China’s New “Women’s Cinema”

Chris Berry, “China’s New Women’s Cinema” originally appeared in Camera Obscura, Volume 18. Copyright 1989 Camera Obscura. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Duke University Press.

“Women’s cinema” (女的电影院 ) is a term that has come into common critical usage in the People’s Republic of China over the last year or two. Certainly, Chinese commentators are aware of Western feminisms, and some have also heard of feminist filmmaking. However, both the term “women’s cinema” and the films it refers to can only be accounted for by understanding the Chinese socio-political and cinematic context. This paper is intended to make a start on that project. I will argue that the critical discourses deploying the term are contained within a dominant ideology insisting on consensus and resisting difference and contradiction, but that some of the films covered by the term manifest interestingly different tendencies.

The first major recognition of the term “women’s cinema” came about a year ago. Between the 5th and the 7th of May 1986, the editors of the bi-monthly Contemporary Cinema organised a symposium on “women’s cinema” at the China Film Art Research Center, a national-level body that houses the China Film Archives and is based in Beijing. Participating were various Chinese film scholars and critics, as well as many women directors. The published report of the conference is the major text on “women’s cinema” available to date. [1]

In the opening section of the report, the sudden growth in numbers and in prominence of Chinese women directors is noted. Other commentators writing at about the same time also remarked on this. [2] The report states that the rise in numbers has occurred since the fall of the “Gang of Four” in 1976. There are now over thirty fully-fledged women directors making feature films, and only the Soviet Union can compare with China in this respect. Furthermore, many of these women directors have been major prizewinners. Out of fifteen Ministry of Culture Outstanding Film Awards for 1985, seven were won by films directed by women, a figure disproportionate to their numerical representation in the industry. These awards were issued in early 1986, a month or two before the symposium was held, and they appear to have been the main trigger for the symposium itself.

The report goes on to use the term “women’s cinema” to refer to all films made by women, not just those made by women espousing certain principles. I believe this is not only related to the triggering factors I have just discussed, but also to the character of the Chinese women’s movement. In the People’s Republic, it does not exist as an independent entity with internal divisions and external oppositions, nor is it a movement espoused by certain women and opposed or ignored by others. Rather it exists under the centrally supervised aegis of the Women’s Federation. This national level body has branches and representatives across the country, and was set up soon after the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It is intended to look after women’s interests and mobilize them, much as the Trade Union Federation is meant to look after and mobilize China’s workers. In her book surveying the subject, Judith Stacey argues that its operations are best understood in terms of the broad changes wrought upon the patriarchal family by the Communist Party, and that they have been consistently subordinated to and integrated with that broader project. Thus, for example, there has been much work to bring women into the labor force, but less concern with equality of pay. [3] Writing from what is an unabashedly Western feminist point of view of what constitutes “women’s liberation,” Stacey concludes that “socialism has not liberated women because a socialist mode of production has proven to be compatible with a patriarchal sex-gender system” and that “while capitalism has not liberated women, many capitalist societies have been able to provide richer soil for the growth of feminist consciousness and an independent feminist movement.” [4]

This character of the Chinese women’s movement is part of the dominant ideology insisting on consensus and resisting difference and contradiction that I spoke of earlier. Understanding the socio-political operation of this ideology provides a basis for understanding the representation of the symposium in the report. There have, of course, been very powerful oppositional tendencies against consensus, not least the Maoist revolutionary tradition that insists “it is the development of … contradictions that pushes society forward.” [5] However, these tendencies, which probably found their greatest expression during the “cultural revolution,” have always been perceived and spoken of themselves as working against the dominant traditions. Within Marxism-Leninism as it operates in the People’s Republic, democratic centralism has been the order of the day since 1949. Democratic centralism maintains consensus and erases difference by having policy decisions made after internal, publicly invisible discussions, and then presenting those decisions as unanimously backed in the public sessions and votes of institutions such as the National People’s Congress, much as the oppositional structure of Western parliaments might be said to display democracy as we understand it. The current slogan of “stability and unity” ( 稳定和团结 ) is a very apt example of consensus ideology that was raised high again after the student demonstrations calling for features of Western-style democracy which took place in the winter of 1986 to 1987.

