An Analysis of the Changing Representation of the Female Ghost in Chinese Horror Cinema

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Sch of Humanities


This project intends to investigate the interrelation between China's culture, social- historical context, and the construction of the national views of women and feminism,
to present an analysis of how the film industry shifts these notions towards female ghost figures in Chinese horror cinema. Horror films, as part of a national film culture,
reveal the concerns and issues of a nation.
As Robin Wood addresses, horror films offer a place that allows us to express repressed emotions and rebel against the dominant norms we have been told to observe.2 In other words, horror films enable us to explore social and cultural change and subversion, especially in connection to the women's liberation movement. The supernatural lexicon is used in an incongruous way to express injustice, where ghosts can be allegorical and politically subversive. Such characterisations of ghosts have always been considered a sensitive topic in
Chinese national cinema because they seem to counter Marxist historical materialism and socialist realist dogma, and the government believes this to be a hard narrative to
control and which anyone could use as a political tool.3 Nonetheless, ghosts have remained a part of Chinese cinema. Today, they exist in ambiguous ghost/human
tropes, as psychopathic illusions, and as fantasies, all of which still appeal to the audiences.

Chinese folklore and literature feature a number of core ghost figures that have served as archetypes for supernatural characters that have emerged on screen. Having first emerged in 'accounts of the stranger' (Zhiguai xiaoshuo) and developed through the fourth and fifth centuries CE, ghost tales were translated and disseminated across
Japan as well as East and Southeast Asia where they merged with local folklore, culture, and religion. In the animistic context of China, and even most Asian countries, ghosts can be any form of spirit, monster, demon, deity, or other creature that coexists with humankind to keep the balance of the universe. In addition to being considered objects of terror, ghosts have also been presented as idols of worship, which has resulted in social and media narratives that obsess over stories of ghost encounters. These media narratives have in turn influenced social, cultural, and political views and inspired stories about the supernatural. Put simply, the representation of ghosts is continuously shaped through the interactions between folklore, culture, society, and the media, and the interplay between these is a mirror of the changes in our reality. The concept of the Chinese ghost presents the living and the dead as equally affected by the construct of gender. As such, in most Asian cinema, the female ghost is frequently established as being motivated by love and waiting for recognition, reincarnation, revenge, or for their loved ones. Drawing from the discussion of female ghosts in Chinese beliefs and literature, particularly research on figures such as female lovesick (virgin) ghosts, the (abandoned) ghost-wife, and the vengeful ghost of a wronged woman, this project aims to carry out a systemic analysis of the on-screen representation of the female ghost figure, how it has been shaped and developed over time, and the relevance of time period and national context. As research on this topic is quite limited, my work seeks to contribute to the literature by creating a review of the changing representation of the female ghost in Chinese horror films produced in mainland China after 1949, and provide a glimpse into how changes in Chinese society have affected national views of women and what issues of gender in these contexts have been told. Currently, most literature on female figures in Chinese horror focuses on films produced during the brief revival period of Chinese horror cinema (1980s-2000s) or provides fragmentary case studies, such as the works of Erin Yu-Tien Huang, Qin Chen, and Li Zeng.


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