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Smashing Through the Restraints of Tradition – A Brief Overview On The Portrayal of Women In China’s Film World

25 March 2020

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Smashing Through the Restraints of Tradition – A Brief Overview On The Portrayal of Women In China’s Film World

A well-known Confucian edict that quite succinctly encapsulates the roles of women in Chinese society throughout history is 男尊女卑 – directly translated as men being respected and women being subordinate, and used to justify women’s subordination under men. This is reflected in their roles of a daughter serving her father, a wife serving her husband, and a mother serving her son.  

Such deeply entrenched traditions have been reflected in the films produced in Mainland China since its very beginning. While this undercurrent between patriarchal societies and the distorted view of women in the films they produce is prevalent throughout the world, how exactly women are portrayed in China is rather unique – owing much to the country’s history and rapid societal evolution in the last two centuries.


An Extremely Brief Overview of China’s Film History and Early Portrayals of Women

Despite what all the snobby sociologists and cultural studies majors would have you think, to understand cultural and film studies only really requires an understanding of a straightforward idea: that culture is a product of politics and societal relations, and they in turn are a product of economic relations. 

That being said, to understand China’s film – and of women’s role in them – would require a brief crash course into the country’s history and tradition. 

In the eighteenth century, Western imperialism came knocking on China’s door. Opium wars happened. Exploitative treaties and arrangements happened. These led to decades of humiliation and by the nineteenth century there arose a need within the country to modernise itself and for a narrative of national redemption to emerge. However, the link between using film to push this narrative wasn’t established when the medium was first introduced.

(Film still of ‘The Difficult Couple’ / Photo credit: KKnews)

Early on saw Chinese films take on a surprisingly progressive stance for women. Directed by Zhang Shichuan, China’s first narrative feature The Difficult Couple 《难夫难妻》(1913) reflects and critiques a culturally specific theme – arranged marriages – with the film’s two characters being forced to confront the archaic tradition.

Another milestone comes with another of Zhang Shichuan’s film, The Orphan Rescues Grandfather《孤兒救祖記》(1923). The woman-led feature highlights the differences between how the Chinese view empowerment vis-a-vis the contemporary Western view.

A wrongly accused woman is driven out of her father-in-law’s home and left to raise her son alone. She faces her situation with poise and without any disdain, raising her son to be morally sound, before being rewarded – through monetary means – for suffering silently for all those years. This fell in line with the teachings of Confucianism where the ideal woman is seen to be silent, filial, and supportive.

Early Chinese cinema showed that they weren’t afraid to challenge and acknowledge the issues of women – albeit through a view still entrenched in tradition much like the rest of society. Portrayals of women would evolve with China seeing massive societal changes by the 1930s.

“Women Hold Up Half The Sky”

By the 1930s, China was facing armed strife – both within the inside and with the outside – and domestic film productions could no longer be warranted solely for entertainment purposes.

Film was introduced to China in the late nineteenth century but it wasn’t until this period when the link between the medium and political agendas were drawn. This was especially effective with how film was (and continues to be) a readily accessible medium that transcended class – unlike its literary cousin. 

As such, 1951 saw the Communist Party of China ban pre-1949 Chinese films, Hollywood and Hong Kong productions in the country, and a shift towards producing movies that honed in on the suffering and triumph of peasants, soldiers and workers to align with its agendas.

“Women hold up half the sky” is a phrase associated with People’s Republic of China’s founding father Mao Zedong and it is a succinct summary of how women were viewed during these times – and how they are portrayed on film.

(Film still of The Red Detachment of Women’ / Photo credit: Tianma Film Studio)

The Red Detachment of Women《紅色孃子軍》(1961) tells the story of two peasant women heading into war together with their compatriots while historical epic The East Is Red《东方红》prominently features women in its retelling of key moments of the Communist Party of China.

In a sense, women in Chinese propaganda films could be seen as being equal to their male counterparts; there were different gender roles for sure but each were seen as equally important, with a larger calling everybody had to work towards. 

These roles are bold contrasts to the traditional patriarchal relations seen in homes and families, and a far cry from the neutered characters or damsel-in-distress that are more present in Western cinema. However, the decision to elevate the roles of these women in these films cannot be viewed solely through the prism of empowerment and equality.

(Film still of ‘The East is Red’ / Photo credit: August First Film Studios)

Rather, it could be argued that the “oppressed women” in film were used as shorthand at representing the “oppressed whole” – as the oppressed Davids to the imperialistic Goliaths – especially when men were by far the leading voices in the movement. Similarly, another point of critique arises with how women were portrayed as tools of the revolution, only highlighting their class and not their gender, leading to dehumanising portrayals that rob them of their womanhood. 

While the Party continues to hold a tight grip over domestically produced films, its ideological association with the industry – while still present – are no longer as blatant…most of the time. Additionally, the last decades of the century led to further commodification of film, opening up the medium to new generations of filmmakers with their own perspectives to explore.

Moving Forward From The Cultural Revolution

China’s Fifth Generation of Filmmakers, such as acclaimed director Zhang Yimou and He Ping, were the first batch of filmmakers to emerge after the Cultural Revolution. Their works are often interpreted as veiled critiques of both China’s history and contemporary China through period pieces.

