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Identity and the politics of (self) representation: women in Chinese cinema 1985-2015.


The question of women has remained a central concern in the cinematic imagination of Chinese consciousness and sociopolitical discourse on gender identity since the inception of commercial Chinese cinema in the mid-1980s, when the landscape of Chinese society, culture, and economy underwent fundamental transformations. In the three decades between 1985 and 2015, cinematic representation of women and female identity has become a contested site where national political exigencies, globalizing market consumerism, and renegotiation of female gender identity intersect. As Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu rightfully observes, "womanhood is often a trope for the nation, a national allegory." (1) Chinese cinematic representation of women is both reminiscent of her socialist political conceptualization within the grand masculine narrative of nation (rebuilding, and also powerfully symptomatic of the projected imagination of her contribution and potentials in the nation's postsocialist future. In other words, the cinematic reconfiguration of woman is always contextualized by a negotiation between two opposing yet symbiotic forces--one that is retrospective and normative, and the other prospective and regulative.

The complex interplay between these two forces serves as a crucial yet overlooked undercurrent that illuminates the gender politics and identity discourse that simultaneously delimit and inspire women's cinematic representation in the past three decades. This article critically examines filmic representations of women in this transformative period and engages them as a prism to refract the trajectory of Chinese cinematic feminism as it underwent several stages, experimenting and exploring gender expression and identity politics. This article argues that socialist cinematic (re)imagination of women displaces feminist dilemma with national predicaments and political crisis, thereby dissolving the urgency and particularity of Chinese women's identity and gender consciousness. In other words, when women's struggles are mediated as national challenges and her predicaments as collective issues, such representation purposefully subjugates women's gender subjectivity to the masculine emancipatory discourse and the grand narrative of nation-building and economic globalization. Investigating representative films that significantly reshape the representation of women as Chinese feminist cinema in this transitional period moves from socialist feminism to postsocialist postfeminism, (2) this article further argues that an emerging feminist cinema in the last three decades potentializes an alternative representation of self-authorized female subjectivity that reinscribes desire, sexuality, and agency.

It must be noted that this article does not intend to be a comprehensive investigation of women's cinema in China in the last three decades; nor is it a systematic study of major works and filmmakers in feminist cinema. Rather, it is an attempt to (re)engage the critical discourses on women and nation in Chinese feminist cinema from a historicized and alternative vantage point that accentuates not only the dynamics of their symbiotic yet centrifugal interplay, but more significantly the trajectory of the cinematic representation of women in contemporary China as a result of such complex intersectionalities between women and nation as narrative frameworks, politicized tropes, and visualized subjects. Thus, the periodization becomes a crucial element that provides transitional context for the current discussion, because it is during the last three decades that feminist Chinese cinema has re-examined the representation of women vis-a-vis the nation-state, problematizes the subjugation of gender discourse to narratives and narrations of the nation, and begins to obtain national, critical, artistic, sociopolitical, and cultural independence.


Identity, Crisis, and Desire: The New Woman in Post-Mao Cinema

As China entered its postsocialist era in the 1980s, the cinematic representation of women demonstrated cautious but earnest efforts to re-examine the concept of female gender identity and challenge the politicized imagination in post-Mao socialist cinema. (3) Historicized by critics as "the cinematic New Wave of the 1980s and 1990s in China", (4) the first decade may be characterized by the encounters between China and the West in almost every aspect of its sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and intellectual development. While China's economic development and liberal political atmosphere exposed Chinese filmmakers to Western cinematic feminist theories and critiques in the 1980s since the government adopted the 'Reform and Open-up' policy, (5) these imported critical theoretical apparatuses were only "adopted piecemeal," (6) and were "not readily applicable to the Chinese context and cases." (7) This incompatibility between Western cinematic feminist theories and Chinese films was a result of intricate and politically-charged interactions among many issues, including the differences of geopolitical locality, historical contexts, cultural traditions, and socioeconomic development, etc. But one of the most significant dissimilarities between Chinese women and their Western counterparts is the former's lack of gendered sexuality and consequently the absence of a visual language of its representation. Women in socialist Chinese cinema were genderless, sexless, and difference-less, in the sense that they were "not looked upon as an object of male desire and pleasure" but instead "viewed as a sister in revolutionary struggles, a comrade in the socialist cause." (8) Thus, unlike their Western counterparts in the second-wave of feminism, who occupied a politically empowering vantage point by exploiting their marginalized position and objectified sexualization to disrupt the normative dichotomy of "men do the looking/women are looked at" in classical Hollywood cinema, women in socialist Chinese cinema were confronted with the exigent crisis of the lack of gender identity.

