Raise the Red Lantern Review
Raise the Red Lantern was a wonderful film that let us take a deeper look into classical and traditional Chinese culture. The film exemplified many principles of Chinese culture, such as the principles of the wife's loyalty to the husband, guanxi, ganqing, face, patriarchal order, marriage, the social hierarchy of China, and fertility. Apart from these, there were also many more enlightening aspects of Chinese culture shown throughout the film. This film let us understand, in context, the many different aspects of Chinese society that we have already discussed in class.
A principle that appeared extensively throughout the film was that of a wife's loyalty to the husband. There were four wives in the movie, and all of them had to live according to their husband’s house rules and at their husband's whim. They had to follow all of his customs, no matter how silly. Like we learned in class, the husband was supposed to treat the wife roughly, but not so rough that the village people would see and gossip about it. He had almost complete power over them, while they only had the power of persuasion in begging the husband for things they wanted. They were all jealous of each other and were trying to get their husband’s sympathies so that they could bare sons for him. They were subject to his punishment and ridicule, even to death in the case of the third wife. Throughout this movie, we could see that in Chinese society the wives were loyal to the husband’s family.
This movie also touched on another key principle of Chinese culture: the roles of guanxi and ganqing. At the beginning of the movie, the fourth wife didn't know anyone, and no one knew her. Because of this, the other wives were initially cold to her, and she was in turn cold to them. However, in time, she got to know the third and second wife better and become better friends. She and the third wife, because of their relationship and friendship playing mahjong, were able to make a friendship and fight against the second wife’s evil tactics. However, many relationships between the fourth wife and others remained cold and not much guanxi or ganqing was attained. Her best friend, the third wife, was ultimately killed, which affected the fourth wife very much because she had such a good guanxi with her. The third wife’s death eventually led her to go mad. From this film, we can see that guanxi and ganqing played a big role in ancient Chinese society.
Face, or mianzi, was an integral part of ancient Chinese society. When it was found that the fourth wife had faked being pregnant, her lanterns were turned out and she was left to shame. However, at this time she didn't lose all her face; she tried to keep her pride and face by usurping her power over her maid-servant, exposing her secret lanterns in her room. Then, her servant was left with no face at all, and went into a deep depression, eventually dying because of it. Also, the third wife lost ultimate face when she committed adultery, and had to be put secretly to death. When the husband burned the fourth wife's flute, he also lost some face, but tried to regain his face and make up for his mistakes by buying her even more flutes. From this film, we can see clearly that face or mianzi was an important part of ancient Chinese society.
The patriarchal order of China was also clearly shown throughout the film. All the wives were forced to leave their families forever to join their husband. They had to obey all of their husband’s family’s rules, no matter how difficult, and had no say in the matter. Also, emphasis was placed on their bearing of sons, so that they could help to prolong the husband’s family line, because his line could only continue on through his sons. The women seemed to have little power in the family, and were ultimately up to the mercy of the husband, for instance when he could sleep with them, if they got a massage, or when they received the lanterns. Power was given more and more to them as they got more red lanterns. But if they broke rules, lanterns were taken away and they were given shame, and ultimately death in the case of the third wife. This film showed us that the patriarchal order was a huge part of Chinese society.
Traditional marriage in China was also portrayed very well in film. All the wives were chosen by matchmakers to random men. The women were then supposed to be put in parade and carried into the husband’s house. But in the film, the fourth wife rejected her train and walked by herself to her new home in an act of defiance against the traditional system. Because of this, she defied the orthodoxy and thus was given bad luck. She had never seen her husband, and was more of an object of desire for him that an actual person; she was expected to sleep with him without ever seeing him before. She also would not see her family very often again, perhaps never. In the final scene of the movie, we can see that the fifth wife faithfully fulfilled the rite of Chinese traditional marriage by being carried in the traditional marriage train parade and wearing the veil all the way to the house. This kind of traditional marriage shown in the film was very similar to the class discussion we had about traditional Chinese marriage.
The social hierarchy of China was also exemplified in the film. At first, the fourth wife wanted to do away with the traditional social systems; she didn’t want to have any social hierarchy and she even helped a girl wash clothes, but overtime she was swept into it. She treated her servant girl terribly and exercised her power over her, taking advantage of the higher social position that she was given. She was rude and curt to her many times, exercising her power over her, even though they were girls of the same age. The servant girl was jealous of the fourth wife, but couldn't do anything to change her social status and had to endure her mocking. Then, when her secret lanterns were exposed, because of her lower social status she was forced to humiliation. The social status of the wives was also determined if they could bare sons and how often they slept with the husband. The older wives, because they had more wisdom and experience, also had more power and were looked up to in the social order of the family. The social hierarchy of China as discussed in class was shown clearly throughout this movie.
The concept of fertility was also shown throughout this film. In class, we learned that red was a sign of fertility for females. I think that is why the lanterns were red, the husband brought in red lanterns every time he slept with his wives so that the chances of conception would then be increased. Also the desire to bare sons was a big part of the fertility of China; sons were preferred because they could continue the family line. Fertility was a big deal for Chinese people and they did many things to increase it. This film expressed the many beliefs held by the Chinese about fertility and child bearing.
The principles of the wife's loyalty to the husband, marriage, the patriarchal order, guanxi, face, and fertility were all shown in the film. Also through the film we could see that traditional Chinese society was based upon strict rules and belief systems. In this film, we were able to see the many important aspects of Chinese society, as well as differences in our own culture. Even though movie told a rather sad story, it still showed many important facets of traditional Chinese society.
We are US Expats that have extensive experience living, working, and travelling in Taiwan. In our day, we had to learn many things about Taiwan the hard way. But we have come to learn that Taiwan is one of the best places in the world for Foreigners to live. Our blog does not represent the opinions of every foreigner in Taiwan. We are just trying to help others learn more about this beautiful country.