David Heuser

Societal Roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

As with many of these essays, my first impulsive was to explore a part of the movie I did not understand. In this case, the end of the film, when Jen casts herself off of the cliff presumably to her death, although we are not exactly sure if that is the case. What is the meaning of this act? The path I went down (and others are possible, as always) led me to the idea that this wonderful love story wrapped in the kung-fu genre hides within it a story about societal obligations and the penalties which are extracted when those obligations are not fulfilled.

Here, youth (Jen, corrupted by Jade Fox, and Lo, the desert warrior) does not obey societal obligations while the older generation, in the person of Li and Shu Lien, obeys those obligations to an extreme, to a fault. In fact, all of the elders are implicated in this, suggesting that society as whole is guilty of straitjacketing itself, as these are the pillars of that society. For examples, and there are many, two come quickly to mind: Sir Te not pursuing the theft of the Green Destiny sword so as to not offend the governor, and the lack of involvement in Jen's life by her parents.

Jen is clearly immature, raised not by parents, but by her mentor, the Jade Fox. Now, Jade Fox herself is outside the bounds of lawful society, and her escape to "the West" - some unspecified "other" place which is clearly outside of the societal order we find in the movie - and her subsequent return infect the culture Lo and Shu Lien represent, the culture in which they provide order and enforce the law.

Jen's character is direct opposition to the older generation; it is all wrong, or at least out of sync with the society she lives in. She is deceptive. (Jade Fox curses her for this on her deathbed, but, of course, what did she expect as she was deceitful in the same way, presenting herself as one thing while actually another. In a show of one up-man-ship, Jen presents herself as at least three things: dutiful daughter/member of society, dutiful trainee to Jade Fox, and ninja-thief.) Jen is also impulsive (running off after the hoards practically to her death, for a comb), materialistic (besides the comb incident, she identifies herself completely with the sword soon after stealing it the 2nd time, to the point of chasing it down to her near death), and generally immature (she considers the initial theft of the sword a prank, and later mirrors that incident with another prank, the barroom brawl).

Jen is coupled (literally and metaphorically) with Lo, who shares many of these characteristics. His materialism and deception are revealed in his occupation; like Jen he is a thief who attacks with stealth. We don't see much of Lo, but we don't need to. Jen is his surrogate - everything we need to know about Lo, we can learn by watching Jen. (I still feel Lo is necessary to the movie, for several reasons, not the least of which is Jen's sexual awakening, so important to her interaction with Li. Lo also provides a mechanism which allows Jen to become independent from Jade Fox.)

Lo is also represented by Li for much of movie, as he is the "other" man in her life. The sexual tension between Li and Jen is noticeable even the first time they meet, and later, in their last meeting, it is actually spoken about by Jen. "Do you want me or the sword?" she asks him. It is, of course, Jen, the youth, who thrusts the sword at Li, however; she is the male (sword as penis) aggressor in the relationship, and there is never any doubt that Li will remain loyal to Shu Lien. The possibility of a coupling is there, however, because Jen is everything the older woman is not: young, beautiful, emotionally boiling over, and, most importantly, she needs Li for his ability to train her.

This younger couple (Jen and Lo) act on their emotions without regard to the consequences or their obligations. They are in the desert, the wilderness, outside of society, attempting to forget the outside world and her duties to her (biological) family. This is Jen's "West." Just as Jade Fox was evicted from society only to come back and infect it with the chaos and unlawfulness of that outside place, so Jen spends her time in the desert, allowing her to go one step further, bringing the unruly chaos of the wilderness into the order of society. Even later when she does fulfill her obligation to her family and marries, she runs off, hating her husband and her parents, running away from the limits society places on her. Lo, in contrast, has already been through this crucible; he has already abandoned society when we first run into him, an outlaw in the wilderness, serving no master.

We now turn to the older couple, Li and Shu Lien. They are also guilty of improperly handling their duties to their society, but they obey social obligations too long, honoring the memory of a dead brother in arms to the point of ridiculousness. They have not acted upon their emotions- they should be having a family, they should be parents to someone like Jen. In fact, their failure to grow from mature adults to parents is a parallel to Jen's struggle in this film to pass a similar life barrier, from youth to adult. (See the last paragraph for more.) Metaphorically, Li and Shu Lien represent Jen's absent parents, who we hardly see in the movie. They have tacitly allowed Jade Fox to raise her, just as Jen's actual parents have. For in their past failures to both finish off Jade Fox and become parents (a societal obligation) themselves, they have "lost" Jen.

Ultimately, they wait too long to take over Jen's training, and the movie becomes a struggle over Jen. Whom will the next generation follow, Jade Fox or the Wudan-trained warriors? Mistakes made in the past haunt them and are compounded: the Wudan does not take females on to train (leading to the exclusion of both Jade Fox and Jen), Li allowed the Jade Fox to escape to the West and did not follow her, neither Li nor Shu Lien acted on their feelings. In a very real way, society, represented here by Li and Shu Lien, made Jade Fox, which in turn made Jen.

Jan's relationship with other characters are like that of a family. We rarely see her real parents, we never see her interact with them, we never see siblings, and I don't recall even seeing her husband. So her biological family is absent. In its place is her metaphorical family. Jade Fox and Li, trainer and would-be trainer, are her mother and father. To which will she cleave? Shu Lien is her sister; this is in fact stated. Now, in metaphorical terms, siblings of the same sex are often used to identify characters as one and the same person in different guises. Here Shu Lien is both a positive model for Jen (warrior, in society), and a negative model (Shu Lien does not follow her heart, she obeys societal restraints too long). Finally Lo is Jen's husband. Their marriage is not legitimized by any institution, making it the opposite of her true marriage later in the movie: the first is personal and consummated, the second societal and a sham.

