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Local Goes Global: The Transnational Reception of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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    Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) (hereinafter referred as Crouching Tiger) is a millstone in the history of the martial arts films. Upon its release, it swept across Europe and north America. It received two Golden Globes and was the first foreign-language film to be nominated in ten categories in the Academy Awards, surpassing the seven nominations of the Italian film A Beautiful Mind (Wu and Man Chan 196). It eventually won four: Best Foreign-Language Film, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography and Best Original Score. For a film fromof a genre that is exclusively Chinese, the success and wild acceptance of Crouching Tiger in the West is an example of a local film going global.

    Though Crouching Tiger was a huge success in the West, the Chinese had an ambivalent attitude toward it. On the one hand, a kind of cultural nationalism lured Chinese audiences to support it; on the other hand, Chinese viewers were also afraid that this film presented stereotypical, exotic and traditional images of Chinese in order to pander to “a Western gaze” (Chan 4). Such ambiguity shows Chinese people’s anxiety about Chineseness, especially what it means to be Chinese in the context of the Asian invasion of the West. This paper intends to illustrate both the local and global elements in this film and argues that the popularity of Crouching Tiger is based on its harmonious combination of the representation of ancient China and universally applicable ideas, which appeal to Western audience. Its genre of wuxia film, its adaptation from a Chinese wuxia novel, its starring of Chinese-ethnicity actors and actresses, and its use of Mandarin all show the Chineseness of Crouching Tiger.

    Wuxia film is the oldest genre in the Chinese cinema that has remained popular to the present day. Wuxia film is usually considered an exclusively Chinese genre. Wuxia film, though it is often identified as “the swordplay film,” has no satisfactory English translation (Teo 2). Wu (武) means militaristic or martial qualities and xia (侠) refers to chivalry, knighthood and heroism. Therefore, wuxia film is a combination of martial arts with the pursuit of chivalry and righteousness. Wuxia film is usually confused with kung fu film, a genre more familiar by the Western viewers. While kung fu film focuses on physical fighting on the ground and body training, wuxia film emphasizes on qinggong, a training that can make people fly weightlessly, and allows for phantasmagoric actions (Teo 4-5). Because kung fu films tend to center on the actual and pragmatic application of combat techniques and the training, which means anyone can learn kung fu as long as s/he pays effort, kung fu films can set against a modern and even contemporary background while a wuxia film has to be situated in a historical or mythical setting because of its fantastic premise.

    As a result of its overwhelming reliance on history, wuxia films are considered a Chinese genre. In addition to the historical or mythical background, the concepts that frame the wuxia world are also difficult to be conveyed to the Western audience. For example, xiashi (侠士swordsman or swordswoman) are people who live in jianghu (江湖 the world where swordsmen and swordswomen live), but there are hardly satisfactory translations for the two concepts in English. It is difficult for a Westerner, who does not know Chinese language nor grew up with wuxia, to understand such terms. Besides genre, the story and landscape presented in Crouching Tiger are also definitively Chinese. The film is adapted from a wuxia novel written by Wang Dulu in the 1940s. The story is set against the backdrop of the jianghu underworld of bandits and heroes during the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911). Its plot is mainly revolved around the chase of Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) by Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) as the former steals the renowned Green Destiny Sword. The antagonism between villain(s) and righteous hero(es) is a common theme in wuxia films. Along the retrieval of the sword, it is revealed that Jen Yu’s teacher Jade Fox kills Mu Bai’s master years ago and Mu Bai has been trying to locate her. The vengeance of a disciple for his/her master is also a familiar troupe in wuxia films (Klein 22). Therefore, thematically speaking, Crouching Tiger is a Chinese film. To make it further Chinese, the director Ang Lee includes spectacular landscapes of mainland China in the film – the wild and coarse Gobi Desert in northwestern China where Jen Yu meets her rugged lover, the bamboo forest in Anhui Province in southern China where the erotic charged sword fight between Jen Yu and Mu Bai takes place, and the imperial city in northern China where Jen Yu lives as an aristocratic lady. Ang Lee also brings an ancient China back to life vividly through detailed setting and costume.

