Saturday, September 1, 2007
Raise The Red Lantern - Hierarchy of Societal Priorities
Based on the film “Raise the Red Lantern,” politics within the home is hierarchical and is bounded by family rules, custom and tradition. Before I discuss my report further, I would like to clarify what I think is the underlying concept in my thesis statement – politics. According to Colin Hay, politics is concerned with the distribution, exercise and consequences of power. In other words, politics concerns power relations. To explain further, according to Hobbes, power is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests. Therefore, let us examine the power relations within the home.
First, let us focus on the power of the head of the family (Master) over his mistresses. In the patriarchal structure of the home, power rested most on the Master, who was a male. The Master had relatively more power than his mistresses, who were females. The Master had the power to decide on whose quarter he would stay for the night or whenever he wanted to, thereby choosing among his mistresses who would get a foot massage, who would be allowed to decide what food she wanted to eat, and who would receive the most attention from him and from the servants. In fact, power rested most on the Master to the extent that he could manipulate events within the home in accordance with his interests. This was evident in the film when the Master talked to Songlian after she saw Meishan hanged in a room at the rooftop.
“What did you see?”
“You killed Meishan. You murderers! Murderers!”
“ No! You saw nothing! You’re mad!”
Of course, it was not in the interest of the Master to be called a “murderer,” that is why he attempted to “brainwash” Songlian and to manipulate the details of the incident by saying that she saw nothing, and that she was mad.
Second, let us talk about the power of the mistresses over the Master. Although relatively less powerful, power was also held by the mistresses – who were females – because the physical desires of the Master, and his desire of having children (particularly male children), would not have been satisfied if it were not for their help. This was very evident in the character of Songlian. She was able to deceive the Master, the mistresses and the servants that she was pregnant, until, of course, Dr. Gao told the Master that she was not pregnant. Before the discovery of Songlian’s fake pregnancy, everything was happening according to her plans. She certainly held the power over everyone else, including the Master, and, especially, over the other mistresses. This leads us to the competition for power among the mistresses.
Third, let us focus on the competition for power among the mistresses. I did not include the first mistress in the interplay of the other mistresses for power because she did not do anything – implicitly or explicitly – that would have implied that she was also trying to win the Master’s attention. It was probably because she already served the Master, and the Master already got what he wanted from the first mistress by giving birth to their son, Feipu. Aside from that, the other mistresses were way younger than her; therefore, I would have to assume that they could give more pleasure to the Master than her because of their youth.
The three mistresses had to compete against one another for the Master’s attention and for all the benefits that come with it. In the competition that the mistresses were in, only one among them could emerge triumphant every night, or whenever the Master wanted. All the mistresses with their respective servants had to wait at a common area outside their respective quarters for the announcement on whose quarter the Master would spend the night in. For instance, when the housekeeper announced: “Light the lantern at the fourth quarter!”, it meant that the fourth mistress emerged as the winner – and therefore, the “powerful” – in the competition, leaving the others powerless as of that moment. One mistress’s triumph was very temporary, that is why they all had to continue formulating and implementing ways on how to emerge and/or how to maintain herself as the winner and the powerful. The mistresses even resorted to deceiving others in order to win in the competition. For instance, when Zhuoyun initially befriended Songlian by praising her beauty and by giving her an expensive silk as a gift, she didn’t want Songlian to view her as an opponent. Zhuoyun hoped that that strategy of hers would help her win the Master’s attention over the other mistresses. Unfortunately for Zhuoyun, Songlian soon knew about her deceitful acts. Competition was so intense among the mistresses that serving another mistress who was equally in pursuit of the Master’s attention was certainly not a part of the plan of any of the mistresses. This was highly evident in the scene when Zhuoyun was very reluctant in giving Songlian a back massage. Nevertheless, Zhuoyun was convinced to give Songlian the back massage she wanted because it was the Master’s order. Just like what Meishan told Zhuoyun while they were eating with the first mistress, “maybe the Master will like you more if you give a back massage to Fourth Sister.” When a mistress would temporarily win the Master’s attention, the other mistresses would be left with nothing. This was highlighted in the scene when Zhuoyun asked Songlian why she was drunk. Songlian said, “What do I have to lose?...I have nothing! Nothing!” Hence, for the mistresses who do not win the Master’s attention, they look for “other sources of pleasure.” In the case of Meishan, she had Dr. Gao. Fortunately for her, her feelings towards Dr. Gao was reciprocated. Unfortunately for Songlian, her affection (although not explicitly shown in the film) toward Feipu was not reciprocated. In the scene where Songlian was let herself get drunk while celebrating her 20th birthday, I, as a viewer, felt her desire for someone to make her feel loved, or to simply to be her company. In Songlian’s case, I think that Songlian desired to have Feipu as her company with the aim of getting rid of her feelings of loneliness and lack of purpose.
