Today’s super long post is brought to you by seductresses. Women who turn men into their meals and dangerous women in general. It’s going to be a slightly feminist deconstruction of a really old trope, how it worked in Ancient China and Japan (primarily) and how it’s evolved into the femme fatale. So if you like ghost stories, mythology, literature, feminist evolution and cultural analyses of old tropes, this is right up your alley.
In most cultures around the world, there exists the seductress trope. Tales of women who use their “feminine wiles” against unwitting men is nothing new, it’s a trope that’s existed from ancient times and survives even now. In most cases, the seductress trope is born out of a patriarchal society and so, the seductress trope is a very concrete way to see how women were expected to act and behave by giving men and women these very palpable examples of “bad girls”.
Before going forward I have to make two small notes. The first is that this post talks about Asian seductresses and not the Western seductress. In general, they fall along the same lines but there is a key difference that I’ve observed. In general, the Western seductress tends to be a contraposition – for instance, in the Odyssey, Odysseus meets a sorceress named Circe who holds dominion over an island. Her island is full of beasts, mostly pigs. The story goes that Circe enticed men to dine with her but they acted like swine and so she turned them into swine. The idea of Circe and later Calypso who hold power over islands as de facto queens is in contraposition to Penelope, queen of Ithaca and Odysseus’s wife who is queen but she’s stuck waiting for Odysseus and can’t get the suitors who relentlessly plague her off her island by herself. The second is that the seductress of the West is typically linked with some kind of cosmic punishment or some kind of divine intervention. It is said that Helen of Troy fell in love with Paris because of Aphrodite. Paris encountered three goddesses – Athena, Hera and Aphrodite – who wanted the golden apple that was marked with the words “for the fairest”. They had Paris preside in a popularity contest where each goddess made him an offer. Aphrodite’s offer was that she would make Helen of Sparta (not Troy) fall for him. And he accepted. So, Helen of Troy, the face who launched a thousand ships, is blamed as a seductress for having so many men flock to her and gets slut-shamed ancient Greek style for what is essentially Paris’s fault.
The unifying factor in Eastern and Western seductresses is that they represent cultural inequality between men and women in terms of what’s expected of a man and what’s expected of a woman and the seductress never fully exists for herself – she’s an obstacle for the hero; a man.
The second small note that I have to make is that most of the stories in Asia related to the seductress trope have their origins in Buddhist, Confucian or Hindu philosophies. All three of which in general had very strict rules for showing the difference between men and women in terms of power, in society and in the home. Very few stories have any Daoist elements where Daoism says that women and men are different but equal and to show that one gender is better than the other is against the laws of nature. Indeed, many stories follow the formula of Confucian tendencies – showing how a “good girl” acts as opposed to a bad one, with shame – often times happening to Buddhist monks, and featuring Hindu motifs.
So let’s get started. What is a seductress? A seductress is a woman who is inherently defined by a man. By that I mean, there’s no tale of a lesbian seductress in these stories. All of these women are women who “seduce”; therefore their role and the trope is defined by men. These are women who seduce men, who usurp power from a man by exploiting emotions and carnal desire – which, according to popular belief, were women’s territory.
In a more general and more feminist route, they’re women who use their sexuality and their physical appearance to get what they want. They exert the only power that men in these societies have given them, i.e. not political in most cases and not an equal social standing. And because of that they are labeled as seductresses. They are what men with wandering minds fear and because of that, they’re more often than not evil.
Many of the stories of the seductress start off as folk stories, superstitions or a way to explain things that happen to people. There’s the yuki-onna of Japan, called “the snow woman”, sometimes called “the snow harlot”. She is supposedly a creature that resides in the mountains, where ice and snow are common. The woman would tempt men to stay with her and keep her company or help her in some way and before they knew it, they’d frozen to death. Critics tend to believe that the yuki-onna is the product of hallucinations associated with being near death, or hypothermia where a man might’ve been thinking about his family. They also tend to say that they imagined a woman because of the sound of the wind sweeping down the mountains. Yuki-onna are often categorized as lonely women of the mountains looking for company, not always bloodthirsty monsters, but some of them are depicted as evil who enjoy the sight of men dying.