Consensus ideology is consistently maintained in the report on the symposium. This is despite the fact that much of the material reported points to a great deal of potential contradiction. For example, it is stated that the very use of the term “women’s cinema” met with opposition on a number of grounds. First, films directed by women do not yet display a sufficient unity or degree of distinction from films directed by men to warrant their being grouped together. Second, the very use of the term suggests that cinema is normally male, and that a special term has to be deployed for films that deviate from this norm. Third, the term “women’s cinema” is derived from the Western term “feminist cinema.” This is inappropriate because feminist cinema developed in response to specific Western social and cinematic conditions that do not exist in China. [6] All these arguments would appear to be challenging the very basis of the conference, so how does the report manage to mention them without signifying contradiction?

Consensus is signified first by attributing as much as possible to “everybody” (大家) and by placing this material at the beginning and the conclusion of the report. “Everybody” recognised that women directors face special difficulties trying to combine being a wife and mother with a job that demands irregular hours and travelling to locations far from home. This appears after the introduction to the report. At the end “everybody” affirms a belief that contemporary women’s consciousness is opposed to and working against the women’s consciousness formed by the old society, and “everybody” also calls for further research.

In the middle of the report, various items are attributed to “many comrades” (许多同志) or “some comrades” (有些同志). Apart from the section outlining direct oppositions to the very use of the term “women’s cinema,” this occurs mostly in the section that tries to classify the films produced by women directors. This is hardly surprising given the enormous range of subject matter and styles China’s large phalanx of women directors has covered. These range from political musicals like Wang Ping’s Song of the Chinese Revolution (1985) to Guang Chunlan’s Uygur minority nationality legends Mysterious Caravan (1985) and Death of a Beauty (1986). Nonetheless, the report does assert some common points, stating that Chinese women directors display more “acute sensitivity” than their male counterparts, but lack their “depth of maturity.”

When it comes to classifying the films, consensus practices are extended not only to the report of symposium proceedings, but to the films themselves. The definition of two broad categories is attributed to “some comrades.” One is the “expression of psychology” and the other is “going into society.” “Some comrades” also suggested a parallel with types of literature written by Chinese women authors. “Psychological” films are compared to “boudoir” novels, and “social” films are compared to “rebel” literature. In characterising these two categories, it is pointed out that the “social” films feature stronger contemporary women characters than films directed by men. Examples of this are given, and it is stated that male directors seem to prefer women characters who conform to the traditional quiet, obedient and hard-working model of Chinese femininity. As for the “psychological films,” they are notable for their explorations of character, and a tendency to subjective filmmaking in some cases.

In terms of consensus ideology, two things are interesting here. First, the categories “psychological” film and “social” film are neither oppositional nor even mutually exclusive, nor is it argued that they are opposed to, or distinct from, films directed by men. Indeed, it seems the two categories are identified on entirely different bases, with no single method of distinction. “Psychological” films seem to be characterized mostly by a particular approach, whereas “social” films are distinguished primarily in terms of character representation. There is no reason why a “social” film that represents a strong woman should not simultaneously be a “psychological” film that explores the character of this woman, and vice versa. Indeed, Lu Xiaoya’s The Girl in Red, cited as an example of a “psychological” film, would seem to be just such a case. Not only is a schoolgirl’s character explored, but she is also conspicuous as a girl who refuses to be obedient when it means repressing her feelings, her opinions, and what she knows to be the truth. By the criterion of having a strong woman character, this is surely a “social” as well as a “psychological” film. In these ways, the report avoids oppositional categories in defining “women’s cinema,” and operates its analysis on implicit grounds and assumptions very different from those that would be found academically acceptable as “analysis” or “categorization” in the West.

Second, any opposition between “some comrades” and “some comrades” is made invisible in the reporting of the symposium first by simply listing remarks and comments one after the other without any linking phrases or conjunctions that might construct relationships of any sort between them. Furthermore, the possibilities of constructing oppositional or even distinct groupings of symposium participants are obscured by the non-identification of the individuals who advanced the ideas listed. Indeed, direct quotation of speakers is very rare in the report, and only occurs in examples of ideas attributed to “everyone,” “the vast majority of comrades” or at least “very many comrades.” [7] In the spirit of participant observation, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am not trying to suggest the report misrepresents the symposium in any way. In fact, all the Chinese discussion meetings I have taken part in have also operated along consensus ideology lines. Everyone gets a chance to 救讲话, which literally means “to put out speech.” No one appears to pay much attention to what is being said. They never interrupt, never ask questions, and almost always only take up what someone else has said to agree with it.