Fourth, let us discuss the power of the mistresses over the servants. Based on the hierarchical relations within the home, the mistresses had power over the servants. That is why when Songlian had to be subjected to the family rules for claiming that she was pregnant (although she as not), she revealed Yang’s secret about the red lanterns in her room. Songlian would not allow herself to be subjected to the family rules without Yang being subjected to the rules as well. There was barely anything that a servant could do to defy or resist the mistress’s demands, except to do petty and even pathetic acts of resistance, just like when Yang forcefully spat on Songlian’s clothes before washing them.
Finally, let us focus on the politics of the home. All the actors in the conceptual diagram were bounded by family rules, custom and tradition. That is why those who attempted to challenge those rules had to deal with the consequences of their actions. For instance, Yang had to kneel on the snow until she admitted that she was wrong in secretly lighting lanterns in her room; Meishan had to be hanged secretly in a room at the top of the roof after the discovery of her affair with Dr. Gao; and, Songlian did not win the Master’s attention anymore after deceiving everyone about a fake pregnancy. Moreover, family rules continue despite resistance. At the latter part of the film, Songlian ended up losing her sanity after challenging the rules. The same rules would continue to be observed even in the coming of the fifth mistress. Just like what Dr. Casambre mentioned in our PS 110 class, rules endure even if warm bodies come and go.
The film “Raise the Red Lantern” was an effective medium for political socialization in an “emotionally cold” way. The film portrayed marriage without any “intimate affection” toward one’s partner. This feeling was aggravated because there were four mistresses who competed against one another for the attention of one person, the Master. After watching this film, the viewers would acquire political beliefs and values that would be either in favor of or against the portrayed power relations of actors within the home in China in the 1920s. Hopefully, those political beliefs and values would lead to better power relations within the home (by “better,” I mean more opportunities for each actor to acquire his wants within less constraining rules, customs and traditions), and would be transmitted from generation to generation.
- R. A. Alejandro
Why is it that whenever we win a competition we express our outright gratitude to someone else other than ourselves? Instead of thanking ourselves, we appreciate the role our family, coach, even God, etc. had taken part in helping us in our endeavor/s. We somehow tend to forget ourselves for our innate talent/s, effort, and determination for the accomplishments we have achieved. And whenever we fail, we often blame ourselves. Are we just being unselfish or has society dictated us in doing so? This particular circumstance highlights the ascendancy of macro-structural processes over that of individual preferences in the course of our [political] socialization.
The film Red Lantern (Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao gua) depicts the struggle of four concubines for the limited amount of attention of the Chen household's master. In particular, it captures the life of Songlian (Gong Li), who, despite having attended university becomes one of the concubines of the master of the wealthy Chen family at a young age of nineteen. Upon entry, she quickly learns the rules within the symmetrically-designed compound, which represents equality among the concubines: whoever wife the master presently favors into sleeping with is graced by his attention, lavish foot massages, and scores of red lanterns which are lit in front of her house. The passionate competition among the concubines for the master's rewards soon entangles Songlian in a fierce struggle for the red lanterns, those of irresistible foot massages, and the master's attention. What starts out as a harmless internal strife soon turns to deception, backstabbing, and worse – death. The film exposes patterns of intrigues, deceptions, and exploitation within the Chen household. The political dimension within the film is represented by the competition of the four wives for their husband's favor.