In filmic narratives, an ardent attempt to reinscribe female sexuality and women's desire in feminist cinema became a dominant concern among the first generation of women filmmakers in postsocialist China. They endeavored to address the ontological questions that define Chinese feminism in that they recognize its social, political, cultural, and ideological specificities. What does it mean to be a woman in China? How should women seek to express their desires and construct their identity? What are the challenges specific to Chinese women? And above all, how can cinematic texts be employed to problematize the de-sexualized, subjugating, and normative representation of women in socialist cinema? Among films about women in the decade between 1985 and 1994 that experiment with an alternative portrayal of women and explore new filmic language for feminine gender expressions, Huang Shuqin's Woman Demon Human (1987) and Zhou Xiaowen's Ermo (1994) merit close critical examination as each employs innovative gender narrative rhetoric and engages poignant politicized discourses on women's self-representation and introspective identity-formation. These two films epitomize the two distinctive foci in cinematic feminism as both attempt to remap women's identity vis-a-vis a changing social reality. While Woman Demon Human potentializes the establishment of female agency and subjectivity as performative, transgressive, and disruptive in a dichotomous masculine society, Ermo's director, Zhou Xiaowen chooses to point his camera at rural women and boldly positions women's sexuality at the center of his narrative framework both as an empowering subject-position and as a provocative identity expression/formation.

Huang Shuqin, one of the most significant female directors of the Fourth Generation Chinese filmmakers, allegorizes theatrical performance in Woman Demon Human, her daring portrayal of a successful female opera artist to explore women's socio-gender identity and artistic expressions of the dynamics between the self and society. The layered narrative structure and its highly complex psychological inquiry into women's gender consciousness earned the film the fame of being "the only women's film" in China. (9)

Woman Demon Human's pronounced inquiry into women's gender identity and its problematization of socialist feminism is symptomatic of the keenly felt identity crisis among the new generation of filmmakers who recognized the incompatibility between contemporary social, political, cultural, and historical realities in China's early stage of postsocialism in the late 1980s and the revolutionary discourse of feminist representation. This crisis underlines the film's urgent search for an alternative feminism that begins with philosophical investigations of femininity and women's self-discovery. Woman Demon Human portrays the life and art of actress Qiu Yun (Xu Shouli), whose character is based on the real life opera actress Pei Yanling, and traces Qiu's attempt to define her own layered and mercurial gender identity that is closely contextualized by her onstage persona/mirrored Self/gendered Other Zhong Kui, a fictionalized historical man who caught and killed demons and vicious ghosts in ancient Chinese folk tales. In other words, Qiu Yun's portrayal of Zhong Kui both serves as the film's narrative framework and refracts her own performative gender reconceptualization. Specifically, as a woman portraying a man whose story is essentially the encounter with the Other and the constant assertion and justification of the self by negotiating with the Other, Qiu Yun employs her artistic characterization of Zhong Kui to obtain a transgressive gender agency that disrupts the dominating patriarchal gender discourse.


Qiu Yun's gender transgression interweaves with her encounters with the Other both in her personal maturation as a woman and in her performing career portraying Zhong Kui onstage, and it is precisely by constantly challenging the boundaries between the self and the Other that Qiu Yun defines her gender identity and thereby gains subjective agency. The desire for marital harmony, social normalcy, and emotional happiness contextualizes Qiu Yun's trans-gendered characterization of Zhong Kui, and ultimately allows her to articulate a female subjectivity that is simple yet ambivalent. In a conversation with her father after he hosts a big feast to celebrate the daughter's belated homecoming and her international success as an opera artist, Qiu Yun expresses her understanding of Zhong Kui and concludes, "Zhong Kui is good at one thing. He is a matchmaker and wants to find good husbands for women. I think women should marry well." Despite this unambiguous longing for happy marriage and love, Qiu Yun nevertheless remains silent about her definition of a good marriage and how one achieves this goal.

Qiu Yun's declaration of women's desire and goal is layered with nuanced gender discourses that disrupt normalizing masculine gender dynamics. While Qiu Yun effectively re-constructs Zhong Kui's character as a helper for women in marriages, she rejects the traditional interpretation of Zhong Kui as a man with power and agency and thereby subverts the gender hierarchy by centralizing women's desire and pursuit as the motif of the opera. Thus, Qiu Yun is ultimately able to speak in her own voice not because she is disguised as a man, but in spite of it. Qiu Yun's conscious self-reflexive expression of desire reveals the film's endeavor to represent the New Woman by reinscribing subject intent into the formation of a gender identity. In other words, Qiu Yun's awakening to her gender consciousness and autonomous identity is always circumscribed with determining what she wants. This underlying narrative motif is perfectly revealed in the film's Chinese title Ren gui qing [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] literally "human, ghosts, feelings." While the juxtaposition of human and ghosts suggests an equilibrium between the two domains in Qiu Yun's performance and allegorizes a hierarchized gender dynamic, her emotions and desires are ultimately what enables her to bridge these two separate and potentially antithetical worlds. In addition, by adding "feelings" as the third part of the trivector, the film creates a third realm of identification that is neither human (the self) nor ghosts (the Other), but an alternative cognitive space that both transcends and disrupts the binary structure of the self and the Other. Such boundary-crossing serves as a subtle yet daring analogy for the film's remapping of female gender consciousness through the lens of her desires.

The efforts to re-center feminine desires as an essential component in women's identity formation are visualized in female libidinal pursuits in rural China in Zhou Xiaowen's Ermo. The eponymous hero of this film Ermo (Ai Liya) is a hard-working, head-strong, and resourceful woman whose husband used to be the village chief but now is an invalid and impotent. Having to shoulder financial and familial responsibilities all by herself, Ermo decides that she wants nothing else than a 29 inch color television set and works tirelessly so that she can save enough money to buy it, the biggest TV in her village. The allegorical significance of Ermo's story is quite apparent, as many critics are quick to observe: Ermo's obsession with material goods is symptomatic of China's increasingly rapid globalization and consumerism, and as a result of which rural areas suffer from an uneven economic development and an incomplete modernization. (10) Such critiques crystalize the masculine cultural discourse that renders women the bearer of the burden of national economic hardships, turning her dilemma into a collective struggle. While the cultural politics certainly rings true in problematizing postsocialist China's economic globalization, it does not fully recognize the significance of Ermo's gender dynamics and its attempt to legitimize and celebrate women's sexuality and their libidinal desire.

Ermo reimagines a New Woman in China's vast rural area who is financially independent, sexually-liberated, and psychologically sophisticated. Ermo's encounter with urbanity as she takes frequent trips to a nearby city to sell her noodles not only allows her to support an entire family when women in rural areas have extremely limited access to well-paying jobs, but more significantly transforms her identity and enables her to satisfy long-suppressed sexual desire. But it is her unabashed and unburdened pursuit of bodily pleasure that is ultimately liberating and transformative. Ermo strategically displaces the debilitating male gaze and thereby effectively dissolves the hierarchized gender visual politics by mediating Ermo's sexuality through her highly eroticized noodle-making scene. As the camera positions Ernio's laboring body and subtly sexualizes her movements with carefully punctuated close-ups and trailing sound tracks, the metaphorical suturing of commodified labor and female libidinal release gives Ermo a total autonomy of her economic and sexual being.

Ermo ends on an ambivalent note when Ermo stares blankly at the fetishized object of her desire--the 29 inch color television set--prominently placed at the center of the frame showing nothing but static screen. While her infatuation with material consumerism epitomizes the dilemma of socioeconomic imbalance that characterizes the early stage of postsocialist China, Ermo's "awakened sexuality and economic productivity both figure as markers of a newfound autonomy and interiority that contrast with the previously heteronomous and quite public organization of resources, meaning, and subjectivity." (11) Thus, Ermo employs female sexual desire and libidinal satisfaction as a counter-narrative to the previous de-genderized feminist discourses in the Maoist era.

