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Women Through the Lens

Women Through the Lens: Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema

Shuqin Cui
Copyright Date: 2003
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  • Book Info
    Women Through the Lens
    Book Description:

    Women Through the Lensraises the question of how gender, especially the image of woman, acts as a visual and discursive sign in the creation of the nation-state in twentieth-century China. Tracing the history of Chinese cinema through the last hundred years from the perspective of transnational feminism, Shuqin Cui reveals how women have been granted a "privileged visibility" on screen while being denied discursive positions as subjects. In addition, her careful attention to the visual language system of cinema shows how "woman" has served as the site for the narration of nation in the context of China's changing social and political climate.

    Placing gender and nation in a historical framework, the book first shows how early productions had their roots in shadow plays, a popular form of public entertainment. In examining the "Red Classics" of socialist cinema as a mass cultural form, the book shows how the utopian vision of emancipating the entire proletariat, women included, produced a collective ideology that declared an end to gender difference. Cui then documents and discusses the cinematic spectacle of woman as essential to such widely popular films as Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine" and Zhang Yimou's "Ju Do." Finally, the author brings a feminist perspective to the issues of gender and nation by turning her attention to women directors and their self-representations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6563-4
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxvi)

    In the history of Chinese cinema, gender and nation have often served as narrative subjects and visual tropes. The intersections between gender and nation that occur in cinematic representation, however, have received little critical attention. This study begins by raising the question of how gender, especially the image of woman, acts as a visual and discursive sign in the creation of the nation-state in twentieth-century China. It also makes inquiries into a parade of related issues: how early film production frames women’s problems to signify the need for national awakening while using star images to attract audiences; how socialist cinema...

  5. Part One: Early Production

    • Chapter One From Shadow-Play to a National Cinema
      (pp. 3-29)

      In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, external and internal forces compelled China to begin the task of building a modern nation. One of these forces was Western imperialism. China’s engagement with the West was double-sided. On the one hand, the West had humiliated the nation through military victories and exploitative treaties, but on the other, it offered China the alluring prospects of political progress and scientific achievement. Both sides of this dichotomy contributed to the process of Chinese modernization. The former created a need for national redemption and the latter a need for national reform. During this historical...

    • Chapter Two Reconstructing History: The (Im)possible Engagement between Feminism and Postmodernism in Stanley Kwan’s Center Stage
      (pp. 30-48)

      Allusions to early films and film stars call on the memories of the audience and refer to the images housed in film archives. When memories and fragments are reconstructed, however, they enter a process of cinematic reproduction and cultural reinterpretation. In other words, a reconstructed history involves a mode of historiography where spatial/temporal and sociocultural displacement blurs the lines between past and present and between historical images and textual reconfigurations. Stanley Kwan’sCenter Stage(Ruan Lingyu, 1992) is such a film. It remakes the past for the comprehension of the present, and it recreates the semicolonial Shanghai of the 1930s...

  6. Part Two: Socialist Cinema

    • Chapter Three Constructing and Consuming the Revolutionary Narratives
      (pp. 51-78)

      The transition to a market economy and the rise of consumer culture have turned contemporary China into a society that cannot be easily defined as either socialist or capitalist. This ambiguity, as well as the swelling multiplicity of cultural forms at the end of the twentieth century, is evident in such extraordinary phenomena as the “Red wave” and “Mao fever.”¹ A “Red wave” of commercially packaged revolutionary songs, plays, and films not only floods the market, but also feeds a certain nostalgia for the totalitarian past. In 1991, China’s audio-video bureau distributed and sold 5.5 million copies of an audiocassette...

    • Chapter Four Gender Politics and Socialist Discourse in Xie Jin’s The Red Detachment of Women
      (pp. 79-96)

      The concept of sexual difference has been the fundamental premise for the construction of feminist discourse. Seeking to extend the analysis of gender, however, socialist feminist criticism has called attention to the relationship between female subjectivity and class identity.¹ Recent trends in feminism redefine differences that embody not only sexual but also racial, economic, and cultural categories of analysis.² This chapter participates in the discussion by posing such questions as these: What happens when gender relations are established more on concepts of class than of sex? Does gender difference persist in the absence of sexual difference? If so, how is...

  7. Part Three: The New Wave

    • Chapter Five Screening China: National Allegories and International Receptions
      (pp. 99-126)

      A widely remarked achievement of China’s fifth-generation directors is how their new wave films have taken a national cinema to international screens. By turning national identity and cultural history into visual images, this small, radical group of newcomers to world cinema initiated a transnational engagement in which Chinese productions for the first time drew serious attention from the West. The identifying label—fifth-generation directors—refers to more than a chronological convenience in grouping directors in China. It indicates the creation of the new cinema, characterized by national allegories; an aesthetic experiment in the visual language system, distinct from the films...

    • Chapter Six The Search for Male Masculinity and Sexuality in Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou
      (pp. 127-149)

      Zhang Yimou’sJu Dourenders repressed male masculinity and sexuality in the form of visual allegories. The mesh of semiotic coding, mise-en-scène, color, and sound track constitutes a world of parable where a sealed dye mill conceals a drama of sexual transgression and psychological conflict. The two male protagonists are in a paradoxical condition wherein masculinity is either suppressed or lost. The masculinity they seek is tantalizingly near yet elusive. One man, a socially empowered yet sexually impotent husband, indicates tradition or the state. Although his mandate is eroding, he still rules the mind and the body of the people....

    • Chapter Seven Subjected Body and Gendered Identity: Female Impersonation in Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine
      (pp. 150-168)

      A departure from his early films, which were highbrow excursions into philosophical subjects and allegorical forms, Chen Kaige’sFarewell My Concubinehas attracted both critical and popular interest. The film’s self-reflexive form of opera-within-the-film and visual mise-en-scène have prompted several readings.Farewellhas been taken to exemplify a range of issues: film as history, gender and homosexuality, transnational film production, nationalistic expression, and international audiences. Pauline Chen cites the failure of film critics to see the importance of sociohistorical context to narrative construction inFarewell. According to Chen, the film “clothes the fresh bitterness of China’s recent struggles in the...

  8. Part Four: Women’s Films

    • Chapter Eight Feminism with Chinese Characteristics?
      (pp. 171-199)

      The international reception of Chinese cinema has been largely confined to films made by the so-called fifth-generation of film directors. A few “masterpieces” have come to stand for Chinese cinema; they appear regularly in college courses or at film studies conferences. By contrast, little attention has been given to the subject of women’s films in China. Compared to the films of their male counterparts, the works of women directors evince scant interest in macronarratives or allegorical models. Nonetheless, as important contributors to mainstream film production, female directors and their films call for critical attention. In herWriting Diaspora,Rey Chow...

    • Chapter Nine Desire in Difference: Female Voice and Point of View in Hu Mei’s Army Nurse
      (pp. 200-218)

      In films made by women directors, we find evidence of a female consciousness: the exploration of a self split between submission to sociopolitical ideology and allegiance to personal desire. In society, in cinema, and especially in military service, where the concepts of consensus and collectivity dominate and suppress individuality, a psychological conflict between the social and the personal becomes a point of departure from which the experience of female consciousness unfolds. As the female protagonist in women’s films is torn between her obligation to fulfill social roles and her yearning to follow personal desires, the narrative structure is in turn...

    • Chapter Ten Transgender Masquerading in Huang Shuqin’s Human, Woman, Demon
      (pp. 219-238)

      Human, Woman, Demon(Ren gui qing, 1987) is primarily concerned with the subject of female experience.¹ Representing a woman’s personal history from childhood to adulthood, the film portrays its protagonist facing a dilemma: her desire for and denial of a female identity. The dynamic of rejecting a female identity stems from a mother-daughter conflict, initiated when the adulterous mother fails to provide her daughter with an ideal role model. The desire to secure a female identity, however, is evoked in the sexualized encounter with a male. In this oscillation between denial and desire, she experiences an identity crisis. As an...

  9. Postscript
    (pp. 239-248)

    This book has examined the changing relations among gender, nation, and cinema in the framework of twentieth-century China. We have seen how cinema, a visual form, and gender, an analytical category, have served in representations of the nation-state. The changing history of the nation continually redefines gender identities and visual representations.

    After Chinese audiences embraced foreign motion pictures as shadow-plays and filled the Western forms with their own narratives, early film production remained primarily a commercial enterprise and visual attraction. The 1930s witnessed the initial conversion that turned the film industry into a socionational instrument. The change followed in the...

  10. Filmography
    (pp. 249-268)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 269-286)
  12. Works Cited
    (pp. 287-298)
  13. Index
    (pp. 299-310)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 311-311)