79 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Meaning: on Order & Chaos

Crouching tiger, chinese philosophy

Blurb of episode:

A new ‘Chinese philosophy and holiness’ episode! Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon offers not only a expose of Confucian and Taoist philosophies, it also offers Christians reflection on the balance between order and chaos in our lives. Both are vital dimensions of a flourishing spirituality, but are they both welcome? 

Full transcript of episode

Dear friends, this is the fourth episode on the Myth Pilgrim that follows the theme of Chinese philosophy and holiness. Today, I present before you Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a cultural icon not only in Asia, but also in the West. Winning the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2001, this great myth of Taiwanese cinema cannot easily be classified or categorised. The title Crouching Tiger, is a Chinese idiom that means there is much more than meets the eye. While heralded for bringing wuxia martial arts into western consciousness, the film is also a sweeping love story, socio-political commentary and an exploration of Chinese philosophy. Particularly this episode, I will explore the relationship between order and chaos, presenting in the second half of this episode why both order and chaos have their place in the Christian life. To do this with crouching Tiger, I will first be exploring the innate tension between Taoism and Confucianism, the two philosophies that have most shaped Chinese culture.  

Synopsis of the story

Li Mu Bai is a very skilled and disciplined swordsman trained in the Wudang arts. At the start of the film, he is wanting to retire, and live out his final years in quiet contemplation, however he is constantly distracted and feels drawn to resolve some unfinished business. As it turns out this unfinished business is a woman he has secretly loved for decades –Shu Lien, who also secretly loves him. However, due to their strict honour in memory of a former friend, they had suppressed their feelings for one another.

This plot all gets interrupted however, when the legendary sword the Green Destiny gets stolen by a mysterious thief in the night. Significantly, this sword once belonged to Li Mu Bai (we’ll call him Li from this point on), and the thief was actually a young woman named Jen, a woman who in the daytime was an obedient, meek diplomat’s daughter about to be married off to someone she didn’t love. This was just a cover up though, for Jen was actually a very skilled but unruly learner of Wundang. We soon learn that she had mastered this skill by secretly studying the ancient Wudang manual, something that her mentor, Jade Fox, didn’t even know about. To thicken the plot, Jade Fox is actually the film’s chief villain, and when Li discovers she was behind the stealing of the Green Destiny, he fully comes out of retirement in order to seek Jade out and to avenge his former master, who had been killed by Jade Fox. Like Jen, Jade Fox is a woman, who had murdered Li’s master in spite because he had refused to teach her Wudang swordsmanship on account of her being a woman.

We soon learn that Jen had actually surpassed Jade in swordsmanship, but was now a totally wild, disruptive spirit with no one to guide her. There’s a brief subplot, where we learn that Jen had once run off with a Mongolian bandit named Lo, when his group had ambushed Jen’s caravan. Li and Shu Lien become aware of this secret love, and offer to help the wild spirited Jen elope with her lover, but Jen doesn’t trust her elder friends have her best interests at heart. She insults Shu Lien to her face and they have the now iconic face off in the courtyard of Shu Lien’s home, with Jen wielding the Green Destiny, and Shu Lien a different array of weapons. Though Shu Lien is clearly the superior fighter, Li interrupts the sword fight, offering once more to take Jen as his disciple. She runs off again and Li pursues, culminating in their face off in the bamboo forest. Li tries to convince Jen that the sword alone didn’t make one great, but rather, the integrity of the wielder. To prove his point, he throws the Green Destiny away down a waterfall, but Jen chases after it anyway, before being whisked away and rescued by Jade Fox.

Following his archenemy to her lair, Li then faces off to Jade, and she is killed, but not before one of her poisoned darts pierces Li’s neck, giving him only 2 hours to live. Jen, finally moved to repentance, offers to quickly ride back to town to make up an antidote for Li. In the meantime back in the lair, Li realises he only has one breath left to live, and using his final breath, decides to confess his undying love to Shu Lien, before he dies cradled in her arms. Jen returns with the antidote, but it is too late to save Li. She sinks to her knees, offering her head for Shi Lien to rightfully take with the Green Destiny. But instead, Shu Lien breaks Wudang protocol, and instead gently instructs Jen to go to Wudang mountain, where she would find her beloved Lo, and they could finally be together. She does meet up with him atop the mountain. The final shot is rather mysterious, depicting Jen choosing to leap off the mountaintop into the fog, in order to fulfil an ancient legend that grants leapers, a wish that would certainly come true…

On Confucianism

Okay, so that’s the story in summary. Before we deep dive into the Christian significance of the film, it’s necessary to lay the foundations of both Confucianism and Taoist thought, though some of you may remember bits from previous episodes. Confucianism, founded by Confucius is an ancient school of thought originating in the 5th century BC. It is all about right relationship between people, maintaining harmonious social order, filial piety, and respect for authority. Compared to Taoism, Confucianism is rather this-worldly, with little or no focus the divine or the afterlife, but rather on establishing a good society and strong character. If you want to understand the strong, undying honour Chinese place on their elders, their parents, mentors and rulers, look no further than Confucius. In the chaos/order continuum, Confucianism represents order.

