By Man-Fung Yip
Over the last several decades martial arts have become ingrained in the global cinematic imagination, yet the genre has remained overwhelmingly masculine since the electric presence of Bruce Lee 李小龙 first appeared on the silver screen in the early 1970s. In this essay, University of Oklahoma Professor of Film Studies Man-Fung Yip explores the powerful if lesser-known filmic archetype of the “woman warrior” that was prominent in late ’60s and early ’70s Hong Kong films like Come Drink with Me (Da Zui Xia 大醉侠) and Kung Fu Girl (Tie wa 铁娃), and can still be seen in such films as Ang Lee’s 李安 blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wohu Canglong 卧虎藏龙) in 2000. Martial arts films may offer a mixed bag of cultural and gendered stereotypes, but Yip reveals ways in which the genre has choreographed a space for emergent representations of gender in popular culture.
For many viewers in the West, what is fascinating about Ang Lee’s 李安 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wohu Canglong 卧虎藏龙) (2000) lies not only in the film’s eye-catching and gravity-defying action sequences, but also in its unique portrayal of powerful female characters who fight men as equals. Despite their very different personalities, the dutiful Yu Xiulian (Michelle Yeoh 杨紫琼) and the rebellious Jen (Zhang Ziyi 章子怡) share one thing in common: near-fantastic combat skills that give the characters a degree of strength and independence not often associated with women. Those in the know, however, would point out that such formidable action heroines are not something new, and that they represent part of a long tradition of cinematic nüxia 女侠—or female knights-errant—that can be traced to the martial arts films of the late 1920s and early 1930s in Shanghai. When the martial arts film genre was revived in Hong Kong during the late 1940s, the woman warrior figure was also given a new lease on life, and the following decades saw the appearance of numerous actresses—among them Yu Suqiu 于素秋, Zheng Peipei 郑佩佩, Hsu Feng 徐枫, Shangguan Lingfeng 上官灵 凤, Angela Mao 茅瑛, Kara Hui 惠英红, and Michelle Yeoh—who captivated viewers with their portrayals of strong, self-determining women marked by extraordinary martial skills.
On the surface, the prominence accorded to women warriors in Chinese-language cinema invites a kind of feminist interpretation in which discourses on female empowerment and liberation take precedence. And it is indeed not uncommon for these action heroines to be taken as taboo-breakers who pose a challenge to stereotyped gender representations. That being said, it is important not to overemphasize the transgressive connotations of these female fighting figures no matter how powerful they might seem; as cultural markers, the swordswomen and female kung fu fighters on screen contain multiple and often contradictory meanings that both reflect and help shape the contesting gender discourses in society.
This becomes especially true when we consider the woman warrior figures of 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong cinema. This period, as is well known, was a time of enormous change in Hong Kong, as the city began a rapid course of industrialization and modernization, which in turn triggered a complex process of redefinition and renegotiation pertaining to women’s roles in society. Increasing job opportunities brought about by Hong Kong’s rapid growth in manufacturing created a context for women’s greater participation in the labor force. According to statistics, labor-force participation rates for women in Hong Kong had jumped from 36.8 percent in 1961 to 42.8 percent in 1971 and then to 49.5 percent in 1981. While many of these women laborers were factory workers who had to toil away in obscurity, the very fact that they were employed and engaged in extra-domestic work gave them a level of social visibility and financial independence hitherto unseen in previous generations. As the economy continued to grow and even more opportunities were available, there were also, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, a rising number of successful career women in society to foster the perception that the social status of women was indeed changing.
At the same time, Hong Kong—as an increasingly modern and Westernized society under British colonial rule—began to embrace more liberal ideas that destabilized, at least partially, the patriarchal norms and structures of traditional Chinese society. Polygamy, for instance, was officially abolished in 1971, and the policy of six-year compulsory education, first introduced in 1971 (and extended to nine years in 1978), helped facilitate higher education attainment for women. Another sign—and consequence—of a more liberal social climate concerning questions of gender and sexuality was the proliferation of new images of women in the realm of mass culture. The early 1970s witnessed the rapid growth of middle-brow women’s magazines, such as STYLE Hongkong and Femina Hong Kong, which actively invoked the freethinking, professionally successful woman as a model to be emulated. At a more grassroots level, the emergence of 13-Dot and other women-oriented comics in the mid 1960s also served to promote and disseminate a new female image, one that was marked not only by a chic trendiness but also by a strongly independent and adventurous spirit.
