Representation of Women in Contemporary Chinese Popular Cinema


The international reception of Chinese cinema has been largely confined to films made by the renowned fifth generation film directors. A few “masterpieces” made in the late 1980s and early 1990s that are not very familiar to domestic Chinese audiences have come to stand for Chinese cinema internationally. By contrast, popular cinema in China, represented by film auteur Feng Xiaogang, enjoys great popularity domestically, but receives little attention from the academia, both from the East and the West. And even less attention is given to the representation of women in Chinese popular cinema.

With the box-office of his latest movie Aftershock reaching 534 million RMB, Feng became the first Chinese film director whose total box-office reaches 1.6 billion RMB and the nation’s wealthiest and most commercially successful filmmaker. With the unprecedented number of audiences, Feng’s popular cinema becomes most influential in reflecting social changes and shaping Chinese cultural attitudes. Thus, the representation of women in Feng’s films not only reflects but also affects women’s social status in contemporary China.

An important feature of Feng Xiaogang’s popular cinema, other than its humor and cynicism, is its strong “journalistic sense” that interacts with the Chinese society. Not only the dialogues in Feng’s films integrate with the most fashionable Chinese language, such as the Internet terms and Chinglish (Chinese-English) pidgin created by grass-root civilians, but the theme and content of his films also deal with the hottest, cutting-edge social issues in China. Be There or Be Square (1998) is a response to the “going abroad” rush in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sigh (2000) and Cell Phone (2003) are family melodramas that echo with the social issue of “mistress”; You are the One (2008) is a romantic comedy about blind-dating that even precedes a trend of blind date shows on provincial satellite TVs; and Aftershock (2010), which is made after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, is an epic story of a family that separated as a result of the great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, but reunited after the Sichuan Earthquake. And interestingly, there is a growing consciousness and seriousness of the representation of women and traditional Chinese family values in Feng’s recent films: Cell Phone and Sigh reveals the social phenomenon of mistress, You are the One treats the middle age marriage crisis and Aftershock traces a mother and her separated daughter for 32 years, dealing with the traditional Chinese family values that restrict and oppress women: Nan Zun Nv Bei (the distinguished male and humble female) and Cong Yi Er Zhong (married once, married forever).

As contemporary American film scholar Jason McGrath noted in his 2008 publication Postsocialist Modernity – Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism, Feng’s popular cinema entertainins the mass audience, while also provides hidden social commentary for more advanced audience (Chp 6, McGrath). Rui Zhang also analyzed in his book The Cinema of Feng Xiaogang: despite working under the constraints of official film ideology and the pressure of profit making, Feng has striven to retain in all his films a distinctive and personal imprint, characterized by his sense of humor and cynical commentary on problems of Chinese society (Zhang). As is widely received by its mass audiences who write film reviews on the two most popular Chinese online film communities – and, Feng’s films are not only entertaining, but also socially concerned. As one of the few Chinese filmmakers whose box office surpasses many Hollywood blockbusters domestically, and almost the only filmmaker who mimics Hollywood and returns an anti-orientalism gaze towards America, Feng is even idolized as a national hero who saved the Chinese film industry.

However, recourse to socialist feminist theory, this paper aims to argue that Feng’s popular cinema, seemingly containing commentary about the current Chinese society by bring up social issues with feminist concerns on behalf of the working class, is reinforcing the current status quo, the post-socialist and patriarchal order in China. The paper will be based on textual analysis on two recent popular films made by Feng Xiaogang: Cell Phone and Aftershock.

Socialist Feminism and Feminism in China

Deriving from debates between radical and Marxist feminisms, Socialist feminism appears to adopt some of the same tenets of Marxism, but instead of focusing on economic determinism as the primary source of oppression, the socialist feminists see the oppression as having psychological and social roots.  According to Chris Beasley, socialist feminism is a dualist theory that broadens Marxist feminism’s argument for the role of capitalism in the oppression of women and radical feminist theory of the role of gender and the patriarchy. Socialist feminism focuses upon both the public and private spheres of a woman’s life and argues that liberation can only be achieved by working to end both the economic and cultural sources of women’s oppression. (Beasley, 58)

In order to understand the dual-theory system of socialist feminism, we need to look at both Marxist feminism and radical feminism.

