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Chinese Culture in Movie “Raise the Red Lantern” by Zhang Yimou Essay

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Updated: Apr 20th, 2019

Chinese culture is one of the most ancient and unique cultures that exist in the modern world and can be thought of as a continuation of an ancient civilization. The traditional beliefs, norms and separation of gender roles have been always prevalent. For a long time, there has been a gender difference between men and women in life and social environment.

Even though there were times when women were an instrumental part of the world and family, they were still oppressed. A movie titled “Raise the Red Lantern” depicts women, their lives and the cultural rules that are almost impossible to destroy.

In the movie, there are several major themes that describe the way women are treated in society. The mistresses are used as a medium to show how the cultural norms defined social and sometimes, private lives of women. The 4 concubines and a maid, Yan’er, use their characters to reveal a part of a society that is rarely seen.

The time period is indirectly criticized and brought to light through their affairs and competition. It also illustrates the morality of each woman, as in reality they are competing for something they do not really want.

Master Chen is not liked by his wives, but the status that he brings to each individual person is something women will fight for using any means necessary. As such, their reputation within “the family” and their private self respect and pride are shown to be the major goal of such existence (Raise the Red Lantern).

The first mistress, Yuru was the first wife, and she has bared a son to Mater Chen. She is almost the same age as he is, and seems to have gotten used to a rather indifferent way of life. She is very distant from all the matters that take place, and is just living out her years. This sort of character trait reveals that women in society come to a point where they give up.

The society has been the same type of environment for so long, and it is so difficult to change anything that she has made peace with her world and herself. Deep inside she understands that the gender difference between men and women in life and social environment are inseparable of the culture.

The factors can be seen in the community itself, as well as environmental factors, gender bias and segregation prevent individual women from reaching their full potential. Not only does it create a vicious circle where it becomes close to impossible to get rid of the separation, but it divides people from the rest of society, making it a problem that is hard to deal with (Raise the Red Lantern).

The second mistress is Zhuoyun who represents a completely different emotional appeal and connection to the world. She starts off by being extremely nice and welcoming to the forth and latest concubine, Songlian.

Even though it seems that she is helping Songlian and this is shown by the admiration of her looks, but in reality, that is not the case. She goes on to warn the four concubines about the “ill matters” of the third wife, Meishan, and this goes to show her nature, as she diverts attention from herself.

This represents the deviant part of the society, and how people would do almost anything to gain more respect and power towards themselves only. It illustrates the connection between family members and the relationship that changes according to the nation and the political matters that take place. As family is an integral part of any society, women are made unnoticeable, but one of the most critical factors present.

It is shown that the effects of the common beliefs and the movements that were going on in the country have engulfed the understanding and beliefs of all men and women. A close encounter with the movie’s ideas shows how deep the personal suffering was and what were the undeniable changes on the structure and system of the family (Raise the Red Lantern).

Another sad truth is that women are regarded as beings who must please their men and not have lives of their own. The movie has an ability to connect to the viewer, as it depicts the life of a character that is played by a woman who had to go through very similar conditions. This shows that society did not favor women much and the gender roles were not going to be crossed.

At the same time, there are those who believe that a strong nation cannot have such separation between genders and people. This divides the society and does not add to the greater good. There is also a power hierarchy according to different conditions of women, as can be seen from the concubine (Colson 2013).

The third concubine, Meishan, has power because of her abilities to bear a son, so she takes full advantage of it. She knows that it would be absolutely impractical to try to root out women who are so important in the continuation of family and mankind. Unfortunately, the damage that has been done by society and personal trauma cannot not be mended. She cannot stand her life and that is why she has an affair with the doctor.

This gives her some form of moral satisfaction, as she knows about breaking sacred rules, but nonetheless does it. This is a clear example of how the society and a way of life can put a person down to the ground, and prevent them from seeing a possibility, so a person resorts to something else (Raise the Red Lantern).

The movie shows women who are boxed inside for seeming protection, but are really feeling like prisoners and objects of their husbands who are in reality “owners”. They have their wives’ pride, freedom and pursuit of personal goals under control and do not allow them to step outside their duties.

Not only is this a representation of the physical limitation, it is also a mental block that has been set up by society to keep women obedient and with no rights whatsoever. This is represented in arranged marriage, a trade of a kind.

This is made apparent in the beginning, when Songlian’s emotions are shown, and she says that she “will get married” because there is no other way she can go (Raise the Red Lantern). She enjoys her new life and the attention of the servant.

The contrast between her and the maid, Yan’er, is clearly shown. Both women are there for pleasing their man and their wants are not really considered. The only difference is that Yan’er is in love with Master Chen. The maid is not like the concubines, as she is used to serving both men and women, which means her social class is much lower. This can be seen from her clothes, in comparison to those of the concubines.

The harshness and difficulty of the role division puts a major dent in the set up of the hierarchy in the household. This has a direct link to the Confucian philosophy in a family and its role. Confucius believed that the family is a unit that must function together for the society and order become intertwined, in the pursuit of a better and more positive world.

But in reality, he was also somewhat influenced by the patriarchal system of the time. Women had very little rights and were not given the right to choose own marriage partner or further goals in personal life (Raise the Red Lantern). It is proposed that society looked too deeply into Confucian traditions and based women’s role as not a part of the system but a step towards greater things (Colson 2013).

It is much evident that the promotion for self-interest and self-sacrifice were very commonplace, adding to the changes being made in cultural support and traditions. Self-interest related to men and them being the rulers of society while women had to sacrifice own interests and dreams, serving men and their regime. The major part of the society benefited, as it was created and run by men.

The way power was distributed constantly led to oppression of women, in order to better adjust the resources needed for male population. But not only are the roles of men and women involved, it is also the surrounding environment.

The community affects the needs of people and the collective of individuals determines the relationship towards such community by the near districts. The physical location of women and the conditions of life they were a part of, have greatly limited their choices.

Women were segregated for such a long time, and were prevented from taking up higher and more prominent positions, so they have developed a unique method of coping and acting in accordance with the surrounding environment. They wanted to be highest in at least something, which was the household and child, especially male bearing abilities.

Each character shown in the movie is very unique and individual to a specific theme. The movie shows how difficult it is to change the set up of a culture. It is a fact that men, never realizing the consequences of their actions, have set the difference and borders between the two genders (Colson 2013).

“Raise the Red Lantern” makes clear the social division, and that each person has to find some sort of way to deal with the grim reality. Some people lock themselves inside, other find ways to some form of power, and others yet, enjoy whatever little piece of power or happiness they can get.

The close relationship between an individual and their character with the cultural regulation shows how difficult it is to find a different life from that which is forcefully given.

The culture bounds any personal character development which leads to a diversion of stress into other channels. This, in turn, leads to women desperately looking for ways to achieve greater respect and power in a world that is run by men and cultural traditions.

Works Cited

Colson, Mary. Chinese Culture. London, England: Raintree, 2013. Print.

Raise the Red Lantern. Ex. Prod. Hou Hsiao-hsien. Los Angeles, Ca: Orion Classics. 1991. FILM.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Chinese Culture in Movie “Raise the Red Lantern” by Zhang Yimou." April 20, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/chinese-culture-essay/.


IvyPanda. (2019) 'Chinese Culture in Movie “Raise the Red Lantern” by Zhang Yimou'. 20 April.

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