The People’s Pleasure: Imaging Sex and Desire in Mainland China and Hong Kong

The discourse on sex in China has for years been manipulated by state censorship and Chinese Communist Party ideology. How does this manifest itself in the cinema of China’s severed limb, Hong Kong? How are images of the sexualised Chinese body influenced by the Western gaze? This article examines the development of the erotic in China and Hong Kong by offering a close textual analysis of depictions of sex in A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013) and Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1996).

The influence of sex is inevitable, as images interpellate, reflect and mimic one another on a constant and cyclical basis in the world of film. Desire cannot be divorced from cinema, as though the filmic image is the true object in its metonymic form, always recipient to the gaze. Western theorists, including Michel Foucault, Georges Bataille and Laura Mulvey, have written profusely on the subject of sex, including desires, fetishes and perversions, heteronormative power structures and systemic sexual repression. The discourse on sex in China, however, remains sparse. Responding to ongoing changes in China’s social and cultural make-up, new perspectives need to be taken into consideration with regard to representations of sex in the Chinese context – particularly in light of China’s specific political regime and its effect on structures of looking, as well as the division of power into dominant/submissive bodies. As with all facets of life under the gaze of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), sexuality is severely politicised.

Pornography and erotic literature remain illegal in the People’s Republic of China today, and the CCP went to extreme efforts to eradicate the presence of these materials when they came to power. Of course, a discussion of the erotic in Chinese cinema is difficult when any scenes of a sexual nature are strictly censored – but this in itself provides grounds for an exploration of the development of sexuality in media alongside social changes, particularly in the mainland as opposed to its administrative territory, Hong Kong. Sexuality is crucial in this analysis because it consolidates the body politic on a myriad of interconnected levels: its scopophilic regime traps the spectator and characters in active/passive positions, its desire for corporeal freedom mimics national tensions, and its climax implies the death of the image.

Fig. 1: Ang Lee’s provocative Lust, Caution (2007) explores desire through the gaze of enemy parties. The use of light and cross-cutting emphasises the danger of visibility.

Pushing the boundaries of sexual representation in mainland China

Mainland Chinese media is controlled by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), which is a department under control of the State Council, and thus the CCP. The SARFT does not have a ratings system, but instead a strict set of regulations forbidding “content that opposes the cardinal principles of the PRC’s Constitution”, “content that propagates obscenity, gambling, violence or abets the commission of a crime” and “content that undermines social norms or Chinese civilisation”, to name only a few (Su, 2016, p.110). The system is inherently bureaucratic and emphasises authority power, meaning that many internationally well-respected films are banned in mainland China, for not following protocol – at least officially. Most mainland Chinese filmmakers recognised in the West have received censorship bans in their home country at some point in their career: the Fifth Generation’s Zhang Yimou and his lead actress Gong Li were banned from filmmaking in China for two years due to implied anti-nationalist sentiment in the award-winning To Live (1994); the Sixth Generation’s Lou Ye received a five-year filmmaking ban for showing his reactionary film Summer Palace (2006) at multiple festivals without the SARFT’s approval, and it is yet to be shown in China (fig. 2); Ang Lee’s erotic thriller Lust, Caution resulted in actress Tang Wei being banned from filmmaking in China (fig. 1). These rules have severely limited not only emerging mainland Chinese filmmakers and their creative freedom, but also Chinese film culture as a whole. Filmmakers are forced to turn to other countries for support, creating an imbalance of power.

Fig. 2: Lou Ye’s Summer Palace (2006) features full-frontal female nudity, never before seen in mainland Chinese cinema. His colour palette is however dark, and the sex scenes are devoid of excitement, mirroring post-Cultural Revolution disillusionment.

