Chris Lee 李宇春 Influencing China’s Fashion Culture and Blurring Gender Norms

By: Lena Benjakul

Introduction: Chris Lee 李宇春

Chris Lee (Li Yuchun 李宇春) was born in Mainland China in Chengdu, Sichuan province. She rose to fame by winning the Chinese singing competition Super Girl in 2005. Since then, she has become one of the most famous and influential Chinese pop stars and has been featured in films and major campaigns. She has also won five awards starting with her first win in 2008. For the purposes of this blog, I will be looking at two of her performances. The first performance being her 2015 CCTV Chinese New Year Gala performance, and the second being her 2018 JSTV New Year’s Eve concert performance. Both performances have a cultural element by being closely tied to elements of cultural celebration, and this provides an interesting lens into how to analyze the performances. Chris Lee has also spread her influence through fashion, and I aim to investigate how the androgynous singer is able to create gender fluidity through fashion and music. I argue that it is because of her platform as a successful pop star, she is able to transform traditional views on gender norms in fashion through her music, and influence and challenge pre-existing notions of femininity in China. 

Chris Lee during her time on the Chinese Singing Show Super Girl

Chris Lee’s VN Yumi Channel. “2005超级女声五强特辑:李宇春 (Super Girl 2005 – Chris Lee Li Yu Chun).” YouTube, 15 Jun. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCGiK9JFhKU&feature=youtu.be.

Traditional Views on Gender in China

In order to understand how Chris Lee has impacted notions of gender in China, one needs to understand the original construction of gender norms in Chinese history. We have studied cases of traditional gender norms in China when analyzing the case study of Hedda (Aspiration Sky High), and even Dynamic Yunnan. These performances aimed at challenging the pre-existing notions of what a woman’s role “should” be. Looking at Hedda, the traditional belief was that a woman was relegated to the home, and was portrayed as ultra feminine and lacking qualities of literacy and intelligence to make her independent and socially mobile in society. To some extent Dynamic Yunnan also touched on the role of women, by looking at their crucial role in the villages of ethnic minority groups. Dramatic dance numbers and a chant that Yang Liping sang emphasized the significance of the role women.  Overall, the message kept in line with traditional views of women being feminized and men being stereotypically masculine. The traditional views of gender in China had a clear line between what was deemed feminine and masculine, with no category of a fluid gender.

Zhong Xing(中性) Blurring Gender Lines: Chris Lee

Chris Lee for her Diesel Campaign

Chris Lee Diesel campaign. Digital image. Models. https://models.com/work/diesel-diesel-for-chris-lee—go-with-the-flaw.

Chris Lee has a signature look of her androgynous sense of style and pixie cut. She is what scholars have categorized as an instrumental player in the zhongxing movement (中性). According to Li, “zhongxing” refers to neutral sex/or gender and this designation is due to their non-normative gender and ambiguous sexual representation. Furthermore Li discusses the impact of the zhongxing movement in Chinese society when she states, “Zhongxing sensibility provides a lens not only to understand situated queerness, but also to the transforming contours of gender and sexuality in East Asian Chinese societies. The ambivalence and the undertone of negation allow space for negotiating marginality, while it’s growing social visibility simultaneously leads to backlash and potential challenge to normativity.” (Li, 89) Li talks about how the zhongxing movement has had an impact in the changing views of gender in China. The importance of celebrities and their activeness in these issues is what has helped to create and encourage discussion surrounding these highly debated controversial topics in Chinese society. 

Chris Lee promotes her unique sense of style throughout the fashion statements she makes in her performances as well as her appearances in high profile events.  Contrary to previous notions of gender, through fashion and music Chris Lee is able to make constructions of gender more fluid. Her signature look is what has forged a path into creating a more socially and culturally liberal China.  Although she maintains a sense of fashion forward prestige, her image of promoting a “tomboy image” goes back to her origins. This is supported when Fung states, “In the televised Super Girl competitions, she selected and performed songs originally written for male singers. As a result Chris Li [Lee] became a symbol for challenging gender norms and cultural values of femininity. “(Fung, 84) This clearly shows how Chris Lee uses music and her performance style to actively challenge and reshape gender norms in China. Moreover, public engagement and reactions to her active presence in media has further catalyzed shifts in the social and cultural aspects of Chinese society. This is further supported when Fung states, “The ensuing public fascination with her also spearheaded a nationwide online discussion about her sexuality. Homosexuality has never been legal in China; a female artist’s departure from the gendered norm was therefore a bold new step…homosexuality is still not widely tolerated in many domains of Chinese life today. Given these constraints, it is perhaps surprising that Chris Li’s challenge to the social pressures facing young women, and her refusal to conform to passive cultural stereotypes have earned her so much positive publicity.” (Fung, 84-85)  Chris Lee has been able to enact change through her commitment to being authentic and representing herself based on her motto of rebelling against traditional ideals of beauty and fashion. Such influence has led to collaborations with fashion brands like Diesel, where Lee was able to work on a collection with the European fashion brand. Influencing change through fashion is deemed effective, as many fans admire Lee’s signature look and emulate her style, which promotes a culture of androgynous dressing. 

