Interpretation of Female Body Poetics in a Posture of “Siren”—— On Cui Xiuwen’s Photographic Art [Luo Xiuzhi]

She turned back to all traditional values and standards from the very beginning she came onto the stage.

In the summer of 2001, Cui Xiuwen and I first met. Before my eyes was a lady of great beauty, but with short hair like a little boy. According to her, she had her head shaved, and now some had grown back. Bare head was popular among male artists in Beijing at that time. To my surprise, she, a female artist speaking in a soft tone, went so far as to have her head shaved. I took a careful look at her. A woman with fine features looked valiant and heroic in bearing.

In 1998, Cui Xiuwen, Li Hong, Feng Jiali, and YuanYaomin built an art studio The Sirens. This group of women named the studio after Siren that men would be panic-stricken at it. The motive behind it gives much for thought. Even longer ago, her work was reluctantly allowed to be on show at the graduation exhibition under the condition that the “sensitive parts” were covered up. Later, her work led a swarm of reports as soon as the media published it. Since then, these oil paintings at which women would blush and men would scream, the fame as a “beauty” artist and her “sex” themes made Cui Xiuwen a media darling. In 2000, Cui Xiuwen rose to fame because of her video Lady’s (2000) she took by sneaking into an upscale nightclub. Lady’s once brought in a lawsuit during the 2nd Guangzhou Triennial. As a result, this controversial work become a permanent collection of Georges-Pompidou Center of Art and Culture in France, and thus formally established Cui Xiuwen as a Chinese contemporary avant-garde female artist.

Cui Xiuwen, Lady’s, video, 2000

Cui Xiuwen, Chuan, oil painting, 1998

A Posture of “Siren” 

A keen awareness of female identity always dawned on Cui Xiuwen. She once recollected a past incident she will never forget. One day, she was playing with her nephew (her elder sister’s son), when she kicked him so hard. “Being so young, I kicked him in the rear out of knowing what part it was. But it turned out that the kick landed on his penis-----“lifeblood” as the adult called. He began to wail, loud and long, and all the family yelled, especially his dad, my brother-in-law, said something as if I had ruined their Song family’s lifeblood. In fact, as a child I was amazed at this mess I made and at this importance of that thing.....My act drew rebuke from all the family who went on at me. But I was innocent, for I had no knowledge and no such intention at all. Now, time will never wipe that incident from my memory for I suffered such a heavy pressure at such a small age.” [1] That childhood memory, undoubtedly, must have exercised a critical influence on her works brimmed with gender self-consciousness. All her works centered on issues concerned with gender differences, even with unconscious intent to make images and write history for females. Perhaps, the reason that an angry mood she took for granted has grown in her sub-consciousness was because she had personally felt the concept of valuing sons and belittling daughters in our society in her childhood.

The New Culture Movement (around the time of the May 4th Movement in 1919), being deeded as a typical (patricide) behavior, had a very self-conscious revolutionary awareness to overthrow Confucianism patriarchal clan system which set paternity, clan authority, imperial power and theocracy in one [2]. But we have Lu Xun’s Sister Xiang Lin, Zi Jun, and other oppressed miserable female images, or Ding Ling’s revolutionary women and “fake” men images, and other women writers. Eileen Chang was a writer who could give an in-depth analysis of females’ real life. She depicted feminine desire, identity, language, culture, etc. In Eileen Chang’s own words: “Characters in my novels (except Cao Qiqiao in The Story of Golden Lock) are not complete. They are not heroes, but the vast that bore burdens in this era. They were not complete, but earnest. They were not tragic, but desolate. Tragedy is a completion, and desolation is a revelation [3]. Though these women were unable to throw off the shackles of patriarchal clan system and family to gain their independence. A feeling of utter desolation peculiar to feminine characters was prevailed by them.

The Chinese society was faced with radical changes in the new era of the May 4th Movement. It was the first time that women had the possibility to enjoy financial independence. But the chance was slim. Females like Eileen Chang who earned a living as a writer were very rare. In the tradition of China prior to the May 4th Movement, females who had a talent for writing were none but geishas, besides virtuous daughters of eminent families. Even when their works were included, ladies’ and geishas’ poems were classified in different categories to stress their identity. “Virtue” forever outdoes “talent” in status, and “virtue” seems to be a limit to and domestication of “talent”. Therefore, it was hard for the literature of ladies to depart from the tradition that “the function of literature is to convey the truth or the moral values”. Even so, “geishas” were unique females who were permitted literary and artistic creation space as they had the function of service for men with the silent acquiescence of the patriarchal clan system in the traditional China. Regarding this, Cui Xiuwen replaced the identity of “geisha” with the concept of “siren”. She once said in an interview: “I think ‘siren’ in the traditional narrative discourse is pretty good. It rebels against and goes beyond “geisha”, doesn’t it?” [4]

The image of “siren” at all times and in all countries is seductively charming and fair and has a destructive latent energy. It is the two traits that lend a peculiar charm to Cui Xiuwen’s works. She took pure girls and pregnant adolescents as her targets to present females under the oppression of the patriarchal clan system and under the domination of the national ideology. She conferred the image of “goblins” on these girls rather than “pure”, “na?ve”, “innocent” and other stereotyped images. In this case, she enormously extends the view of female composition in Chinese art. She pulled the scene to the Tiananmen Square and other public areas. She discoursed not on national affairs but boudoir trivia related to female bodies. It is as if boudoir discourses were extended to national and social discourses, and micro politics was moved to national palaces for the sake of public discussion.

