Sounding the Modern Woman:
The Songstress in Chinese Cinema

By Jean Ma

Reviewed by Victor Fan
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2016)

Jean Ma, Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 296 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8223-5876-3 (Paperback: $25.95); ISBN: 978-0-8223-5865-7 (Hardback: $94.95)

Jean Ma, Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 296 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8223-5876-3 (Paperback: $25.95); ISBN: 978-0-8223-5865-7 (Hardback: $94.95)

Film historians have long regarded the songstress as the single most important figure in Chinese cinema between the 1930s and 1960s.[1] Played by movie stars including Zhou Xuan周璇 (Chow Hsuen, 1918–57), Bai Guang 白光 (1921–99), Zhong Qing 鍾情 (Chung Ching, b. 1932), Yao Li 姚莉 (Yao Lee, b. 1922), and Ge Lan 葛蘭 (Grace Chang, b. 1933), these songstresses ranged from orphans of war, sex workers, temptresses, nightclub singers, and innocent country girls to the mambo girl, calypso girl, and air hostess. In Sounding the Modern Woman (2015), Jean Ma goes beyond an investigation of this emblematic figure as a trope. For her, the songstress is not only an embodiment of the filmmakers’ and spectators’ changing ideas and imaginations of modernity during this period, she is also a discursive site and medium where conflicting values, aspirations, desires, and traumatic memories were actively negotiated (16).

Ma’s starting point is a historiographical question: How can a gendered history of Chinese cinema be written? Ma was inspired by the work of Miriam Hansen, who “engaged continuously with the question of how to locate the female subject within the experience of cinema and against the backdrop of the exclusionary effects of patriarchy, the constraints of the industry, and the assertions of the female spectator’s structural impossibility made by proponents of certain strands of feminist psychoanalytic film theory” (21). What Hansen means by female subjectivity, however, is not limited to how an individual senses and perceives an image, and how that sense-perception informs this individual subjectivity as feminine. Equally interesting and important for Hansen is the way these feminized subjects, as spectators and consumers, actively project and negotiate their desires and traumas onto and through a figure on screen. Meanwhile, this figure, regardless of its gender, is an active subject that generates desires among the spectators and therefore challenges the scopophilic security of the heteronormative gaze; yet it is also an object whose affective impact is mass produced and consumed.[2]

In fact, the songstress complicates this question. As opposed to regular screen actors who leave their traces as embodiments of these contesting desires and anxieties, songstresses leave their disembodied voices in the spectators’ memories. In many cases, singing films (歌唱片) or singing and dancing films (歌舞片, musicals), had long been forgotten or even lost prior to their rediscoveries and revivals by film archives, cable television, and social media. Yet, their theme songs (主題曲) and inserted songs (插曲) have been well remembered and circulated through records, radio, and, again, social media. This is especially true when an onscreen songstress was played by an actor who could not sing professionally, and her image had to be synchronized to the voice of a singer who was herself a star. As Ma points out, this was the case with many actors and their “substitute singers behind the screen” (幕後代唱): actor Hu Die 蝴蝶 (Butterfly Wu, 1908–89) and Peking opera artist Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳 (1894–1961) in the 1930s, actor Chung Ching and singer Yao Lee in the 1950s, and Lin Dai 林黛 (Linda Lin Dai, 1934–64) and Gu Mei 顧媚 (Koo Mei, b. 1929) in the 1960s (34, 38-44, 122-25).

As Ma argues, the songstress is not simply a character or narrative device. Rather, when she sings, she interrupts the narrative and intercepts the spectator’s participation in the diegesis by being a star and performer. Furthermore, her performance is often mediated through various platforms and technical devices—including the stage, microphone, radio, tape, phonograph, and television—on the diegetic level, and the camera, celluloid film, and optical soundtrack, on the technical level. In this sense, the groundbreaking point Ma proposes is that the songstress is best understood as a medium in itself (116-22). If I may push this further, the songstress can be considered what Gilbert Simondon would call a technical being—that is, a being individuated by technē who, together with other technical beings (e.g., the spectators), engenders affective, technical, social, cultural, and political changes in historical phases.[3] These songstresses were given a mode of existence by the sound technology in cinema, which informs the interrelationship between them and the spectators, who were also technical beings constituted by the same technology. The voice of the songstress becomes the technical medium that articulates, conveys, and negotiates the desires and traumas associated with modernity. And it does so by acting as an ideological apparatus that vocates the spectators as political subjects.[4]

