During the 20th century in China, the 4 most celebrated male performers of female roles (called “dan” performers) in Peking Opera were Mei Langfang, Cheng Yangqiu, Shang Xiaoyun and Xun Huisheng. They reached the peak of their art from by using their singing ability, expressive eyes and practiced gestures to perform the roles of quintessentially beautiful Chinese women. It is said that male performers of female roles are at an advantage in several ways.
Male voices are stronger, deeper and more resonant. Males are very adept at noticing feminine habits and characteristics, so their performances are even more feminine. There is much speculation about the lives of individual male “dan” performers. When Mei Lanfang visited America in 1930, some people suspected he was a transvestite. Two of the movies from the 1990s “Farewell My Concubine” and “Madam Butterfly” were tragedies about male “dan” performers falling in love with other men.
According to followers of Peking Opera, very few male “dan” performers were like those in the movies. Theyseldon mixed their stage roles with real life. Some people believe that male “dan” performers are unnatural. Theater schools stopped training male “dan” performers in the early 1950s. Today, there are only few professional male “dan” performers in Peking Opera. Some say that to this day, no one has been able to surpass the artistic achievements of the four most celebrated “dan” performers.