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The Ideal Woman: Daughter, Wife and Mother

Old Chinese posters for The Central Agency, Ltd. Fabrics company at Glasglow, Scotland from 1930

I once bought a dress from a well-known British designer that was a cross between two cultures. The dress was made to look like a cheongsum or traditional Chinese dress, like the one you see in the poster, but it had a thick sash attached at the waist fashioned after an obi from the traditional Japanese dress. I wore it to a wedding in Italy and I was the only Asian woman and guest there. The dress attracted some attention because it was unusual and because I was unusual. I had bought it because it attracted my attention as it was unusual and I like being unusual. I still have that dress. I can’t wear it anymore as my waistline has expanded over the years since that wedding. This beautiful dress hangs wrapped up in plastic, a cross-cultural artefact, in my wardrobe. It has travelled around the world with me in our various moves. I’ve kept it because it’s unusual and still holds my attention, reminding me of what it’s like to live between two cultures.

Living cross-culturally is something I’m very familiar with. My entire life is a cross-cultural experience. You’ve heard me say many times that I’m Peranakan-Chinese — a bi-cultural mix of Chinese and Malay, more Chinese than Malay, or someone from the Chinese diaspora with Malay blood. You’ve also heard me tell you many times that I am bringing up a cross-cultural family — my daughters who are culturally hyphenated embrace their diversity fully. And so you must also know that I straddle two cultures and worlds and I’m comfortable in both, but can fall between the cracks sometimes. 

Yesterday, I had my teeth cleaned and polished at a new dental practice. My new dentist is Iranian, but he is also a Briton. He told me that his daughter identifies 80% Iranian, 15% Briton, and 5% Swedish (only because she was born in Sweden). Mr Mohamad had lived in Sweden for 15 years and London for the past 25. 

“It’s complicated,” Mr. Mohamad said.

“Yes, super,” I replied because I know about complicated living. 

He started with the teeth exploration. 

“I’m almost more British than Iranian now, but in my heart, I’m always Iranian,” he continued, “you know, cross-cultural living. 

I managed a hmm.

“Oh, you’ve got a crack here,” he went on, indicating the tooth by tapping it with his dental explorer. 

I nodded in reply this time as he continued to explore my teeth and gums. I know what it’s like to live cros-culturally. And the crack in my lower left first pre-molar has been there for some time. I know about cracks only too well. 

I wanted to tell him about a new film I’d just watched. A heart-warming film that crosses cultures. But being the dentist, he talked as I, the patient, listened with mouth a little agape. And Denmark, where the film’s story was set, is not Sweden, although the Danes and Swedes may share some cultural things in common. I decided to let my thoughts about said film go without voicing them. 

Kinamand and the Ideal Chinese Woman

Kinamand, written by Kim Fupz Aakeson and directed by Henrik Ruben Genz (2005) is said to be “a soft-spoken lyrical and beautiful film about love which comes out of nowhere and transcends cultures.”

It’s a cross-cultural love story between a Chinese woman named Ling and a Danish man named Keld. Ling’s brother, Feng, who owns a “Grill” or Chinese takeaway, arranges for Keld to marry Ling so that she can stay in Denmark forever. We hear Feng tell Keld that in China it is hard for a woman to be alone. Keld agrees to the marriage of convenience because he needs the money to pay his wife whom he had recently divorced upon her request. This is a bitter-sweet story with too many stereotypes and tropes that got me thinking about the perception of Chinese people in Europe (and generally in the west), the portrayal of Chinese women in films and literature (in the west and east), and about the language of love (how universal it is). Layered into the story is also one about immigration, identity and belonging.  

Ling is played by Chinese-American actress Vivian Wu, Keld by Danish actor Bjarne Henriksen, with Feng played by Lin Kun Wu, who is also a Danish actor. 

I came upon Kinamand on Netflix serendipitously while researching docu-dramas. Since then, I’ve been trying to find out more about the film but with little luck. But I did find other information linked to the film. For example, Aakeson is a well-known Danish screenwriter and believe it or not, also a children’s book author, published by Pushkin Press in the UK, and has written over 80 books for children and young adults. His tone, according to Pushkin, is “quirky, honest, humorous”. Funny that I couldn’t find any images of the book covers, namely picture book covers, for any of Kim Fupz Aakeson’s picture books on Pushkin’s website. Perhaps, Pushkin has just simply listed him and his forthcoming books or books in translation acquired by the house. Maybe his are not picturebooks. But joy at Amazon, where I found Aakeson’s Vitello series, illustrations and all. Cute! Vitello means veal in Italian, by the way. But Aakeson’s Vitello is a little boy, judging from the cover art. 

