An Analysis of the Martial Arts Film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Categories: Film Analysis

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an Asian martial arts film that was directed by Ang Lee and first released in 2000. This film has a relatively simple plot and is navigated by the stealing of The Green Destiny and its subsequent recovery. The Green Destiny is a traditional sword that was at one time owned by Li Mu Bai. The subsequent search for the stolen sword serves as a stylistic narrative device that introduces Li Mu Bai, Shu Lien and Jen. The setting of the play was in ancient China when the Chinese society's governance systems were hierarchical and patriarchal in nature as dictated by the Confucian culture.

This storyline majorly focuses on the love and struggle relationship between the three characters Li Mu Bai, Shu Lien and Jen, and their journey of fighting for the sword. In traditional Asian Martial art films, female characters are returning to families and loves and male characters are returning to the power and capacity. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon use female characters to present the truth of man's power in ancient China. Although female characters are a concept that emphasizes the need for women empowerment, I argue that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not a typical feminist film and it draws the arguments from the essays authored by Rong Cai and L. S. Kim.

I agree with Rong Cai that the way Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon depicts the role of female characters follows the Asian film tradition. In Rong Cai's article Gender Imaginations in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Wuxia World, the author argues that the Chinese women have always been represented in the play as a female warrior (Cai, 443).

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Not only in this film, women have always been used to fight in traditional Asian Martial films. Females characters are using fight to represent their resistance of patriarchy. In the film, the female warriors are allowed to fight alongside their male counterparts. This is a reflection of the fact that what men are capable of doing can as well be done by the women. Similarly, it depicts the woman as having the same physical prowess as the men (Rong Cai 444). Female warriors have traditionally been used in Chinese films though in reality, the depiction of the female warrior as a knight contradicts the place of women in the Confucian society where they are depicted as submissive and self-effacing. In the scene Jen and Li Mu Bai fight in the bamboo forest, the power is still on men's hand even thought the sword is in Jen's hand. The fight between Jen and Li Mu Bai is very different from the fight Jen and Shu Lien. Jen is not afraid of Shu Lien but she is afraid of Li Mu Bai. This shows that even though women can fight like men, men still have power over women in this film. When Jen and Li Mu Bai were fighting on a bamboo, Jen shook the bamboo to prostrate Liu Mu Bai, but Li Mu Bai was standing straight on top of bamboo. He stands there firmly to restrict Jen's action. He is above Jen, not only socially but also morally. Women like Jen are still afraid of man's masculinity and they want to pursue freedom so to pursue man's masculinity.

In L.S. Kim's essay “Making Women Warriors: A Transnational Reading of Asian Female Action Heroes," the author illustrates that Asian women's characters have always been active in martial art. "Women characters in Western culture are always passive and submissive” (Kim). The film is not feminist in the sense that it depicts the female actors such as Jen and Shu Lien are featured in most parts of the film as same as how the female actors in traditional popular martial arts films are featured. Not like Western films, women are used as desire. Asian martial art films have always considered female characters as women warriors. Women can fight but they still remain the tradition in the same way. Many female characters can keep both traditional and active. A feminist film should be a breakthrough of audiences' thoughts on traditional gender roles. Characters like Jen, who are pursuing freedom and want to escape from the tradition, are not new to the Asian martial art films. Particular female characters have always been used to represent as an image of differences. From Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger, I have to say that the gender role of women had not been questioned by the audiences and women as warriors are not new to all the audiences.

In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the ability of fighting does not make female characters be heroes. Martial art in the Chinese setting is known as Wuxia which is split into Wu and Xia. Wu refers to an individual's physical capability and martial arts mastery. Xia on the other hand refers to a gallant hero who defies the social and legal norms in his pursuit for justice, personal ambitions, and honor (Cai, 455). Xia represents heroines in martial art films, and it is very important to have this Xia concept in the Wu Xia Pian. In traditional Asian martial art film, female characters are allowed to be heroes. “Importantly women are heroes while also being 'feminine'” (Kim). Unlike those female hero characters, there is no female hero in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For instance, Jade Fox represents the opposition of a hero. The ambition to revenge distorts her behaviors. I agree with how Kim argues that about Jade Fox, “The activeness does not make the character a feminist or a hero. A woman warrior is not always a hero". Jade Fox has the ability to fight like a man but her action is considered to be evil. In the end, the evil will result into death and Li Mu Bai, who is supposed to be the hero, kills Jade Fox. The three characters Shu Lien, Jen and Jade Fox represents different stereotypes of women and each of them reflects women in the real society at that time, but none of them in this film is depicting as a hero. Jade Fox represents the one who is the oppositional of tradition and she has to be punished for being evil.

