Simon Chia-rong Wu
Program in Comparative and World Literature
Female Image Transformed:
Reimagining in Chinese-Language Cinema
I. Mapping the Transformed
This paper examines the transformed mechanism of female images in Chinese-language cinema. To plunge into the tricky issues, I start with the psychoanalysis of the cross-dressers transcending the gender boundaries. The whole project is divided into three parts. The first part ventures into the relationship between the female cross-dressers and the male gaze functioning in Chinese-language Cinema. In the second part, the focus pertains to the cross-dressing of the female roles in Ang Lee¡¯s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Proceeding from the gaze to the desire of the female cross-dressers, I grapple with the historical-psychological studies and the investigation of desire, making use of the insights from recent critical works concerned. The third part deals with the double transgendering figure ¡°East the Invincible¡± (Dong Fang Bu Bai) in the classic martial arts film The Legend of the Swordsman II. Furthermore, the issues of how the female cross-dressers falter between the abjection and acceptance are part of my concerns. To sum up, this paper explores fluid female images and desires in Chinese-language cinema, and seeks to make explicit how cross-dressing functions as a strategy to celebrate the fluidity of gender identity. However, the female cross-dressers in Chinese cinema may be forced to be adapted to the male-dominated framework in the long run.
Chinese-language cinema, the fluid and flexible female figures are indebted to
the diverse faces of women in Chinese history and literature, in which cross-dressing
is fashioned as linchpin in re-shaping female image. Throughout the history of
The demarcation between male and female seems to be fixed and impossible to shatter. Also, the breakthrough of sex boundary is unacceptable and infeasible in real life, whereas gender is regarded as ¡°culturally mutable and variable¡± (Sedgwick 28). Lacan argues that ¡°persons are not masculine or feminine along lines of anatomy or gender. [¡¦] A woman may be inscribed on the masculine side in sexuation and a man on the feminine side¡± (Ellie Ragland 99-100). These arguments point to more possibilities of loose structure in gender imagining. In traditional Chinese drama performance, the behavior and dressing of actors/actresses occupy a cardinal place in differentiating male image from female image with an aim to make audience recognize the difference between the two. As a matter of fact, quite a few Chinese writers have tried to blur the settled gender images through creating fictional female characters in literature. Since the submissive female image has long been engraved upon the collective memory, cross-dressing develops into a major way to step over the stiff boundary.
person¡¯s sexual identity and image have been functioning in the symbolic order
since the date of birth. According to Donald E. Hall, ¡°The child¡± turns to be ¡°acculturated
through her or his encounter with the ¡®Symbolic¡¯—which comprises language,
images, and other means by which society communicates and replicates¡± (62). To
Lacan, in contrast to men, who are ¡°having the phallus,¡± women is in the
process of ¡°being the phallus¡± so as to ¡°reflect the power of the Phallus, to
signify that power, and ¡°to ¡®embody¡¯ the phallus¡± in our society (
interesting to note how cross-dressing, to some degree, is connected with women¡¯s
process of ¡°being the phallus¡± in tricky ways. The female image in
cross-dressing is equivocal, and seems to become a threat to the gender
criteria of the patriarchal system. However, to view cross-dressing as the
required method to cross the gender boundary is to miss the point entirely. Our
society is imbued with a bunch of viewpoints and ideologies concerning wearing
the clothing of the opposite sex. Some cross-dressers identify with another sex,
and some are analyzed in subversive transgender discourse. Anyway, female images
in cross-dressing can bridge the gap between sexes or blur the distinct borderline.
