Monday, August 15, 2011

Ju Dou: The Boundaries of Relevance

“Hear the bell, ding dong.

Here we are at Village wang.

So many dogs, here they come.

They attack us but we can’t run.

We can’t run so we go home.

Play the horn just for fun.”

Ju Dou, the lead of a tragedy set in the 1920’s in rural China, is bought as a wife by the owner of a cloth-dyeing mill, Yang Jinshan. Desperate for an heir, Jinshan cruelly lords over Ju Dou and his nephew Tianqing until the two eventually share an affair in each others’ suffering. Ju Dou bears a child whom everyone believes to be Jinshan’s. Crippled from the waist down after the boy’s birth, Jinshan is forced to move around using a barrel. This vulnerability allows the two to continue with their risky romance as the animosity among this household’s members become more and more palpable, even after Jinshan’s death, and ultimately are consumed in flames.

The children’s song above, though, might as well sum up the 1990 film Ju Dou instead. The casualness of such a morbid message is akin to how the movie was handled with its almost indifferent, detached approach to the unfortunate fates that befell its characters. Jinshan’s abuse of Ju Dou, for example, was shown more through the sounds of her cries and harsh dialogue, with lines like, “When I buy an animal, I treat it as I wish. And you’re no better than an animal,” than through scenes depicting direct violence and torture. The lack of such scenes did not hinder its audiences to feel any less disgust for Jinshan or any less pity for Ju Dou. Even the supposed climax of the film where Tianqing finally gave in to his sexual frustrations and made love to his aunt was understated and straight to the point. The only exception to the film’s modest slant is the extreme lengths of cloth that accompanied almost every scene with its vivid colors and hues, narrating the story found between the lines of whatever it was that was taking place. Vibrant deep red for lust and passion or blood and death. Bright yellow for moments of realization and stark insight. Soothing blue for those of stillness and compromise.

The most prominent theme that echoes in Ju Dou is oppression, on different fronts, found in all of its characters. Yang Tianqing, a casualty of tradition, is depicted as passive, fearful and overall without a backbone. Unable to go against his cruel, sadistic uncle because it is not his place to do so, neither could he give in to Ju Dou and her pleas of escape or to Jinshan’s murder because even if it made more sense to just kill the guy, Tianqing had the final say over a mere woman after all, and what he wanted was the comfort of compromise. He’d rather endure the gnawing guilt rather than to break away from the chains of custom.

More than just the favorite antagonist, Yang Jinshan is also a victim himself. Obscure as it is, given the Chinese landscape of the patriarchal institution, it isn’t impossible to imagine Jinshan pushed to manic cruelty in his despairing for an heir to carry on the Yang family name. The importance of continuing and maintaining the pure name of the Yang family was shown repeatedly throughout. Gossip is highly feared for dread of disgrace. Even in front of the altar of his ancestors, he denounces the disgrace of Ju Dou and Tianqing’s coupling. Seen in contrast, Jinshan’s raises his head amongst his elders during Tianbai’s third birthday as proudly and as smugly as he could, being able to uphold the family honor—the highest honor.

Tianbai’s character remained mute almost during the whole film yet spoke volumes with this silence. He may have supposedly inherited his real father’s docile, submissive nature, but growing up in the environment of such a repressive Chinese society, he condemned his “brother Tianqing” for his relationship with his mother, wanting to first uphold the family honor before anything else, ready to chase, and possibly murder, anybody who spreads bad gossip about his widowed mother. The devilish looks that he perpetually gives Tianqing and Ju Dou could mean so much more than hate. The troubled expressions Tianbai wears could be a consequence of the frustrated negotiation he’s had to make in the tight spot he’s found himself in—subjugated within the conflict of loving the members of his family and caring for the family name.

The tolerated abuse and oppression of women in this patriarchal society, as embodied in Ju Dou, opens up an aspect of human society that isn’t exclusive to the Chinese. Which begs the question how much should something cultural be tolerated?

Ju Dou has given audiences a peek into this world that is foreign even to its Asian neighbors. Though understandably much more controversial during its release, in the 2000’s, such themes are not as groundbreaking anymore. The interdependence formed between the local with the global in the past decade has created a world where the local is pressed to align to the majority, or is unable to meet “international standards” unless they follow the rules of the global arena.

Set in the 1920’s, the film, as director Zhang Yimou believes, is still relevant in the Chinese context today. The same questions are elicited from Ju Dou’s melodramatic scenes, and though viewers are not “broadened” the same way now from when it was seen back then, it is brought to light that the approach to issues, such as human rights, are not effective in attaining its goals. How can a local film like this truly influence the world? The local-global relationship (usually seen as making global references affecting local action) has been so one-sided that its almost oppressive tendency has been thought to be but a consequence of this borderless world. But whoever said it had to be that way? Those who may disagree have resigned to trying to conform with great difficulty to such international standards due to cultural differences, or have shut away such foreign influences completely—questioning the very purpose of such a globalized world.

They attack us but we can’t run. We can’t run so we go home.”


