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The Martial Master’s Mistresses: Forbidden Desires and Futile Nationalism in Jet Li’s Kung-Fu Films


During his 24 years as a kung-fu film icon, Jet Li has repeatedly portrayed the conventional Chinese martial master: the righteous but reluctant leader who ultimately retreats from the world after redirecting his own desires to support supposedly greater moral claims of master and nation. Too preoccupied by his fights and flights, Li’s characters seem unable to give much thought to the women who love him. This consistent failure for Li to “get the girl”—especially given a series of hyper-feminine heroines who should, by rights, be irresistible—suggests that these popular films enact some trauma or taboo for their local audiences. Indeed, I argue that these heroines, each of whom bears a mixed cultural heritage, personify the impossibility of imagining a unified modern Chinese identity, because the films cannot imagine these heroines as fit candidates to raise “culturally pure” children. Li’s steadfast reincarnation as the martial master, then, represents the contemporary Chinese need to elegize a common cultural past as a compensation for the loss of a common cultural future. This essay thus pays homage to and extends feminist film scholar Gina Marchetti’s groundbreaking Romance and the “Yellow Peril,” in which she describes how Hollywood has used the trope of romance to perform and displace its racial fears and fantasies. Jet Li’s kung-fu films mobilize a different set of gendered iconographies to explore different historical issues, but their discursive strategies and political implications remain the same.

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