Politics and Gender as Observed in Raise of The Red Lantern


The basis of Chinese culture is founded on Confucianism, an ideology and orthodox introduced by the Han Emperor. The Raise of The Red Lantern is the third of a trilogy, after Judou, and Red Soghum, and Zhang Yimou’s fourth film (Chinese Studies, 2020). The film is notoriously famous for being one of the very first installments of film that criticized the politics and the culture of China. The installment was banned in China and was never viewed on silver screen in China and was only shown on television even after the ban was lifted. Sheldon Lu argues that Zhang was part of the fifth-generation filmmakers in China, who were mainly focused on criticizing the core of Chinese national culture in the ‘80s (Chinese Studies, 2020). Raise the Red Lantern represents life in a constricted, shimmering Sanheyuan or Chinese courtyard which usually belong to families established for many generations. The family institution is essential to Chinese culture, as it is thought that the state would likewise be adequately controlled by Confucian philosophy only when families are properly handled.

The subject of whether or not Confucianism was still relevant in contemporary politics continues to be a significant topic. A growing China has embraced Confucianism, for starters. Die von Deng Xiaoping enacted changes have undermined communist ideology, transformed China’s socioeconomic structure, and elevated China’s worldwide standing. In the aftermath of communist control, Confucianism reemerged (Hu, 2007). Zweitens, ideological wars such as the Cold War have given way to other forms of international competitiveness and conflict. Huntington (1993), for example, anticipated that there would be a collision of civilizations, mainly between Christianity and Confucianism and Islam. A last criticism of Confucian ideals came from the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s. Back then, many were quick to credit Chinese culture for its role in the East Asian model’s rise to prominence in the 1980’s (Aarts, 2020). Confucianism and “Asian values” were blamed for financial collapse, just as they had been for the economic miracle.

Role of Gender in Raise of the Red Lantern

When Zhang Yimou (2003) directs Raise the Red Lantern, his most highly praised film , the Chinese director depicts life as a sequence of theatrical actions carried out under the stress of cultural tradition, predetermined gender roles, and hierarchical power systems. Su Tong’s novella Wives and Concubines, which was adapted for the screen in 1987, depicts a specific historical period in order to confront how China’s post-Mao era, which claims to have moved beyond its troubling past, is still constrained by ideological and cultural precepts that were supposed to have passed away decades ago (STEPHENS, 2009). Gong Li, the director’s most important onscreen collaborator, shows women imprisoned in a complicated rivalry and subjugated by a master who rules over his compound, using breathtakingly gorgeous images and a complex core performance by the director’s greatest onscreen partner, Gong Li (). Regardless matter whether they are referred to as a wife, concubine, or servant, the ladies go through a series of ceremonies and vie for their master’s favor, yet their little wins are nothing more than illusions in a rigged game.

Taking its cues from Chinese history, the film investigates an oppressive society in which women are reduced to objects and commodities under patriarchal rule. Zhang exposes power inequalities between men and women, the aristocracy, and the underclass, and eventually his contemporary government and its inhabitants, which have been engraved into the stone of Chinese culture via the use of allegory, tragedy, and exquisite beauty, guided by his humanist conscience (Yi & Xudong, 2018).

In this film, one may see the traditional Chinese gender relationships as they are played out. First and foremost, the guy has complete control over his surroundings (Yi & Xudong, 2018). Everything is decided by the head of the family, and when he is not there, his oldest son has complete authority, and after him, the first wife, who is the only legitimate wife of the man according to the law, takes over. Furthermore, only men were allowed to participate in public life in ancient China, but women were only allowed to participate in private life. This is demonstrated in the film, which takes place entirely on the sprawling family estate (Qing & Tai, 1993).

The ladies, on the other hand, never leave the house, even though the husband once inquired as to whether Songlian would be interested in accompanying him to the town (Qing & Tai, 1993). It also becomes obvious that men and boys have traditionally held a far greater social status than women and girls, owing to the fact that family life is frequently centered on children. The most essential aim for the four spouses is to have a son, which they hope to achieve. This is why Zhuoyun, the second wife, who had a baby girl at the same time as Meishan, who had a baby boy at the same time, despises Meishan so much. Another aspect to consider is that, historically, only men had access to higher education. Songlian is the only wife in the film who has had formal education (Qing & Tai, 1993).

