As the 20th century opened, a certain arm of western culture was up in arms about the threat that hordes of strange East Asians, unfathomable in their foreign otherness, posed to the western way of life, i.e. the Yellow Peril. (i.e. “They’re stealin’ our jaaaabs!”) Much of this fear and hatred was aimed towards men. However, at long last a trope arose in which East Asian women too could be part of that narrative. This is the Dragon Lady trope.
While the name of the trope dates back to a comic strip in 1934, the trope is older than that and its first definite appearance in popular culture is often credited as being in 1924 with the movie The Thief of Baghdad. The movie was a swashbuckling flick starring Douglas Fairbanks, and tells the story of a thief who falls in love with the daughter of the Caliph of Baghdad. More important to our discussion is the role of the treacherous Mongol slave played by the first Chinese American movie star, Anna May Wong.
Anna May Wong was a star in a time when the roles available to her were limited. She could either play Dragon ladies or Lotus Blossoms. In fact, the trope Lotus Blossom is named after a character she played in the 1922 movie Toll Of the Sea. It is no wonder she began more than one East Asian female trope, this was the dawn of the film industry and she was the only Asian female. Even then, it only lasted until 1935 when finally she was refused the lead of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film The Good Earth in favor of a white European actress. Also, during her peak in the 1920s she was never, ever allowed to kiss a caucasian on screen, which meant that she could never hope to be romantic lead in a film. She did the best she could and when finally, the frustration of the racism in Hollywood grew too much for her, she moved to Europe in hopes of better roles there. The roles were only marginally better. She left film making when WWII broke out in order to devote her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan.
A number of films Ms. Wong did in the 1920s perpetuated the Dragon Lady trope, but it wasn’t named as such until 1934 when the extremely popular comic strip Terry And the Pirates presented an Asian femme fatale called The Dragon Lady.
The strip’s creator based her off of real life Asian pirate Lai Choi San. The character was a master strategist, criminal, and fighter, and by far the strip’s most popular recurring villain. She appeared in the radio version and in all of the film serials based off the comic. In the 1940s she became an ally, leading the resistance against the Japanese invasion of China.
Shockingly for the time, Dragon Lady originally had the classic “oriental bad english” but her english actually improved and soon became flawless. And she was incredibly competent. It should be mentioned that not everybody dislikes the Dragon Lady stereotype.There are some who rather like her strong will, capability and absence of the usual gender submissiveness that was especially notorious in the early 20th century.
Others point out that the trope almost always implies a devious cunning, a calculating wickedness, an exotic villainry that does no favors in humanzing the “other” race.
Another issue cited is that Asian women in Western pop culture were offered two extremes, Lotus Blossom and Dragon Lady. Lotus Blossom: Submissive, docile, obedient, reverential; Sexy, coquettish, manipulative; the Prostitute/Victim of Sex Trade/War/Oppression: Helpless, in need of assistance or rescue; good-natured at heart.
OR, Dragon Lady, cunning, ruthless, Machiavellian, backstabbing, murderous, sexual but absolutely not relationship material. Femme fatale.
However, tropes can be used, subverted, reconstituted and evolved to become more complex. The term is reappropiated by Asian feminists in the 1997 book Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire, which showcases the growing politicization of Asian American women and their emerging feminist movement. (and which is available here)
Examples from pop culture of the Dragon Lady include (thanks to TV Tropes):
- General Fang, from the Jackie Chan version of Around the World in 80 Days.
- Hu Li, from Rush Hour 2.
- Myca in The Crow played by Bai Ling. The boss villain’s Asian half-sister, tattooed, sexually depraved, and has a thing about young girls’ eyes.
- Miss East in the Wild Wild West film.
- Mai, The Dragon of Live Free or Die Hard.
- Madame Rose, the villainess/villain of the Thai film Tom Yum Goong, retitled The Protector in the US.
- Miss Yang, who hires and later betrays Terry Tsurugi in The Street Fighter.
- Referenced in Gran Torino, where Clint Eastwood’s racist war veteran demands that “dragon lady” (a neighbouring Hmong teenager who has befriended him) get him a beer.
- Many of the characters played by Anna May Wong, for example the title character in Daughter of the Dragon. This was a source of considerable annoyance to her, especially since she was lucky to even get those roles, because most went to white actresses in yellowface makeup.