II. Shaping Women/Female
Male Gaze and the Ambiguous Female Appearance
Chinese-language cinema, cross-dressing has long been so popular a theme. The
transformed female image in cross-dressing can be traced back to the classic The Love Eterne (Liang Shan Bo yu Zhu Ying Tai, 1963), the Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet. The backdrop of this movie
is set in China, the fourteenth century; the leading female character
The butterfly dream in The Love
Eterne can be analyzed in two aspects. In the first place,
important to note is that, for female audience, Liang¡¯s real female image does
not hinder their interest in the story. For male audience, the object of gaze
fulfills their latent desire of voyeurism. To interpret the relationship
between the male gaze and the female figure, we have to go back to the classic
argument from Laura Mulvey. In the words of Mulvey, women are identified in two
levels: ¡°as erotic object for the characters within the screen play¡± and ¡°as
erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium¡± (19). In the world
governed by the phallus, the female figures are always viewed as the object of
gaze, and never appear as the subject. With that,
success of The Love Eterne is not a
coincidence. The noticeable trend of cross-dressing in
the lovers in The Love Eterne are
entangled in the implicit and restrained love affairs, the female
cross-dressers in the modern Chinese movies move further into the stage of
gender shifting and homosexuality. Some cross-dressing films touch upon
interesting issues like ¡°Can true love transcend the limitation of gender
construct?¡± or ¡°Do you love the male he or the female she?¡± However, even
though these female cross-dressers in the films appear as male figures, they
still fall back to the female images in the long run, thereby justifying their
heterosexual love. More importantly, most popular Chinese-language films
concerning cross-dressing have the backgrounds set in the Wu-Xia world. It
seems that the imaginary setting gives female roles more room for
cross-dressing. To fathom the transformed female images and the cross-dressing
signification, I will deal with two well-known Chinese-language movies, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), directed
by Ang Lee, and The Legend of Swordsman
II (1992), produced by Hark Tsui and directed by Ching Siu-tung.
the Gender Line
In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the Taiwanese director Ang Lee endeavors to map out the overlapped fields of Chineseness and delicate female images. According to Rick Lyman, the film is ¡°an attempt to blend the two dominate genres of Chinese filmmaking, the feminine operatic melodrama, like ¡®Love Eterne,¡¯ and the masculine arts adventure¡± (qtd in Sheldon H. Lu 225). Moreover, this film is flooded with gender implication and contrasts. Lee is a superb story-teller—weaving a web of subtle feelings and desires hidden inside the characters. It is interesting to observe the conflicts and contradictions among the significant leads: Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), JenYu (Zhang Zi Yi), and Lo (Chen Chang). Besides, cross-dressing and masquerade occupy the place of importance in this movie. Ostensibly, a few women employ cross-dressing as a way to challenge the fixed dogma, but they unconsciously devote themselves to the mainstream of male ideology. Likewise, since the world of Wu Xia or Giang Hu is just a microcosm of the male-dominated system, the disguise in male appearance offers possible appropriation of male power for female characters. Yu Shu Lien and Jen Yu are clear cases in point. Yu is cast as a transformed female image in the imaginary Wu Xia world. To survive in the dangerous world and to comply with patriarchal law, she places herself in-between the gender transition. In male clothes, she is in tandem with other powerful male figures; with the female look, she is tinged with traditional feminine virtues. Here we can see the male hardness couple with female softness in her transformed identity.
If we have to pick one actor/actress who benefits
most from this blockbuster, Zhang Zi Yi should be brought to the fore. Jen Yu,
the wayward young girl Zhang plays, is the focal point drawing all the audience¡¯s
attention. Whereas Yu is still under the dominion of men, Jen lays bare the
revolting qualities towards the stiff male system. From Richard Corliss¡¯s perspective,
Jen is a ¡°lovely but unformed¡± female character who fervently desires for ¡°the
freedom of the heroes she reads about¡± and ¡°the forbidden thrill¡± (11-12). It
is quite obvious that Jen falters between the gender lines and attempts to
subvert the established social values. Unlike her master Jade Fox, who is the
evil embodiment of women, Jen is characterized as the incarnation of femme
fatale that tantalizes and haunts male characters and audience at the same
Moreover, Jen¡¯s relation to Lo is worth discussing. Lo, akin to female
characters in this film, is suppressed and marginalized as well. As a chief
bandit living in the
B. Hidden Dragon, Fluid Desire
As the director Ang Lee has it, ¡°Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a
story about passions, emotions, desires—the dragon hidden inside all of us¡±
(76). Dragon, in Chinese collective
memories, is a mystical, powerful, and holy creature signifying Chineseness and
the emperor of
Jen appears to grasp the relationship between gender and power and its symbolic manifestations—she steals the Green Destiny sword, a phallic symbol of [G]iang [H]u authority, in the belief that it will mysteriously garner the freedom she seeks. The mystification of the phallic power of the sword is further reified when Shu Lien protectively exclaims to Jen Yu, ¡°Don¡¯t touch it! That¡¯s Li Mu Bai¡¯s sword¡¦.Without the Green Destiny, you are nothing.¡± (12)
If Yu and Jen¡¯s sword/phallus fetish is a perverse manifestation, they are the victimized perverts in the social construct of patriarchy. In terms of hidden desire, Yu totally succumbs to Li, and Jen struggles to attain her imaginary freedom. The cross-dressed Jen easily beats all the meretricious and pompous male gangsters in the tea stall. To a large extent, Jen¡¯s image as a formidable female warrior fascinates all the audience, making explicit the female power. Rong Cai has asserted that the ¡°martial arts representations,¡± contrary to ¡°portrayals of women in Hollywood films,¡± are not figured to ¡°invoke the female as an erotic object to gratify men¡¯s sexual desire¡± (448). However, it is difficult for male audience not to connect their sexual fantasy with Jen¡¯s wet, transparent clothing as well as her undressed body parts in sexual scenes. On the surface, Jen seems to be a heroine against the male authority, but she is actually endowed with the masculine power by means of Wudan martial arts, the Green Destiny, and cross-dressing at this point. In the face of Li Mu Bai, the authentic male authority, Jen is a fragile female figure. According to Cai, ¡°Female desire must be authorized and legitimized. Without male approval, women¡¯s initiatives spell trouble and disaster¡± (456). The willful Jen, in the eyes of Li, needs his ¡°guidance¡± and ¡°training.¡± Near the end of the movie, Li¡¯s death can be labeled as ¡°a noble sacrifice to bring Jen Yu back to the fold,¡± in Chan¡¯s phrase (13).
Even though Jen fights hard to extricate herself from the masculine Giang Hu, what she gets in return is an unbreakable impasse. To Jen, the only way out as well as the redemption of the death of the male hero is to end her life. Lo has told Jen a legend: ¡°Anyone who dares to jump from the mountain, God will grant his wish.¡± As a result, Jen¡¯s suicidal leap can be read as ¡°a leap for freedom and escape¡± (Chan 14). In other words, we can take her suicide as the only way to fulfill her wild and fluid desire in the male-centered world.
IV. Double Transgender in The Legend of the Swordsman II
There is no denying that Hark Tsui and Ching Siu-tung opened up a new age of Wu Xia Pian in Chinese-language cinema by the box-office success of The Legend of the Swordsman (Xiao Ao Jiang Hu zhi Dong Fang Bu Bai, 1990), The Legend of the Swordsman II (1992), and the Chinese kong-fu master Wong Fei-hung series. Since 1990s, the trend of Wu Xia Pian has made a comeback and quickly blossomed in the Hong Kong Film Industry. Among these classic martial arts films, The Legend of the Swordsman II stages an extremely impressive double transgender figure—Dong Fang Bu Bai (East the Invincible). Before coming to this enigmatic character, readers should be informed of the original martial arts novel of this movie— that is, Xiao Ao Jiang Hu (The Proud Smiling Wanderer), written by Louis Cha. In the original version, Dong Fang Bu Bai is an ugly middle-aged man who castrates himself in order to acquire the invincible martial arts power recorded in ¡°Kui Hua Bao Dian¡± (the Sunflower Scripture). Before the castration, he is male, and after that, he becomes a she. Transforming into a feminine transsexual, she falls in love with a bearded guy. Actually, from appearance to death, East the Invincible only occupies four pages in the The Proud Smiling Wanderer, but she is regarded as one of the most gruesome foul fiends in Louis Cha¡¯s novels. This male-to-female transsexual always wears red feminine clothing and speaks with a painstakingly shrill voice. With a tiny embroidery needle at hand, East the Invincible can beat all the other leads, either male or female, making all the symbolic swords pale. Even under the siege of four famous and skillful warriors in Giang Hu, she still fights against her enemies with confidence and without haste, but, finally, she is killed when trying to protect her beloved.
To quote Alan Sinfield, , a man needs to have ¡°desire-to-be male and desire-for a female,¡± and a woman ¡°desire-to-be female and desire-for a male¡± in the traditional model of heterosexuality; any change of the model will be deemed as ¡°disruption,¡± which ties in with ¡°shameful weakness, moral dilemma, nervous strain, exhilarating kinkiness¡± (17). East the Invincible¡¯s case is not unlike this kind of disruption. However, endowed with the unbeatable power to govern the whole symbolic Giang Hu, she still knuckles under to her male mate.