However, much like their predecessors, women continued to be used as surrogates to symbolise the suffering of China, such as with Yimou’s Ju Dou《菊豆》(1989) and Raise the Red Lantern《大红灯笼高高挂》(1991), where their characters struggle against Confucian traditions.

(Film still of ‘Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker’ / Photo credit: Xi’an Film Studio)

Director He Ping’s Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker《炮打双灯》(1994) and Yimou’s Ju Dou are key examples of how contemporary Chinese filmmakers do not shirk away from sensuality or sexuality in their portrayals of women. Red Firecracker’s lead is left with her family’s firecracker factory but is forbidden to marry so that the business can stay within the family. However, she falls in love and directly challenges the archaic notions of what a woman should be – in particular, to be unquestionably filial.

The Sixth Generation of Filmmakers emerged in the late 1990s with films that focused more on the marginalized of society. These films reflect the closing gap of financial inequality between the two genders in the cities of contemporary China, but how there is still a lack of progress in every other aspect. 

Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures《任逍遥》(2002) illuminates the lifestyle and mindset of the youths in contemporary China. Its three characters, products of China’s One Child Policy, are fed on a steady diet of both Western and Chinese popular culture, and see financial freedom as their only salvation from their aimless lives. 

(Film still of ‘Unknown Pleasures’ / Photo credit: Hu Tong Communications)

In the film’s press kit for New Yorker Films, Zhangke shares that he wrote female lead Qiao Qiao as a reflection of modern Chinese women, who struggle between conservative tradition and modernity. This is seen with how despite embracing hedonism to a degree, the idea of becoming a mistress still comes into conflict with the character’s dormant conservatism.

While women in film continued to be stand-ins for the suffering of the country, the Fifth and Sixth Generation of filmmakers expanded the scope of portrayals to embrace women issues in the modern age and humanise women in ways that even the relatively more liberal West were slow to catch up with. 

The Myriad of Ways Women Are Represented in Modern Chinese Cinema

Here is where it gets incredibly difficult to distil the roles of women in film into neat segments given China’s enormous population and its ocean of content. 

Within the world of commercial films alone, women’s roles in film have been vastly polarising. The Chinese have traditionally been proud of their storied history and mythologies, which naturally leads to media based off of them to be the go-to for any filmmaker looking to make a hit. Similarly, films that are based on the ever-popular Wuxia (martial heroes) genre have also been a mainstay of modern Chinese cinema.

As such, how women are portrayed in these films are largely based on how they’re remembered in history and their popular retellings. Films such as the two-parter Red Cliff《赤壁》(2008) stars female leads that represent both the loyal wife and the warrior princesses; characters who are never at the backseat of their plots – even if it it contradicts historical accounts.

(Film still of ‘Red Cliff’ / Photo credit: Beijing Film Studio) 

However, there are still bound to be films that are rather explicit in the sexualisation of women, such as with Curse of The Golden Flower《满城尽带黄金甲》(2006) and Lady of the Dynasty (2015)《王朝的女人·杨贵妃》- the latter of which was hugely popular because of an oversexualised scene.

Wuxia films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon《卧虎藏龙》(2000) and Hero《英雄》 (2002) is where the portrayal of women is arguably the most empowering. As with the genre, there are definitely tinges of romantic subplots that highlight its characters’ genders but for the most part, women in these films are regarded as legendary heroes dueling in the air in sword fights, treated equally or even above the men in the stories. 

(Film still of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ / Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classic)

Fair representation of women, however, has taken a backseat in recent years as blatant militaristic propaganda films such as Wolf Warrior 2《战狼2》(2017) and Operation Red Sea《 红海行动》(2018) dominates the Chinese box office. These films are men’s worlds with women being diminished to supporting characters to the over-the-top action sequences. 

Still, nobody should count out progress in China’s film world. Filmmakers such as Ning Ying, Li Shaohong, and Li Yu are internationally-acclaimed directors that have consistently produced films highlighting women’s issues and their viewpoints of society. The One International Women’s Film Festival was established in 2017, and the bi-annual China Women’s Film Festival launched in 2013. On International Women’s Day in 2019, articles about women directors and the greatest films by women circulated WeChat, China’s largest social network. 

As Vast As The Oceans

The deep interlink between society’s deep-rooted patriarchy – wrongly legitimised by age-old Confucian traditions – and the film medium has led to the roles of women being subservient to men’s interest throughout most of its film history. Furthermore, this is emphasised by politics’ entanglement of the arts, and how women were used to legitimise or convey certain national narratives.

While there are roles that fit the bill of being empowering through the lens of Western schools of feminism (women being seen as equal to men, women taking on leading roles, etc), this view might not be applicable when factoring the broader historical and societal context of China. Similarly, Chinese cinema also alludes to tensions with Western thinking and their different takes on empowerment with characters stories celebrating the celibacy and silent suffering of women.

What seems to be the most important is how recent decades have brought women’s voice to the forefront through the works of women directors and women-led initiatives. The larger questions now for mainstream Chinese cinema would be how women can etch their perspectives onto the national narrative as it competes with the ever-popular jingoistic blockbusters, as well as how it can continue to offer paramount insights on non-Western feminism with the encroachment of Western influences.

Still, given the breadth of Chinese cinema, this brief exploration only scratches the surface of how women are portrayed – especially when it has only focused on China and not of the films by the Chinese from all around the world. 

But those are topics for another time.


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There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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