On Taoism

Taoism then, is the philosophical tradition attributed to Laozi (Lao Tzu), also originating from around the 5th C BC. It centers on finding and following the “Tao” (the Way) – an underlying, natural principle that governs the universe. Taoists embrace spontaneity, simplicity, and living in harmony with nature. It encourages the practice of “wu-wei” (effortless action), moving with the flow, letting things unfold naturally without forcing outcomes. Unlike the emphasis on social ordering and rituals in Confucianism, Taoists seek to attain spiritual balance and inner peace. Over Chinese history, it is characterised by a lack of undying orthodoxy. In the chaos/order continuum, Taoism represents chaos. Chaos?

Chinese civilisation is both/and

Now… before you accuse me of being racist or simplistic, let me clarify what I mean by chaos this episode. When we Westerners think of chaos, we tend to think of mayhem and destruction and recklessness, a bit like the Joker figure in batman… but this is not what Chinese people mean by chaos. Rather, chaos is more about spontaneity, free flowing-ness, like water. It is a creative energy, whereas order is a stabilising energy. Chaos is the opposite of order but not in a bad way, but in a complementary way… the yin of the yang. We need both order and chaos in our lives in order to flourish, and we need them in right proportion. Too much chaos and our lives will become a destructive mess and too much order and our lives become suffocated. Hence both Confucianism (symbolic of order) and Taoism (symbolic of chaos) have played an integral part in Chinese culture.. and if you ask me, it is precisely this harmonious dance that has enable Chinese civilisation to flourish and dominate for like four thousand years … that is until Communism arrived on the scene which was an catastrophic disaster and shattered the very fabric of Chinese culture.

Confucianism and Taoism in the movie

Having now established the philosophical base for this episode, let’s now comment on the main ways this order and chaos, Confucianism and Taoist values plays out in the movie. First is the tension that both Li and Shu Lien relationship, which forms the sort of central drama of the story. On one hand, they want to adhere to the order, honour and discipline of the Wudan ethics. Shu Lien explains that she would never confess her feelings to Li because she had once been engaged to Li’s close friend, who was later killed. In Chinese culture, engagement was still a bond to be honoured, and so, in line with Confucian tradition, they honoured their deceased friend by staying chaste. Duty, is also the highest ordering principle for Confucians, over and above personal passions. When Jen and the stolen sword breaks into the story, Li puts duty ahead of love, seeking to honour his master’s memory, by killing Jade Fox. This is the filial piety at work, a central pillar of Confucian thought. While it is a tragic that when Li finally confesses his love for Shu Lien it is with his dying breath, there is something incredibly beautiful about their relationship that is so beautiful to watch – theirs wasn’t just pure chaotic love, with no regard for family, duty and honours, but one tempered by rightful order. If the film critiqued anything, it was the suppression of the naturally flowing Tao in Li and Shu Lien’s relationship… and yet it’s beautiful to point out that in the final scenes, Shu Lien does break Confucian protocol, by sparing Jen’s life and empowering her to pursue her lover on Mt Wudang.

If you want to see what the unbridled seeking of Tao looks like, the film offers instead Jen and the bandit Lo. Even Jen herself is a sort of the embodiment of raw chaos if you like, wild, irresponsible, emotional, with no regard for others, honour codes, or her place in the established hierarchy. She yearns for total freedom and to a degree, actually gets it, which in the film is portrayed positively. But it has a cost. Her total breaking away from filial piety and marriage renders her friendless, and she even seeks to destroy her former master Jade Fox … a massive sin within Chinese culture. Her romance with Lo was characterised by spontaneous chaos, taking place in the wilderness of southern Mongolia, away from civilisation. While wildly romantic and ‘free’, it’s lack of structure and order also didn’t allow it to be long lasting, and by the film’s mysterious end, resulted in lovers not being able to make it together. Yet Jen’s story is not without redemption – in the final scenes, she finally chooses loyalty to Li and Shu Lien, offering to make the antidote, and when that fails, to offer her life in payment. But the message of the film is clear – chaos without order, is also not the path to wisdom.

Interestingly, it is the Green Destiny sword, and the right wielding of it, which sort of embodies the perfect dance between order and chaos. It is meticulously crafted, yet graceful, casted from steel, yet flexible, strong, yet weightless. The sword is the perfect integration of both order and chaos… this is what makes it legendary. Further, Li, to whom the sword rightfully belongs, tells Jen that to wield the sword properly requires both technical mastery and the mastery of the self – again referencing the coming together of the inner and outer selves, the realms of the Taoist and the Confucian.

