Battle of the Sex(es)–The Lady of War

Wonder Woman

De Facto "Lady of War?"

I’ve been meaning to write something about archetypes, or in this case, tropes. As quite a few other people who frequent the multifarious channels of the net, I often find myself returning to the ever-entertaining, yet oh-so-accurate-and-apt, TvTopes.org (this has led me to dangerously approach the Trope: “TvTropes Will Ruin Your Life” on more than one occasion). It’s a labyrinth of pop-culture idioms, tropified parcels and paths that wend into ever more complex networks of distraction and discovery. It truly is, also, a storehouse of opinion, and scarily, the opinions coalesce with startling accuracy on many Tropes. One trope that has concerned me for the past couple of years, since around the time I took a Chinese Martial Arts Film and Literature course at my undergraduate college, is titled the “Lady of War,” though, this trope wasn’t recognized as such in my class; the equivalent, and more accurate nomenclature for “Lady of War” would be the “Nuxia Pian” or “Lady-Knight Errant.”

First, a citation of TvTropes will give space for me to expand and (hopefully) improve on the somewhat snarky and playful aspects of the “Lady of War” as it is defined.
A Lady of War is:
-“a female fighter who retains an air of grace and reserve not usually associated with violence.”
-“she doesn’t tend to be held up as a sex symbol the way most female warriors are, “
-“she is almost always given an elegant weapon that emphasizes her femininity – either a bow, a rapier or a naginata – all weapons that have a certain choreographic element in the way they’re wielded.”
-See: “Jeanne d’Archetype. “

Additionally (this distinction is an important one to make):
-“Where the Lady of War is about grace and reserve, the tomboyish Cute Bruiser is more about unrestrained passion and power. The former also tends to be older than the latter. There is the possibility of having the Cute Bruiser grow up into a Lady of War, but it’s not that common. “

Alright, so essentially the LoW is any female martial artist character who is: graceful and non-threatening, sexually reserved (comparatively), elegantly proficient in martial ability (ostensibly to emphasize femininity), and carries an air of dignity. These aspects do capture, I think, the basic elements of what is called in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema Nuxia Pian, and in the course of explaining WHAT Nuxia Pian is, as literary and cinematic trope, I hope to illustrate that it has served in a fashion that earns it a “prototype-cyborg” title.

In an article by Zhen, titled “Bodies in Air,” the major focus is on Nuxia Pian in the context of post-modern film development. The argument is that Nuxia Pian has existed since well before the mid-20th century, and that the early efforts of Chinese film with Nuxia Pian set the stage and space for future Lady of War archetypes in post-modern movies like “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and “Kill Bill (which throws tropes around like no one’s business).”

Zhen notes several relevant things contributing to the development of Nuxia Pian:
-The rise of a new, Wuxia Shenguai Pian (martial arts spirit-magic) film genre (1928-1932) was directly related to the Shanghai theatre. The birth of this genre exemplified selections of cinematic techniques from European film to maximize mystery, drama, suspense, the fantastic, etc…Thus the style or formal production of Wuxia as a film genre should be taken first, not the content. Though few films from this brief period exist (many destroyed in cultural revolution), the cross-pollination from “East and West” in Wuxia can be found best in a film like “Red Skeleton,” which was an approximation of early 20th century French film. The only important thing to note about “Red Skeleton” is that it features a Nuxia Pian (likely a LoW) who must disguise herself to rescue her lover from peril. Also, several of these films began the tradition of adapting modern and traditional fiction (Wuxia fiction was, and always has been, popular in China) for the screen/stage.

