarō-kabuki) troupes, and the rise of the onnagata (‘female-role’), or female-impersonating male actors. These bans reflect the shogunate’s distaste for Kabuki’s popularity and socially-diverse audiences. Though rhetorically justified to eradicate prostitution, practices of sexual exploitation and jealous patronage merely shifted from women towards the boys and onnagata.
Within the liminal theatrical space, femininity is stylised and performed by an individual, to an audience. Its meaning is newly constructed through the male gaze of the onnagata and theatrical production team. Portrayals of femininity adhere to a strict binary - either the ‘ideal’ and ‘good’ Japanese female, belonging to her ‘proper’ social, cultural, and historical place, or the ‘bad’.
Beyond metatheatricality, the onnagata does not simply ‘perform the real’. Their social existence demands the continued performance of an illusion - neither masculine nor feminine, real nor artificial. The onnagata’s unique, illusionary beauty, and celebrity status, is drawn from their gender liminality.
Yukio Mishima’s short story ‘Onnagata’ (1957) is a Kabuki love triangle between the three male protagonists: the stage assistant Masuyama, the onnagata Sanogawa Mangiku, and the visiting director Kawasaki. Masuyama becomes increasingly infatuated with Mangiku, more graceful and delicate, more feminine than any female. Contrast Mishima’s depictions of the dressing rooms:
‘[The chorus girls’ rooms are]…filled with an almost suffocating femininity and the rough-skinned girls, sprawled about like animals in the zoo, threw bored glances at him [MASUYAMA], but he never felt so distinctly alien as in Mangiku’s dressing room, nothing in these real women made Masuyama feel particularly masculine.’
‘Whenever Masuyama went to Mangiku’s dressing room…he had only to brush apart the door curtains to feel – even before setting foot inside – a curiously vivid, carnal sensation of being a male.’
Beyond physical displacement from the stages, the practice of the onnagata thus definitively displaces females. Femininity is everywhere, but it is never articulated, performed, or narrated by females themselves. Moreover, the onnagata’s fluidity is conceptualised through absolute binaries, between the female (on stage, artificial performance) and the male (dressing room, definer and enacter of reality).
Importantly, the individual in the gender liminal space – the onnagata – remains limited by these overarching binaries. Mangiku follows the restrictive demands of the eighteenth-century manual Ayamegusa, which demands that the onnagata maintain their practices and attitudes off-stage. His performance necessarily defines his reality; Masuyama remarks how Mangiku is ‘utterly feminine’ in his speech, movements, and eating habits.
‘The make-believe of his daily life supported the make-believe of his stage performances. This ...marked the true onnagata. An onnagata is a child born of the illicit union between dream and reality.'
If the onnagata embodies idealised femininity, Masuyama pedestals Mangiku himself as a transcendent being. Mangiku’s naked male body is but a ‘passing manifestation’, less representative of his internal beauty. Even Mangiku’s celebrated liminality is expressed through gender stereotypes. Masuyama dotes on Mangiku for the way he makes him feel masculine, and betrays his trust when he, like the other females in his life, denies his affection. Often perceiving Mangiku through the dressing room mirror, Masuyama’s infatuation is ultimately a reflection of his own, repressed masculine desires. Read as such, the story hints towards the nature of Mishima’s own admirations for Bandō Tamasaburō V, Japan’s most popular onnagata.
If ‘Onnagata’ explores the male appropriation of feminine self-definition, The Male Queen underlines the appropriation of female political influence. Translated by Sophie Volpp, the seventeenth-century Chinese drama is based on the true story of sixth-century general Chen Zigao. A poor sixteen-year-old from Nanjing, Zigao has a chance encounter with the future Emperor Wen of Chen. Enamoured by Zigao’s feminine beauty, the Emperor promises him wealth and the future Queendom in exchange for his life-long service. Zigao accepts, and is gradually promoted as both the Emperor’s military (male) and sexual (female) favourite. The Male Queen’s English-language debut was directed by Pamela Carter in 2020, as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Chinese Classics Translation Project.
Like Masuyama, the Emperor inflates Zigao’s beauty and power in his own masculine image. Zigao is proclaimed ‘first among all women’, whilst the ‘true’ females of the Emperor’s court are ‘lesser’, subjugated beings. Like Mishima’s chorus girls, these displaced female characters are envious gossips. Females are pushed into a space of negation, pitted against each other in pursuit of political and social favour. Even the politically-displaced males are rarely so unsympathetically depicted.
Whilst Mangiku embodies the androgynous ‘new’, Zigao’s power explicitly draws from gender stereotypes, boasting both feminine and masculine traits: the beauty of a girl and the brain of a boy. The merits of his androgynous appearance are hence underpinned by his ‘true (male) sex’.
Furthermore, Zigao ‘cross-dresses’ in the court to conceal the Emperor’s homosexuality, adhering to binary sexual expectations. Liminality here becomes a guise for repressed male homosexual desire. The Emperor understands that he cannot fully execute his desires; Zigao can only perform the role of Queen - in name, and in disguise. Masuyama is similarly aware of his unfavourable desires. He initially joins the troupe to rid himself of his unbecoming obsessions, by exposing the onnagata’s illusion.
Like Mangiku, Zigao remains subject to the class-based power dynamics of the court. Zigao later captures the Emperor’s younger sister’s attention. Despite her heterosexuality, she remarks that she is attracted to this ‘woman’. In Carter’s production, she forces Zigao to reveal his ‘true sex’ and submit to her sexual desires – against his consent. In the story, the Emperor grants his sister and Zigao to marry only on the condition that Zigao remain his sexual favourite and wear female clothing during the ceremony. The source of his empowerment – his liminality – also facilitates his continued subjugation. Zigao remains an object of desire and servitude to the wealthy and powerful, whether male or female.
Stories of gender liminality are less liberated – and less liberating – than they may seem. Individuals certainly challenge stereotypes through personal identities, but their practices and representations often reinforce constructed gender binaries. Ultimately, these patriarchal power structures contain and shape all semblances of ‘fluidity’. Deconstructing them demands more than going against the flow.