Another example would be ghouls like what’s pictured in “The Painted Skin”. Painted Skin is a short story in an anthology known as Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling during the Qing Dynasty. The story goes something like this: a scholar sees a woman who had fled from her abusive family and so he takes her back to his place and they sleep together. He meets a priest who thinks he looks like he’s been bewitched and says he’s going to die. He sees the girl is actually a ghoul who is painting a hide to make her look like a beautiful girl and puts it on to become the pretty concubine. He’s freaked out and goes to see the priest who gives him a kind of talisman. The talisman keeps the girl out but before long it gets taken down and they find the guy a bloody mess. Eventually, the priest finds the woman who is now an old woman and beheads her.
Another similar story in Japan involves the Tsuchigumo, literally “earth spider”. They’re spider yokai which means demon or imp or spirit. They’re usually malevolent, usually deceptive and usually really… gross. The female seductress is often called a Black Widow, taking its name from the mistaken belief that female spiders will eat their mates after sex. In terms of zoology, it’s not entirely accurate. Female spiders do get testy after sex but the male spider typically performs his job and leaves before the lady spider can eat him. The motif also spreads to mantises, or Venus flytraps. But female spider demons are known as the Jorougumo, translated roughly as “whore spider” or “harlot spider”. You’ll start to notice that the more you delve into these myths, the more you find words describing them as bitches and whores. The story is similar to the Painted Skin – pretty woman, sending off some vibes, she takes a man back to his place and eats him.
Stories like this are somewhat common and designed to keep men vigilant around pretty women and prostitutes. The idea is probably based on an outdated belief that women have no interest in sex unless it’s to benefit themselves. Men on the other hand, should be wary of women because you might end up taking home a psycho ghost or you might get her pregnant or you might get a disease. Aside from telling women not to be like these crazy ladies of the night, it’s also warning men. It’s a cautionary tale for men to be careful how you approach these women.
In many cases, the bad thing that happens is happening to a scholar or a priest. This is the Confucian and Buddhist influence and sometimes Daoist priests show up like the Painted Skin, but often as the voice that says “you’re going to die”.
In the “Tale of Li Wa”, which is not so much ghostly, it’s the story of a scholar. You’d think that the story would be about the woman, Li Wa, but it’s mostly the scholar. He’s studying for his civil service examination which is a Confucian thing – basically think SATs to serve the Empire, it involves poetry, the classics, an essay etc and the higher grade you got the more favorable you seemed – and this scholar isn’t particularly good or bad. He meets Li Wa, who is a prostitute, and she works him over big time. So bad in fact that the guy’s father beats him and disowns him for giving her money. And Li Wa vanishes after that. Now he’s a poor man and a beggar and one day he meets Li Wa again. Li Wa is still a prostitute but she sees him and feels really bad for him. Admittedly, it is her fault, but she goes to great lengths to nurse him back to health and repair his relationship with his father. The story ends with the scholar passing the exam, marrying Li Wa and she bears him sons. I’m not joking about that last part, it specifically says she bore him sons. Not children, sons. So looking at it through a very cynical eye like mine it says, “Ladies, you aren’t the hero in your own story. Your goal in life is to find a man, don’t be an evil prostitute who swindles people. Be a good woman and a good wife. Your goal is finding a man and taking care of him like Li Wa does. And then you help him achieve his dreams. And then give him sons to carry on his lineage. That’s your goal in life. Don’t be a bad whore, be a good girl.” Sorry, that story always rubbed me the wrong way. I get upset when women who appear in the title have very little to do with the story. That’s a thing of mine.
As for priests, they tend to get a lot of bad things happening to them. And usually it’s based on Hindu motifs which bled into Buddhism. The motif is generally one of distraction and evil through temptation. While the Buddha was meditating under the Bodhi tree, he’s plagued by the Mara. The Mara in Hindu and Buddhist mythology are spirits that tempt, not specifically male or female but they serve the Lord of Evil and try to steer people down the wrong path. They relentlessly bother Buddha while he’s meditating but he’s such a trooper that he doesn’t even notice them. That’s a very common motif with prophets and wisemen and sages. In the Bible, Jesus is said to have been tempted by the devil when he’s in the desert. Coyote is known as the trickster spirit in Native American mythology. Anansi the spider creature who is a trickster and even Loki in Norse mythology. I’ve noticed that for female tricksters, they tend to be more animal-related and usually animals with some kind of reputation for tricking people like foxes or something poisonous like spiders and snakes. The real thing to take away here is that the stories about priests usually enforce the idea of virtue and being in control of yourself.