In the filmic
version, East the Invincible is distorted and loses the original implication to
some degree in that he is bound up with a double transgender knot. In The Legend of the Swordsman II, East the
Invincible is played by Brigitte Lin Ching-xia, who is a female. As a matter of
fact, East the Invincible is anything other than a woman, but s/he indeed
appears with a female image. Under the circumstance, all the audiences are
provided with a brand new sensation about a transformed female image on the big
screen. Unlike the prototype in the novel, East in the film is not only a
transsexual but also a bisexual that is in love with his/her concubine Si-Si
and the leading swordsman simultaneously. By that means, East straddles between
the male and female sexes and ¡°stakes a claim on an unthinkable space between
the sexes¡± (Cai 459). The only reason that he castrates himself is to possess
more power in the symbolic world, which shifts the essence of castration in a
Freudian or Lacanian view. In this way, East¡¯s cross-dressing, change of sex,
and fluid desire devalue the symbolic phallus and savor of androgynous features.
B. Female Soul in Queer Body
The Legend of the Swordsman II brims with heterosexual and homosexual desires. The producer Tsui seems to enjoy playing the games of cross-dressing and obscure homosexuality. For instance, the leading swordsman¡¯s little brother is actually a female disguising herself in male dressing. One more issue worthy of notice is that East the Invincible, unlike other transsexuals, does not desire for the feminine qualities at first. To flesh out this contradictory character, Tsui twists the original formidable and ugly figure and creates a new model, which is more acceptable to the public. While most transsexuals start with a female soul trapped in a male body, East the Invincible gradually becomes feminine in action and in spirit after his biological transformation. As a transsexual, East is still incomplete as either a male or a female. She cannot offer ordinary sexual sensations to her male and female lovers. To impress and to please Ling Hu Chong, the leading swordsman, she commands her concubine Si-Si to have sex with this male lead in the darkness, leaving him in bewilderment. In the final duel upon a steep cliff, East is beaten by her enemies including Ling. While East is falling down the cliff, Ling jumps down as well in an attempt to save her. Ling asks East if she is Si-Si, but she refuses to let on the truth since she wants him to remember her forever.
an ambiguous figure transcending the binary oppositions of sexuality. She is
laden with both sexual qualities but remains incomplete in either category
owing to the lack of penis and vagina. Her phallic symbol is eroded although she
is the most powerful character in the imaginary world. In addition, she needs
Si-Si as her substitute to fulfill the male fantasy. In brief, East¡¯s paradoxical
character divulges her feminine traits in a queer body. Her fall also
symbolizes the lasting suppression of homosexuality and the triumph of
heterosexuality in the male-dominated world. Although some researchers may
criticize the digression of this film as compared with the original novel, the
handsome/beautiful transsexual role played by Brigitte Lin Ching-xia indeed
impresses all the audience and embodies another transformed female figure. Without
question, East can be ranked as one of the most striking fe/male characters in
V. Conclusion: Cross-Dressing
In responding to the patriarchal and heterosexual hegemony, cross-dressing is usually fashioned as a way to realize cross-identities and social practice. Therewith it brings about a vague space where the socially-subordinate female figures and transsexuals voice out their suppressed desires and perspectives. However, those female cross-dressers discussed above do not totally achieve the liberation of sexual bondage. On the contrary, cross-dressing serves as the accomplice that assimilates the diverse resistance and desire of female figures. Ultimately, the transformed female images in cross-dressing are still functioning in the frame of gender construct, and again and again they prove their impotence to subvert the unshakable conventional Chinese cultures. Even though some attempts are performed to deconstruct the binary opposition of sexuality and gender in social construct, they finally retreat to the mainstream values.