Cinematic history aside, the films from 1920s China that were wuxia demonstrated the tropes that are now equated with Nuxia Pian (and, roughly, LoWs):
-In many of these wuxia films, the heroine assumes the role of Avenger for justice (usually a death in the family), or she is a protector of the community. In doing so, she forgoes her own sexual desire to accomplish this new task of knight-errantry.
-By assuming this new social role, the Nuxia Pian changes drastically, in comportment, appearance (allegedly from her training), and even in her relation to her environment (in many films the Nuxia Pian must travel out of her familiar/home area to some place “otherworldly”).
-In many cases, the Nuxia Pian is endowed with extraordinary powers such as flying, teleportation, disappearing in clouds of smoke, etc…
-The deployment of these new “magical” powers is an example of the Nuxia Pian’s new proto-cyborg nature–her organic nature is enhanced by the technology of “magic. (compare to the LoW “cyborg” Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell series).”
-By PERFORMing great martial feats, often performed GRACEfully, the Nuxia Pian establishes what Zhen calls a “Sisterhood of Martial Arts.”
-The trope of the female martial artist duel arose during this period (see: Kill Bill 1 for a recent example). This trope is supposedly a depiction of female/sisterly bonding.
-With her “other” nature, the Nuxia Pian is given distance, physically and emotionally, from the “normal world” such that she can serve her community. She is SUPERnatural social subject and object, a techno-hybrid of “imagination of material reality…” She is magic/spirit embodied (LoW’s air of grace would support this).

There are some important political notes to discuss about Nuxia Pian in Shanghai cinema during this time to further unpack and supplement Zhen’s argument.

In a patriarchal China, allowing women to act in wuxia productions gave these women a means of escape/subverting the traditional Confucian patriarchy. But in doing so, these “liberated women” brought up some questions (these could apply to how one looks at a female actor and the role Nuxia role she performs) such as: were these women revolutionary reformers, does subverting the patriarchy lead always to social failure, or social or physical suicide, is the fighting heroine a mere fighting prostitute? The female martial artist, the Nuxia Pian, via cinema ameliorated many of the anxieties that were developing around women in dramatic contexts. A paradox must be noted however, in the Nuxia Pian, one that is linguistic: the term Nu Shen in Chinese refers to a “Goddess” whereas the swapping of these terms (Shen Nu) changes the meaning to “Prostitute”). There is, linguistically, a dual aspect to women and by extension Nuxia Pian: she is a divine seductress; she is a femme fatale.

The way Nuxia Pian lessened, and countered these implicit cultural queries rests in the nature of Wuxia film itself. Wuxia film is, first and foremost, a PERFORMATIVE genre–the protagonists are equated with martial skill, not social, political, or biological positions. The focus in Wuxia is on bodies, on movement, and the story, then, only serves to drive these performative acts, to break up the “pleasurable” excitement incited by these interactions. Women in wuxia film were no longer seen as detrimental to the narrative (a nuxia pian does not freeze the flow of the story due to a male gaze of desire or erotic contemplation). Wuxia film, in fact, freed women as image of desire and men were no longer the bearer of the gaze. The exhibitionism of wuxia actually resides in its privileging of the male body–it is fetishized as a spectacle that often stops the narrative (see how many martial arts films spend time demonstrating the training and development of the male from novice to master).

The skill of the Nuxia Pian often goes unexplained, or is given very little screen time. Her swordsmanship is more frightening to the male because of this, and other uncertainties, as there is a fine line between what training could be sexual and what could be martial, the nuxia pian is a powerfully erotic fighter, and a center of balance in that she is between two elements: the devaluement by males, defilement (rape or threats thereof), and/or abjection, and the employment of fetishized (to males) fighting skills that illustrates the power of the nuxia pian. This fetishization incites a conflicted male gaze of allure/desire, and doubt or uncertainty. This doubt, perhaps is justified, in that a woman, to a man, could be considered a “castrated” human. The Nuxia Pian uses her body like a phallic substitute (with swords, punches, kicks, and other phallic devices), and in doing so, the male becomes anxious because this female, or castrated male, can be either a lover, femme fatal, or a demonness (profoundly otherworldly, not Cyborg). The Nuxia Pian gracefully arrives without mention of genesis, whereas male training is a common trope in wuxia. The Nuxia Pian is both a subject of discourse in the film, and an object of desire; she is between–powerful yet victimized, she can quickly switch roles (Shen Nu/Nu Shen) which confuses the male suitors and foes.