The woman in the poster, clad in a cheongsam or qipao, reminded me of Ling in Kinamand: sensuous, coquettish, and stereotypically “oriental” — Ling is only ever seen in a cheongsam throughout the film. (The film seems to be set in the 1970s.) This woman in the poster holds our gaze smiling provocatively back at us, like Ling in several scenes in the movie, though she only had eyes for Keld. 

There were so many enticing moments in the film that drew me in: It is a lyrical story, full of ellipses and intimate moments where the Danish is subtitled but the Chinese not. For non-Chinese speaking audiences, it is like being in Keld’s shoes where Ling’s words form a soundscape of white noise, and non-Chinese speaking audiences are left to infer and interpret the story. Feng makes mistakes in Danish, indicating his foreignness — Dane but not quite. But he keeps at it — trying to belong. He says sex instead of six, which sound similar in Danish, as far as my non-Danish ears can tell. The context for this is that Keld orders his Chinese dinners by numbers — a cringingly farang thing to do. But I was drawn by Keld’s attempt to embrace this newfound culinary adventure. 

Yet, there were many cringing moments in the film that repelled me: Feng, the real Chinaman (Kinamand means Chinaman in Danish), is cryptic, telling half-truths, and so, not fully honest — the stereotypical depiction of a Chinaman. He is the owner of a Chinese takeaway across from the council estate (or Denmark’s equivalent of one) where Keld has a flat — another stereotypical depiction of a Chinaman. Keld’s repetitive use of the word “business” when speaking to Ling when he has no language to explain certain actions he’s obliged to take or who certain people are that he speaks only in Danish to — yet one more stereotypical depiction because Chinese people only understand business relations, no? Feng’s extended family live with him and he is trying to get his sister conveniently married in Denmark by cheating the immigration system, because Ling can’t go back to China, and we find out later it is because she needs medical attention and Denmark’s health care is far superior than China’s— yet another stereotypical depiction, this time of east vs west: inferior vs superior. Keld obtains the moniker, Kinamand, because he agrees to marry Ling, playing on this racist pun: Danish man and China man, exacerbating the difference. Then, there is Ling, obliged to perform her wifely duties sans sex because “pro forma”, the Danish word used to reference the couple’s marriage of convenience. Ling moves into Keld’s empty flat, cooks for him and brings him a packed lunch at work one day. (All this is presumably self-imposed because what else can a woman and new wife do?) She leaves the tiffin quietly on a chair so as not to disturb Keld, who was listening to a taped Chinese lesson. A Chinese woman is taught from young never to disturb the man at work. Ling does everything a wife should except give in to Keld physically. She’s been told by her brother (we are left to infer this) that she must not have sex with Keld and Keld has been instructed by Feng that there is to be no “hanky panky” because “pro forma”. There is the push and pull of forbidden love and desire playing out throughout the movie. 

Having said this, there were heart-warming moments in the film that forced me to question my reading of the story: Keld falls in love with Ling, who is a woman brimming with intelligence. He tries to learn Chinese and teaches her Danish, which she mimics the sounds of — she is trying too. The moments of silence are intensified by the tension between the couple, who understands that this is only “pro forma”. And Feng can only tell half-truths because the situation requires that he does. He is conflicted too, having to negotiate the path between filial duty and friendship, and saving face for himself, his sister and his family. And, I would say, for that matter, Keld too has to do the same. He has a family too, an ex-wife he is fond of and a son whom he loves, and he seems duty-bound to protect them as well. 

Meanwhile, Keld falls more and more in love with Ling, lured by her mysteriousness (due to the lack of verbal communication), and Ling falls deeper and deeper in love with Keld (out of spousal duty, I reckon, as she was socialised to doing). Theirs is an arranged marriage, which in Chinese tradition is very common, something that Ling would be used to. 

Watching the movie, I was reminded not to clench my jaw as I always do when I am tensed. 

