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MALE entertainers dressing as women go back a long way in China, and today some young gender-bending men are scandalizing and thrilling audiences with bold cross-dressing. Xu Wei explains.

China's latest TV hit is a sensational all-male talent show "Happy Boy" that has made news and set the Internet ablaze with the appearances of 10 young men looking, walking and sounding like women. They're known as weiniang (fake ladies), a new buzzword.

At one point in the elimination rounds, judges in Hunan Satellite TV show were totally confused about the performer's gender: he looked just like a woman, with perfect makeup, hair, nylons, ruffles, clothing padding in the right places and high heels. He got the movements and body language right. And his voice was sweet.

Liu Zhu, a 19-year-old student in the Sichuan Conservatory of Music, was asked to show his ID. Although Liu didn't make it into the finals, he became an instant sensation and his blog has received millions of hits.

Chinese are very conservative and Liu's drag-queen-like appearance prompted gasps of shock and howls of laughter. Of course, some people were scandalized and thrilled, but mesmerized none the less. Many found it cool.

Liu's appearance - and that of nine other men dressed as women on the show - is a statement about how open and tolerant China has become.

Unfortunately, none of the gents made it to the 12-boy finals that begin airing on July 9, every Friday at 10:30pm until early September.

Pretty boys, or "flowery boys" as they are called, are a big trend in China and they are quite accepted - some are gay, some not - but there's still discussion of gender roles and what it all means. Outright dressing as women is much rarer.

On his blog, Liu describes feelings of sexual ambivalence, to say the least, indicating he's a girl at heart in a male body. He's a cross-dresser in daily life.

"Many people tell me that I am a mistake," he writes. "I admit they are right. If I had been born a girl, I would have had a more peaceful, happier and simpler life - study at a good university, find a decent job and marry a good husband.

"People may laugh at me but I won't stop my efforts to show my best and pursue an extraordinary life."

Liu was just one of the young men mistaken for girls on "Happy Boy."

Xu Long, a 22-year-old known as Tongtong, stunned the audience and netizens with his cross-dressing and model-like looks - he even has his own professional fashion portfolio, including one of him as a bride in white. Many compared him to the Chinese mainland actress Fan Bingbing.

But Xu, who is also from Sichuan Province, says that unlike Liu, he is 100-percent male and never dresses like a girl in daily life.

Get attention

"For me cross-dressing on stage is part of ancient and modern opera performance - it's what famous opera female impersonator Li Yugang does," says Xu.

Xu's appearance on "Happy Boy" won him overnight fame. He has been approached by entertainment agencies and offered professional drama training.

"All things are difficult before they are easy," he adds. "I will never give up my dream of becoming a versatile female impersonator like Li (who combines traditional Peking Opera art with pop music)."

It's very true these days in China that many young people will do anything to get attention and create a stir on the Internet, hoping it will lead to stardom.

Because of the cross-dressing boys, the "Happy Boy" TV show has become controversial. Its moral values and "responsibility" for the younger generation have been questioned.

Some netizens and viewers say the show is trying to boost its ratings by featuring fake ladies.

"This TV station has a tradition of presenting grassroots pop stars noted for their gender ambiguity," says Wang Yin, a company employee. He referred to the famous "Super Girls" talent show in 2005, won by Li Yuchun who appeared non-girlie and gender-neutral. Another contestant Zeng Yike was also famously boyish.

"Now it's the turn for the feminine boys," Wang says.

Some observers say the appearance of so many "fake ladies" is just a way to get attention. Others say it's the result of the "flowery boy" phenomenon, arising first in Japanese and South Korean TV dramas.

This year's "Happy Boy" contest attracted more than 230,000 contestants from across China, mostly in the post-1990s generation, says Xie Erqi, an official with Hunan Satellite TV.

"Singing ability is always the basic criteria for a contestant," Xie says. "If they can't sing that well, they will be eliminated. It's very fair."

There were only 10 weiniang in the entire show that started in early April, he says.


Lu Wei, a spokesman for Dragon TV's ongoing reality competition "China's Got Talent," says it too has some weiniang contestants.

"If his singing conforms to his female appearance, that's acceptable," Lu says. He points out that in Peking Opera and Kungqu Opera there's a long nandan or female impersonator tradition.

"But if he dresses like a girl to get media exposure, he may be rejected," Lu says.

While some people predictably deplore weiniang, some admire them for being open-minded.

"We're born in an era of self expression and individuality," says Zhu Ying, a university student. "Each individual is unique. People should respect weiniang for their confidence and courage to express their true personalities on stage."

Xu, the stunning "Happy Boy" contestant, is angered by the weiniang term.

"It's word of contempt and derision," he says. "Why is it okay individually for women to cross dress but crazy and sick for us?"

In fact, the reasons for the boom of weiniang are complicated.

Psychologist Lin Yizhen in Shanghai says the phenomenon is ancient and can be found around the world. But today's diverse culture gives more ordinary people the courage to express the "other" side of their personality.

"Many cases and studies show that everyone can have underlying desires to be like the opposite sex," says Lin, who trains psychologists. "Actors, fashion designers and male belly dancers in Egypt all have their own interpretation of women."

A male-dominant culture puts a lot more pressure on men than women, says Lin, noting that women who cross dress or generally appear like men are more acceptable to Chinese people.

She cites the famous legend of Hua Mulan of the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-534) who dressed herself as a man to join the army in place of her father.

"It is a good sign that today more and more guys in China dare to truly express themselves," Lin adds. "It also suggests social progress when people begin to show more tolerance for those who are different."

Around the world, experts have attributed men's "feminization" to "women's liberation" and the increased competitiveness of women in both study and career.

The recently published book "Saving Boys" laments a loss of perceived manliness and expresses concern that teen boys may try cross dressing.

But noted sociologist Gu Xiaoming from Fudan University says weiniang shouldn't be a cause for concern.

"It used to be a fad even in the Western countries," Gu says. "In the movie 'Titanic,' Leonardo DiCaprio stunned many people with his feminine features. Today gender disparities and roles are becoming blurred. What people need is freedom to express themselves in a more diversified culture."


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