Female Liberty and Zhang Ziyi
The Chinese female liberty fights against the traditional sex discriminated custom. Zhang Ziyi, as China’s most internationally recognizable female star, acts in many female characters that are independent, rebellious and insistent in the path they choose. The importance of the liberty of females has been enhanced in Zhang Ziyi’s films and character. Analyzing three female characters acted by Zhang Ziyi, we can have a microscope of the obstacles and difficulties Chinese female liberty is facing. By importing the concept of JiangHu, we can have a better understanding that the female liberty in China is a beautiful dream that sacrifices are inevitable on the path to the true liberty.
“As a child, Zhang Ziyi was sent by her parents to learn dance in order to strengthen her small and seemingly weak body. She was discovered by Zhang Yimou as a collegiate student at Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama and cast in her first onscreen film role in The Road Home (Wo de fuqin muqin 1999). Making her film premiere a decade after the screen debut of China’s most beloved post-Mao female star, Gong Li (who was also discovered by Zhang Yimou at the same institution), Zhang was quickly nicknamed ‘Little Gong Li’. She shared a facial likeness to Gong and followed in Gong’s footsteps by starting her career as a mou nülang (‘Mou’ Girl). However, Zhang would eventually replace her progenitor as China’s most internationally recognizable female star, setting new standards for global Chinese female stardom and ambition.” Zhang Ziyi acts in typical female characters, which either seeks for social recognition or has a strong sense of independence, since her early years. In chronology order, Yu Jiaolong in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Bai Ling in “2046”, Xiao Mei in “House of Flying Daggers”, Chiyo in “Memories of Geisha”, Empress Wan in “The Banquet”, Meng Xiaodong in “Forever Enthralled”, Gong Er in “The Grandmaster” are all good examples of the typical female icons acted by Zhang Ziyi, which conveys a deep idea of the female liberty.
This article focuses on Gong Er in “The Grandmaster”, Yu Jiaolong in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and Xiao Mei in “House of Flying Daggers”. All three films happen on JiangHu, which literally means “River and Lake” in Chinese. However, the deep meaning of JiangHu is an ideal society belonging to a group of people with great martial arts mastery. There are a lot of papers focusing on Chinese martial arts but few sheds on JiangHu. Part of the reason is JiangHu is a non-translated and abstract concept, comparing to martial art, which is visible and fancy. Martial arts in films, like the martial art mastered by the three characters acted by Zhang Ziyi, are beyond realistic. In reality, the martial art is a technique that is used for self-protection and for maintaining physical health, however, on JiangHu created in films, people with a great mastery of JiangHu can easily fly and walk on the water. Like Yang Liping does for the folk songs in Yunan, “Singing folk songs are a form of life and the singers’ life changes over the time. They also have an ideal to pursue, especially in today’s commercial society. When they can change and improve the conditions of their life through songs, it has no reason to stop their desire and action. Art is beyond life, and the reality of art is not equal to the truth of life.” Martial arts on JiangHu are beyond life, too. Overtime, JiangHu itself evolves to an ideal world that can never exist. After analyzing three films, we can find the female liberty is like JiangHu, which is an ideal dream. The path to realize this dream is surrounded by cruelty and people on the path will be faced with hard choices.
Female liberty is a wide topic. The contents of the three films focus on the female social recognition and female marriage freedom respectively, which are also the two most rooted female issues nowadays in China.
“The Grandmaster” is concerned about the female social recognition. Zhang Ziyi acts Gong Er, a woman with great martial arts skills, inheriting her father’s 64 hands. When Japanese invaded China, Ma San, a disciple of Gong Er’s father surrenders to the Japanese and kills Gong Er’s father. However, after her father’s death, Gong Er has no way to revenge because female cannot inherit the family’s legacy. The only way for the female to contribute to a family’s reputation is to marry out and give birth to children no matter how much skill she has. Here is a conversation between an old man and Gong Er after the death of her father:
Old Man: If you take action, whatever the outcome, people will laugh. They’ll say what’s the Gong school where the disciple kills the master, and the daughter kills her brother-in-arms? A pack of wild animals? With your best interest in mind. Just get married.
Gong Er: My father said that out of love for me. He wants me to have a peaceful life. But if I don’t revenge his death, I’ll never be at peace. Ma San works for the Japanese, nobody in Gong’s family dare to revenge. He has got power. But I’ll stand up for the family.
The only way Gong Er can take back the family’s legacy is to take vows, which means, she will never be able to marry, teach or have children. There’s no turning back. Gong Er takes vows and seeks for a social recognized family’s legacy. After defeating Ma San, Ma San says: “The Gong Family’s Legacy, I return to you.” Gong Er replies: “ Let’s be clear. You didn’t return it. I took it back myself.” Gong Er sacrifices her marriage to revenge for her father, seeking for the social recognition.
Both “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers” “are adjusted to create new spaces for the exploration and expression of qing (sentiment), a defining feature of Chinese indigenous performance like Xiqu. In both works, adaptation facilitates the incorporation of the performance techniques of movement, singing, and props that are aimed at the externalization of emotion and feeling.” And Zhang Ziyi acts in two female characters who fight for their qing against traditional restrictions on their marriage..
In “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, Master Li and Xiu Lian conform to the social tradition. Because Xiu Lian has been engaged with a man who has already died, Master Li and Xiu Lian never reveal their love to each other out of the respect for the dead. At the end, it is too late for Xiu Lian and Master Li to love each other as Master Li dies. This reflects what usually happens in Chinese society that people with true love to each other cannot be together because of social customs. Comparing to Master Li and Xiu Lian, Yu Jiaolong acted by Zhang Ziyi has one night affair with a bugler. Instead of being arranged by her family to marry Gous family, Yu Jiaolong escapes and fights alone in JiangHu. Although living in JiangHu rather than with her family is Yu Jiaolong dream because she likes the freedom in JiangHu, she soon realizes the cruelty of JiangHu. Not being accepted by JiangHu and abandoning her family, Yu Jiaolong finally commits the suicide.
In “House of Flying Daggers”, inspired by Captain Jin, Xiao Mei, acted by Zhang Ziyi, chooses to follow her qing and to come with Captain Jin “To be free, like the wind” but ends up being killed by Captain Leo, who has been engaged with her. Captain Leo and Captain Jin are both in love with Xiao Mei. However, Captain Leo, who has been engaged with Xiao Mei, only has a selfish qing to Xiao Mei. He only protects Xiao Mei in dark, not taking any risk. He pretends to be upright, but only want to physically occupy Xiao Mei. On the opposite side, Captain Jin seems unreliable and irresponsible but treats Xiao Mei with respect, appreciating her career and protecting her with his life. Here is a comparison between the qing of Captain Jin and Captain Leo towards Xiao Mei. After Xiao Mei takes a bath in the forest, Captain Jin can take advantage of her but stops. Although Xiao Mei says “You saved my life, you can look all you please.” he stops half-way as Xiao Mei puts her hand in front of her mouth to suggest she does not want to have sex now. We can see Captain Jin respects her willing. In contrast, when Captain Leo and Xiao Mei meet in the bamboo forest, same movement happens. When Xiao Mei puts her hand in front of her mouth to suggest she does not want to have sex now, Captain Leo does not stop, but rips off her cloth and forces her to have sex when he knows Xiao Mei loves Captain Jin, saying “I have sacrificed three years for you. How could you love Jin after just three days?” The selfish qing of Captain Leo is like the love of Ma Lu to MingMing in “Rhinoceros in Love”. “Ma Lu, burning to win Mingming’s love, takes computer, English, and even love lessons, drawing toward the collectivist ideal of a good and useful life. Even after winning the lottery, Ma Lu is rejected by Mingming. He becomes desperate and, binding and blindfolding her, he kidnaps her. The audience sees their parallel traits, such as stubbornness, obstinacy, and alienation.” Xiao Mei finally follows her inside qing towards Captain Jin and tries to live freely with Captain Jin, but furious Captain Leo kills her in the end.
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Gong Er sacrifices her marriage to seek for the social recognition; Yu Jiaolong has no choice but to abandon her family so as to live freely in JiangHu; Xiao Mei sacrifices her life to pursue a free life with Captain Jin. All three characters acted by Zhang Ziyi make sacrifices for their liberty. Like JiangHu is an ideal world, the female liberty is also a beautiful dream. Nowadays in China, more and more females have realized the importance of the female liberty like Yu Jiaolong. However, most of them only have a dream but never know how difficult to realize it. When Yu Jiaolong firstly meets Xiu Lian:
Yu Jiaolong: Is it exciting to be a fighter on JiangHu?
Xiu Lian: Fighters have rules, too. Friendship, trusy and intergrity.
Yu Jiaolong: I am getting married soon but I have not lived the life I want.
However, Jade Fox reveals the real JiangHu to Yu Jiaolong: “Whatever we want. We’d kill anyone in our way. Even your father. That’s Jianghu. Exciting is it?” Similar to JiangHu, people, who pursues the female liberty, have to face the cruelty on the path to it because of the traditional custom is deeply rooted in people’s mind. Like Captain Leo has the right to kill Xiao Mei because of the idea of husband guides wife (Fu wei qi gang) in the Confucius classics.
The three female characters above are only typical examples of many independent characters acted by Zhang Ziyi. Zhang Ziyi sacrifices many times for the female liberty in the film. However, to achieve the true female liberty, it is necessary for more females to stand out in the Chinese society and painful sacrifices may be inevitable.
- Zuo, Mila. January 29, 2015. Sensing ‘performance anxiety’: Zhang Ziyi, Tang Wei, and female film stardom
- Wang Jin, March 2015, Analysis of the Inheritance and Development of Original Ecology Music,pp108
- Movie, “The Grandmaster”, 2013
- Emily E Wilcox, Meaning in Movement Adaptation and the Xiqu Body in Intercultural Chinese Theatre, pp45
- Movie, House of Flying Daggers, 2004
- Yuwen Hsiung, Emotion, Materiality and Subjectivity: Meng Jinghui’s Rhinoceros in Love, pp253
- Movie, Croughing Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000
 Zuo, Mila. January 29, 2015. Sensing ‘performance anxiety’: Zhang Ziyi, Tang Wei, and female film stardom in the People’s Republic of China. Celebrity studies 6, no. 4, (accessed April 21, 2016). pp 523
 Wang Jin, March 2015, Analysis of the Inheritance and Development of Original Ecology Music,pp108
 Movie, “The Grandmaster”, 2013
 Movie, The Grandmaster, 2013
 Emily E Wilcox, Meaning in Movement Adaptation and the Xiqu Body in Intercultural Chinese Theatre, pp45
 Movie, House of Flying Daggers, 2004
 Movie, House of Flying Daggers, 2004
 Yuwen Hsiung, Emotion, Materiality and Subjectivity: Meng Jinghui’s Rhinoceros in Love, pp253
 Movie, Croughing Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000