Course:ASIA321/2022/Gong Li

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Gong Li at Cannes Film Festival (1998)

Gong Li: Oriental Beauty in International Spotlight


If you ask any film lover in the West who is the most famous Chinese actress, Gong Li will undoubtedly be at the top of the list. As an influential actress both in the domestic and international film industry, Gong Li has been known for her astonishing performances since her debut in Red Sorghum. In this Wiki page, we will introduce the life story of Gong Li, examine her performances in several films, her contribution as a cultural representation of China, and analyze the various social, economic, political and cultural factors intertwined with her international stardom. We will also provide our own perspective on her screen roles and celebrity identity.

This Wiki page is for people who have an interest in understanding the stardom of Gong Li, or Chinese actresses in general.


Poster of The Story of Qiu Ju(1992)

Gong Li is a Chinese actress with international acclaim for her artistry and extensive presence in the critical reception of films.  Born on December 31st, 1965, in Shenyang, and raised in Jinan, Shandong Province, in Northern China, Gong Li's life story should be understood as the pursuit of a lifelong passion for the performing arts. At the age of seven, Gong Li was recommended to sing at the local Jinan People's Broadcasting station, and consistently pursued opportunities in drama, singing and literature throughout her time in middle school and high school. She graduated from the Central Academy of Drama in 1989.

Gong starring in director Zhang Yimou's 1987 film, Red Sorghum, provided her with the first opportunity to realize her acting dream through the silver screen.  The success of Red Sorghum provided Gong Li with a strong debut to her acting career, by becoming the first Chinese film to receive the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Festival. The international acclaim of Red Sorghum propelled Gong Li as a central figure behind the growing Western consumption of Chinese films[1]. The period of Gong Li's acting career between 1987-1999 produced many of her most notable performances in Chinese films. In this period of Gong Li's career, she often portrayed rural women who endured the physical and emotional pains of life in Maoist China.  Aside from Red Sorghum, Gong Li's notable performances include Ju Dou (1990), The Story of Qiu Ju (1992), and To Live (1994). These films received domestic and international recognition through awards and film festivals.

Gong Li's entrance into Hollywood cinema since 2005 marked her personal and professional shift from a Chinese actor of national narratives to an international artist performing in non-Chinese language cinema.  What is more notable is Gong Li's increasing prominence as an adjudicator of international film awards and competitions. Her performance in such as Memories of a Geisha and Mulan, expanded the assortment of her screen roles. Despite these prominent global shifts in her artistry, Gong Li's most recent film, Leap (2021), reverts to her familiar acting style of displaying women's inner strength and tenacity. In Leap, Gong Li plays Lang Ping, the head coach of the Chinese Women's Volleyball Team.  In portraying Lang Ping, Gong Li refers to her priority of addressing and celebrating China's national spirit and narrative[2].

Life roles

Gong Li was born in a scholarly family with five children in Liaoning, China. As the youngest daughter of an economics professor and a teacher, she took an unconventional path from her family. Gong Li has aspired to be a professional actress since a young age. After failing her University Entrance Exam twice, she eventually became a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing, where she met the famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou and later starred in his debut movie Red Sorghum in 1987.

Gong Li

As she continued to work with Zhang Yimou on his following works, such as Codename Cougar, Gong Li became one of the earliest "Yimou girls". Her personal relationship with Zhang Yimou also received much public attention and criticism, not only because of their collaborations in numerous films but also because the director was still married when the two became involved. Zhang openly disclosed his relationship with Gong Li to his ex-wife, before the two decided to divorce.[3] Many, including Zhang's daughter, accused Gong Li of ruining Zhang's family, which led to some damage to her public image [4]. The two continued to work on several films several years after their breakup but did not appear to be as frequent. Indeed, Gong Li's partnership with Zhang has led to several of the most stunning films of her acting career and brought her both domestic and international attention ever since her debut. However, it is worth noting that Gong Li herself is not fond of the idea of being "bundled" with Zhang. In an interview with the press, she stated that she does not like being called a "Yimou girl" and found such nicknames disrespectful,[5] which may explain her diminishing collaboration with Zhang after she has established a solid reputation as an actress.

After the end of her relationship with Zhang Yimou, Gong Li married a Singaporean businessman in 1996. In 2008, it was reported that she was applying for Singaporean citizenship.[6] However, her absence from her first citizenship ceremony was strongly criticized by Singaporean people and her renouncing of Chinese citizenship also evoked some nationalistic criticism in China.

