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Sounding the Modern Woman: The Songstress in Chinese Cinema

Jean Ma
Jean Ma

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.

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Book Chapter

A Songstress Is Born

May 2015

Film songs emerged across the transition from silent to sound filmmaking. They were part of a history of multimedia performances combining the attractions of the musical stage with cinematic entertainment. In this context, film songs were associated with the effect of direct address and the immediacy of live performance; at the same time, this effect was produced from within an environment of mechanical reproduced sounds and repetitive listening. In Two Stars in the Milky Way, one of a number of partial-sound productions from the transitional period, we witness how the incorporation of film songs transforms narrative space. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Zhou Xuan, the first proper star of the era of the sound film. Zhou’s films cemented the conventions of the singing film while also forging a mythology of the songstress as melodramatic victim, one that would leave an imprint on Chinese cinema for years to come.

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