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Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema


Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema

Film and Media Studies
June, 2015


From the beginning of the sound cinema era, singing actresses captivated Chinese audiences. In Sounding the Modern Woman, Jean Ma shows how their rise to stardom attests to the changing roles of women in urban modernity and the complex symbiosis between the film and music industries. The songstress—whether appearing as an opera actress, showgirl, revolutionary, or country lass—belongs to the lineage of the Chinese modern woman, and her forty year prevalence points to a distinctive gendering of lyrical expression in Chinese film. Ma guides readers through film history by way of the on and off-screen careers of many of the most compelling performers in Chinese film history, such as Zhou Xuan and Grace Chang, revealing the ways that national crises and Cold War conflict shaped their celebrity. As a bridge between the film cultures of prewar Shanghai and postwar Hong Kong, the songstress brings into view a dense web of connections linking these two periods and places that cut across the divides of war, national politics, and geography.
"Sounding the Modern Woman is an intriguing and much-needed study of a crucial topic in Chinese media history. Jean Ma introduces the rich and unknown (in the West) pleasures of Chinese musical cinema to a wider audience. Her work brings this cinema's legacy for the first time into full scholarly visibility, and in doing so, helps us understand the global history of an indispensable cinematic genre. This is an important contribution."

(Andrew F. Jones, author of Developmental Fairy Tales: Evolutionary Thinking and Modern Chinese Culture)

"While the songstress is a familiar figure to fans of Hong Kong cinema, this is the first work to offer a clear framework for thinking specifically about how such a character embodies, in many films over several decades, a number of fundamental contradictions: between liberation and oppression, pleasure and danger, fulfillment and loss, Chinese tradition and cosmopolitan modernity, cinematic excess and narrative containment. This book is not only a welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarship on Hong Kong cinema but also will be of more general interest to students of modern Chinese cultural studies, feminist film studies, and ethnomusicology."

(Jason McGrath, author of Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age)