Screen roles

Gong Li has spent nearly three decades in film and television, moving between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Hollywood, presenting a wide variety of roles to audiences at home and abroad. However, Gong Li's most successful and internationally influential role is her interpretation of the tragic oriental woman.

Gong Li In Memoirs of a Geisha (2005)

Her career as an actress began in 1988 with her role in Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum,[7] after which she began a decade-long collaboration with Zhang Yimou in a series of films in which she played characters which were mostly victims of feudal, patriarchal or communist rule. In 1992, Gong Li's performance reached its peak with the film The Story of Qiu Ju. The film won the Golden Lion, the highest honour at the 1992 Venice Film Festival, bringing Gong Li extensive international attention.[8] As she gradually became a representative of tragic Chinese women, her image was also adopted by Hong Kong directors who were eager to explore China from their Hong Kong perspectives. In films such as Chinese box and 2046, she becomes a personification of nostalgia.

As her popularity expanded further, Gong Li also entered Hollywood and worked with international top stars in movies like Memoirs of a Geisha, Miami Vice, Hannibal Rising, and Mulan.[9] Unlike her roles in Chinese films, her roles in international films are mostly non-Chinese. As a pan-Asian representation, these characters mix cultural symbols from different countries in the East and creates Orientalist commodity. As a Western portrayal of the imaginary East, these films gradually pushed the East into the opposite side of the West, presenting a constructed image of otherness.

These transnational roles brought her not only fame but also controversy, as Memoirs of a Geisha was criticized for being a misrepresentation of Eastern culture. Unlike Gong Li's previous films with Zhang Yimou and other fifth-generation Chinese directors, Memoirs of a Geisha showed a fictional Western imagination of the East. Her portrayal of a Japanese geisha in the movie was criticized by the Chinese people as an insult to China because of the unresolved historical issues between China and Japan and the on-going anti-Japan movements in China at that time.

Substantive analysis of the celebrity's profession

A critical analysis of Raise the Red Lantern

With the economic and social impact of the reform and opening up policy of China, Fifth Generation directors searched for ways to reinvent Chineseness in a complex global networked environment; many Fifth Generation directors found that the dilemma of women is its best symbol[10]. They used pre-revolutionary China to construct a safer time and space, and in these films, women are eternal symbols outside of the grand historical narrative, becoming passive bodies in the rewriting of Chinese history. Thus, Gong Li's portrayal in Zhang Yimou's series of films about women in feudal society is seen as a national allegory, which is especially the case in Raise the Red Lantern (1991). The thousands of years of oppression and confinement of the Chinese people are even more evident in the case of women.

Red Lantern uses the symbol "lanterns" to link the value of lanterns to the women in the Chen household. In the Chen family, women are not treated as human beings, but as a tool to pass on the family name, these women have no value in themselves and are only noticed because of the master's preferences. The master in the film does not show his face, he appears as a representative of the feudal family, which has the supreme position and power in the family.

A scene from Raise the Red Lantern

The film focuses on the persecuted women in feudal society. In the film, there are often shots like this: the overhead shot of the entire mansion, with only a small space in the middle, surrounded by staggered houses, squared off without a single gap, carries a sense of mystery and also makes people feel its horror and majesty, which is actually what the director wants to express: the feudal system, male chauvinism, and feudal marriage are like these individual houses, imprisoning women's personality and freedom.

The Chen Mansion in Raise the Red Lantern

In the 1990s, a period where filmmakers sought to reinvent Chineseness, Gong Li's role as a persecuted feudal woman in this series of films is seen as a national allegory, and she becomes an embodiment of resistance to patriarchal dictatorship and even to the Communist Party authority. Through this characterization, Zhang and Gong have jointly completed a process of self-orientation, which interprets a China that transnational audiences have longed for. The image of China presented by Gong, is also used by Hong Kong directors as an object of nostalgia, portraying the dilemma in their eyes through female victims. Although China has emerged from the feudal era and regained its glory as a globally recognized civilization, the femininity embodied in Gong Li's films remains a victim of the "imagined China".

