In 1967, King Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn (1967), was released to critical acclaim in Taiwan and the region. One of the earliest and most prominent examples of the wuxia genre, Dragon Gate Inn codified the genre and inspired many modern wuxia films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). More than twenty years later, in 1992, Dragon Gate Inn would be remade as New Dragon Gate Inn (1992) by Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark. And almost another two decades after that, in 2011, Tsui Hark would revisit the film and remake it again as Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011). These three films are quintessential wuxia classics, representing the genre domestically, regionally and worldwide.
The premises of all three films are similar – a helpless character (the Yu children in Dragon Gate Inn and New Dragon Gate Inn, a pregnant maid in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn) is on the run from the imperial palace and seeks to escape across the border through Dragon Gate Pass with the help of vigilantes. All three films feature Dragon Gate Inn, a shady lodge near the pass as the central site of the narrative conflicts. All three films feature a xia protagonist – Hsiao Shao-Tzu in Dragon Gate Inn, Zhou Huai’an in New Dragon Gate Inn and Zhao Huai’an in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. All three films also feature high-ranking officials from the imperial palace as their main antagonists – Tsao Shao Chin in Dragon Gate Inn, Tsao Siu-yan in New Dragon Gate Inn and Yu Huatian in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn.
However, a distinct difference across the three films is the women featured in them. Dragon Gate Inn features Chu Huei as its sole alpha female – fierce, headstrong and competent in battle.
New Dragon Gate Inn replaces the male innkeeper of the original with Jade, a sharp-tongued vixen who seduces and kills men for their meat on the side. Joining her is Yau Mo-yan, a traveling vigilante. These two characters come across as derivatives of Chu Huei, with Jade inheriting her sharp tongue and Mo-yan her prowess in battle.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate reimagines Jade as Ling Yanqiu, who is closer to Chu Huei than either woman from New Dragon Gate Inn. Zhang Xiaowen fills in Jade’s archetypical role as another sensual, lustful character, but is given an exotic slant as a Tartar (Chinese ethnic minority) leader. Gu Shaotang is the leader of a team of treasure hunters, also bearing many similarities to Chu Huei. Finally, Su Huirong makes the last of the seven women across the three films, a pregnant palace maid who shows her true colours in a surprising plot twist at the end of the film.
Altogether, the three Dragon Gate Inns have spanned 44 years, during which the role of women in wuxia, and in Chinese films in general, has ostensibly evolved drastically. However, upon closer inspection it is revealed that the increasing role of women in wuxia is nothing more than an increase in numbers. Despite the greater prevalence of strong ‘feminist’ characters, all the seven women across the three films are ultimately marginalised through similar means – their inevitable links with men, their exotification and and their marginalisation in battle, the very cornerstone of wuxia. Hence, as exemplified by the three Dragon Gate Inns, women in wuxia are still very much marginalised even today.
Links to Men
Throughout all three Dragon Gate Inns, a majority of the women are marginalised through their inevitable links to men – none of them exist in a narrative vacuum and thus can exercise singular agency like many of the men do. These male-female links manifest in two varieties – links of romance and links of subordination.
Six of the seven women are linked romantically to men – Mo-yan, Yanqiu, Jade, Xiaowen and, to lesser extents, Shaotang and Huirong. Mo-yan and Yanqiu’s links with their respective male leads, Zhou Huai’an and Zhao Huai’an, are extremely similar – both initially appear to be strong women but, upon their encounters with the male lead, are effectively stripped of their power and become emotionally dependent on the latter. Mo-yan’s mental fortitude as a vigilante is quickly undone when she resorts to drinking away her sorrows after Huai’an agrees to marry Jade as part of a plot to find the secret tunnel out of the inn, despite being fully aware of the plot. Yanqiu’s battle prowess is quickly undone when she first sets her eyes on Huai’an – she is hit by Shaotang’s thrown daggers, stumbles off a ledge and has to be saved by Huai’an from being crushed by collapsing rocks. In the midst of this she drops her sword, long considered a phallic symbol of male dominance (Chan, 2004), and in that moment her attempt to transgress gender boundaries in dressing like a male is discredited entirely in favour of portraying her as a lovestruck damsel (her inherent transgendered portrayal is itself discredited below). In both heroine’s cases, the appearance of the male lead causes them to act so out of character that their very characterisation is destroyed entirely, substantiating the extent to which their romantic links characterise and bind them. An interesting point to note, however, is that these two romantic links are severed at the end of their respective films, though in different ways – Mo-yan dies to a stab wound from Siu-yan due to Huai’an’s mistake, showing how the romantic link has effectively destroyed her entirely; and Yanqiu leaves Huai’an and returns to the wilderness, showing how she has only achieved freedom by severing that romantic link and, by extension, the binding and marginalising effect the romantic link has had on her.