Images of Women in Traditional Chinese Paintings

This is the title of an essay by Mary H. Fong that explores the perception and depiction of  women in Chinese history and historical paintings. “In traditional China, artistic creativity was gender-specific, exclusively masculine, and the female image that emerged is not what it purports to represent but rather a signification of male power.” [Fong, pp 22] And all this had to do with…Confucius. The principle of yin and yang, its relationship tied to Heaven are the “three bonds” that ensured a woman’s (yin) relationship with a man (yang) is a celestial decree, something foreordained by Heaven, and hence a relationship that cannot be changed. This was, according to Fong, a thought incorporated into the Confucius analects by a Confucian scholar named Dong Zhongshu (c. 179 to 104 B.C). This belief became the root for the Confucius patriarchy system that emerged profusely during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D). Since Dong Zhongshu had this “brilliant” thought, women in China and those of the diaspora have had to live by this tenet: “Obey your father before marriage, your husband after marriage, and your son after the death of the husband.” For the English, this would be considered Victorian. 

So, we watch as Ling obeys her brother by marrying Keld. Then, we see her obeying Keld, her husband. Keld has a son, but Ling does not find out about Michael, or she would be obliged to obey him too. 

Much more literature followed after Dong’s treatise regarding how women are to behave (Biogaphies of Exemplary Women or Lienü Zhuan) and how filial sons have to be (Biographies of Filial sons or Xiaozi Zhuan). These two instruction booklets were put together by a man named Liu Xiang (77-76 B.C.) and they became the main resource and source for the pictorial depiction of the female form in Chinese figure painting. The docile, obedient and gentle female form or the “Exemplary Woman” reached its zenith during the Han Dynasty, thus giving way to “women as types, not specific individuals” [Fong, pp 23] These types were mainly the daugther, the wife/mother and then the widow.

Court lady (detail), attributed to Zhou Fang (active late 8th–early 9th century), Ladies Wearing Flowers in Their Hair, handscroll, ink and color on silk, 46 x 180 cm (Liaoning Provincial Museum, Shenyang province, China)

Moving forward into the Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.), the “Exemplary Woman” gave way to the Chinese Beauty (shinü). The Tang Dynasty was known as the Golden Age of artistic and literary expression in Chinese history. Court paintings of palace beauties elegantly weaving or sewing, playing the lute, brewing tea were numerously produced. In many of these paintings, we see how the female form is “richly endowed with blossoming loveliness and feminine charm” yet the faces of these “Chinese Beauties” must be balanced with “a look of severe correctness” that should reflect “an antique purity of the soul”. [Fong, pp 23] This was due to the thoughts and words of Guo Ruoxu, a Chinese painting historian from the 11th century, who Fong quoted in her essay. And as they say, the rest is history. Since Chinese antiquity, the Chinese woman is one who will edify the viewer (the male gaze) and “make visible the qualities of the ideal woman” — she must be submissive, demure, quiet, avert her gaze, alluring, agreeable and accepting of her (lower) position.  [Fong, ibid] Add to this, poems penned by court poets during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) gave way to “moth eyebrows”, “bright eyes” that “illumine her clear bone”, “cinnabar lips” that “screen white teeth” and a delicate face “like sceptre jade”. [Fong, ibid] And, in some court painting, I’ve noticed that these women are always depicted alone, moon gazing or looking wistfully into the distance. The deserted woman is another trope that all Chinese painters use to depict the idealised woman. She is looking into a mirror or into the distance, this gazing is a metaphor for the grief that she feels or her longing for her absent lover. 

A Song Dynasty Beauty. She is looking into a mirror, contemplating.

Ling in Kinamand typifies the idealised Chinese woman. She sleeps alone in Keld’s flat because no “hanky panky” due to “pro forma”. She moves gently about the space, is caught by Keld practising taichi, focused, dignified, and mysterious. In the flat, Keld sees Ling in shadows and through a half-closed door, amplifying her allure and mystery. She becomes that object of desire in Keld’s empty life. 