(As a side bar, this creates an interesting contrast to Western literature and thought. The rise of the individual from the Renaissance forward in the West leads to cases just like this but with the moral compass reversed. For example, Wolfram Von Eschenbach's Parcival enters into a true marriage, with no priest or ceremony, decided on by only the two people involved, and is thereby revealed to living an authentic life. One of the major themes of that book, in fact, is that Parcival can only achieve his goal when he responds to his feelings and not simply do what society has taught him a knight is to do.)

The main characters balance each other in a variety of ways. For example, Li, Lo and Jade Fox make all possible combinations of mentor/lover relationships:

Jade Fox is Jen's actual mentor whose skill Jen surpasses (negative mentor); clearly they are not lovers. Li is a potential mentor (that is, both is a mentor and is not a mentor) whose skill Jen does not surpass; he is also a potential lover (again, both is and is not).

Lo is not a mentor, but his skill matches Jen's; and they are lovers (actual). To borrow a format from Claude Levi-Strauss:


Mentor/Ability in relationship to Jen


Jade Fox









(By the way, one of the ways we know Li and Jen are potential lovers is because of the metaphoric equivalence between Jen and Shu Lien, and we know Shu Lien's and Li's feelings for each other. It is also tempting to accuse Jen of yet another infraction against society by confusing a man, Li, who should be mentor, for a potential mate. Li's duel role as both potential father and lover to Jen is one ripe for a Freudian to work on! )

Another example of balance is the characters' relationships, real and presumed, to society. Lo has rejected society and says so. Jade Fox also has rejected it, but she pretends not to. Li accepts it. Jen is first like Jade Fox (deceptive), then like Lo (an outlaw - witness the barroom brawl), and then finally like Li when she reaches maturation, accepting her place in society. But she does so too late; there is no real way to get back to her true (biological) family and (lawful) husband, but also no way to go forward with Lo, with whom she has also made a pact, and finally no way to continue as she has been going. It is this trap which she seems to be escaping with her great leap.

Finally we come to the Green Destiny. I've avoided the sword at the center of the story because it's symbolism lies on a different axis than the one this essay explores (the idea of destiny, which explains the name of the weapon). But I need to address the sword's relationship to this axis. Only two characters use the green sword, Jen and Li. Li's initial rejection of the sword's return to him reinforces the idea that Li has gone overboard in his self-punishment for whatever failings he had in the past. Jen's attraction to it (for all the wrong reasons) reinforces her lack of any kind of the self-critical maturity of which Li has too much of.

Jen and Li battle each other for/with the sword four times. These battles are like a courtship, further emphasizing their relationship as potential lovers. In the first conflict, they flirt: Jen tells him, "I'm just playing around," and we later learn that Li is also just gauging her abilities. In the second fight he takes sword back from her, and tests her (because he wants to be her mentor). The third time they meet is the famous battle in the trees. She tests him this time ("take the sword from me in three moves"), and, of course, he takes the sword back again. Since he is not tied down to the world of illusions, the material world, he can easily cast it aside. She, the thief, is so attached to possessing the sword, she nearly dies reclaiming it.

Their last meeting is not really a battle between them. Jen, drugged, accuses him of coming back for her (as a lover) as much as for the sword. As previously mentioned, her thrusting the sword at him has sexual overtones. But her expression of her feelings for Li are wrong; they follow from her only successful relationship, her relationship with Lo, where love involved violence, possession, conquest. Only in this last meeting does Li finally show what he, and the sword, are really capable of. When Li kills Jade Fox, he not only shows his true ability, but also how he has held back before, using his full strength only when it is right and just. This is in contrast to Jen, who fights for no reason whatsoever, or on her on whims.

Li finally accepts his destiny at the end of the movie when he uses the sword against Jade Fox. Here, he is one with his role in society, not overly cautious as he has been in the past. In the same way, Jen keeps using the sword in a way which is contradictory to its nature. When she sees Li's full might with the sword, she is shocked into understanding - she has had no idea of the power of the weapon, which, in the hands of Li, an agent for order, represents the power of society itself to shape the world. This is not a Western idea, but an Eastern one. Where, in Western myths we worship the lone hero, the outlaw, the one who stands outside of society, the point here is that the hero is the one who makes society function by accepting their place in it and functioning in their proper role.

Li's death is punishment for his mistakes (or both he and Shu Lien's mistakes), but it also serves to bring Jen into maturity. It is only on seeing the Jade Fox's treachery, and witnessing Li's death, that she grows up and finally sees herself as part of society. For the first time, she acts out of concern for someone else by trying to save Li's life. This is her first act as a participating member of society.

And here, finally, we come to the reason for the film's ending. Since the youth (= rejection of society) in her must metaphorically die for her to come into adulthood (= acceptance of her role in society), she casts herself over the cliff, a physical realization of that metaphor. Her slow descent into clouds on the screen leave us with some uncertainty; there is no body or funeral to provide us with definite closure. I suppose this is as it should be as this death is not a physical one. Lo's earlier story about such a leap, where wishes are granted, suggests that Jen might not (physically) die. But more importantly, the scene's unreality further suggests the realm of the symbol, the metaphor, where Jen's death to her impetuous youth is the same as all of our own deaths to our selfish, youthful selves, and our birth to maturity, when we take our place in society as citizens fulfilling our proper roles in the world.

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Copyright 2013, David Heuser
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