The concept of the femme fatale in Chinese literature can be traced as far back as the fourth century and 'How Han Wu-Niang Sold Her Charms At The New Bridge Market.' Wu-Niang is a prostitute but with such a sweet air of innocence that no one could possibly suspect her inclinations. Apparently in distress one day, she is helped out by Wu-Shan, a tax collector. Wu-Shan is “clever, handsome, civil in his manner and practical-minded, with no mind for frivolity,” but even so, Wu-Niang soon has him wrapped around her little finger. He sinks deeper and deeper, exhausted but enraptured by Wu-Niang's sexual demands and bankrupted by his desire to shower gifts upon her, he also begins to fall foul of the law, with small corruptions at first and then more major deceits. Eventually, he is rescued by the devotion of his long-suffering wife.
In The Hen-Pecked Judge Who Loses a Governorship, the story starts with the honorable Wei working hard on his civil service exams. His apparently devout wife busies herself with cleaning to earn some money, looking after the kids and so on. It's only when Wei qualifies that we begin to see his wife has not been so selfless after all. She manipulates Wei into giving her expensive gifts which eventually he can only afford by taking bribes. Then, she starts to cosy up close to the local gangster and jumps ship when her husband's crimes are eventually found out and he is worthless to her.
The universal concept of the femme fatale or the siren continued in Chinese literature through the Ming dynasty and eventually re-emerged in Chinese cinema in Shanghai in the 1930s.
During the film noir period in China, the leading femmes fatales were Ruan Lingyu, the tragic Zhou Xuan, the gorgeous Hu Die and Bai Guang. Guang, also a top mandopop singer, starred in films such as Spy Ring no.13 and A Strange Woman
In the 1950s, Liu Qi refused to allow herself to be compared to Marilyn Monroe in the press, as she felt herself to be a much better actress than the blonde sex siren. Liu also had a 37" bust, bigger than Marilyn's - I just thought I'd mention that in passing.
And then there was Pearl Au Kar-wai, who starred in a Chinese version of The Three Musketeers with Fanny Fan (yes, the musketeers were female). She once visited America where she attracted some attention:
By the 1960s, the magnificent Betty Loh and Josephine Siao was showing that the femme fatale could easily be translates to spy films as could be seen from this clip from The Professionals:
Skipping along to the modern age and the retro-noir look of movies such as In The Mood for Love and 2046, we can see modern Chinese actresses toying with the femme fatale image - actresses such as Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung and more recently, Fan Bingbing, as famous for her off-screen peccadilloes as for the power of her on-screen performances.
The history of the femmes fatales in Chinese cinema has now been captured in a superb book from Ecran called Les Actrices Chinoises. Don't worry that it's in French, because it's mostly a picture book anyway. You can order it from here:
And here's a teaser for you: