Raise The Red Lantern
Anthropology of Women
Raise the Red Lantern
“All the world’s a stage; all of us are taking the elements of plot, character, and costume and turning into performances of possibilities”(Ward1999: 5)
Raise the Red Lantern tells a compelling and sorrowful story of a young women whose life is destined to be ruined in a male-dominated society. This can be an awakening of some sort to any woman. As Ward states in her text, women learn the rules of our half of the world as well as those of the other half, since we regularly move in and out of the male world. There she defines women’s culture.
The term has also been used in its anthropological sense to encompass the familial and friendship networks of women, their affective ties, their rituals. It is important to understand that woman’s culture is never a subculture. It would hardly be appropriate to define the culture of half of humanity as a subculture. Women live social existence within the general culture. Whenever they are confined by patriarchal restraint or segregation into separateness, they transform this restraint into complementarily and redefine it. Thus, women live a duality- as members of the general culture and as partakers of woman’s culture. (Lerner 1986:242)
Much like the quote stated, Raise the Red Lantern is set in Northern China in the 1920’s. For thousands of years the people of China have formed family life around patrilineal decent. The assessment of traditional China life was patriarchal. A basis of this set up would be from Confucius.
In childhood, Before marriage, Obey your father
In adulthood, During marriage, Obey your husband
In widowhood, After marriage, Obey your son
States in the text, the lowest moment of a woman’s life was her wedding day. Cut off from her natal family, the young bride was an outsider and the object of deep suspicion in her new husband’s household. The only was to earn a place for herself was to have sons.
Songlian quits college after her father has passed away and becomes Zuoquian Chen’s fourth wife. When Songlian, who chooses to walk from her house to Chen’s house instead of riding in the wedding carriage, arrives at Chen’s house, there is no sign of a celebration, an omen of things to come. Bound by tradition and inflamed with jealousy, none of the three wives come out to greet the new bride. An old housekeeper welcomes and acknowledges the arrival of Songlian, and he guides her to her new room through the house’s elaborate structure. To her surprise, in a long walk from the front door to her room, she doesn’t see a single person. The lack of human presence couples with the absence of a wedding reception to create an impersonal atmosphere that prevails throughout the film.
Songlian must as Ward mentions in her book, “swallow such customs as breaking and binding little girl’s feet.” Every evening, a red lantern is lit in front of the courtyard of the wife Chen chooses to sleep with. Contrary to it’s traditional symbolism red is anything but festive. There is no love among the wives only hatred. The relationships between Chen and his wives are purely sexual. Rather than helping each other out and raising their status within the family, the wives are constantly fighting among themselves to win favors from Chen. The wives who live in separate houses must compete for the affections and privileges of the master in accordance with his customs. Jealousy abounds between the wives and the scheming keeps the tensions high. Each night a lantern is lit in favor of whom the master will be with. Shortly afterwards all the lanterns of the wife’s home and courtyard are also lit and the privileges begin.
In all human cultures most women marry and bear children regardless of what women personally want to do. Ward states, “We live our lives against a backdrop of the social structures, rules and expectations from a particular point in history and with in those cultural framework. Through the four wives they portray types of work. The number one way a woman can become powerful through work is reproduction. Having and raising children as well as care for others, is a way to develop a mask of some sort that can imply power.
Another type of work would be work as status enhancement. These activities promote prestige and social worth. To further explain the text states, conspicuous consumption, effective consumerism and social climbing are still work and are often highly valued. A final type of work could be work as moral, caring, repairing and integration. Women often create community, build bonds that hold groups of people together, and provide crucial services to others in time of trouble. This is very much displayed throughout Raise the Red Lantern. They also had body-work. Their concerns were in areas of sexuality and reproduction, that which would bring status. Everywhere in the world women’s bodies are controlled, but in a community of women restricted by customs of a master, what better tactic then use your body.
The portrayal of female political relations is detailed with emphasis on well timed hostilities which act as a mask of more pointed assaults on their standing within their family. The film allows us the enter into a sealed world of a rich man’s house, and see how jealousies fester in its hothouse atmosphere. Each of the four wives is treated with the greatest luxury, pampered with food and care, servants and massages, but they are like horses. They are cared for the whim of the master. Songlian is at first furious with her fate. But she then begins to learn the routine of the house, and is drawn into its intrigues and alliances. If you are only given one game to play, it is human to try to win it. Work is at the heart of the theoretical swirling around gender relations. (Ward 1999: 3)
We are the way we were raised to be and that varies dramatically between families, cultures and subcultural differences. Four women of different age groups are held prisoners in the estate of a rich man. Although they occupy houses of their own and have got personal maids, they are held like slaves, who have to be prepared to do their master services of love, whenever he feels like it. Then lanterns are lit in front of the respective house, just to signal the other concubines that they don’t enjoy the master’s favor this night.
Songlian is a newcomer in this miniature world. She didn’t want to move into it: After the death of her father she was sold to the rich man in order to ease the financial worries of her stepmother. Therefore she can’t lead a self-determined life and continue her student’s career, as she had intended.
Unlike the other women, who adapt to the prevailing condition and who manage to give to their lives a certain passion or meaning by their continual intrigues and their wooing the master’s favor, Songlian soon becomes a silent and introverted rebel. The mourning she shows after her master has deliberately destroyed the flute she once received as a present from her father reveals an obstinate clinging to a happier past. A simulated pregnancy, detected by the family doctor, eventually leads to a break-up with the old patriarch, who feels deceived and dishonored.
But Songlian’s conduct only leads to ostracism and isolation, not to liberation. Her insight that the establishment of an absurd set of rules cannot conceal the actual insignificance of such an existence does not find an outlet in an escape and a new beginning, but in an insatiable longing for self destruction:
To light the candles, to extinguish them, to veil them…It has become a matter of indifference to me…What are we really, those who live here? We are less than nothing. We are like dogs, like cats…or like rats. We aren’t human. It would be better for us to hang ourselves in that room…
It is not Songlian’s life though that ends in that room, but that of the vivacious third concubine, a former opera singer. She dies a violent death, and, ironically, it is Songlian who betrays her, when, under the influence of alcohol, she unintentionally gives away the secret of a love relationship between the singer and the doctor.
When she is conscious again, Songlian has to accept the fact that this way to exit from an unwanted stage can’t be considered either. Now she has no other choice than to escape into madness – quite a radical way to cut herself off from the life that surrounds her. In consequence, at the end of the film we just see her wandering around aimlessly, lost in an endless to-and-fro across an empty courtyard that the raised red lanterns in front of the concubines’ houses illuminate senselessly.
In the text Ward had quoted,
I have taken a female perspective; treating women as political actors who employs strategies to achieve ends. Women’s strategies are directly related to the structure of power and authority in the domestic group and to a woman’s position with relation to the developmental cycle…
Women quarrel with or dominate other women when it is n their interest to do so; they share and exchange with other women when it suits their own goals. Cooperation and conflict among women in family or in-groups cannot be understood without references to domestic power structure, to women’s place within it, and to the factors that shape the relationship between the family and the larger society. (Lamphere1972: 111)
Within days of her arrival, Songlian’s relationships with her “sisters” are established. The first wife an aging woman with a grown son, does her best to ignore Songlian’s presence. The third concubine, beautiful ex-opera singer, is fiercely jealous of Songlian, worried that the master will find his new wife enticing.
On Songlian’s wedding night, Meishan, the third wife, pretends to be sick and calls Chen away for the night. And whenever Chen spends the night with Songlian, Meishan wakes them up by singing opera on the roof early in the morning. Although Meishan outwardly displays her dislike, she does not plot against her. On the other hand, second wife Zhuoyun displays her affection for Songlian, but secretly plots to destroy her. According to Meishan, Zhuoyun has a Buddha’s face and a scorpion’ heart. Songlian struggles to be as cold and calculating as her “sisters” in playing the game until tragedy destroys her composure.
Raise the Red Lantern establishes a view of life within a closed, dictatorial social community. Much as the film was, as it was structured, this film could be a parable of some sort. Songlian would be the individual, the woman. The master would be the government and the customs of the house are the laws of the country. It is an archaic system that always rewards those that play and pay but destroys those who violate.
One thing I found appealing about Red Lantern is that while the film portrays a brutally patriarchal system in which women are clearly very oppressed and dependent on their lord and master for everything, it does not idealize the women or turn them into doe-eyed, sweet, saintly victims. The wives and concubines are resourceful, smart, competitive, and very determined to make the best of their situation… in any way they can. They can even be cruel and downright evil. Forget the cliche that men are interested in power and women are interested in love. These women are definitely interested in power and status — though, of course, the only way they can obtain it is by winning the husband’s favor. Yet their power struggles are just as ruthless as anything that happens in the male world of politics, business, or war, and just as fascinating to watch.