Patriarchal Nationalism Contested: Femininity and the Discourse of Mother in Li Xing’s Life with Mother (1971)

Mei-Hsuan Chiang (江美萱)

        In Taiwan’s cold war nationalist discourse, women emerge as both the embodiment of Chinese tradition and as cultural markers dividing authentic Chinese traditions from Communist ones. As feminist scholar Jan Jindy Pettman has argued, the female body often functions “as the community’s, or the nation’s most valuable possessions; as those responsible for transmitting the nation’s values and through this its political identity.”[i] In other words, the female body becomes the emblem of national politics or a site to articulate national issues. The “woman-as-nation” trope, so characteristic of Taiwan cinema during the 1960s and 1970s, generally assumed three forms: the chaste virgin, the loyal secret agent, and—most importantly—the virtuous mother. As the analogy of the “nationalist wombs”[ii] suggests, women are often represented as the bearers and educators of the nation’s future generation. The ultimate goal for a virtuous woman is to become a mother, because womanhood and motherhood are closely intertwined. Since maternity plays the central role in nationalist discourse, the cinematic image of mother and her sexuality were accordingly invested in and policed by the nationalist government (Kuomingtang, KMT) in Taiwan during 1960s and 1970s.

This essay analyzes the master mother discourse in Taiwan cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, highlighting the challenges made to it by maternal melodramas in the latter decade. Though constrained by a host of oppressive cultural policies and the imposition of martial law, Taiwan cinema of the 1970s began to explore female subjectivity beyond policy and ideology of the nation-state. The first part of this essay explores the portrayal of mothers in so-called wenyi films, especially those adapted from books by the romance novelist Qiong Yao. Echoing the master mother discourse proposed by the KMT government, Qiong Yao films often present the mother as a moral authority and a guardian of traditional virtues. The second part focuses on more complex representations of the mother in maternal melodrama, a subgenre that emerged after the Qiong Yao fever had swept the country. Li Xing’s Life with Mother (1971) is one of such films that construct maternity as the monstrous-feminine, a term I borrow from Barbara Creed. These later films bring women’s subjectivity to the fore, depicting heroines caught between their own desires and their duty to their children. They reflect not only the KMT’s adjustment to changing times; they also challenge the master mother paradigm and the discourse of nationalism.

        In the 1960s, the KMT government fortified its master mother discourse through a series of cultural movements. These included the “healthy realist film” (jiankang xieshi dianying) movement and the “cultural renaissance” (zhonghua wenhua fuxing yundong) campaign in the 1960s. During that time, magazines, such as Woman’s Friend (Fuyou), and Chinese Women (Zhonghua Funu), were put out by the more conservative official groups to promote traditional feminine virtues and family values.[iii] The emphasis on a woman’s maternal role is best illustrated in Women In Taiwan During the Past Twenty Years, a government publication released in 1965. In a passage on Mother’s Day and the annual election of a Model Mother, it called mothering “the most important element in the government’s plan of moral education.” Elaborating on the significance of the day and the award, it put forth an ideal of familial and national harmony:

[M]others can carry the sacred responsibilities of educating their children. On the other hand, children should appreciate the greatness of maternal love and further motivate themselves to be loyal to the nation, and to be filial to the parents…At the same time, it shows how mothers are respected by our society today. It differs from inhuman communism that destroys families and abuses morality. It shows a drastic contrast.[iv]

Here, the mother plays an important role as the “nationalist womb,” promoting nationalist pathos in 1960s Taiwan. Furthermore, the representation of the virtuous mother is deployed to articulate the KMT’s ostensible humanism and its professed moral superiority to the Communist enemy.

        This mother paradigm is best reflected in the role of virtuous mother in “romantic wenyi film” (aiqing wenyipian), a genre that appeals primarily to women[v] in the 1960s and 1970s. The romantic wenyi film’s target audiences are female students and female factory workers, who left their homes in the countryside to work in the city or the nation’s export processing zone. In order to cater to the audience’s interests, these films focused on women’s experiences and provided them with an outlet for fantasy. In Lu Feii’s words, they “caress a sense of alienation” that women experience as a result of tedious work and modern family life.[vi] Beginning in the mid-1960s, Qiong Yao, a popular romance novelist and columnist, dominated literature and film in Taiwan, exerting an influence that would last for decades. Seeing the popularity of her novels, the CMPC purchased the adaptation rights of her books and began to make them into films from 1965 onward. With the blessing of state authorities, Qiong Yao films quickly transcended the romantic sphere, engaging with issues like the melodramatization of the domestic life and maternal themes.

        One of the popular themes in Qiong Yao films is the conflict between traditional family values and free love, and it often manifests in the form of conflicts between mother and child. The mother in Qiong Yao films always plays a central role in changing the fate of her child. Although she usually appears as a meddling and strict mother who disapproves of her child’s lover, she is also portrayed as a moral authority. While the Qiong Yao film’s representation of the mother conforms to the KMT’s mother discourse, this virtuous mother paradigm actually reinforces a limited discursive framework and internalizes the patriarchal social order, and Qiong Yao’s earliest film adaptation, Li Xing’s Silent Wife (1965), perfectly illustrates this point.

        Silent Wife follows Yiyi, a deaf and mute woman marrying into a traditional family by arranged marriage. Yiyi is more than a loyal wife and a filial daughter-in-law; she is, most importantly, a good mother and “the angel in the house.” The film shows that Yiyi’s virtue is further reinforced by her silence—a trait that exemplifies a woman’s obedience, moral integrity, and good-natured tolerance. However, she is deprived of her own voice and perceived as nothing but an image onscreen, which is echoed by her husband’s description of her, “a clay-made goddess sculpture” on their wedding night. On the other hand, this husband, Jingyan, becomes the active interpreter of her image, as the entire story is told from Jingyan’s perspective in the form of flashbacks. The denial of female voice and perspective perfectly illustrates Yiyi’s lack of subjectivity. In other words, although Silent Wife accentuates the mother’s role in upholding traditional family value and feminine virtues, it nevertheless shows that women are subordinate to the privileged male role, and that their lives always revolve around the father.

        Li Xing’s Silent Wife and other Qiong Yao films safely fall within the KMT government’s official mother discourse, as the mother figures in these films never transgress the feminine code of conduct, the “three obedience, four virtues” (san cong si de), and their own desire―sexual desire in particular―is completely erased or suppressed. Furthermore, the representation of the mother in Qiong Yao films always shows a split between romantic sentiment (qing) and physical desire (yu): a mother’s sexuality is absent or suppressed, and her affection is only directed toward her husband and her children. In the 1970s, Qiong Yao continued to portray conflicts between the mother figure and her family, but her mother figure became a superficial one whose thoughts and feelings went undepicted. At the same time, the socioeconomic transformation in late-1960s Taiwan gradually changed the cultural representation of the mother and society’s expectation of mothering. A few years after the release of Silent Wife, Taiwan cinema began to see more and more nuanced portrayals of the mother, tackling her experience of ambivalence amid the contradictory demands of the 1970s.

        The profusion of new female voices in 1960s and 1970s literature helped shape wenyi films and tackle the feminine social norm proposed by the official women’s groups. However, there were other factors that diversified the way mothering was represented in Taiwan cinema of the period. These included the changing social milieu in the late 1960s and early 1970s (a result of Taiwan’s economic development) and the shift from healthy realism to healthy variety shows in the domestic film industry. The New Feminism (xin nuxin zhuyi), an unofficial feminist movement which drew upon second-wave feminism, also changed social expectations of motherhood in the 1970s. For example, Lu Hsiu-lien, the activist most heavily associated with the movement, attacked gender inequality in the workplace and proposed that career women should not withdraw to the domestic realm after childbirth.[vii] The 1970s wenyi film reflects these changes. Accordingly, films with a prominent maternal theme also became a dominant subgenre during this time.

