Sex, Sports, and China’s National Crisis, 1931-1945:
The “Athletic Movie Star” Li Lili (1915-2005)

By Yunxiang Gao

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 22, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 96-161

The author explores how the movie actress Li Lili’s “athletic movie star” image served as a site where ideological values and political systems constructed and contested notions of nation and state during the “national crisis” caused by Japanese invasion. The concerted efforts of Communists, Nationalists, and leftist intellectuals promoted such an image as a model that suited the discursive needs of China’s wartime nationalism. By merging athletics and beauty, Li and Sun Yu, one of the leading directors of Lianhua Studio created the “athletic movie star” as an important archetype for Chinese film. Li’s performances fused sensuality with sport to produce a modern, yet nationalistic female persona that was at once appealing to the masses and still served the nation-building goals of China’s major political parties. Hence, the article highlights the role of sports in the making of the modern girl.

Li’s career presents contradictory meanings. All sides in the political struggles of the time found ways to appropriate her screen image of athletic robustness for their own agendas. Communists sought to construct strong female working-class citizens, while the Nationalist government project an international image of strong, healthy middle-class Chinese female citizens to represent the new modern nation. Far from seeing her as a pawn of these various forces, Gao emphasizes Li’s sense of political agency in her films. The article demonstrates how Li’s background, as well as both her public and private life, coalesced around athleticism, political rights, and patriotism allowed her to respond to the competing demands of powerful ideological forces and to create her own model of female citizenship. Along with male directors and screenwriters, she actively participated in negotiating the meaning of her strong and heroic onscreen image and facilitated the nationalist agendas.

The sexuality of movie actresses had always been suspect and under scrutiny and the sexy body of the athletic movie star was not automatically assumed to be clean. Gao demonstrates how Communists, Nationalists, and Li herself found ways to deal with both the sexuality exuding from depictions of her athletic body and the persistent cultural biases against and suspicions of actresses to maintain a public aura of chastity in order to serve the lofty nationalist goals. While patriarchal control made her physically less dangerous and less threatening and her innocent girlish image masked sexual appeal, patriotic spirit of a sacrificing woman justified the display of her body.

While playing a central role in reconciling the contradictions in nation building, Li broke through the hierarchical divisions of gender norms–in which the male body is the site of public, political, and collective causes and the female body the site of individual, private, and sexual concern–by injecting a trained female body into the public and national view. Her portrayal of the athletic female body indicated complex interactions between the nationalist agenda and feminism in the modernizing discourse of Chinese nationhood. That is, the strong female bodies configured in wartime cinema were both symbols of nationalist mobilization and celebrated womanhood with a new public persona finding confidence and strength in their bodies.