The Politics of (Self) Representation: Subjectivity in Polyphony

The exploration of gender identity and female sexuality that was manifested as the central focus in the first decade of the New Wave in postsocialist feminist Chinese cinema was liberating, but it is reflexive of a conscious reaction against masculine narratives of nation and the debilitating discourses of socialist gender politics, which rendered women's cinema in this period derivative and ideologically circumscribed by the very visual and narrative rhetoric it sought to disrupt. In order to recognize the limitations of this binary opposition and the hegemony of a single authoritative gender discourse, women's cinema in the "post-New Era" (12) at the turn of the century needed to rethink how gender autonomy could be (self)represented and to develop polyphonic cinematic languages that would be compatible with diversified visualizations of female consciousness. While women's cinema in the decade of 1995 to 2004 demonstrates a greater diversity in its experimentation on cinematic representations of women's subjectivity and gender agency, such efforts appear to be discursive, polycentric, and even fragmented, partly as a result of the challenges brought about by the radical changes in Chinese cinema in the era of commercialization. As "China changed from a nation-state to a transnational-state with a market economy," (13) the film industry became completely commercialized in the marketization of studio systems, and box office revenue served as the single most important factor in the profit-oriented popular entertainment business.

Confronted with this new reality of a Darwinian competition for investment, talents, actors, and even showing schedules in theaters, feminist cinema responds to media globalization and an uneven distribution of resources by sourcing transnational financiers, strategizing independent filmmaking outside the studio system, and attracting major demographics with star actors. As exemplified by many female filmmakers whose films attract both critical attention and commercial success, the combination of flexible investment mode (private, cooperation, overseas), independent production outside of state-sponsored studios (thus less "mainstream"), and a conscious peripheral positioning as low-budget, art-house productions provides feminist cinema a political vantage point of being marginalized and underprivileged. Thus, women's subjectivity can be visualized not as a counter-narrative, but as cinematic discourses of difference, a polyphony of identity articulations that foregrounds the diversity and hybridity within women's identity formation.


This period of new artistic expressive approach and flexible production mode is epitomized in two films by female directors: Baober in Love, (2004) by Li Shaohong and Letter from An Unknown Woman (2004) by Xu Jinglei. Their cinematic representations of women's subjectivity and gender agency are characterized by transnational intertextuality, experimental avant-garde visuality, and a conscious de-politicization of feminist discourses. While Li Shaohong is one of the most commercially successful female filmmakers among the Fifth Generation directors, maintaining high popularity and visibility as both a filmmaker and TV producer/director throughout her career, Xu Jinglei is herself a top-tier actress turned independent director/producer/screenplay writer, who has obtained trans-regional recognition in East and Southeast Asia. Although Li and Xu may share little in common in their historical consciousness, educational background, artistic style, cinematic modes, public persona, and visual gender rhetoric, they are both central to the significant momentum of women's cinema in the wake of Chinese cinema's cultural globalization and internationalized entertainment business in several aspects. First, both succeeded in achieving a delicately maintained equilibrium between a pronounced yet non-threatening cinema-feminism that taps into the emotional core of urban women, and a sustainable high box office revenue that produces a high investment yield in commercial cinema. Second, both tactfully negotiate the mercurial cultural spaces triangulated by government censorship, popular media market economy, and social critiques. Specifically, while Li Shaohong exemplifies how the Fifth Generation directors navigate the changing landscapes of feminist cinema, Xu Jinglei demonstrates the emerging trend of boundary-crossing in the film industry both in production and consumption of commercial films. Thus, together they shape a social discourse and acclimate a new generation of audience that are receptive to a nascent cinematic postfeminism, or, "feminism with Chinese characteristics." (14)

Baober in Love embeds a carefully situated feminist narrative of desire, subjectivity, and consciousness in the story of a schizophrenic and hypochondriac woman's pursuit of love and happiness. The film's eponymous protagonist Baober (Zhou Xun) is traumatized by the sudden demolition of her home when she is very young, and develops an alter ego with a carefree and uninhibited personality whenever she runs away from home. Baober becomes infatuated with Liu Zhi (Huangjue), who records his private thoughts about his life and marriage on a VHS tape, which is found and watched by Baober by chance. Visualized in a surrealist art-house cinematic aesthetics, Baober in Love adopts a narrative style that is reflexive of a "new formalism" in Chinese cinema that serves as "an embodiment of the new ideology of capitalism, insofar as form itself appears as a globalized commodity." (15) In other words, this unconventional visual rhetoric is symptomatic of a transnational strategy that employs a new cinematic language that is fluid and flexible. In addition, this new style creates a fresh spectatorial experience that subtly reconditions audience's expectations for a romantic love story. Just as director Li Shaohong proclaimed, this film demands that its audience "abandon previous aesthetics of film viewing" in order to be surprised. (16)

The film's hybrid imagination of the blurring of boundaries between reality and imagination, love and fantasy, and physical and psychological realms creates a space where Baober's female gender consciousness obtains agency and subjective autonomy without engendering a dichotomous dynamics with a dominating masculine sociopolitical discourse. Instead, Baober's gender identity formation takes shape in an imaginary space, an allegorical social vacuum where she is unburdened by patriarchal and masculine gender discourses. This non-confrontational gender politics is effectively established at the beginning of the film: although Baober's "abnormality" is clearly a result of a hegemonic urbanization process when the young Baober screams in horror as CGI images of the rapid mushrooming high-rising buildings (themselves visual metaphors of masculinity and phallic power) overpowers her, her psychological regression into a simpler social environment is represented as empowering and liberating, in the sense that she re-creates an idealized identity and achieves emotional fulfilment and becomes socially integrated. Thus, Baober's gender identity is both participatory and performative inasmuch as she maintains social functionality and normalcy by playing, albeit unconsciously, an imaginary character conjured up to counter-act her traumatic childhood memory.

Baober in Love carefully de-politicizes Baober's traumatization so that the film does not actively assumes the antithetical position of social criticism against the erasing urbanization process and by extension, the grand political narrative of national economic globalization. The film's conscious de-politicization of its gender commentary in turn accentuates Baober's subject autonomy and her fearless articulation of her emotional desires and unfettered expressions of selfhood, upon which Baober's identity-formation is predicated. It is significant to emphasize that the film represents a far more normal and functional Baober while she assumes this imaginary identity than when she regains her "normal" consciousness. This representational strategy embeds a subtle yet compelling gender politics that problematizes social conventions of normalcy, disrupts the homogeneity of cultural normative, and ultimately legitimizes an alternative (self)representation of identity that is not confined by the hierarchized binary oppositions of self/other, man/woman, normal/abnormal.


If Baober in Love reflects a centrifugal tendency in its de-stabilization of feminist gender identity formation and visualization, Xu Jinglei's Letter from an Unknown Woman serves as the other half of a cinematic diptych that illustrates the polyphony of feminist discourses on subjectivity, desire, and agency. Adapted from Stefan Zweig's novella of the same title, Xu's film transplants the location from turn-of-the-last century Vienna to 1930s Beijing, thereby de-exoticizing the original story for her own feminist agenda. Zweig's novella, a story about unrequited love, features an unnamed woman who writes a letter to her 'lover' as she is dying. In it, she informs him of her lifelong devotion to him even though the man never knew about it, despite the fact that they had spent two nights together. While Xu's film adaptation stays quite close to Zweig's original text, it employs spectatorial positioning and mise en scene to change the patriarchal power dynamics of the original narrative. Specifically, Xu does not seek a feminist reversal or overturn the gender hierarchy dominated by men just to replace it with a similarly structured feminist one. Instead, her adaptation foregrounds the prototype of the new women in the dawning postfeminist era as emotionally strong, independent, intelligent, and consciously seeking gender agency.

Letter from, an Unknown Woman gives back to the female protagonist, Miss Jiang (Xu Jinglei) the agency which Zweig's novella had denied. Xu's film adopts Jiang's female voice-over as a narrative structure, which allows Jiang to control her own narrative by positioning the male protagonist Mr. Xu (Jiang Wen) as only a listener to her letter, a powerless audience who does not participate in the recounting of her life story. The film further disempowers Mr. Xu in cinematic terms as it discourages masculine spectatorial identification from the very beginning through the visual dominance of the letter. The opening sequence relentlessly exploits close-ups and extreme close-ups to trace the letter as it travels through the postal service where it is stamped, sorted, delivered, and finally handed to Mr. Xu. Thus, the visual significance of the letter metonymically signals Jiang's feminine dominance. By contrast to the dominance of the feminine letter, Mr. Xu's visual oblivion in this scene crystalizes his powerlessness: he is never the center of the frame as the film begins, and always manifests a fragmented visuality, seen only as a pair of gloved hands, in long back shots, and speaks in a disembodied voice. Mr. Xu's visual fragmentation metaphorizes his narrative non-presence and a disintegrated subjectivity. Faceless, voiceless, and clueless, Mr. Xu surrenders his masculine and patriarchal agency to Jiang's narrative voice.

Xu Jinglei's localized adaptation of a text that lends itself to patriarchal interpretation reveals her own brand of Chinese feminism, whose trajectory changes from traditional passive feminism to affirmative postfeminist gender politics. This alternative feminism knows better than to engage in an aggressive battle against gender hegemony and patriarchy. On the contrary, a re-imagined feminism shrewdly subverts gender roles and proactively seeks autonomy and independence, both emotionally and ideologically. This feminist spirit is perfectly captured and eloquently articulated in a sentence in the advertisement of her film: "I love you, and that does not concern you.'" Therefore, the pronounced claim of subjective agency becomes the fundamental signifier to woman's self-representation and gender identity construction.

Woman Warrior and Migrant Worker: Gendered Tropes of Nation and the Body Politics of Postfeminism

The pronounced postfeminist proclamation manifest in Xu Jinglei's film inspired an even more vigorous experimentation on feminist commercial cinema and exploration for alternative representation of women that reflects the changing sociopolitical realities in the decade between 2005 and 2015. While the search for a cinematic feminism with Chinese characteristics continues, two thematic trends emerge in this most diversified and polycentric era in Chinese women's cinema in the postsocialist period. One is characterized by a politicized re-configuration of women as a gendered trope embedded in the grand narrative of nation-building and the official discourses of economic and social globalization, and the other intends to further problematize the heterogeneity of Chinese women in terms of socioeconomic status, class, educational backgrounds, sexual orientation, and most significantly, the radically widening gap between urban and rural living environments. Two salient types of female characters prove to be particularly illuminating as we examine these two thematic foci: Hua Mulan and the rural-based drifting migrant women as urban laborers. On surface level, these two may have little, if at all, in common; nevertheless, both are re-imagined genderized tropes of nation in the post-socialist China. When juxtaposed, therefore, these two character types embody an introspective and retrospective tendency to re-imagine the nation both past and present.

When the characterization of women and the cultural consciousness of nation intersect, Hua Mulan is arguably the most visualized and mediated female persona in the history of China's gender imagination as paradigmatic of feminine virtue and proper conducts. Thanks to the globally popular Disney feature animation Mulan (1998), the story of Hua Mulan now obtains transnational cultural currency. Despite relatively minor textual deviations, the Mulan narrative portrays Hua Mulan, a young girl in sixth century China who bravely fights against invaders on the battlefield in her father's stead while disguises as a man. Through centuries of retelling and rewriting, Mulan becomes the paragon of dutiful daughter, patriotic citizen, brave soldier, and good wife, embodying impossibly the perfect combination imaginable in the Confucian traditions of China. Because of such narrative malleability and historiographical versatility, Mulan's story is constantly invoked in a variety of artistic and expressive forms during different moments in Chinese history to serve as tropes of national unity, cultural integrity, ethnic harmony, and gender role model. Therefore, it is not surprising that Jingle Ma's live action film Hua Mulan (2009), made at the dawn of China's deep integration into a transnationalized global community, is politically embedded and demands a historicized decoding.


Hua Mulan showcases an attempt to align postfeminist gender discourse with the grand narrative of the nation and national unity so that women may not always be "a victim [sic] of class oppression" or become "a narrative site for the projection of national trauma and collective memory", as they were in previous decades. (18) As I have argued in a comparative reading of the transnationalization of the Mulan narrative, "the portrayal of a remarkably feminized Hua Mulan in Hua Mulan also situates itself within the postfeminist cinematic representation of a new generation of female lead characters." (19) Thus, this film carefully orchestrates a re-configured woman warrior who negotiates her gender identity and gains female agency as a woman before she becomes the trope of the nation. Specifically, Hua Mulan's unmistakable feminization foregrounds a gender consciousness that precedes and predetermines her future encounters with the masculine and patriarchal Other and an otherwise transgressive boundary-crossing.

This narrative and representational focus on Mulan's femininity significantly changes the defining element in the re-molding of a national hero: while most previous visualizations of Mulan emphasize her masculine disguise in the army to show a diminished female identity or even an internalization of patriarchal gender politics, Ma's Hua Mulan employs her exterior masculinization in the army as a necessary stage of her identity-formation, a critical formative moment when Hua Mulan realizes that she must acknowledge her emotional, psychological, sociopolitical, and biological qualities and traits as a woman to survive the war and achieves personal and social maturity. If Hua Mulan only spontaneously demonstrates her unwomanly passion for martial arts and tactical military strategies before she joins the army, her daily interactions with other soldiers while disguised as a man necessitates a conscious solidification of her female subjective agency. Thus, Hua Mulan mediates Hua Mulan's story as a gendered trope of national solidarity, transforming women from stigmatized victims, powerless and waiting to be saved by men, into strong warrior women, who save the nation and sustain national unity.


