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Woman, Demon, Human
Huang Shuqin 黄蜀芹
Woman, Demon, Human
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Woman, Demon, Human is a semi-fictionalised film biography of the famous Hebei opera star Pei Yanling (b. 1947), who has been widely hailed as 'a living national treasure in the Chinese operatic arts', and is represented in the film by the principal female character Qiu Yun. The film traces her life and career from her childhood in a travelling opera company in 1950s rural China to national and international fame in the late 1970s and 1980s, and highlights the ways in which her difficulties both in forging her personal and gender identity and in relating to the social world are mediated and sometimes partly resolved through the singular figure of the ghostly demon-slayer Zhong Kui, the (male) operatic role for which Pei Yanling is most famous.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)


Woman, Demon, Human is director Huang Shuqin's fifth feature film but the first which, by her own testimony, she wholly identified with on a personal level. Defying any conventional scheme of classification based on style or genre, it has been described by the eminent Chinese feminist film critic and scholar Dai Jinhua as the first Chinese film to be made entirely from a woman's perspective, and by others as the first (according to some commentators, almost the only) truly 'feminist' film to have been made in China. Huang Shuqin herself has affirmed Dai Jinhua's view that the film expresses a woman's distinctive subjectivity but denies that she set out to make a specifically 'feminist' film. Although it shares some stylistic features in common with other 'Fourth Generation' Chinese films from the 1980s, notably in its depiction of rural life in provincial China in the early years of the People's Republic, much of the film is wholly original in its conception, especially in the way it combines naturalistic and non-naturalistic ways of story-telling and uses images drawn from childhood memories and subjective fantasy as well as live stage performance to evoke the principal character's internal mental states. Though little known in the West (or by younger Chinese audiences), Woman Demon Human is regarded by many Chinese film scholars as Huang Shuqin's masterpiece and as one of the best Chinese films of the twentieth century.

Huang Shuqin (b. 1939), the daughter of Huang Zuolin, a well-known film and stage director of the 1930s and '40s, graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1964 just before the start of the Cultural Revolution, and consequently her career in film-making did not really begin until the late 1970s. Starting as an assistant to veteran director and political survivor Xie Jin, during the 1980s and '90s Huang Shuqin directed or co-directed nearly a dozen feature films, including her debut film Contemporary People (1981), Forever Young (1983) and The Soul of the Painter (1994), as well as Woman, Demon, Human, but from 1990 onwards she increasingly turned to directing TV drama series, in which capacity she has been very successful.

Although Huang Shuqin greatly admired Pei Yanling both as a woman and as an artist, and accompanied her on tour nearly two years while researching and preparing to direct Woman, Demon, Human, the narrative of the film differs markedly in many respects from Pei Yanling's actual life-story, notably with reference to the events of her childhood. Thus whereas in the film Qiu Yun's mother runs off with her lover, abandoning her husband and daughter, in actuality when her parents split up, Pei Yanling initially lived with her mother before returning to her father nearly 2 years later. Also, in the film, there is no suggestion that Qiu Yun's father ever remarried after her mother's departure, whereas in actuality Pei Yanling's father married another Hebei opera actress while she was still a child. The film's account of Qiu Yun's difficult early years first training to become an opera performer and then struggling to establish herself professionally largely ignores the contemporary political context which seriously interfered with Pei Yanling's artistic development during the late 1950s, while the artistically barren years of the Cultural Revolution are passed over in tactful silence. However, it may be argued that the film's fictionalised account still manages to do justice to Pei Yanling's development as a woman of strong and noble character and to her extraordinary skill and achievements as a performing artist.

Woman, Demon, Human is also very much a product of the mid- to late 1980s, a period in which many younger Chinese artists and intellectuals were being influenced by and experimenting with newly accessible Western ideas, especially psychoanalysis and feminism, and forms part of the searching interrogation of traditional Chinese culture and values, as well as the political legacies of the recent past, undertaken by many writers, artists and film-makers at this time. However, the film's critique of the refusal of traditional patriarchal Chinese culture to allow women full stature as self-determining human beings remains as valid today as in the 1980s, as does its vindication of the demand of exceptional female artists to be taken seriously by an overwhelmingly male cultural establishment, themes which Huang Shuqin was to revisit some years later in The Soul of the Painter (1994).