One of the major features of the consensus ideology manifested in the report is the non-existence of the individual, if the individual is understood to signify a distinct set of attributes mapped onto a concrete person. Named persons only appear in the report as examples of a massed “many comrades” or “everybody.” Indeed, as a manifestation of difference, the individual is a threat to consensus ideology. Sun Longji is one of the fiercest critics of traditional Chinese culture as it operates today. He writes of a social phenomenon which has been translated as “sodality,” derived from a Chinese term 人情 meaning “human feelings,” but now used to cover the entire network of social obligations involved in Chinese social relationships. He says, “In Chinese culture, a man is defined in terms of a bilateral relationship. This is a matter of sodality”; “A Chinese is the totality of his social roles. Strip him of his relationships, and there is nothing left. He is not an independent unit.” [8]

Given this, the appearance of what the report refers to as “psychological” films seems to mark a significant new tendency, since one can hardly pursue “psychological exploration” without constructing and recognizing the individual subject. At this point, I would like to turn to three films, all of which I am fairly confident would be classified as “psychological” in the terms of the report. They possess a strong degree of unity as a group that distinguishes them from the broad mass of films directed by women, and also mark a direction in Chinese filmmaking that seems to me both socially and cinematically significant.

The three films are Sacrificed Youth, directed by Zhang Nuanxin in 1985; Army Nurse, directed by Hu Mei in early 1986; and The Season for Love, directed in late 1986 by Urshana. Assuming you may not have seen these films, I will try to describe them as briefly as possible. Sacrificed Youth is about a Han Chinese girl who is sent down to the countryside to live among the Dai minority nationality on China’s southwestern borders during the “cultural revolution.” There she discovers herself torn between two cultures and two men, but she ends up returning to the city without either of them. Army Nurse is the story of a woman who enters the army as a teenager, and after a failed relationship with a patient and a failed attempt by her friends to fix her up with a suitable husband, ends up alone. The Season for Love centers on a philosophy graduate student who finds herself unmarried at thirty and under heavy pressure to do something about it. She compares herself to her three unmarried friends with whom she spent her time in the countryside in Inner Mongolia during “the cultural revolution,” and where she had a relationship with a Mongolian herdsman blocked by her parents and her friends. She rejects their solutions, deciding that she will either marry for love or stay single.

Apart from similarities in subject matter and director, the additional factor that binds these films together is a high level of female subjectivity. This marks them out from other films by women directors, and other Chinese films in general. Both Sacrificed Youth and Army Nurse are told entirely in flashback with the voice-over narrative of the main character almost ever-present on the soundtrack. The Season for Love is divided into past and present, but unlike the other two films, we do see some events in which the main character is not involved and which she could only know of secondhand. However, this film also uses a high level of voice-over narration, with the main character describing and commenting on events. The use of these techniques positions the viewer firmly with the main character, insisting on a subjective experience. Furthermore, this is an introspective experience. There have been cases of the subjective technique before in China, although they have been rare. However, most of these instances have used a main character to look out at society. For instance, in My Memories of Old Beijing (1983), changes in Beijing life are viewed through the eyes of a little girl. But in these three films, the focus of the subjective gaze is on issues such as character development and personal life.

Similar subjective voice-over techniques have of course been used in Western feminist filmmaking, the documentaries Union Maids, Women of the Rhondda, and Janie’s Janie being obvious examples. But these films were directed at insisting on female subjectivity in a cinema and society where the male subject seems to be assumed unless otherwise signified. In China, on the other hand, this female subjectivity is asserting itself in a society and cinema where the very existence of the subject has been resisted. I have already spoken of this social resistance. On the cinematic level, in an earlier article, I noted how resistance to the subject appears in the classical cinema of the People’s Republic. Although deploying the same editing patterns and shot structures that have been seen as deeply connected with Oedipal narratives in classical Hollywood cinema, the classical Chinese cinema arranges these in a very different relationship with the representational level. Films tend to maintain sets of characters within the frame. Marginal placement of a character in the frame signifies a threat to this order. Shot/reverse-shot, which positions viewers with individual characters, is then a descent into the collapse of order. As a result, most films take and affirm a third person perspective that exceeds that of any single character and is not particularly identified with any particular individual. However, they do position viewers so that their understanding and attitude to what they see is congruent with the approved political line of the time. [9]

Given these circumstances, subjectivity in these three films has a multiple significance that is all their own. First, they recognize and valorize subjective experience by bringing it into discourse in a society and cinema where individual subjectivity has been resisted. I can only speculate on the broader factors that may have made this possible. This is an era in which the Chinese government has been trying to galvanize society and the economy by encouraging personal accountability, the rule of the law, dismantling the “big pot,” and allowing private enterprise. All these developments are congruent with the construction and valorization of the individual subject.