Ling is quiet in her motions and good-natured in her ways. She is juxtaposed against Rie (played by Charlotte Fich), Keld’s ex-wife, who is demanding, assertive and forceful. As soon as she discovers Keld’s marriage to Ling, not knowing that it is a bogus one, Rie returns to claim Keld back after rejecting him and forcing him into divorcing her. She threatens to inform the police, when she discovers that it is a “pro forma” union, if Keld does not hand over the money he’d agreed to give her for the divorce. Ling on the other hand, is seen to work her magic gently, though not unassertively, without being ‘loud’ about it. In one particular scene, we see Ling saddened by Keld accepting a money envelope (the agreed bride price/”business”), for his willingness to marry her — the deserted woman trope. In another, we see Rie handing the envelope back to Keld — the White-superior woman vs the Asian-inferior woman trope. Here’s another trope: Two women, both after the same man, who is actually quite boring and passive, which was why Rie left him in the first place. And included in the film is the ‘sick woman’ trope. And, underlying all this is the ‘white saviour’ trope. 

Much has been said and continues to be said about stereotypes and tropes in regard to the portrayal of Chinese or East Asian women in art, film and literature. Fong’s insightful analysis of Chinese period paintings or traditional Chinese paintings gave me much food for thought about how the Chinese themselves had depicted their own women in paintings and literature, and how a certain school of philosophy — Confucianism — had codified women’s behaviour and societal expectations of a woman. As someone who identifies Chinese, female and of the diaspora, I would be criticised profusely for what I am about to say: So, can we blame other people, namely white people, for ‘othering’ Chinese women? Or should we look at the root of the problem — Chinese patriarchy and patriarchy in general that has since time immemorial sought to dehumanise women yet ironically idealising her as a type and trope?

I’m not saying just because the Chinese themselves have a stereotyped ideal of the woman that it’s alright for another culture to adopt the same stereotyped ideal of her. As writers and artists, it is important that we understand why these stereotypes exist and continue to exist. The patriarchy is the patriarchy. And if we can, in our own might as women writers, help direct the gaze away from the idealised female, we can stop idealising ourselves and enabling others, who are non-Chinese, to ‘other’ and idealise the Chinese female. 

The film, with all its tropes and stereotypes, surprised me in the end. I didn’t dislike Keld. In fact, he was very endearing in his duncey and typical what-don’t-you-get-man male way — duh, man! Ling had her flaws too, which made her human and less idealistic — she has a temper! Rie, isn’t all that much of a cold fish, after all — she has a heart! Feng, unfortunately, I liked the least because he was not rounded enough a character for me. I think Aakeson had purposefully written Feng to be a clown-like, jester character that adds some comic relief to the tension in the movie. This, I would say, reflects more on Aakeson’s character than Feng’s. 

What surprised me most about the movie was the insight I gained about my own perception of the Chinese woman — me. I compared myself to Ling while watching the movie. I felt embarrassed that I do not tick the ideal Chinese female boxes. And what’s worst is that I can’t fully explain why. Maybe it has to do with always being told that I am not a good girl, too intelligent for my own good, and too loud in my gestures, and I want badly not to be associated with being a bad girl. 

Then, my mind went back to my mother’s advice from a long time ago when she told me that I should keep my opinions to myself — I’ve never been able to not speak up about injustice and the patriarchy, and the way so many Chinese men treat the female body. Truth be said, I am not ashamed for being vociferous about this. Male infidelity and misogyny is still very rife in so many parts of the Asian world. As for Chinese traditions, I wish that they weren’t all to do with putting women in their places and keeping them there. The biggest tradition of all is marriage and children — it is still a woman’s duty in China and most of East, South and Southeast Asia to keep house and give birth, and I simply detest all this and frankly, am quite ashamed of them. Am I ashamed of being Chinese or Asian or Peranakan? Deep down, never, but sometimes, I do wonder how I am perceived by others who don’t know me. I am definitely not the ideal even if I still do compare myself to the ideal. But I tell my daughters to NEVER compare themselves using a male yardstick. 

Things to Note:

  • I am not a Chinese painting expert by any means. For better understanding of Chinese paintings and the depiction of women in Chinese art, see James Cahill who had studied women in Ming and  Qing Dynasty paintings. 
  • For more of Chinese art, see Alexander Soper. 
  • The concept of beauty changes or what consitutes beauty change with time. But the pursuit of female beauty and the idealisation of the female form continues to persist. 

Fong, Mary H. “Images of Women in Traditional Chinese Painting.” Woman’s Art Journal, vol. 17, no. , 1996, pp 22-27 [accessed 29 July 2921, JSTOR]