- Ginelle Petterson


Mico Quijano said...

Forget nuclear weapons. Scholars of IR have been so engrossed with these things that they have failed to acknowledge the existence of an equally powerful weapon which, although isn’t actually in the business of killing people, has been corrupting their minds – basically feeding them with crap (for lack of a more appropriate term) for centuries and counting. I’m talking about culture – the culture of capitalism in particular.

Ms. Petterson raised an interesting point when she made reference to the dynamics between the local and global; specifically arguing that hegemony rests on the hands of “international standards.” While the contention may prove to be valid, one should nonetheless probe deeper and pose questions such as 1) who dictates these so-called “standards”? and 2) why are they considered to be as “standards” in the first place? From where I’m standing, I don’t just see “global” and “local” per se. I see capitalism, and then the marginalized. I see America, and then the rest of the world.

This brings me to Ju Dou and its general theme – oppression. I agree with Ms. Petterson when she said that it was not only Ju Dou who was oppressed. Tianqing, Jinshan, Tianbai – each and every character was exploited in different ways but by exactly the same force: culture.

A feminist perspective would only serve to supplement an analysis of the oppression Ju Dou experienced. Historically speaking, Chinese society has always been patriarchal. Mencius even outlined three stages of women subordination – to fathers during their youth, to husbands during the course of their marriage, and to sons during their years of seniority. The rationale is rather simple: women’s duties are strictly confined within the house - they have no business dealing with matters occurring outside its vicinity. It is exactly this structure of society which justifies a relatively subtle facet of oppression found in the film: Ju Dou’s eternal confinement in domestic affairs, thus limiting her potential capabilities as a person. But how about the downright explicit form of oppression portrayed? How do we make sense of the dominant notion of oppression that is physical abuse? Ju Dou wasn’t constantly beaten up because she went beyond the private sphere. She was battered because she couldn’t bear a child, an heir to his husband’s bloodline. In this case, the act is better justified by culture, in general. Oppression happened not directly because of the structure, but because of the norms, one of the structure’s vital components.

Mico Quijano said...
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Mico Quijano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mico Quijano said...

The same goes for Jinshan. He is a victim of oppression himself. His violence is not a manifestation of human nature but a consequence of his strict adherence to norms. The case if not different as well for Tianqing, who in the words of Ms. Petterson is a “casualty of tradition,” painfully forced to tolerate his uncle’s actions because the logic of culture dictates that he is not part of the picture, and he is not one to meddle with the ”property” of another. Lastly, Tianbai’s story echoes the same reasoning. I’d like to think though that he was troubled not necessarily because he was torn between “… loving the members of his family and caring for the family name,” but because the set-up is already problematic to begin with. It was precisely his unhealthy concept of a family which led him to being a psychologically disturbed child. And again, the cause was at the grassroots level an effect of a default compromise with culture.

Having said all these, I argue that the primary reason why Ju Dou was banned in China for a while was because its narrative deviated from the fundamentals of the country’s culture. I believe this best encapsulates all the other reasons critics and viewers alike have mentioned – the depiction of Jinshan as a cruel and unforgiving patriarch, and the portrayal of Ju Dou as an adulterous and scheming wife, among others. Ju Dou has been seen as a threat to the sacredness of Chinese culture, perhaps even viewed as a blatant mockery of it.

It is the intention of this post to illustrate how culture is indeed a powerful weapon which has the salient ability of making people follow its rules – which, more often than not, compromise the way we deserve to live. I do not believe that we are simply absorbed into it subconsciously. From the mods of London to the jologs of the Philippines, history is proof that movements of cultural resistance have existed, and still can. At the end of the day, we choose. Shall we remain like Ju Dou, or shall we rise above?

Margaret Gallardo said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margaret Gallardo said...

Part 1

A macabre series of murders.

The above phrase perfectly encapsulates Ju Dou as a film. It is not so much a murder of tradition as what is initially suggested but it is, more importantly, a murder of perception.

“They attack us but we can’t run. We can’t run so we go home.” Yang Jinshan himself might as well have written this line from the nursery rhyme. He remained firm and stood by his beliefs and stuck to tradition despite the fact that he was cheated. He was cheated on by his wife, his nephew and ultimately by society. In the rhyme, they symbolize Ju Dou and Tianqing. We, on the other hand, symbolizes Tianbai and Jinshan. They kept defying tradition and what was supposed to be. Jinshan and Tianbai cannot simply run and abandon the position they have been given by society so they go home. Home can be taken both figuratively and literally. A home is where one can, supposedly, be true to himself or herself. Home, taken figuratively, refers to something you are all too familiar with: tradition.

