Gendered Narrative in Chinese Cinema

By Colleen I-In Chiang

What is the image that comes to your mind when thinking of Chinese cinema? Is it Bruce Lee in his yellow jumpsuit, Jackie Chan and his special fighting skills, or Zhang Ziyi with her slanted eyes? Clearly Chinese cinema can not be considered a monolithic National Cinema. Rather, one should examine it through several different lenses: the lens of different directors, the lens of diverse social-historical backgrounds, or the symbolic lens of what the film reflects. Chinese cinema appears to be a dynamic synthesis through these different lenses. For instance, one could look at Chinese cinema through a cultural lens, which then incorporates films from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and films by Chinese speaking communities in Singapore, Malaysia, North America, etc. Chinese cinema is not limited to films in Mandarin Chinese but incorporates dialects such as Shanghainese, Cantonese, Amoy, and even films in languages such as Singlish or English. 

Through martial arts movies, the effeminate Chinese body turns into a masculine narrative. Nevertheless, the effeminate Chinese bodies are always in the picture.

Two stereotypes come to mind when people think of Chinese cinema, and both are gendered. The first stereotypes are martial arts heroes: movie stars like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan. In this sense, Chinese cinema is represented by male narratives. Yet if Chineseness is embodied by the male kung fu fighters, does Chineseness imply masculinity? To look at martial arts movies more closely, these male bodies often integrate feminine elements. Take Bruce Lee as an example. Although Lee often appears half naked on screen with his muscles flexing, his films are often a process of building up masculinity. In Fist of Fury (Wei Lo, 1972), Zhen Chen (Bruce Lee) fights against a group of Japanese martial artists to prove that China is not the “sick man of East Asia.” Through martial arts movies, the effeminate Chinese body turns into a masculine narrative. Nevertheless, the effeminate Chinese bodies are always in the picture.

In a film produced equally by a Chinese company and Hollywood, it is the white man who goes to China and helps the Chinese—embodied as a woman—to save her country. 

Besides the masculine martial art masters, there is also another stereotype of Chinese in the cinema, one represented by the female body. This is most representative in films by the fifth-generation directors. In films like Raise the Red Lantern (Yimou Zhang, 1991), Curse of the Golden Flower (Yimou Zhang, 2006), or The Flowers of War (Yimou Zhang, 2011), women are often the focus of the camera. The image of self-orientalized women is a common impression of Chinese culture in the Hollywood. Take Zhang Yimou’s most recent film The Great Wall (2016) as an example, while the film is a co-production by Chinese and Western production companies, it is rather obvious that the gender dynamic simply derives from the casting: Matt Damon as the male lead and Jing Tian his counterpart. In a film produced equally by a Chinese company and Hollywood, it is the white man who goes to China and helps the Chinese—embodied as a woman—to save her country. 

Aside from the male and female narratives represented by the dominating Chinese culture, films by diasporic directors use gendered narrative to portray other faces of Chinese culture as well. Following the lineage of Asian American literature, films like Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang, 1993) and Saving Face (Alice Wu, 2004) uses the stories of Asian American Women to explore their lives in diasporic Chinese communities. There are also films such as Siao Yu (Sylvia Chang, 1995) and The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993) that depict Chinese American’s struggle in the United States. There is surely shared Chineseness in all these films. If we look at Chinese cinema as a dynamic synthesis, there will be more possibilities than the kung fu fighters v.s. resilient women in representing Chineseness. 

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I-In Chiang is an assistant professor of Chinese film and literature at the Rhodes College. Her areas of studies are Chinese films, Taiwan and Hong Kong films, and women and gender studies.

Executive editor: Nien-chen Lin

Proofreading editor: Alex Shifman