Sounding the Modern Woman is arranged in a genealogical and, in my opinion, an archaeological manner. Each chapter maps out the historical milieu in which the technicity of sound cinema was formed and, as a result, a specific type of songstress was produced. Ma then offers close analyses of films that tease out the way the songstress, through the films’ mise-en-scène and their intertextual relationships, negotiate the contesting desires and anxieties of the spectators. In a brilliant way, Ma begins her first chapter with an analysis of a film whose soundtrack has been lost, Two Stars in the Milky Way (銀漢雙星, dir. Shi Dongshan 史東山, United Photoplay Service, 1931) (46-54). As Bao Weihong, Andrew Jones, and I have pointed out, the early sound film in Shanghai (and Hong Kong) was part and parcel of a multimedia formation with regional theater, on the one hand, and the record and radio industry, on the other.[5] As a result, musical numbers in these films often were framed as a “play within a play” (戲中戲), or performances that completely interrupt the narrative and showcase the inter-technicity among these media.

For example, in Two Stars in the Milky Way, a film crew goes to the countryside to shoot a film. As the camera rolls, the crew overhears the disembodied voice of a young woman, Yueying (Zi Luolan or Violet Wong) singing. The film intercuts between the interior of Yueying’s house, where she sings to her father, and the exterior, where members of the film crew are listening. Instead of forming a shot-reverse-shot structure, Ma argues:

The singer’s physical separation from the scene of listening only underscores the impact of this performance, for here sound is not merely layered onto the image but also rendered tangible in the very disjunction between seeing and hearing. This sensory disjunction carves out a zone for the unhindered moment of sound and prompts one of the film’s most unusual visualizing strategies––a use of editing as a means of relating spaces that are audible yet not visible to one another. . . . But in this instance, the identification between the gaze of the character and that of the camera is broken insofar as Yueying remains invisible to her diegetic audience throughout the performance, enclosed within the walls of her home. Instead the shot-reverse shot alternation represents an auditory perspective, doing for the ear what the mechanisms of suture typically do for the eye and carving out a subject position of listening within the space of the fiction. (52)

This proto-shot-reverse-shot structure therefore mirrors the spectators’ attentive listening to the soundtrack or the live performance. The singing voice of the songstress, in this sense, serves as a medium that allows the spectators to navigate through cinema’s inter-technicity.

From a historical perspective, Zhou Xuan not only consolidated the prototype of the cinematic songstress, but her films also signaled that filmmakers in Shanghai were beginning to think about how to integrate song into the narrative. In Street Angels (馬路天使, dir. Yuan Muzhi 袁牧之, Star Motion Picture Company, 1937), songstress Xiao Hong (Zhou) performs three times what would become the film’s emblematic tune, “The Wandering Songstress” (天涯歌女). In each instance, the song serves to express contesting affects that are integral to the romantic plot (love, desire, frustration, jealousy, and pain). They are also connected diegetically and intertextually to the sociopolitical affects associated with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the resulting mass migration of refugees from Northeast China to Shanghai (57-61).

Yet, according to Ma, in the 1930s, such narrative integration is far from complete in the Hollywood sense. Rather than being a character fully incorporated into the diegetic space, the songstress—as a star, an itinerant singer, a nightclub performer, a recording artist, or, sometimes, a disembodied voice from a record or radio—is always foregrounded as a technical being whose inter-technicity negotiates the desires and traumatic memories associated with modernity and modern historicity (69–70).

