Toronto-based actor Ziyin Zheng is inspired by the stories of concubines in imperial China. Especially those who climbed the social and political ladder during the Qing Dynasty, which ruled from 1644 to 1911.
“I’m always very fascinated in women’s history because—although I have a male body—I do feel I carry more of the ying, or feminine energy,” the Shanghai-born Zheng tells Pancouver over Zoom.
“That is how I got into this obsession with queens of the Qing Dynasty—actually, the queens of different dynasties,” the actor continues. “They all have this drama going on because women were put in the [role] of a breeding machine. So, they didn’t really have the true power. For them to get power and secure the future, they had to use their minds.”
Empress Dowager Cixi became the most famous Qing Dynasty concubine. After giving birth to the emperor’s only son, she maintained authority for decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Zheng parlayed this appreciation into a leading role in Queens of the Qing Dynasty. Written and directed by Cape Breton filmmaker Ashley McKenzie (Werewolf), the movie will be released this month Canada.
Zheng plays An, an international student from Shanghai. While volunteering in a hospital, An befriends a recovering neurodiverse teen, Star (played by Sarah Walker).
They share secrets, including An’s desire to embody the cleverness of a concubine.
In the film, An also reveals how these women were able to maintain their famously long nails—it’s because they never engaged in physical labour.
“That’s why queens of the Qing Dynasty fascinated me,” Zheng’s character says. “They’re so good at playing mental games.”
Watch the trailer for Queens of the Qing Dynasty.
Zheng highlights An’s spiritual side
An also describes the Qing concubines as “really nasty”, out to destroy men’s egos while protecting their heirs: “They extend their empire while keeping their nails long,” the character declares.
Like An, Zheng is inspired by the Qing Dynasty concubines not only for their intellect and nails, but also for their elaborate attire and fantastic headgear.
And over Zoom, Zheng describes An as an example of “how a male body can embody extreme female sensitivity”. In real life, the actor prefers the pronouns they and them.
“There’s more to read into this character than gender issues,” Zheng adds. “There’s a spiritual side to it.”
How did Zheng, as an international student, come in contact with McKenzie? It resulted from an unrequited crush on a musician.
“But he also didn’t want to break my heart,” Zheng discloses. “So, he introduced me to this director, Ashley, because he knew that I wanted to be an actor.”
Zheng seized on the opportunity, telling McKenzie about being an actor from Shanghai.
“I know you’re a director,” Zheng declared to her. “I would play a sassy bitch in your new film. Please cast me.”
It caught McKenzie’s attention. She wanted to write a particular role for a Chinese international student and enlisted Zheng’s assistance as a script consultant.
That led to advice on An’s dialogue before McKenzie cast Zheng in the role.
From Shanghai to Cape Breton Island
While living in Shanghai, Zheng played female roles in the theatre. This reflected the long-standing tradition of cross-dressing actors in Chinese opera.
“I always played demonic female characters,” Zheng reveals. “It was always a dragon lady or the Wicked Witch of the West or, like, a snake spirit. It’s always been a darker female tone.”
The actor finds it easy to change into that type of person very quickly. It helps that Zheng has an alto singing voice. “I’m kind of petite in my size, so when they try to put me into a women’s suit, it doesn’t look weird.”
In addition to playing female roles, Zheng has also performed as cult leaders and dark magicians in China.
Both of Zheng’s parents worked as architects, which meant they had to be adept with physics and calculations, as well as design. That ability to use different parts of their brains rubbed off on Zheng, who, in addition to acting, studied business. Zheng graduated from Shanghai Business School in 2014.
Shanghai is a cosmopolitan metropolis with a population of about 25 million. Yet, when Zheng decided to move to Canada, it wasn’t to Toronto or Vancouver. Rather, the actor enrolled in Cape Breton University’s master of business administration program.
“I’ll be honest about this,” Zheng says. “When I first came to Cape Breton, where I studied, it’s a place most people from Shanghai wouldn’t choose.”
Furthermore, Chinese students on-campus had their own stereotypical views of residents of big Chinese cities. According to Zheng, they wondered what this student from Shanghai was doing there.
“So, when I first came there, I felt extremely lonely,” Zheng relates. “Nobody was from the same place I was from.”
Actor comments on portrayal of Chinese women
Queens of the Qing Dynasty includes frank comments by Chinese immigrants about Canadians. Zheng explains that this dialogue was sourced from real conversations with friends. Some have expressed concerns about the way Canadian men view Chinese women.
“Our women have told me a lot about how they were surprised to find in their 30s or in their 40s, they still look in their 20s,” Zheng notes. “I think because of the youthful appearance, they get adored but at the same time, they get underestimated a lot.”
Zheng appreciates moving to Canada to develop their career.
“As a queer person, I appreciate that I can fully express and embody my queerness now.”
Queens of the Qing Dynasty will be screened in several Canadian cities this month. The first is on March 3 in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox, followed by March 10 in Ottawa and Winnipeg and March 17 in Vancouver. Follow Pancouver editor Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.