Review: From Chinese Women’s Eyes

This documentary, which focuses on women’s thoughts about being women in China, was created through the efforts of a Chinese-American anthropologist, Mayfair Yang. Even if she hadn’t announced her profession at the beginning of the film, it would have been quite obvious to me due to her methods. There was very little voice-over and the film mostly consisted of interviews with a variety of Chinese women. I rather enjoyed the structure of the film, as it (arguably) allowed for less of a reinterpretation of the situations that the women described.

Mayfair Yang, taken from her biography

I claim that this is “arguable” due to the fact that it seemed like many of the comments from the women were scripted. The most striking example of this phenomenon was the scene of the conversation between the three women in the restaurant. All three women were career women and they were discussing balancing their career with their family life. One of the women described how she couldn’t imagine not having either a family or a career and how she couldn’t give up either. The rest of the conversation continued in a similar vein. While I was not surprised at the situations that the women described, I was shocked at the seeming lack of emotion with which each of them described their situation. All of the women were extremely matter of fact and blasé, which made me wonder if the conversation had been either rehearsed or scripted. Perhaps this is merely a cultural difference, but I had been speaking with two girl-friends about tensions between my career and my family, I wouldn’t have treated the subject quite so lightly.

Another possibility for this apparent lack of emotion was described by Cynthia Enloe in Bananas, Beaches and Bases. She describes women as the most valuable possessions of the nationalistic state, who are to be symbols of the state rather than participants (Enloe 1989: 42). Perhaps these women in the café have truly become a possession, molded by the state in how to think and how to act.

A woman like this would have to balance her career and her family life (from http://www.canstockphoto.com)

There would presumably be less emotion involved in the situation if they viewed the tension between the two spheres of their life as exactly how their lives were supposed to be. This sentiment of state-control of women is echoed by by Prasenjit Duara in The Regime of Authenticity: Timelessness, Gender, and National History in Modern China when he says that “…women were to be liberated for and by the nation: they were to embody the nation, not to be active agents shaping it.” (Duara 1998: 298). Thus, these women in the café may have been liberated by the nation by having high-profile jobs, but they still have the need to act for the nation by having children – the next generation of the nation.

This state control of women that Enloe (and others) discusses, however, is not nearly as overt as it was during the Maoist era. The film describes a “state-enforced feminism” in which the state declared that there existed no difference between women and men. Among the many forms of propaganda that helped reinforce this notion were the Communist Party’s sanctioned operas. These operas commonly featured women in positions of power, frequently leading men, and performing deeds to help the nation.

This clip is from one of these operas, entitled The Red Detachment of Women. The scene portrays the heroine being liberated by the Communist Party from her previous life of great oppression.  This is a very clear depiction of the CCP’s belief that they were liberating women from their traditional roles – shaping them into objects of the state. The heroine here is also obviously grateful to the CCP for her liberation: she cries tears of joy as she caresses the red flag. It is further interesting to note that there are many female members of the CCP army who come to liberate the heroine in this scene, thus further demonstrating the Maoist thought that there were no differences between women and men.

To return to the women in the café in the film, it is interesting to consider the subject of their conversation in terms of this quote from Phyllis Andors in Revolution Postponed: Women in Revolutionary China: “Thus in political-ideological terms, the resolution of the women question inChina is to be dependent upon the future success of economic modernization.” (Wolf 1985: 27). These women in the film speak of their careers twelve years after this book was published – has the ‘women question’ in China thus been resolved?

Based upon my viewing of From Chinese Women’s Eyes, I would say that it has not. The economy has modernized (or, at least, ‘Westernized’) but this modernization has by no means definitively answered the question of where women belong in the nationalistic state of China. For each of the career-oriented women that talked in the café, whose lives modernized with the economy, there were many other women whose jobs in factories had been eliminated, sending them back home to be traditional housewives. I would personally be quite interested to see how these conditions for women have changed in the fourteen years since the film was released.


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