Gong Li's contribution to the professional field

A selection of Gong Li's most important awards and honours are listed below:

Year Event Award/Honour Noniated Work
1993 Golden Rooster Awards Best Actress The Story of Qiu Ju
Hundred Flowers Awards Best Actress Raise the Red Lantern
1997 50th Cannes Film Festival Jury /
2000 50th Berlin International Film Festival Jury /
2001 Hundred Flowers Awards Most Popular Actress /
2002 59th Venice Film Festival Jury /
2005 National Board of Review Best Supporting Actress Memoirs of a Geisha
2014 Golden Deer Awards Best Actress    Coming Home
2021 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Award Best Actress    Leap
A poster of Gong Li in Leap (2020)
Acting Skills

Gong Li's efforts to experience the real life of her characters behind the screen have contributed greatly to her extraordinary acting skills. She is known for taking the effort and time to get into her characters before the shooting of films, such as in her recent work Leap, where she spent several weeks with a volleyball training team for her role as the national volleyball coach.[2] Even though Gong Li claimed that "actors do not need skills but they should use their hearts",[11] her system of acting can be identified as method acting. Her sensational acting performance has a phenomenal influence on her fellow actresses including Zhang Ziyi, who was once known as "Little Gong Li"[12]. Her acting also left great impressions on directors she has collaborated with, such as Wong Kar-wai[13]. However, it is worth noting that her performance in Stephen Chow's comedy Flirting Scholar received controversial responses from viewers and critics. Many criticized her for being too conscious about her physical appearance and hesitation to sacrifice her beauty for the sake of the comedy.

Cultural Representation

Due to Gong's frequent roles of tragic yet strong and independent heroines in her early works, Gong Li's images are perceived as a symbol of resistance against traditional patriarchal values in Chinese society. While she demonstrates the suffering of females under the Confucian patriarchy, she also represents Chinese women's elasticity and thriving under suppression. Her significant roles in Zhang Yimou's internationally recognized films also made her be seen as an actress who brought Chinese culture to the international stage. Gong Li's physical appearance is also recognized as traditional Chinese beauty by her Chinese audience. She was voted to be China's most beautiful woman in a 2006 poll.[14]


As one of the best-known Chinese actresses across the globe, Gong Li has become a cultural representation of Chineseness and even Asian exoticism. Her appearance in several English language Hollywood films contributed greatly to her international recognition, where she played non-Chinese Asian roles multiple times. Her participation in global affairs, such as being nominated as the Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations,[15] further added to her representativeness not only as a Chinese beauty on screen but also China as a nation.

Key societal, economic, political, moral, and historical forces that influenced Gong Li's career

Collaboration with Fifth Generation Directors: Memory and Trauma

Gong Li's collaboration with reputable Fifth Generation directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige during the formative years of her acting career, was a historical current behind her rise to stardom.  Zhang Yimou's films were recognized as quintessential embodiments of the Fifth Generation cinema,[1] namely, the production of films under the "scar literature" movement of vividly recounting personal suffering under the Maoist Era. In many of Zhang's films, Gong Li portrayed rural women who experience and confront everyday violence. Significantly, Gong Li became a prominent star of the Fifth Generation films because her roles coincided with China's national remembrance of rural women's suffering in the Socialist Era, during the 1980s and 1990s. Gong Li's professional collaboration with Zhang engaged with the historical force of revision and remembrance. Thus, their collaboration significantly contributed to launching Gong Li's stardom as an artistic interpreter of the Fifth Generation cinema.

Growing Western Consumption of Chinese Films

Gong Li's early career occurred at a period when Fifth Generation films attracted Western audiences and critics[1] for its moving portrayal of life under China's Socialist Era. The rising popularity of Chinese films made Gong Li the "first and most prominent star"[1] in the global circulation of mainland Chinese films following Deng Xiaoping's Open Door Policy in the 1980s.[10]  Western consumption of Fifth Generation films not only affirmed the entrance of Chinese films in the global market, but it also staged Gong Li's performance for a transnational rather than domestic audience.  

Chinese Film Censorship

Following the international spotlight on Gong Li's performance post Tiananmen Square incident, the Chinese government banned Gong Li's Ju Dou for its explicit sexual contents, and To Live for depicting governmental oppression.  Such censorship shaped Gong Li's career by intensifying the underlying societal and cultural contentions behind her status as a Chinese star with growing international fame[1].  Censoring Gong Li's films meant the government established the "not airing one's dirty laundry in public" to be a priority in her acting career.[1]  Maintaining such priority created an enduring challenge for Gong Li, as she had to find the balance between international stardom and a commitment to representing China's national image.