Second, if these films are enunciated from the position of “women’s consciousness” (女性意识), I can think of no films that do the same thing for “men’s consciousness.” [10] Why has the accession of subjectivity so far been such a markedly female thing in the Chinese cinema? Is this equally true of literature? Although a great many Chinese novels have first person male narrators, I am not aware of many that are as intensely introspective as these films. Might this tendency within “women’s cinema” be inter-textually valorized by the fact that one of the traditional forms of Chinese women’s literature has been diary writing? If we could go so far as to take emerging subjectivity to be particularly associated with women at the moment, what would be the broader social significance of this? Last, to what extent is this change connected to the recent translation of the works of Freud and the general wave of interest in works on psychology?

A third point is that by insisting on a subjective enunciation, these films valorize the personal and subjective point of view rather than the traditional third person perspective that is signified as surpassing that of any individual. This seems to me part and parcel of a broader cinematic change. Traditionally, film has existed to publicize what are considered correct attitudes in the People’s Republic. But now more and more young directors are establishing an autonomous voice in their work. They are not doing this by taking any direct oppositional or dissident line (impossible in a society dominated by consensus ideology), but by taking subjects that are not on the agenda of social issues dominating discussion in The People’s Daily, and by avoiding an educational enunciation for one that leaves more room for viewer thought and judgement. The intense individual subjectivity fits into this pattern as another technique that moves without expressing opposition towards autonomy of voice.

However, although these films seem to me to be doing something very significant and innovative in their construction of individual female subjectivity, it must be noted that this subjectivity itself has also a distinct form and an ambiguous relation to consensus ideology. Each of the women in these films is alone at the time when she is speaking and at the close of the film. Furthermore, each of them has experienced a loss. In The Season for Love and Army Nurse, these losses are relationships halted prematurely by the intervention of social forces beyond her control. At the end of Sacrificed Youth the main character reveals that some time after she left the Dai village, both it and the men who were inching toward relationships with her were swept away in a mud slide. These narratives of subjectivity are very different from the Oedipal narrative where subjectivity is a positive goal to be attained through mastery over an object, thus dealing with, or at least patching over, the inevitable “lack” generated in the initial development of subjectivity. In these three films, the subjectivity that the main characters variously experience is simply a loss. Each of them is in a state of mourning for what might have been.

This particular form of subjectivity seems best understood as born of the dominant consensus ideology I have been speaking of here. I would like to assert that the archetypal narrative structures of classical Chinese cinema in the People’s Republic revolve around separation and reunion. This is a narrative structure that meshes with the shot structures and editing patterns I spoke of earlier. Individual subjectivity is associated with separation, the collapse of order, and techniques that place viewers with individual characters. Its dominant opposite is the communal experience of consensus beyond individuality, which is seen in the cinema as a group of characters contained within the frame and viewed from a third person perspective. [11] If Western ideology seems obsessed with Oedipal experiences, Chinese consensus ideology seems equally obsessed with taking up and deploying the losses involved in the access to subjectivity and the desire for a return to a pre-subjective state. In Sacrificed Youth, the main character speaks of the Dai village into which she had become heavily assimilated as a place which often appears in her dreams, and where “I believe, the water will always be fresh and the grass green.” Swept away in a mud slide, it is constructed in the narrative almost as a sort of Eden from which she has fallen into lonely individual subjectivity. At the end of The Season for Love, speaking of a new man she is interested in, the main character says she has seen “those eyes” before, and that they will be hers again. In this statement she expresses a longing for a union of her vision with that of the new man, and with that of the Mongolian herdsman she knew before and lost.

However, although the subjective drives of the main characters in these films are structurally related to consensus ideology, the fit is not a simple one. It is here that their full ambiguity may be understood. In Sacrificed Youth, were the main character to have stayed in the Dai village, it would have involved a major act of individual will opposing the system that sent her there in the first place and then returned her to the city. In Army Nurse, had the main character developed her relationship with the patient she fell in love with, it would have involved her asserting her desires against the demands of army regulations. Furthermore, in deciding not to marry the man her friends have fixed her up with at the end of the film, she is asserting her desire to stay alone rather than give in to the social pressure that is insisting on her marriage. In The Season for Love, although the character is more optimistic about finding a man and merging her subjectivity into something greater, she nonetheless declares that this will be a result of her personal subjective choice, and not something into which she is coerced. These films do construct a particular form of subjectivity congruent with consensus ideology, but they position its drives in contradiction to the broader demands of society. In other words, they construct a major contradiction within consensus ideology, but not necessarily in opposition to it.