I agree with Ms. Petterson regarding the way such morbid images and scenarios were casually portrayed in the film. Such was the case when Ju Dou carried her torture device out of the room the day after it was used on her. How is it possible that something as mundane as carrying an object out of a room could be so powerful to elicit such intense emotions from the viewers? In comes tradition. The Oxford Dictionary defines tradition as a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on in this way from generation to generation. In short, what may be unusual to one culture may be unexceptional to another. One cannot stress how important tradition is to the Chinese. As Ju Dou nonchalantly walked out of the room, so did my preconceived notions of tradition. The roots of tradition have always plagued me. What makes tradition tradition? Has anyone ever bothered questioning tradition? I believe people have been mindlessly “going with the flow” so to speak. Behaviouralists would argue that people are the way they are and think the way they think because of certain preconceived notions. The environment they were exposed to as they were growing up shapes the way they think. It is, therefore, not entirely their fault.

“Listen to the pig screaming for its life.” I believe Yang Jinshan’s verbal and physical abuse of his wife, Ju Dou, was equally portrayed. Ju Dou was treated like an animal (a pig to be precise) because she was under the possession of Jinshan. She was, in layman’s terms, his property. Like any other tangible object, she was acquired through money. For Ju Dou to be degraded to such a level meant that Jinshan did not treat her as a woman. He viewed her as a baby-making machine because Chinese culture dictated it. In the early years, a woman’s worth was measured by her ability to produce an heir or two. In Chinese culture, this measure was doubled due to the preference for male children. Ju Dou was obligated to produce a son lest her husband kill her. Although she disliked being used, she could not do anything on her own. She needed her son, Tianbai, and her lover, Tianqing, to ignite change. The fact that the film portrayed women as needing other men to succeed is sexist.

Margaret Gallardo said...

Part 2

Ju Dou had a patriarchal feel and setting throughout the duration of the film. Yang Jinshan had a role to play as the head of the supposed family although Tianqing assumed his position halfway through. There were fleeting moments wherein the general atmosphere was that of a matrifocal one as Ju Dou struggled to keep things together as the head of the family especially during Jinshan’s accident. In the end, Ju Dou’s relationships (to her husband, to her son and to her lover) crumbled the way it started: amidst fire.

I would have to disagree with Ms. Petterson when she stated that Ju Dou’s world is foreign to its Asian neighbors. I believe the themes and situations presented in the movie, albeit with slight variations, are still as salient as they are in present times. All people fear gossip as it has the potential to ruin any name. Names are indicators of social status. Once it is tainted, it can never be redeemed fully. That is the reason honor must be of utmost importance. The Chinese government deemed the movie as disrespectful of the Chinese traditions, customs and beliefs. Ultimately, they feel that the film took a jab at the elite members of society who are unable to produce a child. Ju Dou was the epitome of taboo as she went against what was expected of Chinese women. To some extent, the film was a mockery of the culture they have carefully shielded from the West. It was, nevertheless, effective as it conveyed several messages and feelings to and from the audience.

It cannot be denied that the vivid colors and musical score used in the film contributed to its untimely success. Untimely because nobody thought it would make that big of an impact. The mood was set by the vibrant colors perfectly matching the scenes. The excellent setting also proved to be a good backdrop as the plot flowed smoothly.

All in all, Ju Dou was more camp than it was entertaining. It had a commendable plot, amazing colors, controversial actors, and it left the viewers something to ponder on. Other than that, I wouldn’t stand in line to watch this movie again. Not even if Tianbai would give me his death stare.

therese said...

Part 1

Indeed, watching Ju Dou is a cultural experience. As much as the technology globalization has afforded us has made us more familiar with what can be considered foreign narratives - e.g. the oppressive patriarchal practices in China, or the inhumane conditions of poverty-stricken countries such as those in Africa - it cannot be helped to get immersed into the culture and context in which the narrative of the film is set. More so in a film like Ju Dou, with its striking visuals and rich cinematography which intensify the audience experience of witnessing something that is foreign, or at the very least, not entirely familiar. Thus, as much as the audience can perhaps easily identify with what the film presents, there is always the recognition that there's a difference, say, between the Chinese experience of oppression and that of ours.

On a personal note, rather than dichotomizing, it would perhaps be prudent to adapt the view that the film is not to be regarded as “either/or” in the sense that it is not either a foreign film or a film that presents universal questions or questions universal values, but rather a film that, regarded as a whole, is/does both. After all, we will not be able to identify with the ideas presented in the film unless we do not recognize its foreignness, because otherwise we will not be triggered into seeking what it holds as universal – that is, our common ground. In the same way, culture and contexts of a film like Ju Dou are so interesting and even gripping precisely because knowing what it holds universal makes us clear as to what it does not, and these are almost always points of human interest.

To state it more clearly, the pitfall of dichotomizing is that it often entails isolating elements such that, for example, dividing between what is local and what is global risks missing that the two are inextricably linked. We cannot see Ju Dou from a global perspective without acknowledging the context under which it was produced. It is globally groundbreaking because it carries its local flavours all too, presenting facets of the Chinese culture that at that time were not very familiar to the rest of the world; similarly, it has so much impact in China to the point of the film getting banned because in adapting to global standards, it has somehow defied local ones.

therese said...

