The Qianlong court in the late 1700s banned women from performing live theater in China in an effort to “uphold morality.” Men therefore impersonated females in the “Huadan” role, like the one played by Lam Ching Ying in The Prodigal Son (1981). European theater has a similar tradition of men performing female roles, a tradition which was spoofed (and at the same time upheld) by comedy troupes like Monty Python and Kids in the Hall.
It’s important to understand why traditional theater was male-only.
Traditional theater is typically male-only. This isn’t due to any sexual nature of theater, but rather it stems from theater’s origin in secret societies (or less ominously, guilds) and sacred performances. These were common throughout the world in native societies in the Americas, Africa, India, Australia, Polynesia, and Melanesia. The local guild received male initiates, typically around age 11-13, and put them through a rite of circumcision. In some places this occurred within a massive enclosure which looked like a dragon that appeared to “devour” the initiate and inflict the wound that would make him a man. The boy’s mother would cry that her son had been devoured, while the boy was struggling within the “belly of the beast” in the lodge, undergoing dance training, sleep deprivation, fasting, and of course the circumcision rite. Australian Aborigines use the bull roarer to simulate the voice of gods (or the dragon’s voice in other places) during these initiation ceremonies. Nobody would dare insinuate that the bull roarer was just a piece of wood on a string, since that could undermine the entire initiation process. Thus women and uninitiated males were not allowed to see the bull roarer at all.
Occasionally an initiate didn’t make it, and the elders would regretfully inform the mother that the boy had not made it out of the dragon, but most boys would emerge as men, with new names, and begin living among the men. Sometimes the mothers claimed to hardly recognize their sons, and the sons would sometimes fully separate from their mothers then. The boy was soon after married and the missing “female” part of his life was then returned, much like how the Bible says that a man cleaves to a woman as a wife.
The initiates were then therefore part of a society which performed sacred functions within the tribe. These functions included performances during festivals (new moons, equinoxes, seasonal changes) and crises (famine, plague, flooding, animal attacks, and warfare). Many of these performances were songs dances, which were sort of copyrighted by the guild, since no other guild was authorized to perform these dances. Usually the tribal elders enforced this copyright, or it was enforced directly by the guild in an armed conflict. Their drums were sacred, as they had the effect of lulling the crowd into a somnambulistic state, or hypnosis. The performers underwent possession rites to “become” the gods that they claimed to have power over the current issue. The god of war (the Chinese Guan Yu… recall Yuen Wo Ping’s Dreadnaught 1980) was channeled for assistance in combat, or the fertility goddess for assistance with child birth.
The dance troupe would wear masks in order to better convey these personalities to the audience, who often believed they were the real gods having come to give their blessings. The possession ritual was potent enough for the performers themselves to believe this as well. Japanese Noh theater openly acknowledges that the usage of the mask is a possession ritual. Often these performances might expand out into the town, and the troupe of “gods” would roam the streets taking donations and, if a crisis called for it, meting out punishment on delinquents.
Guilds naturally feared that, if a female or an uninitiated male witnessed one of these masks separated from the actor, or a bull roarer lying around, that the entire illusion would be broken. So the punishment for looking at a mask or a bull roarer was frequently the death penalty. They took these things very seriously, since their entire social order hinged on the performance of these items.
Women had their own societies, for sure, and their own initiation ceremonies (often brutal ones involving solitary confinement for months upon reaching puberty), but female guilds were typically less theatrical, usually used for fertility or harvesting, and didn’t use the same sacred implements of masks and bull roarers. The possession rites tended to be handled by men, and men were therefore primarily the “actors” in ancient society, and women were excluded from the troupe. Breaking this rule meant death.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how Chinese theater originated, first in totem societies run by male secret secret societies, then as roaming troupes that would perform ritual exorcisms wherever needed, and finally the establishment of opera houses. It’s probably these establishments, which often also signaled a transition from matrilineal to patrilineal descent in the clan system, that undermined secret societies and granted women access to the “secrets” of performance.
So the “Dan” performer, which has been heralded as an early precursor to the idea of gender fluidity, was only fluid within a ritual context. These men, when not impersonating characters or possessed, would lead otherwise standard lives. But the institution of female impersonation, especially when performed by a young boy, naturally brought out some of the worst in theatrical “culture”, since abuses of Dan performers could be couched under a sort of virtual reality of “ritual”. The abuser wasn’t abusing a child actor impersonating a female. In his mind, was consorting with a goddess, or a legendary female character.
Theater and acting has this deadly, dual nature to it: ritualization of performance, and ritualization of abuse. In the end, the masks come off and everyone goes home and pretends none of it was real.