The myth of the scheming woman is one that pops up in many cultures. In the UK, for example, we talk of Lady Macbeth when we want to describe a devious woman who is held responsible for a hapless mere man’s crimes and downfall. This entertaining article in Foreign Affairs gives the Chinese example of the dragon lady, the archetype of a dangerously clever, beautiful, artful and (most dangerous of all) sexually demanding woman.
The most recent example of a woman to be characterised this way is the wife of the disgraced Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai, Madame Gu Kailai, accused of murdering her British financial advisor (and alleged lover). Earlier dragon lady examples include the wife of the KMT leader Chaing Kai-shek, who was supposedly “politically conniving, all-corrupting, sexually promiscuous, and self-enriching”. She sounds like great fun. And then there is Chairman Mao Zedong’s fourth wife Jiang Qing.
A leading figure in the Cultural Revolution, Jiang Qing was tried with the other members of the Gang of Four in 1980. Accused of persecuting artists, she famously defended herself by saying: “I was the Chairman’s dog. Whomever he asked me to bite, I bit.” By the time of her trial she had changed a bit. Her expression may reflect the fact that she was condemned to death, though the sentence was later reduced to life in prison.
The persistence of these stereotypes across so many cultures and through history reflects some combination of standard patriarchy/routine misogyny/men are just idiots. They make for great fiction, and since it’s easier to tell history or current affairs as stories, journalists and analysts naturally (or lazily) portray powerful women in the media as dragon ladies, or the local equivalent.
I feel a bit nervous posting this when the 2012-13 MFin class includes ten mainland Chinese of whom nine are female, three students from Hong Kong of whom two are female plus a woman from Taiwan. I’m sure they will set me right on the dragon lady myth.