The shudder of the youth

In Cui Xiuwen’s One Day in 2004 series of photographs, the young girl wears a white uniform and a red scarf. Her innocent-looking face reveals an air of sadness. Her eyes, the corner of her eyes, cheeks, arms and a wound on her foot give a message of harm.

The girl at an early age is sure to be the powerless at the bottom of any power scale. This powerless little girl was chosen by Cui Xiuwen to show clearly the immenseness and unshakable power of the Confucian patriarchal clan system and the nationalist state machine. A line of blue sky gives way to two skyscraping red royal walls. The little girl’s petite body appears extremely vulnerable, and her wound is unbearable for us to see. But, there is no grimace of pain besides a bit sadness. Her natural acts and postures wear a bit sexy mien. 

Cui Xiuwen, One Day in 2004 No. 3, photograph, 2004

Under the cover of the uniform is human body and human character that varies from person to person. The surface of uniform represents the school education system manipulated by the state apparatus and the domestication mechanism in the name of civilization. During this period, the little girl may be faced with growth, menarche, sexual desire, even pregnancy and other body experience, intimate emotions and feelings, all hidden and disappear under the school uniform. This is how modern state apparatus exercised micro-power control over female bodies through the system of civilized education.

Cui Xiuwen, One Day in 2004 No. 2, photograph, 2004

Virginia Woolf once imagined in her A Room of One’s Own that if Shakespeare had a younger sister of his equal talents, what would her life be? Woolf did not find a way out for his sister. The Victorian social reality would not allow her to display her talents, her talents were doomed to wither and fall like flowers [5]. Likewise, then imagine, what would her life be if Cao Xueqin had a talented younger sister? In A Dream of Red Mansions, we have seen the fate of highly talented girls in that era: either be married or become a nun or die at a young age. In Cui Xiuwen’s work One Day in 2004 No. 6, a transparent hand-wear covers the hand and wrist of the young girl. Obviously, she suffered a hand amputation. Here, the artist considered herself to be the girl. It seemed the artist’s declaration of life: Even if her hand was chopped, she would not give up her artistic pursuit. If so, Cao Xueqin’s younger sister may have a chance to survive as a writer in contemporary circumstances. Perhaps, we may also ask: Who was so cruel as to chop the girl’s hand? Lying in front of Tiananmen Square, the girl was at her last gasp. We cannot read much expression in her young eyes. Is the country’s palace her altar?

Cui Xiuwen, One Day in 2004 No. 6, photograph, 2004

Like other Chinese photographic artists, Cui Xiuwen attempts to make long or vertical scrolls of photographic works, for example, One Day in 2004 No. 5. Towering mountains or tall pines always stand erect on the vertical scrolls of traditional Chinese landscape paintings, carrying some moral implications. Their immensity and height is stressed in this form. In this work, along the vertical scroll is a skyscraping red wall stretching upward. Two young girls nestled together sitting at the corner. Their eyes looked straight up, injured. This wall seems to represent the supreme power that integrates imperial power, theocracy, clan power and paternity to govern the country. Cui Xiuwen chose this scene to act out female desires and depression.

Cui Xiuwen, One Day in 2004 No. 5, photograph, 2004

Female body poetics

For the creator, the female body can be an object to be freely constructed and deconstructed; it can be a canvas, a stage, a sign, a symbol and a metaphor to express contradictory ideology and convey a sensation of pleasure overstepping traditional norms; even a place to record social significance and a battlefield to revolt against patriarchal authority. Cui Xiuwen mirrors all the above in her works.

French theorist Julia Kristeva pointed out in Pieta that in the West, female conception presented a dichotomous confrontation between holiness and sexual desire. The myth of Virgin Mary's “virgin conception” de-sexualized female body/maternal body, a symbol of holy religious spirit; the myth of Eve “stealing the forbidden fruit” linked sex, carnal desire and original sin, and thus conception and birth was seen as a punishment to carnal lust for female bodies. Also, Zhang Xiaohong once pointed out that womb was “the most secret and the most personal reproductive organ. But it is a battlefield of norm restrictions and power struggles. Opinions from religion, politics, state control, civil liberty to gender equality cut crisscross female wombs. [6]” From the perspective of state and family interests, the primary function of the female body lies in its womb that can conceive and give birth, and its breast that can nurse the next generation. Some feminists even deemed that due to sex and birth, women suffered from oppression by the patriarchal society. Even love or romance and other ideologies are means the patriarchal society employs to control women. Only on the premise of marriage can love and sexual desire be permitted. Only within marriage and family can conception and birth have legitimacy. An escape-proof net from state to family has been casted over female bodies.