As a matter of fact, gender is only a masquerade, and dressing is nothing but a signifier constructed in the symbolic order. It is the subject who wears clothing that counts. In this light, it misses the point entirely if the female cross-dressers follow the codes of cross-dressing that are set up in accordance with the patriarchal system. To sum up, the transformed, cross-dressing female images in Chinese-language cinema still fall prey to the male-dominated system because their cross-dressing does not make explicit their true selves. It is obvious that the trend of cross-dressing is and will be still alive in Chinese-language cinema. In his recent big budget production of Wu Xia Pian, Seven Swords (2005), Hark Tsui again creates an ambiguous female character in cross-dressing, but it is just another stereotype of submissive female roles in cross-dressing.
conclude, cross-dressing is a typical way of subversion against the patriarchal
norms. The point is how to bring it into full play. The female cross-dressers
are objectified if they take cross-dressing as a means to identify with the
other sex and to fit in the patriarchal and heterosexual society. In that
sense, the reversion of gender stereotype is diluted and even turns to be a denial
of female identity. To strike back at the stiff binary oppositions of sexuality
and gender, the socially/culturally subordinate females and queers must take
the alternative route to overthrow the male-dominated and heterosexual hegemony,
rather than try to follow the gender norms. Indeed, cross-dressing can function
as the strategy to celebrate the fluidity of gender and identity. However, we
must bear in mind that although the female cross-dressers in Chinese-language
cinema may get promoted and challenge the binary opposition of sexuality and
gender, they are still framed within the male-dominated ideology and find no
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Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Wuxia
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Corliss, Richard. Introduction. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragons: A portrait
of the Ang Lee Film. By Ang Lee, et al.
Dean, Tim. Beyond Sexuality.
Hall, Donald E. Queer Theories.
Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis.
Trans. Alan Sheridan. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller.
Lu, Sheldon H. ¡°Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Bouncing Angels:
Millot, Catherine. Horsexe: Essay on Transsexuality. Trans.
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Psychoanalysis. Ed. Tim Dean and
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Yudkin, Marcia. ¡°Transsexualism and Women: A Critical Perspective.¡± Feminist Studies 4.3 (1978): 97-106.
I only focus on
 For a close study of Levi-Strauss¡¯s argument, see Judith Butler¡¯s Gender Trouble (1990), pages 36-7.
 Similar argument can be found in Judith Butler¡¯s Gender Trouble: ¡°The binary relation between culture and nature promotes a relationship of hierarchy in which culture freely ¡®imposes¡¯ meaning on nature, and, hence, renders it into an ¡®Other¡¯ [¡¦]¡± (37).
 Mulan¡¯s subversive power is diluted in Walter Disney¡¯s version of Mulan, in which the female image is still de-centered and under the surveillance of male characters, such as General Lee. In that sense, the ambiguity of female image is less influential.
 The men in cross-dressing, if related to questionable male-to-male love, arouse audience¡¯s collective homophobia. It is a taboo that cannot be accepted and tolerated in the symbolic order because the cross-dressing here diminishes the so-called masculinity.
 According to Kenneth Chan, while Jade Fox represents the ¡°traditional femme fatale turned disgruntled witch who is seething with resenting the establishment,¡± Jen Yu is depicted as ¡°an extension and a reconfiguration of the Jade Fox character type¡± (11-12).
 Useful information on the relationship between desire and lack is contained in Lacan¡¯s argument: ¡°Desire is a relation to lack. This lack is the lack of being properly speaking. It isn¡¯t the lack of this or that, but lack of being whereby the being exists¡± (qtd. in Tim Dean¡¯s Beyond Sexuality 247). .
 In Tim Dean¡¯s account, ¡°fetishism¡± is branded as ¡°[Lacan¡¯s] example of a perverse manifestation¡± (233).
 Louis Cha, the author of The Proud Smiling Wander, is the most well-known martial arts novelist in the Chinese-language world. He published 15 series of Wu Xia novels with the total sales volumes amounting to more than 300 million copies. The English title of this movie The Legend of the Swordsman may be misleading to English readers. The reason is that the original novel and the movie share the same Chinese title–Xiao Ao Jiang Hu, but their English names differ.
 Useful information on transsexuals is given by Catherine Millot in Horsexe: ¡°Transsexuals who claim to possess a female soul imprisoned in a man¡¯s body are perhaps the only ones who can boast a monolithic sexual identity¡± (15). And Marcia Yudkin states, ¡°[M]ost transsexuals¡± know their identities as ¡°biologically males,¡± but they sense themselves to be ¡°feminine,¡± and thus wants to ¡°present the impeachable social identity of a woman¡± (100).