Ultimately, rules prescribe and fashion our roles/functionality within the society. In reference to the film, the role performed by women within the household is dictated by the hierarchical-character of the hundred-year traditions and customs of the Chen family. They define how concubines within the house should socialize with the master and with one another. For example, in the concubine-master relationship, the concubines should always bear in mind the fact of their lives of enticing the master using their wits, skills, looks, whatever they have, into sleeping with one of them. In addition, the presence of certain facets of the norms and traditions reinforces these macro-structural household rules. The embededness of incentives and rewards, such as the lavish foot massages, scores of red lanterns being lit, and the favors of the master, within these family norms and traditions greases the engine of competition among the four wives and at the same time, affirms the stability of such rules. The character of these rules, being at societal equilibrium, is further buttressed by the historical determination of the lives of these concubines, for example, Songlian's economic situation before her entry into the household. On the other hand, non-compliance with these rules can result to something worse – death, as what became of the fate of the third concubine. For Songlian's part, she cannot accept the reality of the third concubine being murdered by the master, and in retort, one way for her to stop responding to the dictation of society while protecting herself from punishment for non compliance (death) is through becoming insane.
On a general note, these rules are governed by society. However, society, in this sense, is not seen as a static structure but rather as a constant process. According to evolutionary game theory, the constant strategic interactions among `bounded' rational players within a societal setting produce outcomes with respect to their preferences (or utilities), more often than not, none of which might have been intended (intention versus predestination) by any of them. The interdependence of the strategic players `bounded' rational choices tailor-make the shared character of macro-structural rules. Accordingly, to such macro-structural rules is the human behavior generally ascribed to, where our actions depend on what several agents choose to do and where our choices depend on what others choose to do. However, we cannot discredit the fact that other players can be dominant against the others within society. Primarily, the possession of wealth and power levels the playing field to a player's advantage, to the point where he/she can set the parameters of the rules of the game and define the behavior of others. With regard to the film, the wealth of the master affirms his superior position over his concubines and servants within the hierarchical (patriarchal) character of the household. This circumstance justifies the master's right to command the individuals within his household. In a nutshell, the established social roles accorded to women are all penned by society. In reference to the film, the shared aspects of socialization, in the form of household norms in the story, defines the behavior of individuals within the Chen compound. Society, with the master penning the rules, is seen as the main culprit behind the oppression of concubines. Moreover, individuals who do not conform to culturally defined standards of normalcy because they were "abnormally" socialized, which is to say that they have not internalized the norms of society are usually labeled by their society as deviant or even mentally ill. Accordingly, in this strictest intuitive sense, sharing the suggestion of many existential philosopohers, we can label society as evil.
On the issue of women's rights, it was hard to recognize any violations perpetrated by the master in the very beginning of the movie simply because Songlian had a choice not to concede to the offer tendered by the master to become one of his concubines. However, at the request of her dying mother and because of their economic situation she decided to become one of the concubines of the master. At the moment Songlian joined the bandwagon, she also consented (not forced), at least, to the terms of becoming one of master's concubines. And having received a certain level of education at a university, she must possess some knowledge about how concubines are being treated. In light of this, we can identify the mother as the primary offender of women's rights in the film. She does not have the right to dictate her daughter's decision since Songlian, at the age of nineteen, is already mature enough to decide for herself and has even received education from a university. This instance can be seen parallel to John Stuart Mill's assertion `tyranny of majority'. As the film progresses, the audience can see how the concubines are being pampered by the master. They are provided with their basic needs and wants: housing, food, clothings, servants, medical services, etc. Although one may notice that in exchange for all these things is their liberty. At this point, one can label the master a violator of women's rights. Their confinement within the thick and towering concrete walls of the Chen's compound is an indicative circumstance. In the end of the film, the master's decision to kill the third concubine further implicated him as a violator of women's rights.
The film can be interpreted as an allegory for the corruption of modern society in China. We can perceive of Songlian's mother as the submissive people who during the communist revolution did not even question the legitimacy of their revolutionary government thus rendering the absence of checks and balances within the system, Songlian as the exploited individuals, the master as the government, and the customs of the household as the `anti-human-rights' laws of the country. "It's an archaic system that rewards those who play within the rules and destroys those who violate them. And, when an atrocity occurs (as it did in Tiannamen Square), not only is culpability denied, but the entire incident is claimed not to have happened" (Berardinelli, J. 1996).
Berardinelli, J. (1996). Raise the red Lantern: A Film Review.
Accessed on August 30, 2007<
- L. Tamondong