In Confucian society, which concentrated on scholarship and the civil service examination system, opera artists were accorded low social status, no matter how famous they became. Young people were encouraged to study classical subjects for the civil service exams, which could lead to important official positions, and the arts were not a common career choice. It was usual in earlier times for opera performers to use only their stage names, never revealing their real names.
In early Cantonese Opera, there were no female artists. All of the actors were male. Female artists were later permitted, but even today certain female roles are performed by male actors, in a holdover from this tradition.
In the early 1800s, Li Wen Mao (d. 1858) was famous in civil and military middle-aged men's roles (wen wu, lao sheng), and performed frequently in well-known Cantonese operas such as Su Wu Returns Home and Li Mi's Petition. During the late Qing Dynasty and the Republican era, other stars emerged, such as Dong Po An, Qian Liju, Qiao Lixiang, Xiao Sheng Cong, Zhou Lingli, and Li Xuefang. Among these, Qian Liju was known as the "King of Hua Dan" (despite the fact that Hua Dan roles are female). In the early 1940s, two inventive artists — Xue JiaoXian, who brought in Beijing Opera influences, and Ma Shizeng, who introduced western musical instruments to Cantonese opera — devoted themselves to the reform of Cantonese opera, particularly its themes, staging, costumes and makeup.
In today's China, Cantonese opera troupes can be found in many southern provinces and cities — primarily Guangdong, Guangxi and Hong Kong. There are many professional Cantonese opera schools as well, and actors must usually have a diploma from one of these schools before they can join a professional troupe.