Portrayal of Women in Chinese Martial Arts Cinema

 

As martial arts is an extremely important part of Chinese culture, it has naturally arisen as an important theme in Chinese cinema. Although martial arts such as wuxia, which Stephen Teo defines as analogous to “swordplay” (Teo pp2), have traditionally been portrayed in movies as a masculine skill, female heroines in the last several decades have also been granted these abilities in popular cinema. As a result, female characters have had their identities at least partially formed around their skill level and how (i.e. for what purpose) they use their wuxia. In this analysis, I will be exploring the ways directors and writers develop male versus female characters in terms of their martial arts in such movies. Two recent popular Chinese martial arts movies will be analyzed for the purpose of this research: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), directed by Ang Lee, and Hero (2002), directed by Zhang Yimou. These two films were selected because they were made in this century, and were widely accepted not only by Chinese audiences but also foreign ones.

“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) Directed by Ang Lee

“Hero” (2000) Directed by Zhang Yimou

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the story of a young aristocratic woman, Jen, who steals a valuable sword, Green Destiny, belonging to a wuxia master, Li Mubai, in order to pursue freedom from a life of submission and an arranged marriage. To complicate matters, she has learned her wuxia from her governess who is also the Jade Fox, a notorious criminal who killed Li Mubai’s master for not allowing her to study wuxia at his institution. The movie follows Jen’s ill-planned adventures and rebellion towards authority as Li Mubai and his friend, a swordswoman named Yu Xiulien, track her and attempt to retake the sword, kill Jade Fox, and convince Jen to study martial arts formally because of her natural talents. Li Mubai and Yu Xiulien handle these tasks very differently, especially when it comes to their use of martial arts. For example, Yu Xiulien confronts Jen in the headquarters of Yu’s security business. In the fight that ensues, Jen repeatedly breaks Yu’s weapons with Green Destiny as Yu scrambles to find new, larger, more intimidating weapons to both frighten Jen and to fight her off. In contrast, when Li Mubai confronts Jen, he does so in a bamboo forest; he does not actively try to harm Jen with his sword, but instead provokes her into tiring herself out so that he may talk to her.

Jen battling Li Mubai, “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”

Hero is a story told almost entirely in flashbacks as the male protagonist, Nameless, tells the Emperor of Qin how he defeated three powerful assassins. In doing so, Nameless gains the privilege of coming within ten paces of the emperor. However, it is revealed that Nameless did not actually kill the three assassins, but rather faked their deaths in order to come close enough to the emperor to assassinate him himself with a special wuxia technique that he developed. Of special significance are the characters Falling Snow (a woman) and Broken Sword (a man), who are two of the three assassins. They are romantic partners and provide an effective juxtaposition of the male and female martial arts role types that are of interest here.

In The Difficulty of Difference: Rethinking the Woman Warrior Figure in Hong Kong Martial Arts Cinema, Man-Fung Yip explains that the emergence of women in martial arts films “…explored women’s complex relationships with modernity” and that the characters “…[challenge] social and traditional moral barriers” (Yip pp83). Indeed, bringing female characters towards the forefront of popular movies while assigning them traditionally male roles can be seen as a definite form of progress in the realm of gender politics. However, I believe that many popular movies that attempt to bridge the gap between male and female role types in martial arts genre films ultimately fail to do female characters justice; Rather than expressing the role of the “Woman Warrior” in equal terms as their male counterparts, many of these characters are saddled with female stereotypes. For example, the tropes of women as the more impulsive and emotional of the two sexes is fairly apparent, as is the idea that women in these films are in need of someone to control them. I believe all of these characteristics that negatively impact female characters in these films are readily seen in fight scenes as well as their motives for action. In this analysis I intend to show that women in martial arts films are portrayed as inferior physically, emotionally, and morally to their male counterparts.

As Ya-chen Chen illustrates in her book, Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millennium, female characters in wuxia films are granted a sense of liberty from male rule through their education in martial arts. However, more often than not these characters eventually end up supporting and preserving patriarchal societal norms through their use of martial arts (Chen pp2). For instance, in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Jade Fox trades her potential to be an ideal woman, i.e. her sexuality and innocence, to Li Mubai’s master, Jiang Nanhe, in pursuit of more refined martial arts skills. When this fails, she is thrown into a fit of rage and murders Jiang. Chen explains that the audience understands that Jiang’s failure to follow through with their deal is a betrayal, as Jade Fox has literally given up any possibility of a typical life in this transaction. Chen also draws parallels between Jade Fox’s name and the Chinese myth of evil “fox sprits”, who masquerade as beautiful women and seduce men as a means of gaining immortality (Chen 31-33). Although Chen contends that both Jade Fox and Jiang are held equally accountable for their actions, I believe Jade Fox’s naming convention ultimately puts her at a disadvantage: it is unquestionable that she is evil, because this parallel is drawn to an evil mythical creature. Therefore some audience members may recognize Jade Fox as the true party at fault. While it is unquestionable that she is a villain of the story, it is impossible not to connect her perceived evil with her autonomy over her sexuality.

