A Question to Answer
In his film Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang Yimou explores various issues which have existed in the Chinese society. The film dwells upon social and political peculiarities of the Chinese society of the 1920s. It also focuses on gender roles and the roles played by women. It is possible to raise a variety of questions concerning ethics and morality, spirituality and sexuality.
However, it can be also interesting to look into female behavioral patterns in certain circumstances. Admittedly, women in the courtyard have to endure loads of constraints. They are locked in the small area where they have to confront each other. They are forced to play a game with really cruel rules. The five female characters develop different behavioral patterns, i.e. alienation, rebel and acceptance.
In the first place, it is important to consider the circumstances that shape the females’ behavior. The Chinese society is based on the principles of ethics and morality. Thus, the family is the core of the Chinese society as it has been stipulated that a good family is the basis of a strong society (Neo 3). Notably, it was believed that females were to be protected from the hardships of the world within their families in the 1920s (Neo 3).
Therefore, women were shut in courtyards to be protected from the cruel world. The courtyard depicted by Yimou appears to be much more dangerous. It is also necessary to pay some attention to the concept of masculinity in the society of the first part of the twentieth century. Neo stresses that men were seen as masters of the courtyard and their masculinity was often ‘measured’ by the number of their mistresses (4).
Hence, the more mistresses a men had, the more masculine he was seen. Admittedly, women were rather objects than human beings. Therefore, women could be treated as objects, i.e. they could be sold, they could be punished and they could be even killed. Obviously, the society like that was shaping females’ behavior.
The First Type of Alienation
The first behavioral pattern to be discussed is alienation. Yuru is the first mistress of Master Chen. She is as old as her husband and she has a child. She has spent too much time shut in the courtyard and she seems completely alienated. She is almost unseen in the film and she does not participate in the struggle for the Master’s attention. She pertains to the past. It seems she simply stopped fighting a long time ago.
The reason why she develops such a behavioral pattern is unclear. Though, at the end of the film, it becomes apparent that immorality and vice which have always reigned in the courtyard made Yuru distance herself from the reality. Yuru seems calm as if she accepts her being neglected. More so, she is likely to be grateful for this neglect as she can enjoy peace and certain happiness. This is her way to escape from the doom of the courtyard.
Another behavioral pattern is acceptance of the rules and development of skills to play the ‘game’ properly. The second wife, Zhuoyun, is younger than the first mistress. She has a daughter who is the same age with the third wife’s son (McFarlane 112). This woman seems supportive and kind-hearted at first. She comforts the fourth and the youngest mistress, Songlian, and tells her all about the courtyard.
However, this kindness and compassionate attitude should be seen as the tools to be the winner in the struggle for the Master’s attention. Though Zhuoyun is not young (or as beautiful as she used to be), she is still trying to win his attention. Notably, she is quite successful in her attempts. She is constantly engaging in intrigues.
She is really resourceful and cunning. She rarely confronts other mistresses overtly. For instance, she does not simply go to the Master and she does not tell him about Songlian’s fraud pregnancy. She pretends to be concerned about the young mistress’ health. Thus, Zhuoyun never shows her true colors and tries to keep her image of a kind-hearted woman.
Such a behavioral pattern can be regarded as certain kind of acceptance of the rules. In other words, Zhuoyun understands that intrigues, immorality and being a good toy for the Master are the necessary rules that help her survive in the closed world of the courtyard. This woman accepts the rules and she is capable of surviving in this cruel little world.
The third mistress, Meishan, used to be an opera singer. She has a son and she is quite hostile to Songlian as the latter steals the status of the youngest wife (McFarlane 112). Meishan is depicted as a spoiled woman who is rather immoral. For instance, she is cheating on her husband with another man (the doctor). However, this is not a result of her immorality or spoiled nature.
This is rather a result of her life in the shut courtyard. Her being immoral is her way to stand up to the wrongs of the courtyard life and the entire society. Meishan despises her humiliating position. This rebellious nature can be explained by the woman’s background. She was used to a free life. She was a singer and she was adored by many people.
It was her who played with men. However, she has to be a toy in her Master’s hands. At present, she has to play a game with much stricter rules. Moreover, the rules are created by men. Meishan tries to revolt against the game, but she has a few tools for that.
She cannot leave the courtyard, so she develops her own type of escape. She cheats on her husband and this is her way to escape from the cruel reality. Notably, the rebel costs too much. Meishan is killed by the Master’s servants. He destroys the toy he does not like.
There is another type of rebel in the story. Yan’er, Songlian’s servant, does not want to accept the reality (McFarlane 112). Yan’er is dreaming about becoming the Master’s mistress. She hates being a mere servant to a spoiled girl who humiliates her all the time.
Yan’er tries to enter the world which is shut for her. She tries to behave like a successful mistress does, i.e. she is trying to carry on intrigues. However, her position in the society is even worse than that of the mistress. She is punished by Songlian and, eventually, dies. This rebel costs Yan’er her life.
Songlian, the protagonist of the film, is the fourth and the youngest mistress. She does not understand what it feels like to be a mistress. However, she is told this is the only (more or less successful) way for a woman (McFarlane 111). Songlian has a desire to develop as she is a college student. She is also accustomed to certain degree of freedom. Clearly, the courtyard atmosphere is corrupting the young girl.
It is necessary to note that the young mistress is not ill-natured (like the second wife). She is cruel to her servant, but this is a weak way to rebel. Importantly, Songlian is too weak to stand up to the existing world. She is not like Meishan or Yan’er. Her rebel ends up in severe psychological traumas. Songlian feels guilty for Yan’er’s death and she witnesses Meishan’s murder.
These two deaths lead to Songlian’s alienation. The young woman cannot accept the cruel reality and goes out of her mind. This alienation is stronger than that of the first wife. Songlian is wondering in her college uniform around different places of the courtyard. Apparently, she has escaped from the cruelty of the courtyard.
Four Ways to Adjust to the World
In conclusion, it is possible to state that the film depicts certain behavioral patterns used by women to adjust to certain societal norms that existed in China in the 1920s. In a nutshell, women had to strive for being an adorable toy for their Master. Three major ways to escape from this little and suffocating world left for women are revealed.
Thus, women could distance themselves from the struggle for their master’s love and be forgotten and left alone. Of course, they had to forget about comforts associated with the privileged position of the favorite toy. Women could also try to stand up to the societal norms.
However, this was always severely punished and rebellious females were often killed. Finally, women could develop the necessary skills to be able to carry on intrigues. Only cruel, purposeful and cunning females could exist in the world of the courtyard. Therefore, the film reveals the wrongs of the society which was believed to be built on the principles of morality and ethics.
McFarlane, Brian. “Women Beware Women: Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern.” Screen Education 42.1 (2006): 111-115. Print.
Neo, David. “The “Confusion Ethics” of Raise the Red Lantern.” Cinematheque Annotations on Film 33.1 (2004): 1-6. Print.