The remaining chapters of the book are devoted to the study of the Hong Kong musical, with chapter 2 mapping out the historical transition between Shanghai and Hong Kong. On the one hand, Hong Kong Mandarin musicals in the 1940s and early 1950s inherited the stylistic traits of the “play within a play,” yet an increasingly effort was made to integrate musical numbers into the narrative. In addition, Shanghai-styled shidai qu 時代曲 (Shanghai popular music that combined American jazz harmonic structure with Chinese-sounding melody and that dominated the music scene in the 1930s) gave way to other forms of international hybrid music: Italian opera, the cha-cha, mambo, or calypso.[6] Politically, while early postwar musicals negotiate the traumatic experience of those filmmakers, actors, and viewers who migrated from Shanghai to Hong Kong during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) and the Civil War (1945–49) as a form of displacement and misplacement, later musicals produced by the two rival studios, Motion Picture and General Investment (MP&GI or Cathay) and the Shaw Brothers between the mid 1950s and early 1960s sought to appeal to a cosmopolitan audience who considered Hong Kong their homeland (71-102).

In chapter 3, Ma studies Chung Ching, an actor who establishes the prototype of a country folk singer (presumably from “China”) who is discovered by an urban producer (from Hong Kong) and brought to the city. In Hong Kong, she is transformed into an embodiment of modernity, flourishing as a professional talent and beauty, but corrupted by the social ills of city life. For Ma, Chung Ching represents the liminal sensibility and social consciousness of the time. On the one hand, a songstress like Chung Ching serves as a medium that is supposed to give voice to nostalgia and longing for a mythological prewar purity. On the other hand, such nostalgia is eclipsed, replaced, and displaced by another myth: the myth of cosmopolitan and technological modernity that transcends day-to-day lived experience (108-16). In Ma’s analysis, Chung Ching’s singing voice is doubled by Yao Lee, yet Yao Lee’s disembodied voice is given a body by Chung Ching. But to complicate matters, Yao Lee is also a standalone movie star. Hence, when Yao Lee starred in her own movies, her image is, in a sense, doubled by Chung Ching in the spectators’ mind. The reverse is also true, that Chung Ching’s image is doubled by Yao Lee’s own image and stardom whenever Chung appears in her movies. It is in this sense that both of their images are vocally, visually, and technologically “redoubled” (mutually doubled and magnified) (116–34).

Eventually, such stylistic, technical, and sociopolitical complexity and intensity culminate in the performances of onscreen songstress Grace Chang, who is treated in chapters 4 and 5. This engaged examination of Chang is in fact the heart of the book; it combines detailed textual and intertextual analyses into a persuasive illustration of how the songstress functions as a medium. In this light, a detailed summary would be beyond the scope of this review. However, what stands out for me is Ma’s analysis of the ways Chang’s musicals fantasize, fabricate, and recodify the sociopolitical milieu of Hong Kong. For example, in Mambo Girl (曼波女郎, dir. Yi Wen 易文, MP&GI, 1957), Li Kailing (Chang) was brought up in a wealthy family, a mambo girl who is both sociable and filial. On the day of her birthday, a friend who holds a grudge against her reveals to her that she was in fact adopted. For the rest of the film, Kailing is determined to find her birth mother. Because of her own talent for singing and dancing, Kaling looks for her mother in nightclubs. Eventually, she runs into a woman who serves as a bathroom attendant at the Lichi (Ritz) Nightclub, and the spectators realize that she is most likely Kailing’s birth mother, though she refuses to let Kailing know the truth. In the end, Kailing gives up her search and returns to her foster parents; with their support and guardianship, she happily sings and dances for her friends (149-55).

Ma agrees with Zhang Zhen’s analysis, writing that Kailing “embodies a desire for release from the past and a wish for a remade identity purged of past traumas” (153).[7] In this sense, Kailing negotiates an eagerness of the young generation to rid themselves of their parents’ and grandparents’ sense of geopolitical and cultural displacement and misplacement from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Nonetheless, their yearning for freedom is in fact sanctioned by the older generation, whose surveillance ensures that this desire to forget the past is morally and socioculturally constrained (140-41). However, Ma draws her readers’ attention to the moment before Kailing meets her birth mother, a scene in which Kailing, who has up to this point been the embodiment of the modern girl, witnesses a sexually charged and borderline pornographic dance of Lolinda Raquel. The footage of Raquel’s dance was shot with a handheld camera and with a faster film stock than the rest of the film. According to Ma, in this scene, Kailing simply stares at the stage in awe, thus suggesting that she is entirely out of place with––or in fact, anxious about––Raquel’s unbridled release of sexuality and modernity. For Ma, her anxieties are in fact symbolically transferred to her by the male spectators both in the diegesis and of the film itself, as Raquel’s dancing can be understood as a symptom of their failure to contain the excessive sexual energy of the modern woman. Yet, Kailing herself represents a kind of modern woman sanctioned and put under surveillance by her parents and, by extension, the established social order. For Ma, if we presume that the audience in the nightclub and in the movie theater are predominantly male, the cosmopolitanism and yearning for liberation of Kailing are both properly contained and disciplined (161–68). Of course, there are female members in both the diegetic audience and in the theater. Hence, to fully understand Ma’s argument, we must presume that those female spectators, like Kailing herself, are also subjugated to the surveillance and discipline of the male gaze.