Reception of the celebrity

Reception in China

Zhang Yimou, Gong Li and Chow Yun Fat
Scandals with Zhang Yimou

Gong Li's complicated relationship with Zhang Yimou had surely led to some controversies in her early career. Rumours about her behaviors during this relationship, including her getting angry at Zhang for talking for his own daughter for too long, had evoked some criticisms against her.[3] If the circumstances of the current Chinese acting industry applied, a relationship with a high-profile director would be an irretrievable and destructive scandal to Gong Li's career. However, gossip about her affair with Zhang is minimally discussed in China today. One explanation could be that her affair took place before China went into the era of the internet. Without wide distribution, her scandal remained unknown to many. It is also possible that her well-established reputation today leads people to ignore gossip of her romantic life during her early career. However, Gong Li's drift from collaboration with Zhang may also contribute to the public's lack of attention on this matter.

Nationalism and controversies around Gong Li's nationality

The controversies of Gong Li's nationality started when she was reported to join Singaporean citizenship in 2008. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics taking place, Chinese nationalism thrived and reached a high level[16]. Gong Li was criticized by the much of the Chinese public for being unpatriotic and abandoning her home country, while some media defended her.[17] Recently, Gong's citizenship controversy resurfaced because the Chinese government started placing restrictions on actors and actresses with foreign citizenships. Under such precedent, Gong Li is reported to have considered reapplying for Chinese citizenship[18]. Some netizens pointed out that she is egocentric and only reinstates Chinese nationality when it benefits herself,[19] while others are happy to see her becoming Chinese again and warmly welcomed her.

However, some of Gong Li's actions are seen as patriotic and praised by the Chinese media and the public. During the ceremony of the 2018 Golden Horse Awards hosted in Taiwan, a Taiwanese director spoke about the independence of Taiwan when she was invited to the stage. This politically sensitive subject made Gong Li refuse to go on stage to hand out the awards, and left the ceremony early.[20] Her behavior at the Golden Horse Awards was considered an act of patriotism and received many compliments from the Chinese public.

Reception in the West

In 1994, following the release of Gong Li's newest film To Live, the American style magazine Vogue described Gong Li as one of the most "popular screen actresses in the world," but reserved concerning personal matters such as her fondness for Western culture and Zhang Yimou, "the great Chinese filmmaker who made her a star."[21]  Reading Gong Li under the Western notion of celebrity, Vogue noted Gong Li's irk towards Western society's permission to allow journalists to be nosy about a star's personal life. Vogue associating Gong Li's fame as the product of Zhang's labor emphasized the achievement of stardom as a combination of charm, talent, and professional pedigree.[21]  

Gong Li in Mulan (2020)

During the same interview with Vogue, Gong Li mentions a cultural and professional preference behind her decision to collaborate extensively with Zhang.  He is "very direct"  like Gong Li and "all people from the north of China" and "do not care about money or fame but about conveying his message" through cinema.[21]  Gong Li's comments address her personal dissatisfaction with the West's lack of understanding of the cultural and regional resonance behind her professional choices.  

Vogue considers Gong Li's character Jiazhen in To Live a "doting wife and mother" who endures the "cruelties of the Cultural Revolution" to be a personification of Gong's tough-minded and "prickly" persona.[21]  This comment provides a partial explanation behind Gong Li's distaste for the nosiness of Western celebrity culture and raises doubts about whether Gong Li was interested in a Hollywood career.  American lifestyle publication Vanity Fair reviewed Gong Li's role as a villainous witch in Mulan (2020) as "a pleasure to watch Gong her thing" of thrashing around like a witch.[22]  This comment echoes with Vogue's early assessment that Gong Li's fame should be understood through her resemblance to on-screen characters. 

Reception in other areas of Asia

While Gong Li's entry into the Hollywood film industry can be seen as a positive step for Asian actors, her role as a Japanese geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha met with discontent and criticism from Asian countries. Much of the Japanese public criticized the film as a misinterpretation of Japanese culture, but more like a Western fantasy of the East. Others disparaged the filmmakers for shooting most of the film in a California studio and criticized the casting of three female leads by non-Japanese actors.[23] For Americans, it is easy to fictionalize a Japanese beauty, but for the Japanese, American fictionalization is flawed, prejudiced, and an othering of their culture. By mixing cultures from different countries in the East, Hollywood creates an easily consumable pan-Asian image, while this identity blurs national boundaries, but makes national sentiments more acute and obvious as these criticisms also caused Gong Li to be boycotted in Japan along with her role in Memoirs of a Geisha.

