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Jo Law

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Volume 1, May 1996

Women in Chinese Cinema

In a recent conversation concerning the latest Zhang Yimou production, Shanghai Triad,1 my acquaintance expressed her utter disappointment at the absence of Shanghai cityscape from the screen. During the course of discussion, she exclaimed her pleasure at seeing the colourful setting of the dyeing mill in Judou 2 and the magnificent architecture in Raise the Red Lantern.3

If the emerging success of contemporary 'third world' cinema is largely due to their promise to serve up sizzling exoticism and forbidden erotic desires on a hot plate, then the popularity which these works are presently enjoying cannot exceed its realm of commercial profitability. Under the global regime of economic rationalism, the political persuasions of the international film market allow itself to be transformed into a fashionable cultural boutique. When the audience (specifically 'western') simply sees the function of 'third world' cinema as nothing more than a travelogue which provides a few glimpses of cultural authenticity, then the exhibition of ethnic icons only commodifies the cultural production and guarantees commercial success. The essential difference then, between these imagings of 'foreign' cultures and the imperialist approach of anthropological ethnography is their subjectification. In her essay, "Feminist Scholarship: Ethical Issues", bell hooks states that:

As subjects, people have the right to define their own reality, establish their own identities, name their history. As objects, one's reality is defined by others, one's identity created by others, one's history named only in ways that define one's relationship to those who are subjects.4

The decolonisation process in the 'third world' is signified by the active rendering of 'post-colonial' identities in the development of regional nationalism. The assertion of subjectivity in the projection of 'third' world national cinema(s) is a consolidation of 'self-representation(s)' as well as 'self-reflection(s)'.

In any consideration of the politics of visuality in reading/viewing 'marginalised' cinema in an intercultural context, the hegemony of vision must also be taken into account. Cultural production as autoethnography is not isolated within the sphere of so-called orientalist anthropology, but offers sites of resistance. The 'gaze' of 'otherness', therefore, becomes the looking at oneself being looked at. Having understood these 'post-colonial' conditions, viewing contemporary Chinese cinema, then, simultaneously becomes a reading of the modern Chinese social fabric. In fact, it is the recent decades of social trans/formation in China which acts as the basis of film cultural development. These visions function as cultural texts of the changing Chinese social landscape in the tradition of its national literature. The works of the 'fifth generation' 5 filmmakers in China are perhaps the most important in post-revolutionary filmic culture. The autonomy in narrative direction and the emergence of subjectivity within these films mark the characteristic rendering of the socio-political configurations occurring within modern China.

As a filmmaker, Zhang Yimou's strategies lean far more towards popularism than his contemporaries. He is not afraid to use cliched iconography, melodramatic plot or sensationalism to articulate his concepts. When criticising Zhang's works for their deliberate exoticising and eroticising of Chinese culture(s), one must bear in mind that his films are not an ethnographic representation of China. This intricacy in filmic formation is most apparent in Shanghai Triad, whose title bears little, if any, significance to the narrative. The characters and their gestures in the film operate entirely on a metaphoric level in projecting Zhang's vision of modern China.

The complexity of Zhang's works can be separated into many layers and taken in many directions. In this paper, I would like to focus on two of his recent works, Raise the Red Lantern and The Story of Qiu Ju.6 Central to my argument is his use of women (and the socially oppressed) as fetishised objects in defining the 'essential' substance of Chinese culture lost during the monstrosities of the Cultural Revolution. The intentions, purposes and socio-political implications of post-Cultural revolutionary filmmaking in China are complex. Despite this complexity, the notions of rewriting 'self' by re-drafting histories and re-mapping power relations are crucial to these specific constructions of visuality. It is necessary, then, to examine these issues first.

The cultural void that remains behind extreme totalitarianism is saturated with extreme traditionalism, against which filmmakers battle. The director Chen Kaige states that:

Many would say the Cultural Revolution has destroyed Chinese culture since numerous cultural relics were destroyed. However, intellectually, it was more a time when the values inherent in traditional Chinese culture were carried to a dangerous extreme. This was violently reflected in the behaviour of every, individual - from their blind worship of the leader/emperor figure to the total desecration and condemnation of individual rights. These are mere repetitions of traditions.7

The decolonisation process in the Asia-Pacific region breaks down the absolute embodiment of the terms, 'east' and 'west'. More importantly, this process substantiates the need for 'identity(ies)' retrification. The obsession to trace back to the 'original' conditions prior to imperial domination and to realise the 'essence' of the 'pure' culture is characteristic of 'third' world nationalism. These acts of identifications through 'imag(in)ing' the 'original' state accentuate the 'differences' existing in an otherwise homogenised culture. In establishing 'nationhood', China actualises its own autonomous identity, not only in opposition to the 'west', but by drawing differences within its own cultural parameters. Rey Chow writes:

