The Real Shadow: Women’s Agency in Zhang Yimou’s Shadow

6 min readMay 19, 2020

ATTENTION: this analysis has spoilers (and explains the ending).

In Shadow everyone seems to have their own agenda.

It’s a beautiful mash-up of strong characters, from the main protagonist to the supportive roles such as the sister of the King. Each character focuses on something else than the central issue, which is the upcoming battle, but simultaneously they are all affected by this.

Changing the plans, but not the character’s inner-motivation, in Shadow, the protagonists have determination and women have more agency than the men with official titles, such as the King or Commander. Filmmaker Zhang Yimou offers a delightful empowering of, or perhaps an homage to, women in Wuxia.

Synopsis Shadow (2018)

Set in the period of the Three Kingdoms, the Commander (Deng Chao) is against the peace treaty that the King (Ryan Zheng) has achieved. But this is not the Commander. The real one is planning everything in a secret cave and his ‘shadow’ Jingzhou (Deng Chao) is posing as him. As the beginning credits of the film state, this is not the story of the King or the Kingdom, but of the shadow.

More than just martial art, but a sexes battle

From the start, Xiao Ai (Sun Li), the wife of the Commander shows her determination and agency. As requested by the King, she and her husband have to play Chinese Zither, a traditional Chinese music instrument. As she promises to the Gods to not to play until the territory’s dispute is resolved, she refuses to play the instrument. Of course, this is a cover to protect the shadow who is not advanced at playing the Zither. By accepting the King’s request, and thus breaking her promise, she would have to cut one finger of her hand.

They start playing. When they finish, she takes the knife and is ready to cut her finger, however, the fake Commander interferes and instead cuts his long hair, mentioning that her promises are also his. This introduction of the female character shows how determined she is in protecting the shadow, but it also shows her intelligence and courage, as she would have cut a vital part of her being.

As the shadow is going to battle their rival Yang Cang (Hu Jun), the real commander is trying to find a way to defeat Yang Cang whose spear fighting technique symbolizes the masculine and fiery force yang. After watching them fight, Xiao Ai asks Commander Ziyu to let her try her feminine technique, as Yin refers to femininity, and their umbrella technique is soft and flexible, connoting femininity and making a better chance to defeat Yang Cang’s masculine technique. Moving as water in a river, smoothly from one side to the other, Xiao Ai movements create an invincible method. It is the feminine style of fighting that wins the battle.

Her fighting skills.

The open ending

Not only is Xiao Ai the key protagonist to the battle, but also to the further development of Jingzhou.

The crucial moment occurs when Jingzhou is hurt, the King is dead and a masked soldier is also dead next to the King. Strategically positioned by Jingzhou, the corpses do not indicate the involvement of the shadow/commander in this. However, there is a witness, Xiao Ai.

As he ventures outside to inform the people that the King is dead, Xiao Ai stops, looks worried at the crime scene and hurries to the giant door. There are two options, she can reveal to the people that Jingzhou is actually an impostor and just killed the King and the Commander or she can silence and pretend in order to stay with Jingzhou, who she started to have feelings for.

At this moment, her agency, which was barely seen, becomes decisive for the future of the shadow; determining his future, but also the future of the Kingdom, as she can reveal or support him. Now, she has the control.

Yin and Yang. Women and men. Water and fire. Shadow film poster.

The King’s sister

Besides the wife, another character that has a smaller role displays the most courage and boldness of them all, that is Qingping (Guan Xiaotong), the sister of the King. At the beginning, she accepts listening to the duo (the Commander and his wife) play the classic instrument, but then she refuses to listen as the wife explains her motives for declining the King’s request. The second act exhibiting her agency arises when the King arranges to marry her to Yang Cang’s son Yang Ping (Leo Wu).

Although Qingping knows the King is using her, she has to accept the diplomacy rules and the offer, but she has another plan with a twist. Unexpectedly, she infiltrates the soldiers who are about to invade their rival city. Taking action and just jumping in the middle of the battle, Qingping fights along the men, even without having a formal training such as the soldiers did. Almost leading the battle, Qingping confronts her future husband in order to kill him.

Despite of nearing her last breath, she persists and completes her aim. By doing this, she helps Jingzhou, and the soldiers kill one of the obstacles and take the flag down, declaring the city King Pei’s domain. Through her sacrifice, she gains freedom and recuperates her agency by not marrying Yang Ping who she just killed, and simultaneously, she helps to win the battle.

Xiao Ai taking care of Jingzhou. The starting of their affair.

The opposite of each other

Of course, not all is thanks to the female characters, but in a certain way, the men of the story are less powerful than the female characters.

There is an opposition between men and women that connotes the Yin and Yang, not only by their sex but by their personalities and actions. As, for example, men are wounded and sick, women are healthy. The female protagonists support their loved ones, while men appear power-thirsty and use their loved ones to achieve their goal, be it a noble goal, such as wanting to see Jingzhou’s mother again or an ambitious goal such as wanting peace and arranging a marriage.

Both main female and male characters, Jingzhou and Xiao Ai, embody these differences, and further remark their emotional dissimilarities. For instance, she is mentally strong and consoles him while he is having a breakdown in foetus position. Although, Jingzhou confessed his feelings, he did not approach Xiao Ai. By going to his side of the room, Xiao Ai takes the first steps in their love affair, which is vital to her decision at the end of the film. In Shadow, the women are the secret Yin energy that moves the story.


Both last acts of these women reveal a crucial part of the men’s story and the Kingdom’s future. Without their sacrifice or support, the story would be different. And it might, as the ending is open to the imagination. Furthermore, without the actions of these determined women, the men would have failed in their battle. It might be the story about the shadow, but there is a shadow of a shadow. As they say, behind every successful man there is a woman.

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This article was first published in Surrounded by Films.