Critical literature review

Bitter Medicine, Racial Flavor by Mila Zuo[1]

Media Studies scholar Mila Zuo considers Gong Li's debut film, Red Sorghum and the Euro-American production Hannibal Rising, to make sense of the Chinese femininity globalized by Gong Li's interpretation of the Maoist-era bitterness and pain. Zuo's analysis demonstrates how the bitterness expressed through Gong Li's performance functions as a prism of the sociopolitical climates, cinematic trends, and "racial flavour"(Zuo 40).[1]

Zuo premises her argument with the notion that bitterness is the dominant feeling for the Chinese nation processing Maoist-era trauma while envisioning a new period of reform.  Gong Li's role in Red Sorghum no longer flaunt the Communist Party's success in ensuring health and well-being but revealed a brutalized female body conveying the China's national wounds.  Noting the sociopolitical symbolisms from Gong Li's roles, Zuo suggests that Gong Li's subsequent fame stemmed from a "beautification of the pain and suffering" experienced by the downtrodden peasants (Zuo 43).[1] The development of Gong Li's fame defined her cinematic performance as a sensual expression of pain, and enticed Western consumption for Fifth Generation films depicting the violence of the Mao years.

Zuo articulates that the attraction of Gong Li's performance to Western audiences generates a "bitter racial flavour" comprising of sensuality, beauty, and suffering for the reconceptualization of Mao Era history (Zuo 64).[1]  Although Zuo raised a thoughtful observation of Gong Li's suffering female body as a critical component that launched her international stardom, Zuo problematizes the Western fetishization and favoritism of Chinese narratives on trauma and suffering.

From National Allegory to Global Commodity: The Cinematic Images of Gong Li by Ka F. Wong [10]

The article analyzes Gong Li's transformation from a Mainland Chinese actress to a pan-Asian star. Since her first appearance as an actress, Gong Li has firmly established a star image representing femininity and Chinese nostalgia. Gong Li's early image in Zhang Yimou's films as tortured and repressed women symbolized China's suffering and struggle in a globalized marketplace.

Wong pointed out that the persona of Gong Li portrays in the films at the beginning of the 21st century, represents her image as "the ultimate form of commodity objectification", as the worship and commodification of her image are mainly reflected in her recurring roles as a prostitute. For Hong Kong directors such as Wong Kar-wai, she symbolized the memory of national trauma and is viewed as the object of nostalgia.[10] For Hollywood filmmakers, she was an exotic beauty, a "pan-Asian" heroine who represented otherness, mystery and sensuality (Wong, 154).[10]  Gong Li joined Singaporean nationality in 2008,[6] giving her pan-Asian identity an additional layer of meaning, and immigration and globalization have brought new controversy to her identity.

On No Longer Speaking Chinese: Crossover Stardom and the Performance of Accented English by Olivia Khoo[24]

In her article, Khoo took a closer look at the images of Chinese actresses in English-speaking Western-made films, examples including Gong Li and Joan Chen. Khoo sees Gong Li as a representation of a 'reserve butterfly' film heroine, where the Asian female characters are no longer dependent on a Western male character. Gong Li's accented English performance is an addition to the new sense of modernity of Chinese femininity. 'Reverse butterfly' films like Chinese Box did not receive many positive reactions from its Western audience not only because it does not repeat the familiar pattern of 'butterfly' films, but also marks Gong Li's shift from primitivism in her Chinese-speaking films to her modernity in English-speaking films. However, these 'reverse butterfly' films still fall under the Western male gaze and contain heterosexual male fantasies as they are directed by Western male directors. Khoo also points out that Gong Li had much more agency in her roles after she returned to China from Hollywood. This article provides us with some insights into Gong Li's performance in English-speaking films. Additional to the cultural and gender factors interplayed in her roles, the shift in languages can also become a lens to examine Chinese actresses' images in the global cinema.

The Era Of Lustrous Screen Sirens Lives On, Thousands Of Miles From Hollywood by Catherine Gomes[25]

Gomes' article examines the Western consumption of heroines in Chinese martial arts films, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.[25] While the focus of the article is on Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi, Gomes discussed Gong Li's significance in being the first Chinese actress that broke into the international film market as a strong leading heroine while "paving the way "or her fellow Chinese actresses (Gomes 85).[25] Gong Li's signature role of a tragic yet strong Chinese woman creates a challenge to the Chinese patriarchy and left Western critics with an image of a glamorous sense of Chinese femininity that other Chinese actresses continue contributing to. This article offers an insightful perspective to look at Gong Li's international stardom, relating her to other Chinese actresses trying to build their reputation in the West. Gomes' perspective is especially interesting considering the fact that Zhang Ziyi, one of the actresses who Gomes claims to have benefited from Gong Li's stardom, was given the nickname "Little Gong Li" because her facial features resemble Gong Li. With this reality in mind, it brings us to the question: how are other Chinese actresses' pursuits in the West influenced by the popularity of Gong Li?

