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Shang-Chi Depicts A World Where Asian Women Can Be Human & Heroes

·7-min read

Spoilers ahead. If there’s one scene from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings I could watch over and over again, it’s Xu Xialing’s introduction. After landing in Macau to reconnect with his little sister for the first time in a decade, the eponymous hero (Simu Liu) finds himself at the Golden Daggers Club, coerced into an illicit fight ring live-streaming on the dark web. Before Shang-Chi can register the identity of his mysterious opponent, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) is charging at him from the shadows, soaring through the air with a knee aimed for his nose. She’s not happy to see him.

This spar between estranged siblings is one of many dynamic and beautifully choreographed fight scenes in the film. But what feels uniquely striking is the emotional depth and purpose driving Xialing’s aggression toward her brother — it’s not cruelty or spite for the sake of it. Face to face with Shang-Chi, she remembers the last time they saw each other. “Don’t leave me here,” a young Xialing (Harmonie He) quietly pleads in Mandarin, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Lingling,” her brother (Arnold Sun) reassures her before leaving their family compound, “I’ll be back in three days.” Those three days multiply into weeks, months, then years. Her adult self takes a deep breath and drives her heel into the centre of her deserter sibling’s face, knocking him to the ground. The crowd goes wild.

Western media has long denied Asian women humanity by coding us as either passive objects or sinister threats unworthy of empathy or care. Between the infantile, submissive Lotus Blossom or the seductive, calculating Dragon Lady, Asian women have rarely been portrayed beyond these exotified, hypersexualised stereotypes. Upending Orientalist misogynist media tropes has become particularly imperative after the mass violence in Atlanta that took the lives of six women of Asian descent earlier this year. As the first Asian-led story in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings intentionally challenges these gendered stereotypes, portraying compassionate, powerful, and above all, capable women. Asian-American socio-political engagement doesn’t end at Hollywood representation, but the film feels like an affirmation that it’s possible to create a world where Asian femininity is a strength, and not something to fear or otherwise annihilate.

Shang-Chi shows that Asian women don’t have to shrink themselves to be worthy of care, respect, and influence.

While the neglected, overshadowed little sister is far from a new concept in storytelling, Xialing’s characterisation captures the nuances of being a daughter in an Asian family. As culture writer Kat Moon points out, this family dynamic is illustrated in a Chinese idiom zhong nan qing nü, meaning “heavy male, light female,” which invokes a rigid, traditionalist cultural preference for “masculine” traits over “feminine” ones. Naturally, this seeps into our family systems, affecting how parents treat their sons versus their daughters. After the murder of Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen), Wenwu (Tony Leung) initiates his son’s intensive and brutal training, leaving his daughter alone in the shadows. “He said he couldn’t look at me because I reminded him of her,” Xialing later reveals to Katy (Awkwafina), her brother’s best friend from San Francisco. In the leadup to the film’s premiere, Shang-Chi screenwriter Dave Callaham spoke to Refinery29 over Zoom about the creative considerations behind Xialing’s character arc. “[Director Destin Daniel Cretton] and I were [mindful] of how [daughters] in [traditionalist Asian families] tend to get overlooked,” he said, highlighting the contrast between Wenwu’s expectations for each of his children. “[We wanted] to show the world that he was wrong [to dismiss her]. [Xialing] is very capable… and she’s not going to sit on the side.”

Rather than internalise her father’s neglect or passively await rescue, Xialing seizes control of her life. Not only does she become a self-taught martial artist who easily bests her soon-to-be Avenger brother, but she’s also the founder and owner of the Golden Daggers Club. Her justified anger and her personal drive to lead and dominate contrasts with the emotional sensitivity and softness that she seemingly retains from her mother. She quickly warms up to Katy, an Asian American, and the supportive, emotionally intimate friendship that blossoms between them is one of the many joys of the film. What sets Xialing apart from her father and brother is that she preserves this integral part of her identity rather than destroying or avoiding it. Being in touch with her heart only makes her stronger.

Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo by Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

The key to disrupting Orientalist stereotypes in the film was its treatment of characters as layered humans with their own personal desires, Callaham told Inverse in a separate interview. While Wenwu was written specifically to dismantle the most prominent racial caricature of the mystical, conniving Fu Manchu, the way this trope also affects Asian women is often overlooked. In our conversation, Callaham elaborated on the stereotypes the filmmakers avoided when it came to the matriarch of the family. “We wanted someone in [her] position to be [strong and powerful while] leading with her heart,” he said of Li. The film stays away from characterising Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mother as another cold, unfeeling Dragon Lady or Tiger Mom, instead emphasising the power of her support and compassion. Of course, Li’s role hits some of the marks of the unfortunate dead mum trope, and she only interacts with male characters during her minimal screen time. However, Cretton’s trauma-informed storytelling still elevates her humanity in a beautiful way that subverts parts of that stereotype. Her death isn’t just a shocking, shallow spectacle that serves to move the plot forward, and her husband and son are torn apart in the aftermath of avenging her, rather than exalted or crowned.

Continuing Li’s legacy is her sister Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), who immediately welcomes Shang-Chi and Xialing upon their return to Ta Lo, their maternal homeland. She warmly and affectionately affirms them both as family — presumably the first parental figure since their mother to see and love them for who they are, rather than parentifying or rejecting them. Given the lack of dialogue between Xialing and her mother in this story, this connection is vital to the fighter’s arc. As everyone begins training for the battle against Wenwu, Xialing once again sits at the sidelines and watches. Nan gently reminds her that she’s not beholden to her father’s expectations. “We train as equals here,” Nan says with a knowing smile, handing her niece a rope dagger, “You no longer have to hide in the shadows.” Rather than impose limitations or otherwise restrict Xialing, Nan encourages her to be herself and to stand in her power with confidence. Shang-Chi shows that Asian women don’t have to shrink themselves to be worthy of care, respect, and influence.

Despite my skepticism around representation politics, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings offers a glimmer of hope of a world where Asian women have the space to unapologetically be themselves. It challenges the Orientalist misogynist stereotypes that have prevailed for centuries in Western media and emphasises the complex humanity of its characters above all.

Not only does Xialing grow through the events of the film, but the post credits set her up for an interesting future in the MCU. Wearing an oxblood suit and matching lipstick, Xialing smirks as she rightfully takes her throne as the head of her late father’s organisation, looking on as men and women (are those Widows?) spar and train as part of the Ten Rings. Hopefully she uses her power for good, but we love a good antiheroine too. Now, when’s her Disney+ series premiering?

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