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)


Beginning with Qiu Yun as a woman approaching mid-life, already established as an outstanding interpreter and performer of Hebei banzi, Woman, Demon, Human then relates the story of her childhood and difficult beginnings as an actress specialising in male operatic roles through a combination of flashbacks and conventional realist narrative interspersed with dream-like fantasy sequences in which her alter ego the demon-slayer Zhong Kui dances, sings and fights with evil demons on a ghostly stage. As it traces the life and professional career of Qiu Yun/Pei Yanling, Woman, Demon, Human casts a very searching, unsentimental and highly critical gaze on conventional Chinese ideas about gender identities, the 'normal' behaviours expected of men and women, the social, romantic and professional relations between them, and the far-reaching impact of moral and social conventions on both men and women, but especially women, in Chinese society - even in a Communist state supposedly committed to full gender equality, female emancipation and common standards of sexual behaviour for men and women alike. It also offers a profound insight into the processes of individual identity formation, coming to terms with one's own origins and past and with one's gender identity, and into the role of traditional stories and symbols, music, and drama, including, of course, Chinese opera, in helping us to mediate and make sense of our own personal experiences.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)


The film is framed between two cinematographically remarkable sequences:- (1) The opening titles sequence, in which we see the adult Qiu Yun seated in front of a series of variously angled dressing-room mirrors, putting on layer after layer of make-up as she prepares to go on-stage in the role of the demon-slayer Zhong Kui. But the camera-work and editing, together with the scary, dramatic musical accompaniment, only serve to heighten the audience's sense of anxiety and confusion. Is Qiu Yun merely observing herself as a series of disjointed mirror images as she transforms herself into Zhong Kui? - or is Zhong Kui there with her in the dressing room, observing Qiu Yun transforming herself into his own mirror-image? (2) The final scene, which takes place on a deserted open-air village stage far into the night, in which Zhong Kui again appears to Qiu Yun, this time without the aid of mirrors, and converses with her before finally vanishing.

Between these two extraordinary, expressionistic scenes, much of the film is shot in a relatively conventional, naturalistic way. But the narrative is punctuated by numerous flashbacks as Qiu Yun recalls her childhood and difficult beginnings as an actress, and these recollections are themselves interrupted by dream-like sequences from the opera 'Zhong Kui Marries Off His Sister', in which the supernatural action of the opera seems to parallel or offer some kind of resolution to moments of crisis in Qiu Yun's earthly life. The opera scenes are filmed and edited with extraordinary artistry and imagination, while the more naturalistic passages are illuminated by many beautifully-lit and framed images of the Chinese countryside and rural life before its transformation by economic modernisation and technological progress. The whole film abounds in symbolic images and meanings, which combine with the sensitive and psychologically sophisticated presentation of Qiu Yun's highly conflicted self-understanding to take the audience to a level of intellectual and emotional insight seldom equalled in Chinese or Western cinema before or since.

Dr. Michael CLARK (King's College London)

  • Huang Shuqin believes that "Society does not give women, especially extraordinary women, full standing as people and therefore successful women artists cannot escape loneliness, bewilderment and pain". Do you think this view is justified?
  • Huang Shuqin has stated that her aim in making Woman, Demon, Human and also The Soul of the Painter was as follows: "The image of the Chinese woman that I want to present is that of a woman who has through difficult experiences gradually come to the realisation of her own worth". Do you think she has succeeded in achieving her goal?
  • Huang Shuqin has also said that "there can be no individuality without gender", and that this is the starting-point for her portayal of Qiu Yun/Pei Yanling. In what ways do you think Woman, Demon, Human demonstrates this view? How, if at all, does this relationship differ in the case of men?