Critical debates

Race: Gong Li as an Asian actress

Wong's article mentions that Gong Li's screen image underwent a process of gradual internationalization from a national allegory, and the Chineseness she represents is self-orientalized.[10]  Her portrayal of the suffering Chinese woman is seen as a representative of resistance to feudal society and patriarchalism, and this image is constantly sought after by world filmmakers exploring Chinese discourse. Gong Li's screen image is utilized in different social and political discourses, condensed into a representation of orientalism, and is constantly packaged as a fetish commodity.

Therefore, when discussing whether Gong Li's screen image can be seen as representing Chineseness, we acknowledge Wong's important note that Gong Li's roles are characterized by self-Orientalization. With Wong's observation in mind, we argue that Gong Li cannot be seen as a representative of pure Chineseness because she is constantly portrayed as a victim in the film content, which satisfies the Western curiosity that separates the real Chinese identity from what the Chinese identity constructed in an orientalist manner. Gong Li has always been subject to orientalism, and the characters she portrays are confined to the post-colonial fantasy of an ancient Eastern civilization. We argue that this form of orientalism, unlike the Western's othering of the East, is a "self-exoticization" undertaken by the East spontaneously, in order to gain a voice in the West.

Through the collection of oriental elements such as red sorghum, red lanterns, farmland, and dyed cloth featured in her early films with director Zhang Yimou, Gong Li's screen roles succeeded in constructing the common imagery of traditional pastoral China in the Western imagination. We believe that Gong Li's growth of international stardom is also the process by which she gradually becomes a representative of Orientalist women. By depicting images of suffering Chinese women, Gong Li's early films present a formulaic, profit-oriented attempt to present the East by Western preference using her own nation for privatized speculation. Therefore, the international recognition Gong Li gained has made her a self-Orientalized commodity on the international stage.

Zuo and Wong interpreted Gong Li's on-screen bodies as a symbol of China's national suffering, adding a flavour of bitterness to the remembrance of the Mao years.[1][10]  Gong Li's star image as a subjugated woman of the East was a critical element in the launch of her international fame. Her beautiful performance of the pain and suffering informs a transnational audience of an ambiguous period of modern Chinese history.  Zuo raised an astute observation that Gong Li's stardom pointed to China's impassioned and turbulent transition to market socialism throughout the 1980s and 1990s, where Fifth Generation films were in the process of global circulation.[1]  We suggest that the symbol of Gong Li's on-screen body as a narrative of China's national suffering overlaps with the growing Western consumption of Chinese films.  A valuable case of study comes from Gong Li's international spotlight during and after the tragic culmination of the 1989 democratic protest movement and the June Fourth Tiananmen Square Incident.[1]  Regarding these events, Zuo mentions that both Gong Li and Zhang were trapped between the international spotlight and the surveillance of China's post-Tiananmen government.[1]  

The post-Tiananmen censorship of To Live, Raise the Red Lantern, and Ju Dou in China, and the popularity of these films in the West, raises the question of why there were opposing views between China and the West existed for Gong Li's performances and stardom.  We argue that Gong Li's international fame developed on the basis that her screen roles appealed to the Western preference of viewing artistic works to make sense of individual suffering and persecution invoked by the Chinese government.  In these censored films, Gong Li's roles illustrated the oppression of women as the deterioration of China's national body. Gong Li's presentation of a brutalized female body to the post-Tiananmen government exposed the shameful wounds which should not be presented to the hyper-critical gaze of the West.  The censorship reveals that Gong Li's fame is not only a beautified presentation of suffering[1], but a constructed image of Chineseness that showcased artistic expression, talent, and historical remembrance. We believe that Gong Li' s instrumental place as a distinguished actress who introduced Chinese cinema to a global audience but simultaneously communicated a troubled history of suffering.  Gong Li's rising popularity in the West following Chinese censorship raises a fascinating comparison with Chinese writer Mo Yan, regarding the subject of how Western critics and audiences of Chinese performing arts and literature actively seek poignantly portrayals of personal suffering and trauma aggravated by the Chinese government. The contention behind Mo Yan's Nobel Literature Prize speaks volumes to Gong Li's rising international fame following governmental censorship of her works.  This reality suggests that a vivid portrayal of suffering becomes essential for Chinese artists to build their international fame.  American media, such as Vogue magazine represented the essentiality for Chinese artists to illustrate suffering, for they referred to To Live's censorship as a "suppression of Gong's beauty."[21]  In the case of Gong Li, her fame became closely associated with fueling the Western fetishization for narratives of Chinese governmental repression.  