Jade Fox continues to be defined by this idea of the evil fox spirit/seductress during battle scenes. Particularly when she is fighting Li Mubai, it is apparent that there is some underlying character flaw that makes her weaker, despite attempts by her to “cheat”, such as when she produces a blade from her shoe when she is losing the fight. This scene can be see in the video below. Both the sneakiness of her cheating and her eventual defeat can be connected to her past. It is possible that her inability to succeed despite her dishonesty stems from her perceived character flaw that allowed her to trade sex for the secrets of martial arts. Through this implication it becomes possible for the audience to judge her on her failures as a woman, which led to her life as a criminal.

Another female character in this film, Jen, is similarly displayed as irrational and unhinged. Although she is clearly very gifted in the realm of martial arts and wishes to use it as a means of freedom, she is portrayed as being extremely immature about her talents in a way that none of the male protagonists are. This is especially apparent in the relationship that both Jen and Li Mubai have with the mythical sword, Green Destiny. For instance, early in the movie the other female protagonist, Yu Xiulien, tells Jen that the only reason she is able to defeat Yu is because Jen has Green Destiny. However, it is apparent throughout the movie that Li Mubai’s own skill is completely independent of the sword, mystical though it may be. One could attribute this difference to the fact that the two characters have been trained in very different ways. However, Jen has an obvious proficiency at martial arts, and has studied the secret techniques that Li himself has learned. This spurs the idea that Jen cannot function without Green Destiny due to her character flaws, many of them stereotypically feminine such as being overly emotional and impulsive.

At one point in the movie, Li Mubai states that Jen needs to be controlled. As Chen points out, Jen’s original Chinese name includes the character for “dragon”: a mythical creature traditionally portrayed as being tamed by masters of martial arts (Chen pp38-39). In this way, the movie cements Jen’s identity as less of a person with her own desires, and more of a wild animal that needs to be harnessed and properly groomed. Despite the fact that this grooming would supposedly lead to her further mastery of wuxia, she instead jumps off a bridge, perhaps to her death. As Chen mentions, heroines in martial arts film often meet their demise through suicide and as a result uphold the ideals of the patriarchy that they spend so long rebelling against (Chen pp2). In her final act, Jen may be supporting an assertion that she is not worthy of training despite her skills. Hsiu-Chuang Deppman further analyzes this act as a form of female guilt, for the trouble she has caused the other characters and a tribute to Confucius ideals, which are typically male-centered (Deppman pp11). In addition, her apparent suicide removes the chance of social change within the realm of the movie: because she chooses this path, the school she has been invited to will continue to forbid women from studying there.

Similar conclusions can be drawn from the other film, Hero. There are two female characters in this movie: Falling Snow and Moon. As with Jen in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, they both have very impressive martial arts. Unlike Jen, Falling Snow at least could be said to have comparable skills to her male counterparts—there are no scenes that would suggest otherwise. However, it is again clear that their motives, particularly those of Falling Snow, are purely selfish and even immature in comparison to those of the male characters. This then leads to irresponsible and impulsive use of their wuxia skills.

The first major example of this is in Nameless’ description of Falling Snow and Broken Sword’s downfall, in which through a chain of events Broken Sword ends up sleeping with Moon, and in a fit of rage Falling Snow kills him. Besides the impulsiveness of murdering her lover, her method is also questionable: as he storms off, she sneaks behind him and stabs him through a wall; This scene can be viewed here. In most cultural contexts this would be seen as extremely cowardly. However, in the context of this movie it seems to be even more so, as all other fights between supposed enemies are announced, and both parties are displayed as having a fair chance (despite the fact the audience later learns they are staged). While it is true that this event is Nameless’ lie to cover up what truly happened, it serves to set Falling Snow’s character for when the audience learns of the actual sequence of events.

In the movie, Falling Snow’s motivation to assassinate the Qin Emperor is that he was the cause of her father’s death. Despite the fact that this is a conceivably valid reason to want to assassinate the Qin Emperor, her motive is turned against her by her lover’s and Nameless’ moral superiority due to their enlightenment about the 天下, which Chen defines as “the plebs under heaven” (Chen pp54): the philosophy that bloodshed will end when the people are united under one leader. After this enlightenment is revealed, it casts many of Falling Snow’s actions in a negative light, particularly when she attacked Broken Sword in the library and again later in the desert at the end of the movie. This second scene in particular demonstrates Falling Snow’s irrational behavior. As Chen explains, Broken Sword allows Falling Snow to kill him to demonstrate his pure devotion to her as well as his trustworthiness (Chen pp51). It is clear to the audience that Falling Snow does not intend to kill her lover, but the fact that she allows her anger to overpower her directly leads to this outcome and solidifies her as an impulsive and irresponsible character.

As for Moon, her lack of screen time and meaningful dialogue does not allow for as much analysis. However, she is cast as Broken Sword’s servant and clearly is completely obedient to him. The fact that she does not deviate from Broken Sword’s wishes enforces and idea of two types of women. Falling Snow is a portrayal of a stereotypical hysterical, impulsive, and even wild woman, while Moon is the portrayal of the opposite stereotype: demure, submissive, and completely devoted to the man in her life.

In the context of Chinese performance, these movies can be seen as a form of attempted kinesis. Man-fung Yip asserts that the “female…fighters on screen contain multiple and often contradictory meanings that both reflect and help shape the contesting gender discourses in society” and that, in these films, “powerful female characters…fight men as equals” (Yip pp82). He goes on to say that the exposure of powerful women in martial arts films reinforced the changing of Chinese women’s societal roles in the industrialization of China (Yip pp82-83). The portrayal of strong women in movies certainly has the potential to change society’s view of gender roles. However, I believe that kinesis cannot be achieved if these characters continued to be prescribed the aforementioned gender stereotypes. If all the audience sees is elements of negative stereotypical female behavior, it won’t matter how strong and capable these characters are. All that will be seen is their feminine motives and characteristics, and they will be used as an explanation of their actions in films.

This phenomenon can be seen in several Chinese literary works as well. For example, in the Chinese adaption of the play Hedda Gabler, William Sun and Faye Chunfang Fei’s Hedda, we see another powerful woman. Not only is Haida trained in swordplay, but is also apparently well educated as well as independent and freethinking. However, her strengths are again overshadowed by feminine stereotypes. She seeks power and status, and does so by manipulating and nagging her husband into doing what she wants him to do. She also displays deceit by hiding her ex-love’s manuscript and impulsiveness when she burns it. These are all arguably stereotypically female traits, and contribute heavily to the audience’s interpretation of her actions. A large difference between Hedda and the previously discussed films is that all of the characters in Hedda are given negative qualities, unlike the films in which there is at least one “enlightened” character. Without the juxtaposition of flawed women and ideal men, the effect of the stereotypes is somewhat downplayed. While they are still recognizable in each character, they are taken less seriously because the audience recognizes that each character flaw is exaggerated for the sake of the story.

Another similar example is Meng Jinghui’s abstract play Rhinoceros in Love. The female love interest, Mingming, is another stereotypical woman that is judged principally on her feminine aspects rather than necessarily on her true character. Although she is not a warrior-type character as in other examples, she can be considered powerful due to the authority she holds over Ma Lu because of his affection for her. One of the most prominent of her feminine stereotypes is her reliance on Ma Lu as a “shoulder to cry on” when her artist boyfriend abuses her. It must be acknowledged that Mingming and Ma Lu’s relationship is very complex, but it is obvious throughout the play that Mingming is using him, and in a way drives him to his ultimate suicide. While manipulation is not inherently an exclusively feminine phenomenon, as is obvious by the unnamed artist’s manipulation of Mingming, the focus on Mingming’s usage of Ma Lu forces it into a feminine light. Mingming is construed as a confused, broken woman who isn’t sure what she wants, and as a result leaves a path of destruction in a man’s life. Again, Rhinoceros in Love is different from the martial arts films in that it lacks enlightened characters. This is why I believe that these wuxia films, despite their attempt at kinesis by portraying women as powerful, are more damaging to society’s view of women in general: despite the women in these films having supernatural fighting powers, they are still obviously lesser than their male counterparts. This reinforces the concept of feminine inferiority in a way that Hedda and Rhinoceros in Love simply cannot due to their portrayals of more farcical characters.

Despite writers’ and directors’ attempts to portray women in a more powerful, independent light, the efforts of those who work on popular martial arts films ultimately fail. This is due to the juxtaposition of these female characters with obviously superior male characters, whether they are simply better at martial arts or are more enlightened or moral. In order for the goal of kinesis to be reached, it must become common practice for these female warrior characters to be portrayed as full equals to males. Beyond the obvious steps, for example not portraying these characters as “damsels in distress”, this means that female characters must be allowed to hold typically male roles more often, whether it be a martial arts master or the most morally or socially enlightened person in the story. These tropes are not common enough in modern movies to suggest gender equality in Chinese cinema, but are the next logical step towards that goal.

 

Bibliography

Chen, Ya-Chen. Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millennium. Plymouth: Lexington, 2012. Print.

Deppman, Hsiu-Chuang. Adapted for the Screen: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Fiction and Film. Honolulu: U of Hawai’i, 2010. Print.

Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2016. Print.

Yip, Man-Fung. “The Difficulty of Difference: Rethinking the Woman Warrior Figure in Hong Kong Martial Arts Cinema.” Chinese Literature Today 3.1-2 (2013): 1-82. Mirlyn. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.