Cinema / Culture & Art / Society

Heroines, Whores and Mothers: Women in Golden Age Chinese Cinema

How the Chinese Cinema of the 1930s (also called the Golden Age period) juggled between portraying women’s emancipation and restraining female roles to the male perspective.

by Kristina P., Marion Bouvier

The two emblematic actresses of the silent era, Li Lili (center) and Ruan Lingyu (right) in Little Toys (Sun Yu, 1933) ; image via

The two emblematic actresses of the silent era, Li Lili (center) and Ruan Lingyu (right) in Little Toys (Sun Yu, 1933) ; image via

Chinese cinema emerged during a period of significant political and social transformations, when the long era of imperial rule came to an end; for China, it also meant trying to define its identity in the rapidly transforming modern reality.

Indeed during the late 1920s the country turned into a battlefield between nationalists on one hand and socialists on the other hand, and the brutal Japanese invasion[1] only added further complications for China. Therefore the question of China’s identity remained prominent throughout this period of changes and upheavals. In order to modernize and ‘cure’ social illnesses, China was looking for her own path, one that would differ from the West’s, since Western countries were largely perceived with a mixture of admiration, defiance and hatred.

Besides, the backwardness of traditional China was fueling a social malaise that was at the heart of many discussions led by the intellectuals at that time: the traditional structure of society in particular was problematic, and the class and gender inequalities were amongst the topics that gained prominence.

Hence these issues were also picked up by the burgeoning cinema, which became a new form of powerful and popular art. Being both socially relevant and entertaining, cinema grew to become an appealing form of art to the urbanites of Shanghai, where the movie industry was developing quickly.

Women as a symbol of the nation’s desire for emancipation

In this context, numerous left-wing films of the 1930s portrayed female characters and did it in a new and different way compared with how the Confucian ideals would traditionally portray women. Women on-screen appeared liberated and often strong in spirit, even when encountering oppression. Instead of being restricted to playing the passive wives, they often took the center stage in the movies. Indeed, national and social issues, which became the central subjects of the Chinese cinema of the 1930s, were often presented through female protagonists. The general message implied a call for change, such as to strive for a Chinese, socialist society; other underlying tones alluded to gender equality[2].

However, in a more subtle way, women served as a symbol for the nation as a whole, through which male directors and scriptwriters wanted to tell their stories.

One of the reasons why women were chosen by leftist directors of the 1930s to serve as the symbol of the Chinese nation is because women were deemed to be the ones representing the emotional aspects of life, while men were the ones representing its rational aspects. In order for art to be more expressive, women were preferred to engage the audiences more thoroughly: women were to become the emotional mirror to males’ desires and anxiety.

Besides, in the troubled times of the Japanese invasion, the need to strengthen national belonging and patriotism made the defense of “the motherland” a central theme, and consequently the use of women as a metaphor for China was deemed to be most appropriate. If in times of peace men are thought to be superior–as culture overcomes nature–, in times of war however, the importance of life-bearing and nurturing women became the commonly used symbol.

Thirdly, since historically women had always been occupying the lowest positions in the Chinese society[3], they seemed to convey more powerfully the nation’s desperation and struggle in times of social unrest and of a widespread national feeling of vulnerability. And on top of that, due to the devaluation of women in traditional Chinese society it was a strong revolutionary idea to picture women breaking through the sociocultural traditions and building a new reality.

Ruan Lingyu plays the role of a mother who prostitutes herself to send her son to a good school (The Goddess, Wu Yonggang, 1934)

Ruan Lingyu plays the role of a mother who prostitutes herself to send her son to a good school (The Goddess, Wu Yonggang, 1934)

The spirit of the Chinese cinema’s Golden age period (1930s) has been best encaptured in movies starring legendary Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu: for instance, Little Toys (Sun Yu, 1933), The Goddess (Wu Yonggang, 1934), and New Women (Cai Chusheng, 1934). In those films, Ruan Lingyu is depicting characters of mothers who face many struggles to live and shape their futures.

In The Goddess, Ruan plays a prostitute, who is raising her son as a single parent and dreams of giving him a good education. However, society is ruthless towards her; eventually, after being accepted to school, her son gets expelled because of his mother’s occupation. In the final scenes of the movie we see Ruan’s character imprisoned for killing the man who was harassing and blackmailing her, and when she is visited by the school principal, he promises to take care of her son and to give him a good education. In this way, children, nurtured by their mothers, represent the future of the Chinese society and how their education was essential to pursuing the dream of a new China. And through these leftist directors, mothers served as a metaphor for the nation, a symbol of determination, life struggle, of new beginnings and hope.

In fact, the topic of prostitution was commonly brought up by directors of the 1930s. We see oppressed and humiliated prostitute characters in the urban settings of Shanghai notably in Street Angel (Yuan Muzhi, 1937). The prostitute is depicted as a complex character–living on the margins of society, living a life of hardships, being hated because of the sexuality she embodies–, yet, using Marx’s terminology, being a commodity demanded by society itself.

