2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 245

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Production of Femininity in Chinese Contemporary Visual Arts: Presentation, Contestation, and Exploitation

Organizer: Li Yang, Lafayette College, USA

Chair: Jerome Silbergeld, Princeton University, USA

Discussant: Xueping Zhong, Tufts University, USA

The definition of femininity with its corresponding representation of the female body and sexuality is constantly evolving in Chinese society. Now the images of often overly sexualized women flood the cultural spaces, from online forums to advertisement billboards. Recognizing the growing importance of the visual arts as a form of cultural production in the increasingly mediated world, this panel investigates femininity as it is presented in contemporary Chinese art and films. Shu-chin Tsui focuses on the pregnant nude featured in the works of four women artists. She argues that this formerly taboo subject has been employed to personalize history and contemplate the nature of women’s art. Sheldon Lu examines the German-based Chinese woman artist Qin Yufen’s installation works, which contest femininity by juxtaposing traditional Chinese feminine motifs with those of modernization and globalization. Ya-chen Chen studies the German film Ghosted (2009), which is inspired by Taiwanese feminist writer Li Ang’s novel Visible Ghosts. This cinematic transnational lesbian romance portrays the sexual and spiritual bonding between women, and also helps to counter the existent essentialist reading of Li Ang’s original novel. Finally, Li Yang analyzes the exploitation of the female body in the abundant torture scenes of the popular Chinese film The Message (2009), in relation to the development of the espionage thriller genre. In dialogues with consequences of commercialization and globalization, the theme of the female body connects the four papers and functions as a contested site to probe the visual production of femininity and gender dynamics in contemporary China.

The Pregnant Nude and Photographic Representation
Shu-chin Tsui, Bowdoin College, USA

Almost decades of absence, women artists in contemporary China returned to the female nude, particularly the pregnant body, in their exploration of gender difference. Unlike their predecessors, contemporary artists find the possibility of choosing the nude body as a subject and a medium. Woman artists still face challenges, however, in social perception and in prejudices regarding this canon of art practice. This paper examines first how Yu Hong’s Witness to Growth and Xing Danwen’s Born with the Revolution use the pregnant body as a witness to social-political history. Locating the pregnant body side-by-side with official media images, Yu Hong’s autobiographical unfolding generates an intertextual frame wherein the pregnant nude becomes an embodiment of political history. Framing the pregnant nude and portraits of Mao in a private space, Xing Danwen’s photographic representation connects the revolutionary past to contemporary interpretation. The paper then investigates how Feng Jiali’s Pregnancy is Art turns the pregnant body as well as pregnancy itself into a gendered subject and art form. With the “monstrous body” inviting and challenging the gaze of the spectator, the pregnant subject subverts the notion of the nude body as “impossible” in art history. Finally, Cui Xiuwen’s multimedia articulation of the teenage pregnant body opens up technological space for gender issues. Seen together, these works reclaim the argument that the personal is political as the pregnant nude seizes a legitimate position in the rewriting of historiography and the creation of women’s art.

The Evocation and Contestation of Femininity in the Artworks of Qin Yufen
Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, University of California, Davis, USA

My paper traces the development and evolution of the installation works of the Chinese diasporic woman artist Qin Yufen (born 1954). Qin was born in China, immigrated to Germany, and has been exhibiting her works in China, Europe, USA, and other places in the world. She has emerged as one of the leading figures of Chinese avant-garde art. In a span of over twenty years, there are continuities as well as changes in her artistic vision and artworks. I examine the evocation, display, questioning, and contestation of femininity in her works. There seems to be always the use and recycling of traditional feminine motifs and materials in her works: fabric, linen, cloth, flowers (natural or fabricated), and so on. On the surface, she creates what are ordinarily perceived as tranquil Eastern objects or states of minds. At the same time, she contests and questions these interpretations against the background of industrialization, globalization, and modernization in contemporary China. I specifically analyze such works as Long Corridor, Lotus in Wind, Beautiful Violence, Chinese Dream, and Beijing 2008. In one same artwork, traditional Oriental aesthetics is juxtaposed to the hectic rhythm of modern life (rampant consumerism or the war against terrorism). In such contexts, the evocation of what is traditionally associated with the feminine gains additional layers of meaning. Qin is able to offer nuanced meditations on urgent issues that society confronts today: upward social mobility, consumerism, globalization, war, peace, and tradition.

Cinematic Visualization of Visible Ghosts: Countering the Essentialist Tendency in Li Ang's Literary Works
Ya-Chen Chen, Clark University, USA

Inspired by Li Ang, Monika Treut cinematically visualized the spiritual connections and human nature between the dead Taiwanese girl/ghost and her German lesbian partner in the film entitled Ghosted. Monika Treut surrounds Sophie with Ailing and Ailing’s death throughout the film as if Ailing were never away from Sophie after the car incident. At the end of this film, Monika Treut discloses that Meili seems to be Ailing’s “visible ghost” transcending the borderline between life and death to continue the past lesbian connections with Sophie. Meili and Ailing walk side by side to enjoy the respect and religious worship for the dead. Invisible ghosts become visible in Monika Treut’s film and Li Ang’s novels because Monika Treut and Li Ang make strong spiritual elements and human nature become still visible after death. Recently, more and more scholars comparatively read Li Ang's literary works with French feminist theories. However, Western feminist literary critics pointed out the essentialist tendency in these feminist theories. Coincidentally, many of Li Ang's novels are famous for sexuality. This resulted in some essentialist concerns about Li Ang's literary works. In an interview, Li Ang's indirect response highlighted the human nature in her novels. This conference paper offers one more possible answer to the question related to the essentialist concerns: The human nature and strong spiritual elements that Li Ang's literary works feature transcend not only the essentialist aspects of physiology and human bodies but also ghosts that lose corporeality after deaths.

Torture, the Female Body, and the Chinese Espionage Thriller: Analyzing the Chinese Film The Message
Li Yang, Lafayette College, USA

The espionage thriller has become a popular genre in both Chinese film and television production in recent years. While the genre itself is nothing new, the conspicuous employment of the female body in plotting invites scholarly attention. This paper focuses on the 2009 hit The Message (Fengsheng) to probe the intertwined meanings between the female body and genre commercialization. Based on a popular novel, The Message features an all-star cast, fine production, and a lavish advertising campaign. It was successful at the box office (240 million RMB), and also produced several acting nominations and wins in major Chinese film awards. The bulk of the film was set in an enclosed space in the 1930s, in which a Japanese officer and a collaborating Kuomintang official try to find out the communist mole within a group of suspect Kuomintang intelligence officers through psychological blackmail and physical torture. With a relatively simple story line, the torture scenes become one of the major selling points of the film. This paper focuses on the torture scenes involving three female characters in the film. Informed by a comparative perspective with the torture scenes in classical propaganda films, and the female roles in the first wave of espionage thrillers in the early 1980s, I argue that the new espionage thrillers represented by The Message have eroticized the viewing experience by exploiting the female body for sensationalism and sadist voyeurism. The reinvention of this film genre demonstrates the negative impact of commercialization on the cinematic representation of women.