Marxist feminism states that private property, which gives rise to economic inequality, dependence, political confusion, and ultimately unhealthy social relations between men and women, is the root of women’s oppression in the current social context. In his analysis of gender oppression in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels outlines that a woman’s subordination is not a result of her biologic disposition but of social relations. The institution of family as it exists is a complex system in which men command women’s services (Engels). Marxist feminists see contemporary gender inequality as determined ultimately by the capitalist mode of production. Gender oppression is class oppression, and the relationship between man and woman in society is similar to the relations between proletariat and bourgeois. Women’s subordination is seen as a form of class oppression, which is maintained because it serves the interests of capital and the ruling class.

Radical feminist theorists, on the other hand, state that modern society and its constructs (law, religion, politics, art, and etc.) are the product of males and therefore have a patriarchal character. Radical feminism posits the theory that due to the patriarchy, women have come to be viewed as the “other” to the male norm and as such have been systematically oppressed and marginalized. According to those who subscribe to this view, the best solution for women’s oppression would be to treat patriarchy not as a subset of capitalism but as a problem in its own right. Thus, eliminating women’s oppression means eliminating male domination in all its forms.

There are several versions of socialist feminism which involve different combinations of radical and Marxist feminism, and which sometimes incorporate the influence of psychoanalytic feminism. For instance, British psychoanalyst and socialist feminist Juliet Mitchell is one of the figures who combine and conclude both radical and Marxist feminist theories. In her important essay Women: The Longest Revolution, Mitchell suggests that the liberation of women can only be achieved if all four structures in which they are integrated are transformed – production, reproduction, sexuality and socialization. Among the four structures, the economic factor – production – remains to be the primary one, but it has to be in accordance with the three other factors. (Mitchell). Despite of the different traditions and ongoing debates, socialist feminism in general, as a critical extension of Marxist feminism, attributes to both capitalism and patriarchy as the sources of the oppression of women.

However, the situation of feminism in China is very unique, because China has had an epic and long-fought revolution for national and social liberation in which changing women’s place in society was high on the agenda. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese communist party launched a series of measures of social change that improve and protect women’s rights, including abolishing the arranged marriage system, banning prostitution and re-educating prostitutes, encouraging women to step out of their family to work and attend social events, enforcing laws that ensure women to have equal rights with men, and founding the half-government run organization – Chinese Woman’s Association (Dai Jinhua, 89). Since an external force instead of the women themselves mainly propelled this revolution, Chinese women’s political, legislative and economical rights have greatly improved while their cultural awareness and consciousness were left-behind. As women benefited so much from the socialist revolution instead of self-motivated feminist movements, they tended to immerse themselves so deeply in its ideology of gender equality, along with an ignorance and indifference of feminism. According to Shuqin Cui in her book Women Through the Lens, Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema, the promise of emancipation and the bestowed identity have created the illusion that an autonomous female self can be obtained only in relation to the well being of the nation-state (Cui, 175). Therefore, in the guise of women who hold up half the sky, a motto brought about by Chairman Mao, the fulfillment of the liberation of Chinese women was miswritten as a past tense event in the mainstream Chinese cultural discourse. In the early socialist cinema, female sexuality or the sensuality of the female body is replaced with a genderless and sexless symbol that signifies the sociopolitical collectivity.

However, with the marketization, pluralization, individualization and differentiation of the Chinese culture in the 1990s that characterize the dynamics of transition from state socialism to a postsocialist market society, China is undergoing a huge transformation toward capitalist modernity (McGrath, 7). Central to this process is the rise of economic markets, and people and commodities (and people as commodities) meet on the market as moral-neutral abstractions always reducible to exchange values (McGrath, 8). In the meantime, market imperatives and popular cultural production return the female body as a gendered other and as a sexual commodity. The new emphasis on gender difference also relocates women in the social, political, economic, and cultural margins (Cui, xiii). Therefore, from the sexless to the sexual other, women are still denied entrance into the mainstream order.

Thus, in considering how the meaning and images of women are constructed through visual representations in contemporary Chinese popular cinema, this paper takes textual analysis as a basic methodology, with recourse to socialist feminist theory, to deconstruct the cinematic meaning making and to reveal the unspoken ideological premises of Feng Xiaogang’s popular cinema.