        Additionally, more and more 1970s’ wenyi films directly address a mother’s own sexual desire and psychology, and in most of these films, the maternal figure is constructed as being abject. Drawing on Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, Kristeva argues that the mother becomes abject when the child rejects her in favor of the father, who represents the symbolic order. By recognizing the mother as abject, the child preserves his subjectivity. Even after the child has entered the realm of the symbolic, he still struggles with the separation and oscillates between the semiotic and the symbolic. To quote Kristeva’s definition, the abject is “something rejected from which one does not part,” and something that disturbs identity, system, and order.[viii] A lot of the 1970s wenyi films reflect the mother’s abject status, elaborating the conflicts between mother and child; more importantly, they offer a different perspective on Kristeva’s theory by showing children negotiating or even embracing maternal perversity. Li Xing’s Life with Mother notably diverges from Qiong Yao’s popular narrative of mothering, and stresses the mother-daughter bond that boldly challenges the familial and social role of the father.

        Life with Mother, poses the question whether a “bad” woman can be a competent mother, and it does so by focusing on an unconventional mother who has a troubled relationship with her child. Life with Mother focuses on Hui-hua, a cold-hearted hostess, bar owner, and single mother who works hard to give her daughter Tingting a carefree life. Like her daughter, she is not a high-mannered woman, and her behavior is often unbecoming of a mother. For example, when she is called to school after Tingting is expelled for causing too much trouble in class, she actually sneaks out of the schoolteacher’s office with her daughter while the teacher drones on moralistically. Hui-hua is fully aware of her unfitness as a role model, but she does everything she can to make her daughter into a “noble lady.” Because Hui-hua cannot obtain nobility herself, she projects her dream onto her daughter, hoping the girl will someday realize it. Thinking that Tingting’s indiscipline derives from a lack of paternal love, Hui-hua starts an affair with a married man, Rong-xuan. Hui-hua hopes that Rong-xuan will be a proper father figure because of his high social status. (Ironically, he has only attained this status marrying into a wealthy family and taking over its estate.) But when Tingting catches Rong-xuan kissing her mother, this hope is lost. The girl attacks the couple with great sarcasm, angering her mother and earning her an unprecedented slap in the face.

As Hui-hua understands it, the role of a father is to complete the traditional family structure and to serve as the perfect role model for his daughter. But this ideal is so lofty that the conduct of any real man is bound to tarnish it; only the dead can seem so saintly. Tingting’s birth father is not a captain who died during his service at sea, as Hui-hua had been telling her daughter; he is a shameless drug dealer who has been imprisoned for years. In order to make Tingting believe her story, Hui-hua even finds a fake gravesite for this imaginary father, and asks Tingting to repent in front of her father’s tomb every time she betrays her father’s dying wish: that Tingting would someday become a noble lady. Hui-hua also gives Tingting the impression that her father’s job as a seaman is honorable and brave; she is thus infuriated when a group of real seamen make a scene at her bar, casting implicit dishonor on the dead man’s trade. The sudden appearance of Tingting’s birth father and his demand to meet his daughter threatens Hui-hua and the illusion she has created. When Tingting’s birth father accidentally reveals the truth about his identity, Tingting decides to leave with him, eventually taking the man to the fake gravesite her mother has maintained. Upon seeing the burial plot, Tingting’s birth father realizes why Hui-hua puts on such a show, and agrees that the best course is to leave his true identity a secret. He therefore changes his mind and reverts to Hui-hua’s lie, telling Tingting that he is merely her parents’ old friend. His lie preserves the paternal ideal Hui-hua has built up, even as it seems to leave a void in the life of his daughter.

        In Life with Mother, the father figure either infringes on the mother-daughter bond, like Rong-xuan and Tingting’s birth father, or constitutes an ideal that can only exist in the realm of the imaginary. Contrary to Hui-hua’s belief, she and her daughter have no need of a father figure: the bond between her and Tingting is a complete entity in itself. By the end of the film, Hui-hua finally recognizes how badly she has misunderstood her daughter’s needs. Tingting wants neither a male role model nor a claim to nobility, since both these attainments reinforce a patriarchal system of values. As the ending shows, Tingting shares a cigarette with her mother while the latter runs through a red light. Their insouciance earns them a ticket, but the pair merely laughs as they receive it from a policeman. Tingting, as it turns out, would rather be a rebel like her mother than spend her life affecting a spurious nobility.