Gender: How is Gong Li's female body perceived?

Many scholars have argued that Gong Li's image on the screen has represented strong and independent characteristics of Chinese femininity, however, it is worth noting that those who examine her roles in English-speaking films might voice a different opinion. Some scholars point out that her performance in western films added to a sense of modernity to Chinese femininity and changed the primitivist image[24] and that her Chinese performance is the resistance to the "China doll" stereotype of Chinese actresses.[26] Nevertheless, her female body on screen is usually sexualized and exoticized under male gaze. Even in her 'reverse butterfly' movies that are supposed to break down the stereotypical waiting-to-be-saved Asian women image, her roles still serve to fulfill the heterosexual male fantasies.[24] We argue that this sexualized female body of Gong Li is still confirming the stereotype of the "China doll" image, but as an alternative version since the heroines still preserve a sense of agency through their fightback against the traditional patriarchal values. Besides "China doll", another stereotypical image of Asian women in Western-made films is the "dragon lady," who usually is the evil villain of the story possessed with bizarre power. Gong Li's role as a mysterious witch from the East in Mulan is also confirming to this stereotype.

However, we claim that it is significant to take into account Gong Li's own agency when it comes to gender and her choice of roles. Gong Li has once stated that she values the complexity and the internal struggles of her roles on screen.[27] This would provide some explanations to her choices of suffering female roles, often in a very earthly manner. Gong Li also has her own understanding of feminism. She states that "real feminism is not to suppress male’s rights for the rights of women, but to earn a deserved place for women."[28] Gong Li has also expressed that after acting similar roles in Ju Dou and The Story of Qiu Ju, she would like to shift to something different.[29] She does not want to be "a pretty face who runs around in the film."[29] Her appreciation of female independence might explain the shift to dominant female characters when she entered the Western film industry. Taking a different perspective, we think that other than the commodification of female sexuality, the sexualization of Gong Li's female body in the films can also be interpreted as a woman utilizing her resources (including her body), to achieve her ultimate goals. This might not be a conventional feminist approach, but we think that to Gong Li it can convey a sense of feminism when a woman is in control of her own body and aware of her strengths over men.


Born in a scholarly family, Gong Li's start as an actress was unconventional. Today, her fame as a female Chinese international celebrity is unconventional as well, for her acting career combined two distinct factors: as an artist showcasing her immense talent for the performing arts, and as a representative of China's national image on the global stage. These factors are consistently presented at various stages of her professional and personal life, through scholars, journalists, directors, and the wider public's entwinement of Gong Li's screen roles with her fame.  

The first component of our biography explored Gong Li's rise to stardom, but more critically, we observed the external social and political forces shaping Gong Li's public and professional image. We then analyzed Gong Li's representative early works, such as Raise the Red Lantern, and the later works marking her entrance into Hollywood cinema, namely Memories of a Geisha. By highlighting how Gong Li's screen roles problematized the memory of the Maoist Era, we demonstrated that Gong Li's fame is intrinsically tied to the representation and narration of modern Chinese history to a domestic and transnational audience. Attention from international stardom racialized and gendered Gong Li's screen roles – this problem is raised in from scholarly conversations on Gong Li's fame as a vehicle for explaining the culture and sensuality of Chinese femininity. The exoticization and sexualization of Gong Li's body derives from the assortment of her screen roles and romantic involvement with notable figures in China's film industry. In response to this problematic imagination of Gong Li, our biography offered a critical analysis of Gong's femininity and sensuality as a manifestation of her personal and professional agency. Our analysis traces back to the prominent shifts in Gong Li's career, such as transitioning from Chinese-language to foreign-language films which emphasized Gong Li's agency over the trajectory of her acting career, based on her own distinction between domestic versus international stardom. We also briefly discussed Gong Li's newest film Leap which signified her movement back to Chinese-language cinema. Gong's current career trajectory suggests promising directions for future research into the evolution of her portrayal of Chinese women and national identity on the screen.

UBC Asian Centre, Bell Shrine, Winter 2013.JPG
This resource was created by Course:ASIA321.