Moreover, I find that in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the power has returned to the men and women want to go back to their love more than seek the power. In the ending scene, Jen jumps down the mountain. I read this scene as a sign that she is returning to her love like a woman. She thinks the death of Li Mu Bai is because of her. After she meets Lo, she knows she loves Li Mu Bai and she owes him a life. The pursuing of the sword ends in her heart. Even though Li Mu Bai is dead, the power is still in his hand that draws Jen to throw herself into the mountain. Traditionally, martial arts discourse was not meant for the female gender but was largely a preserve of the males. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is a great example. Although the film seems to be focused on Jen, Shu Lien and Jade Fox, Li Mu Bai is the one who keep the power and the sword returns to him in the end. The sword represents men's power and masculinity. Whoever gets the sword gets the power. What Jen is seeking is man's power. She thinks that once she gets the sword, she could be free as a man. Even though this film has a lot of women's fighting scene to show women empowerment, the power still goes back to the men and women go back to families. Not like Western films, men are seeking woman's body as a desire, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is all about pursuing man's masculinity. I would say that it is not a feminist film because the pursuing of man's power and masculinity is running through the film.

In Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the women agendas and desires are given lesser priority as compared to the male counterparts. This can be observed from the beginning of the film in the exchanges that Shu Lien has with Li Mu Bai and Sir Te. In the first exchange that Shu Lien had with Li Mu Bai, the former accepted to ferry The Green Destiny as a present to Sir Te. However, when she prevailed upon Li Mu Bai to accompany her to the Beijing City to deliver a certain sword, he insists that he must first visit his father's grave in order to ask for forgiveness for failing to avenge the death of his master in the hands of Jade Fox. This indicates that the man in question tends to put his personal needs first while those of the women come later. In this film women are not the desire, but men have become the desire. Jen and Shu Lien are Even though she was disappointed at the answer that she received from Li Mu Bi, she never gave up but insisted that he meets her in Beijing after she delivers the sword to Sir Te though he does not give assurances to her, signaling the fact that the woman's agenda takes second priority to that of the man. When she finally delivers the sword to Sir Te, Sir Te declines to take it on grounds that such a personal weapon can only be possessed by a "great hero" of Li Mu Bai's caliber. These instances indicate that the Shu Lien cannot be heard and her opinions or desires are blatantly ignored by the men.

In a conclusion, I can categorically posit that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is not a film that has been regarded as feminist. The film is performed in a Chinese setting where the governance systems are patriarchal in nature and tend to be hierarchical as dictated by the popular Confucian culture. Asian martial arts have traditionally been associated with female characters as women warriors to challenge patriarchy. Although women can fight like men, they are not depicting as heroes in this film. Women are not using as a desire but the director uses the sword as the desire. The sword also represents the man's masculinity. Instead of seeking for freedom, Jen is actually seeking for man's power. Female characters like Jen are pursing man's masculinity by pursuing the sword. In the end, the power returns to man and women goes back to love. I can see the heavy use of females' fighting and empowerment, but the fact is that this film is focused on the return of man's power, and let love return to women.


Works Cited

  1. Rong, Cai. Gender Imaginations in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Wuxia World. New York: Duke University Press, 2005. Print.
  2. Kim, L.S. "Making Women Warriors: A Transnational Reading of Asian Female Action Heroes." JUMP CUT A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2015.
Updated: Oct 07, 2021
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An Analysis of the Martial Arts Film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (2021, Oct 07). Retrieved from

An Analysis of the Martial Arts Film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon essay
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