The crouching culture and hidden emotion in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Wanyu Zheng

Being a Chinese director who’s been in the United States for many years, Ang Lee always seeks to present his understanding of Eastern culture with the comparison of Western culture: His Oscar winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one. In my perspective, perhaps derived from Zhuang Zi, an ancient Taoist philosopher in China, Ancient Eastern culture is collectivism that values endurance and self-control, seeking some kind of infinite realm; Western culture is more of individualism that values courage and determination, seeking freedom and pleasure. The conflict between these two culture systems are embodied in Ang Lee’s film, and his interpretation of this conflict is conveyed by the signs and symbols that lies in the image and music of the film.

The story is around a stolen sword and several warriors. Li, a great warrior famous throughout Qing China decides to retire to the mountains. He asks Shu, the un-conceded love of his life to bring his treasured sword, the Green Destiny to an old friend. However, the sword is soon stolen by a mysterious assassin. All these lead to a teenage nobleman’s daughter, Yu, who is a martial artist at the crossroads of her life. In the clip below, Li and Yu are fighting in a bamboo forest, and the two relatively stands for two characters: the tranquil, repressed Eastern culture and the freedom seeking Western culture. 

In this bamboo-fight sequence, Li can be viewed as a symbol of the Eastern wisdom, which emphasizes subduing the activity with serenity. Li always stands on the top of the bamboo forest and rides the wave, even if Yu presses the bamboo really hard, Li never shakes but stands firm, waiting for the right time to rebound. The bright green color of the bamboo can also be interpreted as a symbol of the hidden emotion stirring inside these two characters: Li brings peace and calm to Yu’s heart as well as Yu affects Li with her courage and passion. The shots are full of panorama and wide, and the fighting scenes are not fierce but seem to be slow. These all show a special perspective from the director and certain emotions he wishes to convey through the film. Thus, the meaning of the film title Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon superficially stands for the powerful warriors and swordsmen in the film, but in fact appears to be the repressive emotion of each character, whose changes push the story forward.

Whether I am right in making such multi-layered interpretation might be explained in Eco’s model of the cultural encyclopedia: “the meaning of something is not a matter “correct” or “incorrect” interpretations, but rather an instance of an interpreter’s competence in engaging the cultural encyclopedia, the whole repertoire of symbolic resources available and known to a culture.” (Irvine, 24) My interpretation is actually a combination of sign and interpretation – Chinese swordsmen fly over the bamboos – which focuses on the semiotic process and historical continuity at the social and cultural level.

According to Peirce’s theory, the image of bamboo in the film is mere a sign and its indication of Chinese culture makes it a symbol, but if I want to combine the explicit meaning of bamboo with Ang Lee’s personal interpretation in the film like bamboo means emotion, the whole meaning making process will become much complicated than before. These symbols are so dynamic in human brain. “We think only in signs. These mental signs are of mixed nature; the symbol-parts of them are called concepts.” (Peirce, 10) Perhaps Peirce’s classic observation is the reason why a bamboo may become a representative of a culture, a fight can stand for the conflict between Eastern and Western cultures, and a film could not only show Eastern philosophy, but also the flows of hidden emotions that touch every audience across cultural barriers.

Movie Trailer:


C. S. Peirce, “What is a Sign,” excerpt from Peirce, Charles S. Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1893-1913). Edited by Nathan Houser, Christian J. W. Kloesel, and Peirce Edition Project. Vol. 2. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Irvine, “Introduction to Meaning Making, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics” (begin here)
Read sections 1-4 of this book chapter in progress. We will use later sections next week.

Mieke Bal, “Semiotics for Beginners,” from Mieke Bal, On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994., Film Review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,, visited on Feb. 2013, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon(2000),, visited on Feb. 2013