- The pirate lord Mistress Ching, based on the real-life pirate Ching Shih, in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
- Cantana in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li.
- At the end of the movie Bowfinger, Bobby Bowfinger(Steve Martin) and Jiff Ramsey(Eddie Murphy) star in a kung fu movie called “Fake Purse Ninjas” where Christine Baranski plays a Dragonlady type ordering a horde of ninjas to attack them.
- The Hong Kong action picture Legendary Assassin casts a Japanese woman in this role, and to better play up her ethnicity, gives her a katana as a weapon. Her ability to lead and kick ass is largely informed, however, as she spends most of the movie taunting the hero over the phone, threatens his captive Love Interest for two minutes at the end of the movie, then gets beaten in one hit by said love interest once the girl is set free.
- Lucy Liu frequently plays aggressive and domineering characters, but O-Ren Ishii in Kill Bill is the only one that features her running around in a kimono while wielding a katana (thus fulfilling the overt Asianness of this trope).
- The 2005 comedy film Monarch Of The Moon plays this character to the hilt in the form of Dragonfly. She’s an assassin, she speaks in stereotypical engrish, wears a skintight robe, utilizes bulletproof fans, and even has the word Dragon in her name. And like many dragon ladies of the time period said film is meant to invoke, she’s played a white actress (Kimberly Page).
- Joan Chen was typecast as the Dragon Lady in several 1980s-1990s films, prompting her to return home to China for a few years and try her hand at directing instead.
- Xifeng in Pirates XXX 2.
- DC Comics loves this trope:
- The most famous DCU example is probably Lady Shiva, a morally-ambiguous martial artist whose life mostly revolves around being the best unarmed combatant in the world.
- Cassandra Cain, Lady Shiva’s daughter and the third Batgirl, temporarily became a Dragon Lady during her Face Heel Turn.
- Cheshire, hired mercenary and general psychopath.
- Shado, a character best known for raping the Green Arrow.
- Shiv, the teenage granddaughter of a Japanese Golden Age supervillain. Her Asian heritage isn’t particularly pronounced though, and some artists don’t seem to realize she’s Asian at all.
- The villainess Roulette isn’t Asian, but is the sort of person who wishes she were. She does wear a qipao, has Chinese tattoos (including one of a dragon), wears chopsticks in her hair etc. When it came time for her to appear in an episode of Smallville, she was indeed played by an actress of Asian heritage. Lois even refers to her as a dragon lady! Her outfit she refers to as a ‘bigger Red Scare than Cold War Russia.’
- Sometimes Blackhawk foe Miss Fear (who also appeared in the Guns Of The Dragon mini-series) fits this trope.
- Superboy faced an opponent called- wait for it- Lady Dragon, the leader of the Silicon Dragons, who seems to fit in this trope. Like Roulette, the untrustworthiness is somewhat reduced by her obsession with fair play, or as Lady Dragon calls it, “equal measure.”
- The Robin foe Lynx. Her successor also pretends to be an over-the-top Dragon Lady villainess, but is in actuality an undercover cop from Hong Kong.
- In the Marvel Universe:
- Sasha Hammer, daughter of The Mandarin. She seduces Iron Man and has sex with him while he’s driving a fast car. Then she tries to kill him.
- Ms. Locke, sidekick to the X-Men supervillain Arcade. She is pretty much called one to her face at one point, and takes it as a compliment.
- Orson Randall faces off against dozens of them in Immortal Iron Fist Annual #1.
- Tyger Tiger from the Wolverine comics.
- Jade Claw from Agents of Atlas.
- Lady Lotus from The Invaders.
- Spider-Ham, Marvel’s Funny Animal Superhero, once faced a canine Dragon Lady. She was, of course, called “The Dragon Lassie”.
- Miss Ylang-Ylang from Bob Morane. Asian, seductive, and the leader of her own criminal organization.
- The title character of Executive Assistant Iris.
- Lady Serpent, foe of the Golden Age hero the Black Terror.
- Shamelessly parodied as the “Lizard Lady” in The Trouble With Girls.
- The title character of Chaos! Comics’ Jade is this.
- Archies Sonic the Hedgehog comics have the Iron Queen, though current writer Ian Flynn made her a Technomage and less a traditional spellcaster.
- DC Comics loves this trope: