A Night at the (Peking) Opera

here are two turn-of-the-20th century souvenir photos from China. They depict performers in the Peking Opera. They come from the period marking the end of single-sex performers, when all roles both male and female would be played by male performers. Gender segregation of the opera began to phase out in the 1920s. For much the same reasons as in the West, Chinese theater was single sex because being an itinerant actor was seen as very much akin to being a prostitute. And despite the attempt to preserve the honor and virtue of women by banning them from performing on stage, the boys who played female roles on the stage themselves became prostitutes. Can’t win for trying, I guess.

Peking Opera Performers
Peking Opera Performers
Peking Opera Performers
Peking Opera Performers

I would classify these as genuine “gay interest” images because they represent a moment in history where the enactment of same-sex desire was sanctioned, even if in masquerade. It’s a rarity photographically because in the West, same-sex drama had largely been eliminated well before the photographic era, lingering on symbolically into the 19th century in the operatic tradition of castrati. If anyone out there recognizes the roles these actors are portraying, and the name(s) of the opera(s) they are from, the feedback would be most welcome.

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