Part 2

Allow me to illustrate how this is a political issue in the context of the film. As I mentioned above, dichotomizing entails isolating elements, and isolating elements means dissociating them from a bigger context. In many ways, such dissociation leads to disempowerment. Looking into the context of the film, Mr. Quijano’s commentary provides a very good example: “A feminist perspective would only serve to supplement an analysis of the oppression Ju Dou experienced…. In this case, the act is better justified by culture, in general. Oppression happened not directly because of the structure, but because of the norms, one of the structure’s vital components.” As if gender is simply a detachable facet of culture! Mr. Quijano asserts that using a feminist perspective will not suffice, as there is a need to go beyond the structures and look into social practices and norms such as those presented in Ju Dou. However, more than a mere inaccuracy, to limit the feminist discourse in those terms is exactly like talking about women as belonging simply to the private sphere, thus reducing gender issues into problems of women and women alone. Issues of gender and gender-based oppression is ingrained in the what Mr. Quijano phrases as “culture in general,” such that it is exactly these gender biases that make culture oppressive in the context of the film. As Risman (2004) points out in her “Gender as a Social Structure: Theory Wrestling with Activism,”

“Gender is deeply embedded as a basis for stratification not just in our personalities, our cultural rules, or institutions but in all these, and in complicated ways. The gender structure differentiates opportunities and constraints based on sex category and thus has consequences on three dimensions…” (Risman 2004: 433)

Thus, Ju Dou being beaten up was not simply because she couldn’t bear a child, and it was culture that dictated against such circumstance – Ju Dou was beaten up because she could not fulfil on her imposed gender role – that of producing heirs for the flourishing of the family line. We see that her every defiance of norms is a defiance of the imposed gender roles she so wanted to escape. Jinshan’s violence was consistent with his own gender role, because his producing an heir is a manifestation of his strength and his masculinity, which are valued in Chinese context as can be seen in his perpetual quest for a male heir. Indeed, if one is to look deeply into the turn of events, gender will always be an inseparable component of every action and every motivation of each character. To dichotomize gender from personal identities and cultural norms and traditions is to say that these gender issues exist in a bubble of their own, distinct from a general notion of culture, when in fact these gender issues are the driving force of culture.

Risman, Barbara J. 2004. “Gender as a Social Structure: Theory Wrestling with Activism.” Gender and Society, Vol. 18, No. 4 (August): 429-450.

--Therese Buergo

Rosie said...

"Names are an important key to what a society values. Anthropologists recognize naming as 'one of the chief methods for imposing order on perception'." - David S. Slawson

Naming, beyond identifying an object, person or idea, orders our view of the world and also gives the namer power over it. This was more than apparent in the traditional Chinese society where Ju Dou was set. Names were more than just words, they were proofs of lineage, indicators of one's role in society, and, as Slawson wrote, keys to what the society valued.

Throughout the movie Ju Dou was always referred to by people as "wife" or by Yang Jinshan as "aunt," never by her real name, even when Jinshan was referring to Tianqing and Tianbai by theirs in the same sentence. Refusing to call her by name signified not only detachment but also an appraisal of Ju Dou: she was not worthy enough to be given an identity.

The importance of names was also shown in several other instances. When Tianbai was born his name required a council to decide, because "the wrong name can mean the end of the family line." In another instance, during Tianbai's birthday, Tianqing broke down at the feast when he was referred to as Tianbai's brother. And, quite significantly, Jinshan's revenge on Ju Dou and Tianqing came when Tianbai called him father. Even though Ju Dou and Tianqing essentially had control over the paralyzed old man, they were powerless in the face of names. Ju Dou asked Tianqing, "If he called you daddy would you dare reply?" a direct reference to the power that names held over them. To be called father by Tianbai would be an exposure of their betrayal.

A central conflict in the movie was the need for Ju Dou and Tianqing to keep their relationship a secret even after Jinshan's death, for fear of being ostracized by their community. They were forced to interact in secret, always afraid of gossip, half-wishing that the truth would come out, but fully aware that they would have to run away if it did. It wasn’t a situation that people would like to be in, and yet it happens often even today. Gossip is a very real deterrent for most of us, and we act according to norms so we would not get talked about. It’s interesting that in the context of Ju Dou, screams in the night were common occurrences and necessitated no gossip, but what got them talking was what was done in silence.

Rosie said...

There were many instances when I wanted to just laugh the intensity of the movie off; the absurdity of Jinshan in the barrel, the awkwardness of Tianqing, the demeanor of Tianbai, little things that I believe were really meant to make the audience laugh. But I kept going back to Ju Dou and her suffering, and the way she handled it, and the laughter would cease almost immediately. Ju Dou was trapped when she was bought by Jinshan, and even when she escaped torture by becoming pregnant, she became even more trapped. Trapped in the dye mill, in the Yang family name, in the system of oppression that she never had the inkling to question. From the start she was negotiating the rules, looking for a way to alleviate her suffering, never daring to ask why things were the way they were.

Ms. Petterson was right in pointing out that Jinshan was a victim too. His obsession with having an heir was largely the influence of the society that demanded one from him. He needed someone to carry on the Yang family name, no matter how miserable the circumstances were.

Most of the movie was set in the Yang Family Dye Mill, and the complex relationships that developed inside the mill eventually became so volatile that for it to be consumed in flames seemed to be the only logical end to the story. In a way it was a relief to watch those colorful cloths and wooden panels catch fire with Ju Dou in the middle of the fiery chaos. There was nothing left, and what was there wasn’t all too pleasant in the first place.

Is this film a good agent of political socialization? Does it spur us to make a change? While it may not be as broadening to viewers today as it was when it was first released, there is still relevance to it. The personal has not always been seen as political, and this movie is a clear depiction of that. And through it we see that times have changed, that people have changed in their perception of women, but it also spurs us to think about how our fear of gossip and the power of names have evolved along with it. In today’s modernized world, gossip travels even faster and names play the same powerful role. And it must be noted that modes of oppression are subtler but ever present. Which now begs the question, how much change have we achieved anyway? Was it change, or simply a move from one form to another? At the very least it could lead to the reexamination of how we view our society today, and how we respond to the conventions that we have taken for granted.

- Rosie Ramirez

Fiona Arevalo said...

Part I
“I bought you, now obey me. When I buy an animal, I treat it as I wish. And you're no better than an animal."

Ju Duo is a 1990 Chinese film directed by Zhang Yimou and Yang Fengliang. It is one of the first major films to be made in the repressive, post-Tiananmen Square period by the daring group of Chinese film makers known as the Fifth Generation. It was also the first Mainland Chinese film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, in 1990.Set in the early 1920s, the film emerges as a folktale of innocence and evil and a controversial political allegory. In this commentary, I would focus on first, the oppression of women and second, the constraint inflicted upon people’s lives when they are ruled by rigid customs and beliefs, rather than human desire.

From the lines which I quoted above, it is made clear that Ju Duo stands as a film on the oppression of women. Ju Duo, the film’s main protagonist, is victimized because of her gender. The film then showed how Ju Duo attempted to liberalize herself from this patriarchal dominated society. With oppression comes discrimination—how women are disgraced and looked down to as mere possessions and sex objects. Ju Dou was dehumanized and treated like an animal by Jinshan. She served as his labourer at day and her sex slave at night. He constantly batters her at night for she wasn’t able to immediately give him an heir. Although in reality, Jinshan is the one at fault—having his own impotence as the explanation for Ju Duo’s and her predecessors’ inability to bear him children—the man feeds his pride and induces his hypocrisy by placing the culpability to this women. This is a glimpse of the Chinese patriarchal society where in the man is always seen as noble while the woman is a disgrace. In the film, Jinshan cared more for his horse than for his wife. He got so worried when his horse was sick while on the contrary, he is the one who inflicts harm and pain to his very own wife. From his very words, he levels Ju Duo with an animal, but come to think of it, he may have treated her even much less.

Jinshan marries, or in that context, buys wives, not because he longs for the love and affection of a woman but because he needs to secure his family lineage. In the background of the 1920s, Chinese society is very much defined by arranged marriage. Love is not a celebrated taught in Chinese marriages, the much bigger value is the ability of a woman to bear children for the family, above all, a son. Sutcliffe (1995), as quoted by Kantorates (1998), argues that "In the feminist critique of Chinese tradition, marriage has been seen as a primary site for women's subordination. As the ultimate of exchange commodities, women were highly valued for providing a family lineage".

Fiona Arevalo said...

Part II

All throughout the film, Ju Duo was trying to overthrow the domination of patriarchy, her first move being her seduction of Tianquing. She may have thought that by clinging on to a younger and stronger Tianquing, who is also much gullible and easily manipulated, she would be able to finally dispose the old Jinshan and become the real figure in charge at home. However, this had not been the case for her. Tianquing turned out to be very weak-willed and submissive to customs that have also made his life wretched. He cannot dare defy his uncle despite all his abuse and maltreatment to him. This brings us to our second point—one’s oppression due to rigid customs and tradition. Come to think of it, Ju Duo also experienced subordination under Tianquing. His fear of breaking tradition drags her down with him. Ju Duo was not able to liberalize her femininity with Tianquing. He was still the one who’s in control. Take for example, when they were to have their second child, Ju Duo wanted to keep the child but Tianquing did not agree on it and ordered her to abort it. Upon abortion, Ju Duo was still the one who suffered, having been paralyzed after. Also, Tianquing never approve of her desire to desert the village and live a more free life somewhere else. He kept himself tied to this customs which in turn deprives Ju Duo of the freedom she greatly yearned for.

I agree with Ms. Petterson in her claim that Jinshan is also a victim. He is a victim in several ways. First, the pressure he carried with him throughout his life of having to produce an heir to the Yang family with the unfortunate case of his impotence. Second, the need for him to uphold the name and honor of his family forced him to keep silent about Ju Duo and Tianquing’s adulterous relationship. He had to live with the horror of seeing his adopted nephew and wife together and learning that Tianbai wasn’t his. He could have sought salvation from the elders by telling them of Ju Duo and Tianquing’s affair and maltreatment to him but he cannot afford to shame his ancestors’ integrity. In turn, he just allowed himself to be placed in a barrel and disrespected in his own house.