Yet it was in the cinema, which at the time comprised two parallel traditions, one in Cantonese (the dialect spoken by Hong Kong natives) and the other in Mandarin (the dominant dialect spoken by mainland emigres), that the new image of women in association with the city’s burgeoning urban-industrial modernity could be most clearly observed. As early as the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Motion Picture and General Investment Co. Ltd. 国际电影懋业有限公司, then one of the leading studios in Hong Kong Mandarin cinema, turned out a series of films that explored women’s complex relationships with modernity, focusing in particular on the trope of “crossing borders”—not only geographical borders but also social, ethical, and psychological ones. Even the more conservative Cantonese cinema made a concerted effort, from the early to mid 1960s onward, to modernize its representations of women. In doing so, it brought to prominence a whole new generation of female stars—most notably Chan Po-chu 陈宝珠 and Siao Fong-fong 萧芳芳—who enthralled audiences with their fresh and fashionable appearance, their diverse talents (dancing, singing, kung fu fighting), and their portrayals of independent-minded women taking the lead in opposing injustice, striving for free love, and challenging social and traditional moral barriers.
To this list of new female images one must add the female knight-errant and other woman warrior types central to the martial arts film genre. Although such action heroines had been a regular fixture in Hong Kong cinema since the late 1940s, they took on increasing prominence from the mid 1960s on, embodying a distinctly “modern” image—physically active, daring and independent in spirit, and full of youthful energy—that mirrored the shifting identities and aspirations of many young women in Hong Kong.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that the changes in socioeconomic positions and the popular cultural representations of women noted above did not entirely transform the underlying gender structures of Hong Kong society. The fact that more women became wage workers or had access to higher education does not necessarily mean that they were emancipated. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that women continued to be disadvantaged, both in pay and in job segregation, not to mention that they also tended to occupy, whether as wives or as daughters, a subordinate position at home. This enduring inequality in gender relations attested to the lasting influence of traditional patriarchal norms in 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong, although those same norms were also being increasingly challenged and reassessed. What we witness, then, is a rapidly changing society with contending gender discourses, and the reality of diverse and often incompatible forces confronting Hong Kong women and putting them in a conflicting position between independence and duty, freedom and constraint; a position, as we are to see shortly, that is also shared by many woman warrior characters in Hong Kong martial arts films at the time.
Consider Come Drink with Me (Da Zui Xia 大醉侠) (dir. King Hu 胡金铨, 1966), the film that propelled Zheng Peipei to stardom and set the stage for her development as one of Hong Kong cinema’s most prominent women warriors during the second half of the 1960s. In the film, Zheng plays Golden Swallow, a highly skilled swordswoman dispatched by the Governor—her father—to free her brother from a band of outlaws led by Jade-Faced Tiger (Chen Honglie 陈鸿烈). The character impresses not only with her youthful energy and confidence (Zheng was only twenty when she made the film); even more remarkable are her exceptional feats of martial prowess, which are displayed early in the film. In the now-legendary scene at the tavern, Golden Swallow is harassed by some thugs sent to negotiate with her about the release of her brother. The scene is carefully shot and the action perfectly choreographed to accentuate the martial skills of the female knight-errant. At one point, an assailant hurls a mass of coins at her, which she deftly intercepts with a mere chopstick. In order to depict this astounding deed in a credible way without diminishing its preternatural power, the director employed a very simple trick: we see, in a single continuous shot, Golden Swallow move her hand swiftly in the air and then stab into the table a chopstick with copious coins (pre)strung on it. That the whole action is depicted in one unedited take—but at a speed too rapid for the viewer to fully register (and to see through the artifice involved)—is precisely what makes it appear both otherworldly powerful and eminently believable.
Despite the fact that Golden Swallow is portrayed as an awe-inspiring woman warrior and that she is commonly seen as the most compelling character in the film, it does not follow that the heroine represents a simple celebration of women’s power. On the contrary, there are numerous signs that her agency is constantly compromised and undermined. For one thing, Golden Swallow is positioned in a very close relationship to the prevailing social and patriarchal order, as symbolized by her Governor father, and her deeds reflect her position both as his official agent (bringing the band of outlaws to justice) and as his daughter (rescuing her captured brother). In this sense, it could be said that Golden Swallow fights not so much for women’s freedom and independence as for the perpetuation of men’s authority and power.
The re-inscription of male dominance is further reinforced by the film’s narrative structure, as the focus abruptly shifts about halfway through from Golden Swallow to Fan Dabei, the film’s male protagonist, played by Yue Hua 岳华. Even during the first half of the film, when Golden Swallow is arguably the principal narrative agent, Fan already serves as a guardian angel to her, assisting her and saving her whenever she is in danger. It is he, for instance, who lures her away from her room one night and secretly helps her avoid being ambushed. He also tips her off to the whereabouts of the outlaws so that she is able to track them down. As the narrative continues to develop, Fan effectively takes over the role of the protagonist while Golden Swallow is relegated to a secondary position, acting merely as a foil to his skills. This becomes particularly apparent in the final battle with the renegade monk Liao Kong (Yang Zhiqing 杨志卿): not only does Fan rescue a defeated Golden Swallow, but he is also the only one who possesses the skills needed to defeat Liao.
The turning point that marks this shift of narrative focus occurs in the scene where Golden Swallow, disguising herself as a young maiden going to pray, infiltrates the outlaws’ den at a temple and gets into a fierce battle with them. During the fight she is wounded by a poisoned dart; she barely escapes but is too weak to go far. Exhausted, the heroine gradually loses consciousness, represented cinematically by a swirling point of view shot that ostensibly visualizes her subjective sensation of dizziness and disorientation. A similar effect is used moments later, after Golden Swallow is rescued by Fan and taken to his mountain hut. As the heroine, irritated by Fan’s mocking remarks about her impetuous actions, decides to leave without having completely recovered from her injuries, several subjective shots of distorted images—an alternately in- and out-of-focus landscape, the water of a stream changing to a weirdly greenish color—are again used to signify her frail condition.
In both cases, the diminished power of Golden Swallow is signaled by the negation of her normal vision—a not-insignificant fact if we take into consideration the subtle shift of gaze, which may be taken as a sign of heightened alertness and mental focus, that has hitherto marked the heroine in combat situations. In endowing the female knight-errant with this vigilant gaze but dispossessing her of it in the end, Come Drink with Me clearly bears out a recurrent argument in feminist film criticism: the woman as the subject of the gaze is an impossible sign that needs to be controlled and contained.
This ultimate taming of the woman warrior figure was not something unique to Come Drink with Me, but could be found in many other martial arts films of the time. Take, for example, The Golden Sword (Longmen jin jian 龙门金剑) (dir. Lo Wei 罗维, 1969): in the film, Zheng plays the role of a dirt-smeared, cross-dressed vagabond who possesses outstanding martial skills and belongs to a group of chivalrous beggars whose mission is to steal from the rich and give to the poor. This, at least, is how the character is portrayed at the outset, before she meets the swordsman Bai Yulong (Gao Yuan 高远) and eventually falls in love with him. After they get married, the once free-spirited, independent woman warrior is transformed into a submissive wife and drops out of view for long stretches in the second half of the film. In other cases, women warriors are not even given a chance to display their impressive fighting skills. The most revealing example here is undoubtedly The Golden Swallow (Jin yanzi 金燕子) (dir. Chang Cheh 张彻, 1967): in spite of being the focus of the film’s title, which refers to the same female knight-errant character played by Zheng in Come Drink with Me, the heroine is hardly shown in active combat situations. Indeed, as a mere romantic object for the film’s two male protagonists, the heroine is reduced to an essential but passive narrative figure—a figure to be fought over rather than one who actively fights.
But even when a film presents a woman warrior character who can command the narrative from start to finish and who is able to fight better than her (male) opponents, this does not necessarily entail a subversion of traditional gender boundaries. The transgressive figure embodied by the character, one might argue, is nothing but a fantasy image conjured up by men, a mere copy or imitation of her male counterparts. To better illustrate my point, let’s turn to Kung Fu Girl (Tie wa 铁娃), one of the last martial arts films made by Zheng Peipei in 1973.
Kung Fu Girl is set in the chaotic period of mid 1910s China, when Yuan Shikai 袁世凯, the President of the Chinese Republic, was to ratify a treaty that would give away parts of northern China to Japan’s control. This shameful act of appeasement was met with fierce resistance and provoked many people to come out publicly against Yuan. In the film, Zheng Peipei plays Xiaoying, a patriotic woman warrior who volunteers to join a group of revolutionaries and helps them find the whereabouts of their leader, Cai. To achieve her mission, Xiaoying poses as the long-separated sister of Captain Lei (Ou Wei 欧威), who works under Commissioner Wu (played by director Lo Wei) and was responsible for arresting Cai and other dissenters. The impersonation plan works at the outset, with Xiaoying gaining key intelligence and helping to thwart Lei’s plan to ambush the revolutionaries’ hideout. Her true identity, however, is eventually discovered, and she has no choice but to fight, even at the cost of her own life, to save Cai.
