How a man from a village changed traditional art form
In 1996, Li Yugang, the first person in his hometown, a remote village in Northeast China’s Jilin province, to pass the national university entrance exam, had to drop out because his family could not afford college fees.
However, Li, then 19, did not want to farm the land like his ancestors had done for generations. So, he left home to pursue his dream of performing and became a club singer.
“Everyone laughed at me and they said I was gambling,” says Li, now 38.
A year later, he returned home without achieving success. “Those were my darkest days and I even contemplated suicide,” he says.
In 2000, Li left home again and tried to make a living in Shenzhen, in southern Guangdong province. He worked at a record store by day and sang at a bar by night.
Things did not get better until one night he stood in for a girl, who was supposed to sing a duet with him. He sang both the male and the female parts, which made the audience happy.
From then on, Li worked on his act, borrowing from the nan dan genre (males playing female roles) in Peking Opera, giving the traditional art form a modern edge by combining it with pop music.
It paid off. In 2006, with his cross-dressing performances, Li had his breakthrough — performing on CCTV’s popular talent show Star Boulevard, a program for grassroots artists.
Now, Li is a householdname on the music scene.
With three studio albums behind him, he has performed twice on CCTV’s most watched annual Spring Festival Gala — in 2012 and 2013.
His stage productions— The Painting of Four Beauties and Flower in Mirror, Moon in Water — have toured China and abroad, including New York and Sydney.
To mark the 10th anniversary of his Star Boulevard performance, Li will launch his latest tour in Beijing on Dec 17 at the Workers’ Gymnasium. He will visit Shanghai, Chengdu, Toronto, San Francisco and Sydney next year.
“The past 10 years saw my personal reinvention. I wanted to do a show that showcases my memorable moments onstage,” says Li, who will perform some of the classic female characters he has portrayed, such as the four ancient Chinese beauties: Xi Shi of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC); Wang Zhaojun of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24); Diao Chan of the Three Kingdoms (220-280) and Yang Guifei of the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
But while delving into the past, Li also finds himself being pulled toward the future.
Ma Jiuyue, music director of Li’s upcoming tour, who is a composer with the China National Orchestra and has worked as the music director of Li’s show, Flower in Mirror, Moon in Water, in 2010, says: “Audiences are familiar with the female roles Li has played. But in this show, he will sing without heavy makeup and exquisite costumes.
“I believe this tour will let people see the man behind those women.”
In 2010, Li was offered a contract with the China Opera and Dance Drama Theater as the only performer without professional training to be signed by the troupe.
Meanwhile, despite attention and popularity, Li has faced mixed reviews of his performances.
Some Peking Opera experts call Li’s performances “amateurish” and condemn him for misguiding the younger audience. Even his parents want him to get a newjob.
But despite the controversy about his work, Li has continued to push boundaries.
In 2015, three years after he withdrew from the limelight, he returned with Lady Zhaojun, about the legendary Wang Zhaojun, an ancient Chinese beauty who volunteered to marry the ruler of a Hun tribe in exchange for friendly relations with the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).
To prepare for the drama, he traveled from Beijing to the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and this not only inspired him to produce the show but also enabled him to regain his confidence.
“The travels slowed down my career development. I had lots of time to think and figure out my next move,” says Li, who also then got interested in calligraphy and traditional Chinese handcrafts such as paper-making and silk embroidery.
Li has been looking to expand his repertoire further.
Recently, the popular TV show, The King of Comedy, produced by the Beijing TV Station, had a contest featuring professional comedians and actors and singers without prior experience in comedy. Li took part and won.
“I felt free and excited when I performed as a comedian. The result was beyond my expectations and it gives me confidence to expand my range in the future,” says Li.
Li Yugang will launch his latest tour in Beijing on Dec 17.