In the film Raise the Red Lantern, by Chinese director Zhang Yimou (1991, Zhang Yimou), we are shown the story of Songlian and her experiences as the new fourth wife of her master. The struggle between tradition and modernity as well as femininity versus masculinity is prominent in the film as Songlian is thrown into the Chen family compound, fully governed in Confucian tradition, and the capitalist democratic competition between the wives and Songlian’s rebellion to tradition causes many problems in the compound as well as showing the how society is very male dominated.
The wives, or sisters as they call each other, are always in competition with each other as they all try to fit into their roles as the wife to the master Whoever the master decides to sleep withholds the power for the day, and is shown through the ritual of the lighting the red lantern in front of the respective wife’s house. This preference is shown by the wife getting to pick the meals for the day, receive foot massages, and get the most attention from all the servants. Each wife is a different personality, the first being the oldest, but is more respected because she birthed a son for the master.
The second is the manipulative one, this is shown when Songlian accidentally cuts her ear and she tells the master that she almost died while she told Songlian that it was nothing. Lastly, the third wife was the spoiled singer, who is against Songlian because she replaced her with being the youngest out of the wives. In a desperate move for attention, Songlian fakes being pregnant to focus all the attention on her. Her servant who saw that her clothes had period blood, which meant she was not pregnant, catches her in her lie.
Songlian went to confront her servant, wherein her quarters it is shown that she had red lanterns lit, a tradition that is reserved for the wives of the master. She dies from an act of defiance she did not apologize for breaking tradition and became sick for standing in the cold all night and died. The third wife is also killed indirectly through Songlian’s actions because in a drunken stupor she accidently tells the second wife that the third is having an affair with the family doctor. The third wife is hanged and Songlian feels it is her fault.
Songlian is traumatized from the death of these two people, and with her boring meaningless life goes insane. Tradition has been a huge part of China before the Qing unified china into a single entity. Confucianism tradition plays a huge role in the film, as it is where the Chen family’s traditions come from. Confucius was the spiritual leader who created Confucianism, and his philosophy stresses the importance on the familial and social hierarchy, respect towards one family, and loyalty to one’s leader.
The way the Chen run its household fit into the Confucianism philosophy “It is the rituals of social life that bind society together, and bind individuals to the social order” (Heinz 241) and this tradition that controls the wives in the film begins to crack when Songlian comes and start to break tradition. An example of when Songlian blatantly broke tradition is when all the wives were supposed to gather for lunch as tradition calls for. Songlian had her lunch sent to her room.
This rebellion to tradition is one of the causes of turmoil in the movie between Songlian, the Wives, and the Master. In the film, one can view the traditional Chinese gender relationships through the Master, in that he is the one in charge while the women are subservient to him. The relationship between man and women is showed when the second wife told Songlian “How useless only have a daughter” when talking about children. This shows how in Chinese society men are viewed as better and more important than women. The third wife and first wife had a boy, which caused the Master to favor them.
When Songlian faked being pregnant, the servant told the master Songlian was going to have a boy, causing everyone to become excited. There is no way that servant could have possibly known Songlian would be having a boy, she was just saying that to gain favor with her Master. “It is important to look beyond seeing patriarchy as something that had reduced all women at all times to dupes and slaves of men”(Birch 126), Birch writes that Asian women being stereotyped as being submissive and passive has shown the western perception of Asia.
The traditional patriarchal system in the film where the Master, who is male, is in charge of the all the people and wives, further shows the institutionalized and systematic valuing of men over women (Birch 127). When Songlian finds out the master burned her flute because she thought some boy gave it to her further show the split between men and women. In Chinese society, only men plaved the flute. and when the Master saw a flute in Songlian’s room she automatically assumed a male gave it to her and burned it because men own the property of women.
Modernity in the film comes in the form of rebellion against the traditions of the master and family. The competitions between all the wives, to the determinant of each other, is very capitalistic, and democratic in the sense that they are competing with each other for their own benefit. Traditionally only men receive education, and Songlian being the only one of the wives that received an education goes against that norm. “Modernity is usually understood to be a set idea or values closely tied to the European enlightenment…. these beliefs give rise to new institution’s and practices, forms of democracy” (Birch 29).
This competition where there is a winner each day, whoever gets their lantern lit in front of their house is what the wives are competing for. Lastly, modernity is shown in the film through the master own break of traditions. He supports the traditions because it gives him all the power, but he breaks them when he wants and or benefits him. It very Machiavellian in a sense that what he does, he does for his own benefit and glory. When Songlian caught the master having an affair with Yan’er, Songlian was mad and the master told her not to be childish etition with and forget about it.
When the third wife was caught having an affair with the family doctor, the Master sentences her because it’s not to his benefit to have a cheating wife. This dichotomy that women were not allowed to cheat on their husband, but men could have as many wives as they wanted is another difference in the power between men and women during this time. The way the people are represented in the film is also very interesting as it shows the power relation between the men and women.
The wives seemed like prisoners to the Master, as they never really leave the compound, while in contrast men spend most of heir day out in the town doing business. The wives spend their days doing practically nothing, other than trying to win the favor of their Master, and in competition each other. The scene in the film when the third wife is singing on the rooftop further shows the split between tradition and modernity. The entire rooftop and compound is a dark color, while the third wife’s dress is very bright and red.
Similar to the color of the red lanterns when they are lit, thus femininity and sexuality is being expressed through these bright red colors, while the dark colors of the compound represent the rigid traditions of the Chen family. It is also interesting how when the third wife is singing on the rooftop, the size of the compound dwarfs her, hinting at how tradition and masculinity are much more powerful than femininity and modernity. In conclusions, Raise the Red Lantern, offer a glimpse into the patriarchal and traditional life in China and the power relation between the men and women.
It shows how tradition is used to keep the men in power and control people, through the story of Songlian when she becomes the fourth wife of a Master in the wealthy Chen family. The Confucian tradition in this case is what the master used to hold his power by following tradition when it benefited him, and shows the capitalistic democratic struggle between his multiple wives and the break in tradition by the wives and the husband as an allusion to tradition versus modernity that was happening in China during this period.