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Anita Mui: Not Exactly the “Madonna of Asia”

Popular Modern Culture in China

April 27, 2006
Kathleen Fitzgerald

In the 1980’s, the political and economic cultures of America and China were

growing more similar with each passing day. In fact, the two nations had been

progressing along paradoxically similar trajectories for the previous two decades. For

instance, beginning in 1967, Chinese President Mao Zedong implemented his Cultural

Revolution program, which was a campaign, intended to purify China’s artistic

productions and change them into political vehicles. It was a clash between traditional

Chinese artistic expression and modern artistic repression. Ironically, at that same exact

time, the United States was struggling through its own traditional-modern clash: the

youthful, hippie culture against the traditionally conservative parents of the day.1 Two

decades later, neither country had changed much, except for one main thing—

conservatism had become the status quo amongst the majority of American youth,

whereas it was still despised by many Chinese youth. At the time, America had already

begun its transition from the disco-crazed 1970’s into the Members-Only youth elitism.2

“Like the 1960’s, [the 1980’s] was an era of frantic change, characterized by political and

economic decentralization [for the U.S.].”3 From 1981 to 1989 (“the Reagan Years”),

this conservatism became “the dominant creed in American political and cultural life.”4

Concurrently, China was under the control of Deng Xiaoping, Zedong’s successor, and it

was undergoing a similar “de-collectivization of the countryside [and] industrial reforms

aimed at decentralizing government controls in the industrial sector.”5 For the first time,
America’s involvement in the controversial Vietnam War was splintering the nation, and America’s
youths (who were being drafted into the war) began rebelling like never before.
Members-Only was a brand of preppy outerwear that conservative youths enjoyed wearing throughout the
Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia.
Ibid. A measure of Xiaoping’s Economic Reforms and Openness (Gaige Kaifang) policies.

China was allowing foreign investment to enter certain Special Economic Zones (SEZ’s)

without government restraints. Thus, the 1980’s began on a politically conservative yet

economically liberal note for both countries.6 Spending was encouraged, but liberalism

was forbidden.

This dawning of conservative capitalism in America and China, however, was

accompanied by the publicity births of two female cultural counter-agents: Madonna in

the U.S. and Anita Mui in China. Both women pushed the envelope when it came to

lyrics, costumes, and performance, but each was also a subtle reflection of her own youth

culture—Madonna emerged as a punk agent who was trying to alter American cultural

status quos from entirely outside the conservative establishment, while Anita Mui

rebelled for democracy by keeping one foot inside the traditional Chinese culture.

Despite similarly rebellious concert styles, Mui possessed an underlying traditional

female sexual identity that Madonna did not, and this enabled her to relate better to her

culturally adjusting Chinese audience. Madonna was against everything her conservative

culture stood for at the time. Instead of preppy, she was pop punk. In place of the

traditionally pure female, she stood flaunting her ironic lack of virginity. In lieu of a

good singing voice, she possessed a knack for controversy and spectacle. She was

sexually liberal and completely outside the American social norms of the day.

Antithetically, Anita Mui confronted Chinese 1980’s culture in a manner that placed her

outside acceptability for the most conservative Chinese, but within the realm of

acceptability for the majority. Her rebellious costumes and lyrics aside, she continued to

possess an inherently feminine quality about her. She desperately longed to be a mother,

even retiring in 1991 in order to facilitate a possible marriage; however, it never panned
A popular 1980’s movie, “Wall Street,” even carried the tagline, “Greed is good.”

out, and Mui soon returned to her first love—the stage. Thus, where Madonna’s songs

and fashions completely bucked the system and were usually confrontational in nature,

Mui’s lyrics tended to possess a mournful, loving element that linked her to the Yellow

music of the early 1900’s. Madonna’s most famous song was a satirical take on her lack

of virginity; Mui’s notable song was about a woman always wanting love but never

finding it. One can see the difference in degree of scandal. But while Madonna’s radical

celebrity image was situated in an America that had just experienced two decades of

rebellious youth culture, Mui’s image had to find a niche within the tightly controlled

People’s Republic. While Mui and Madonna shared a similar modus operandi when

it came to image, it was the subtle differences in costume, lyrics, and overall message

that allowed Mui to thrive in a Chinese culture where Madonna would have failed.

Madonna’s image as the over-sexed anti-virgin who would eat a man alive before

submitting to the traditional wife role was similar to Anita Mui’s “Bad Girl” image;

however, Madonna continued to play that controversial, anti-wife role throughout her

career, while Anita Mui always relished the idea of marriage and motherhood and was

not afraid to sing about it. The lyrics to Madonna’s hit, “Express Yourself,” convey a lot

about her intended gender role: “You deserve the best in life / so if the time isn’t right

then move on / Second best is never enough / you’ll do much better baby on your own.”

As Karyn and Donald Rybacki of Northern Michigan University (Madonna’s home

state!) wrote in their essay, Cultural Approaches to the Rhetorical Analysis of Selected

Music Videos, “Madonna’s attempted embodiment of female power and the message that

attempt sends to her fans can be best understood through a Marxist interpretation of

‘Material Girl.’” In that song, Madonna “has created a female persona that dominates

rather than is dominated by the male hierarchy,” according to the Rybacki’s. The music

video consists of images in which the Material Girl herself rejects men as sexual

playthings, to be used solely for her amusement. In direct contrast to this style of female

empowerment, Anita Mui’s songs reflect her personal quest for a soul mate. In “This

Lifetime,” Anita cries, “In a life full of changes, I’m waiting for a love silently. / Having

passed so many turns, so much disappointed feelings / I don’t wanna say goodbye, I’m

still hoping for a love legend. / I won’t give it up, I’m not afraid to keep running after it a

strong windy night.” In fact, Mui was so dedicated to running after her real life love

(Peter, a Canadian student) that she gave up her first love (the stage) for a brief period in

1991. As usually happened with Mui, this love did not pan out, and she was once again

left with only the stage to dry her tears. Perhaps “Fate” (Yuen Fun), her duet with good

friend, Leslie Cheung, was based on this real life experience with long distance romance.

After all, the song was about two lovers fated to stay together, yet “separated by quite a

distance.” As one can tell, Mui longed for the traditional wife/mother role so much that

she was willing to sacrifice anything for it. And ironically, it was rumored that she might

have indeed sacrificed her own life for it, when she forwent initial cervical cancer

treatment in hopes of preserving her future fertility.7 While “Madonna deliberately [set]

out to oppose neo-conservative images of gender and sexuality from the 1980’s,” Anita

Mui focused more on her country’s need for democracy than feminism. While the United

States had experienced a widespread feminist movement throughout the 1960’s and 70’s,

thereby paving the way for Madonna’s ironic brand of sexualized feminist songs, China

had been so embroiled in the battle between democratic capitalism and controlled

Wikipedia Encyclopedia Online. “It was widely believed she forwent early treatment because she wanted
to preserve the possibility to conceive…She was 40 and single.”

communism that feminism was not Anita Mui’s primary issue.8 Thus, while Mui was

willing to openly call for democracy following the “government action” at Tiananmen

Square in 1989, and even perform at a benefit concert for democracy, she felt no pressure

to hide her desire for a traditional family. This traditional aspect helped Mui maintain her

cultural icon status in the same country where her “Bad Girl” lyrics were briefly banned.

Fans could connect and empathize with her feminine-rebel status in a way they likely

would not have if Mui had been as wholly radical as Madonna.

After reviewing the differences between Madonna’s concert style and Anita Mui’s

“Anita Classic Moment Live” farewell concert, it is obvious that the two singers have an

eerily similar style of costume and staging; however, upon deeper analysis and attention,

the subtle differences between their costume motivations reveal the ideological difference

between the two cultural icons. 13 years after Madonna donned a wedding dress for her

1985 “The Virgin Tour,” Anita Mui wore a wedding gown during the final act of her

2003 farewell concert. For Madonna, the purpose of wearing that wedding dress was to

mock the institution of marriage and the woman’s role as the virginal, blushing bride. No

stranger to sex herself, Madonna provocatively rolled across the floor while in the white

dress. In sharp contrast to this presentation of the white wedding dress is Anita Mui’s

meaning behind the veil. Despite her lifelong aspiration and longing to have her own

white wedding, Mui was forced to symbolically marry the stage during her last “Anita

Classic Moment Live” concert in 2003. She was practically on her death bed, but chose

to finally fulfill both her fans’ desire for music and her own desire for marriage. Mui’s

concert set was that of a large church, with stained glass windows looming above her. In

her final walk up the aisle, Mui completed the marriage to her work. Antithetically,
Annalee Newitz, “Madonna’s Revenge,” Issue #9, November 1993.

Madonna’s MTV stage set was that of a humorously oversized wedding cake, which was

designed to have stairs descending from either side for Madonna to use. With such a

ridiculous representation of a wedding, Madonna was effectively disregarding the entire

institution. Mui seemed to revere it. Although both women were rebellious when it

came to neo-capitalist ideas—both wore over-the-top, elaborate, sparkly costumes with

huge bustles and ornate head pieces during their concerts, displaying an affinity for

material things—Mui anchored herself to Chinese tradition by maintaining a respect for

marriage. Once again, this allowed her to rebel against China’s political and moral

cultures without ignoring traditional sensibilities completely. On the other hand,

Madonna displayed irreverence for anything slightly conservative or traditional. While

this worked in 1980’s America, it would likely have been too drastic a measure for the

already tense Chinese culture.

In the end, the fact that Madonna is regarded as America’s bastard younger

daughter who somehow made it “through the wilderness” of our culture shows how

different her effect on American culture was when compared to Anita Mui’s image as the

“beloved sister” of the Chinese nation.9 While Madonna is usually regarded as taking

care of herself first and others second, Mui is remembered for her dedicated philanthropy.

Anita’s identity as a service crusader stemmed from her involvement in many service

projects—the 1:99 SARS relief benefit concert, the Hong Kong Performing Artistes

Guild, charity proceeds from her personal photo book, and many more. Therefore, at

every stage of her life, Anita Mui was behaving in a manner that was benefiting her

Chinese cultural comrades while still rebelling against Chinese political and social status

“I’ve made it through the wilderness. / Somehow I’ve made it through. / Didn’t know how lost I was / til I
found you.” Lyrics to Madonna’s song, “Like a Virgin.”

quos. Because of her ability to keep one foot in the traditional door (so to speak), Mui

eventually became regarded as a ‘respected elder’ of the music business. This social

consciousness, combined with her obvious affinity for the traditional female roles of wife

and mother, helped lessen some of the friction that much of the Chinese conservative

culture must have felt listening to her rebellious “Bad Girl” lyrics. While Madonna

always took rebellion one step further than Anita Mui (e.g. while Mui longed for

marriage and children, Madonna simply had a child out of wedlock), the Material Girl’s

lack of any respect for conservatism would not have been tolerated within the aggravated

1980’s Chinese culture. There were so many economic and political changes occurring

in China at the time that Anita Mui’s balance of female fury and feminine longing kept

the entire nation listening to her own cultural revolution.