It is too soon to tell how long-lived China’s “women’s cinema” is going to be, or what characteristics it will take on if and as it moves beyond these very early stages. However, the most recent developments seem to indicate diversification.

Within the “subjective” tendency I have focused on in this article, Wang Junzheng has made a film for Beijing Film Studio called The First Woman in the Forests. Set on a drama student’s research trip, it offers a complex play of subjectivities rather than a single subject. The student, whose inner voice we hear on the sound-track, meets with an old man who remembers the past. In the flashbacks (whose?) that follow, the prostitute the old man is in love with is played by the same actress as the one who plays the drama student.

Another very different film which also establishes clear female enunciation and negotiates the consensus/difference opposition is Peng Xiaolian’s Three Women. [12] This film has just been completed as I write in November of 1987. It has not yet been released in China, and so it is too early to say what reaction to it there will be, and whether it will be one of a kind or the start of another new trend within “women’s cinema.” The movie follows three country women who leave their village to go on a trip selling yarn in the cities. Each of them has her own reason for going. One is running away from an arranged marriage to a deaf mute, for example. Another comes from a family of girls looked down upon in the village. She wants to prove herself.

The relevance of certain ideas in the film will be more immediately recognizable to Western feminists than is the case with the other three films I have discussed in detail here. The importance of sisterhood is heavily emphasized. None of the women turn to men for help or expect men to help them. Rather, they and the other women they encounter on their journey already take it for granted that women must rely on each other. This comes to a head after they have returned to the village. The deaf mute turns up with a tough guy and a coil of rope in search of his errant bride. The film freezes and closes as the other women rally around to defend her, refusing to submit to the fate society has organized for one of their number.

Female enunciation is achieved in this film not by subjective techniques, but by the fact that most of the scenes involve no male characters. We are positioned with the three central characters, traveling around the country with them, as they interact in ways they presumably would not if any men were present. As for the consensus/difference opposition, Three Women negotiates this by setting up the women as an alternative group consensus resisting traditions and the mainstream. This, of course, is the same strategy adopted by the Communist Party before the founding of the People’s Republic. But again, as with the other three films discussed, there is an ambiguity. Unlike the new consensus ideology of the Communist Party, that of the women in the film can never extend to cover the whole of Chinese society, because it is specific to one sex. At the same time as it is not individualist, it is divisive, insisting on the recognition of difference.

[1] “Women Directors and Women’s Films” (女和妇女主任的电影 ) in Contemporary Cinema (当代电影) (1986) 4, pp. 111-114.
[2] For an example that has been translated into English, see Sang Hu, “The Ascendancy of China’s Women Directors,” China Screen (1986) 1, p. 9. This is followed by a series of biographies of women directors. According 19 to these materials, the first woman director in the People’s Republic of China began working in 1950, one year after the founding of the country. However, the bulk of women directors were trained in the early 1960s and began work in the late 1970s after the “cultural revolution” hiatus.
[3] Judith Stacey, Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.)
[4] Stacey, pp. 266 and 262.
[5] Mao Zedong, “On Contradiction,” Selected Works 1, p. 314.
[6] It may be interesting to readers to know that this section of the report includes a brief section describing Hollywood Cinema in terms showing a clear knowledge of Laura Mulvey’s work on the subject.
[7] For example, the director Hu Mei is quoted echoing the observations on the difficulties faced by women directors in doing the job.
[8] Sun Longji (孙隆基), The Deep Structure of Chinese Culture (要把中华文化), (的深层结构) (Hong Kong: 1982), excerpted and translated in Geremie Barme and John Minford, Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong 1986).
[9] Chris Berry, “Sexual Difference and the Viewing Subject in Li Shuangshuang and The In-Laws,” in Chris Berry, ed., Perspectives On Chinese Cinema, Cornell University East Asia Papers 39, pp. 32-46.
[10] One possible exception is the new film by Chen Kaige, director of Yellow Earth: Big Military Parade. It features a series of voice-overs from different characters, revealing their different attitudes and constructing them as individuals rather than just clone soldiers.
[11] See Berry. The final shot of The In-Laws, discussed in this article, is one of the finest illustrations of this tendency I can think of. Not only is the whole family reunited at the end of the picture and shown in one frame, but the shot is from a bird’s-eye angle that could not possibly be the point of view of a human individual.
[12] The literal translation of the film’s Chinese title is Women’s Story. However, Three Women is more likely to be the export title. All the other English language titles used in this article are the official export titles.