Jade and Xiaowen are also romantically linked with men – Huai’on and Wind Blade respectively – but these links are built up through the course of the film, leading to an entire loss of agency for both women. Jade’s love for Huai’on leads to her burning down the inn at the end of New Dragon Gate Inn, in what has been perceived as an act of feminist agency but is in fact an act of feminist weakness, alluded to by Wind Blade in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate as a rash act caused by “male provocation”. Xiaowen’s infatuation with Wind Blade leads her to follow him at the end of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and subsequently become a palace maid, traditionally a role of subservience and objectification in historical China (McMahon, 2013), and one which is discussed derogatorily at the start of the film in reference to Huirong. The fact that this sudden deconstruction of a strong female warrior and leader into a subservient palace maid is done for the sake of non-sequitur black comedy reflects especially badly on this particular romantic link.
To a lesser extent, Shaotang and Huirong are also romantically linked with men insofar as in their character’s premises – Shaotang used to be lovers with Wind Blade and Huirong was impregnated by an unnamed palace guard. In Shaotang’s case this premised link is used to generate romantic tension between her, Wind Blade and Xiaowen, and the rivalrous love triangle has the effect of empowering Wind Blade as the decider and marginalising both Shaotang and Xiaowen as suitors. Huirong’s link is used as a tool of discrimination, with her pregnancy being the reason she had to escape the palace. In this case, the implications of premised romantic link leads to a negative characterisation. This is also not the only incidence of feminine elements of romantic links being used as plot points – the apparent love triangle between Xiaowen, Wind Blade and H’gantgan is used as a plot against the antagonists, and the marriage between Huai’an and Jade in New Dragon Gate Inn is used as a scheme to escape the inn. This nefarious use of romantic links as an underhanded method cheapens them and further discredits the women involved in them.
Two of the seven women are linked to men by subordination – Huirong and, to a lesser extent, Yanqiu. Huirong’s subordinate link to Huatian is obvious at the end of Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, as she betrays the protagonists and addresses Huatian as “your highness”. Yanqiu is subordinately linked not necessarily to the physical character of Huai’an but to the idea of Huai’an himself, passing herself off as him at the start of the film. These two subordinate links have the effect of removing any agency both women have over their actions – what they do is for the sake of, or in the name of, the men they are subordinate to. Academics have argued that this is very much in line with Tsui Hark’s depiction of women in his films as being controlled by men and nothing more than male projection (Lo, 2006).
The Exotification of Women
The exotification of women in the later two Dragon Gate Inns is highly apparent, not simply as a coincidence of narrative but as a trait of director Tsui Hark. In a scathing criticism of his portrayal of women in his films, academic Lo Kwai-Cheung asserts that “in Tsui’s movies, woman does not exist in herself but merely as the embodiment of male fantasy”. This can be seen in his character archetype of the transgendered woman protagonist – a female lead who hides the physical aspects of her gender and acts in a masculine way – as exemplified by Mo-yan and Yanqiu. This deliberate obfuscation of gender, while initially coming across as a bold transgression and even transcendence of gender boundaries, instead further exotifies the female body. Academic Jie Lu reiterates that “the body itself remains a key site for shaping both femininity and masculinity” in Chinese cinema, and this is very much so in the case of the three Dragon Gate Inns.
The strongest example of this particular exotification is in the playful skirmish between Mo-yan and Jade in New Dragon Gate Inn, in which both attempt to clothe themselves while undressing the other. Both characters are not fighting over anything substantial but are doing so simply as an apparent attempt to relate to each other in the most intimate way affordable in wuxia – fighting – despite the fact that the much larger enmity between Huai’an and Cha is tackled through measured discourse, a perceivably more mature and level-headed form of communication. This double standard paints the two women as the brutes – only capable of fighting to communicate and show dominance. This primal, even animalistic behaviour, combined with nuanced camerawork which deliberately obfuscates sensitive body parts of the two women, effectively combines eroticism and exoticism, portraying both women as almost sub-human in their interaction, yet with an erotic twist, and much is left up to the imagination and perception of action cinema’s primary target audience – the adolescent or young adult male (Lu & Lu, 1997).
Jade herself is an interesting example of exoticism. Having already been exotified as the owner of a ‘black’ inn – one that is nefarious and the site of many fights – her gender adds another layer of exoticism in its juxtaposition with her job. The fact that she is introduced as a seductress who kills men for their flesh puts her in such an exotic light as to appear caricaturish – and this is certainly not helped by Maggie Cheung’s impish portrayal of her character. Again here female eroticism and exoticism is combined to further portray the woman as the ‘other’ (Negra, 2001).
Another example of exoticism is in Huirong, the pregnant palace maid. Her pregnancy, while not a major plot point in the already-convoluted Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, renders her an exotic character. The other characters, even the women, handle her with a certain delicacy not present in other character interactions in the film, and this has the effect of ‘othering’ her character and defining her solely by her pregnancy. This exoticism is even abused at the end of the film to set up a completely improbable plot twist in which she is revealed to be in cahoots with Huatian. The fact that the entire surprise of her character revelation is premised on the unlikelihood of her being anything but a pregnant damsel in distress shows that her character’s exotification is highly intentional.
Possibly the most unfortunate victim of exotification is Xiaowen, who is not only exotified through gender but through ethnicity, being a Tartar leader herself. In her initial appearance in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, audiences are led to believe she cannot speak Chinese, only say certain derogatory phrases in it. This is in contrast with her partner H’gantga, who is shown to be fluent enough in Chinese to communicate with the other visitors to the inn. Xiaowen herself is adorned with tribal facepaint. Even in battle, Xiaowen is seen wielding a circular blade, a marked departure from the standard weapons used by the other characters in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and wuxia as a whole, further adding to her apparent barbarism and hence exoticism. This exoticism stems back to the advent of cinema itself with the sinicisation of cinema, a western innovation (Zhang, 1997). Due to a perceived racial self-other dynamic built up by modern western cinema and its increasing obsession with the exotic east, Chinese filmmakers are forced to establish the same ethnic self-other dynamic, inadvertently targeting their own ethnic minorities as the ‘other’ and thus the exotic. In the case of Xiaowen, this exotification is entirely baseless, because later in the film she is shown to be indeed fluent in Chinese, thus her exoticism is simply for the sake of exoticism.
The Marginalisation of Women in Battle
All three Dragon Gate Inns feature spectacular final battles between the main protagonists and antagonists. However, a common trait of these final battles is the omission or marginalisation of women.
Dragon Gate Inn sees Shao-Tzu, Chu Chi and two defectors face off against Shao Chin. Chu Huei, having fought competently previously, is instead sidelined and instructed to bring the Yu children to safety on the account that she is injured. The short conversation she has with Shao-Tzu prior to the final confrontation is particularly damning to her character – Shao-Tzu paints himself as the saviour and her as the damsel, rejecting her offer to help him. Even Chu Huei is written to respond in a particularly subordinate manner, by highlighting the danger Shao-Tzu will be in (as opposed to her apparent safety). Not only is she the only character out of the protagonists to be injured in battle, but that injury is used as a scapegoat to marginalise her character, despite the fact that when Shao Chin escapes the protagonists and comes face-to-face with her later, he dispatches of her easily despite being grievously wounded himself. Chu Huei’s resignation to the role of caretaker constitutes the enforcement of that particular female stereotype, but more importantly she has been denied an opportunity to participate in the final fight, a hallmark of wuxia.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate takes this a step further, with Huai’an opting to go solo against Huatian, leaving Yanqiu behind. The conversation between the two before the battle is symptomatic of the developing archetype of the lonely male hero with a thirst for martyrdom (Teo, 1997), an archetype which only further serves to marginalise the fighting woman in wuxia. Even when Yanqiu and Shaotang do enter the final battle, they simply face off against Huirong, another woman, until the very end. The main battle is almost exclusively fought between Huai’an and Huatian, and is a highly masculine one with a particular focus on the phallic symbol of the sword. When Yanqiu intervenes in their battle Huatian in fact forces her to stab Huai’an, in an ironic twist of fate that further asserts how, in the world of Dragon Gate Inn, women have no proper role in the predominantly male battlefield.
The final battle in New Dragon Gate Inn is arguably the most progressive of the three, featuring an even male-to-female ratio at first – Mo-yan and Jade work with Huai’an to take down Siu-yan. However, both women are obviously overpowered by the male characters, with Mo-yan dying in the sands to Siu-yan and Jade having to be protected by Huai’an. The power hierarchy created by this battle places the women beneath the men. Even the supposed agency both women display in even being present in the battle is discredited in the final part of the battle, where Dao suddenly intervenes in a deus ex machina moment, turning the battle in their favour. In his intervention any contribution either woman has made is rendered obsolete, as Dao would have changed the trajectory of the battle regardless. This makes Mo-yan’s death almost inconsequential and merely a tragic moment to enthrall the audience. In this fight the woman is clearly the sacrifice, and her presence is justified not by her merits but by the effect her sacrifice has on the male character (Chow, 1995).
It is inherently unsurprising that a genre of cinema catered to the adolescent male (Lu & Lu, 1997) would contain ingrained discrimination against women. Though throughout history attempts have been made to give the genre a more progressive slant (for instance, King Hu’s nüxia), the fact remains that wuxia, and the xia, which has been compared to the Japanese samurai and European knight (Chen, 1992), is in itself a masculine concept so entrenched in history it has no hope of truly becoming progressive without losing its identity. As chinese cinema continues to evolve, there may come a day when wuxia shrugs off its masculine shackles and embraces progressivism. But when that day comes, it will no longer be known by that namesake.
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