The sanheyuan was an establishment in china that was based on the ideologies of confucianism and epitomizes traditional Chinese Architecture (Fong, 2012), which reflects the intricate social norms that should represent the local ideal, in the manner in which space is designed and occupied in these dwellings. Sanheyuan(s) were self-contained, and anything that could be found within those courtyard homes could be found; physicians and even entertainment could be brought in when needed; Chinese operas were organized for household and visitors on favorable occasions. Beijing’s Forbidden City was the final sanheyuan (Chinese Studies, 2020).

Women were not confined to the sanheyuan walls and were forbidden to travel out, which are meant to shield them from the outer world’s difficulties. Within these lofty walls, poetry composition and Confucian thinking studies were intended to be done in celestial tranquility. Nonetheless, this is not the bucolic environment shown in the film, where infighting is rampant and the wives and maids’ web of deception is impenetrable! One of the enduring images provided at the film’s commencement is Songlian entering the sanheyuan dressed in her school uniform (Chinese Studies, 2020). She is framed symmetrically by a massive Chinese plaque behind her, engraved with ancient Chinese characters and plated in gold — the picture serves as a foreshadowing of how the Chen household’s laws would eventually engulf her whole. Songlian is instantly drawn into the house’s intrigues; when a maid refers to her as the “new” Fourth Mistress, our protagonist swiftly responds, “sure, and you may bring my stuff in!”

Feminism Discussion

Joann Lee examines the movie through the lens of what she refers to as the “Confucian/feminist matrix.” Raise the Red Lantern is a game in which the “matrix” is extremely complicated (Fong, 2012). It is intended that women be protected from the sufferings of the outside world, yet in Raise the Red Lantern the hardships discovered behind its lofty walls are maybe even more virulent than those encountered on the outside! The events of what is effectively a “domestic bordello” are on display, in stark contrast to the pursuit of poetry and learning in the utopian celestial peace presumably offered by the safe haven of the sanheyuan, where the wives ruthlessly compete for the lighting of red lanterns in their quarters, so that the master will spend the night with them and they can then be granted the privilege of eavesdropping on his conversations (Fong, 2012). Throughout the film, Zhang exemplifies the “confusion ethics” that run rampant within a sanheyuan community.

Zhang’s Confucian/feminist “matrix,” which he employs to dramatic effect, demonstrates the ineffectiveness and oppressiveness of the Chinese Confucian system (Kim, 2017). It is believed that Confucianism contributes to the formation of patriarchal societies by its stress on rigid class and gender boundaries; customs; ancestral worship; and the high importance put on having a male successor to carry on the family name (Loeb, 2011). Daughters are not cherished, as seen in Raise the Red Lantern, but are instead viewed as things to be manipulated.

Their main life decisions, such as choosing their own life partner in a marriage, are rarely left to their own free will; instead, marriages are frequently driven by economic considerations. As we see in Raise the Red Lantern, women have no identity aside from that of males; they are just there to fulfill male sexual hunger and create a male heir, as is the case in many cultures. Following their dads as children, obeying their spouses as married people, and following their eldest sons when widowed are all values instilled in Chinese women from an early age. For this reason, when repressive structures provide women with their identities and stations in life, they in turn derive enjoyment from imposing these conventions and regulations on less powerful women (Patton et al., 1994). We expect Songlian to be above the deceit of the other wives in the Chen household because she has received more education than the other wives. However, she becomes entangled in household intrigues and is later implicated in the death of her maid and the execution of the Third Mistress, which is depicted in Raise the Red Lantern with skill (Patton et al., 1994).


Fetishes abound in Raise the Red Lantern, which is a fantasy novel. The foot massage is notable not just in terms of its thematic and psychological significance, but also in terms of its cultural significance (Qing & Tai, 1993). When it comes to theme, the foot massage is a sign of authority – it is a privilege that the master chooses to share his bed with a certain woman. Every evening, the seductive and haunting pounding of small stones reverberates throughout the home as the woman whose soles are being pounded revels in the feeling. She is well aware of the master’s preference for her and enjoys the feeling of power and attention she receives. According to Second Mistress, “don’t underestimate the power of a foot massage; if you get one every day, you will be in charge of the family!” (Qing & Tai, 1993).

Having one’s feet massaged is a desire for both the patriarch and his wife (with the foot massage serving to fill the “lack” of a woman’s sexuality . Man’s phallic completeness can be achieved via, and pleasure can be obtained from, the woman, while at the same time he is abandoning this relationship with her. It is widely believed that fetishism is a descendant of the castration complex, in which the dread of castration is repressed and transferred by fixating on some item; in the case of Raise the Red Lantern, the foot massage is one example of such a fetish. The wives, of course, are another type of fetish – the higher the number of wives a master has, the more the affirmation of his maleness is felt by the master (). Having a lover, Third Mistress gains the “phallic” authority that males enjoy, which may explain why her adultery poses such a serious danger to this patriarchal society. She is finally put to death, which is the ultimate kind of castration (Strausz, 2009). It is a Confucian principle that every individual understands his or her role in society, and that maintaining family tradition takes precedence over meeting the wants of an individual. Previous generations of the Chen family were rumored to have been slain because they had cheated on their husbands, according to family legend. Songlian’s flute has also been referred to as a fetish object aside from its phallic shape.

Cultural Significance

In Chinese culture, the flute is a sign of knowledge, and it was only males who could play it. The flute alludes to Songlian’s privileged education, which she receives at the expense of the film’s other female characters (Wei, 2017). Despite the fact that she accidentally inherited the flute from her father, she is swiftly stripped of it, emasculating her and relegating her to the level of the less educated women, or, in Songlian’s words, the level of animals that senselessly plot against one another!

The historical and cultural significance of the metonymic link between a woman’s feet and her sexuality in China is extensively documented. The Chinese believed that the smaller a woman’s feet were, the smaller her vagina was, and thus the better it was for a man to have her (Young & Yimou, 1993). The practice of foot binding was prevalent between the tenth and twentieth centuries and was associated with social classes. Because it was believed that the affluent could keep their ladies idle, only “privileged” girls had their feet tied – girls’ toes were twisted beneath the soles of their feet, shattering them, and their skin decayed into blood-soaked bandages – (김연만, 2019). Additionally, foot binding encouraged ladies to walk in a more elegant manner by making their steps smaller and daintier. By substituting the foot massage for the traditional Chinese practice of foot binding, Zhang cleverly re-enacts and analyzes the Chinese tradition of foot binding. Since it serves the interests of the master or patriarch, the foot massages are regarded as more of a form of foreplay, in which the vagina is “prepared” to serve as a receptacle for the penis rather than as a reward or privilege for the women. In the words of the master, to enable her to “better serve” him!

Zhang makes great use of the Confucian/feminist “matrix” in order to depict the subjugation of the Chinese people, who are suffocated by their ineffective “confusion ethics. (유강하, 2010)” Throughout the film, it is made clear that Chinese customs and rituals are in desperate need of being re-evaluated; there is no inquiry of knowledge or development of characters, as recommended by Confucius, but rather an oppressive system of regulations. The film is primarily about a family, but the destiny of the family is also tied to the fate of a country and a civilization gone astray. With Raise the Red Lantern, director Jia Zhangke represents the Chinese people who are oppressed by an authoritarian government that does not allow for freedom of speech — without a doubt, the picture makes an apparent yet coded allusion to the Tiananmen Square Massacre that occurred in 1989. It is Third Mistress’s terrible killing that symbolizes the numerous students who were slain on the square that day (Zhang et al., 1994). The fact that Raise the Red Lantern was banned in China when it was first released in 1991 and never shown in theatres should come as no surprise. Ironically, lanterns offer lighting and, as a result, are intended to enlighten, just as Confucianism is supposed to enlighten. Instead, they are utilized ritualistically to reinforce a barbarous system of class and gender exploitation that defines Zhang’s interpretation of Confucianism; they are emblems of oppression in the film.