What comes to mind when your colleagues talk about Chinese movies? Maybe you think of bamboo or kung fu. In kung fu films, who, aside from the famous Jackie Chan or Chow Yun Fat, plays the heroes? Can you remember the names of any of the female actors?
While many studies on female characters in Western films argue that women are obedient and oppressed, Chinese films show them as quite the opposite.
Sherry J. Mou, an associate professor of Asian studies at DePauw University in Indiana, the United States, revealed her views at a public lecture here at the University of Indonesia on May 25, 2009.
Mou has studied Chinese biographies and literature to examine the development of Chinese society, in particular the impacts of Confucianism on the lives of women.
In Chinese cinema, Mou says, three types of female roles are apparent. First is one dealing with kung fu in pre-modern China. This can be seen in such films as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, in which Zhang Ziyi has acrobatic battles with Michelle Yeoh. You may see some bamboo in some scenes, and female characters usually fight to take revenge. Mou refers to such roles as the "lady knights-errant".
In another film full of fighting, A Touch of Zen, Yang Hui-zhen is the lady knight-errant. She is obligated to take revenge for the death of her father who has been killed by eunuch Wei.
"As the lady knight-errant, Yang Hui-zhen is depicted as a strong woman, highly proficient in kung fu and abiding by conventional virtues such as filiality, loyalty and altruism," Mou said.
"She rejects Confucian family values because they are irrelevant to her personal goals. However, she is not confined by the traditional definition of womanhood. Marriage (or sex) is of little concern to her, except when it can be used as a convenient tool."
The second role is that of the Confucian Mother or the "Lady of the House". On screen, this can be seen in modern settings, like The Soong Sisters.
The "Lady of the House," Mou says, takes a familial role, usually that of a mother, a wife, a sister or a daughter.
"Unlike the common notion of Chinese women as being submissive, gentle and supportive, the ladies of the house are practical, daring, and less sentimental," says Mou, who is originally from Taiwan.
"Since they have to take care of the family, they deal with very practical issues day-in, day-out. As a result, they are practical, use common sense and, almost out of necessity they do not cling to old ideals but adapt to new environments and situations quickly."
A slightly different view of women can be seen in recent films that are from the post-socialist era of China such as The World without Thieves. The third model is a synthesis between the "lady knight-errant" and the "lady of the house".
This new image of Chinese women can be seen as a reflection of China's rampant market-oriented economy, which has created a particular social context. "For this unprecedented new world of intrigue and deception, filmmakers have combined the two and presented us with a new image of a *post-socialist' Chinese woman: skilled, practical, and yet maternal," said the author of Gentlemen's Prescriptions for Women's Lives.
"In The World without Thieves, we see a very pregnant Wang Lee told that her lover has died while she eats. Her tears of loss and sadness are at first suppressed by her determination to take care of her baby. She forces down another pancake with Peking duck and is determined to chew and swallow, whether or not she can taste any flavor with such self-discipline that is not uncommon among kung-fu fighters," says Mou, a fan of Xueqin Cao's Story of the Stone.
Mou explains that in post-socialist China, with the market economy accelerating ever so fast, state laws fall far behind various social crimes. Thus, it seems natural that filmmakers evoke, from the popular kung fu genre, the old idea of jiang-hu, a world that is abstract rather than geographical, where the only guiding rules seem to be upholding righteousness, punishing evil-doers, and propagating good deeds.
"China is still very much Confucian, and the family is the basic unit of a Confucian society," Mou says. "The mother has so much say, because she deals with the family's daily problems while the father is away," said the receiver of the DePauw University Faculty Fellowship for 2009-2012.
"I think there was always an undercurrent of female influence that wasn't apparent to non-Confucian societies. Looking at Chinese literature from the outside, Western scholars typically don't see women, but women played very strong roles in the family and household, and therefore society," she said.
Now, women skilled in Chinese martial arts also perform in Hollywood films, such as Quentin Tarrantino's Kill Bill. "It is time for Hollywood to learn some lessons from the Chinese," says Mou.
Many people think of feminism as a matter of power. However, Mou doesn't see feminism as a race to dominate the world. "Feminism it is not about power. It is only a part of it, because if it's about power then it is going to happen in the opposite way: Men will do the same thing," Mou said.
"I hope there will be no such term, that we will be equal as a person," said Mou with a smile of hope.
"I live in America. But I would not change my nationality to American. It is not who I am. It is part of my feminist action."
- JP/Alvina Azaria and Agustinus B. da Costa