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The Dragon Lady

Caught between history, fiction and stereotype

black and white poster showing Anna May Wong with the text Świat nocy
Sofie Taes (opens in new window) (KU Leuven / Photoconsortium)

She’s fierce, striking and very much in control, with a hint of mystery and irresistible charm. Highly intelligent, she possesses secret knowledge that enables her to get out of every tricky situation.

black and white film poster showing Anna May Wong and a male actor

The Dragon Lady is a character you might have encountered in comics, movies, novels or computer games. As any trope, this one is rooted in social and cultural history, going back as far as the 19th century. Still, the first time the term was used to point to a fictional character was in the 1930s.

Who was the original Dragon Lady and what's the story behind her emergence in pop culture?

The story of Anna May

It was comic book author Milton Caniff who coined the term 'Dragon Lady' in his series Terry and the Pirates, c.1935. Yet the inspiration supposedly stems from a 1931 movie featuring Hollywood's very first Chinese star: American actress Anna May Wong, who was cast as one of the main characters in the crime mystery movie Daughter of the Dragon.

black and white photograph of Anna May Wong and her sister looking at a roll of film

Her character's father, Dr. Fu Manchu, was a well-known Asian stereotypical character: a mad scientist and criminal genius very much belonging to the Yellow Peril-era, when an irrational fear of Eastern people emerged based on the belief that they posed an existential threat to Western civilization.

long poster with a lot of red text for ‘Fu Manchu the Devil Doctor’

The same racial bias had been at the source of the Page Act issued in America in 1875: the first restrictive federal immigration law, regulating the instream of Asian women in the US. Seven years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act was added as an extension of that law, now also preventing men from entering the States. The Act would stay in place until 1943.

black and white illustration, a group of Chinese people standing among British army officers with speech bubbles above their heads

While the Chinese Exclusion Act was formulated against laborers and seemed to have an economically driven rationale, the Page Act stemmed from sociological and demographic motives. The American government wanted to limit and control the extent to which a Chinese American population would develop. The law alludes to the promiscuity of Chinese women and the supposed threat they posed to traditional family values.

black and white cartoon showing two men whipping a Chinese man caricature with a cat o' nine tails

In Europe, too, the 'Yellow Peril' ideology and anti-East Asian racial preconceptions were prevalent from the late 19th century onwards, German Emperor Wilhelm II (reigned 1888-1918) going as far as to use the expression 'Gelbe Gefahr' to legitimize European colonial efforts in China.

black and white illustration, a Chinese man holding a wall hanging featuring a dragon

At the turn of the century, anti-Asian racist stereotyping rose to new levels over the eruption of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) in which attempts were made by the locals to drive colonial forces out of China. Europe wanted revenge for every Westerner killed. Soldiers were urged by the German emperor to attack the Chinese viciously and barbarously as they were considered to behave 'cowardly, like a dog, but also deceitful'.

The victory in the Boxer Rebellion didn't put a stop to the fear that China would eradicate western civilization. The danger was perceived on all levels, from politics and economics to moral and cultural decay.

colour illustration of a battle taking place, with text description below
black and white photograph, group of 9 women sit in a row holding telephones

Next to the Dragon Lady, other stereotypical notions of Chinese people emerged in popular culture, from the submissive China Doll or Lotus Blossom to the clumsy coolie and the big-toothed chop-chop. Along with the characterisations came a plethora of 'ethnophaulisms': derogatory terms used against ethnic minorities.

card depicting figure of a man selling peanuts

What’s in a name?

Seen against this background, the character of the Dragon Lady betrays a distinct negative bias. Her portrayal is not that of a strong, powerful and attractive woman but a deceitful, domineering character, using her sexuality as a weapon to destroy virtues such as modesty, morality, chastity and loyalty.

black and white photograph of Anna May Wong

With the American and later European film successes of Anna May Wong, the unfortunate epithet Dragon Lady made its way into common vocabulary, becoming more widely used for actresses and characters of Asian descent.

A famous example is that of Ling in the Bond-movie You only live twice. Played by actress Tsai Chin, Ling was portrayed as a beautiful yet lethal double agent, who assists in an attempted assassination of James Bond.

colour film scene, James Bond in a pool surrounded by four women wearing pink bikinis

At the time when the blockbuster came out, Tsai Chin had a recurring role in five movies acting opposite Christoper Lee as the daughter of Fu Manchu. She would go on to battle for a better representation of Asian women in cinema throughout her career.

film scene, Fu Manchu sitting in a high seat

Beyond the big screen, powerful Asian women whose counter-current, decisive behavior was under close scrutiny, often became called Dragon Lady as well, even in historical contexts preceding the 1930s. Empress dowager Cixi, the last woman to rule China, was deemed a Dragon Lady. At the end of the 19th century, she effectively controlled the government for nearly 5 decades and was perceived as a reactionary force.

black and white photograph of Empress Cixi sitting on a throne

Soong Mei-ling or 'Madame Chiang Kai-shek' is among the most well-known 'Dragon Ladies' too.

As the wife of Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek and a force to be reckoned with in Chinese civic movements, she was active on the socio-political scene of her country with outspoken opinions and a wide public appeal.

black and white photograph, Soong Mei-ling and President Chiang Kai-shek on their wedding day
black and white photograph of Mrs. Chiang Kai-shek

In her efforts to support her people in the Second Sino-Japanese War, she undertook a tour through the United States to further her cause. She was the first Chinese person to address both houses of Congress of the US, and appeared on the cover of Time magazine three times throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

cartoon showing Mme Chiang Kaishek walking past Harry Truman

Trần Lệ Xuân, the wife of Ngô Đình Nhu - the president of South Vietnam’s brother and chief advisor during the late 1950s - was not only designated Dragon Lady, but Tigress of Saigon, Lucretia Borgia and The Queen Bee as well.

She had an outspoken personality and was known for her efforts to establish 'morality' laws. Denouncing the strong influences of the US in her country, 'Madame Nhu' became a concern to American authorities, all the more after her projected 'triumphant lecture tour' in the States turned into a highly charged political conflict in 1963.

When her husband and the president were killed during a coup in South Vietnam and all the family's property was confiscated, Mrs. Nhu was forced into exile, spending the rest of her life in France and Italy.

black and white photograph of a Mrs. Nhu at a press conference
black and white portrait Trần Lệ Xuân

As the term 'Dragon Lady' went from historical reality to fiction and back, the stereotype it conveys has stayed alive throughout the 20th century - and beyond. Still, decades after Anna May Wong, many an Asian actress gets cast as a character boasting the Dragon Lady traits - from Lucy Liu in Charlie's Angels to Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies.

yellow film poster, a man in the centre holds a gun while woman stand on wrecking balls around him

While on the surface they are featured as forceful and powerful, they also are portrayed as violent and threatening, with a sexual attraction that echoes the accusations made more than a century ago. Much like the femme fatale, the bombshell and the vamp, the Dragon Lady has entered pop culture and gained a sense of normalcy that obscures much less innocent historical wrongs.

This blog is the result of a collaboration between two CEF-projects co-funded by the European Union: PAGODE: Europeana China, focusing on Chinese cultural heritage preserved in Europe, and Europeana XX. A Century of Change dedicated to the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.