    All in all, Ang Lee presents Crouching Tiger as “a product of China’s unique history, culture, values, and aesthetic traditions” (Klein 18). The filial piety as represented by Mu Bai and Shu Lien is a typical moral merit that all Chinese are supposed to inherit and adhere to. Behind the façade of kind-father-and-filial-son is the persistence of patriarch in Chinese history. When Mu Bai comes back from his meditation, he refuses to go to Beijing together with Shu Lien, the woman he loves, and chooses to visit his master’s grave first. The shadow of the master, or, in a general sense, a father figure, keeps hovering over Mu Bai. Similarly, Shu Lien, though the boss of a security business, is only living up to the expectations of her dead father. In a conversation between her and one of her clients, the client happily compliments Shu Lien for not letting her father down. As Ang Lee himself confessed, he considered the father an extension of his idea of Chinese culture, and filial piety a core of Chinese society (Chan 8). Despite the difficulty of conveying the exclusively Chinese wuxia world to the West, Crouching Tiger accomplishes the impossible. It is a combination of “eastern philosophy and fighting, and western dramatic gravity” (Rose). Wuxia indeed is one of the most favorite genres of Chinese people and Chinese communities all around the world, but the Chinese also want to show to the West a modern and developed country.

    Ang Lee successfully achieves this by presenting a globally popular film based on his transnational identity, a transnational cast, a global production and distribution system as well as universally applied themes. Although there is a risk of self-orientalism and self-exoticism, Crouching Tiger presents a globalized version of wuxia film. The globalization of this film starts with its director Ang Lee as a “global man” (Chang 104). Ang Lee is an example of transnational identity. He is a Taiwanese long resident in the United States. He is a “second generation of mainlanders in Taiwan, […]an alien in the US and […] a Taiwanese in Mainland China” (Chang 104). He makes both Hollywood films, such as Brokeback Mountain (2005), The Ice Storm (1997), Hulk (2003) and Sense and Sensibility (1995), as well as Chinese-language films. Therefore, Ang Lee is well situated in “handling and orchestrating the currents and counter-currents of Chineseness and the western culture” (Chan 5). He even explicitly explores the clash, conflict and compromise between these two cultures in films like Pushing Hands (1991) and The Wedding Banquet (1993). Though he only had one five-day visit to mainland China before he spent five months shooting Crouching Tiger there, Ang Lee cherishes a strong attachment to the mainland as a person whose parents are both mainlanders. This is probably one of the reasons he chose the wuxia genre over kung fu for the latter is still considered a Hong Kong film genre. In making the film Crouching Tiger, Ang Lee, as always, was well aware of the politics of global audience appeal, particularly this film considering its exclusive historical setting in ancient China. He knew that he had to make a film that was both accessible to the Western audience and had cultural appeal to the Chinese, or the broader Asian audiences. He described this film as an attempt to merge what he saw as Western and Chinese styles of film-making: “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts” (Klein 31).

    As a director constantly mediating the two sharply different cultures between the East and the West, Ang Lee clearly knew that the cultural hybridization was an inevitable part of a globalized film industry. The success of Crouching Tiger was an obvious poof. James Schamus, one of the three screenwriters for Crouching Tiger, also noticed the hybridization and observed that this film was “an eastern movie for western audiences and in some ways a more western movie for eastern audiences” (Chan 5). In addition to the director’s awareness of making a film that has global appeal, the cast and the production team as well as the distribution system are also international. It includes stars from mainland China (Zhang Ziyi), Hong Kong (Chow Yun-Fat and Cheng Pei Pei), Taiwan (Chang Chen and Lung Sihung) and Malaysia (Michelle Yeoh). Though the film is based on a Chinese wuxia novel in the 1940s, its screenplay is written by an American screenwriter and a Taiwanese writer. The whole shooting team thus includes a Taiwanese director, Hong Kong crew, producers and hundreds of staff from China. What’s more, as Christina Klein observes, the financing of this film comes from companies in Japan, Hong Kong and the United States, according to the divisions of which the distributors cover Asia, Latin America, North America and Europe (19). In a word, the film maps out “the national ‘crouching’ in the transnational and the transnational ‘hidden’ in the national” (Chang 105). Similar to some of Lee’s previous films, such as Pushing Hands, in which the differences between Chinese and American cultures were explored and the tension between Chinese filial piety and American freedom depicted, Crouching Tiger also shows the struggle between individual freedom and social and communal responsibility, a theme that has global appeal. In this film, Mu bai and Shu Lien represent a concern for social and communal responsibility.

