Sounding the Modern Woman

The Songstress in Chinese Cinema

Sounding the Modern Woman

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 39 illustrations Published: June 2015

Author: Jean Ma

Asian Studies > East Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Media Studies > Film

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.


“It is not that often that in a single volume, an author completely revolutionizes the way one looks at a subject.  But that is what Ma (art and art history, Stanford) does in this volume, which is one of the most significant feminist historiographies of the past decade….  Required reading for anyone interested in film or Chinese culture in general.” — G. A. Foster, Choice

"All in all, Sounding the Modern Woman is well worth close attention. It advances our understanding of the connections between the Shanghai and Hong Kong film industries as well as enriches the historical discourse as it indicates many points of continuity over not only the transition to sound cinema but also the tumultuous war years and the Cold War situation that followed." — Andrew Stuckey, H-Asia, H-Net Reviews

"Ma’s masterly revelation of the fates of very real people and events that led to the making of these mythic icons of vitality, eros, and death, and the ambivalence with which she underscores their eventual fading from contemporary cinematic attention, makes this tome worthy of a place on the curious reader’s shelf." — Shzr Ee Tan, Music, Sound, and the Moving Image

"Sounding the Modern Woman is an important examination of the songstress in pre-war Shanghai and post-war Hong Kong film and signals the importance of listening for the gendered meanings of history and popular culture – not just looking for them." — Catherine Horne, Media International Australia

"Jean Ma’s book is more than a scholarly exploration of sound and music in Chinese cinema. . . . [W]ith attention to the timbre, expression, and on-and-off screen collaboration of female voices, this book breaks through the practice of textual analysis and spectatorship studies. In this respect, I regard Ma’s book as a significant feminist historical intervention." — S. Louisa Wei, Pacific Affairs

"The significance of Sounding the Modern Woman lies in its detailed examination of the songstress figure." — Shuqin Cui, History: Reviews of New Books

"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." — Victor Fan, MCLC Resource Center

"In dialogue with filmmaking traditions around the world, Ma’s book is a valuable record of the changing definitions of 'femininity' in Chinese cinema and also provides an empowering testimony to the songs’ enduring afterlives." — Erin Y. Huang, Women's Studies

"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


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jean Ma is Associate Professor of Art and Art History at Stanford University. She is the author of Melancholy Drift: Marking Time in Chinese Cinema, and coeditor of Moving: Between Cinema and Photography, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1. A Songstress Is Born 31

2. From Shanghai to Hong Kong 71

3. The Little Wildcat 103

4. The Mambo Girl 139

5. Carmen, Camille, and the Undoing of Women 185

Coda 213

Notes 219

Chinese Films Cited  247

Bibliography 253

Index  267
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5876-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5865-7
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