In China, where ethnic differences are relatively undisruptive (except in Tibet) and where the centrality of the Han culture remains assimilated for generations, nationalism functions in the past forty years to fuel communism rather than as communism's repressed side. As communism gradually loses its hold on the populace (even though it is still the official policy), what surface as the "social disorders' that are repressed under communism? Two related things: sexual differences... and "the West." 8

The modernisation of China is marked with a fundamental ideological contradiction between the concept of technological advancement and the preservation of heritage. 'Technology' is perceived as a 'foreign' concept and, as a consequence the adoption of technology equates to a compliance with, and assimilation of, 'foreign' morality. Against this back drop of EuroAmerican imperialist oppression, traditional values are conceived as being threatened by embracing 'western' ideologies. In particular, capitalism's emphasis on late-Victorian individualism jeopardises the structures of traditional Chinese collectivism.

The Chinese feudal system relies on tight knitted social compounds, wherein each member of society is interconnected by the kinship system within a family, a community and a nation. The societal roles of women in a Chinese community are more strictly defined by their relationships with husbands, families and kinships. The traditional feudal system confines the identity of a woman to her 'possession' by the closest male kin; "When she is young, she follows (obeys) her father, when she is mature, she follows (obeys) her husband; when she is old, she follows (obeys) her son." The recognition of subjectivity challenges the security of the traditional kinship system and the intrinsic social fabric at large: "In Chinese culture, a man is defined in terms of a bilateral relationship ... A Chinese is the totality of his social roles. Strip him of his relationships, and there is nothing left. He is not an independent unit." Therefore, the assertion of individuality in this network of social relations greatly disables traditional hierarchical structures.

Subjectivity, however, implies individualism and non-uniformity in a collective social order and neither complies with the totalitarian party policies nor the traditional emphasis on consolidation. As Chris Berry argues in his article, "China's New Woman Cinema", the active rendering of gender difference endorses the emergence of a specific subjectivity, that is of women.

The process of modernisation in China has an underlying obsession with the 'prime' essence of the 'original' culture. This search for the 'origin' functions on two levels: first through the rending of internal differences to focus on geography (urban/ rural), ethnicity (Han culture/ minorities), and gender (male/ female), and secondly, traditionalism is reasserted as fundamental to this imagined 'centre' through its contradictory relationships with modernisation and all its 'foreign' persuasions.

The position of women in modern China rests in the cross sections of both of these conflicting ideologies. Rey Chow states:

If the conception of 'woman' was in the past mediated by women's well defined roles within the Chinese family, the modern promotion of nation throws in the instability all those traditional roles. How are women's sexuality, social function, economic function, contribution to cultural production, and biological reproduction to be conceived of outside the family and in terms of nation?12

This contestation of opposing social values is essential to the establishment of women's identity in Chinese modernity. The discourses of womanhood as 'otherness', analogous to the question of nationhood, preoccupy the screen of contemporary Chinese cinema.

The films of Zhang Yimou are representative of this fascination with the development of womanhood in modern China. Raise the Red Lantern is based on a novel which outlines a young woman's struggles within the confinements of a traditional feudal system. Set in 1930s China, the protagonist, Songlian is an university educated woman who enters an arranged marriage to a wealthy Chen family as a concubine. It is explained later in the narrative that the discontinuation of her education is due to her father's sudden death and the subsequent necessity to marry. Although accepting this prescribed 'fate' as a dependent female, Songlian refuses to submit to the grandiosity of traditions. Declining the transportation of the traditional wedding sedan chair, she is seen carrying her own possessions in a suitcase and walking to the 'master's' house, which is to be her destiny.

The solitude of womanhood in the patriarchal order is highlighted by the contentions amongst the other wives in the household and the physical separation of their living quarters. Powerless as female 'dependents', the only access to power for these women is through the manipulation of their master's favouritism, for being favoured by the master (sexually) equates to the attainment of power. The ritualistic announcement of the chosen quarters, the raising of the lit red lanterns outside the residence and the privilege of the sensual foot massage all function as perverse exhibitions of male authority. The foot massage is awarded to the favoured wife before the master's arrival, this activity is depicted as an orgasmic experience which signifies the temporary liberation of female sensuality and sexual pleasures. Although addressing each other as 'sister', each woman is alienated from one another. The consolation of sisterhood is prevented because the access to female sexuality can only be derived by the master's authority: prolonging the favouritism of the master secures the powerful position of the woman. Although I hesitate to employ Freudian theories on sexuality at this point, the identification of this 'possession of privilege' is undeniably and literally through the ownership of the phallus. The staging of a false pregnancy on Songlian's part implies her claim to that phallus and thus grants her the access to absolute power.

The discovery of Songlian's 'fake' pregnancy is consequential to her final descent in the battle for her autonomy and independence. A defeat which results in her banishment and isolation. The poignant 'fate' of womanhood in the film is portrayed through the female characters' decline and fall in their quest to liberate a repressed sexuality and identity. Songlian's young maid, Yaner, is punished (finally by death) for her dream to achieve the status of the master's new mistress, equal to that of Songlian's. The exposure of the third mistress' secret affair and her subsequent murder dissolve the possibility of an autonomous female sexuality and identity. Songlian's inability to accept this 'fate' is represented by her eventual insanity. Although Zhang describes the repression and the conflicts of female identity in acute detail, his eventual conclusion is none other than the futility of this struggle. The film closes with the vision of Songlian trailing back and forth in the courtyard of the wealthy Chen's house, then the frame pulls out to reveal the vast interconnected structures of these homes. With this view, Zhang affirms the inevitable 'fate' of womanhood in the feudal architecture of China.

Zhang's use of female subjectivity to subvert the established social order in China is more revealing in his later work, The Story of Qiu Ju. The narrative follows the quest of a peasant woman seeking justice. Set in a remote village of contemporary China, Qiu Ju's husband is injured after a dispute with the village chief. The film represents the expansive horizons of the constantly transforming modern Chinese landscape. Qiu Ju's complaint of the village chief's lack of remorse is visually carried from the local rural officials, to the local urban authority, and later to the provincial juridical system. Her faith in the large social system is later contrasted with the need to rely on the village chief's assistance during the difficult birth of her son. Eventually peace is made when Qiu Ju realises the importance of kinship. The film ends with the unexpected arrest of the village chief prior to his departure to Qiu Ju's son's full month celebration.

Zhang poses the contradictions of traditions and modernisation by invoking the question of justice. It is clear that Qiu Ju's demand for a 'simple apology' is not to be found in the larger scale of bureaucratic system. He deliberately juxtaposes the values of kinships in remote village with the vast urban cityscape of anonymity. The warmth and familiarity of home is contrasted with the vulgarity and indecency of city life. Modernisation is asserted in the film as a 'foreign' monstrosity, alien and futile to traditional Chinese culture. Qiu Ju's decisions and actions in the film rest upon a subjective vision in which she is diverted from the 'common good' of her community by her imaginings of justice and the condemnation that comes at the end of the film is a reproach for her individualism.

On one level, Zhang appears to hail female strength and celebrate female sexuality, but as he illustrates the cruelty and animosity of Chinese feudal traditions, he does not hesitate to sacrifice the female protagonist and her will for autonomy. Together the rise of the individual and the concept of modernisation are presented as being in direct opposition to locating and securing the 'prime' essence of China as a collective nation. The eventual defeat of his 'heroines' signifies much more than the mere protestation of female independence. Womanhood is employed as the signifier of difference against which modern China is actively defining its national 'self'. The inclination to position subjectivity with female identity, as a way to resolve the splitting of the collective, remains the current preoccupation of contemporary Chinese cinema. However, this active marginalisation has in turn given rise to a new subjectivity that belongs to modern Chinese womanhood. Here, the subjective vision in image-making proves an immediate space where prescribed traditionalism, conservatism and repressed womanhood can be transgressed as a necessary stage in the liberation from suppressive absolutism.


1. Zhang Yimou. dir., Shanghai Triad (Dandy Films, 1995)

2. Zhang Yimou, dir., Judou (1990).

3. Zhang Yimou, dir., Raise tile Red Lantern (China: China Film Coproduction Corporation, 1991).

4. bell hooks, Talking Back (Boston: South End Press, 1989), p.42

5. The term 'fifth generation' denotes the succeeding graduate year (the fifth year) of the filmmakers from the Beijing Academy.

6. Zhang Yimou, dir., The Story of Qiu Ju ( 1992).

7. From an interview with Chen Kaige in Rey Chow's, Primitive Passion: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema (New York: Colombia University Press, 1995), p.l20.

8. Chow, p.67

9. This is a translation from an old Chinese saying that was (is) used to describe the submission of women.

10. Chris Berry quoting the Chinese cultural critic, Sun Longji, in "China's New Woman's Cinema," Camera Obscura,
Vol. 18 (I 989),p. 13.

11. Berry, p. 13.

12. Chow, p.68.

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