Sixth Generation director Wang Xiaoshuai has admitted that “many filmmakers in China exercise ‘self-censorship’ and avoid sensitive political themes in order to secure more funding and box office revenue,” leading him to believe that “the censorship system is no longer the primary problem in China’s film industry” (Su, 2016, p.107). Wang has himself elected to show less rather than more in some of his work (fig. 3). This severely arrests the development of Chinese film culture as it effectively silences people who have experienced life during enormously significant historical periods. This is particularly demonstrative in the case of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which has been recreated on-screen in only three productions.

Fig. 3: Sex is weaponised in Wang Xiaoshuai’s Shanghai Dreams (2002). A young couple’s heartbreak and rage against the political system culminates in the boy, Honggen, raping the girl Qinghong. The scene is obstructed from view. Instead, Wang places the red shoes (Honggen’s gift to Qinghong, a symbol of decadence and now, betrayal) on display.

Some scholars have argued that the Fifth Generation filmmakers were influenced by market demand, which was commanded by Western tastes and views of the ‘Orient’. Directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige rose to unprecedented fame with ethnographic films (fig. 4 & fig. 5) – but herein lies the danger in being obligated to rely on foreign funding. This success prompted other Chinese directors to cater to Western audiences, leading to an increased production of period tales showcasing “exotic, erotic rituals and tales of all-pervasive patriarchal oppression, insatiable female desire, sexual seduction, illicit or incestuous affairs…” (Zhang, 2002, p.229). Newer Chinese films, or Sixth Generation films, have by no means garnered the same level of international recognition or praise as those that showcased exotic spectacles of Chinese culture.

Fig. 4: Raise the Red Lantern (Zhang Yimou, 1991) follows the pleasures and sorrows of the fourth wife to join a feudal household in 1920s China.
Fig. 5: Farewell, My Concubine (Chen Kaige, 1993) blurs the boundaries between performance and reality – the exotic imagery of the Peking Opera takes precedence over the characters’ emotions. The film was nevertheless banned upon release, though not for long.

MeToo in the mainland: Weaponising sex in A Touch of Sin

The English title of the film alludes to the popular martial arts drama, A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971), pointedly drawing a comparison between newer and older depictions of Chinese life and emblematising how violence has evolved in the post-socialist state; but the Chinese title, ‘天注定’, means literally ‘heavenly fate’. Jia Zhangke is thus implying that the political and economic situation in China has made violence inevitable.

The film follows four characters from disparate Chinese provinces, one of whom is a spa receptionist who is harassed by clients at her workplace. This was inspired by a real incident, in which two men attempted to rape Deng Yujiao at her place of work, leading her to fatally stab one of the men, who also happened to be a Communist Party official. She was initially arrested for murder and accused of being mentally deranged, but upon a national response of support, she was released on bail. Chinese feminist groups formed their own online forums under the watchful eye of the State: the hashtag #MeToo was quickly banned, leading to the use of a Chinese hashtag #米兔 or mitu as a way of bypassing censorship. This makes Jia’s inclusion of the scene a prominent step forward in demanding necessary changes to legislature regarding sexual violence against Chinese women.

Fig. 6: The young spa employee looks back in defiance as the male client repeatedly hits and threatens her.

In the film, the young woman, Xiao Yu, is seen working in a less than reputable establishment, surrounded by scantily clad younger women. In the background of the spa are images reminiscent of Tang dynasty art, hinting towards the erotic tradition as well as the hidden services offered at the ‘spa’. Jia does not include any explicit sexual scenes, only glimpses into modern-day prostitution – this acts as both a reflection of the censorship laws as well as the institutionalised repudiation of ‘spas’ that offer special services to wealthy clients. In the scene of the attack, Jia tightly frames Xiao Yu’s face, which succeeds in emphasising two things: first, the man is outside of the frame, anonymous, attacking from above, consolidating his power over her and making this man a blank template for any kind of authority exercising violence; second, we are given an intimate look into her emotional response and her defiance, with her head whipping back to glare at him with every strike (fig.6). Her anger represents not only the anger of the working class but crucially the anger of victims of sexual violence. This is further cemented by the man’s insults as he slaps her with a wad of cash: “I have money, it’s not good enough? I’ll smother you in money. You’re not a prostitute? Who is then?” This points to systemic corruption after China’s entrance into the global capitalist regime, returning women to positions of subordination and rendering sex a weapon with which to control them.

