Modern China makes great play of its gender equality, and International Working Women’s Day or The United Nations Women’s Rights and International Peace Day has been a major celebration in China, focusing on women in all fields, since 1924, when the working women of Guangzhou, influenced by the international movement, started recognition of the date in China. Women united and stood up for their rights across the National and Communist divide, and throughout China’s evolution, iconic images of female fighters holding weapons aloft have become as much a symbol of Feminism as “Rosie the Riveter” in the West. However, the actual implementation of these ideals has been problematic. After the fall of the thousand-year-old imperial patriarchy, it was, and still is, difficult for the modern regime to shake off its mantle of male dominance.
One new form of expression that women are finding a voice in though, is cinema. A vital medium because it’s one of the faces of China with which the world is familiar, to at least some extent, and its lack of millennia old dogma makes it a very influential art form that is flourishing and evolving rapidly within the modern PRC.
Before the 1950s, female involvement in Chinese cinema was limited to acting and costuming, with the exception of a few feminist works scripted by the novelist Eileen Chang, such as the rare post-war comedy “Long Live the Wife” (1947), and “Unending Emotions” released in the same year by Wenhua Studio, the more intellectual of studios at the time. After the forming of the People’s Republic in 1949, the state took great care to establish cinema as a form of mass education and placation, sending projection troupes out to even far flung corners to the country to show people films freshly produced by its state controlled studio system. As the masses fell in love with Dian Ying (the Chinese name for film, literally “electric shadows”), the medium became vital too for the dissemination of doctrine.
During the 1950s and 1960s, feminist film was still the pet cause of male directors such as Xie Jin, who were propelled to fame by making films featuring beautiful, gutsy women being emancipated in every way imaginable. One woman though, did emerge from this system, to become China’s first female director, rising through the Ba Yi, or Eight One studios (the official filmmakers of China’s army). Whilst she produced the same type of film as her male peers, focusing, on the Sino-Japanese War and the Communist Revolution, the angle of Wang Ping’s lens was as unique as her position within the industry.
“The Story of Liu Bao Village” (1957) presents a sensitive and tender treatment of the love story between a soldier and a village girl. Her spy film “The Eternal Signal” (1958), tells the tale of two Communist undercover agents who pose as a married couple, and inevitably fall in love. Telling a story of the Resistance and Civil War through the emotional lives of her characters, Wang solicits a more human engagement from the audience, rather than presenting them with the cookie-cutter military heroes that her contemporaries had tended towards. “The Eternal Signal” is now a cornerstone of classic Chinese cinematic canon, with the story inspiring several further films, and even a long running lavish costume drama in the late 2000s. It has recently been remade as “The Secret War” last year, starring Hong Kong heavy weight Aaron Kwok in the male lead.
The post-Cultural-Revolution era of filmmaking was one more welcoming of female directors. Although China had opened its doors to the world and to outside influences in the early 1980s, there were few opportunities at the top for women in politics and business. The arts however, provided a cultural space for strong women. In the arena of television, Yang Jie, directed the mainland’s very first series of “Journey to the West” (1986), now considered the definitive version, and a common point within a generation’s memory. In cinema, female directors were telling their stories to the movie-going public.
In her “Youth Trilogy”, Zhang Nuanxin explores the theme of lost childhood focusing on the female experience. Taking inspiration from Xie Jin’s renowned Women’s Basketball Play “No. 5”, a story of patriotism and sportsmanship, Zhang’ own work, “Seagull” (1981) is a film about coming of age, and finding an identity within an expectant society. Zhang was one of the first mainland directors to adopt the point-of-view narrative, a pioneering move in Asian cinema at the time. In “Sacrificed Youth” (1985), she employs a first person voice-over, to tell the story of Li Chun, a young student from the city, sent like millions of her peers, to the countryside for labour and re-education during the Cultural Revolution.
The Yunnan countryside, the culture and customs of the Dai people, come alive through the whimsical imagination of this teenage girl – moments of magical realism see her imagining the 90-year-old woman from her host family as a broom-riding witch; and intimate revelations made to the audience, such as her self-consciousness in the presence of the prettiest and most self-assured young woman in the village. It is a tale about feminine expectations, archetypes and the changes even they undergo in the rapidly changing society around them. These themes are continued in the urban setting of the last in the trilogy, “Good morning, Beijing” (1990), where the pressures of close living and constant company sit at odds with introspection and development.
Whilst Zhang had the freedom to explore her themes openly, directors such as Hu Mei, who co-directed “Army Nurse” (1985), were still under stricter control. Working under Eight One Studios, they needed to shade emotions sensitively and embeded ideas in images carefully, in order for their questioning of women’s place in this ‘equal’ society, and what that society actually expects from them, to skim under the scrutiny of the Film Bureau.
One director though, who was under so much yoke was Huang Shuqin, author of the magnificent “Woman, Demon, Human” (1987), based on the life of northern opera star Pei Yanling, who challenged tradition and chose to take up male roles in the genre. Considered by many to be China’s first true feminist film, this work relates the tale of a woman who led an independent life, directed by a skilled female filmmaker, telling not just her story but elevates it to a psychological drama about gender and identity. Tuned in to the direction of global cinematography in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Huang draws inspiration from classical Chinese opera, to create new cinematic language, a major shift away from the direct and realist styles of the previous two decades to softer rhetorics involving allegory and temporal fluidity. Huang adopts the dramatic device of play-within-a-play, juxtaposing on-stage and real life tradedy. The on-stage role of Zhong Kui, China’s most popular demon slaying deity who is himself a ghost, is a metaphor for the demonization of our heroine by society for not conforming to her designated gender assigned role. Huang’s use of bright spot-colouring against a background of grim greys and browns, bring out her heroines poignancy and passion.
While many of their male counterparts like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou earned global patronage and acclaim by “liberating rural women” on screen, female directors were uncovering the very real difficulties faced by women in China. These hardships didn’t end at the city boundaries. Peng Xiaolian’s “Women’s Story” (1989) is a road movie following three village women who travel from their rural home to the city of Chongqing to make a business out of their home-spun dyed yarn. It explores a whole range of problems encountered by modern Chinese women as a whole, from enforced abortions and discrimination in business, to sexual predation and jealousy. It reveals a society that hasn’t, in some aspects, moved much passed the age of feudalism.
By the early 90s, China’s 6th Generation of independent filmmakers had emerged. The intellectual climate surrounding them was nurturing for female directors, bringing the socialized marginalised to the forefront and seeking to uncover the truth beneath ideology. A major force of this period was Ning Ying, whose wider socialist agenda, and quasi-documentary style of filmmaking is indicative of her generation. In “For Fun” (1992), she tells the story of old retirees who love of Peking opera. In portraying their struggles to find a place to hold group meetings for the hobby, Ning demonstrates the marginlisation of cultural spaces in the changing times, and the conflict between history and progress.
The Chinese police, whose role had been overshadowed for decades by a totalitarian state, suddenly found themselves responding to massive migration and urban population explosions, and falling short of their old image as the “people’s police”. “On the Beat” (1995) is mockumentary, in which Ning Ying uses her trademark long takes, tracking shots, and stationary cameras to carefully craft a depiction of the “xian chang” or “at the scene”. She employs real policemen in the cast, placing the force under close scrutiny, both in the form and content of her work.
Directors of this period made it their essential aim to capture reality from every angle, but whilst there were bound to be documentaries about women, works made by women remained rare. “Out of Phoenix Bridge” (1997) made by Li Hong, who is recognised as China’s first female documentarian, was considered a groundbreaking work. Shadowing four women from the countryside who migrate to Beijing to work as domestic servants, the film follows their fresh taste of freedom, however meager their living conditions, before they return to the country to be wives and mothers. Li forms intimate friendships with these women who talk frankly about their dreams, worries, pressures and relationships, revealing the conflict between swiftly changing roles of women in Chinese society.
In each era from the 1950s to the present, there has been only a handful of women, bearing the torch of the Nü Dao Yan (female film director), not nearly the “half the sky” as rhetoricized by Chairman Mao upon reading an article on gender equality in a publication by the Guizhou’s Women’s Union in 1955. There was a significant awakening during the 1980s, but whilst some directors have gone on to make trailblazing films such as Zhang Nuanxin’s “Going East to the Native Land” exploring her Mongolian heritage, and Huang Shuqin’s “Village Whore” (1994), others such as Peng Xiaolian had succumbed to mainstream filmmaking. As China joined the WTO and made its films more globally available in the twenty first century, big names such as Jia Zhangke and Feng Xiaogang have continued to exploit the graceful images of strong women whether in moments of touching emotion or acts of incredible defiance in their films. While some major female stars have successfully gathered a small collection of well-received directorial works to their portfolio, such as Joan Chen’s award-winning “Xiu Xiu The Sent Down Girl” (1998), no female director of equal weight to any of these has emerged. Many have stayed under the radar for one reason or another and do no receive the recognition or coverage they need and deserve.
Even in Hong Kong, where the social climate is apparently more welcoming for women, the number of prominent female directors can be counted on one hand. Ann Hui, who was born in north-east China but migrated to Hong Kong at an early age, stands like a beacon in the dark for female Chinese directors. A driving force of Hong Kong’s New Wave movement on a par with Tsui Hark, she excels in detective thrillers, ghost films, martial arts epics and romances, borrowing from folklore and tradition to explore themes of identity, women’s struggles and relationships in changing societies.
Although the emancipation of women in mainland China has been a top-down directive since the early twentieth century, the slogans had been chanted, the marches marched and the shows put on, the minds of men remained largely unchanged. Equality was couched in terms of the Tie Gu Niang, the Iron Maiden, who can be just like a man, rather than that women being treated as equal beings with different needs and desires. Whilst Chinese women have been liberated to engineer planes, design buildings and teach mathematics, their male partners were still expecting them to clean the home, cook the meals and raise the kids in addition, if not before. “Out of Phoenix Village” for instance, was produced in the tight time constraints between Li Hong’s more mundane work for the national television corporation, and her home life.
Indeed, deep problems of gender equality have surfaced throughout China in the last few decades, from the occurrence of female infanticide that has now led to a disproportionately large male population, to the phenomenon of the Sheng Nü, or left-over women. For women to take an equal place in the leading industry roles, there needs to be an overhaul in men’s thinking, as they still occupy the lions share of each level of any industry. Also, women need to be allowed the space in their lives to take on the lead roles in their professional capacity.
In the mean time, women have tenaciously continued their filmmaking in the field of documentaries and independent films. The British Chinese writer Guo Xiaolu, who draws extensively from her own complex experiences of China, has been making poignant documentary films for over a decade about a changing China and East-West experiences. She has recently directed her lens towards feature films and towards British society in the latest work of her Tomorrow trilogy. Directors such as Yang Lina explore a range of issues including the still taboo subject of domestic abuse in documentaries as well as taking an experimental approach to gender and sexuality.
Cao Fei, an artist who works across a range of art forms from photography to installations and performances, has been keeping an eye on the pulse of China since 1999. Her abstract short films not only explore themes of imbalance, autonomy of desires, and urban fringes in contemporary Chinese society, but make frequent forays into pop culture, from Second Life, and cosplay to shopping malls and zombie movies. With younger stars, like Zhao Wei who released her first feature film “So Young” in 2013, also turning their attention to filmmaking, I expect many more strong women stepping off the stage and into the director’s chair, to share the stories that no one else can.
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