The story of Kiyohime is a good example. Kiyohime or Princess Kiyo or Lady Kiyo, is a famous story in Japan, more famous now because it’s a very famous Noh theater play called Dojoji. The story is between a priest named Anchin and a lady named Kiyo. She is the daughter of the landlord of a village that frequently provided lodging for traveling priests who made their way to the temple of Dojoji. Anchin falls for Kiyohime and they are said to have been intimate. This is in a time where priests weren’t required to be celibate in the Shinto or Buddhist tradition. They could have a wife or children as the Buddha did, but they warned against it. Anchin later gets over his passion and decides to call it off. And Kiyohime is not having any of it. She’s so upset and furious that she goes after him. Anchin is crossing the river on a boat to get away from her and she is after him. And little by little she’s transforming into a serpent-dragon creature. Her rage and jealousy transform her into this monster that’s after him and he seeks shelter in Dojoji, inside the large metal bell that calls the priests to prayer. She can smell him though and so she slams the bell with her tail and eventually breathes fire on it, which melts it and kills him.
These stories that focus on priests go back to the Mara idea. The idea that you can have attachments but you need to be able to retain your virtue and not give into them. The idea with these women is that they may be beautiful but, it’s like the difference between love and lust. If you let your passion consume you, you get into trouble. That’s a common theme in most civilizations. So, when something bad happens to the priests, it’s generally meant for the public to think, “Why did that happen to him? Oh. He couldn’t control himself.” It also tends to feature women as supporting roles or women scorned. Other times they’re just plain evil.
The most common example are the fox people, known as the hu li jing in China but known as the kitsune in Japan. They exist in many Asian cultures, including Korea and Vietnam as well but the main difference is that there are male fox people and female fox people. But in general, people focus on the female fox spirits. In most cultures of the world, foxes are known as tricksters and flatterers and deceptive. In Asian culture, fox spirits represent illusion and are generally bad but not always evil. The basic equivalent in Western culture would be mermaids or the Sirens; I have to make the differentiation because in the Romance Languages, mermaids are called Sirens and generally the Sirens, who bewitch people by sound in the Odyssey are not always equated with the legends of fish people. In general, fox spirits bewitch and swindle you. It’s said that if you fall in love at first sight that the other person is probably a fox spirit. Fox spirits aren’t always evil, as I said, but they get a bad reputation. Most of the time you hear of legends of the Nine-Tailed Fox, made famous by Naruto and Pokemon, but usually they’re just pests to regular people and not evil.
That doesn’t stop people from equating women with foxes. And that’s been true in most civilizations. In the West we have the word “vixen”, which is typically said of a woman who’s voluptuous and fiery. Well, vixen is also the scientific name for a female fox. In the Romance languages, the words aren’t so kind. Zorro is what people think of when they imagine the wily swordsman in black but calling a woman zorra or “female fox” is like calling her “bitch”. And the sentiment follows in Asian society. Usually women who do bad things are called foxes. In general it refers to something like a gold-digger or a woman who works behind the scenes, playing men towards her own ends. In the movie Ran, Kaede who orchestrates most of the bloodshed of the movie is called a fox spirit before they kill her. They used to call Wu Zeitian, a famous woman leader of China a fox spirit, I’ve read that they called Yang Guifei, one of the Four Beauties a fox spirit because of what went down with her in the Tang Dynasty. Empress Dowager Cixi of the Qing Dynasty is also likened to a fox spirit.
