Before the founding of the socialist state in 1949, only one woman director was recorded in Chinese film history: Xie Caizhen, who made her single film, An Orphan’s Cry (Guchu beisheng), in 1925. Unfortunately this film is no longer available to watch. The enforcement of gender equality after 1949 by the CCP ensured women’s participation in the film industry. During the 1950s and 1960s, women directors such as Wang Ping, Wang Shaoyan, Yan Bili and Dong Kena received institutional endorsement from state film studios and contributed reputable films that have been granted the honour of classic works of Chinese cinema: The Story of Liubao (Liubao de gushi, dir. Wang Ping, 1959), The Eternal Wave (Yongbu xiaoshi de dianbo, dir. Wang Ping, 1959), A Grass on Kunlun Mountain (Kunlun shanxia yike cao, dir. Dong Kena, 1958), and others.
As the first woman director in Socialist China, Wang Ping was designated as the vice-director of the PLA August 1st Film Studio. She was best known for her revolutionary films. Her successful career and the emphasis on her gender identity in publications seemed to prove that women could direct revolutionary films as well as men (or even better). In her recent study of Wang Ping’s career, Lingzhen Wang brackets her discussion within the framework of Chinese socialist feminism, analysing the neglected dynamics of socialist cinema and gender.
Women directors who emerged after Wang Ping’s generation were mostly born in the 1940s and educated in film academies in Beijing and Shanghai in the 1950s and 1960s. Along with other male directors, they are called the Fourth Generation. Before managing to make their own films, many of them had worked for established directors as assistants. Such directors as Lu Xiaoya and Shi Xiaohua were actresses or had performing experience before their directing career. In general, this generation of women directors was influenced by three forces: a knowledge-structure that was constructed according to the principles of “revolutionary idealism,” a concept of cinema that was formed with the guidance of established directors who espoused the tenets of socialist realism, and an aesthetic enlightenment acquired through study of European cinema.
The Cultural Revolution prevented women directors of the Fourth Generation from pursuing their film-making careers until the late 1970s. By that time they were around forty years old. Younger women directors (the Fifth Generation) who embarked on film-making in the 1980s were mostly educated in the directing department of Beijing Film Academy. The development of women’s film-making in these crucial years was contemporaneous with the general renaissance of Chinese cinema.
Zhang Nuanxin, one of the women directors who were encouraged by the new political atmosphere in the 1980s, is renowned for her desire to modernise film language. Her contribution to Chinese cinema contained double layers of meaning: her call for modernisation formally initiated the theoretical debates after her article “On the Modernisation of Film Language” was published; meanwhile, she practised the manifesto in which she elaborated her suggestions on the modernisation of film language, emphasising a personal perspective that is strongly associated with female consciousness. Her first film, The Drive to Win (Sha’ou, 1981), tells a story of a woman who devotes herself to the honour of her country. Although the film remains linked to the standard ideology in its call for selfless individual devotion, the heroine of the film, Sha’ou, demonstrates an unprecedented degree of agency.
While Zhang Nuanxin made her voice heard in the initial stage of postsocialist film-making in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a number of other women directors were also productive. Lu Xiaoya, Huang Shuqin, Shi Shujun, Shi Xiaohua, Wang Haowei, Wang Junzheng, Hu Mei, Liu Miaomiao, and Peng Xiaolian made their first film in this period. Their films provided diversified pictures of Chinese history, with portrayals of women positioned in varied contexts: the young student An Ran in Lu Xiaoya’s The Girl in Red (Hongyi shaonü, 1985); a group of women soldiers in the Second Revolutionary Civil War in Liu Miaomiao’s Women on the Long March (Mati shengsui, 1986); women who struggle for economic independence and freedom to love in Peng Xiaolian’s Women’s Story (Nüren de gushi, 1987); and women who face new challenges of balancing career and domestic pressures in Huang Shuqin’s Woman-Demon-Human (Ren gui qing, 1987).
The prospects for women filmmakers in the 1990s became less optimistic because of changes in the studio system and the entrenching of commercialism. The emergence of independent documentary films in the 1990s demonstrated a tendency of filmmakers to reexamine and reconstruct their individual identities and subjectivities in a new context. Li Hong, with her documentary Out of Phoenix Bridge (Huidao fenghuang qiao, 1997), provides pictures of four rural women’s daily life in Beijing as migrant workers. Embracing a strong empathy for them, Li’s documentary reveals an intimacy between a woman director and her subjects. In the new millennium, three women pioneered in personal documentary: Yang Lina, Wang Fen and Tang Danhong. In their Home Video (Jiating luxiang dai, Yang Lina, 2000), They Are not the Only Unhappy Couple (Bu kuaile de buzhi yige, Wang Fen, 2000), and Nightingale, Not the Only Voice (Yeying bushi weiyi de gehou, Tang Danhong, 2001), the filmmakers direct their DV cameras towards the private space of family. These films reveal the desire for self-understanding, with gender playing a crucial role in their point of view in depicting their family stories. Meanwhile, other women directors, including Xu Jinglei and Li Yu, tried their hand at making art-house fictional films before seeking the commercial rewards of the mass market.
Women’s film-making in mainland China has often provided a critical look at the social, political and economic contexts in which women have been portrayed and their issues have been discussed. In many films they made, women directors and women characters in their films spoke in their own voices and reflected on their positions in the official narrative of Chinese history.
Lidan Hu received her Ph.D. degree from the University of Edinburgh in the UK and is now teaching in the English Department of Sichuan University in China. Her current research interests include gender and film.