Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love
Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love
Abstract and Keywords
A discussion of Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love
Maggie Cheung’s portrayal of Su Lizhen in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) serves as a defining moment in the actress’s career. A culmination of her considerable achievements in world cinema, it stands as her penultimate major screen performance, with her career essentially ending in 2004, just as she became the first Asian actress to win top honors at Cannes for her role as a drug-addicted mother and aspiring singer in Clean, directed by her ex-husband Olivier Assayas. Although she began acting in kung-fu comedies starring Jackie Chan (Police Story and Project A series, 1985–92) after winning a local beauty contest, Cheung emerged in the years leading up to and immediately following the 1997 Handover, when the colony of Hong Kong changed sovereignty and became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China, as the face of a ballooning transnational New Wave connecting Europe and Asia through the global success of new Chinese-language cinema (see Marchetti, “New Wave”). Cheung’s sense of humor buoyed (p.273) her in cartoon-like roles such as “Thief Catcher” in Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio (1993), but her weightier dramatic performances with key New Wave and Second Wave Hong Kong directors really put her on the map of world cinema and paved the way for her stellar performance in In the Mood for Love.
Maggie Cheung worked with many outstanding filmmakers, but her collaborations with Wong Kar-wai take pride of place in the illustrious careers of both director and star. Cheung credits Wong’s As Tears Go By (1988), the director’s first feature, witheffectively starting her acting career, and she appears in many of Wong’s classics including Days of Being Wild (1990), in which she also plays a woman named Su Lizhen, who may or may not be the same character featured in In the Mood for Love. Another Su Lizhen, portrayed by mainland actress Gong Li, turns up in Wong’s 2046 (2004), and Cheung has a cameo reprising her Su Lizhen in flashback, filtered through Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung)’s memory, in that film as well. The three films form a loose trilogy set in 1960s Hong Kong with In the Mood for Love occupying the heart of the triptych. However, the confusion over the identity of Su Lizhen in In the Mood for Love and the nature of her character exasperated Cheung, and, at the film’s Cannes premiere, she voiced her discontent with Wong in no uncertain terms:
Finding my character was the most difficult time, I was confused and frustrated … I thought I was doing something right and then Wong would say we’ll do it all different. I hadn’t been with him for a long time, not really ten years. I forgot that he works with the actors forever to develop characters, that we all have to write the film together. (Quoted in “In the Mood for Love,” in Gerald Peary: Film Reviews, Interviews, Essays, & Sundry Miscellany (March 2000), online at www.geraldpeary.com/interviews/ghi/in_the_mood_for_love_.html.)
Although Wong started in the film industry as a scriptwriter, his working method as a director involves considerable improvisation, lengthy shoots with multiple takes, and contradictory instructions to his actors, who may be asked to portray characters in stunningly inconsistent ways. Cheung faced enormous difficulties that forced her to draw from her considerable creative and emotional reservoir to stay a float in the film. In addition to the challenge of working without a script, she spent hours daily in makeup and wardrobe to be sewn into her form-fitting qipao (in Cantonese, cheung sam) and coiffed with period bouffant hairstyles and precisely drawn eye-liner (see further “In The Mood For Love: 21 (p.274) Dresses,” Foam of Days, 2 June 2013, online at foamofdays.wordpress. com/2013/06/02/in-the-mood-for-love-21-dresses/).
The “adaptation” of Liu Yichang’s 1972 novella Intersection provided little help in the development of her character, since Wong used only a few quotations from Liu to set the “mood” for the film (see Luk; Deppman). A song by Shanghai chanteuse and actress Zhou Xuan, from which Wong took the film’s Chinese title, “In Full Bloom” (Hua Yang Nian Hua), gave Cheung, whose parents also came from Shanghai, a little more information. As the song sets the mood, Maggie Cheung draws on her own understanding of what it means to be a Shanghai expatriate in the 1960s in order to supplement Shanghai-born Wong Kar-wai’s reminiscences of the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes associated with these displaced people in 1960s Hong Kong (see Marchetti, “Ladies from Shanghai”).
Maggie Cheung plays a woman whose life has been upended by the 1949 establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a film made in 2000, three years after Hong Kong’s own reversion to mainland Chinese sovereignty. However, her performance expands beyond its Cold War historical context or even the tropes Wong uses to mark Hong Kong’s “borrowed” time (Hughes 1968), such as the oversized clocks and the hotel room number 2046 set for the final full year of the “one country, two system” that shields the Special Administrative Region from full integration into the PRC’s political, economic, and judicial systems. Although inhabiting an insular expatriate community, Su Lizhen also lives a cosmopolitan existence as a working woman in a shipping office, and globes, telephones, and model airplanes dot the mise-en-scène as reminders of the ways in which technology shrinks the world and brings local Hong Kong lives into conversation with global trends (for more on the global references in the film, see Cameron).
I argue that Cheung’s performance provides the key to bringing coherence to the narrative by concretizing the contradictions between the Shanghai-Hong Kong society of the 1960s and the fin-de-siècle sensibilities associated with global arthouse cinema at the turn of the millennium. Cheung teeters vertiginously between the promise of twentieth-century modernity and the postmodern uncertainty of the twenty-first century by performing a role in a story that only took on its ultimate shape in the cutting room. The craftthat was needed for her to make choices available to the director and still provide a convincing character for viewers in the final iteration of the film testifies to Cheung’s considerable skills as a screen actress and creative talent.
Duidao, the Chinese title of Liu’s Intersections, refers to the tête-bêche style by which postage stamps are printed as inverted images. The intersecting characters in In the Mood for Love do, indeed, mirror others who appear only in profile or as shadows onscreen. A considerable portion of the plot, in fact, follows Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and Su Lizhen playing the double roles of their adulterous spouses’ lovers. While vicariously acting out their partners’ love affair, the two appear to fall in love themselves. However, whether or not they consummate their own affair remains a mystery. As Gary Bettinson notes, the film “exploits ground-shifting tactics to render the veracity of character action uncertain” (120). Maggie Cheung, then, plays a character who performs this uncertain role leaving viewers to piece together whether any given snippet of dialogue or gesture provides access to Su Lizhen or her interpretation of her rival, Chow’s wife. Added to this, Su Lizhen spends much of her free time at the movies or helping Chow write martial arts fantasies, and it becomes clear that Cheung must allow for these various layers of her performance to coexist as a palimpsest so that Su’s own inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality serves as a defining element of the character.
In his analysis of In the Mood for Love, Stephen Teo underscores the variable play of surface and depth that Cheung brings to her portrayal of Su Lizhen as “sweet and reticent, cool and hot at the same time, intimating desire but forever repressing it” (123). Given the distanced, layered, often detached nature of Cheung’s performance, the physicality of the role of Su Lizhen anchors the character, and her sensuality offsets her emotional reserve. In her examination of the film, Olivia Khoo speaks of the “spectral bodies” onscreen (235–52), and, in fact, Su Lizhen does eventually fade from Chow’s life and the continuation of his story. Before she disappears, however, Maggie Cheung manages to give Su Lizhen a very concrete embodiment through gait, posture, mannerisms (facial expressions and hand gestures), and tone of voice. Cheung may have had little control over camera placement, lighting, the design of the sets, and use of locations; however, she has considerable physical control over the way she inhabits costumes, uses props, and responds to the rhythms of her fellow actors.
The actress’s own roots in beauty contests and physical comedies serve her well as she taps into a global screen tradition in line with a conception (p.276) of femininity that Joan Riviere calls “masquerade,” John Berger terms a “sight,” Laura Mulvey analyzes as “spectacle,” and Judith Butler sees as gender “performativity.” Simone de Beauvoir succinctly states that “one is not born a woman but rather becomes one” (301), and in this light Maggie Cheung constructs Su Lizhen as having become who she is within the social and cultural strictures characteristic of the Shanghai expatriate community of 1960s Hong Kong.
Conscious of the artifice needed to maintain her role in this precarious environment, Su Lizhen lives under the scrutiny of her neighbors. In her cramped residential quarters, small gestures take on monumental significance. Building up “guan xi” connections through the exchange of gifts, meals, and small favors (see Yang) binds landlords and landladies to their tenants, but also opens doors to unexpected intrusions and illicit intimacies. Declining an invitation for dinner, which Su does repeatedly, challenges these connections and arouses suspicions that she must have more pressing engagements. Her acceptance of an invitation later in the film signals her capitulation to propriety by proving she has no illicit rendezvous planned. Behind her back, her neighbors comment on the way she overdresses to go out to see a movie or buy a container of noodles. They prefer to see her as a seductress, bored with her own often-absent husband, hoping to break the monotony with an adulterous affair with her dapper neighbor.
From an older generation, Su’s landlady Mrs. Suen (Shanghai-born actress and singer Rebecca Pan) and her amah or traditional servant (kung-fu film star Sammo Hung’s grandmother and martial arts film pioneer Chin Tsi-Ang) have brought with them a specific style and set of social mores from their lives in Shanghai that run deeper than the local Wu dialect or the regional cuisine transplanted to the domestic Hong Kong setting in the film. They represent the lost possibilities of Republican China, its cosmopolitan charms (e.g., European dance halls, swank jazz clubs, and Hollywood movie palaces) as well as colonial corruption (extraterritorial privileges routinely abused by the sizeable expatriate community), its material splendor (conspicuous consumption of its wealthy elite, spectacular skyscrapers) as well as legendary depravity and decadence (triad gangsters, prostitutes, and con artists). Somewhere between the worship of money and a Christian-Confucian puritanical repressiveness about sexuality, Hong Kong’s displaced Shanghai society condenses the excesses of its past into the pressure-cooker of its expatriate present with a considerable degree of disingenuousness.
(p.277) Keeping up appearances and maintaining the hypocrisy that surrounds her, Su Lizhen performs the role of the perfect wife of a successful businessman for the benefit of her Shanghai landlady, while helping her boss cover up his affairs at work and exploring ways to confront her own errant husband with her handsome next-door neighbor, Chow. Su lives in an environment in which characters notice sartorial details, such as men’s neckties, women’s handbags, and shoes. When Mrs. Suen’s amah catches Su in the hallway hobbling back to her own room wearing ill-fitting shoes she has surreptitiously borrowed from Chow’s wife, Su is sure she has been found out. Later, after Chow takes a job in Singapore to escape his romantic woes in Hong Kong, Su visits his room unannounced and finds a pair of women’s slippers under the bed. She calls him at the Singapore office but does not speak to him or have further contact with him in the narrative, assuming another woman has usurped her place in his life. At another point in the disjointed narrative, a close-up of Su’s hand grasping Chow’s highlights her wedding ring and wristwatch, as the power of time and the social ties of matrimony pull against mutual desire. Objects define relationships and Cheung’s gestures accentuate their significance.
Perhaps more than any other element in the film, however, the qipao and the way Maggie Cheung wears that garment define Su Lizhen as a creature of her time and culture as well as an icon of world cinema (for more on the iconic quality of the role, see Yue). Form-fitting with restrictive high Mandarin collars and thigh-high slits to allow leg movement for walking, the qipao originally imitated male attire and provided physical freedom for women who gained mobility in the late-Qing/early Republican era when foot-binding vanished. However, by 1962, the garment seemed somewhat old-fashioned.1 No stranger to wearing the garment onscreen, Cheung played silent-screen star Ruan Lingyu in Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage (1992), and the characterization of Su Lizhen in In the Mood for Love owes a debt to the qipao from that earlier performance. The silent screen diva came from Guangdong and moved between linguistic communities in Shanghai as Su does in Hong Kong. Ruan Lingyu lived as a partial outsider as a result, and was the subject of vicious gossip about her love life, which drove her to suicide. While carefully imitating the distinctive gestures and acting style associated with Ruan Lingyu, Cheung also mastered maneuvering in the qipao.
Several scenes in In the Mood for Love illustrate the way the qipao defines Cheung’s performance. For example, in one instance Mrs. Suen scolds (p.278) Su—we see this from the back, in close-up—for neglecting her husband. Her rigid collar seems to strangle her and the way Cheung holds her head up in the scene speaks eloquently to the character’s dignity as well as to her sensitivity to social opprobrium. The stiffhigh collar supports Cheung’s interpretation of Su as upright as well as uptight. The qipao also links Su to Mrs. Suen and the older generation, since her doppelgänger rival Mrs. Chow wears dresses with a distinctively different cut. Earlier in the film, Chow passes Su on a stairway in an alley. He turns to observe her back as she glides up the stairs in her qipao, and, even without showing her face Cheung perfectly performs the tension expressed by her character as hemmed in by the materialistic values and constraints of the expatriate community in Hong Kong as well as being a proud Shanghai icon of eroticism, elegance, and style.
Su cleaves to the dress, reflecting her moods through its floral patterns, geometric shapes, and extravagant color palette, and Cheung deliberately exploits the limitations the garment places on her movements as well as the way it provocatively exposes her legs, accentuates her bust, hips, and buttocks, and flatters each contour of her figure. To look elegant, she must keep her head erect, her back straight, and her legs close together to avoid gaps around the “frog” fastenings used to button the flaps over the chest and unsightly slippage of the side panels around the lower limbs. Even when Su reappears in the apartment building a few years later in 1966, with a new hairdo in the company of a young boy (who may or may not be either Chow’s lover’s or her husband’s son), she clings to her qipao, which serves Maggie Cheung well in her incarnation as a twentieth-century character and her presence as a twenty-first-century arthouse icon.
Performing a character in quotations
Wong Kar-wai elides the portion of the plot in which Chow Mo-wan and Su Lizhen begin to act out their spouses’ illicit affair. This adds considerable confusion to a scene, early in their role playing, when Su has difficulty playing the role of Mrs. Chow. Unable to see herself as a temptress, Su cannot say the seductive words she imagines Mrs. Chow used to seduce her husband Mr. Chan (Su Lizhen’s husband). Exasperated, she exclaims, “I can’t bring myself to say the line.” Of course, the actress Maggie Cheung may be talking about her own inability to say a line fed to her by Wong. (p.279) Later, however, Su admits that the performance process has enlightened her: “I wanted to know how it started and now I do. Feelings can creep up just like that.” In addition to these self-reflexive moments when the mechanics of acting become entangled with the fiction onscreen, the film also convincingly recreates the performance styles associated with various screen and theatrical traditions.
Performing in what Rey Chow calls an “already-read text” (646) forces the actors to consider the glamour associated with Hollywood, Shanghai, and Hong Kong classical realism (see Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson) or what Miriam Hansen sees as a style closer to “vernacular modernism” (“Mass Production”; “Fallen Women”; see also Zhang). In his book on Wong Kar-wai, Peter Brunette calls In the Mood for Love “Brechtian.” Speaking of the characters, he states: “They live within quotation marks and prewritten lines of dialogue” (98). Awareness of performance certainly defines the characters; however, the self-conscious nature of the acting techniques owes more to a postmodern penchant for clichés rather than to the political bite associated with Brecht’s epic theater. In fact, Wong claims another New Wave favorite as inspiration for the film, namely Alfred Hitchcock, and, specifically, his 1958 classic suspense-thriller Vertigo, also about an enigmatic woman actually playing the part of someone else in which the characters re-enact past events to unravel the mystery (noted in Teo). However, unlike Vertigo, which has only a single scene in which the female protagonist does not appear through the perspective of the male lead, In the Mood for Love allows Su Lizhen greater autonomy as a character. Maggie Cheung’s acting style takes full advantage of this freedom by defining the character’s inconsistencies, vulnerabilities, limitations, mysteries, and often surprising reserves of strength, flexibility, and resilience through her performance.
These self-reflexive acting techniques can be witnessed in parallel scenes in which Chow Mo-wan and Su Lizhen Su analyze their spouses’ behavior. The pair re-enact the affair in one scene and plan a possible confrontation over the infidelity in another. Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung take on roles in which their characters have an enormous emotional investment, but the scenes also highlight the distance between the performers and the fiction onscreen. The positioning of the camera gives the impression of eavesdropping, underscoring the themes of surveillance, voyeurism, and alienation that run throughout the film.
(p.280) Chow and Su sit opposite each other in a warm, wooden booth in a quiet, intimate restaurant serving Western-style beef and chicken steaks, which they eat with a knife and fork. As this is the second time they have been shown in the same bootheating similar food, the film sets up this dinner date as part of a routine the two repeat to commiserate about their spouses’ infidelities. Chow pretends Su is his wife and puts a large dab of mustard on her plate. She dips her meat and quips that Chow’s wife likes her food “hot.” Cheung wears a qipao with an oversized daffodil in this scene, and she certainly appears to be “in full bloom” as an actress as well as a character able to shiftapparently effortlessly from playing the lover to commenting bitterly on her character’s circumstances. Later, the location remains the same, but the occasion has changed, noted only through the fact that Su wears a different qipao. They have switched roles again, and Su praises Chow’s ability to imitate her spouse, saying, “You’ve got my husband down pat—he’s a real sweet talker.” Cheung’s critical eye as an actress lurks beneath the surface of the remark. Under the beautiful façade and the carefully maintained appearance that dazzles onscreen, the actress creates a character with the ability to step outside herself, note the irony of her own situation in the inflection of her voice, and open her character up to the complexities of her evolving relationship with Chow, running the gamut from an angry desire for revenge to the awakening of an erotic desire for her companion in misery.
As Chow and Su pretend to be their spouses sneaking around to avoid the opprobrium of their watchful neighbors, they really do become a furtive couple trying desperately to avoid being outed and ostracized. Finding it difficult to elude the ever-present amah in the hallway between their apartments, Chow and Su decide to meet in a hotel room, ostensibly so that Su can help Chow edit his martial arts novel. However, they continue to re-enact the love affair of “Mr. Chan” and “Mrs. Chow” (as Wong persists in naming them, never giving us more information: we never see their faces, and hear the woman’s voice only offscreen; nor are the actors even credited), vowing not to “be like them.” In a scene paralleling the earlier one in the restaurant, Su sits in profile on a chair rather than in a booth. Dressed in a white and blue floral-trimmed qipao, she eats with chopsticks from a bowl with a similar color pattern (often associated withexport porcelain, adding to a sense of Su’s fragility as well as connecting her to the commercial world beyond Hong Kong’s shores). Side lighting keeps her profile in partial shadow as she picks at her rice. Even though Su has a job, any (p.281) decision to confront her husband about his affair may have an impact on her ability to keep rice in her bowl.2 A man’s back facing the camera appears out of focus in the next shot, and it is difficult to tell if this figure is Chow or Su’s husband, who is almost indistinguishable from Chow from the rear. Su asks if he has a mistress, and the man’s voice answers, “Yes.” Su swipes at the air as if to slap his face, and the reverse shot shows that the man is, indeed, Chow. She complains that Chow, acting as her husband, admitted the affair too easily, and at Chow’s suggestion they agree to go through the scene again.
Chow’s idea of starting over serves as a reminder that Wong Kar-wai directs the scene through his surrogate Tony Leung. Wong’s authorial signature of having his characters (and asking his actors to) “start over” in his previous Cannes success Happy Together adds another dimension to Chow’s coaching. Su gives the scene a novel “reading” the second time around for Chow, so he can provide a different reaction—just as an actress might do and just as Cheung, indeed, does. The second iteration leads to a different emotional response, and Su bursts into tears, saying she did not know “it would hurt so much.” Later, the mechanics of acting again come to the surface of the film when Chow comforts Su by saying, “Don’t be upset … It’s only a rehearsal … Don’t cry … This isn’t real.”
Given the difficulties Cheung endured making the film, her tears and the pain she expresses may have as much to do with her own working conditions as an actress as with the character’s sudden pain reenacting this confrontation with an errant husband. The layers involved in this performance and the ambiguity surrounding this slippage between character and performer help to balance the film’s heated emotional intensity and cool stylish detachment. Just as Maggie Cheung’s Su provides a version of a woman wholly modern and cosmopolitan as well as conservative and sensitive to the small-minded gossip that surrounds her, In the Mood for Love creates a world that appears to be a nostalgic reflection on Hong Kong’s colonial past when, in fact, it speaks to the global festival audiences of the postmodern present through elaborate intertextual citations and self-reflexive performances (for an analysis of In the Mood for Love as a “festival” film, see Marchetti, “Mood”). Playing a character hemmed in by convention but in full flower as a woman gives Maggie Cheung the opportunity to show her considerable range as a screen performer, and adds a dimension to In the Mood for Love that contributes to its unique allure and critical acclaim.
De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. New York: Vintage, 2011 © 1949.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1977.
Bettinson, Gary. The Sensuous Cinema of Wong Kar-Wai: Film Poetics and the Aesthetic of Disturbance, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2015.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Pres, 1985.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Brunette, Peter. Wong Kar-wai. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.
Cameron, Allan. “Trajectories of Identification: Travel and Global Culture in the Films of Wong Kar-Wai,” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 49 (Spring 2007), online at www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc49.2007/wongKarWai/index.html.
Chow, Rey. “Sentimental Returns: On the Uses of the Everyday in the Recent Films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai,” New Literary History, 33: 4 (2002), 639–54.
Deppman, Hsiu-Chuang. Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Fiction and Film. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2010.
Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/Modernity 6: 2 (1999), 59–77.
Hansen, Miriam Bratu. “Fallen Women, Rising Stars, New Horizons,” Film Quarterly 54: 1 (2000), 10–22.
Hughes, Richard. Hong Kong: Borrowed Place, Borrowed Time. London: André Deutsch, 1968.
Khoo, Olivia. “Love in Ruins: Spectral Bodies in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love,” in Fran Martin and Larissa Heinrich, eds., Embodied Modernities: Corporeality, Representation, and Chinese Cultures, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006, 235–52.
Luk, Thomas Y. T. “Novels into Film: Liu Yichang’s Tête-bêche and Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love,’ in Sheldon H. Lu and Emilie Yueh-yu Yeh, eds., Chinese-Language Film: Historiography, Poetics, Politics, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005, 210–19.
Marchetti, Gina. “The Hong Kong New Wave,” in Yingjin Zhang, ed., A Companion to Chinese Cinema, Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, 95–117.
Marchetti, Gina. “Wong’s Ladies from Shanghai,” in Martha P. Nochimson, ed., A Companion to Wong Kar-wai, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016, 207–31.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 837–48.
Riviere, Joan. “Womanliness as a Masquerade,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 10 (1929), 303–13.
Teo, Stephen. Wong Kar-Wai. London: British Film Institute, 2005.
Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui. Gifts, Favors, and Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994.
Yue, Audrey. “In the Mood for Love: Intersections of Hong Kong Modernity,” in Chris Berry, ed., Chinese Films in Focus: 25 New Takes, London: British Film Institute, 2003, 128–36.
Zhang, Zhen. An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
(1.) Cheung also plays a modern actress recreating a silent screen star in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996), where she is similarly stitched up into a form-fitting latex body suit, and again uses the costume to help define a character through clothing that dictates posture and restricts movement.
(2.) In much of the Asian region, “filling the rice bowl” stands in for providing for general material needs. In Mao’s China, for instance, the “iron rice bowl” was a phrase used to describe the role the Communist Party played in distributing adequate resources to all.