While Hua Mulan's postfeminism is allegorized and historicized, films that portray non-urban women commonly known as migrant workers in the city employ an especially provoking postfeminist discourse in their unadorned expose of the inadequacy of cinematic focus on urban women. Positioned under the spotlight, these women migrant workers are represented as even more otherized than their urban counterparts, in the sense that they are underprivileged, not well educated, and socially isolated with little upward mobility. Films portraying such female characters typically adopt cinema verite style realism for visual authenticity and narrative transparency, so that their life and struggles in the city gain political currency as social critique and gender discourse. Thus, non-urban women's cinema further accentuates the heterogeneity of women's cinema and problematizes the grand narrative of nation-building that emphasizes urban office ladies in the postsocialist globalized workforce.

Li Yu's Lost in Beijing (2007) exemplifies this non-urban women's cinema's commercial potential and gender critique. Capitalizing on a star-studded trans-regional cast and daring sexual portrayal, Lost in Beijing's controversial reception becomes an entertainment sensation of the year, attracting both critical attention and public discussion on the conditions and issues surrounding lives of migrant workers, especially female, in an alienating yet alluring urban environment. This film portrays a young migrant worker Liu Pingguo's (Fan Bingbing) disillusioned "Beijing Dream" through a series of dramatic and convoluted events, which lead to Liu's rape by her employer, giving her son up for adoption to her rapist, fighting for parental rights, and a hinted final departure from the city. Such a politicized rendition of Liu Pingguo as an eroticized objectification of male desire and essentialized female body as reproductive mechanism reinforces the socialist gender politics that renders women the allegorized victims who are made to suffer the uneven economic development and radically increasing gaps between urbanity and rurality that characterize contemporary Chinese society. In other words, Lost in Beijing, despite its bold treatment of female sexuality and fearless exposure of the debilitating masculine official narrative of industrial growth and economic globalization, ultimately reiterates a dichotomous gender discourse that precludes female agency when it positions women on the opposite side of that which is powerful and liberating.

From the transgressive woman warrior to the disenfranchised female migrant worker, Chinese women's cinema in the past decade has striven to attract a wider audience in contemporary China's quickly stratified popular entertainment economy where niche-marketing and branding determine every aspect of a film's production and consumption. As a result, another highly visible and commercialized urban feminist cinematic trend has surfaced that is powerfully reminiscent of the chick flick sub-genre in the Hollywood tradition. Because of its expressive postfeminist gender politics that typically is predicated upon the "recognition of women's significance in contemporary culture," (20) girl power, and consumerism, the chick flick sub-genre provides a preferred framework within which a postfeminist Chinese cinema becomes highly synchronized with an increasingly integrated production and marketing strategies. (21) To new Chinese women attempting to disassociate themselves from previous, totalitarian feminist traditions, consumers of chick flicks are "a third-wave feminist or postfeminist generation" who have "rejected or at least questioned some of the central tenets of feminist thought" and re-appropriated and re-visioned these previous terms to "refashion their identity." ' By re-embracing what was unacceptable and diminishing to their predecessors, the new Chinese postfeminist women proactively legitimize their femininity and sexuality and explore new ways to (self)represent their subjectivity and identity as a different generation of the New Woman, whose economic, social, political, cultural, and psychological aspirations are inseparable from the dominating postsocialist national politics.

As women's cinema becomes more polycentric and polyphonous in its gender articulations than ever before, it is impossible to classify each trend and file them in neatly organized categories. Notwithstanding, identity formation and self-representation that are circumscribed by the interplay between women and nation provides an essential critical lens through which significant momenta can be analyzed and historicized critiques become possible and meaningful. As Chinese women's cinema continues to negotiate the complex dynamics of gender politics and identity expression in a society with rapidly changing variables, perhaps only one thing remains constant: female identity, as informed and shaped by an imagined collective national consciousness, will always be in flux.


(1) Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, "Historical Introduction: Chinese Cinemas (1896-1996) and Transnational Film Studies" in Transnational Chinese Cinemas: identity, Nationhood, Gender, ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honululu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1997), 20.

