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The Chinese film industry is enormous, but the number of female directors is lagging behind. How does this small group represent feminist narratives in their films? Are they more present than in films by male directors? On 12 January, Fan Yang will obtain a doctorate for her PhD thesis about the topic.

They are not often seen in Dutch cinemas, but Chinese films belong to one of the largest film industries in the world. In 2020, the Chinese film world was the first industry ever to overtake Hollywood in terms of box office revenue: this amounted to 3 billion dollars.

In spite of this large scale, the number of female directors of feature-length films in mainland China is low: there were about 62 at the helm of films released between 2000 and 2020. Media scholar Fan Yang also noted that little attention is devoted to these women in research into Chinese cinema.

Yang also doesn’t know precisely how small the share of female directors is. 'The total number of directors in China is very difficult to determine, because any independent filmmaker can, in principle, call themselves a director', she explains. 'Thousands, tens of thousands? That it’s an extremely small share, however, is certain.'

Female director no guarantee of a feminist film

Yang looked for feminist narratives in the films directed by these women: films that focus on women’s stories. 'In order to be a feminist narrative, the protagonist of the film must be a woman, or the story must be about the problems that women experience in life.'

The research shows that a female director is no guarantee of feminist narratives. 'Not every female director is pro-feminism. In addition, there are also male directors who make feminist films. However', she says, 'most of the feminist films that I have seen were directed by a woman.'

Local feminism

The findings from Yang’s research are not limited to the study of films in her opinion, but contribute to the study of feminism as a whole. The PhD candidate argues that many ideas about feminism that are applied in academia are based on liberal feminism as defined by Western societies.

Yang suspected that due to the use of liberal feminism, films that are actually feminist by local standards are excluded from the classification. That is why she redefined feminism on the basis of local, Chinese social and political phenomena.

Thesis defence ceremony details

Fan Yang will defend her PhD thesis Chinese Women’s Cinema Through a Feminist Lens on 12 January at 14:00. The online ceremony is closed. Her supervisor is Prof. Misha Kavaka.