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Chen, Ya-chen. Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millenium: Narrative
Analyses and Gender Politics. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012. xvii + 295 pp. ISBN 978-07391-3908-0 (hardcover).
Chen Ya-chen's “Women in Chinese Martial Arts Films of the New Millenium” is a monograph that
disputes the freedom that female protagonists of Chinese martial arts films have in deciding their
own fates. The author maintains that their portrayals are wrought with gender problems and that the
latter are brought about by the patriarchal tendencies of the filmmakers. She also contends that
female protagonists in Chinese martial arts films should be read as stronger characters than they
seem to be. Chen builds her argument around seven martial arts films: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon” (Ang Lee, 2000), “Hero” (Zhang Yimou, 2002), “House of the Flying Daggers” (Zhang
Yimou, 2004), “Seven Swords”, (Tsui Hark, 2005), “The Promise” (Chen Kaige, 2005), “The
Banquet” (Feng Xiaogang, 2006) and “Curse of the Golden Flower” (Zhang Yimou, 2006). Chen's
monograph is a rich source of examples of the plight of female protagonists in Chinese martial arts
films post-2000 but at times lacks clarity in its argument concerning the feministic connections
these protagonists have.
The book opens with an excellent introduction to the historical contexts of Chinese martial
arts films. Chen then introduces the term “Chinese cinematic martial arts feminism” only to refute it
later in the introduction. The term describes “women's empowerment in the imaginary world of
martial arts through Tang Dynasty legends” (p. 10). Chen contends that whilst gender inequality
existed in ancient and imperial China, there are examples of “exceptional feminist activism and
alternative gender practices” (p. 16) during those periods and supports this by giving instances of
matriarchy in Chinese history. However, the introduction ends with the limitations of “cinematic
martial arts feminism” as Chen postulates that the “inevitable tragic endings and suicidal selfsacrifice” (p. 21) are imposed by the cinematic pen of male filmmakers to curb feminist freedom.
On this note, Chen embarks on a three-part monograph to argue her case.
Part I consists of seven chapters dedicated to narrative descriptions of the plots of the seven
films. Chen's aim in this section of the book is not only to illustrate the “feminism that the female
protagonists enjoy” (p. ix) but also the gender problems evident in the films. She demonstrates in
Chapter Two how Zhang Yimou underestimates the heroine in “Hero”, but also highlights in
Chapter Three how he revises the “chauvinistic and male-centered narrative perspective” (p. 81) of
Li Yannian's poem in his film “House of Flying Daggers”. In Chapter Four, Chen supports the
interpretation of the female characters in Tsui Hark's “Seven Swords” as strong and significant
despite them not being fluent in martial arts. Chapter Five is dedicated to describing how Chen

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Kaige “rethinks, problematises, revises and cinematises” (pp. 108-109) the fairytale archetypes of
“Cinderella”, “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” in his film “The Promise”. In Chapter Six,
Chen explains how filmmaker Feng Xiaogang in his film “The Banquet” rewrites the destinies of
Shakespeare's Ophelia and the Queen of Denmark in the characters of Qing Nü and Wan'er. In
Chapter Seven, the author highlights the gender problems that the female protagonists of Zhang
Yimou's “Curse of the Golden Flower” are faced with by drawing parallels between the character of
the queen and the “mad woman in the attic” in Charlotte Brontë's “Jane Eyre”. Chen, however, ends
the chapter by stating that the female characters in Zhang's film are, despite these negative
portrayals, “ambitious and politically skillful in initiating their political careers” (pp. 146).
Part II is where the author attempts to argue the limitations of “cinematic martial arts
feminism” by exposing the “glass ceiling” (ibid). In Chapter Eight, Chen covers female sacrifice in
the context of three films and argues that this theme has been deliberately created by male
filmmakers. She maintains that although women fulfill their wishes in martial arts films, these
wishes tend to be self-destructive and reflect the filmmakers' unconscious desire to cinematically
dominate the female protagonist. In the next chapter, the author problematises the phallocentricism
in teacher-student relationships in four of the films. She argues that the male teachers take on a
higher social status from whic
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h they educated women to accept roles of lower social status. In
Chapter Ten, Chen compares the “puppeteering” of the female protagonists by the filmmakers to
Plato's Cave in “The Republic”. She points out that it is the “directors' control of everything on the
screen” that is the “glass ceiling” (p. 204). Just like Plato's prisoners who turn their heads to see
what is behind them in the cave, discerning viewers can see the manipulation of the filmmakers
(ibid).
Chen's monograph ends with Part III, which is dedicated to interviews conducted with
persons in the Chinese film industry. Transcripts of interviews with screenwriters Chung Ling and
Tsai Kuo-jung, fifth-generation filmmaker, Pan Hua and judge at the Taipei Golden Horse Film
Festival, Wang Wei, are to be found in four chapters. Pan Hua, classmate of fifth-generation
filmmakers like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, sheds light on the possibly patriarchal personalities
of the filmmakers responsible for the films discussed. The interviewees mainly agree with Chen's
proposition that there are limitations to the freedom of female protagonists in the films but also
attempt to explain why this is so. They explain how investors have a huge say in the final form of
the script. Practical financial concerns take precedence over any feminist questions raised by female
screenwriters or actresses. The interviewees also mention how producers favour male over female
actors because they bring in more financial investments.
All in all, Chen Ya-chen's monograph is strong in its detailed narrative analyses of female

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protagonist representations in Chinese martial arts films and in its data collection from persons
within the Chinese film industry. However, it has a few weak points. The connections that Chen
makes between feminism and female protagonists who do not abide by the patriarchal order in
martial arts films are often misleading. It appears that she is trying to draw attention to filmic
representations of female protagonists in martial arts films set in ancient China that embody
feministic ideals. However, her tendency to use the term “feminism” as a process set within ancient
China misleads the reader into thinking that the feminism that we know of today already existed
during those periods in Chinese history. Furthermore, whilst it is valid for Chen to highlight
instances within the films of the disadvantaged stances that female protagonists face, the connection
that she makes between the intention of the filmmaker and the dominant male hand in determining
the fate of female characters is difficult to discern since there is little evidence of that in the book.
Nonetheless, Chen Ya-chen's work is a detailed documentation of female protagonists in
martial arts films that both defies and supports the view that fictional martial arts worlds allow
female literary characters to escape patriarchal conventions in ancient China. This book is a
welcome addition to feminist film theory and Chinese cinema.
(Joann Huifen Hu, Jacobs University Bremen, Germany)