Alexandra Leese & Audrey Hu shoot Nan Dan/Nu Xiao Sheng inspired story for Sixteen Vol.4

Words by ayla angelos

With Nan Dan/Nu Xiao Sheng Alexandra Leese continues her deep exploration into identity, Asian beauty and representation.

In today’s modern world, what does it mean to be a man or a woman? Or better yet, what does it mean to be neither? This is exactly the question posed by Alexandra Leese, a Chinese-British photographer currently based in London, in her most recent series Nan Dan/Nu Xiao Sheng – a spellbinding collaboration with Audrey Hu, composed for the latest iteration of Sixteen Journal.

As a photographer who utilises her medium to tell stories – like those of coming-of-age moments, Asian beauty and identity – Alexandra has developed an explorative and assertive lens, one that she uses to uncover the “fluidity” of “truths or norms” that vary from culture to culture. For Nan Dan/Nu Xiao Sheng, her subject matter succumbs around the effects of gender categorisation, specifically that which is found within her birth country of China – a place she’d grown up before moving to the West at the age of 12.

Previous: Top, Masha Popova. Belt, The Costume Studio.
This image: Skirt, trousers and shoes, Samuel Guì Yang. Headpiece, The Costume Studio.

“The Chinese have always loved using symbols to represent more abstract ideas and are quite superstitious.”

China has a deep-rooted history with gender; historically, and during the era of the Qing dynasty, there were harsh restrictions that limited not only the interactions between men and women but what role women could perform within society. This includes the theatre which, as a response to the circumambient oppressive atmosphere, led to the influx of Nan Dan – a term coined once females were allowed to perform on stage. The Nu Xiao Sheng became popular after this period, which subsequently saw a rise in women in the theatre and the influx of female-led theatre groups during the mid-20th century.

Dress, Jei Wu. Skirt, skirt worn as collar, shoes, Samuel Guì Yang.
Top, Masha Popova.

Throughout Alexandra’s series, the age-old tradition of performative crossdressing is explored by these illicit and in some ways conceiting titles. Still very much alive today, the Nan Dan is given to the male actor who’s playing a female role – which literally translates to ‘male diva’ – while Nu Xiao Sheng is given to the female; the actors are to play the opposite gender on stage, often transformed into a heightened and expressive depiction of the self. Those only of the highest skilled in acting is given the status of Nan Dan and Nu Xiao Sheng, and its context is riddled with years of oppressive gender expectations. “Unlike in western culture, where it may have been a more comical role within the theatre, the Nan Dan was taken very seriously and they had to fully become the opposite gender in speech, mannerisms, and temperament,” she says.

“The Chinese have always loved using symbols to represent more abstract ideas and are quite superstitious,” she says, noting how the prevalence of symbolism within Chinese art was replicated for the purpose of this story. “For example, the Chinese carp is a symbol of power and perseverance, and the crane is a symbol of longevity and peace.” Then there are motifs such as the eclipse which, for Alexandra, often reminds her of “coming out of the darkness and into a new hope.”

Nan Dan/Nu Xiao Sheng, in this sense, isn’t just a poetic gesture to a time when gender binaries were heightened – rather, it’s a layered depiction of the dreams that Alexandra sets out for the world. 

Dress, Samuel Gui Yang.
Robe, The Costume Studio.
Top, Masha Popova.

Celebrating gender fluidity and Chinese culture in one, the pictures are a gentle, evocative and aesthetically driven reminder of how our identities are complex and non-linear, which is something that Alexandra has been grappling with ever since she moved to the UK: “Even as half Chinese, I have only ever experienced being made to feel other due to being Asian and never for my whiteness,” she concludes.

“But now, I am proud, and I want to explore this part of me through my work. I feel a strong responsibility as an image-maker and storyteller to show others the beauty of my culture and its people, as well as to bring more representation to it within the western media.”

Jumper and dress, Kepler London. Robe, The Costume Studio. Skirt and boots, Samuel Guì Yang.
Blazer, Robert Wun. Accessories, Jamie Sutherland.

Photography: Alexandra Leese, assisted by David Mannion, Pedro Faria and Ashleigh Ramel. Styling: Audrey Hu, assisted by Tim Brooks. Make-up: Siobhan Furlong @ LGA, assisted by Natasha Sultana. Hair: Kota Suizu @ Caren, assisted by Martha Inoue. Set Design: Danny Hyland, assisted by Camilla Byles and Caspar Bucknall. Talents: Jun Dun @ Storm & Echo @ Contact. Casting: People File. Production: 1972 Agency. On set production: Nicola Rusted @ LG Studio.

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