Women Warriors in the Chinese Cinema

A warrior may be defined as “a person engaged or experienced in fighting.” When using the term ‘woman warrior,’ a Chinese person would probably visualise such popular fictional figures as Mulan (木兰) and Mu Guiying (穆桂英) from Chinese literature. Mulan is a filial daughter in an ancient Chinese ballad, “Ode to Mulan”, composed in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420– 518), who disguises herself as a son to replace her senile father when he is conscripted to serve in the army. Mu Guiying is a woman general of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) in the novel The Saga of the Yang Family (《杨家将》).

 In the Chinese imagination, altruism is the most important principle of these traditional women warriors’ behaviour, and altruism is in fact part of the central ideal of ‘ren’(仁) in Confucianism, which has always been the nucleus of the Chinese patriarchal order. For centuries, even though these imaginary women warriors had broken the boundaries of female conduct, they were admired by the people because they fought for their nation, their political organisations, and their families without challenging the established patriarchal order. These imaginary characters even engage in warfare when war breaks out and there is a need for their bravery. When the wars end, their characters usually return to their private sphere and resume their roles as mother, wife or daughter.

Women warriors possessing physical strength and a wide range of fighting skills began to appear on television and in films from the 1970s onwards. The acceptance of women warriors among Western audiences created the popularity of Asian women warriors depicted in Western films in the 1990s, such as the Chinese agent played by Michelle Yeoh (杨紫琼) in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (dir. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997), and Mulan in the Disney animation Mulan (dir. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, 1998). In turn, this acceptance of Chinese women warriors in Western productions paved the way for several Chinese productions of women warriors, such as Hero (英雄, dir. Zhang Yimou 张艺谋, 2001) and House of Flying Daggers (十面埋伏, dir. Zhang Yimou, 2004).

Many Chinese filmmakers have also received opportunities in the relatively friendly environment in Hollywood. The director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Crouching Tiger) Ang Lee is a notable example. This film’s female protagonist, Jen, has also been recognised as a role model in a global girl culture. The success of Crouching Tiger inspired more Chinese filmmakers to promote Chinese films through fascinating portrayals of women warriors. Zhang Yimou’s the House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2008) are two classic examples.

Women Warriors in the Chinese Cinema

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Anna Sun