The film had several repercussions when it was released. Not only did it reflect the traditional makeup of Taiwanese extended families; it also engendered new paradigms of family structure in the Taiwan of the 1970s, when more and more women were joining the workforce. Today, when subjected to a feminist reading of Freud’s phallocentric family romance, the film can be seen as a subversive text that challenges the patriarchal family structure. The father, we see, need not serve as the only locus of desire and identification. By re-examining the mother-daughter bond and the formation of semiotic chora,[ix] Life with Mother also addresses a lack in Kristeva’s theory of abjection: how the female child’s experiences and subject formation differ from those of a male child’s.[x]

The vibrant woman’s culture through the production of romance novels and the changing social milieu in the 1970s offered wenyi films new freedom to explore female sexuality in general and mothers’ sexuality in particular. More and more emphasis fell on the complex mothering experience and the psychology of mothers in popular narratives of motherhood, which echo the growing feminist discussions on women’s new role in the family and possible alternatives to the traditional mother discourse. By presenting a nuanced depiction of mothers and questioning the role of the father―both the actual father and the patriarchal norm ―the 1970s wenyi films arose to challenge the patriarchally subservient mother paradigm proposed by the KMT government since the 1930s. In the 1980s, the vogue for Qiong Yao films and wenyi films ended. But the cinematic mother would continue to question and confront the feminine norm with the emergence of New Taiwan Cinema.[xi]

[i] Jan Jindy Pettman, “Boundary Politics: Women, Nationalism and Danger,” in New Frontiers in Women’s Studies: Knowledge, Identity and Nationalism, edited by Mary Maynard and June Purvis (London: Francis and Taylor, 1996), 195.

[ii] Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (London: Pandora, 1990), 54.

[iii] Woman’s Friend (Fuyou) and Chinese Women (Zhonghua Funu) were both women’s magazines published in the 1950s. Woman’s Friend was published by a women’s union under the KMT, whereas Chinese Women was affiliated with the National Women’s League.

[iv] Er Shi Nian Lai De Taiwan Fu Nü (Women In Taiwan During the Past Twenty Years), (Taipei: Taiwan Province Woman’s Writing Association, 1965), 361. Translation and emphasis mine.

[v] Wenyi film is often translated as melodrama in English, but recent film scholars like Emily Yueh-yu Yeh argue that it is destructive to flatten the differences between the two and equate wenyi with western melodrama. I therefore leave wenyi untranslated in this essay.  In doing so, I mean to foreground the term’s indigenous root in Chinese culture and its cultural specificities. See Emily Yueh-yu Yeh, “Pitfalls of Cross- Cultural Analysis: Chinese wenyi Film and Melodrama.” Asian Journal of Communication 19.4 (2009): 438–452. According to Kuo-Jung Tsai’s Studies on Modern Chinese wenyi Cinema, Chinese wenyi films developed in two directions: family-ethic films (jiating lunli ju) and romance films (aiqing wenyipian); however, the two often overlap. For more discussions on wenyi film, see Hsiung-ping Chiao’s Shidai Xian Ying: Zhongxi Dianying Lunshu (Impression of the Age: East-West Film Discourses) (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998), and Stephen Teo’s “Chinese Melodrama” in Traditions in World Cinema (ed. L. Bradley, P. Barton, & S. J. Schneider. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006).

[vi] Feii Lu, Taiwan Dianying: Zhengzhi, Jingji, Meixue (1949–1994) (Taiwanese Cinema: Politics, Economics and Aesthetics (1949–1994)) (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1998), 133, 135. Translation mine.

[vii] Hsiu-lien Lu, xin nuxin zhuyi (New Feminism), (Taipei: Unitas Publishing Co., 2008).

[viii] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, translated by Leon S. Roudiez, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 4.

[ix] Kristeva defines “chora” as “a receptacle,” and uses the term to denote a nourishing maternal space.

[x] Barbara Creed and other feminist scholars also raise similar questions in their discussion of Kristeva’s theory of abjection.

[xi] Some examples include Chen Kun-Hou’s Growing Up (1983), Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985), and Chang Yi’s Kuei-mei, a Woman (1985).