three pairs of lovers with space

BOY ACTORS IN PEKING BY CAI HENG ZI

 

Cai heng zi (採蘅子) was the pen name of an anonymous author who lived in the nineteenth century.  His Chong ming man lu 蟲鳴漫錄 (The Cry of An Insect), from which the following excerpt was taken, was first published in 1877.

The translation is by Dun J. Li in his The Essence of Chinese Civilization (New York, 1967) pp. 425-6.  Li used the old Wade-Giles system of romanising Chinese names. Of those named below, “Liu Hsia-hui” is “Liuxia Hui” in the now usual Pinyin romanisation, “Lu Nan-tzu”is “Lu Nanzi” and the cities of Soochow, Hangchow, Anhwei, and Chekiang are spelt Suzhou, Hangzhou, Anhui and Zhejiang.

 

A drama troupe in Peking usually has a dozen or so boy actors. Each of these boys learns only two or three dramas and acts in them; the number is deliberately kept small so he can be truly proficient in the role or roles which he plays. Whatever part he has in a play, it is usually accentuated by satire or humor; and it does not take too long before he can make a name for himself. If he has a clean, white complexion and is unusually good-looking, it is safe to assume that he has other skills unknown to outsiders.

A young scholar mounting a boy actor, 19th century

The drama troupes buy these boys from faraway places, and most of them come from Soochow, Hangchow, Anhwei, and Chekiang. The troupes deliberately choose those who are unusually attractive; and once chosen, these boys are taught to speak and walk in the most charming manner and to use their eyes with great efficiency. Their owners will not be satisfied until they reach the stage of perfection. Soon after they get up in the morning, they wash their faces with meat broth. They drink nothing except egg soup, and their meal consists of the choicest, tenderest meat. Before they go to bed, their whole bodies are covered with medicine; the only exception is their hands and feet that are not covered so as to make sure that they will not become sick as a result of skin suffocation.

Three or four months after the training program begins, these boys are as delicate and genteel as lovely maidens. One glance from them will create hundreds of charms. Facing them, even a man like Liu Hsia-hui or Lu Nan-tzu[1] would not be able to escape their ensnarement.

Since their natural voice is different, these boys are taught to sing roles most congenial to their endowment.

I saw some of these boy actors in the Sanch’ing drama troupe. All of them were about fourteen or fifteen years old. After they finished their singing, they helped me with my drinks. They wore clothes made of light silk, and their sleeves were narrow and tight. They were so delicate and lovely that one could not but feel a sentiment of endearment.

On the stage these boy actors play all kinds of roles, not necessarily the impersonation of females.

 

[1] Two legendary figures each of whom was said to have successfully resisted temptation when, in the middle of the night, a lovely woman came into his room, sat on his lap, and begged for his attention. Both of them were praised highly by China’s ancient sages. [Translator’s note]