Edvard Munch’s Skrik was the prototype of Angel No. 4. The pregnant girls were seized with panic. Did they fear the memory of being raped? Did they resist an induced abortion? Did curious eyes of the society alarm them? With pregnant girls as symbolic images, Cui Xiuwen questioned the contemporary society on many potential issues. At the same time, she also inquired about the female body and the womb as the battlefield of confrontation of ideas and power struggle

Cui Xiuwen, Angel No. 4, photograph, 2006

Female bodies are just depicted as visual objects in China’s long-term literary or artistic tradition. There has never been any artist attempting to think from the perspective of the female body. It is nothing but the object of male desires. In Cui Xiuwen’s works from Lady’s to Angel series, it is clear to see her attempt to “think from the point of view of body”. Her focus is not on the inner world of females, but on some information and unique body poetics through female bodies. In Angel No. 2 and Angel No. 5, pregnant girls writhe their bodies in utterly different manners. These obviously uncomfortable postures present an unbalanced sense of crisis as well as a special sense of beauty of pregnant bodies. 

Cui Xiuwen, Angel No. 5, photograph, 2006

To be in total possession of one’s own body and womb is only an utopian idea. The power will of the state apparatus and the ideology of the patriarchal clan system is present everywhere. From the first prenatal visit of one’s mother’s womb, the country began to exercise its all-pervasive control over each person’s body through hospitals and other health agencies.

French scholar Helene Cixous in her Female Writing emphasized the maternal link, called up white memory of breast milk with “white ink”, and used ink-flowing image to replace the solid symbols of penis-shaped pens that create the myth of traditional male writing. According to another French scholar Luce Irigaray, mother-daughter relationship was sketchily described in the traditional western culture, but father-son relationship was emphasized. So she suggested establishing a set of female symbol system, for mother gave daughter milk and love, and passes on language, texts and strength. The pregnant girl in Angel No. 13 seemed to be Mother of the Earth. Tears trickled from the corner of her eyes, probably a mixture of sorrow, anger and grievance from patriarchal oppression and joy from the power of maternal love. And the white ink linking breast milk tells a female story about mother and daughter.

Cui Xiuwen, Angel No. 13, photograph, 2006

Cui Xiuwen presents some insignificant young girls in her works. “They are not heroes, but the vast that bore burdens in this era.” Their bodies are real, and their desires are real. They have body energy, but have no revolutionary heroes’ moving and heroic deeds. Their body energy can deliver a cultural discourse in a new era.

If Ju Dou in Zhang Yimou’s film Red Sorghum is a protest of “The Oriental’s Orientalism” as Rey Chow put it --- a display of strategies [7], Cui Xiuwen here used the same technique. The girl in uniform and the pregnant girl manifested Chinese women’s gender desires, female subjectivism and female body poetics in a posture of “siren”.


[1] JiaBin. Another Rebel ----An Interview with Cui Xiuwen, in Art Series at the end of the Century-----Spirit of Nv Wa edited by Zheng Pingxiang et al. Zhuhai: Zhuhai Press, 1999, pp. 40-41.

[2]  Lin Xingqian made an incisive comment of Eileen Chang’s literature. See also Lin Xingqian, History, Females and Gender Politics: A Reread of Eileen Chang. Taipei: Rye-field Publication Co., 2000.

[3] Eileen Chang. Written On Water. Taipei: Crown Press. 1995. P 19. 

[4]  Intervention and Interaction-----A Dialogue with Wang Nanming in Art Series at the end of the Century-----Spirit of Nv Wa edited by Zheng Pingxiang et al. Zhuhai: Zhuhai Press, 1995, p. 54.

[5] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, Oxford university press, 2000, pp.60-62.

[6] Zhang Xiaohong. Post-modern/Women: Power, Desire and Gender Performance. Taipei: China Times Publishing Comp. 1993. P. 109.

[7] “Ju Dou turning around “cited” herself as a woman that developed a fetish for things, and bared her scars and pains to her peeper. This ethnography accepted Orientalist historical facts, but intended to criticize (or assess) it through performing and parodying Orientalism visual politics. With a visual posture of self-allegiance and self-exoticism, the Oriental’s Orientalism is first a protest-----a display of strategies.)” (Rey Chow, trans. Sun Shaoyi. Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography, and Contemporary Chinese Cinema, Taipei: Yuan-Liou Publishing Co., Ltd. 2001, pp. 249)