The following story is set in a hotel that similarly offers “special” services to wealthy patrons. In one scene, a group of young women, prostitutes working for the hotel, march into the foyer to perform for businessmen. The women, dressed in sexualised miniature versions of communist Mao suits, parade in synchronised motion. This image and its implications are multi-layered: we are invited to draw a comparison between the performativity of gender and government ideology; we are given insight into a hidden culture of debauchery that denies official discourse; and we are, as always, obligated to consider positions of spectatorship. One man even comically peers at the women through binoculars despite the fact that he is standing less than a metre from them (fig. 7).

Fig. 7: The sexualised female body as political performativity in A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2016).

The performance implies a form of female liberation by hearkening back to the women’s movement under Mao, but it clearly demonstrates that this is nothing more than a façade. The scene is surveilled by the male gaze: the women are fashioned as sexual objects on display for the viewing pleasure of the male bidders, while we, the audience, are masculinised through our looking position, as bearers of the gaze (Mulvey, 1997, p.28). I would posit that this relationship is problematised by the fact that these images are not sanctioned by the Chinese government, the final and omnipotent male gaze, so to speak. Jia is showing us a reality that is censored by a patriarchal system that refutes the sexualisation and desires of its people. In another scene, the women are again auctioned off to the men, only this time wearing but undergarments accompanied by Qing dynasty hairstyles and jewellery. The absurd juxtaposition of the overtly sexualised women and their costumes, reminiscent of strict communist and imperial regimes, only adds to the overall disjunctive image of Chinese sexuality as literally uniformed by official, state-sanctioned opinions and ideology. We are shown the spaces unobserved in the “panoptic” model of the Party state. Perhaps more accurate, these spaces remain under observation but criminal activities are permitted given the status of the criminals. State censorship has not repressed sexuality or desire in itself, it has only made it possible for these to be expressed in corrupt ways that sustain power imbalances within society.

Destroyed pleasure in Fallen Angels: The erotics of absence

Hong Kong has had a decidedly different relationship to sexuality on-screen, evidenced by a lengthy series of softcore pornographic films released in the 70s through to the 90s. The eroticism in modern Hong Kongese cinema is therefore imbued with an alternate desire to that of mainland China. The confusion between sex and desire codifies Hong Kong’s identity crisis, to the point where competing powers – be they male/female, Party/People, mainland/Hong Kong – inevitably destroy one another. Wong Kar-wai is a particularly interesting director to examine in the context of a politics of erotics due to his transnational condition. Wong was born in mainland China to ethnically Chinese parents before moving to Hong Kong at the age of five. The ambiguity of his identity is reflected in his often nostalgic and restless films. Fallen Angels (1995) is a gangster film revolving around an assassin, the assassin’s agent, a mute, and a lone woman desperate for love. The Chinese 堕落 has been translated as “fallen” but also holds connotations of rottenness, degeneration, and decadence.

Fig. 8: Wong Chi-Ming and Blondie embrace under stylised neon lights, seen through a distorted camera lens in Fallen Angels (Wong Kar-wai, 1995).