Cell Phone and the Cinema of Infidelity

Cell Phone (2003) marks the culmination of the popular cultural preoccupation with infidelity. A famous TV talk show host Yan Shouyi, tries without success to maintain the delicate network of lies and concealments that allow him to have two different mistresses in addition to his estranged wife.

The story starts in a small town where the town’s first telephone, which signifies the modernization in China, has just been installed. In a small village nearby, a young man Yan Shouyi takes a peasant woman to the town to make a phone call to her husband. About twenty years later, the middle-aged Yan Shouyi has already become a popular TV talk show host in a big city, owning a wife, a nice job, a BMW, and a mistress. His life and work would not have taken this path if he had not been equipped with a cell phone, the latest wireless communication technology. But the Cell Phone also causes the end of his marriage: his wife accidentally answers a phone call from his mistress complaining about his absence from a date.

After getting a divorce, Yan starts a new relationship with a college teacher, Shen Xue, while still occasionally dating his old mistress, Wu Yue. On the several occasions when his double life is about to be discovered by Shen, Yan deftly covers the truth with lies. His close friend Fei Muo, a university professor and producer for his television show, is also involved in a similar love affair with a graduate student, which is soon discovered by his wife. Eventually, Yan’s infidelity is discovered by Shen who sees a digital picture of Yan and Wu making love, a picture taken by the digital camera built into Wu’s new cell phone. Not only is Yan’s relationship destroyed, his career also ends as Wu threatens to expose their relationship and takes over his position as the talk show host. At the end of the film, throwing his cell phone into fire, Yan swears that he will never again own one. Then after a dip-to-black, the film welcomes a second ending, Yan’s niece, who is also from the same village, becomes a cell phone saleswoman and comes to demonstrate the latest product to his uncle Yan. (Zhang, 135)

Given the obvious Marxist bent of Cell Phone’s rhetoric and its fable-like narrative of the dangers of commodity fetishism, one might easily conclude the film as criticism of the effects of rapid economic transformation in urban China, and denial of male dominance. However, underneath this reading which merely based on the resolution provided by the film, we can find both the cultural underpinning and ideological impacts of the film, whether they are conscious directorial decisions or not, are the other way around.

The film is based on total patriarchal and post-socialist assumptions in the first place. The leading character, wealthy, successful TV host Yan Shouyi, is representing the controlling patriarchal order and the ruling class. The young and charming mistress Wu Yue, on the other hand, is a sexual object and an oppressed worker reinforcing and perpetuating an exploitative capitalistic scheme. Yu Wenjuan, the pregnant wife and later the mother of Yan’s only child, is a cheap labor whose family value in undertaking housework and fostering children is totally underestimated and neglected. Shen Xue, the successor of Yu and Wu, is a wonderful replacement of the two women, since she functions as both mistress and wife and has the highest total value. Therefore, marriage and divorce follow the rules of product exchange. The values of women as sexual commodities are estimated by their male owner, based on evaluation and grading of their sexual attractiveness and productivity among others.

In the second place, the narration neglects and degrades women’s family values.

While there are scenes of Yan Shouyi working at the TV station and attending meeting with his colleagues, which confirms his value in production, there is hardly any scene of the women working. In addition, among the values of women, the four structures proposed by Mitchell, sexuality is emphasized against reproduction, and socialization. While there are a lot of scenes of Yan Shouyi flirting and having fun with her young and passionate mistress Wu Yue, there is hardly any scene of him and the older and less attractive wife spending time together. The cinematic representation of the reproduction process of Yan’s first wife is almost absent in the film. Having been pregnant for months, Yu Wenjuan did not inform her husband at all, and Yan is only informed several months after divorce by his ex-brother-in-law that his first wife had already given birth to their baby and needs money from him.

Hiding behind socialization of children and the new motherhood are deeper oppression of women. Spending a lot of time and energy nurturing the kid, the woman Yu did not get the compensation in improving her own social status; instead she lost her job in the big city after she went back to her hometown. As the value of socialization of children is often neglected by the society, this part of the plot is also omitted in the film, and is only told through Yan’s narration, serving as an obstacle that hinders and adds drama to Yan’s women pursuing career. As her value looks invisible, Yan replaces his first wife not with his mistress whose value only lies in sexuality, but with a beautiful college professor Shen Xue who seems to be a more serious and proper wife candidate, but also has the sexual disposition of a mistress.