Made at a time when kung fu films—a subgenre of martial arts cinema centered on unarmed combat and made popular by Bruce Lee—dominated both local and regional markets, Kung Fu Girl was no doubt conceived to capitalize on the widespread success of the genre and the charismatic action star. Kung Fu Girl contains copious references to Fist of Fury (Jing Wu Men 精武门, 1972), an enormous box-office hit directed, again, by Lo Wei. A particular strain of anti-Japanese nationalism also pervades and characterizes both films: just as Fist of Fury exploited the increasing anti-Japanese sentiments of Hong Kong people at the time by depicting Bruce Lee as an invincible Chinese hero who fights against evil Japanese opponents, Kung Fu Girl also followed a similar strategy in portraying a tough female fighter pitted against Japanese imperialist invaders (and their Chinese collaborators).
There are other, more specific resemblances between the two films. Set pieces, for instance, are frequently recycled, and the same is true with some of the action sequences. In Fist of Fury, at a key moment in the fight between Lee and the Russian boxer, a kind of slow-motion ghosting effect is used to underscore Lee’s quirky hand movements. The same technique can also be observed in Kung Fu Girl, the sole difference being that Xiaoying is making motion with her leg rather than with her fists. Other examples abound: a famous moment in Fist of Fury has Lee delivering a spectacular flying kick that sends Suzuki, the master of a Japanese Dojo, soaring out of the room through a sliding shoji door. In a similar way, near the end of her fight with the Japanese consul Sano (Shishido Jo), Xiaoying also launches a leaping kick that bursts through a shoji door and hits her Japanese opponent right in the head.
Yet it is in their respective endings that the most substantial similarities between the two films can be found. As is well known, the powerful last shot of Fist of Fury shows a defiant Lee charging and making a flying kick at a line of armed Japanese soldiers. The particular setup of the shot, with the camera placed in the position of the firing squad (and thus directly in front of Lee), is clearly designed to bring out and to let the viewer experience more forcefully the audacity of Lee’s character as he meets his death head-on. The shot ends with a freeze-frame of Lee in mid-air, the ricocheting sound of gunshots hinting at the ultimate fate of the hero. In halting the flow of time and thus freeing the hero from a bloody death, the freeze-frame functions as a symbol of defiance and even transcendence, elevating the image of death to an allegorical sign.
Similarly, the ending of Kung Fu Girl is also staged and shot in a way that accentuates the death-defying determination in Xiaoying’s sacrifice: after the heroine has killed Sano and succeeded in freeing Cai, she finds herself surrounded by a squadron of law enforcers armed with rifles and guns. The rest of the scene alternates between the shot of a fearless Xiaoying marching defiantly toward Commissioner Wu and the armed officers and images of the latter seen from the heroine’s perspective. Gunshots are heard, and notwithstanding the pained expressions on Xiaoying’s face, the heroine refuses to go down, but stands defiantly proud and determined. As throbbing music swells, the film cuts to an extreme long shot of Xiaoying still in her firm stance, the only sign of her tragic destiny the crimson color (symbolizing blood) dripping down from the top of the screen. While perhaps not as overtly dramatic as the corresponding moment in Fist of Fury, the ending of Kung Fu Girl displays a similar effort to allegorize death and to provide a symbolic space in which viewers are able to witness a process of regeneration through violence.
There is perhaps nothing surprising about these acts of copying or recycling, which simply reflect the derivative nature of popular cinema—that is, its tendency to repeat, with minor variations, what has been proven commercially successful. But they do raise important questions about gender representations in Kung Fu Girl, for—in looking at the examples above, or simply judging from the fact that the film, as a kung fu movie, requires its female protagonist to take on a more visceral fighting style emphasizing contact and power—it could be argued that Xiaoying, the woman warrior played by Zheng Pei-pei in the film, is nothing but a duplicate or virtual image of Bruce Lee (and other male kung fu stars); a “spillover,” as Kwai-cheung Lo 罗贵祥 puts it in another context, of the violent masculinity that has characterized Hong Kong cinema since the early 1970s.
Therein lies the complex gender politics that informs Kung Fu Girl: on the one hand, conceiving the woman warrior as a mere copy or imitation does not necessarily entail a sense of falsehood or inferiority. In assuming the function as the prime narrative agent and taking on qualities (such as power, agency, and toughness) historically associated with men, Xiaoying seems to pose a challenge to the prevailing gender structure in which the terms “male” and “masculine” are inextricably linked. And it is not simply the connection between masculinity and men that is being affected; the masculine mask donned by the woman warrior could also serve to destabilize conventional gender schemas assigned to a female subject and produce multiple potentialities out of which new forms of female image and identity can be actualized.
