The City as Seductress: Reimagining
Shanghai in Contemporary Chinese Film and Fiction

By Vivian P. Y. Lee

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 133-166

Since the 1990s, the figure of the seductress has re-emerged in the cultural imagination of Shanghai. In film as well as in fiction, the seductress appears frequently as a metaphor for the city, a site of desire where the politics of race and gender are played out in the war between the sexes. Instead of projecting an internalized “otherness” in the colonial/national formulation of racial/gender relationship, contemporary Chinese film and fiction invite alternative readings of their female characters and the symbolic meanings they embody. What is the significance of reinventing the seductress as a metaphor for the modern (westernized) city in China today? Is it a symptom of self-Orientalizing of the Oriental subject and therefore a form of “naturalized” self-subjugation? In late twentieth-century China, does the seductress, as both woman and city, represent a politics of difference, a mode of “writing back” to the dominant ideology of the state? Do some of these contemporary representations open up the gendered metaphor for self-reflection and cultural critique? If so, what narrative and aesthetic strategies are employed for this purpose? Using Wang Anyi’s Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Chang hen ge), Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby (Shanghai baobei), and Suzhou River (Suzhou he), a film by Lou Ye as examples, this paper attempts to address these questions through an examination of how the seductress, most prominently figured as the concubine and the whore, is explored in contemporary Chinese film and fiction in which the city speaks through the voice of a woman.