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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Author

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“Each of us has a crouching tiger deep in the heart.”

This is what internationally-acclaimed Taiwanese director Ang Lee told a Chinese journalist, Chai Jing, in a recent interview about his latest film, Life of Pi.  The crouching tiger is Lee’s metaphor for the inner power driving him in his continuous efforts to try “thrilling” things: from recreating British classics to directing films about homosexuality, from forming characters such as a woman spy to a boy with a tiger problem, and so on.

Cover of Yu Jiaolong by Nie Yunlan (1985)

Lee’s statement also recalls his film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).  More than a decade after first watching this film, I am still amazed by its serene images and the spirituality in the conversations, so different from normal martial arts films.  I stayed through the closing credits and… wait!  According to the credits, the film was based on a work of the same title by Wang Dulu.  This surprised me because I vaguely remembered reading a novel containing a similar story that was titled Yu Jiaolong (the name of the beautiful and fierce girl from a noble family played by Zhang Ziyi in the film), and the author of that book was someone called Nie Yunlan.  So who is Wang Dulu?

Later, I borrowed two titles from the Library of Congress’s remarkable Chinese collection: Wo Hu Cang Long [Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon], by Wang Dulu; and Yu Jiaolong, “edited and authored” by Nie Yunlan.

Cover of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, by Wang Dulu.

Wang was a novelist who was born in 1909, two years before the end of China’s last dynasty (the Qing Dynasty, 1644-1911/12).  His novel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was published in the 1940s, first in newspapers and then as a book, together with four other novels, known together as the Crane-Iron Pentalogy.  His novel-writing was halted after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  People knew very little about Wang and his works after 1949, and they appear to have been completely forgotten at the time of his unnoticed death in 1977.  Nie later said he thought that Wang was a historic writer in the Qing Dynasty, rather than someone that lived in modern times!

In the author’s notes at the front of the later book that I borrowed, Yu Jiaolong, Nie explains how he came up with the idea for his novel.  In the 1940s, Nie read Wang’s works that he had borrowed from a friend.  He was so deeply attracted to Yu’s story that in the decades that followed he repeated the story to others, altering (or, as he called it, “recreating”) it during the process — probably unavoidably, since he did not own a copy of the original book and was just telling the story from memory.

In the 1980s, a magazine called Jin Gu Chuan Qi [Tales of Today and the Past] started to publish Nie’s novel called Yu Jiaolong, which was based on Wang’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and it became a great success.  The novel was then published as a book in 1985.  Nie also rewrote Wang’s fifth novel in the Pentalogy, Tie Ji Yin Pin, and named it Chun Xue Pin.  Many people, including myself, actually read Nie’s Yu Jiaolong without knowing that it came from Wang’s works.

Profile of Yu Jiaolong from the book Yu Jiaolong by Nie Yunlan.

In designating his own novel as a “recreation” of Wang’s works, Nie Yunlan might not have realized there could be a copyright issue involved when writing  his 1985 book.  Wang Dulu’s wife contacted Nie in 1987, and he gave explanations to her through their correspondence, but she did not insist that he pay compensation.  The dispute ended when Nie Yunlan passed away in 1994.

More concrete copyright disputes arose after the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film.  While Ang Lee had obtained permission from Wang’s wife to base the film on his novel, and visited her in Beijing in 1999 during the filming, others continued to refer to Nie’s work.

In August 2000, Nie’s Yu Jiaolong and Chun Xue Pin were republished in Hubei.  The publisher was reported to have attempted to mislead readers into believing that the Oscar-winning film was actually based on Nie’s novels.  Unable to stop the publication, Wang’s heirs brought a copyright lawsuit against the publisher before a Beijing court, alleging that the republication of Nie’s works infringed the copyrights of the original author and his heirs under the PRC Copyright Law.  They had previously made Tales of Today and the Past publish an open apology.  The court ruled in favor of Wang’s heirs and awarded them a formal apology and compensation in September 2001.  In February 2002, Wang’s heirs reached a settlement with the publisher; the publisher would make a formal apology, and pay nearly 100,000 yuan (about US$16,000) to the heirs of Wang, according to a news report.  Wang’s wife passed away in 2010.

So the film credits for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were correct—the original creator of the story on which it was based was one Wang Dulu, who has now been recognized and acknowledged.  A biography of Wang was published in 2005.

Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Laney Zhang. The author information has been updated to reflect that Laney is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.

Comments (3)

  1. Wonderful, informative column! Thank you.

  2. Another terrific report.

  3. two good novels, sprit of hero

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