Chris Lee’s 2015 New Year Gala Performance: Where Modernity Meets Tradition

Chris Lee performing at the 2015 CCTV Chinese New Year Gala

CCTV中文国际. “2015央视春晚非物质文化遗产创意节目《锦绣》 表演者:李宇春.” YouTube, 18 Feb. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYVPq1t85E4&feature=youtu.be.

Chris Lee’s CCTV New Year’s Gala performance has so many elements to unpack. The construction of her performance is one of the most important aspects to address. The intersection of tradition and contemporary elements of Chinese culture are perfectly combined by the display of Chinese traditional women’s clothing as well as the high tech elements of using holographs and other highly advanced technological components. The grandeur of this single performance relates to the first case study of the Beijing Olympics. In both Chris Lee’s performance and the Beijing Olympics, there is a careful balance of old and new, combining the most precious elements of Chinese culture, with leading-edge technology cementing China’s strength as a world leader. 

Looking at Chris Lee’s performance itself, one of the first things to notice is that she is dressed in a light pink suit contrary to the images of women in traditional Chinese clothing before her appearance on stage. I’ve interpreted this bold choice in two ways. The first is centered on Chris Lee’s vision and image as an artist, to constantly be challenging the traditional. The second interpretation is that by publicly promoting a sense of style that pushes traditional boundaries, this is a movement similar to the zhongxing movement mentioned earlier. This fashion statement neutralizes notions of expectations of femininity and allows viewers, especially young viewers; to see a different type of representation of what traditionally has been ultra feminized and sometimes exocitzed. Another element of the performance that balances notions of femininity is her combination of delicate and upbeat movement. At different points of her performance she demonstrates soft and delicate movement, and at other points she proceeds with fast and coarse dance moves. This is another aspect of the performance that shows the gradient of femininity.  

Another perspective on Lee’s notions of femininity is offered when Fung states, “Chris Li does not ignore or erase the traditional desires and roles of the female in Chinese society; she preserves and inherits them but invokes them in unexpected musical forms, thus subverting the listeners expectations…As such, Li and her production team not only craft a new ‘unconventional conventional’ music, but create an image to match this persona embodying the self-rule, autonomy and determinacy that fans have projected onto her.” (Fung, 85) A more modified look on Lee’s adaptation of femininity is seen in Fung’s argument, where he claims that she does not abandon tradition, but presents the ideals of femininity in unconventional ways. Based on this performance, I would definitely say that Chris Lee does not completely erase elements of traditional views of femininity in Chinese history as evidenced by the holographic women dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. This clothing evokes a more romanticized idea of women especially when it is juxtaposed against the pantsuit that Lee wears while performing. Overall, I would still argue a stronger stance on Lee’s efforts to rebel against tradition compared to Fung’s opinion. Lee’s performance may have elements that balance old and new notions of gender and Chinese tradition, but her actions and the part she plays in her performances tend to promote a more fluid radical idea of gender.

A Note About CCTV New Year’s Gala Performances

Chinese New Year, also known as chunjie (春节) is one of the biggest Chinese celebrations in the world and one of the biggest yearly celebrations in China. It is the one time a year that family reunification is highly encouraged. During this family reunion, it is a tradition for many families to gather for a meal and tune into the annual CCTV Chinese New Year Gala (also known as chunwan 春晚). As I mentioned before, there are many similarities in the CCTV New Year’s Gala and the Beijing Olympics. One of the main similarities is the fact that both are huge spectacles that reinforce the strength and tradition of China and Chinese culture, while also incorporating modern technology. Both can be seen as a bridge of old and new fused by innovation and tradition. 

Influencing Fashion and Changing Gender Norms

李宇春 Givenchy Autumn/Winter 2015 Campaign by Riccardo Tisci

Chris Lee Givenchy campaign. Digital image. The Fashion Law. 1 Dec 2015, https://www.thefashionlaw.com/home/breaking-the-chinese-internet-li-yuchun-and-givenchy.

As one of the leading celebrities in China, Chris Lee has gained attention in the commercial landscape. What is interesting is the involvement of strategic business practices in the discussion of blurring ideas of gender.  Beauty and fashion brands have approached her in becoming apart of campaigns, specifically to leverage her androgynous sense of style. This leveraging of Chris Lee’s gender fluid sense of style has been used by brands to increase sales and specifically target certain demographics. From a business perspective, this would suggest that businesses acknowledge the changing views of gender and use celebrities like Chris Lee to implement a sense of consumer neutrality to appeal to a wider demographic. Chris Lee has had successful campaigns with Givenchy, L’Oreal, and Coca-Cola as well as her own clothing collaboration with Diesel. 

李宇春 L’OREAL campaign

Chris Lee L’Oreal campaign. Digital image. Jing Daily. 30 Apr 2013, https://jingdaily.com/savvy-social-networking-pays-off-for-loreal-china/.

A Transnational Reach: Chris Lee at the 2018 JSTV New Year’s Concert

Chris Lee performing at the JSTV 2018 New Year’s Eve Concert

Lee, Chris. “Chris Lee at JSTV 2018 NYE concert.” YouTube, 3 Jan. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFWJZj1u9hQ&feature=youtu.be.

In Chris Lee’s 2018 JSTV (Jiangsu Satellite Television) New Year’s Eve Concert, her performance is stylistically different from that of her CCTV Gala performance. I would connect the style of her JSTV performance to that of a Jay Chou concert. Similarly to Jay Chou, Chris Lee demonstrates the wide variety of performances she is capable of, and a sense of musical flexibility. Like Jay Chou, Chris Lee’s success also can be attributed to her politically neutral alignment. She is also in an industry that protects her from being politically radical, leaving subtle rebellion in her stage presence and fashion choices. This connection can be supported when Fung states, “Chris Li delineates a clear boundary between politics and non-politics…Music is free to develop as long as it does not transgress the boundaries of the state’s power.” (Fung, 88) Much of Chris Lee’s power and influence as an artist rests on her political neutrality that allows her to continue to have visibility in the media. Another connection that can be seen between Jay Chou and Chris Lee is that they promote a voice for their audience into social issues through their performances and their music. In Chris Lee’s case, she specifically targets traditional gender norms in China. Fung highlights this when he states, “Chris Li gives the new generation a modern persona that they have already articulated and adopted into their own lives: it is an individuality that is unfettered by social norms or the jurisdiction of the Communist Youth Party.” (Fung, 88) Chris Lee offers an alternative identity for her fans, and allows them to seek a sense of independence through her music and message as an artist. 

 In this concert there is more of a technology and digital presence as she is seen DJing. Her performance style is also more modernized as technology is used to elevate her stage presence. She is also seen dressed in a slightly more feminine style. Rather than her usual pantsuit, she is wearing what I would consider a blazer dress. 

What is interesting about JSTV compared to the CCTV performance is CCTV is the national broadcast of China whereas JSTV is a more local satellite station. Differences in performances may suggest that for a larger audience Chris Lee may want to make a “bolder statement” for example, wearing the pant suit which promotes a more gender ambiguous image, versus a slightly more feminine look of a blazer dress. I would also argue that both performances demonstrate the role of modern technology, but each performance has a different amount of cultural elements. 

Reverse Casualty

While, my main argument was that Chris Lee’s role as an icon has led to her widespread influence into fashion and music, other scholars say it is the other way around. This is supported when Cui states, “The majority of discussants said that Li Yuchun [Chris Lee] was definitely a star. Their reasons mainly included her popularity and social influence on fashion.” (Cui, 517) This is an interesting conclusion to draw, since I was arguing the statement from the other direction. It is very possible that her influence works in both directions, and that her fashion visibility also fuels her stardom and influence in the music industry. 

Conclusion

Overall, the power and influence of celebrities have the ability to transform society. The impact that Chris Lee has had on Chinese culture can be clearly seen in fashion and expanding the expectations of women. More specifically, redefining what it means to be a woman and experimenting with different levels of masculinity to achieve more ambiguous levels of identity that did not exist before or identities that weren’t socially recognized. Chris Lee has raised awareness for this relatively new community in the social sphere of China, and has brought gender neutrality through fashion to mainstream Chinese culture. 





Bibliography/Sources

Chris Lee T magazine cover. Digital image. Twitter. 10 Oct 2018, https://twitter.com/liyuchun_studio/status/1049950013642530816.

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