(2) For a more detailed investigation on postfeminism, see Patricia S. Mann, Micro-Politics: Agency in a Postfeminist Era (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

(3) The concept of postsocialist society in the Chinese context was first used in the anthology Marxism and the Chinese Experience by Arif Dirlik, and has since been used by many scholars in their investigations on such diversified topics as film studies, arts, literary criticism, Chinese modernity, and popular cultural production.

(4) Yi Zheng, "Narrative Images of the Historical Passion: Those Other Women-On the Alterity in the New Wave of Chinese Cinema," in Transnational Chinese Cinema: Identity, Nationhood, Gender. Ed. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu (Honolulu: Hawaii UP, 1997), 354. Elsewhere, Yingjin Zhang adopts the same periodization for contemporary Chinese cinema in "'From Minority Film to 'Minority Discourse': Questions of Nationhood and Ethnicity in Chinese Cinema," in Transnational Chinese Cinema: Identity, Nationhood, Gender, 90.

(5) The Reform and Open-up policy, or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] in Chinese, refers to China's economic marketization started by Deng Xiaoping since 1978.

(6) Lingzhen Wang, "Introduction: Transnational Feminist Reconfiguration of Film Discourse and Women's Cinema," in Chinese Women's Cinema: Transnational Contexts. Ed. Lingzhen Wang (New York: Columbia UP, 2011), 15.

(7) S. Louisa Wei, "The Encoding of Female Subjectivity: Four Films by China's Fifth-Generation Women Directors," in Chinese Women's Cinema: Transnational Contexts. Ed. Lingzhen Wang (New York: Columbia UP, 2011), 188.

(8) Jinhua Li, "Consumerism and Chinese Postfeminism: Visual Economy, Chick Flicks, and the Politics of Cultural (Re) Production," Forum for World Literature Studies 6, no. 4 (December 2014): 566.

(9) Dai Jinhua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], Scenery in the Fog: Chinese Film Culture 1978-1998 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 1978-1998 Wuzhong feng jing:Zhonqguo dianying wenhua 1978-1998 (Beijing: Beijing UP, 1999), 140. Translation mine.

(10) See Xiaobing Tang, "Rural Women and Social Change in New China Cinema: From Li Shuangshuang to Ermo," Positions Winter 200311(3): 647-674; Judith Farguhar, "Technologies of Everyday Life The Economy of Impotence in Reform China," Cultural Anthropology May 1999 14(2): 155-179; David Leiwei Li, "'What Will Become of Us if We Don't Stop?': Ermo's China and the End of Globalization," Comparative Literature 53.4 (2001): 442-61.

(11) Jason McGrath, Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2008), 118.

(12) Zhang Zhen, "Introduction: Bearing Witness: Chinese Urban Cinema in the Era of 'Transformation' (Zhuanggxing)," in The Urban Generation: Chinese Cinema and Society at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century. Ed. Zhang Zhen (Durham: Duke UP, 2007), 2.

(13) Wang, op. cit. 34.

(14) Shugin Cui quotes this phrase in Women through the Lens, 173. According to Cui, this phrase was originally used by Li Xiaojiang, in Guanyu nuren de dawen (Questions and answers about women) (Nanjing: Jiangsu remin Publisher, 1998).

(15) Jason McGrath, "The New Formalism: Mainland Chinese Cinema at the Turn of the Century," in China's Literary and Cultural Scenes at the Turn of the 21st Century. Ed. Jie Li (London: Routledge, 2007), 208.

(16) Li Shaohong, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Li Shaohong tan Baober: I Want to Express a Mind-blowing Love",, accessed December 20, 2015, com.en/m/c/2004-02-27/1322315218.html.

(17) The Chinese original reads: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Woaini, zhe yuni wuguan.

(18) Shuqin Cui, op.cit. 1

(19) Jinhua Li, "Mulan (1998) and Hua Mulan (2009): National Myth and the Trans-Cultural Intertextuality," in Heroism and Gender in War Films. Ed. Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Jakub Kazecki (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2014), 187.

(20) Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young, "Chick Flicks and Chick Culture," in Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies. Eds. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (New York: Routledge, 2008), 2

(21) Some of the recent Chinese chick-flicks include Sophie's Revenge (2009), Love Is Not Blind (2011), My Lucky Star (2012), If I Were You (2012), One Night Surprise (2013), So Young (2013), Finding Mr. Right (2013), Back in Time (2014), 20 Once Again (2015), to cite just a few.

(22) Ferriss and Young, op.cit. 3.
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Date:Mar 22, 2016
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