A ‘marked absence of bed scenes and no Bruce Lee babes’ in Chinese cinema

Professor Chris Berry gave a presentation about Chinese masculinity at Asia House

Professor Chris Berry gave a presentation about Chinese masculinity in Chinese cinema at Asia House

A ‘marked absence of bed scenes and no Bruce Lee babes’ in Chinese cinema

13 October 2014

By Naomi Canton

Have you ever wondered why the guy never gets the girl in Chinese cinema? Unlike in Hollywood, where the narrative is often centred on a man’s relationship with a woman – or several women as in the case of James Bond – Chinese films don’t seem to place the same emphasis on male-female romance. The relationship between men and other men – foes or friend – gets far more attention in Chinese cinema and a man is considered weak if he spends too much time with a woman.

This was the gist of a talk given by Chris Berry, Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London, held at Asia House, presented by The Bagri Foundation.

Professor Berry explained that the Oedipal trajectory dominates classical Hollywood narratives, (with the exception of certain Hollywood genres such as Westerns and action movies), in which the man has to overcome various obstacles, such as father figures, in order to get the woman. This does not apply in Chinese cinema where filial duty wins far more respect from the audience and where women are less important.

“We expect Bruce Lee to get the girl but when it comes to Bruce Lee, there are no girls,” Professor Berry said. “Chinese culture has different codes, traditions and values and does not conform to these Hollywood norms. There is no girl and no erotic relationships – a marked absence of bed scenes. No Bruce Lee babes like Bond girls,” he said.

Often male-female relationships in Chinese films are “more motherly and not erotic, with the women behaving more like family members, not in need of protection from the men… when she does get into trouble, he does not come to her rescue.”

Unlike Hollywood’s Oedipal trajectory, the father in Chinese flicks is not metaphorically killed but obeyed or protected. “It’s about protecting the father and not overcoming him or taking his place,” he said.

In Chinese cinema, rather than romance, there is plenty of bromance. “The hero is more emotionally connected to his ‘sworn brothers’ such as his brothers in the martial arts school, than to women,” Professor Berry said. In general, the man-to-man relationship gets much more attention and is more emotionally deep than man-to-woman, he added, giving as an example The Killer (1989) by John Woo, in which there is “minimal erotic connection between a man and a woman.”

According to Professor Berry, in the 1980s Asian American critics disliked this portrayal of Chinese men as it seemed in their eyes that Chinese men lacked masculinity.

“If Bruce Lee got the girl, killed his father and was more emotional about women, then Hong Kong audiences would see him as a failed man,” he said. “Traditional Chinese values are to control one’s emotions. In lots of Chinese films a woman warrior is treated like a man.”

There are two types of Chinese male heroes depicted in Chinese films, Professor Berry explained. The ‘Wu’ or warrior character who uses his fighting skills to fight, as well as the ‘Wen’ or cultured, scholarly refined gentleman type with knowledge of the arts and literature. In Hollywood movies and Western cinema, the hero is usually the alpha male cowboy type – close to ‘Wu’ – whereas in China the men most sought after by men are ‘Wen’ – less macho and softer.

“They find the soft, boyish, highly refined man sexy,” Professor Berry said.

“The ultimate test of masculinity in Chinese film narratives is whether the man can eschew desire for women. Masculinity is considered as not fulfilling individual desires but doing one’s filial duty, showing loyalty to the state, brotherhood or senior members in one’s family for example,” he said.

“A Chinese man will only feel he can fulfil his duties as a man if he can fulfil these duties. The drama of a Chinese film is male competition, conflicts between codes of duty to state and one’s family and not being able to fulfil all one’s duties and so on. It is not about women,” he added.

The Chinese Connection (Fist of Fury) (1972) dir. Wei Lo is one such example.
“Another concern of Asian American critics in the 1980s in the USA was that the Chinese male heroes were always depicted as soft and plump or skinny and weak and not macho,” he added.

“Bruce Lee does not follow the conventions of the Chinese male body. He grew up in the USA and likes to show his chest but this is contrary to tradition. In martial arts the body is not important – skills are more important.”

The Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung is often depicted as wearing a hat and flowing clothes.

“This upset Asian American critics that the Chinese man was being effeminate and that made them feel emasculated. Foreign men were often depicted as red-haired animalistic hairy creatures. They could only be Wu as they were not considered civilised as they could only read Chinese characters,” he added.

However, he did concede that in more recent films individual triumphalism was taking off.

When questioned about the appeal of James Bond in Greater China, he said: “James Bond is extremely popular with Hong Kong audiences. The playboy hero appeals but I don’t see it translating to Chinese action films.”

Chinese films that have paradigms of the ideal man according to Chinese culture include:-

The Chinese Connection (Fist of Fury) (1972) dir. Wei Lo
The Killer (1982) dir. John Woo
Raise the Red Lantern (1991) dir. Zhang Yimou
Hero (2002) dir. Zhang Yimou


This Friday, 17 October,  BAFTA-nominated film score composer, producer and musician Simon Boswell will be in conversation with Asia House Head of Arts and Learning Pamela Kember about his ambitious, long term multi-media art project Blink.  His latest version of the project was screened on the exterior wall of the Hong Kong Convention Centre in 2012, showingfootage of archival interviews with the late martial arts actor Bruce Lee who has long held a fascination for the composer.

To book tickets for that click here.