Christian implications

So this is all insightful Chinese philosophy for a fictional film, but what relevance does it have for Christian living today? We now move into a reflection on the necessary harmony between order and chaos in the spiritual life. To do this, I will reflect on three levels that this is significant – first will be our healthy image of God, then, a healthy image of the church, and finally a healthy image of our prayer lives.

Our image of God

Let’s start with our image of God. Do we think we can ever fully grasp the person, or personality of God? Think again, for God is both order and chaos… does this sound scandalous? Remember, that chaos this episode doesn’t denote recklessness etc, but rather something more like creative spontaneity. Well, let’s examine the God revealed in the scriptures. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” the apostle John tells us. Jesus, according to the fourth gospel is the embodiment of the Logos, the Mind of God. It was this same logos, all the way back in Genesis that spoke the world into being, and who literally created order out of chaos. Do we not intuitively know this when our lives are all chaos and we pray to God for some semblance of order? So the Christian God is all about order then? No. For then you have the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit… the wild, creative love of God. Scripture tells us he “blows as he wills, and no one can tell where he comes from and where he is going.” At Pentecost, the neatly ordered, structured hierarchy of Judaism was shaken with this wildfire of God’s love, challenging the stabilised hierarchy or who was in, who was out, who was chosen and who was not. So God can be chaos too, especially to those of us who have become a little too attached to order! Even when Jesus taught his apostles how to pray the Our Father, he starts by telling us two essential things about Abba God – one, that he is father, but also that his name is to be hallowed. In other words, the Father is both familial, and yet totally other. Both order and chaos. What’s the message here? Avoid putting God in a box. Avoid forming idols of God which personify him as all order on one extreme, or all chaos in another. Rather the very Godhead is both/and… and true Christian orthodoxy happily sits within this mystery.

Our image of church

Now we’ll move onto the nature of the church, as one of both order and chaos. This is such an important conversation to be having today within Catholicism, for there is a lot of either/or thinking that has crept in. Yet our theology reminds us that the church is both institutional and charismatic, it is both human and divine, it is both orderly and chaotic. Again, I emphasize chaotic here doesn’t mean disorderly, but rather creative and spontaneous. Chaos only becomes ‘destructive chaos’ if all order is removed, in the same way that fire without a fireplace becomes destructive. Or think of a professional soccer game – the beauty of the game is given freedom within the structure of its rules and boundaries, and no soccer game would be worth watching if either its rules, or it’s spontaneity within those rules, were missing. So it is with the church. Even within this sacred institution established by Christ, the church is still animated by the breath of the Holy Spirit who is passionate and powerful … just read the Acts of the Apostles! Both tradition and creativity are essential, because that’s exactly who the historical Christ was, who came not to abolish wineskins, but to offer new wineskins for new wine. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is compelling to watch because it honours both the place of following Confucian tradition, and flowing with the Tao, Tao which always seeks to perfect the expression of tradition.

What has happened within parts of church however, is the artificial divide between the institutional and the charismatic dimensions of the church. On one extreme, you have churches that are like beautiful wineskins devoid of wine, preferring structure and tradition over spontaneity, heart, and a genuine openness to the Spirit working here and now. On the other extreme, you have church’s that are all about the new wine of the Holy Spirit, but with no wineskins to contain them. These groups are all about spontaneity and a ‘personal’ God, with little respect for good liturgy, orthodoxy, or the hierarchy established by Christ. Now I know that most churches are not in either extreme and are probably somewhere in the middle, but I’m deliberately painting a vivid picture to help us reflect on what church should be. By now you can probably appreciate how a particular spirituality of church is really, a reflection of our particular image of God. This is why if you ever come into disagreement with a fellow believer about liturgy, or orthodoxy, or the validity of certain church councils, draw the conversation back to “what is your image of God… and how is this God revealed in the scriptures?  

Our image of prayer

And finally, the need for both order and chaos in our own prayer lives. I wager by now you have begun to recognise the importance of both structure and spontaneity in the spiritual life, and this certainly extends into our prayer lives. We can ask ourselves, have I erred for one in preference over the other? Too much order with no openness to chaos? Or perhaps my prayer life is too chaotic, with little care for order? These are revealing questions. The intellectual disciplines of Bible study are important, but … so is the spontaneity of entering scripture through the imagination. The freedom of praise and worship is valuable, but so is the rhythmic meditation of the rosary. And again, to actively engage with the Mass is important, but so is quiet time in Adoration. There is a time for vocal prayer, and there is a time for contemplative prayer, a time for speaking, and there is a time for listening, a time for taking control, and a time for surrendering control. And in line with the Confucian – Taoist tension, there is a time for engaging with the outer world, and a time for engaging with the inner world, a time to activate change, and a time to simply go with the flow. When seen in this light, we know something’s amiss when our prayer lives become routine. This doesn’t mean that prayer must always feel fruitful, rather it means that our prayer lives should reflect the nature of God, who is both ever ancient and ever new.