The biggest example is probably Da Ji. Da Ji or Daji, was known as a favorite concubine of King Zhou of Shang. She is known as the quintessential gold-digger and really kind of a terrible person. She liked animals and built a zoo to watch them. She was a hedonist, enjoyed having people naked running through the forest for her amusement. She is largely regarded as a sadist. She had people tortured and executed and took delight in torturing others and was usually very scientific and morbidly interested in the torture. She once had a pregnant woman’s belly cut open so she could see what went on inside. She invented a torture device known as the paolao which was a burning cylinder, heated by charcoal, where prisoners would walk around the top of it. It was greased up so people had to move their feet to avoid burns but had to watch their step on oily surfaces and if they fell they burned to death. She’s largely regarded as the one who caused the downfall of the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), though how much was actually her fault is debated since she’s typically regarded as evil and was a woman. In the famous Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi, translated as “The Creation of the Gods”, she’s depicted as a fox spirit. And women in key roles of power have always been likened to foxes ever since.
There are various words for women like this, and not all of them are kind. In China, there’s a poem from the Han Dynasty that reflects the idea of dangerous beauties, known as the Jia Ren Qu, or Beauty Song, which was popularized to the West by The House of Flying Daggers.
bei fang you jia ren
jue shi er du li
yi gu qing ren cheng
zai gu qing ren guo
ning bu zhi qing cheng yu qing guo
jia ren nan zai de
The translation goes something like: “There’s a beauty in the north / Her grace is without peer on earth / With one look she destroys the city / And with a second look she destroys the kingdom / It would be paradise to not know she destroys cities and kingdoms / Because beauties (like her) are hard to find.”
There’s an idiomatic expression in Chinese for a very beautiful woman known as “qing cheng qing guo” meaning “destroys cities, destroys nations”. In general, it’s used for a woman who might be a gold-digger but the thought behind the poem is that with beautiful women who use their looks for their benefit can topple nations. And that’s not exactly untrue, or at least, it’s not unheard of. The most common example of that would probably be Helen of Troy in the West, but in the East there’s Diao Chan.
In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Diao Chan is a skilled singer and dancer and a beauty who was adopted by a man who’s a politician. The tyrant known as Dong Zhuo, who’s always viewed in any medium as a fat, corrupt and terrible person, is in power and no one is really able to stop him. They’ve tried but he has two generals under him that are keeping his fat ass safe no matter what. They’re Lu Bu and Hua Xiong. Hua Xiong gets dealt with by Guan Yu, who’s one of the heroes of the book alongside his sworn brothers Liu Bei and Zhang Fei but Lu Bu is a whole other matter. He’s strong, belligerent, a little bit scary and he has great skill and Red Hare, the fastest horse known to anyone at the time. Lu Bu is so strong he’s able to hold off Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei at the same time when they attack him in battle. But they’re pushed back by Lu Bu.
So, Diao Chan’s adopted father, who hates Dong Zhuo because he’s oppressive and a maniac, devises a plan and clears it with Diao Chan. Her goal is to show up to dinner one night when Dong Zhuo is there and make sure he can’t stay away. After the dinner, Dong Zhuo wants Diao Chan bad and is intent on making her his concubine. Then Diao Chan does an amazing job at seducing Lu Bu in return. Critics argue over whether Diao Chan is sincere or not when she goes to Lu Bu, some suggest she actually fell in love and they did have a daughter together later, but Diao Chan is crying her eyes out in the garden and Lu Bu finds her and she complains about Dong Zhuo always lusting after her. Her goal in this is to appeal to Lu Bu’s violent nature. He’s already killed his actual father, and Dong Zhuo is his adopted father. So Lu Bu goes along with it and kills Dong Zhuo.
Now, you’d think that Diao Chan would be a kind of hero but… not so much. For starters, the problem then becomes Lu Bu. Though Dong Zhuo is dead, nobody really likes Lu Bu. Once Lu Bu is defeated at the Battle of Xiapi, Diao Chan is said to have been captured. Although in most cases, she just disappears from the story for no apparent reason, it’s said that she got captured and was given to Guan Yu. Guan Yu thinks she’s going to try to play him and kills her. The other story is that Liu Bei and Zhang Fei go nuts trying to marry her now that Lu Bu’s dead but Guan Yu is afraid she’ll turn them against each other and kills her. Which is nice. Really. Nice.