One brilliant example of the uncertainty of the male’s uncertainty can be found in King Hu’s commonly cited “Come Drink With Me.” In this film, the protagonist, Golden Swallow, is portrayed initially as an ambiguous male. Her attire, comportment, seems to the viewer and the performers, as male, and through this masquerade, the Nuxia Pian distorts gender lines, invokes this anxiety, and brings rise to the question of whether femininity is ESSENTIAL. Is Golden Swallow powerful essentially because she is a woman? Or is it that the Nuxia Pian is just a character made to SEEM woman, yet still has equal fighting ability as a male? This upset of essentiality complicates the balance of power in the sexes, as a female fighter, like Golden Swallow in “Come Drink With Me,” lacks the DEFICIENCIES imposed on the male protagonist in the film. In this film, which literally means “Drunken Hero,” Golden Swallow plays an ancillary role to the deficient lead male, who is a drunken, flawed, hero. Yet, while the male may often-times be deficient in relation to the female, by the conclusion of many wuxia, the Nuxia Pian has changed so much in relation to her social sphere, she has become so “other,” she must divest herself of any hope for living a “normal life” or becoming a “married woman.” In attaining her skills (which in many films, the skills serve to combat males who, after seeing the Nuxia Pian as MALE, would rape her) to avoid being violated, the woman warrior is often left alone. Thus, the Nuxia Pian cannot, by the way the trope functions, be portrayed with domestic tendencies (another trope, “Cute Bruiser” might fit that role).

Before summing up this discussion, I want to note some literary examples that have historically contributed to how the Nuxia Pian is portrayed in film.

The 9th century tale “Nieh Yin-Niang” features a female protagonist, a proto-Nuxia Pian. In this story, she is a ghostly assassin, capable of fantastic, physically impossible feats (she is capable of pulling her sword from a place in her skull, for instance). She is magical, has no attachments, no surrounding fame, and lacks emotional depth (she is cold, dispassionate). The gaze in this story capitalizes on this mysterious, unfeeling, sterile nature (this might be seen as even proto-cyborg). The woman in this story is essentially disconnected from the world due to her training to become an assassin–she is infertile, mystical, amoralistic, detaches, and by the end of the story, able to disappear as easily as she came into function in the story. These aspects partially contrast with a later female protagonist in the “Lady Knight Errant,” whose state is to function as an object of desire, a fertile/sexual, physical object.

A modern example of the way Nuxia Pian acted in prose might be seen in Gu Long’s wuxia story the 11th Son, published in the mid-20th century. In this novel, the female protagonist (who functions ancillarily to the male, as in Come Drink With Me), Feng Nei Seiyang, is an object of desire who’s frustrated by this male character, who is a perfect lover for her. She is, however a competent, if easily duped fighter (making her “lesser” than males), yet her preoccupations with maternal instincts is clearly apparent, thus strengthening the difficult state that Nuxia Pian maintain in the imagined martial world.

This notion of the Nuxia Pian, is clearly complex, culturally and historically, but it suggests that there is no easy definition to the trope, as TvTropes attempts to do. The Lady of War is possibly a higher level category under which Nuxia Pian would fall, as the Lady of War is graceful, dignified, sexual, feminine (though it is not indicated if this is essential or not), and elegant; the Nuxia Pian is all these, and more. Far from being relegated to superficial aspects, the deeper psychological struggles that motivate her cause, her existence, leads the Nuxia Pian into areas the Lady of War might not venture. But is there room for refinement in the Lady of War? I believe that it should be added that the Lady of War, by nature, is “other,” and a “cyborg” due to her other nature, due to how she blurs boundaries surrounding masculinity and gender, due to how she has enhanced her abilities in a mysterious (magical) fashion. The Lady of War, like Wonder Woman,  a superheroine related to the goddess Athena, is fashioned out of the patriarchal structures to combat them with her social strengths of seduction, mysterious power, and uncertainty.

-Mt

About WickedCultured

I play -test- and review mobile games for the Android platform. Yes. I play videogames for a living, but occasionally am involved in interface design for mobile apps. I am also a published poet and the author of the blog WickedCultured.
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