From Yan’s perspective, all the three women can be valued on a materialistic base. Women become commodities, and their sexual attractiveness, job, education status are all counted in their exchange value while man is the buyer who has the right of choice because of his economic power and dominance in a patriarchal society.

Extramarital relationship is a fatal violation of Chinese social norms and a tradition that often punishes the woman for such “immoral transgression” (Cui 181). In Cell Phone, the mistress Wu Yue, became the conflict’s cause and the incarnation of immorality instead of the Male character Yan Shouyi. As an advanced prostitute, she would love to sell her body in exchange for money and power. And, ultimately, she threatens to replace Yan Shouyi as a television talk show host with the photo she took in her cell phone. Thus, Yan Shouyi becomes the victimized character pitied by the audiences instead of the evil woman.

The resolution of the film, Yan Shouyi’s abandoning of the cell phone, which seems like a self-criticism, is actually a displacement and denial of the guilt and regret by reprimanding the modern technology and communication device. Cell phone becomes the scapegoat for Yan Shouyi, the hypocritical and immoral character, and therefore the patriarchal and capitalist order behind the story, which was supposedly to be criticized, is actually being sympathized and understood.

Depicted as the direct cause of all the conflicts between the protagonist and the three female characters, cell phone, the symbol of post-socialist modernity seems to be criticized. Rui concludes that Cell Phone addresses the subject through the director’s satirical take on consumerism and his exposure of the moral crises and ethical issues brought by expansion of high technology into our everyday lives (Zhang, 136). However, in the first 90 minutes of the film that precedes the ending, a fantasy of the patriarchal and post-socialist (capitalist) utopia was already created for the male audiences: mistress as a symbol and accessory of urban success. Female audiences were also given a utilitarian fantasy integrated with the narcissistic and masochistic visual pleasure: being someone’s mistress is the shortcut to wealth and success. Thus, the film belittles the value of women, and denies women’s independent existential meaning.

In addition to the narrative constructed to propagate the attractive image of the “successful personage” that has represented the “new ideology” of contemporary China, an image that endorses a reality of growing class differences and income disparities, Feng Xiaogang adopts a lot of meta-cinematic elements in Cell Phone to offset the seriousness of his own criticism, a technique that were abundantly used in his early films. There are ample shots within the TV station, such as the staff operating camera, and outtakes of the TV host Yan who says his lines wrong, that remind the audiences to question the authenticity of their own movie watching experience. There is also a lot of inserting advertisements for cell phones that deconstructs the movie’s final critical stance towards post-socialist modernity. As the audiences identify and follow the male protagonist throughout the film, they highly enjoy and celebrate his material wealth and “romantic affairs” brought about by his professional success in the patriarchal and post-socialist order. In the meantime, they also accept a message that all women, whether they are educated or not, college professor or press editorial, wife or mistress, are all annexed to the life of men.

As McGrath noticed, the basic narrative structure of Cell Phone already had become so common by the end of the 1990s as to constitute a cinematic genre in itself, a genre that offers fable-like narratives of the moral dilemmas confronted by protagonists facing dramatic changes in personal economics as well as libidinal possibilities in the reform era. In such films, a man takes on one or more extramarital lovers after achieving some sort of economic success and social elevation (McGrath, 98). In many cases, a man’s ability to defy his wife is supported by both his male role and some sort of economic success. Even though these films reveal the social issues on the oppression of women, they neither provide a solution nor hold a feministic point of view that attempt to liberate women. Instead, they stand in line with the successful male protagonists, and celebrate the current patriarchal and post-socialist status quo. In a word, these films are women-concerned, but not at all feminist films.

Supposedly a subgenre of family melodrama that aims to criticize the social immorality and educate the audiences, the actual impact of the “cinema of infidelity” is rather doubtful. An example is the sex diary scandal of Han Feng, the former senior tobacco official, which culminates the “mistress fashion” in 2010. Even more dramatic than Feng’s films, the purported diary, written in graphic detail, includes boasts that Han was enjoying sex romps with many different women while taking bribes and attending banquets. Populated by Internet users, Han’s case is just one in a million of the government officials and the privileged stratum in Mainland China.

