Creation Beyond Censorship: Consciousness of Female Identity through LiYu


For this final project, I want to examine a female Chinese director and screenwriter Li Yu. From my point of view, Li Yu is a special director who challenges sensitive issues in China such as sexuality and gender identity. Her works present social reflections from women’s point of view, which are distinguishable from works of any generations of directors. I would like to focus on several films including Buddha Mountain, Fish and Elephant, Lost in Beijing. Lost in Beijing can be accessed on YouTube. Buddha Mountain can be accessed online as well. In those films, she expresses her understanding of feminism that adapts western context but also based on Chinese culture. I expect to research on how she portrays different female images in society and what kind of social issues she try to bring up in different time period.

Li Yu

The great thing about a controversial film is that noise follows it everywhere. In China, Li Yu is one of the most controversial director who insists on revealing realistic side of society and portraying different female characters. From the creation of the documentary to the creation of films, Li Yu always adheres to her own unique style and regards the woman’s survival as the foremost. Starting from the woman’s perspective, her works based on the female, present women living through the different classes and different status in the society to highlight the attention on woman’s consciousness and consideration. On the expression of feminine consciousness, she focused on the woman’s social status and relationships under patriarchal society. LiYu is also the one who combines western feminist theories with China’s traditional culture, creating a brand of Chinese characteristic and feminism films.

People who have watched Li Yu’s films will know there is never a happy family. However, there is always a tragic woman, fighting for life. Dam Street depicts a pregnant high school girl facing mother passes away. Lost in Beijing tells a story about a ordinary female worker suffering from her boss’s sexual assaults. Buddha Mountain portrays a mid-age woman carrying sadness of losing son; a depraved youth living with her sottish father.

Fish and Elephant

Li Yu take the audience walk through a timeline witnessing social status of women changing in a male-dominated  society. Women in Li Yu’s film are appealing and strong to support and understand each other when confronting difficulties. Although under the pressure of formidable ideology, Li Yu bravely calls for the self-awareness and independence of women. Censorship may constrain her work to the public, however, her attitude should be appreciate and is a great advancement for Chinese film.

Dam Street


Dam street tells the story of Xiaoyun, a sixteen years old girl, whose pregnancy is disclosed and shocks both her family and community. Her boyfriend is expelled by high school and escapes to another city, leaving Xiaoyun alone to be humiliated by others. Ten years later, Xiaoyun is able to make a meager living and strikes up a friendship with a ten-year old boy, XiaoYang who becomes her closet confidante and defender in the community that scorns her. Unlike Wong Kar Wai, Li Yu adds in sexuality more as a way of insults and harassment, showing women as a venerable group in general. Ironically, throughout the whole film, no one makes any judgments about Xiaoyun’s boyfriend who leaves Xiaoyun and his child, in contrast, the whole community are humiliating Xiaoyun and look upon her as filth and dirt. Xiaoyun is a singer of local opera troupe that sings traditional Sichuan opera. However, she suffers a daily dilemma as audience require her to sing pop songs instead of opera. A metaphor hiding in the setting of these female characters is that most of them are symbols of traditional culture which appears inferior in contemporary China where modernity is all important.

DAM STREET, (aka HONG YAN), Liu Yi, 2005. ©Laurel Films

DAM STREET, (aka HONG YAN), Liu Yi, 2005. ©Laurel Films


Marx says, “Human is the sum of all social relations”. Whether there is a marriage relationship between females and males, females are males’ companions and objects of desire. However females could only suppress desire when observing rules and regulations of patriarchal society. As a male’s companion, Xiao Yun doesn’t have protection from her companion, she just stays at county where she has been living for several years with stigma. Although there is injustice in the heart, Xiao Yun can only suffer in silence. In such an enclosed county, women should be well-behaved. Those women who don’t behave well should be punished, especially those women with sexual passion and restlessness in their minds.

Lost in Beijing


Lost in Beijing sets the story with an ordinary couple from other regions outside Beijing move to Beijing chasing after better life. This is actually refers to a common phenomena in China called “Bei Piao”. A large amount of people will go to Beijing seeking for jobs, carrying the dream of becoming rich. Indeed, most of them will live a poor life in Beijing with rental house and menial jobs. Like in the film, Liu Pingguo works as a foot masseuse and her husband works as a window washer. This time, Liu’s boss rapes her when she is drunk. Ironically, this action is also witnessed by An Kun, Liu’s husband. Later, Liu is found pregnant. Liu and An trade this child with Liu’s boss for 100,000 RMB.


In the film Lost in Beijing, women don’t have right to express their opinions. Due to inability to conceive, Huang Mei can only turn a blind eye to her husband’s playing around. With female thinking which has been long controlled by male consciousness, women cannot recognize themselves correctly and they don’t have the courage to strive for discourse right in male discourse system. Ding Bo and Fei Zao have the same shortcoming of avoiding problems when facing them. Nan Feng, a female, makes coward Ding Bo and Fei Zao still-lostinbeijingfeel a sense of security. Fei Zao hates being called as fatty and is afraid of  being bullied by others and being scorned because of his obesity. Ding Bo resents his father because his father didn’t accompany his mother when his mother passed away, and he makes a scene at his father’s remarriage wedding, but he doesn’t dare to confront his true feelings. Ding Bo and Fei Zao bear the pressure from sociey and family, or from their inner fear for society and loneliness. However, Nan Feng is just the woman who has strong inner world that males need seriously. On this point, Li Yu combines strong aspects of females with weakness of males, and highlights significance of female survival.

Buddha Mountain


Buddha Mountain follows three teenagers, Nan Feng, Ding Bo and Fei Zao. They all fail the Chinese College Entrance Examination and escape from their own families. Cut Yueqin, a middle age desperate housewife who lost her son in a car accident rents her house to them. In the progress of comforting and conflicts, these four characters develop a deep, abiding friendship unexpectedly.


Women in Li Yu’s films are not only the victims of sexual insults, but also warriors rebelling with the weapon of sexual insult. Such kind of female character is brand new in Chinese film history. For instance, in Buddha Mountain, when the girl Nan Feng finds her pure male friend Ding Bo who never had a love relationship before and gets sexual harassment from a female gang member, Nan Feng does not choose a traditional way to revenge, such as fighting or smack her head with a beer bottle. Instead, she runs over and kisses the girl forcefully. We can see the image of female victims in films are gradually becoming vague and minor. Moreover, standing out of female might metaphor the director’s hope of female’s independence and arousal.    From Wong Kar Wai’s “Days of Being Wild’o Jia Zhangke’s “Unknown Pleasures” and beyond, more than 20 years of aimless Asian youth running amok has lapsed into cinematic cliche. But “Buddha Mountain” finds a narrative drive that still keeps faith with the youthful alienation it’s exploring.


There is a common feature of Li Yu’s films: leaving of protagonists. Xiao Yun leaves the county where she has been living for several years; Liu Pingguo leaves a prosperous place which doesn’t belong to her; Nan feng, Ding Bo and Fei Zao take the train to an unknown future; Chang Yueqin leaves this world by jumping off the cliff. All these leaving show the profound consideration and  exploration of females after miserable survival condition. Li Yu continuously strives on the road of feminist films and she also makes a great achievement. Her contribution to publicizing feminist spirits deserves full acknowledgment.