Actress Zhou Xuan plays Xiao Hong, a woman forced to become a prostitute, in Street Angel (Yuan Muzhi, 1937), one of the early sound films.

Actress Zhou Xuan plays Xiao Hong, a woman forced to become a prostitute, in Street Angel (Yuan Muzhi, 1937), one of the early sound films.

The lingering prevalence of the male gaze

Thus, in a sense Chinese cinema starting from the 1930s gave a new perspective to Chinese women: it seemed that they were to play an important part in the upcoming changes. Their emotions and hardships were also pictured in more sensitive ways, and could let one believe that the Golden Age cinema would lead to a new feminist consciousness. However, if at first sight it appears that women’s salvation served as a metaphor for national salvation, there were limits to the way women were portrayed –and consequently, to the way women’s liberation was envisioned.

Indeed, though male directors raised women’s issues through the art of cinema in an attempt to express their own feelings and socio-political views, it cannot be characterized as a feminist movement launched by women themselves or their allies. In a sense, in spite of the fact that women were present on-screen, they were not given the right to talk for themselves, but instead they were prompted to talk and act in the way prescribed by men dominating the film industry[4].

Feminist movements throughout the world have advocated for women to own their bodies and their sexualities, and in parallel have questioned the society’s over-sexualisation of women that objectifies them under the male gaze. However, what we can see, in fact, in the movies of this period is the tendency to represent the woman as an object of desire and not as an equal to man. In the Goddess, the character of Ruan Lingyu lives an impoverished life, yet the viewers may first of all notice the appeal of her well-taken-care of, almost glamorous, appearance. Hence not only is the woman used to convey universal feelings or socio-political views, but she is also reduced to a fetishized image of a human being dependent on the attraction she exerts on the male protagonists –and the viewers.

Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess

Ruan Lingyu in The Goddess

The Communist era and the erasure of women’s individualities

What also shows that the patriarchal system has not been fundamentally put into question or opposed is that female directors themselves were not really criticizing the oppression of women, but rather pointing out the more general social issues that women had to face.

After 1949, during the Communist era when the whole nation, including women, was said to be free and equal, female scriptwriters and directors were given the opportunity to be part of the artistic scene. However, under the communist regime, the individual, whether male or female, was not significant in herself or himself, but rather both genders were used as tools to deliver the communist message to the masses: they were all comrades, nothing more. In this sense, women involved in the movie industry –just like men- were not given much freedom: everything revolved around the socialist revolution and nothing was allowed to exceed this framework[5]. Movies directed by women thus merged with the socialist imagery: focusing on the lives of ordinary people while insufflating hope into the characters to stimulate people’s participation in the revolution.

In post-socialist reality, female directors were able to retain their positions in the industry, yet up until now many of them seem to be trying to erase their female identity in their professional field. They are aware of the fact that being associated with feminism would not bring any professional success, therefore a trend has emerged through which female directors are likely to ‘masculinize’ their movies[6]: their films indeed tend to follow the lines of male directors’ ones rather than to reflect on creating or re-creating new angles and new topics in films.

For instance, director Zhang Nuanxin affirms that “a woman’s text should be first and foremost personal rather than feminine… As a female director, I speak as an artist, not as a woman”[7]. This point of view, though very rational, seems to forget, to our minds, the fact that whether women want it or not, they exist within an existing socio-political context that has been dominated by men for the past millennia (with the exception of rare societies or tribes that were or still are matriarchal). It seems difficult to believe that voluntarily adopting a genderless stance equates being a ‘neutral’ artist speaking beyond genders. Every individual has been raised within the framework of a society, and our creations are likewise influenced by the context in which they are produced. Therefore, we would argue that female artists can of course choose not to focus on and question gender differences, but in this case their creations cannot be fully freed from the male-orientated context from which they were begotten.

Chinese cinema post-1980s: Changes and continuity in women’s onscreen representation

Almost a century after the Golden age of Chinese films, and decades after the end of the Maoist era, which place has been granted to women in post-1980s cinema? It seems that somehow the main orientations taken by directors of the 1930s have persisted until nowadays. If the socialist themes are not at the forefront anymore, the way women are pictured and perceived continues to be similar.

Gong Li in Raise the red lantern (1991); image via

Gong Li in Raise the red lantern (1991); image via

Fifth-generation director Zhang Yimou is well-known in the West for painting a vivid image of China through female protagonists, most often played by his muse Gong Li. Similarly to what happened in 1930s movies, women are allowed a place in the foreground, and their feelings and lives serve as catalyst to the expression of what society has to go through. Those characters are often victims of the Confucian patriarchal society, and a metaphor for issues faced by the people. In Raise the Red Lantern (1991), Gong Li plays a concubine who has to deal with other concubines and her own frustration of being confined to a life limited by the house’s walls. The whole movie takes place within the house of the wealthy man, and this setting has been often said to be a metaphor for Maoist China: the internal fights, the regulations that rhythm everyone’s life, the despair and cruelty of those trapped in it, and also their hopes to emerge as independent beings. Again, through this movie women express the suffering of society in an intimate and powerful way. However, it would be difficult to say that the movie is more specifically advocating women’s rights.

