My first experience of Zhang Ziyi’s work in film was her role as Hu Li, the henchwoman to the villainous Ricky Tan, in buddy-cop, East-meets-West action-comedy Rush Hour 2 (2001). Because of this, I was the most excited member of the team when Zhang Ziyi agreed to give China Icons an exclusive interview. What’s more, she even persuaded Director John Woo to come chat to us as well!
Holding her own against Jackie Chan during many scenes of cinematic kung fu fighting put her on the radar for many viewers, but most were unaware that this was only her first foray into American cinema. In her home country of China, she was already a box office sensation!
Ziyi played the role of Jen in Ang Lee’s hauntingly beautiful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), a film which achieved international success unprecedented since its release. It actually still holds the 1st place for highest grossing foreign language film! Praised for its rich story, interesting characters and iconic, unconventional action sequences, Crouching Tiger holds a special place in the history of cinema.
Whilst not the leading lady of Crouching Tiger, Zhang still shone through as one to watch as she lit up the screen with her presence, opposite co-stars Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh. A string of successful roles in both Chinese and American produced films, such as House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) has resulted in Zhang being regarded as one of the most bankable actresses from China of the 2000s.
In recent times Zhang has moved beyond cinema screens to a number of influential positions outside of acting. In addition to being a Global Ambassador for the Special Olympics and spokeswoman for Chinese foster-care program “Care for Children”, she also took on a judge and mentor role in X Factor: China’s Strongest Voice’s male singer category.
Prior to the release of Hong Kong director John Woo’s The Crossing (2014), Zhang Ziyi held awards for The Grandmaster (2013), Hero (2003) House of Flying Daggers (2004), Forever Enthralled (2009) as well an award for Outstanding Contribution to Chinese Cinema from the 11th Shanghai International Film Festival.
The first time I was aware of a people called the Miao was in Yunnan in South-west China. My partner and I had been in China for only 6 months, as volunteer English teachers in Henan province on the great Yellow River plain. And – come the Spring Festival holiday – we had fled that flat, red-grey wintery landscape for the mountains and sunshine of Yunnan.We’d found ourselves in a magical, white-washed small town with a turquoise lake, wild flowering azalea bushes and spiky mountains all around. One day we caught a tractor ride to a market, a few miles outside town. On a bare mountain-side, we witnessed thousands of people, mostly from different Chinese minority nationalities, converging from all directions, with woven baskets on their backs, or driving animals before them. The market was noisy with activity of every kind and everyone seemed in a good mood.
As we moved among the traders and the shoppers, trying not to stare too much at the beautiful traditional dress most women were wearing, some with colourful tasselled headdresses and white smocks, others all in indigo blue – we noticed some women who were selling embroidered textiles. The colours were extraordinary – shocking pink, vibrant green, bold yellow, all stitched on a background of dark blue. The style was unlike anything we had ever seen – a kind of mixture of surrealist shapes, pop art colours and 17th century stump work. I know now that these women were Miao, and that the Miao are famous for their embroidery, as well as for their jewellery-making and their music.
My husband immediately spotted a shoulder bag that was exceptionally colourful and was a complex design of flowers and birds. I thought it was our terrible Mandarin, or the fact we were more or less the only foreigners at the market, but as we bargained, the women selling the embroidered bags were convulsed with laughter. They were giggling and talking to each other non-stop; and when we finally concluded the deal and my husband hung the bag over his shoulder and walked away, they could barely contain themselves for laughing.
Walking behind him through the bustling crowd, I discovered that he was having the same effect on everyone. Stall-holders and shoppers; men, women and girls – everyone stopped in mid-sentence, stared, and then became helpless with laughter, as he went by.
It was only later that we learnt how each Miao embroidery design is deeply symbolic. The designs tell stories from Miao history and folklore; and the women also stitch new designs, making sense with their needles of more recent events. We also learnt that certain motifs and designs are only appropriate for women, some only for unmarried girls. I guess the colourful shoulder-bag my husband bought was one of the latter.
Photo-blogger Fiona Reilly from Nanchang Lu joined China Icons on a special assignment to find out more about Miao embroidery…
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