Aftershock and the Traditional Chinese Family Values

A drama about finding forgiveness based on a novel of the same name, Aftershock depicts not only the fatal tragedy that is brought on by a natural catastrophe, but also the strength and courage demonstrated when people are in face of extreme and devastating situations.

The story unfolds with the mother, Li Yuanni, who just survived the Tang Shan earthquake thanks to the self-sacrifice of her husband, being informed by the rescue team that her 7-year old twins are buried under the debris close to each other. As digging one out would result in further collapse of the wreckage on the other, she was forced to make the most difficult decision of her life. As the clock ticked away, she finally ended her struggle and chose to save the boy, and though heartbroken, she had no idea her decision was overheard by her daughter. Deemed as a dead person, the little girl miraculously survived and was rescued by the military several days later. Suffering from the emotional shock of the disaster and the painful memory of her mother’s choice, she refused to talk or reveal who she was. Adopted by a young couple, got pregnant accidentally in college and later moved to the US, she was shadowed by the traumatic experience from her childhood, and forever remained emotionally closed up.

When the Sichuan earthquake takes over 80,000 lives in 2008, she volunteers to join the rescue team and returns to her homeland, China. As she witnesses the tribulations people go through when a natural disaster takes place, she finally unlocks the pain she had felt all these years, finds forgiveness and reunites with the mother and her twin brother she had parted from after 32 years (Chong).

A movie centering on two women, a regretful mother and her separated daughter haunted by her childhood trauma, the film brings on screen and to the center of social consciousness the issues of Chinese women and the traditional family values – Nan Zun Nv Bei (the distinguished male and humble female) and Cong Yi Er Zhong (married once, married forever).

The story starts with the happy and harmonious life of a middle class family in pre-earthquake Tangshan in 1976. The structure of the family sets up the ideological patriarchal assumption of the film: the father Fang Daqiang is a bus driver and the breadwinner of the family. His economic status and male role also defines him as the ruling class within the family; the female leading character Li Yuanni is a wife and mother, a typical Chinese woman happily subordinated to her husband at home; and then there are the son and the daughter, the future generations whose roles are not yet sexually or socially defined. As the default setting in most contemporary Chinese cinema, the protagonists’ family is an epitome of the ordinary family structure in Tangshan. On behalf of the ruling class, patriarchy is articulated as a consensus, a premise received and acknowledged by everybody.

Female oppression is disguised by the peaceful life of the city; and the family celebrates the growing postsocialist modernity, culminated with the scene of the young couple having sex in the back of the husband’s truck, a signifier of economic wealth. In this scene, the female body becomes a sex tool, while the man remains to represent the working tool in industrial production. As the female character Yuanni certainly enjoys the excitement of a wild-sex, jokingly asking her husband if they are the only people in Tangshan doing “this thing” at the time, the audiences, with the anticipation of an earthquake and the following ordeal, will easily accept the pre-earthquake way of family life as an ideal model, giving patriarchy and class oppression legitimized names.

Socialist feminists believe that the home is not just a place of consumption, but of production as well. Women’s work within the home, having and raising children, as well as supporting men by doing cooking, cleaning, and other forms of housework which permit men to work outside the home, are all forms of production because they contribute to society at large. Production, according to socialist feminists, should not be measured in dollars, but rather in social worth (Lilith eZine). However, in the opening sequence of Aftershock, the image of a traditional Chinese home is romanticized, as in contrast with the destruction of the home after the earthquake. The woman Yuanni’s satisfaction with her gender at home is also emphasized and eulogized, thus her oppression becomes invisible to both the narrative and the audiences. As is also the case of the society, Yuanni represents the contemporary Chinese woman, the powerless and subordinate class who do not see themself as oppressed or exploited under the ideological control of the dominant class through the production of cultural texts and practices. As Karl Marx suggests, “the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary it is their social being that determines their consciousness” (Marx).