    They are in love with each other; however, in observance of Shu Lien’s engagement with her ex-fiancé, who was a friend of Mu Bai and died in a fight in defense of Mu Bai, the two forbid themselves to be together under the social morality. On the contrary, Jen Yu represents individual freedom. She is a noble woman, who should accept submissively the arranged marriage negotiated by her father and become a good wife. Instead, she aspires the freedom as embodied in her imagined jianghu, and she eventually breaks from her family and social obligations. The focus on the conflict between personal yearnings and social obligations, which is almost universal, makes Crouching Tiger less foreign for Western audience. Crouching Tiger’s appeal to the Western audience also relies on its forwarding female characters to the center as opposed to the wuxia tradition in which male characters are the adventurers. With Crouching Tiger, Ang Lee intends to “move away from what had become a ‘macho genre’ and transform it into a story-driven action fantasy led by women” (Wu and Man Chan 209). The three generations of women as represented in Crouching Tiger are independent or bold. Jade Fox kills Mu Bai’s master because the latter looks down upon women, enjoying the former’s body without teaching her certain martial arts. Shu Lien owns and runs a security business and is respected by her male employees. Jen Yu, the focus of this film, is a young and passionate woman, who would give up her aristocratic privileges for freedom. By stealing the Green Destiny Sword, a phallic symbol, she is trying to usurp male power and to challenge both male authority and male propriety (Teo 175). She even masquerades as a man and defeats a group of male martial artists. The positive and heavy depiction of female characters in a wuxia film, which is traditionally male-centered, attracts Western audiences.

    Crouching Tiger has its Chinese cultural elements: the genre of wuxia, the revival of an ancient China, the vistas of Chinese mainland landscapes, and the filial piety Chinese people value. It is also comprehensible to Western audiences by virtue of its transnational cast, production, distribution and universally applicable themes. It represents a local culture going global via cultural borrowing and hybridization (Wu and Man Chan 212). Crouching Tiger can no longer be neatly defined as a product of a singular culture or nation. Though the genre may be of Chinese origin, its people, capital and ideas have blurred the boundary between local and global. As Klein accurately contends, its attraction to a global audience relies on its non-definite origin from “‘China,’ ‘Taiwan,’ ‘Hong Kong,’ ‘Hollywood,’ or even ‘the East’ or ‘the West’ but from the boundary-crossing processes of war, migration, capitalist exchange, aesthetic appropriations, and memory” (21).

    Works Cited

    1. Chan, Kenneth. “The Global Return of the Wu Xia Pian (Chinese Sword-Fighting Movie): Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.” Cinema Journal, 2004, pp. 3-17.
    2. Chang, Hsiao-hung. “The Unbearable Lightness of Globalization: On the Transnational Flight of Wuxia Film.” Cinema Taiwan, Routledge, 2007, pp. 113-125. Klein, Christina. ““ Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”: A Diasporic Reading.” Cinema Journal, 2004, pp. 18-42.
    3. Rose, Steve. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Why Has It Flopped in the East?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Feb. 2001,
    4. Teo, Stephen. Chinese Martial Arts Cinema. Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
    5. Wu, Huaiting and Joseph Man Chan. “Globalizing Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Global-Local Alliance and the Production of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 29, no. 2, 2007, pp. 195-217.

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