Performing gender in Chinese cinema

Authored by: Hongwei Bao

Routledge Handbook of East Asian Gender Studies

Print publication date:  December  2019
Online publication date:  November  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138959897
eBook ISBN: 9781315660523
Adobe ISBN:


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In this chapter, I trace a brief genealogy of how Chinese cinema engages with the issue of gender. In doing so, I examine how gender has been represented and constructed through the cinematic apparatus in different eras of modern Chinese history. I suggest that filmic constructions of gender have participated in modern China’s nation-building project, and furthermore, they have articulated different imaginations of Chinese modernity. Indeed, the representation of gender in Chinese cinema has been closely intertwined with colonial, socialist and postsocialist imaginations of Chinese modernity and these imaginations have shaped modern and contemporary China. In other words, films not only teach people how to be women and men by providing role models and presenting lifestyle guides; they also inspire people to feel ‘Chinese’ and ‘modern’. This chapter is divided into two sections, which deal, respectively, with the representation of women and men in Chinese cinema. I use an ‘archetypical’ approach (Frye 2001), that is, identifying key tropes, representative figures and recurring narrative patterns, in organising my discussion. In the first section, ‘Women in Chinese Cinema’, I draw on film critic Dai Jinhua’s (2002) categorisation of Qin Xianglian, Hua Mulan and Nora figures as archetypes for modern Chinese women in discussing dominant tropes in the cinematic representation of women. In the second section, ‘Men in Chinese Cinema’, I draw comparisons between traditional Chinese opera’s ‘role types’ (hangdang) and the cinematic representation of men. Such an innovative approach aptly recognises the close connections between various forms of Chinese art and media, including theatre and cinema in this case, as both shaped by Chinese histories and cultural traditions and thus mutually constitutive.

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