There are also cues in the sequence that embraces post-socialist modernity: the director uses a series of shots, including close-ups focusing on the two kids enjoying the fan, a signifier of modern technology given by their father. The kids are moving in accordance with the panning fan, saying, “Cool.” The two kids also fight for a red apple in the house, another signifier of growing wealth in pre-modernized China, and the mother Yuanni undoubtedly asks the daughter to give the apple to her little brother for the excuse that he is younger, a hint foreshadowing her later “boy or girl” decision. However, prior to the fan-enjoying scene, the little girl Fang Deng remarkably shows a feminist feat: after her younger brother Fang Da being bullied by a elder boy, Fang Deng assaults the boy from behind and immediately run away with her brother. Such rebellious characteristic remains in later parts of the film as she grows up.

Unfortunately the disastrous earthquake ruins everything. The city collapses, and the father Fang Daqiang sacrifices his life saving his wife Yuanni. Such narrative seems to be allegorical of the destruction of the current social order and patriarchy, but soon the illusion is denied. As the survivor of the earthquake, Yuanni still choose to live under the patriarchal system.  Every Chinese lunar New Year, Yuanni will talk to the plaque of her dead husband, the replacement and re-embodiment of the male power of the family that sits in the middle of the table, and burn paper money to the dead. Yuanni also refuses to move and insists to stay in her shabby apartment so that the dead will know how to find the way back. Once again, the reinforcement of the phallic power and the patriarchal order hides behind the criticism of superstition.

In addition, Yuanni refuses to get married again. Even though there is a nice man pursuing her, she chooses to stay with her dead husband. Her loyalty and adherence to her dead husband, coupled with her independence in bringing up her amputated boy is highly commended in the film. Thus, female subordination is equalized to loyalty and adherence. An energetic and passionate woman who enjoys wild lovemaking at first, Yuanni soon learns to suppress her own sexual desire and becomes a virtuous widow. In creating the respectful image of the mother, the film also delivers a message that highly confirms the “married once, married forever” traditional value which is very contributive to maintain the low divorce rate in Mainland China. Hense the eulogy of a woman’s loyalty to her husband endorses the ideological oppression of women. There are also hidden messages conveying here that once a woman is married to a man, she becomes his commodity forever, even if the owner of the commodity no longer physically exists anymore, and that a woman should not pursue individual happiness beyond her family’s collectivity. The center of a woman’s life will always be a man instead of herself. For a married woman with kids, her life should either be affiliated with her husband or her son and she is forever the “second sex,” an object or accessory of a man. However, as well as a film in the background of a natural disaster, Titanic presents a total different value and ideology. Also a woman who lost her loved one, Rose got married after she was rescued from the ocean and became a mother and grandmother of many kids. Likewise suffering from the loss and trauma, she chose to pursue her own happiness as a return to Jack’s love and self-sacrifice, which forms a sharp contrast with her virtuous Chinese counterpart Yuanni.

On the other hand, there are certain characteristics of Yuanni that sound feministic. As a helpless single mother, Yuanni alone bears the important task of raising her disabled boy Fangda who lost an arm in the earthquake. In ordinary people’s view, a family without a father is doomed to be tragic. Especially in a patriarchal world, the absence of the father indicates the incompleteness of a family. However, Yuanni’s insistence and obstinacy of taking care of the boy alone and her refusal to let her husband’s family take the child away, displays the strength and independence of a woman, and defies the mainstream patriarchal discourse.

The character of the daughter Fang Deng, a traumatized survivor and victim of the earthquake, also becomes a victim of the post-socialist and patriarchal society. Protecting her younger brother by revenging on the elder boy who bullied her brother Fang Da, Fang Deng appeared to be a brave girl who was able to do things better than boys. After being adopted by the impotent couple of the military, Fang Deng also showed a strong sense of self-consciousness. Although she remained silent at the beginning, she was solitary, and full of personality. However, her personality is not enough to change her social role as a woman. After going to college, she got pregnant accidentally and was abandoned by her boyfriend, an irresponsible graduate student. Deciding not to abort her child as what her mom did to her, she gave birth to the baby. And repellent enough, she quitted school, became a private English teacher, and refused help from his stepfather, which can be read as a repudiation and denial of patriarchy. A single mother with her child, she struggled to make a living but was not successful. However strong and adamant she was, the society relentlessly oppressed and denied her independent existence as a proletariat woman. Eventually, she surrendered and escaped to patriarchy and capitalism -her rescue came with the offer of a wealthy white man from Canada. Thus, her identity is realized as the wife of a successful foreign man, not through being a successful woman herself. The feminist ideal comes to disillusionment, and the director provides no solution for women’s fate in contemporary Chinese society, but submission and surrender to the current social order. Even though the woman seems to have fled to an alien haven, her refuge still cannot escape patriarchy and class division.