On the other hand, as a woman warrior whose image is defined mainly by the attributes and characteristics of her male counterparts, Xiaoying is far from being an unqualified figure of female empowerment and liberation. This is because the female appropriation of the masculine norms—an instance of “female masculinity,” if you will—tends to reinforce the hegemonic meanings of those norms themselves, which are still regarded as the standard for legitimizing the principles of sexual hierarchy and differentiation. Put otherwise, the ideology of masculinity remains at stake for sexual politics because it can convey symbolic values and thus becomes a target that different groups, including women, seek to redefine for their own purposes. This, in many ways, is the double bind faced by the woman warrior: the difficulty of constructing a subject position that eschews the conventional notions of women as being weak and dependent without, however, replicating the dominant norms of masculinity and thus turning them into a stable origin or foundation.
Notwithstanding what is said above, it is important not to overemphasize the masculine/muscular fighting style in Kung Fu Girl and lose sight of its no less vital feminine dimension. Hong Kong martial arts films, as is frequently pointed out, have always shown a propensity to emphasize agility and acrobatic skills over sheer muscular power. This is especially true with the swordplay films of King Hu, which are known for their deep connections with Peking opera and its stylized choreography of action. As the director himself confessed, “I have no knowledge of kung fu whatsoever. My action scenes … come from the stylized combat of Peking opera. In fact, it’s dance.” Conceptualizing cinematic martial arts not as “real” fights or combats but rather as dance—a subtle choreography of body movement based on the performing style of Beijing opera and the rhythm and beat of its score—allows for a certain amount of feminine sensuality to infuse the action sequences and transform them into sublime spectacles of the human body in motion comparable to musical numbers at their best. This probably explains why Hu showed such a strong fascination with the female knight-errant figure and granted her a major position in many of his films, most notably Come Drink with Me and A Touch of Zen (1970-71). What attracted him was precisely the grace and beauty, the sensual physicality, that an actress could better bring to the action scenes.
While this feminine, dance-like nature of cinematic martial arts is more clearly manifested in the swordplay movie, it is a characteristic that has also marked the kung fu film, despite its usual perception as a genre identified with violence and aggression. This is presumably what Yvonne Tasker has in mind when she argues that the kung fu films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are as much about the graceful sensuality of bodily movement as the violence of the body. She is quick to point out, however, that this notion of sensual physicality does not entail the feminization of the action hero. Rather, what she is proposing is the idea of cinematic martial arts as a “feminized art form,” that the martial arts performance in film, as with dance, “offers the possibility of occupying a feminine position that involves . . . an explicit location of the male body on display.”
In this sense, the transition of the martial arts film genre from swordplay to kung fu might have resulted in a more masculine action style, but the shift was by no means absolute and the feminine grace and sensuality of the martial arts “dance” remained central to kung fu films. And Kung Fu Girl, with a powerful yet graceful action heroine at the center of its mise-en-scène, is a particularly good illustration of this: amid the film’s violent, hard-hitting sparring scenes are moments of dance-like action, as when Xiaoying delivers her beautiful high kicks or when the film depicts, in slow motion, the heroine performing a mid-air somersault reminiscent of theatrical acrobatics during her battle with Sano.
Responding to and participating in the heterogeneous gender ideologies connected to a rapidly modernizing society, the women warriors in the late 1960s and 1970s Hong Kong martial arts films reflected a complex amalgamation of ideas, values, and desires that both enhanced and impeded the possibility of new becomings. An ambiguous and even contradictory image, no doubt, but it is precisely this rich multifacetedness that has enabled this iconic cultural figure to be reinterpreted and reinvented in different times and places, thereby ensuring her recurrent appearance over the years.
1. On the idea of “border crossing” and its relationship to the modern situation of women, see Mary Wong, “Women Who Cross borders: MP & GI’s Modernity Programme,” in The Cathay Story, ed. Wong Ain-ling (Hong Kong: Hong Kong Film Archive, 2002), 162–75.
2. Zheng is perhaps best known in the West for her portrayal of the evil Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
4. See Koichi Yamada and Koyo Udagawa, A Touch of King Hu (Hu
5. This is perhaps why Zheng Peipei was chosen to star in Come Drink with Me in the first place, for Zheng had been trained in ballet for six years and displayed a litheness and agility crucial to the kind of martial arts performance required by Hu. It is also noteworthy that training in dance also distinguished many later female action stars, from Angela Mao and Kara Hui to Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zhiyi.
6. Yvonne Tasker, “Fists of Fury: Discourses of Race and Masculinity in the Martial Arts Cinema,” in Race and the Subject of Masculinities, ed. Harry Stecopoulos and Michael Uebel (Durham and London: Duke Univ. Press, 1997), 320.
From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 3 No. 1 & 2