And the Romance of the Three Kingdoms isn’t done with ladies as cause for war. Though Diao Chan is probably the best example, being one of the Four Beauties of ancient China – and one of the only female characters to actually get a full name; the others being Sun Shang Xiang, Zhen Ji and Huang Yueying with everyone else being known by a title of some kind – there’s also the Qiao sisters. Now, the Qiao sisters are from the kingdom of Wu and married to Sun Ce and Zhou Yu. Sun Ce is dead at this point in the story but Zhou Yu is married to Xiao Qiao. The sisters don’t have names of their own, they’re called Da Qiao and Xiao Qiao, literally “big Qiao and little Qiao” or “the elder Qiao and the younger Qiao”. Zhuge Liang, master strategist of Shu, working for Liu Bei, is preparing for war against Cao Cao, ruler of the northern plains. He’s trying to convince Sun Quan to go to war and so he appeals to Zhou Yu, his prime minister. Zhuge Liang convinces him by saying how Cao Cao is planning a creepy pleasure pavilion and that the Qiao sisters are slated to be his concubines once he conquers Wu and recites a very nice but creepy poem about how the Qiao sisters make the flowers blush with their beauty etc. And so they go to war helping Zhuge Liang.
I only bring up Xiao Qiao because in the movie Red Cliffs – the English translation of what becomes known as Chibi in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms – Xiao Qiao actually has a dramatic impact on the movie. Aside from, you know, existing since you never see her in the book, they add things to her character. She’s actually pregnant at the time and while Zhou Yu and Zhuge Liang are preparing for Cao Cao’s fleet and initiating a fire attack, she sneaks behind enemy lines and entertains Cao Cao. She makes him tea, she talks to him, gets to know him and distracts him from taking charge of his army and pushing forward. She actually later insults him to his face and she’s pregnant and the man has a sword, so, she’s fairly brave.
But the movie adaption of Xiao Qiao shows the growth and evolution of the seductress into what we now know as the femme fatale.
The femme fatale is an adaption of the seductress trope, popularized by French noir films. It’s brought about by less sexual restriction for women, meaning they could wear more alluring outfits and drink and had more power, but they owned their sexuality. As Western influence spreads to China and Japan, these more revolutionary ideas start becoming more normal. It gets a further boost when Mao is in control, because Mao, despite his many political mistakes and the atrocities committed by him and his followers, he was a feminist. Famously Mao said that women could hold up half of the sky. His successor Deng Xiao Ping also echoed that with the yin-yang infused idea of “it doesn’t matter if it’s a black cat or a white cat, as long as it catches a mouse.”
So femme fatales are not the man-eaters of ancient China and Japan that they used to be. A lot of it is more focusing on what a woman can do rather than what she should do. While the man-eaters tend to use their sexuality as a weapon, femme fatales use it in a way that they own it. The difference is that men find man-eaters scary; a femme fatale scares men. The difference is all about who owns it.
Femme fatales are a bit more commonplace, the woman who uses her wiles to get something done while the men look on in amazement, common in shows and movies about espionage. More and more in movies like Red Cliffs, female characters have an actual voice and so they’re not labeled the seductress, they’re the woman that seduces for their own reasons. Movies like The House of Flying Daggers or Lust, Caution show women who are more their own characters, rather than existing for the sake of a man. Their roles get redefined and their goals are more explored. In Red Cliffs, Xiao Qiao is seducing Cao Cao to buy her husband time.
In Lust, Caution, the character of Wong Chia Chi is using her wiles and acting skills to play the part of someone’s wife to have Mr. Yee, a man with Japanese leanings, killed. She starts of as being more vengeful but towards the end she actually gets to know him and he trusts her. The story isn’t Mr. Yee gets seduced by her; the story is about how Wong Chia Chi gets Mr. Yee to trust her enough to have control over him.
The man-eater and the femme fatale are both products of their time. The man-eater is a cautionary tale to men as well as an example to women – behave this way and you’re a good girl, behave this way and you’re a villain. The difference is in objectification. Man-eaters are beauties who are objectified by men and if you don’t look past the surface, they could hurt you. Femme fatales are women who have a man in their sights and how they trap him and make him hurt is how they make the man into an object.