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Zuo, Mila (2022). Vulgar Beauty: Acting Chinese in the Global Sensorium. State of North Carolina: Duke University Press. ISBN 1478015470.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gray, Tim (Feb 5, 2021). "Gong Li Takes a Leap into the 'Hardest Role' She's Ever Played". Variety. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Zhang Yimou on Affair with Gong Li: "They Can Call Me a Bastard!"". Jayne Stars. May 29, 2014. Retrieved March 26, 2021. |first= missing |last= (help)
  4. "Zhang Yimou's daughter accuses Gong Li of ruining her childhood". Asia One. Aug 19, 2009. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  5. Zhang, Xi (May 21, 2014). "巩俐不满被封"谋女郎":我觉得很不尊敬 (Gong Li is not satisified with the nickname of "Yimou Girls": I found it disrespectful)". China News. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Gong Li becomes a Singaporean". Asia One. Nov 10, 2008. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  7. "Gong Li". IMDb. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  8. "The Story of Qiu Ju". Britannica. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
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  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 Wong, Ka F. (2011). Transnational Asian Identities in Pan-Pacific Cinemas. London: Routledge. pp. 147–160. ISBN 9780203181393.
  11. Yan, Lim Ruey (September 27, 2021). "Actress Gong Li: Acting needs heart, not skills". The Straits Times. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  12. Ge, Dawei. "章子怡谈巩俐:把我和她相比是不公平的 (Zhang Ziyi Talks About Gong Li: It is unfair to compare me with her)". Sina. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  13. "王家衛評2046 演員天分最強的是鞏俐 (Wang Kar-wai Talks About 2046 Gong Li is the most talented actress)". Holly Day. May 21, 2021. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  14. "Gong Li voted China's Most Beautiful Person". China Daily. May 23, 2006. Retrieved March 26. 2022. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  15. "Meet the Goodwill Ambassadors". Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Archived from the original on |archive-url= requires |archive-date= (help). Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  16. Lovell, Julia (May 19, 2008). "Prologue: Beijing 2008 – The Mixed Messages of Contemporary Chinese Nationalism". The International Journal of the History of Sport. 25: 758–778.
  17. Xia, Yucai (November 11, 2008). "红网:巩俐改国籍,不等于不爱国 (Gong Li Changes Her Nationality, But It Does Not Mean She Is Not Patriotic)". Sina. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  18. Sng, Suzanne (October 24, 2021). "Actress Gong Li reportedly renouncing Singapore citizenship". The Straits Times. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  19. "55岁巩俐被曝放弃新加坡籍,重新申请中国籍,网友:利己主义者 (55-year-old Gong Li is giving up her Singapore citizenship and reapplying for Chinese citizenship Netizens: she is egocentric)". Sohu. October 23, 2021. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  20. Su, Alice (November 26, 2019). "Threatened by the 'Chinese Oscars,' China rips the world of Chinese movies in two". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Powers, John.  "Gong Show: So far The World's most Famous Actress Remain Unwooed in Hollywood," Vogue, 1994, vol 178, no. 12. p.178
  22. Lawson, Richard (September, 2020). "Disney's New Mulan Is a Dull Reflection of the Original". Vanity Fair. Retrieved March 26, 2022. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  23. McCurry, Justin (October 23, 2004). "Japanese on edge over Spielberg's geisha film". The Guardian. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Khorana, Sukhmani (2013). Crossover Cinema: Cross-Cultural Film from Production to Reception. New York: Routledge. pp. 78–94. ISBN 9780203097212.
  25. 25.0 25.1 25.2 Gomes, Catherine (2008). "'The Era Of Lustrous Screen Sirens Lives On, Thousands Of Miles From Hollywood': The Cross-Cultural Reception Of Chinese Martial Arts Cinema's Sword-Wielding Actresses". Reception: Texts, Readers, Audiences, History. 1: 70–93.
  26. Stone, Alan A. (January 2005). "Where Have All the Heroes Gone?". Psychiatric Times. 12: 13.
  27. Frater, Patrick (June 22, 2019). "Chinese Superstar Gong Li Talks Women, Shanghai, Scripts and Tax". Variety. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  28. Tang, Tang. "嘉人封面 | 巩俐:永无止境的历练 (Cover of MC Gong Li: the never-ending training and experiencing)". Marie Claire View. Retrieved March 26, 2022.
  29. 29.0 29.1 "Interview with Gong Li". Lauornever. July 15, 2010. Retrieved March 26, 2022.