The assassin, Wong Chi-ming, meets Blondie in an empty McDonald’s restaurant at night. The setting is not insignificant, as it symbolises the introduction of Western capitalist culture into Hong Kong. These two lonely characters meeting here suggests the association of spontaneous passion with a break from China’s past, while its bleak and sterile image confirms the futility of this desire. Lisa Rofel explains that “the dialectical image of the fast-food restaurant contains within its mesmerising cosmopolitan consumption the signs of hope that the pleasures and self-modifications it promises will truly liberate China from its place in history” (2007, p.121). This is further confirmed by the fact that Blondie has dyed her hair blonde, primarily in an effort to express individuality but in doing so she also emulates Western appearances. Blondie’s longing to be loved is consolidated in her hopeful statement, “Maybe you’ll like me better tomorrow”. The irony remains that Wong Chi-ming could not recall that he had had a relationship with her prior to this encounter. Wong does not show them engaging in intercourse, but he also implies that it does not matter either way – the encounter is forgotten, or never happened (fig.8). Ackbar Abbas’ concept of the déja disparu figures heavily in this film, as characters are in perpetual want of something that does not seem to exist, “a culture of disappearance” (1997, p.7). This anxiety reflects that of Hong Kong, trapped between Britain and China for almost 16 decades and relentlessly desiring of independence.

At the other end of the film is Michelle Reis as Wong Chi-ming’s agent, mostly dressed in fetishwear: reflective materials, skin-tight latex, fishnet stockings. She is deeply in love with the assassin, but they never cross paths in the film. She is seen drifting about the city under highly stylised neon lights. In one scene, the camera follows her body tightly with close-ups as she caresses a jukebox. The music, coupled with the use of a slow-motion transition, guides the spectator to the next scene, in which she masturbates on the bed of the assassin, the subject of her desire, whom she can only ever be with by proxy. Slow motion and step-printing are by now beloved characteristics of Wong’s auteurism, emblematising the sensation of time passing us by. In the brief transition shot from the bar to the assassin’s bedroom, the image is slowed down but simultaneously races off the screen, so that we only briefly catch a glimpse of the assassin’s agent through a window before the masturbation scene (fig. 9).

Fig. 9: Our position as voyeur is confirmed as time escapes us.

The masturbation scene itself is as erotic as it is absurd, shot from beneath the agent’s feet. The image is distorted by a wide-angle lens, making the scene almost vertiginous. The shot directly following her orgasm is through the reflection of a mirror, consolidating the death of the image and the vitality of the simulacrum: images die as they are destined to be reproduced in an infinite cycle, while the orgasm, la petite mort, promises repeated death. The characters imitate each other’s motions but always at different times. This idea resonates in the doubling of images, repeated the second time she masturbates on his bed, only always in the absence of the looker, the assassin (fig. 10). If we think of the orgasm as the imaged death, we see her die twice in the film, each time straying farther from intimacy and reality. The orgasm of the image, so to speak, is destined to occur in death. This moreover reflects a growing loneliness in the glocal space of Hong Kong (as well as our increasingly globalised world), and pointedly the tendency to seek dissociation through sex. As simulacra become omnipresent in the post-modern world, we are obliged to reflect over the emergence of a concurrent new gaze. In the Baudrillardian sense, our postmodern existence is filled with signs and symbols that have relegated the original to lesser than real – but the dissolution of the private space here deeply intensifies the effects of hyperreality onscreen.

Fig. 10: The assassin’s agent climaxes in absence of a partner.

A common marker of Wong’s filmography is the repetition and reflection of characters, temporalities and spaces – so that each new film seems connected to a previous one. If we compare this film to one of Wong’s more recent, 2046 (2004), similar cultural anxieties are evident. Most suggestive is of course the title of the film, 2046, which alludes to the 1997 handover deal that imagined Hong Kong’s freedom from China fifty years on. In this film, Wong’s acteur fétiche Tony Leung travels to the future, meets several women and has a string of passionate but unfulfilling affairs. It is not insignificant that the women he is involved with are, in real life, mainland Chinese actresses (Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi). If Tony Leung symbolises Hong Kong, he flirts with the mainland, but a longstanding relationship is impossible. Sex is further essentialised as a good to be exchanged when Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung begin paying one another, a transaction between people and between two bodies, the state and its severed limb (fig. 11).

Fig. 11: Tony Leung travels across timelines collecting partners but is unable to find love in 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2006).

