PERSUASIONS NO. 22 (2000) Pages 7-12


Message from the President:
Code Word Jane Austen, or How a Chinese Film about Martial Arts Teaches Life Arts

Joan Klingel Ray

Joan Klingel Ray (email: is Professor of English and President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs and President of the North American Friends of Chawton House Library.  She served as President of JASNA from 2000 to 2006.


Nothing proves universal fame more readily than having one’s name tossed about as a code.  While Majorie Garber spoke about the marketing and marketability of Jane Austen in her Annual General Meeting (AGM) presentation,  “The Jane Austen Syndrome,”1 I find the public’s transforming Austen’s name into a code word—as in director Ang Lee’s describing his new film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as “Jane Austen meets Bruce Lee,”2 —even more striking than seeing  Austen’s face on a tea mug.  For by using Austen’s name as a kind of cultural shorthand, a code that immediately telegraphs certain values and meanings, we are saying that Austen’s writings are part of a popular cultural knowledge that we expect most persons to recognize, whether or not they are JASNA members.


            In Ang Lee’s remarks, the Bruce Lee reference is clear:  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial arts movie, the type of film for which Bruce Lee was famous.  What, then, is the Jane Austen part of his comment meant to suggest?  Other than that the martial arts are performed with “taste and execution” (picture Jane Fairfax brandishing a saber rather than playing the pianoforte), what is the meaning of the code word Jane Austen?  Elegance?  (Yes, even the fight scenes had a balletic elegance about them.)  Manners and decorum?  (The Chinese world we see in the film is, by and large, very polite, operating according to established protocols.)


            Immediately after quoting Ang Lee, Anthony Lane, film critic for The New Yorker, simply says:  “[U]nless you are literally expecting Mr. Knightley to kick Mr. Elton in the head, the judgment stands.”  While I think Mr. Knightley is more likely to kick Frank Churchill in the head, I find it provocative that Lane selects two characters from Emma rather than from Sense and Sensibility (maybe Colonel Brandon kicking Willoughby in the head in the off-stage duel?), with which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon shares a director:  Ang Lee directed Emma Thompson’s screenplay of the 1995 film.  Of course, like Emma, Ang Lee’s newest film tells a story of control and power.   But I find it even more curious that Lane chooses male characters, Mr. Knightley and Mr. Elton, to close off his discussion of the Jane Austen connection, rather than asking us to imagine Emma kicking Augusta Elton in the head, or (given Ang Lee’s directing Sense and Sensibility) Elinor kicking Lucy right above “her sharp little eyes” just after Lucy asks Elinor if she is upset by what she has learned from Lucy about the latter’s secret engagement to Edward (S&S, II, 2).  As a devoted Austenite, I would like to suggest to my fellow devoted Austenites some ways to interpret fully the code that uses the words “Jane Austen” as a way of illuminating Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.


            Like Austen’s fictional world, the movie deals with  “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village”—in this case, sometime during the Ch’ing dynasty (1644-1912).3  Granted, in the film, the country village extends from the remote countryside all the way to Peking.  But we are not concerned with the Chinese world at-large:  this is not your big epic movie any more than Wickham and his fellow Redcoats in Pride and Prejudice are about to turn that book into a Regency War and Peace.  Rather, our focus is on the occupants of the big house in the country, Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai, who share the house with a kind of self-made family of warriors; on the occupants of the Governor’s house in Peking, including Jen and her maid, who is the disguised criminal Jade Fox, the nemesis of Shu Lien and Li Mu Bai; and on the sword, Green Destiny, which occupies, on-and-off, the house of Sir Te, also in Peking.  


            Just as Jane Austen is careful to delineate the psychology of her major characters so that we understand their emotional motivations to undertake physical action, so too, this film focuses on the psychology of its major characters:  Li Mu Bai’s feelings of “endless sorrow” even as he trained to become the champion martial arts warrior and thus possessor of Green Destiny, which he decides to give to Sir Te precisely because of this sorrow; Shu Lien’s unspoken yet unshakable love for Mu Bai, which she stoically represses because of her equally fervent loyalty to the warrior code she shares with him; and Jen, a young woman who writhes under the stifling restrictions of her social role, thus making her a malleable weapon for the manipulative Jade Fox, who will use her to wreak vengeance against Mu Bai.  (And you thought Emma Woodhouse was too controlling!)


            While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon  is in no way a parody, imitation, or “rip-off” of Sense and Sensibility (or any other Austen novel, for that matter), the Chinese movie gives primary emphasis in its plot to the choices that the female characters make, as do Austen’s plots.  Yes, Li Mu Bai and his phallic Green Destiny sword prompt Shu Lien and Jen to make their choices.  But the main choices are primarily made by women.  And the choices they make keep the film-narrative propelling forward.  Furthermore, the women are not without suffering, a familiar situation for many an Austen heroine.  Shu Lin chooses to hide her deep love for Mu Bai because she adheres to the warriors’ code, just as Elinor hides hers for Edward because she adheres to social decorum.  Jen is secretly in love with Lo, a barbarian bandit who lives in a desert cave in China’s wild west and with whom she found true love and passion during the time she lived with him after he attacked her father’s caravan.  But Jen chooses to go back home with her father’s army when they rescue her; thus, now, she faces the dismal prospect of a marriage to a fellow aristocrat—a marriage that goes against all of her inherent sensibilities.


            Like Elinor, who always exerts, at great emotional cost, complete self-control around the passive aggressive Lucy, Shu Lien is baited in passive aggressive ways by the younger Jen, who is now back in Peking—having returned to the city with her father’s army.  Jen, awaiting the arrival of her noble but undesirable husband-to-be, is interested in Shu Lien’s connection with Mu Bai not for romantic conquest, but because, as Jade Fox’s tool, she has been cunningly trained to execute the criminal’s vendetta against Mu Bai by stealing Green Destiny and killing him.  For example, to try to lure information out of Shu Lien and gain her trust, Jen openly admires her and then offers to write her name in beautiful Chinese characters.


            Indeed, in playing her role as the dutiful aristocratic daughter, Jen is frequently shown doing delicate calligraphy, the camera focused on the brush or b_ in her hand.  Each time I saw this image, I was reminded of Austen’s famous epistolary comment about her own writing:  “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour” (16 December 1816).4  Park Honan interprets Austen’s remark in terms of her “reducing herself to a weak Chinese miniaturist. . . .”5  But just as Jen’s calligraphy is a feint to cover her martial arms expertise and fearlessness, so too, Austen’s modest comment, I believe, ironically (irony being a kind of feint) reminds us that painting skillfully in miniature is no job for the “weak.”  Rather, it requires supreme skill in picture rendition, as well as a very strong and steady hand and arm.


            A painter of miniatures has only a small space—say, only big enough to show three or four families in a country village being somehow involved in each other’s lives—to present everything she desires.  But the limited physical space of two inches of ivory can convey great depth and intensity—when painted upon, that is, with a fine brush held in the deft hand of a creative and insightful artist, a genius of her craft.  Austen painted with far greater effect, depth, and range than she is ready to admit to her nephew.  After all, while we readers are charmed by the courtship stories of Austen’s novels, the books also deal with topics ranging from slavery and child abuse (Antigua and Fanny Price in MP) to illicit sexuality (Lydia in P&P, Maria and Henry in MP, Eliza and her daughter in S&S), from the pains of binding social decorum (Elinor in S&S) to the sea of changes in English society that are on the horizon (all of P).        


            I have always felt the phrase “sense and sensibility” is the key to reading Austen, whichever of her novels we pick up.  Whether we think of the experiences of Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, or Emma Woodhouse, or the inhabitants of Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Kellynch Hall, or Barton Cottage, we will not miss Austen’s point if we think the characters’ greatest lesson is to learn to behave and treat others with a balance of sense and sensibility.  This is what the code “Jane Austen” telegraphs to me.


