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Nü Perspectives: Striving for Better Female Characters on Chinese Screens

Do female characters in Chinese cinema and TV pass the Bechdel test?

The camera follows the man’s gaze as it falls first on the woman’s neck, then down to her bare legs. It lingers over her messy hair and slightly parted lips, ending on her hands, which are putting sugar-coated fruits on bamboo sticks. Feeling his presence, she turns her head back, and the two major characters lock eyes for the first time.

This scene, shot using the “male-gaze,” is from the TV show A Lifelong Journey, which aired on state broadcaster CCTV in January this year and explores one family’s experience of China’s momentous historic changes in the industrial Northeast. Despite considerable hype from the network and high ratings—it received the highest viewer figures of any program on the CCTV-1 channel over the last three years, and a rare 8.1 rating out of 10 from hard-to-please viewers on reviews site Douban for its talented cast and tear-jerking script—not everyone is so enamored with the show.

Ye Yingying, a public welfare lecturer on female and elderly psychology, is one of a number of people to have called out the objectification of A Lifelong Journey’s female characters, especially Zheng Juan, subjected to the male gaze in the scene above. “She would always endure and accept everything without complaint, and always put all her effort into taking care of her children and in-laws,” says Ye. She feels that the character is a deliberate “morally perfect symbol” intended to model certain behaviors to women, such as “[having] no ego, always enduring, never rebelling.”

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Nü Perspectives: Striving for Better Female Characters on Chinese Screens is a story from our issue, “Lessons For Life.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Anita He (贺文文)

Anita is a researcher at The World of Chinese. She is interested in stories that involve gender inequality, social issues, as well as current affairs. She is also passionate about the development of subcultures in Chinese society.

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