National tensions and the déja disparu continue to prevail in Wong’s filmography. The suggestion here seems to be that our post-modern society demands an intimate space that matches the theme of disconnect that globalisation has purveyed. The orgasm is always already had and the image always already dead, which triggers the cyclical repetition of comings and goings, people and things. It is the impossibility of union that constitutes the film’s eroticism. The death of the image happens in anticipation of its death – the characters are never allowed to unite on screen; thus, their stories are never allowed to come to fruition, just as Hong Kong remains in a state of political limbo, never quite separate from the mainland nor quite a part of it. Wong’s use of slow motion and saturated colour palettes together with black-and-white grainy images conveys the frenzy of Hong Kong’s younger generation, as though the images become less real and the characters less tangible as the film goes on.

Conclusion: Combatting the gaze of the Party

Violent ideological shifts dating from the Cultural Revolution, to the Tiananmen riots, to China’s entrance into global capitalism, have inevitably confused the Chinese identity. As China’s territories began to fragment, so did the idea of one China in harmony. As the younger generation became privy to Western liberal ideologies, the Party cracked down with more force. The mainland Chinese films discussed here clearly reflect this corporeal disconnect, where sex is drained of eroticism, a weapon used to confirm its inescapability. While Hong Kong has had more freedom to show explicit imagery, sex on-screen remains a fruitless venture in the search for human connection. Wong Kar-wai uses the erotic as a method of emphasising loneliness, where the freedom to express has not been gifted with the freedom to know how to.

Eastern culture on Western screens has traditionally been fetishised and feminised as spectacle, with the West positioned as male/active and the East as female/passive. Famous Chinese films of the 60s involved the spectacle of the Chinese body in grand displays of kung fu prowess, what Mulvey might refer to as “erotic over-investment”. New Chinese cinema not only negotiates male/female structures of looking but also the presupposed and masculinised gaze of the West. We are met with two conflicting images of Chinese sexuality: one is the orientalised, sexually promiscuous, and the other is the repressed and loyal to government stipulation. Both are discourses created by larger entities as opposed to the people themselves. The question now is whether the next generation of Chinese filmmakers will be able to codify sexuality in its own regard as opposed to depicting it as inextricable from political surveillance and denial. This question can be extended to Hong Kongese filmmakers – will they continue to sign the erotic through the mirroring of their own crisis of displacement? Mainland China’s ongoing attempt to reunify its estranged territories under one omnipotent government demonstrates the desire for discipline and control through the dissolution of the private sphere. The films deny their characters of true intimacy, but is fulfilment at all possible, when the severed Chinese identity and its diasporic variations have blurred the political-erotic condition?

* * *



  • Fallen Angels. Wong Kar-wai, Kino International, 1995.
  • Farewell, My Concubine. Chen Kaige, 1993.
  • Lust, Caution. Ang Lee, River Road Entertainment, 2007.
  • Raise the Red Lantern. Zhang Yimou, 1991.
  • Shanghai Dreams. Wang Xiaoshuai, Stellar Megamedia, 2006.
  • Summer Palace. Lou Ye, Laurel Films, 2006.
  • A Touch of Sin. Jia Zhangke, Xstream Pictures, 2013.
  • A Touch of Zen. King Hu, Golden Harvest Company, 1971.
  • 2046. Wong Kar-wai, Jet Tone Productions, 2004.


  • Abbas, Ackbar (1997). Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mulvey, Laura (1997). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. The Sexual Subject: A Screen Reader in Sexuality. Routledge.
  • Rofel, Lisa (2007). Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture. Duke University Press.
  • Su, Wendy (2016). China’s Encounter with Global Hollywood: Cultural Policy and the Film Industry, 1994-2013. University Press of Kentucky.
  • Zhang, Yingjin (2002). Screening China: Critical Interventions, Cinematic Reconfigurations, And the Transnational Imaginary in Contemporary Chinese Cinema. University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies.