Lin Qingxia in Swordsman II


The Book

In a postmodern reworking of a classical martial arts trope, Swordsman II (Xiao’ao Jiang Hu II: Dongfang Bubai, 1992) shows heroes and villains fighting over a sacred text (in this case, a scroll), designed to ensure its possessor superhuman martial skills (2). To acquire such skills, the price to be paid is self-castration; only the most consummate villain, Asia the Invincible, is willing to go to such extremes, and Asia appears in the film as a ravishing—and lethal—swordswoman, played by the spectacular Lin Qingxia (Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia).

A secret desire for self-annihilation, mutilation, punishment, and death haunts many martial arts stories–but what interests me here is how the relationship between the sacred text, the feminine gaze and the castration (real or symbolic) of the hero is explored in two classic films. In Zhang Che’s The One-Armed Sworsdman (Dubi Dao, 1967), the eponymous hero, Fang Gang, is given a martial arts manual by the young woman, Xiao Man, who saved him after his mutilation. Her own father, a nameless swordsman, had died for that book (as Fang’s father himself had died), and, in anger, her mother had tried to burn it. The book is therefore as incomplete as the hero. Fang, however, manages to insert himself into the gaps of this fragmentary discourse and develop a technique, making innovative use of his left arm and the short, broken sword left by his father.

Similarly, in Lau Kar-Leung’s Executioners from Shaolin (Hong Xiguan, 1977), the young Wending—once his father, Hong Xiguan, is killed by the evil eunuch Bai Mei—finds his father’s “Tiger kungfu” training manual. But the book is in an advanced state of decomposition—a fact that Wending hides from his mother (Li Lili), who had raised him in the fine art of “Crane kungfu.” Protecting the “secret” of the book, Wending adopts a feminine position—that of the hysterical daughter who has to hide, at all costs, the possible castration of the Father. Not surprisingly, Wending’s dress and physical appearance, his hair-do, his body language, are coded as feminine. During training, Wending makes up for the lacunas of the book by combining “Crane” and “Tiger,” masculine and feminine, which allows him to defeat the castrated “monster,” Bai Mei (3).

In both cases the flawed book is passed on from a defeated, dead father to an imperfect hero through the hands/care/guidance of a woman assuming a motherly position. In turn, the hero becomes a worthy son to the symbolic father – Wending avenges Hong’s death and Fang Gang, marrying Xiao Man, gives the anonymous swordsman a son-in-law.

The Goddess

A hybrid cultural product in which East meets West (4), and in which nostalgia for a lost (non-fragmented) China lingers in the ambiguous space of post-colonialism (5), the martial arts film (wuxia pian) became a playful and spectacular way of enacting a grand-scale redefinition of gender roles. In the early Republican era (which coincides with the beginning of film production in China (6)), the concept of “new woman” (xin nüxing) was discussed at all levels of discourse – from May Fourth literature (7) and social reform texts to fashion magazines, pulp literature (“butterfly literature” – of which the martial arts novel is a sub-genre (8)) and cinema.

The development of the film industry in Shanghai played a major role in the social advancement of women. The 1772 ban against female performers on stage created the tradition of the female impersonator (dan) in Beijing Opera (9). Later, filmic realism demanded real women’s bodies and the ban was eventually lifted (10). Moreover, the Shanghai urban environment provided countless employment opportunities for women—from bilingual secretaries to dance-hall hostesses to movie stars—allowing them to escape the Confucian tradition of the three obediences (to one’s father, husband and son). Yet, such radical changes generated profound anxieties, soon echoed by popular culture. Was the new woman a revolutionary social reformer? Would she fail and kill herself? Would she become a prostitute? (11) Inherited from early martial arts stories and legends (12), the figure of the fighting heroine came to the rescue to suture this anxiety—but with a somewhat perverse twist.

In 1922, Zhang Shichuan founded the Mingxing Film Company, Shanghai’s most important studio. Between 1928 and 1930, he produced and directed 18 episodes of Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery (Huo Shao Hongliang Si), whose tremendous success fanned the wuxia pian (“martial chivalry” film) craze. Zhang’s other claims to fame were his discoveries of glamorous actresses—Wang Hanlun, Hu Die, Ruan Lingyu—and implementation of a well-organized star system, mostly centered around female performers. In 1926, Zhang cast one of his most alluring discoveries, Xuan Jinglin, in The Nameless Hero (Wuming Yingxiong), making her one of the first swordswomen in Chinese cinema (13).

Zhang had paid to redeem Xuan Jinglin from a low-class brothel in 1925, and some of the films he made with her cashed in on her persona as a kind-hearted prostitute—a “goddess,” in Chinese slang (14). Shen nü, “prostitute,” is an inversion of the two Chinese characters composing the word “goddess,” nü shen. This linguistic slippage alludes to the mythological Yao Ji, who, having died a maiden, returned to sexually haunt the dreams of emperors—therefore debasing her divine powers in the sexual service of men. This tale of “falling from grace,” from divinity to abjection, of the subjection of feminine powers to the reprobation and constraints of the patriarchy society seems to be a universal trope (15). Chinese mythology contains the story of the original Goddess-Mother, Nü Wa, who not only created mankind out of clay, but mended the sky after a war between men and giants had destroyed it. Exhausted by this Herculean task, Nü Wa prepares to die. Among the “little people” she created, one, a pompous priest, berates her nudity as “lewd… immoral… forbidden by the laws of the land.” (16)

The myth of the Fallen Goddess expresses a post-Oedipal ambivalence toward the image of the Mother. First, she is feared, loved and worshipped. However, the creation of the patriarchal order demands the submission of all females to an all-powerful Father, a process in which the son is required to collaborate, via identification with the Father. When the Goddess refuses to submit, she “returns” in a “monstrous,” threatening form: as Medusa or the Sphinx, Hecate mother of all witches, or a hideous demoness, as in the fantastic tales popularized by Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung’s A Chinese Ghost Story (Qiannü Youhun) series (1987, 1990). In an urban environment, she reappears as the no less threatening figure of the killer prostitute. Belonging to no man in particular, but sold to all, she is in-between: her profession gives her an intimate knowledge of men, and yet she is their mortal enemy.

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

It is this mythological dimension that gives Chu Yuan’s (Chor Yuen’s) Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Ai Nu, 1972) its oneiric, almost surreal quality. Forced into prostitution by a group of thugs and Chun Yi (Bei Di), a lesbian madam, Ai Nu (He Lili) becomes the highest-priced courtesan of the brothel, bewitching men into submission until she decides to exact revenge. Bedroom scenes turn into swordfights, foreplay into murders. Chun Yi victimizes and exploits Ai Nu while being in love with her, and conversely Ai Nu pretends to be lured into a lesbian relationship with Chun Yi to entrap her. So sex, seduction (and kissing!) become the ultimate weapons for power. The two heroines never lose either their regal poise or their mysterious, slightly ironical smiles. A tribute to female power, the film also constructs the women as sex objects, through titillating episodes that could almost qualify as soft porn. While the beauty of the protagonists, the elegant virtuosity of the fights and the erotic interludes create a highly pleasurable spectacle, a faint whiff of terror can also be felt. What is behind this mask, this perfectly smooth performance? A frightened child? Or a primeval void, an uncanny monster?

Jiang Hu

The wuxia pian is a symptom of disorder. It depicts an alternative, marginalized “world of vagrants” (jiang hu), composed of thieves, traveling entertainers, knights-errant, killers, bodyguards for hire, and unattached women. More than likely, the historical jiang hu attracted peasants or craftsmen displaced by incessant warfare between rival states, and warriors of the defeated armies (17). In King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (Da Zui Xia, 1966), the male protagonist, “Drunken Hero” (Yue Hua) describes himself as a “waif” raised out of kindness in a martial arts school, and he leads a group of beggar children. A literature of the downtrodden, the martial arts novel was often banned, along with pornographic writing (18). The former also represented the revenge of the downtrodden. Despised by society, the martial arts hero could offset his marginalization by displaying unsuspected skills: “in the fictional martial arts world… cripples, beggars, thieves, women and scholars may be weak in appearance, but are often martial arts experts.” (19)

The jiang hu is an anarchistic world, yet abiding to the Confucean respect of the master, father and traditional authority. A parallel contradiction runs through its sexual economy. Its very marginalization turns it into a world where some form of female agency can be upheld. Women are less confined, their freedom of movement is greater, they can travel and fight. Yet, unlike what happens in the melodrama, the real subject of the diegesis is not the woman, but the male body, and women, fighting or not, often end up as pawns – yet their function within the diegesis keeps changing. In Zhang Xinyan’s (Cheung Yam-yim’s) Shaolin Temple (Shaolin Si, 1982), Pei is first shown as a bucolic sheperdess – then displays unsuspected martial arts skills and becomes a love object for the hero (Jet Li) – and eventually the villain, turned on by her “wildness” (martial arts skills), tries to rape her. More complex, Hsu Feng in King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (Xia Nü, 1970) is alternatively soft and hard, a seductress and a fighter, a tender soul and a remote bitch. Not surprising for a genre so indebted to Beijing Opera, the wuxia pian from its inception asserts the primacy of “the performative”: the protagonists are equated with their martial arts skills—not to the position assigned to them by society and biology. So a frail-looking, pretty body could be that of a fierce warrior. This is also why the issue of treachery (who is your friend, who is your foe, who can you trust) plays such an important role, with the figure of “woman” often at its center, in an interesting variation of the western concept of the femme fatale in film noir. Like Ballen’s cane-knife in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946), the wuxia heroine “looks like one thing and right in front of your eyes…becomes another thing.” (20)

Narrative Stasis

Born in a time of social/political crisis, the wuxia pian reflects a nationalist nostalgia/fantasy for a China that never was. Yet, this apparently conservative ideology (21) is enacted through a radical reconfiguration of both the narrative economy of the film and the balance of power between the genders. In his analysis of the Hong Kong action film, David Bordwell stresses the importance of stasis in the choreography of a fight (22). One could argue that the entire narrative structure of the wuxia pian is organized around a “pause-thrust-pause” pattern, with the fighting sequences interspersed as pure spectacles to break the diegetic flow. The parallel here is with the dance numbers in musicals or the hard-core scenes in porn, that apparently constitute the real subject of the film (what the fans pay to see). The three genres (wuxia, musical and porn) are built around a structural ambivalence that keeps attributing a different diegetic value to the “performance numbers”. They can be perceived either as moments of contemplation and stasis in contradistinction with the ideological work of the diegesis (23); or as elements re-stating narrative conflicts and regulating the movement between equilibrium and disequilibrium that makes up the plot (24).

At the core of the wuxia pian is the well-choreographed spectacle of beautiful bodies—most of them male, some female—fighting each other, performing extravagant feats and even flying in the air. The libidinal investment of the spectator is triggered by the fight sequences, although the “plot” provides a framework necessary to “digest” his/her own pleasure – that may not unfold along the lines of “traditional” or even “permissible” gender identification. The genre operates a profound reshuffling of the paradigms outlined by Laura Mulvey in her now-classical text: “the visual presence [of the woman in a narrative film] tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation… Woman [is] the image, man… the bearer of the look.” (25) In the wuxia pian, exhibitionism is the privilege of the male, and it is the fetishized spectacle of his body that “stops the narration”.

The primary locus of this exhibitionism is the training – the “story” of countless martial arts films can be summarized in the well-documented efforts of the hero to acquire the skills necessary for his “mission”. The One-Armed Swordsman has to (re)learn how to fight with his disability. In Shaolin Temple, Jet Li trains to become a Shaolin monk in interpolated vignettes staged and shot like musical numbers, with peach blossoms, waterfalls or autumn leaves in the background. In The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shaolin Shanshiliu Fang, 1978) and Return to the 36th Chamber (Shaolin Dapeng Dashi, 1980), Lau Kar-leung (Lau Kar-leong) anchors two versions of this process in the charismatic body of the actor Lau Kar-fai (Gordon Liu Jiahui (26))– one heroic, displaying a classical sense of honor and a desire to avenge the victims of feudal tyranny, one comical, acutely reflecting the “performative” aspect of the wuxia: beaten up for passing as a fake monk to help his working-class Han brothers exploited by their Manchu bosses and determined to become a “real” martial artist, the hero does not realize he has learnt “scaffolding kung fu” by restoring the Shaolin temple at the request of the Abbot.

Where Do These Skills Come From?

Interestingly, the wuxia pian devotes very little time, if any at all, to the training of the female fighter. And her kung fu or swordsmanship is all the more terrifying because it is unexplained. In Intimate Confessions, we never see Ai Nu “in training”, so the acquisition of her lethal fighting skills, within the confine of a brothel, remains an alluring enigma. Chun Yi supervises a “training session” at the beginning of the film, but it teaches the girls how to use their muscles for sex, and borrows the codes (and tricks) of erotic novels or porn films dealing with “the making of a prostitute,” such as Pauline Réage’s The Story of O or Henry Paris’ The Opening of Misty Beethoven (1975) (27). However, the possible slippage between “sex training” and “martial arts training” strengthens the equation the film draws between women’s erotic power and their fighting skills.

In more recent—and less sexually explicit—films, a typical example would be Cynthia Rothrock’s arrival at the Hong Kong airport in the first third of Corey Yuen Kwai’s Yes, Madam! (Wong Ga Bai Che/Huangjia Shijie, 1985). Mistaken for an innocuous passenger by a villain on the run, she single-handedly overpowers him, only to be mocked, a few minutes later, by two Chinese policemen who make unsavory comments about her figure (“this foreign chick… is good only for third-rate night clubs”). As it turns out, not only is the villain in for a surprise (she’s a martial arts expert), but the bumbling cops as well (she speaks perfect Cantonese and is able to “scold” them in this language). The figure of the wuxia heroine is at the center of a precarious balance between devaluation/defilement/abjection (sexist jokes, threats of rape) and the fetishization of her fighting skills (Wow, she can really do it!). In turn, this fetishization sometimes makes her even more titillating as a sex object (28).

This “double take” reflects the anxiety of the male subject wondering if the woman has it or not—like Freud’s “Wolf Man” hallucinating a penis where there was none (29). Legs, fists, swords, guns, hairpins, conic hats, leaps in the air, acrobatic feats involving the throwing of objects, and, last but not least, the warrior’s gaze (30) are as many extensions of the body that function as phallic substitutes. But, if the existence of such attributes can quell the subject’s anxiety by denying the existence of “castrated” human beings, it opens up an area of no less fearful uncertainty.

For the hero wandering though the wuxia pian is never sure, when he meets a woman, if she’s a potential soul mate, a femme fatale or a fighting demoness. Worst of all, while the acquisition of fighting skills is the result of a process for a man, no such narrative development seems to exist for the woman. Like Athena, she comes out in the world dressed in full warrior regalia. She appears as a “no-man’s-land” (a very apt term in this case) between subject and object, having it and not having it, possessing frightening power and subject to victimization—and can switch without transition between these two poles, leaving her male suitors and foes equally confused and puzzled.

Zheng Peipei in Come Drink With Me

The Mask: Gender as Equilibrium or Disorder

In Come Drink With Me, the female protagonist, Golden Swallow, first appears as a dapper young man with top martial arts skills. The gender of the actress, Zheng Peipei (Cheng Pei-pei), appears clearly to the spectator, but not to the protagonists. Here King Hu masterfully plays with the ambiguity offered by Chinese theatrical conventions. In “Plum Opera” films—such as The Love Eterne (Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai), which he had co-directed with Li Hanxiang in 1963—as well as in Cantonese Opera films, actresses play male roles, a figure that reoccurs in many Cantonese-language films as well. Yet, if Zheng Peipei is a dan (see note 9), is she really a woman? Reshuffling the boundaries of gender at the level of the performative and the masquerade, the martial arts film betrays a real anxiety about femininity as essence, and not only about female power. Do women exist? Or are there only characters dressed and made up as women, who fight as well as men? (31)

Chan Lit-Ban’s The Sixth-Fingered Lord of the Lute (Loke Chi Kam Moh, Seung Chap/Liu Zhi Qin Mo, Shangji, 1965) is an exhilarating variation on the “sword and sorcery” martial arts subgenre. The son of the main warrior couple is played by Chan Po-chu, a Cantonese opera-trained actress who specialized in male roles. (She often portrayed fresh-faced young scholars or lovers.) The confusion of genders in the film is further complicated by the great number of female fighters that keep on appearing, some dressed as women, some in male attire. Similarly, in the first 40 minutes of Come Drink With Me, the spectator is free to wonder if Golden Swallow is supposed to be a male character played by an actress, or a female character who, to travel unhindered, finds it easier to dress as a man. The other characters are also involved in a masquerade of some sort. The effeminate gang leader, Jade-Faced Tiger (Chen Honglie), who first appears sporting a fan and wearing the white make-up of a Beijing Opera traitor, is a ruthless villain. The venerable abbot is himself a traitor, while Fan Dabei, the drunken beggar, turns out to be a warrior with a mission.

The presence of a fighting woman in a martial arts film upsets the balance of power between the sexes and points at some deficiency in the male protagonist. Fan Dabei’s drunkenness is no less a flaw than Fang Gang’s mutilation in The One-Armed Swordsman. He enters the fiction by helping the heroine, eventually caring for her when she is wounded (32). Golden Swallow is the film’s center of gravity, but the Chinese title means “Drunken Hero,” indicating Fan Dabei as the main warrior. Conversely, the sequel directed by Zhang Che is titled Golden Swallow (Jin Yanzi, 1968), while the heroine yields center stage to the two swordsmen coveting her, Silver Roc (Wang Yu) and Han Tao (Luo Lie).

It is also significant that, in the sequel, Zheng Peipei always appear in female attire – except in one instance, where she needs to dress as a man, to enter into a space from which “nice women” are traditionally excluded: the brothel. The quintessential knight-errant, Silver Roc has no other place to nurse his wounded heart (he is pinning for Golden Swallow, yet the latter lives with Han Tao, who had saved her life in the opening sequence). Having learnt that Silver Roc patronizes a golden-hearted courtesan, Golden Swallow enters the lady’s chambers dressed as a young (male) warrior – having to fend the advances of other prostitutes on the way. Silver Roc hides the courtesan in a back room, and – having immediately recognized her – spends a romantic evening with Swallow involving poetry reading, drinking throughout the night and (off-screen) lovemaking (while the courtesan, supposedly, is watching). In the morning, Swallow is asleep in bed, and Silver Roc prepares to go and meet Han Tao for the fatal duel Swallow was trying to prevent. The prostitute herself is powerless to stop him (later, the two women will bond). In Zhang Che’s world, lovemaking used to keep the “little woman” quiet and go on to more serious business, such as fighting another man. One could wonder, indeed, if Silver Roc was finally able to declare himself to Swallow and make love to her because she had appeared to him dressed as a man…

Zhang Che has remained famous for his concept of yanggang (masculinity) and his fight to give top billing to male actors in an industry that had traditionally favored female stars (33). On the other hand, King Hu depicted a world in which men and women were fighting on equal terms to restore a precarious equilibrium. In Come Drink With Me “Drunken Hero” and Golden Swallow both have something to hide, and after their first hostile encounter, team up to reach a common goal. However, the film thwarts our expectations of a romantic heterosexual resolution – even though King Hu sensuously lingers on its possibilities. His mise en scène skillfully combines the tropes of Beijing Opera with witty allusions to the Hollywood musical. When the two protagonists meet, they first dislike and distrust each other, then start teaming up through dance-like movements against a common enemy, and there is even a tender moment when Fan Dabei catches a fainting Golden Swallow in his arms that may remind a lot of viewers of Fred Astaire catching Cyd Charisse at the conclusion of a particularly enticing number. Yet martial arts heroes are often doomed to remain chaste, and the ethics of the genre prove as effective in separating potential lovers as Siegfried’s sword in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Golden Swallow returns to her father, the provincial governor, and the drunken hero to his wanderings.

The jiang hu is filled with heroes who have given up women to become monks – Qiao Hong (Roy Chiao) in Wang Zinglei’s Escorts over Tiger Hills (Hushan Hang, 1969), or Jet Li at the end of Shaolin Temple – or with evil eunuchs lusting for superhuman martial skills, as in Executioners from Shaolin, King Hu’s Dragon Inn (Longmen Kezhan, 1969), and Tsui Hark’s Swordsman series. As the wuxia pian upholds the primacy of the phallus, it is therefore logical that it represents a playful mode of enacting the sexual impasse (34).

Fighting as Sex

Executioners from Shaolin

A notable exception is Executioners from Shaolin, a film that not only features a powerful, spirited, fighting heroine, but makes crystal clear what heroes mean when they say “my kung fu is better than yours.” The war between the sexes is enacted as a competition between the “Tiger” and “Crane” styles of kung fu, and when Hong Xiguan (Chen Guandai) meets the beautiful Fang Yongchun (Li Lili), their duel is ironically accompanied by a tune from Carmen (“If I love you, woe to you!”). Romance, then marriage is in the air, but on their wedding night, the drunken jokes of Hong’s companions annoy Yongchun so much that she uses her “Crane” techniques to lock her legs closed. Hong counter-attacks with an assault on a secret pressure point, and the scene ends on the joyful sounds of kung fu moves being used as foreplay.

Come Drink With Me depicts a darker version of fighting-as-sex. Entering the temple where the gangsters are hiding, but now dressed as a woman, Golden Swallow is at once surrounded by Jade-Faced Tiger and his cronies. Her long gown hides the daggers she had slipped into her boots, and the basket she carries shields her against arrows and weapons. Dueling with her, Tiger slices through her clothes, and, laughing with “the boys”, promises to “undress [her] right now.” More than a match for her adversary, Golden Swallow nevertheless loses her composure when her top is (slightly) undone, and as a result is hurt by Tiger’s poisonous dart. Tiger’s sexist spite in this scene may have another source. At the beginning of the film, we see his face light up at the prospect of testing himself against such a famous warrior as Golden Swallow. To his secret disappointment, he has to fight a girl.

In a number of martial arts films, women’s fighting skills are perceived as downright annoying by their male foes – therefore functioning as a symptom of the war between the sexes. The brilliant team composed of Wendy, the innkeeper, and her four fighting waitresses “with a shady past” in King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan (Yingchun Ge zhi Fengbo, 1974) is one outstanding example. Wendy (Li Lihua) is an expert in the arts of the bedroom, keeping a corrupt civil servant under her spell. Meanwhile, the four waitresses (one, played by Angela Mao, is a former pickpocket who finds it hard to give up her “sinful” way of life, especially when it proves handy in securing a precious map from the villain Lee Khan; another, it is hinted, was once involved in prostitution) are hired first to attract potential customers who want to look at the beauties, second to create a small army in the struggle against the cruel ruler represented by Lee Khan. When the customers are fresh with the waitresses, they are promptly put back in their place by the latter’s astonishing (and hitherto unsuspected) martial arts skills. The utopian space of female solidarity thus created by “Madam” Wendy bears more than a faint similarity with that of a brothel. Men are customers but they are expected to behave (35).

In early martial arts films, the female protagonist is often forced to acquire fighting skills specifically to escape rape – a fate all-too-common in war-torn China. Wen Yimin’s Red Heroine (Hong Xia, 1929) starts with harrowing scenes showing peasants flying in front of an invading army of Barbarian/warlords. A peasant girl (Fan Xuepeng) in love with her cousin, a meek scholar, is captured and taken to a harem (complete with art-deco sets and scantily-clad dancing girls – a reminder of some of Feuillade’s serials). As she’s about to be raped, a wise martial hero rescues her, and (off-screen) teaches her his art. Later, she rescues another young woman – at a price. Being now a flying heroine, she can no longer hope for a peaceful marriage, so she arranges the union of the rescued rape victim with her cousin. Similar fates are bestowed on other fighting heroines, who can no longer lead the “normal life” of married women – a most poignant example being Wu Ma’s The Deaf and Mute Heroine (Long Ya Jian, 1971), who, trying as much as she can to cook and care for the kind (non-fighting) man who has rescued her, finds herself responsible for his death. The heroine’s fighting skills might have been a necessity to avoid being violated and taken advantage of due to her handicap. She starts the film alone, and ends up, victorious but alone.

In this context, the radical stance represented by Yongchun in Executioners from Shaolin is particularly clear. As close to a feminist superwoman as the wuxia pian has yet produced, Yongchun can fight, but she can also cook, clean, do the laundry, and rule the roost. A martial arts expert, she also enjoys the joys of a peaceful domestic life with her husband and son – until that is, Bai Mei makes her a widow. From alluring sex object she is elevated to the status of Mother/Goddess, yet is not given, like the Red Heroine, or the Deaf-Mute Heroine, a chance to fight the villain herself.

The Gaze

Zhang Che’s films create an unabashedly homoerotic space in which men fight men; admire, kill, compete with men; and court the friendship of other men (36). They stage the “passion” of the suffering male body, over-exerting itself, wounded, bleeding, tortured, transfixed by sharp objects (even, in later works, impaled), lying down, with limbs extended, after a violent death. Within the fiction, this spectacle is constructed for the male gaze, with, sometimes, the female gaze functioning as a relay or substitute.

In the beginning of The One-Armed Swordsman, handsome Fang Gang (Wang Yu) removes his jacket to chop wood, while his master’s spoilt daughter, Qi Pei (Qiao Qiao) looks on. A tragic metaphor for unrequited homosexual desire, she pines for him, but, dismayed at his “arrogance,” refuses to admit it. Shortly thereafter, out of spite, she cuts his right arm off. Since Wang Yu spends the rest of the film dressed in a way that hides the character’s wound (and the actor’s carefully concealed right arm), the wood-chopping scene is the only moment in which he is given a chance of displaying his muscles – conversely, one of his classmates has the privilege of dying for his Master with his shirt off – another famous martial arts trope. Fang Gang’s wound becomes the equivalent of the female’s “castrated genitals” and has to be carefully hidden.

Zhang Che was obviously convinced that weapons shouldn’t be handled by women, and his distrust of the feminine applies to male characters that are guilty of treachery. In The One-Armed Swordsman, the villains’ secret weapon—a two-pronged “sword clamp” device that captures the opponent’s blade—brings to mind one’s worst fantasies of the mythical vagina dentata (“tooth-lined vagina,” a metaphor for the castrating female). It is because the hero is “castrated” (and forced to fight with a shorter sword) that he won’t be “caught” by the feminine device (37).

The film, moreover, acknowledges two forms of female gaze (38). Pei Erh’s is lustful, yet nostalgic: through her ambivalence, her hostility, from the onset and till the resolution of the plot, she constructs Fang Gang as a “lost object.” On the other hand, the peasant girl Xiao Man who rescues him looks at him with tenderness while he’s maimed, bleeding, delirious; later she congratulates him when he manages to fish with his left hand, as a mother would applaud the first steps of her child. In spite of his repeated denials, it is clear that Fang Gang had violently desired Pei Erh – depicted as a “tomboy” – even after she maimed him. His “love” for Xiao Man is born out of a sense of duty and gratitude. The real love story is between Fang Gang and his Master, Qi Rufeng (Tian Feng), who, being besotted by both his wife and daughter, failed to protect him. Fang Gang saves him, but symbolically castrates him, denying him a son-in-law worthy of him by refusing to marry Pei Erh, and leaves him pitifully flanked by the two women, looking into the void.

Blood Brothers

In Zhang’s Blood Brothers (Ci Ma, 1973), the female protagonist, Mi Lan (Jing Li), intervenes from the outset, spelling trouble between the men. As the two brother-thieves, Zhang Wenxiang (David Jiang/Chiang) and Huang Zhong (Chen Kuandai), and would-be general Ma Xin (Di Long/Ti Lung) lay the foundation for their relationship, Mi Lan arrives on horseback to steal Ma Xin’s bag of gold. She is doing so on her husband’s, Huang Zhong’s order, but her entry into the all-male tableau nonetheless has a jarring effect. Later, when Mi Lan stops acting as a wife to behave as a subject, by falling in love with Ma Xin, she causes catastrophe. The real culprit, however, is Ma Xin, who betrays the “brotherhood,” first through personal ambition, then when he yields to his passion for Mi Lan (39).

What one remembers in Blood Brothers, however, are the spectacular scenes in which each of the three “brothers” is put to death. Here exhibitionism is clearly linked with masochism, and the work of the narrative is to bring us to the moments where these beautiful bodies are displayed in pain, creating a certain form of narrative suspense. Kaja Silverman notes that masochism “always seek to prolong preparatory detail and ritual at the expense of climax or consummation,” which defines a different form of narrative suspense, working “to prioritize pain over pleasure.” (40) Zhang Che’s flamboyant sexual economy brings to light the true relationship between the narrative elements and the moments of fighting and killing. The “plot” is there to delay those moments of pleasure, in which the spectator can vicariously experience the thrill of being simultaneously the executioner(s) and the tortured, bleeding body.

And whose gaze represents that of the spectator? For the killings of Huang Zhong and Ma Xin, other men (soldiers) are looking on. However, the public execution of Zhang Wenxiang, carried on with minute sadism by Ma Xin’s minions, is a more complex affair. Indeed, the last shot is a freeze frame of the executioners gloating. But, in a tower, hidden behind curtains, Mi Lan, in tears, is looking on.

This radically redefines the subjective positions of both onlooker and victim/exhibitionist. On the one hand, Mi Lan is in the position of the female masochist defined by the third term of the fantasy described by Freud in A Child is Being Beaten: “Some boys are being beaten. [I am probably looking on.]” (41) interpreted as a secret desire to be “beaten” by the father and “an identification with male homosexuality” (42). On the other hand, as Zhang’s brother’s wife, Mi Lan is virtually put, by virtue of the incest taboo, in the position of the forbidden Mother. Like Prometheus on his rock, it is for her gaze that the hero suffers. Offering the annihilation of his own cumbersome masculinity to her, he hopes to end the symbolic debt to a symbolic dead Father, to a brotherhood of men, as well as the relentless training/killing/revenge scenario on which the jiang hu is based. “The masochist,” say Deleuze, “tries to exorcise the danger of the father… and… reaches toward the most mythical and most timeless realms, where [the mother] dwells… [He] thus liberates himself in preparation for a rebirth in which the father will have no part…” and, the philosopher concludes beautifully, seeks to “kill the father in him.” (43)

Unfortunately, the hero is mistaken—and this is why so many wuxia pian end tragically. The Mother had given him a book to read. It was full of gaps. Instead of concentrating on the gaps, like a Zen Buddhist meditating on the void, he thought the text was important. So he became a fighting hero, reproducing the endless cycle of violence. And he lost the Mother forever.


  1. This text is the expanded version of an essay published in the catalogue published by the UCLA Film and Television Archives to accompany the retrospective Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film (February 28-March 16, 2003), curated by Cheng-Sim Lim. The retrospective included 18 Chinese martial arts films from 1929 to 1980. Apart from Swordsman II, A Chinese Ghost Story, Shaolin Temple, A Touch of Zen, Yes Madam!, The Love Eterne, The Deaf and Mute Heroine and Dragon Inn, all the films mentioned in this essay were included in the retrospective. This essay would not have been possible without the warm support of Cheng Sim-Lim who is not only a great curator but a programmer dedicated to fostering, encouraging and facilitating scholarly research among her collaborators – and a wonderful friend to boot. This text is also indebted to an ongoing, albeit geographically distant, friendship with Noel Burch, who turned me on to the poetry of fighting women and pointed out some important theoretical texts on male masochism.
  2. The film is produced by Tsui Hark and directed by Ching Siu-tung.
  3. Some contemporary interpretations even see Wending as a “transgender” character – the only one capable of fighting the evil eunuch Bai Mei. Instead of trying, like the eunuch did, to erase the marks of sexual difference on his body, Wending assumes the marks of both genders. It should also be added that the work of the diegesis makes Wending the substitute for his father’s fighting buddy (or “Little Brother” in the Shaolin hierarchy) – with whom he has clearly an homoerotic bond. “Little Brother” tries to prevent the consummation of Hong’s wedding night (see below: “Fighting as Sex”) and disappears from the narration once Wending is born: in his excitement at the “happy event,” Hong accidentally throws him into a well. Later, when fighting with Wending as part of their daily routine, Hong throws his son in the same well. “Little Brother” reappears to save Hong’s life – at the cost of his own – during the latter’s failed attempt to defeat Ba Mei. Wending, on the other hand, will succeed at avenging his father – being a “better” substitute to “Little Brother” than the man himself (often played with comic overtones). One is reminded of Stanley Kwan Kam-pang’s contention that, in the world of Chinese homoeroticism, “looking for Father” and “looking for Big Brother” are often equivalent (see his documentary, Yan + Yin – Gender in Chinese Cinema (Nansheng Nüxiang, Channel 4, UK, 1995). One can also think of Freud’s hypothesis – that to truly revere one’s father, the latter must be dead….
  4. See Zhang Che, “Creating the Martial Arts Style and the Hong Kong Cinema Style,” in The Making of Martial Arts Films—As Told by Filmmakers and Stars, ed. Winnie Fu, et al. (Hong Kong Film Archive, 1999), pp. 16-17.
  5. After the two Opium wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), China had to open “treaty ports” and foreign concessions to the western powers; Hong Kong and Macao were ceded to Britain and Portugal respectively. The 1894-95 Sino-Japanese war ended in the loss of Taiwan to Japan, and indirectly in a 99-year lease of Kowloon to Britain. After the 1911 democratic revolution, the country was divided by opposing warlords, ambitious generals, various factions of the Kuomintang (Guomindang/Nationalist) Party and the Communists. In 1931, Japan invaded China, and Chiang Kai-shek’s government retreated to Chongqing. In 1946 the civil war between Nationalists and Communists that had begun in the early ’30s resumed, ending in a Communist victory in 1949 and the retreat of Chiang Kai-shek’s government to Taiwan.
  6. The Chinese Republic was founded by Sun Yat-Sen in 1911. In 1913, in Shanghai, Zhang Shichuan directed the first Chinese short feature, The Difficult Couple (Nanfu NanqiI). The same year, in Hong Kong, Li Minwei directed another short film, Zhuangzi Tests His Wife (Zhuangzi Shiqi), in which, in the tradition of Chinese opera, he played the part of both Zhuangzi and his wife (see note 9); while his own wife, Yan Sansan, cast in the small part of the maid, became the first actress in a Chinese film.
  7. The May Fourth Movement started as a protest of students, artists and intellectuals organized on May 4, 1919 on Tiananmen Square against the conditions made to China by the Versailles Treaty. May 4th proponents wanted to initiate a social and cultural renaissance in China, along the line of a modernization that would not turn the country into a cultural colony of the West. In literature, its main features were realism and the adoption of Chinese vernacular. The most important May 4th writers were Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Ba Jin.
  8. “Butterfly literature” usually means “romance novels” but, according to Rey Chow, was “used generally to attack all types of old fiction that continued to enjoy popularity… [and] henceforth included not only the love stories, but also ‘social’ novels, ‘detective’ novels, ‘knight-errant’ novels, ‘scandal’ novels, ‘ideal’ or ‘fantasy’ novels, ‘comic’ novels, ‘legendary’ novels, and others.” (Rey Chow, Woman and Chinese Modernity, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, 36). Chow insists on the role played by “butterfly literature” and the genesis of the concept of “new woman”. Moreover, cinema in Shanghai in the ’20s and ’30s was more influenced by “butterfly literature” than by the more serious “May Fourth literature.”
  9. The word dan denotes all female roles in Peking Opera (no matter the gender of the performer). Such roles are divided into huadan (vivacious woman or maiden), cai dan (despicable, comical female character), wu dan (warrior woman), dao ma dan (horsewoman/swordswoman; interestingly, this is the Chinese title of Tsui Hark’s landmark Peking Opera Blues [1986] in which female fighters play a most important role), and lao dan (old woman). In 1772, an edict was passed forbidding women to appear on stage (it was believed they would turn to prostitution to augment their meager income as performers, and that the mingling of both sexes in an opera troupe was immoral), and the word dan came to signify a male performer who specializes in female roles. See Wu Zuguang, Huang Zuolin and Mei Shaowu, Peking Opera and Mei Lanfang (Beijing: New World Press, 1984). See also Mary Farquar and Chris Berry, “Shadow Opera: Towards a New Archeology of the Chinese Cinema,” Postscript, Vol 20, No 2 & 3, Winter/Spring & Summer 2001, pp. 25-42.
  10. “Filmic realism demanded “an authentic object called ‘woman’—to be seen, and then ‘known’ and ‘had’.” Quoted in Michael G. Chang, “The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful: Movie Actresses and Public Discourse in Shanghai, 1920s-1930,” in Yingjin Zhang, ed., Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922-43 (Stanford UP, 1999), p. 129.
  11. I am alluding here to the plot of three popular movies—all starring Ruan Lingyu, the great Shanghai star of the 1930s. In Bu Wancang’s Three Modern Women (San Ge Modeng Nüxing, 1933), a family scion refuses an arranged marriage, only to discover that his former fiancée is involved in social and political work on the side of the working class. Cai Chusheng’s New Woman (Xin Nüxing, 1934) is a young divorced writer, who, the victim of a slanderous campaign, commits suicide. The heroine of Wu Yonggang’s The Goddess (Shen nü, 1934), a sweet-hearted prostitute, eventually kills the pimp who steals the money she had saved for her young son’s education.
  12. Fighting heroines appear quite early in “chivalric” literature. For example, the Song Dynasty story Cheng Yuanyu and the Eleventh Lady features a number of fighting women. In addition, the legend of “Mulan”, who dressed up as a man out of filial duty, to take her father’s place in the Emperor’s army, inspired countless works of poetry, opera and painting. In 1939, Bu Wancang directed the film Mulan Joins the Army (Mulan Congjun).
  13. See A Study of the Hong Kong Swordplay Film 1945-1980, ed. Leong Mo-ling, rev. ed. (5th Hong Kong International Film Festival/Urban Council, 1981), pp. 7-8 (photo of Xuan with an unsigned caption). One should, however, note that Swordswoman Li Feifei (Nüxia Li Feifei, 1925) precedes The Nameless Hero (as well as Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery). Li Feifei was directed by Shao Zuiweng, a former collaborator of Zhang Shichuan who had founded his own production company, Tianyi, in 1925. He was one of the four Shaw Brothers, who in 1957 officially relocated their production company in Hong Kong. Most of the silent Shanghai films starring swordswomen are no longer extent. Yet, the China Film Archives hold copies of two of the most interesting examples of the genre: Wen Yimin’s Red Heroine (Hong Xia, 1929) and Swordswoman of Huangjiang (Huangjiang nüxia, 1930). They were included – albeit on beta version, in the Heroic Grace retrospective, reaching a new audience after more than 70 years. See also, Zhang Zhen, “Bodies in the Air: The Magic of Science and the Fate of the Early ‘Martial Arts’ Film in China,” Postscript, op. cit., pp. 43-60.
  14. Zhang, “Prostitution and Urban Imagination,” in Cinema and Urban Culture, p. 166. For a more detailed account of Xuan Jinling’s life, see Zhang Zhen, “An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: The Actress as Vernacular Embodiment in Early Chinese Film Culture,” Camera Obscura, Volume 16, No 48 (Duke UP, 2001), 229-263.
  15. See J.J. Bachofen, Myth, Religion and Mother Right—Selected Writings, (Princeton UP, 1967); Robert Graves, The White Goddess (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1948); Marilyn French, Beyond Power: on Men, Women and Morals (London: Random House, 1985).
  16. Lu Xun, “Mending Heaven” (1922), in Old Tales Retold (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1961, p. 13). Lu Xun, chose to “retell” the story of Nü Wa, inspired by his reading of Freudian theories (ibid, p. 1), but I have found more recent allusions to it, always spoken by women, in works as disparate as Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (Beiqing chengshi, 1989) and Wu Wenguang’s video documentary, Bumming in Beijing –The Last Dreamers (Liulang Beijing – Zuihou De Mengxiangzhe, 1990).
  17. See Ng Ho, “Jiang Hu Revisited: Towards a Reconstruction of the Martial Arts World,” in Swordplay Film, p. 75. Similarly, in the early republican era, social unrest, foreign invasion and unchecked westernization were blamed for a variety of social evils, such as the emancipation of women and the rise of prostitution. See Frank Dikötter, Sex, Culture and Modernity in China (Hong Kong UP, 1995), especially pp. 122-145.
  18. See Liu Damu, “From Chivalric Fiction to Martial Arts Film,” in Swordplay Film, pp. 49-50. Liu adds: “The unhealthy proliferation of small newspapers after the Second World War led to an abundance of pornographic tales…As for the wu xia stories, they were populated with the most ‘fantastic’ flying swordsmen…Most of these stories included pornographic detail.” (Italics mine.) See also Ng Ho, p. 74: “China traditionally favored the literati over those with military skills, which led to the martial arts being periodically prohibited and the disdain for this tradition harboured by the average Chinese.”
  19. Kao Siu-fung, “Philosophy and Tradition in the Swordplay Film,” in Swordplay Film, p. 27. (Italics mine.)
  20. Mary Ann Doane, Femmes Fatales – Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), p. 103.
  21. It should be added that, while nationalism can play a progressive role in oppressed countries and in wars of liberation, it usually represents a regressive force when applied to issues of gender.
  22. David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong—Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000) pp. 221-247.
  23. This approach informs in particular the work of avant-garde filmmakers such as Mathias Müller and Christoph Girarded, who re-work classical films by isolating certain pregnant sequences or images and leaving out the narrative “fillers”. Moreover, when King Hu came to my class in 1995, he regaled the students by showing a video he had made himself by culling together the best martial action sequences of his films.
  24. Linda Williams, Hardcore – Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, 131. Williams also borrows from Stephen Neale, Genre, London: BFI, 1989; and Rick Altman, The American Film Musical, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  25. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Feminism and Film Theory, ed. Constance Penley, (New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hill, 1988), p. 62.
  26. Scheduled to appear in Quentin Tarentino’s upcoming Kill Bill.
  27. The “recipe” of using an astringent to tighten the (vaginal) muscles seems to come straight out of The Story of O—except that Chinese erotic and pornographic literature has an even longer and more intricate history than its French counterpart. Interestingly enough, the version of Intimate Confessions remastered by Celestial Pictures after their acquisition of the Shaw Brothers Library contains new subtitles that differ from the original in at least two respects. 1/ One of the Madam’s thugs (and unrequited lover) remarks, with chagrin, that she “even taught kung fu to Ai Nu” – therefore explaining the origin of her skills. 2/ The “sexual training” scene is shortened (one exercise involving pelvic flexibility is cut) and the subtitle rewritten from “use alum to tighten the muscles” to “alum is good for the skin.” One finds another example of this après-coup prudery, combined with a desire to eliminate the loose ends of the narration and tighten, if not the muscles, at least the plot, in a release print of another of Chu Yuan’s film, Killer Clans (Liuxing Hudie Jian, 1976), in which a particularly daring brothel scene is missing. One is reminded of Laura’s Mulvey’s thesis that connects narrative orthodoxy with the setting of a male-centered sexual order (see below).
  28. Writing about the female cop in Kathryn Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990), Pam Cook notes that Megan’s gun “endows her with power, yet simultaneously transforms her into a fetish object.” Rf. Monthly Film Bulletin, 58 (1991), 312. A similar phenomenon is at work in the cult of “deadly China dolls”: “The whole idea of sexy Chinese girls wearing tight superhero costumes fighting and then having sex is possibly the finest development in the 100 years of cinema history a man could possibly hope for.” (Rick Baker and Toby Russell, The Essential Guide to Deadly China Dolls, Hinckley: Eastern Heroes, p. 7)
  29. Sigmund Freud, “From the History of an Infantile Neurosis” (1918), in Three Case Histories (New York: Collier Books, 1963), pp. 187-316.
  30. Lacan considers the gaze as an organ. See the section “Of the Gaze as Object Petit a,” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: Norton, 19730, pp. 65-119.
  31. The desire not to lengthen this paper prevents me from presenting a fuller development about how, in the wuxia genre, gender roles may function as “masks” that can be put on or taken off, following the unfolding of the narrative. For this, I am indebted to the ground-breaking work of Judith Butler. See in particular Gender Trouble, New York and London: Routledge, New York and London, 1990.
  32. The unspoken tenderness created by the situation is a harbinger of similar moments in The Deaf and Mute Heroine in which the dyer Yang Shun (Tang Qing) cares for the eponymous heroine (Helen Ma).
  33. Zhang Che, pp. 21-22. See also Sek Kei, “The War between the Cantonese and Mandarin Cinema in the Sixties or How the Beautiful Women Lost to Action Men,” in The Restless Breed: Cantonese Stars of the Sixties, ed. Stephen Teo (20th Hong Kong International Film Festival/Urban Council/, 1996), pp. 30-33; and Stephen Teo, “Cathay and the Wuxia Movie,” in The Cathay Story, (Hong Kong Film Archive, 2002), p. 117.
  34. For Lacan, the phallus is a negative function that operates as the principal cause of the sexual impasse, and prevents the sexes from reaching a true communication. See in particular the excellent introductions (I and II) Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose have written to the book they edited, Feminine Sexuality—Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne (New York: Norton, 1982), pp. 1-57. In Lacan’s work, the conception of the phallus as what prevents the subject to reach the Other is mostly developed in Chapters V and VI of Encore (Paris: Le Seuil, 1975), 49-71.
  35. Dragon Inn is a festival of skillful female warriors. Cast as Lee Khan’s sister, Hsu Feng does more than her share of swordsfighting, and is even more treacherous and lethal than her sibling.
  36. See in particular Stanley Kwan Kam-pang’s, Yan + Yin – Gender in Chinese Cinema (see note 3).
  37. His “castration” has liberated Fang from the lure of the feminine. It was not always so. At the beginning if the film, because of his secret attraction to Qi Pei, he is distracted by her pouting and moaning, unaware that she prepares to maim him.
  38. In order not to lengthen the text too much, I am not including here a development about how different female gazes are in King Hu’s and Zhang Che’s films. King Hu creates heroines that are subjects, and as such they are not “being-looked-at” but “bearers of the gaze” and use it to select/discard a potential mate, but also to complement their fighting strategy.
  39. Zhang Che carefully drops hints of Ma Xin’s treachery: he coaxes Huang Chung to go to his death with the same motion of the fan he had used to seduce the two brothers into friendship.
  40. Kaja Silverman, Male Subjectivity at the Margins (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), p. 199.
  41. Sigmund Freud, “A Child is Being Beaten,” Standard Edition, Vol 17.
  42. Silverman, ibid, 203.
  43. Gilles Deleuze, Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), p. 58.

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.

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