Film scholar offers new lens on leading ladies

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Film scholar offers new lens on leading ladies

Stanford professor Jean Ma investigates music, gender, and social turmoil in 'songstress' films of Chinese cinema

by Y. Yvon Wang on Monday, April 14, 2014 - 10:38am

Shanghai in 1942, under Japanese occupation. Posing on the tatami mats of a Japanese restaurant, a young Chinese beauty named Wang Jiazhi sings to the married man with whom she is having a passionate affair. She chooses "The Wanderer's Song," a plaintive tune about a woman's longing for her absent lover.

Street Angel film posterThis iconic scene from Ang Lee’s 2007 film, Lust, Caution, pays homage to China's tradition of "songstress" films, currently under research by Associate Professor of Art & Art History Jean Ma. From the earliest sound films of 1930s China, singing actresses dominated the screen, with film companies tailoring plotlines to showcase a single female star's performance. While some may view these alluring songstresses as exploited commodities­pretty faces, bodies, and voices on display for the movie-going publicthat's only part of the story, explains Ma. She challenges feminist film theory by emphasizing how singing actresses were able to express intense, even subversive sentiments through song.

Ma emphasizes how singing actresses were able to express intense, even subversive sentiments through song. 

Ballads like "The Wanderer's Song" offered a rare opportunity for a display of female feeling, explains Ma. In particular, these songs expressed emotionssuch as indignation or passionthat the characters could not otherwise convey within lives narrowly constrained by their prescribed gender roles, society, or the politics of the day. Moreover, during times of widespread sociopolitical instability, songs of defiance and resistance reverberated far beyond their specific lyrics of love and longing. They became anthems for people confronting dislocation and violence.

"The Wanderer's Song," for example, was originally sung by singer-actress Zhou Xuan, and featured prominently in the 1937 classic Street Angel. The song and Zhou are legendary in China, and film is regarded as an outstanding example of cinema from the period.

The singing actress in Chinese film

Unlike the ensemble casts of American or South Asian musicals or the chanteuses of France, the alluring songstresses of Chinese film took center stage. Men frequently served as composers or accompanists, but almost never shared the spotlight onscreen.

Zhou XuanIn centrally featuring actresses, the early twentieth-century songstress genre marked a departure from previous types of performance art. Peking opera, which had for centuries been limited to male performers, continued to be largely performed by men. Female parts were cross-played by actors known as dan. The very first Chinese full-sound film followed this tradition: the voice of the lead actress was dubbed by the leading dan actor of the day during the movie’s musical interludes. However, almost immediately, singer-actresses such as Zhou Xuan built their own reputations through onscreen songs.

Lending voice to the voiceless

The ascendancy of the songstress was due to many linked factors, among them the entrenchment of film and other modern mass media in the Chinese cultural milieu, and the saturation of public space with images of women.

In fact, Ma points out, singer-actresses like Zhou Xuan were among the most widely circulated figures of femininity of the era. In how their bodies and voices became packaged for the gaze of film audiences, the songstresses fit critiques offered by feminist film theory. Selected by the (male) leaders of the film industry, actresses were transformed into objects to excite (male) viewers' desires and thereby make a profit. Ironically, the roles they played–indentured servants at teahouses or mistreated nightclub dancers–held romantic appeal precisely by virtue of showing gifted, virtuous women under siege by social forces. Even as the viewer sympathized with these tragic figures, he sponsored the oppression by paying to enjoy their beauty, songs, and stories.

Yet Zhou Xuan and her peers were not just targets of gender-biased oppression. As Ma stresses, their "agency and powerful address to viewers" deeply affected not only the other characters onscreen, but also larger conceptions of femininity in society. Songstresses' melodies invited the audience to empathize with women's frustrated feelings and their gendered victimization. In Ma's words, they "exteriorized states of mind"–whether indignation or passion–that the characters and by association, women viewers, could not otherwise convey.

Film poster for 'Lust, Caution' (Source: Wikipedia)Early films were often simultaneously broadcast live on radio, extending their reach to a broader public. Tunes like "The Wanderer's Song" readily passed beyond the movie theater and into a wider circle of homes and hearts. Their power endures, in spite of–or were perhaps even encouraged by–the political and social upheaval in China during the twentieth century.

In Lust, Caution, "The Wanderer's Song" is sung by a female member of an underground resistance network working against the Japanese puppet government. She performs the melody for the Chinese head of that government's secret police, a man whom she has seduced in order to facilitate his assassination by her fellow resistance fighters.

Ma points out that the song allows the two characters briefly to transcend their complex political allegiances and their tormented relationship with each other.  The act of sharing the pathos of the song "opens a moment of political ambiguity."

The poignancy and complexity of "The Wanderer's Song" linger with the audience today as they did in 1937. So too do issues of inequality, resistance, and the crafting of women's self-identity that remain critical for global feminism.

Ma's research into these songs and the women who performed them leads us to question our own conception of whether and when to view actresses as exploited commodities. Across cinematographic traditions, a song is never as simple as it seems.


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Jean Ma
Jean Ma
Assistant Professor of Art and Art History

Jean Ma is Associate Professor in Stanford's Department of Art and Art History and a Clayman Institute faculty research fellow. Ma received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in Cinema and Media Studies. Recent publications include Melancholy Drift: Marking Time in Chinese Cinema and Still Moving: Between Cinema and Photography. She is currently working on a book on singing women in Chinese cinema.

Yvon Wang
Yvon Wang
Ph.D Candidate, Department of History

Yvon Wang is a Ph.D. candidate in Stanford's Department of History and a member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team. She is writing a dissertation on pornography in China at the turn of the twentieth century.