Indeed, when considering the female protagonists, one can notice that Zhang accentuates women’s sex appeal. The main character, played by Gong Li, is an attractive young female; besides, she herself can be said to take part in the patriarchal system since she decides to accept the rules of the house and to compete with the other concubines to obtain the man’s favors. She also does not hesitate to scheme against the others, even though she sometimes seems to realize that she has more in common with her rivals than she thought.

Likewise, there has been much talk about Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), also directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li as the lead female character. Set in the Tang dynasty and based on the play Thunderstorm, the movie tells the story of the Imperial family, torn between political plots and fights, and its intimate story, the story of a family in which love and cruelty rival in strength. If Gong Li is portrayed as a powerful female character, plotting against her husband to put her son in power and behaving as a tyrant towards her suite, she is also shown as a very sensual and sexualized character: her accentuated cleavage was completely unrealistic in terms of historical reconstitution, but was obviously a choice meant to attract the (male) audience. Besides, though she incarnates a powerful woman, she is also intensely vulnerable and dependent on the male characters, in particular on her son-in-law towards whom she has passionate romantic feelings.

The other major director of the fifth-generation, Chen Kaige, also depicts some strong women characters (like the one played by Gong Li in Farewell my concubine (1993), in The Emperor and the Assassin (1999) alongside Zhou Xun, or by Cecilia Cheung in The Promise (2005)), but the women’s perspectives remain very much limited to the men’s vision of the world. Women’s life choices remain confined to choosing who they love, but not to seek their freedom as individuals, or to question gender norms.

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Gong Li’s infamous cleavage in Curse of the Golden Flower (Zhang Yimou, 2006), via

As a conclusion, one could say that the movies that have tried to question social order have given a paradoxical insight into women’s lives. While recognizing them as important characters to tell the people’s stories, their gendered identity has been given little attention in mainstream movies, whether by male or female directors. There are however some characters that have shown a stronger sense of individuality for women, such as those inspired by the character of Mulan or Lady Sun (who was pictured by Zhao Wei in the John Woo’s super production Ref Cliff (2008)), who were both said to have disguised as men in order to fight for their nation. There are also attempts to rethink women’s position, gender and/or sexuality within the society in independent movies or documentaries: for instance Zero Chou’s movies Spider Lilies (2007) or Drifting Flowers (2008). These two movies received a critical and popular success, which could be considered a sign of a renewal in women’s Chinese cinema.


[1] There had been minor fighting between Japan and China as early as 1931, and it turned into a full blown war in July 1937. The war was put to an end in September 1945 when Japan finally surrendered.

[2] PANG, Laikwan, Women’s Stories On-screen versus Off-screen, “ […]a majority of the left-wing films produced in the 1930s focused on the theme of women’s liberation. These films include Three Modern Women, City Nights, Women’s Outcry, Cosmetic’s Market, The Future, Daybreak, Maternal Radiance, Flying Catkins, Wandering, The Sisters, The Classic for Girls, Country Worries, Little Toys, The Goddess, The Boatman’s Daughter, New Woman, Spirit of Freedom, The Crabapple is Red, Little Lingzi, and Flower of Society.

[3] Women were considered to be a possession of their fathers until they became the possession of their husbands. Especially in the lowest classes of society, they were taught that they had no rights to individuality. In the documentary “China in Revolution” (in China: a century of Revolution, Ambrica production, 1986), a woman from a poor village recalls the pre-Maoist days and says that, when someone would knock at the house’s door and she would be alone at home, she would answer: « There is no-one » since she had never been considered as a person entitled to existing.

[4] “Women’s liberation in China, differentiated from western feminism, has never been a self-motivated movement but part of national revolutions.” Li Xiaojiang in CUI, Shuqin, Women through the Lens, Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema, 2003, University of Hawai’i Press

[5]Ibid, p175

[6] Ibid, p184

[7] Ibid, p188


– CUI, Shuqin (ed.), Women Through the Lens, Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema, 2003, University of Hawai’i Press

– WANG, Lingzhen (ed.), Chinese Women’s Cinema: transnational contexts, 2011, Columbia University Press

– PANG, Laikwan, “Women’s Stories On-Screen versus Off-Screen,” in Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-Wing Cinema Movement, 1932-1937 (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Pub., 2002: 113-140).

– CHOW, Rey, “‘Woman’, fetish, particularism: Articulating Chinese cinema with a cross-cultural problematic”, in Journal of Chinese Cinemas, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2007: 209-221.

– ORTNER, Sherry B., “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?”, in Feminist Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Autumn, 1972), pp. 5-31

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One thought on “Heroines, Whores and Mothers: Women in Golden Age Chinese Cinema

  1. Pingback: Portrayal of women in Chinese cinema – Site Title

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