In chapter 5, Ma conducts an astute textual and intertextual analysis of Grace Chang’s The Wild, Wild Rose (野玫瑰之戀, dir. Wong Tin-lam 王天林, MP&GI, 1960), which demonstrates a similar mechanism of political and moral mediation. By combining George Bizet’s opera Carmen (premiered 1871) and Alexandre Dumas, fils’ La dame aux Camélias (1852), the film stages unbridled female sexuality and cosmopolitan energy (with the Carmen plot), yet contains it within the melodramatic structure of a morally corrupt woman who redeems herself through romantic sacrifice (Camélias) (185-202). As Ma argues, by 1969 the songstress would be replaced by the feinü 飛女or “teddy girl,” as in Patrick Lung Kong’s 龍剛 Teddy Girls (飛女正傳, Wing Wah), whose parents (adopted or by birth) can no longer contain and discipline her sexual energy and sense of disenfranchisement (213).

As the title suggests, Sounding the Modern Woman gives the songstress (including her silent ancestors and rebellious successors) a voice in the history of Chinese cinema. It is most certainly a thoughtfully researched, intellectually inspiring, and analytically eye-opening study of the songstress as a medium. Most important, by illustrating that such a central figure can indeed be seen as a constitutive medium of Chinese cinema and film history, Ma’s study makes visible the genderedness of the myth-making process that sought to negotiate the postwar traumatic milieu between Shanghai and Hong Kong, and the equally gendered epistemic positions of film historians and scholars. It illustrates that Chinese cinema did not emerge out of a gender-neutral spectatorial milieu authored solely by male studio executives and filmmakers. Rather, the songstress and her female or feminized audience, through inter-technical mediation, played a crucial role in the negotiation of authorship and authority that shapes and forms Chinese cinema.

Victor Fan
King’s College London


[1] See, for example, Sam Ho, “The Songstress, the Farmer’s Daughter, the Mambo Girl and the Songstress Again.” In Mandarin Films and Popular Song: 40–60s (Hong Kong: Hong Kong International Film Festival, 1993), 59–66; Andrew Jones, Yellow Music: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); Stephen Teo, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimension (London: BFI, 1997), 73–86; see also, Zhang Zhen, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 302–28.

[2] Miriam Hansen, “Fallen Women, Rising Stars, New Horizons: Shanghai Silent Film as Vernacular Modernism.” Film Quarterly 54, no. 1 (Autumn 2000): 10–22; “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/Modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59–77.

[3] Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (Paris: Aubier, 2012), 159–66.

[4] The term “vocate” comes from the Judaic-Christian term “vocation.” It signifies the idea of calling individuals into an assembly or class, whose members are drawn (again, called) into a difference between chronometric time and the time it takes for such time to end. See, Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (2000). Tr. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 68-72.

[5] Bao Weihong, Fiery Cinema: The Emergence of an Affective Medium in China, 1915–1945 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 91–149; Jones, Yellow Music, 105–36; Victor Fan, Cinema Approaching Reality: Locating Chinese Film Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 153–94.

[6] For the definition of shidai qu, see Jones, Yellow Music, 1–20.

[7] Zhang Zhen, “Ling Bo: Orphanhood and Post-War Sinophone Film History.” In Mary Farquhar and Yingjin Zhang, eds., Chinese Film Stars (New York: Routledge, 2010), 121 and 129.