BEIJING, China — The two women, in flowing robes of silk, caress each other and sing sweet nothings. “We’ll sleep on the same pillow tonight,” they serenade in unison.
This is a scene from "Lianxiang Ban" ("A Romance: Two Belles in Love"), a 17th century play by saucy Qing dynasty wordsmith Li Yu. The story: two women — Cui Jianyun and Cao Yuhua — enchanted by each other’s fragrance, fall in love and plot to marry the same man so they can continue their lesbian romance. This version, running at Beijing’s Poly Theater this week, is in the form of Kunqu opera, a traditional theatrical form that dates back over 600 years.
China’s gay and lesbian community is abuzz with excitement. The fact that a top mainstream theater in Beijing is showing such a high-profile lesbian production is a breakthrough for China’s gay community, especially for a city that just four months ago shut down a gay beauty pageant minutes before it started.
“The fact that we have approval to put this kind of subject matter on stage is one more step towards Chinese society becoming more open-minded,” said Stanley Kwan, the opera’s director. Kwan, 52, hails from Hong Kong, and is an openly gay filmmaker famous for "Women" (starring Chow Yun Fat) and gay love tale "Lan Yu."
The production company is certainly not shy about hiding the opera’s lesbian content. The posters for "Lianxiang Ban," plastered across the capital’s subway system, show the faces of two women in thick opera make-up, cheek to cheek, and looking blissful and demure.
The fact this opera is being shown is “amazing,” said Xian, founder of local lesbian support group Common Language. But, she added, “It's more amazing to see that the play’s advertisement is clear about the lesbian love. I hope it is a sign of more openness and acceptance from the Chinese public.”
Homosexuality is not illegal in China and it was removed from an official list of mental diseases in 2001. Gay clubs, bars and saunas have opened in many big cities and the Chinese internet is packed with gay and lesbian websites. While the domestic media are increasingly covering gay stories from a sympathetic angle, there still appears to be an official discouragement of any direct promotion of gay lifestyles. Homosexuality remains a sensitive but not banned topic while gay and lesbian groups are tolerated provided they stay apolitical.
During rehearsal, and standing stiffly in her elaborate costume Zhang Yuanyuan the 25-year-old actress who plays the part of Cao Yuhua, told GlobalPost that the love between these two women is “beautiful and very natural,” although she was quick to point out that she herself is not a lesbian.
This mainstream production of a lesbian romance is a first for modern-day China, but the fact that it is two women in love and not two men may have calmed the censors.
“It would have been more of a challenge to have gay men,” said Xiaogang Wei, founder and presenter of "Queer Comrades," a Beijing-based gay podcast. The idea of a gay man, he says, is more threatening than the concept of lesbians to Chinese society.
That could be because women are considered less sexual than men.
“The Chinese public look at lesbian relationships as more spiritual,” said Kwan, although he added that he doesn’t think that means an opera about men in love wouldn’t have been allowed.
“Maybe not a film or TV series, but an opera or stage drama, I hope it would be possible,” he said.
Straight people just can’t believe that women can have sex with each other, says Eva Lee, a lesbian activist in Beijing who originally hails from Macao. They just think of lesbians as being emotionally intimate but not physically intimate.
“The lesbian story is less offensive to mainstream society,” she said. “When people see two men in love they only think of them having sex. They don’t treat lesbians seriously because they don’t understand how women can have sex without a man, without a penis.”
As a well as having an out director, the production company has hired well-known sexologist Li Yinhe as a media spokesperson to explain the homosexual context. Her job seems to be to spread the idea that historically China was tolerant of homosexuality.
“Ms. Li’s main point is that in the old times China was much more open towards homosexuality,” said Kwan. "Liangxian Ban" was written 350 years ago at the beginning of the Qing dynasty. “One husband would have many wives and these women would sometimes have lesbian relationships.”
According to Harvard University’s Professor Patrick Hanan, who has translated many of Li Yu’s works, the story was likely based on the situation in the playwright’s own family after his first wife became quite taken with his new concubine. Li Yu, thought by many to be bisexual himself, penned several other plays that had gay love and gay sex themes, although "Lianxian Ban" is his only lesbian tale.
The opera concludes with the two women marrying the same man and, on the wedding night, slipping off with each other leaving the husband on stage looking lost. The audience erupts into laughter and applause.