            At the risk of going out on a limb here—though my going out on a limb is probably quite apropos, given that the most visually mesmerizing martial arts scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon occurs when Mu Bai and Jen cling to swaying, leafy tree trunks while engaging in ferocious swordplay—I suggest that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is Ang Lee’s gloss on Sense and Sensibility, which is implied by the very title of the Chinese film.


            In Chinese culture, the tiger and the dragon are the two great forces of the universe:  the tiger represents soldierly sense and courage and magisterial dignity, while the dragon represents the sensibilites of rule, with the dragon being the symbol of the Chinese throne (cf., the Japanese throne is represented by the chrysanthemum).  The crouching tiger is tense and taut, ready to act, but sensibly biding its time until the right moment occurs.  The dragon, according the Chinese legend, is the most powerful creature.  It is literally hidden because it dwells underground.  But the dragon needs to reemerge to land periodically to refresh its thirst and bathe in the waters on the earth’s surface in order to live:  its sensibilities need refreshing.6


            Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or “Jane Austen meets Bruce Lee” is a martial arts film that conveys the importance of the requisite balance of sense and sensibility in one’s life.  Because Shu Lin represses her love for Mu Bai and exercises, at least in warrior terms, commendable common sense in matters of the heart, she keeps her sensibility too rigidly under control and suffers greatly.  Because Jen’s aristocratic position in society requires her to be engaged to a man she does not love, and because in this and other ways, she feels the rigid restrictions of her societal and familial role, her sensibilities are chafing to be released.  Her situation thus makes her a perfect instrument for the nefariously manipulative Jade Fox, who teaches the beautiful Jen to disguise herself as a man and fight with the ferocity of a great warrior, thus releasing those pent-up sensibilities.  (No wonder her true love turns out to be Lo, the brigand of the wild west).


            When Shu Lin and Jen engage in martial arts combat, neither wins:  neither sense nor sensibility is victorious.  Rather, as in Austen, sense and sensibility must be in balance—which, you may remember, is visually represented by placing Marianne and Elinor on opposite ends of a seesaw at the opening of the 1985 BBC-television version of Sense and Sensibility.  This is, for me, code word Jane Austen and, really, a wonderful way of living one’s life at its most rhythmically amiable.





1.  Julia Park Rodrigues, “Austen and Boston: A Perfect Pairing,” JASNA News, 16 (Winter 2000), 6.  “The Jane Austen Syndrome” is a chapter in Garber’s Quotation Marks (NY: Routledge), 2003.


2.  Ang Lee is quoted by Anthony Lane in his review, “Come Fly With Me: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,The New Yorker,  Dec. 11, 2000, 129-31.


3.  Jane Austen to Anna Austen, 9-18 September 1814, in  Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford and New York: OUP, 1995).


4.  Austen, of course, was responding to her teenage nephew, James Edward, doing an aunt's best to make him feel good about his novel writing in light of her own.   When you visit Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, you will see in a display case some pieces of very thin ivory, about one-inch wide and 3-4 inches long, held together by a ribbon.  The ivory pieces were used as pocket notepads, wherein one could jot in pencil a memorandum on the ivory and then wipe it clean to re-use it.  See Jane Austen’s Letters, 323.


5.  Park Honan,  Jane Austen: Her Life (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987), 354.


6.  C.A.S. Williams, Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, 3rd rev. ed. (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1974), 132-41, 398-400 passim.  It is also interesting to note that in Chinese cosmography, the Yin and Yang, which are the negative and positive principles of universal life, are symbolized, respectively, by the Tiger and the Dragon (458).  I thank Judith E. Price, my friend and colleague from the History Department at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, for her sharing with me her extensive knowledge of Chinese legends and symbols.


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