‘Marco Polo’ actress unmasks brutal truths about gender in ancient Asia


As an actor, you often have to wear masks, whether literally or figuratively, to get into character. But the amount of masks an actor wears on a daily basis cannot compare to those put on by the women forced into sex work in the Song Dynasty. This is something that actress Olivia Cheng quickly learned when she first began contemplating playing the role of Mei Lin, a concubine featured in Netflix’s new series Marco Polo and based on an actual woman of the same name.

“I came across a social science research paper and it talked about how concubines in the imperial court were given rooms full of mirrors,” Cheng told Cinefilles and several other outlets at a recent junket for Marco Polo at the Shangri-La Hotel in Toronto. “Because they were basically living like objectified human beings, they were living sculptures, they had to practice their expressions. So they would stand in front of these mirrors and they would practice being sad, coy, flirtatious, heartbroken, lovestruck, happy. But the one emotion they could not show was anger. They would only express anger through wit and sarcasm.”

Cheng used this idea of women like Mei Lin, sister of chancellor Jia Sidao and second wife and lover of royal men, having to hide their emotions with feigned ones in order to keep up with the expected power relations of the time period as a gateway into the character from the start, even including it in her video audition for the part. She explains, “I did a quick private moment of practicing certain expressions in the mirror and then a moment where the mask comes down and then comes back up and then I went into the first scene.”

This layered interpretation of Mei Lin’s circumstances won her the role, but it’s only part of the gender inequality that occurred during the time Marco Polo‘s title character was exploring the territory. As Cheng explains, the concubine and courtesan practice “was a system that existed for thousands of years and multiple dynasties” and reading up on it was essential for getting into her character.

“It helped inform me how …. how much [Mei Lin’s power] hinged on the patronage of the men around her, whether that be [her] brother, whether that be the emperor, and how shaky ground that truly was,” she tells Cinefilles. “Women who became concubines, depending on where they started, it either signified a fall from grace when they were part of a good family and then had to be sold off, or it represented a rise in society.”

The unbalanced treatment of women and their career paths extended throughout the Song Dynasty. While Mei Lin and others had to live as sexual and personal servants to men in power, other areas of Asia saw women standing next to men and demanding respect. Women like Empress Chabi, a honoured authority figure in Mongolia and depicted by Joan Chen (Twin Peaks) in the series.

“We all had to remind ourselves of, as writers, on a daily basis when writing these people and characters is that there were really two worlds,” executive producer Patrick MacManus, who appeared at the junket alongside Cheng, explains. “There was the Chinese side, in which women were, ultimately subjected to … they were ultimately cast aside as concubines, they were at the heels of the men. Then there was Mongolia. Mongolian women were lauded. They were warriors, they were leaders, they were never thought of as second-class citizens.”

Empress Chabi is certainly of that latter set, and she becomes an source of fascination for Mei Lin. This woman shows Mei Lin that she can be more than just someone’s–some man’s–pet and embrace, as Cheng says, “her strength and her intellect and her ability to maneuver things as equally as her brother, a man who has so much power in society.” And while Cheng admits that it must have been frightening for Mei Lin to “see a woman like that, who has the same strength and power, mirrored right in her face” at first, it has a long-term effect that ripples throughout the show and Mei Lin’s arc. For example, there is a moment later in the season where Mei Lin is forced to fight in the nude. It sounds like a gratuitous moment, but it’s actually one where the character, and Cheng, is able to really, forcefully assert herself.

While fans might be quick to write off what MacManus and Cheng called “Naked Kung-Fu” as simply sensationalism, the pair urges viewers to watch that scene with Mei Lin closely, noting both why it happens to her and how she handles it. Yes, Cheng’s naked in that moment in many senses, but it doesn’t get in her, or Mei Lin’s, way of making things right, and, ultimately serves a greater purpose.

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Mei Lin and Empress Chabi

“I really feel like for me artistically, I understood the nudity to show what dehumanizing and raw situations Mei Lin had to overcome in order to survive her circumstance and save her daughter,” the actress explains. “If anything, I feel like it inform[s] the audience of how much nobility and character she has in very vulnerable circumstances.”

And with Cheng, MacManus and the rest of the Marco Polo team behind her portrayal, Mei Lin the character is and will reportedly remain much more liberated and respected than Mei Lin the historical figure and her peers were.

“Before I said yes to the role, I wanted to have a conversation with [creator] John Fusco first to understand, well, where is he coming from and what is his intention,” Cheng says. “I expressed to him … ‘Listen, I don’t want me, Olivia the actress, to be exploited the way Mei Lin was as a character.’ And I remember John said, ‘That would be cruel irony.'”


The entire first season of MARCO POLO is now streaming on Netflix Canada and Netflix.


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