Even though a film constructed on patriarchal and post-socialist ideology, Aftershock shows a rather ambiguous attitude towards Chinese patriarchy and phallocentrism. Like some of Zhang Yimou’s early films such as Raise the Red Lantern, or Yellow Earth, which were criticized of self-orientalising and offering exotic male gaze for western audiences by masking the father characters, the image of the father is also almost absent in Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock. Fang Daqiang, father of Fang Deng and Fang Da, dies in the earthquake and becomes absent. The stepfather Mr. Wang, starring veteran Chinese actor Chen Daoming, is an official in the Chinese military whose male identity as a father is incomplete because of his impotence. Fang Deng’s college boyfriend turns out to be an irresponsible coward who dares not to accept his own mistake; his lack of courage and his punishment – a slam in the face by the stepfather deny his masculinity. Fang Da is the mother’s good boy and an amputated man, and his “lack” also suggests that his maleness is also somehow not complete. And finally there is a masculine foreign man, healthy and wealthy, who stands out as a threat for Chinese men and causes anxiety among Chinese male audiences.

Eventually, Fang Da re-establishes the patriarchal order in the family after he has become wealthy and married. Driving a BMW, Fang Da’s marriage comes along with his economic success. The upgrading of his social status from a tricycle riding proletariat to a fancy car-owning bourgeois thus guarantees his role as the ruling class in his family. In the scene that he and his wife went back home to visit his mom, he yields at his wife and commands her to leave their baby with Yuanni for the lunar New Year. Don’t have the right of word in the family, the wife Xiao He cannot resist but cry. Claiming that “don’t think that I married you because of your money,” Xiao He arouses the audiences’ laughter in the cinema since they are all familiar with Feng’s idiomatic “thief crying stop thief” humor as they sniff at Xiao He: “now you regret to marry a man because of his money, huh?” Failing to persuade Xiao He, Fang Da reveals his male chauvinism by chiding her: “You don’t have the right to make a decision for this matter. You have to listen to me.” With tears in her eyes, Xiao He fights back by saying that “don’t bully me too much, otherwise the chicken will fly away with the eggs (a metaphor that she might divorce with him).” Totally regardless of her threat, Fang Da replies that “there is no shortage of chicken, and eggs can be laid again as well.” Playing with the humor, the director boldly reinforces such a hegemonic male chauvinism to his audiences, as they identify with Fang Da, a civilian hero who changes his destiny by fighting against the adversity of his life and gaining success in the competitive modern urban China and pity with the elder mother Yuanni, who has been lonely since his son left her to work in the city. Xiao He, on the other hand, is depicted as a cheap woman who has no self-esteem because of her need for money and material. Even though her individual consciousness suddenly awakes along with her maternal love at the fear of losing her baby, she surrenders to the patriarchy and hierarchy as she obeys and compromises with her husband eventually. In this scene, the film’s visual devices include close-ups to centralize the young heroine Xiao He and montage editing between the husband and wife to reinforce class conflict and oppression of woman.

A film that attracts audiences to cinema with its highly promoted visual effects, Aftershock sells the story of a family melodrama that manipulates audiences’ emotions from sudden laughter to collective tear-downpour. Although a film that eulogizes a mother’s selfless love and insistence, and the daughter’s ultimate understanding and forgiveness of her misunderstood mother, the film expresses a fatalistic powerlessness of femininity towards Chinese patriarchy and post-socialist modernity.


Centered on issues and stories of women, both Cell Phone and Aftershock are films based on patriarchal and post-socialist ideology with very few feminine tendencies unconsciously mentioned. Self-defined as a commercial filmmaker in the first place, Feng’s films also bear the custody of the state censorship that guarantees his commercial success. Thus, although his films sometimes contain hidden social satire, they nevertheless serve as “main melody commercials” that reinforce the mainstream Chinese cultural and social discourse, the patriarchal and post-socialist modernity that consciously ignores and even defies femininity.


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