The Voice as A Transcending Power: The Female Singer, Body, and Political Discourse in 1930s Shanghai

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After the introduction of the synchronized sound technology, China entered the sound-film era in the 1930s. This period features many female singers’ cross-over performances in films. This paper mainly focuses on Two Stars in the Milky Way (银汉 双星 1931) and Street Angel (马路天使 1937) to analyze how the female voice engaged with film images, the foreign Hollywood mode, and the indigenous political discourse. First, sound and visual technologies facilitate a Hollywood-style synchronization rule, which unites the female voice with the body and reduces the songstress to an object of male gazing and listening. However, this masculine rule of embodying voice is not immutably successful. Revisiting the singing skills and the various song-image-narration relations in films, the paper argues: 1) the narrative and camerawork occasionally detach the voice from the body, indicating a more fluctuating body-voice relationship; and 2) the technological mediation provides the female voice with more provocative and interpretative possibilities, turning the voice to an open site that accommodates different subjectivities and transcends the masculine aural and visual containment. In this way, the female singer finally gains self-reflexive consciousness.

Additionally, such multipotential qualities of the female voice moved beyond film and formed an ambiguous relationship with the official discourse: On one hand, as an intimate friend of the official power, the female voice was constructed as the vehicle of national salvation and the ideal of New Woman. One the other hand, because of some songs’ foreign origin and emotive timbre, the voice was also regarded by domestic antiimperialism and nationalism as decadent noise that should be censored and banned. However, again, the voice’s multipotentiality obscured its nature and ultimately escaped the censorship, dismantling the containment of the official knowledge framework.

In sum, combining visual studies, sound studies, musicology, psychoanalysis, gender and sexuality, nationalism, and anti-imperialism, this paper analyzes how the female voice in 1930s Shanghai films becomes an inclusive site containing traces of simultaneous intimacy and dichotomy with, obedience and resistance to patriarchal containment in film and the masculine political discourse off screen.






Li, Ziyang (2020). The Voice as A Transcending Power: The Female Singer, Body, and Political Discourse in 1930s Shanghai. Master's thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from


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