Aug 13, 2019 in Review

The Influence of Traditional Culture on Modern China with the Reference to the film “Raise the Red Lantern”

China is the country which deeply values traditions. Even nowadays Chinese people honor their ancestries and follow their traditions. Significantly, honor and tradition is expressed in almost everything Chinese people. The cultural heritage of this country is significant. Running its history from ancient times and constantly gathering One of the best examples of such deep honor to traditions and rituals is shown in the film “Raise the Red Lantern” directed by Zhang Yimou. The center of the story is a 19-year old girl, who has to become the fourth wife of a rich old master after the death of her father. The story touches the values and traditions of the house, where each movement and each word is supported by the traditional and ancient custom. From the very beginning of the movie, the main character is explained the traditions of the house she must adhere to implicitly. Films and other types of media constantly highlight the fact that China is the country of pure tradition which must be followed and this is the basics of conservative Chinese society. Chow understands it as ““traditional” or “patriarchal” treatment of women, feminist criticism may unwittingly put itself at the service of a kind of conservatism that values depths over surfaces, and nativism over universalism, ‘in a manner that is, ultimately, antifeminist”. Traditional culture is not a part of Chinese life, it is particularly the style and the mode of life people lead and it is definitely expressed in Chinese films and literature. 

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Honor to ancestry is an integral part of Chinese culture. Being asked to “kowtow to our ancestors” (Raise the Red Lantern), Songlian is shown that no matter whether she is the first time in the house or she is one of its eldest members, she must honor those, who began this dynasty. The place the family eats, the mode of life, the sign of the favorite wife for one day, and even the procedure of waiting for the master’s decisions are all the traditions the whole family must adhere to. Each step a woman makes in the house, she must remember that this step is allowed due to the presence of the family ancestors. Even in the rooms of the place the walls are decorated with the pictures of male ancestors of the Master. This is a very important symbol as giving wives some power, the master reminds that their power is rather limited and can be restricted any time. The master and male ancestors are the real power in the house, which is highlighted by everything what happens in the house. Having four wives, a master should choose a wife he wants to sleep with and who receives the power for one day and even this choice is rooted back to ancestors and is explained as implicit rule to follow. 

Husband’s tradition to light lanterns in the room of the wife she wants to spend the night with is explained as a desire to follow a tradition of male superiority. However, a deep analysis of the movie and the principles it highlights, t can be seen that basic hierarchical (patriarchal) power is highlighted. The film director wants to highlight that despite the fact that women are allowed some limited power, they are still under the control of men. This is a way how women are considered, being perceived as sexual slaves, women have to live in the house they are not allowed to leave. This particular paradox is also rooted in male’s consciousness, who considers himself a center of the universe. Such belief has been developed by Confucian teaching, which places a man in the center of everything for many years. Therefore, honoring this tradition, men in the modern Chinese society continue imposing their right as the dominant member of the relations. Women are deprived of all rules and to acquire any, they have to gain the favor of a man. This specific traditional vision of Chinese people is expressed in the way how women try to gain attention of the master. Being subjected to different deceits and tricks, any of the wives tries to make sure that the master’s choice will be in favor of her to have at least the smallest opportunity to gain control.  

Lee’s article “Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern: Contextual Analysis of Film through a Confucian/Feminist Matrix” provides a deep analysis of the role of women in Chinese tradition with the reference to Confucian doctrine. In the center of the article appears a woman without any identity apart from a man. According to Chinese tradition, a national residence of Chinese families, called Sanhe Yuan, is aimed at protecting them. However, living in the house of the master, Songlian understands that this place does not protect her, but carries numerous hazards. Being an educated person, the audience can expect that she is going to gain some superiority having shown her intellect, having gained identity. However, no one can receive an identity without a husband, and she becomes involved into the dirty games with three other wives. It can be seen how a person with some vision of life becomes a mindless and absolutely passive person. Having very good chances to gain the privilege of the master using her intellect, she chooses the easiest way, the way dictated by the centuries and the way which was selected by all the wives in the family. She decided to become involved in the game, without being aware of the rules. When she gets to know the rules, it is too late to change anything. Being already occupied by the traditions, she accepts the situation and leads the same life.

Much attention is paid to the elements of power, which are understood as strong symbols. For example, foot massage is not simply a privilege, it is a way to show woman’s superiority for one day only. The second wife says “do not underestimate the foot massage; if you get one every day, you will be ruling the household” (Raise the Red Lantern). Lee considers these words as the means for gaining personal identity, however, with a man standing aside. One of the doctrines of Confucianism is that every person has its place in the society. Each woman in the master’s family has its own place, its own mansion with a courtyard, which also receives identity when a wife is granted with the master’s attention the lightened lanterns are put to the apartments of one woman. The mansion each wife has also symbolizes the tribute to tradition. Having separated the lives of each member in the family, the film director wants to highlight that face that solitude is exactly what each person should strive for. At the same time, this solitude should bring a kind if satisfaction. However, the main character does not acquire this satisfaction and as a result goes mad.  

Analyzing feminist approach, Lee refers to ineffectiveness and oppression of the existing male world and, as a result, as complete ruining of Confucian doctrines. Creating an impression of following the system and obeying to the rules, people show their absolute ignorance of the doctrines in some cases, when it is in their interests. Following traditions is a very strong and necessary part of human life. However, the film shows that changes must be implemented since living in the part does not bring any success. Confucianist feudalism is a remnant of the modern society and it must be eliminated. The movie shows what people should expect if they do not bring any new changes in the lives. Despite the fact that many changes have been implemented in Chinese society, Confucianism still remains a part of human life, but under the different name. Communism has replaced Confucianism but the idea of women’s oppression remained the same. 

The movie makes a very important contribution to understanding that obeying the rules and traditions, Chinese people still violate those having referred to deceit and betrayal. However, even being under the threat of death and deep honor to traditions, Chinese people cannot adhere to the all the time and human wishes sometimes prevail. One of the brightest examples of rules violation is forbidden, illegal, forbidden love affairs. For example, Yang is in love with the master and she wants to become one of the master’s wives. Trying to achieve her wish, she lightens lanterns in her room. She also managed to spend one night with the master. However, as it is adequately highlighted in the film, “born to be a servant” can never become a wife for a master. Despite the fact she can never become the wife, she still has managed to become a lover, as least for one night. Another example of violating the rules of Chinese traditions is a love affair between Meishan (the third wife) with Dr. Gao. The master’s wife cannot belong to anyone except a master. This is a hierarchical (patriarchal) character of the mode of life established in Chinese society in the past and it is still remains adequate till nowadays. Only Yang and Meishan are punished for their inadmissible affairs. The actions of the master and Dr. Gao are not even put under question. 

Those who do not obey to the traditions and rules must be punished. The system of punishments in Chinese tradition is rather severe and the movie highlights it. Even nowadays, those who violate the rules and laws in Chinese society appear under strict punishment. Returning to the way how punishment is depicted in the film, it is important to mention Yang’s kneeling and Meishan’s murder. The rule of Confucian doctrine is followed since a man does not receive any punishment while a woman is subjected to serious tortures. Responsibility is important and it is clearly seen from the Chinese processes in the modern society. The fines people pay for the law violation is simply the reminding that money is the simplest way of paying for disobedience. Depicting the 1920s years in China, the director wanted to show that the word of a man is an obligation and those who make an attempt to disobey must be severely punished in order to prevent any further disobedience. The way how Meishan is punished is not a new one, it is the same tribute to ancestors.  

Chow makes an attempt to reconsider the main idea of the movie having tried to discuss the film as “enigmatic traps he sets up in order to engage his viewers in an infinite play and displacement of meanings and surfaces”. Highlighting this idea, Chow continues that the film keeps “crossing boundaries and shifting into new spheres of circulation”. Displacing the meanings and surfaces, Zhang in the film implements: 

The wish to “liberate” Chinese women, which seems to be the “content”, shifts into the liberation of “China”, which shifts into the liberation of the “image” of China on film, which shifts into the liberation of “China” on film in the international culture market, and so on.

As a result, the film ends as it ends. It is not enough one wish to change the system, it is important to change the whole society, which is not ready to changes.

Chinese society is one of the most conservative in the modern world. Traditions play a crucial world in the life of modern community. People remember their roots, which is a positive side, but they tribute more to tradition than it should be. Following the Confucian doctrines, it is important to see how this adherence to traditional culture and laws influences human lives. Raise the Red Lantern directed by Zhang Yimou is one of the best examples how blind and unchangeable following traditions can ruin the lives of people. Giving tribute to ancestors, people should remember that that they live in the modern world, where change and flow are the basic condition of successful life. Being shot in 1991 and depicting 1920, the director wants to say that the contemporary life in China reminds the same outdated vision of the community, when following patriarchy canons and conservative vision of life, people forget about personal identity and remain unthinkable part of the system, which cannot be changed as no one sees a need, which has become a sharp necessity. Modern women in Chinese society are considered as the best example of the rooted traditional superiority, where feminism is unacceptable and is ruined at any stage. An idea of liberating Chinese woman is considered as the first step on the way to liberating the whole society.


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