Lastly, I would like to strengthen the idea that women are still unable to surpass the boundary of traditional patriarchy in Chinese cinema. Despite her rebellious and bold character, we still cannot say that Ju Duo was able to emancipate herself from the patriarchal system. Jinshan and Tianquing may have exhibited the weakness and flaws of men but the emergence of Tianbai’s character restores the order of the patriarchy. Also, despite Jinshan’s death, the act of Ju Duo and Tianquing’s blocking of the coffin forty-nine times reflects the authority of the dead and the subordination of the living as well as Ju Duo’s failure to escape from this patriarchal system she is trapped in. Her last attempt to emancipate herself was her burning of the textile mill. This supposed suicide of hers was the only decision, Ju Duo made in the film. But this could rather be interpreted as her alas submission to the system by allowing herself to burn down to ashes along with the whole structure she was trying to change.


Kantorates (1998). Women are they really liberated?Retrieved August 15, 2011, from

-AREVALO, Nina Fiona Vianca S.

Bulawi said...

Directed by Zhang Yimou and Yang Fengliang, the 1990 film Ju Dou centers on life inside an old Chinese dyeing-mill where the elderly owner Jinshan is in desperate need of someone who can give him a male heir. He buys himself a third wife, Ju Dou, who manages to conceive a male heir, except that the father of her child was Tianqing, the adopted nephew of Jinshan. Jinshan eventually dies and from here the story moves on how the family lives in the Chinese context of tradition.

Inasmuch as Ju Dou is a display of violence and oppression set in China in the early 1900’s, the films also shows a bit of sociological determinism in the person of Tianbai, who despite being nurtured and raised by his relatively kind parents, Ju Dou and Tianquing, he grows up to be some sort of a rebellious teenager with all the angst bottled up inside him. Tianbai grew up in an environment hostile to him; his mother was widowed, people were gossiping about his supposed brother, who was in fact his real father, and his mother, and he had every reason to believe the talk on the streets. His bottled up rage finally went loose when he attempted to kill a local gossip, but ultimately failing after chasing him with a meat cleaver, and when he killed Tianquin, first when he dumped his nearly-suffocated father in a vat of red dye and by bashing his head with a wooden beam after his father attempted to save, causing him to be knocked out and presumably drown. The way Tianbai turned out is in total contrast with the love and care shown to him by his parents especially in his early years. This goes to show that social factors and the environment played a far greater role in his development over his parents fostering.

Chinese culture and the patriarchal society were given much emphasis in the film as Jinshan’s goal of having a male heir was, in part, as was in the blog post, driven by this tradition. The fact that he has a son after a long period of waiting boosts his status considerably even if he already lost all movement and control of the lower part of his body. Tianqing, who was physically fit, even for his age, was the subject of ridicule and mockery at one of Tianbai’s parties, whereas Jinshan, whom everyone respects for having begotten a son, was revered and praised.

In the end, Ju Dou was a fascinating display of the culture of a country foreign to us, and of color as in the vats of dye and the dyed cloths hung in the mill to dry. The film gives us a glimpse on the workings of Chinese society a few years after the First World War and how tradition and honor are still the main impetus of people’s actions, most notably the men. All in all, the film was very visually entertaining and interesting watch despite the film being banned in China for a few years.


Liane Candelario said...

Antagonism is human nature.

I believe in the superstructure- the culture, the tradition, the social stratification, or whatever it is that you point your finger to whenever you seek an explanation as to why you are what you are. On the other hand, I also believe that there still exists a driving force beyond those that are merely preconditioned. Emotion, character… behavior in general is something that we are all capable of conceiving even at a Robinson Crusoe state of living.

What’s my point? In the film Ju Dou, I don’t think it’s enough to rest on the theory that everything goes back to whatever ideals or norms are inculcated by one’s immediate society. I get it. Yes it’s the culture, it’s patriarchy, it’s women oppression… but that’s not the end all of everything that exists! For one, the superstructure never tells anyone to be adulterous at any given setting. The superstructure never compels anyone to be a peeping tom. And if it’s any relief, the superstructure never invented murder. But nevertheless, things like that happens all the time no matter what era you belong too. One thing is for sure- the superstructure doesn’t hold accountability for everything.

This brings me back to my first point, that antagonism is human nature. Like any feminist-centered film (or at least a film that justifies the plight of feminism), I was at an assumption that the film will either showcase 1) how women are oppressed and remains to be oppressed or 2) how oppressed women fought their way through society and somehow managed to succeed. In both cases though, you always see women in the light of the protagonist. What I greatly appreciate about Ju Dou though is that it didn’t follow the popular feminist formula. That there’s a much more interesting portrayal of how any human being, men or women, is equally capable of oppression and would commit the act should the opportunity present itself. I clearly saw Ju Dou as an antagonist the same way as Yang Jinshan obviously is (maybe on different levels but antagonists just the same).

The beginning is marked by exploitation and torture that leaves bruises (both literally and figuratively) to Ju Dou’s whole being. As a frenzied Tianqing grabs an axe-like blade in a response to Ju Dou’s piercing screams, the propensity to treat her as a victim becomes clear. But the moment when the tables are turned, when Jinshan is much less of a man because of his immobility, that’s when Ju Dou gladly takes over the role of the punisher. Yes, maybe not as violent, but still with the intent to harm what’s left of her husband’s morale.

And where does Tianqing exactly fit in? He exemplifies another case of a role reversal in my opinion. Much like a woman in a patriarchal society, Tianqing holds no power or wealth of his own and is completely fearful of the system (or even just by Jinshan) that has subjugated him. Interestingly, for this film, a man is actually being held liable for an illicit affair. Even Tianbai, a child who’s supposed to be innocent from the bitter story that resides in the dye mill grew up to be psychologically messed up (or at least that’s how he appeared to me).

If critics therefore feel that Ju Dou remakes a society that is fully capitalizing on women and how the society is oppressing them, then I’d beg to differ. The film actually shows contrivances that well encompasses the different facets and victims of oppression.

Ju Dou is clearly a cinematic feat worthy of a Palme d’Or nomination. At least now I know what a Palme d’Or is.

royalprincerpineda said...

Part 1

It was like one against the world. Or a fish swimming against the river current. Or a crow perching on a snow-covered tree on a winter day. The oppression she experienced is just amplified by her passion, and eventually burned her to ashes.

Ju Dou is a Chinese film set in a rural community during the 1920’s. It features the experiences of the lead character, Ju Dou, with her cruel yet impotent husband, Jinshan, and her defiance as she made an affair with Jinshan’s nephew, Tianqing. Here, we could see how she saved her own life from the deadly hands of Jinshan by bearing a son with Tianqing, making love to the textile master’s nephew despite the fact that the society they were in would condemn such actions of Ju Dou. The film reflects an illustrative example of patriarchal oppression over the poor and women. Somehow, Ju Dou and Tianqing resisted the choking system inside the dye house where they were contained and started their lives anew, especially when Jinshan became a paralytic. However, as rumors spread like wildfire in their village, their son, Tianbai, became filled with rage toward his parents, and the tragic events concluded the dark tale of Ju Dou.

Some important issues were raised by Ms. Petterson in the main blog entry. I agree with her that the movie showcased the cruelty of a society anchored on the dominance of rich and powerful men over the poor and the women. Traditions and culture also seemingly play the role in stabilizing the status quo. Actually, Ms. Petterson is right in saying that all the characters were victims of such a system uprooting even their own human rights. Ju Dou, for being treated like an animal or a property of the dye master; Tianqing, for fear of opposing the tradition and going against what the society dictated on his fate; Jinshan, for going mad at his wives as he was terrorized of losing honor and grace due to inability to produce an heir in his lineage; and even Tianbai, for being driven to murder his father because of broken pride and reputation due to his mother’s infidelity. We can blame the cultural context of China for their tragic fates, then.

royalprincerpineda said...

Part 2

Yet, can we always put the fault on the context, even at the expense of having Ju Dous in every society today? I think not. There should have, at least, the delineation what is cultural and what is universal. And by universal, I mean that it should apply to all, regardless of the cultural and national boundaries. In the case of the film, I was just very sorry that Ju Dou and the rest of the people in the movie lived in China during the 1920’s, where concepts such as human rights weren’t yet given the spotlight. So, for establishing universal human rights, I think time element also matters. As a human being learns more each passing day, he/she builds his/her own conception of what is right and what is wrong while, sadly and unavoidably, compromising others. The cultural aspects can be changed for the better or be abolished and replaced with a better one. We can say that Ju Dou is part of the tragic past of human life, and from her tale, everyone else in this world knows what ought to be done to avoid having another Ju Dou in his/her respective societies. I cannot answer how much of the cultural should be tolerated; all I know is that there should be a clear list of the universal rights valid for all human beings, subject to knowledge accumulated in time. But I don’t even know who should determine these universal human rights in the first place. Should a set of global standards be imposed on the local level, or should the world be more tolerant of cultural differences? This can be a good debate, but I would not elaborate this further.
Commenting on the technical aspects of the film, the contrast of cloth colors with the dull surroundings of the textile house may suggest the desire to stand out and extend the change to everyone in the place. The specific colors also gave the emphasis on the mood of the film: red for passion; yellow for enlightenment; blue for the immobility of these aspirations. I also admire the acting of the characters, as each one justified his/her role in the movie. Particularly, I was so horrified by the fact that a teenager like Tianbai can kill his own father just because he can’t take the gossips he heard from surroundings.

Just like a fish going against the river current, Ju Dou eventually was carried away by the flow, with nothing left but her own ashes.

-Roldan P. Pineda

Juan Carlo Tejano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juan Carlo Tejano said...


I did not like Ju Dou at all, not in any way and not just because of its cheap narrative plot reminiscent of whorish “bold” Filipino movies Scorpio Nights and Kangkong or its overly romanticized but personally unappealing technicolor dye theme. I hate the film because, while it effectively portrays the oppressed and violent situation of Chinese women in the 1920s, the film also depicts a sick and distorted interpretation of feminism and its goals.

The epitome of this distorted view of feminism is the persona of the lead herself – Ju Dou, a Chinese woman bought as a wife by cloth-dyeing mill owner Yang Jinshan. The film depicts Ju Dou as an unfairly promiscuous woman: Even at the very first instance that Ju Dou meets Jinshan’s nephew Tianqing, she is immediately portrayed to have had lascivious intentions to just push Tianqing down the floor, wrap him and herself in the dyed meters of cloth, and then make wild love with him. In fact, she does just this exactly, plus the “I’m just eating noodles” innocence effect added to keep Tianqing’s integrity. On this last clause, it is in fact interesting to note how throughout the relationship Tianqing was portrayed to have had hesitations against the sexual relationship while Ju Dou was portrayed to be the aggressive and reckless woman who just cannot help but have sex with her husband’s adopted son. While Tianqing was justly and humanely portrayed to have had at least an ounce of integrity to feel moral guilt, Ju Dou was a carefree sex maniac who kept prodding Tianqing to just kill Jinshan on the basis of him being the major hindrance against her sex life. I cannot help but ask: This is the hero of the struggle of Chinese women in this film? This is the relationship that symbolizes the agency of love against the oppressive patriarchal culture of Chinese society? At best, the plot is merely a mirror of the cultural context in 1920s China without forwarding any hint of feminist political aspirations; at worst, the plot is an epic fail of an attempt to push for the “liberation” of women. Why, what “liberation” is this film forwarding other than that of liberation in the sense of “freely” having sex?

- Juan Carlo Tejano

Juan Carlo Tejano said...


The liberation of women from the shackles of patriarchy is not just grounded on, if not entirely opposite to, women’s freedom to have sex with anyone they want. This twisted way of looking at women’s liberation is itself a manifestation of patriarchy; to view women as nothing more than sexual beings with no real aspirations other than the romanticized goal of love and sex is no better than sexually objectifying them. Sure, the former may represent a deviation from the hegemony of male domination in that it allows women in our mental frameworks to act on her sexual desires while the latter merely sees women as passive sexual objects or recipients of sex. However, the feminist goal is more than that and to think that feminism is only about sexual intercourse is not only short of this goal but in truth contrary to it as well. The liberation of women is about, for example, giving women the freedom to live as they wish, the freedom to pursue different aspirations, and the freedom from any hindrance to these aforementioned rights such as sexual domestication. The film could have shown this, but it did not. Instead of giving Ju Dou real aspirations and reasons to leave her enslavement under Jinshan such as pursuing a career for herself outside the cloth-dyeing mill, the plot gives Ju Dou no other objective than making love and building a domesticated family with Tianqing. Is it not disturbing how Ju Dou is supposedly freed from her oppressive marriage from Jinshan yet remains trapped within a patriarchal culture and anti-women aspirations?
Tianqing’s character and dynamics with Ju Dou are important and telling here. Tianqing, really, was no different from Jinshan: He likewise objectified Ju Dou into a sexual and reproductive object. The simple proof for this is his voyeurism over Jinshan’s naked body early in the film. He wanted Ju Dou to be free because he wanted her to be his. Had it been another woman, Tianqing would not have felt as angry as he was with Jinshan. He would not have even cared. It was not for opposition to the patriarchal culture that Tianqing wanted Ju Dou free. This was clearly portrayed in the film when he disagreed to leave Jinshan and the house and to live freely somewhere else; Tianqing was not against culture but only against Jinshan having Ju Dou.

Perhaps, there was no attempt at all whatsoever to push for feminist agenda in the film. If so, then the film has no real intellectual value in the field of political science. It was perhaps beautiful (?) as a film but not as a political artifact. The comments above can go on with attempting to analyze the messages, themes, and contributions of the film; but, really, we should not intellectualize a movie just because it was shown in class. The film, as I see it, was nothing more than a Chinese version of Cubao bold films.

- Juan Carlo Tejano

faysah said...

Upon watching Ju Dou, I was dreading what I expected to be a feminist reading of the film in which the oppression of women will once again take center stage in the discourse because of the brutal treatment of Ju Dou in the hands of Jin Shan. Fortunately, Miss Petterson has presented an entry which transcends such a limited analysis of the movie by noting the tragic ends of all the characters including even the film’s antagonist, Jin Shan. While the film portrays the misogynistic practices during earlier times, I would argue that oppression has never been limited to women even under the banner of gender politics. In a society where there are rigidly defined gender roles, meaning certain behaviours are deemed proper and improper for both males and females, oppression on both sides will be an inevitable feature. This theme which I would term as the “tyranny of society” is what I would like to focus on for this commentary.

Before assessing the film, some conceptual clarifications are in order. A traditional society, wherever it may be located, thrives on the basis of its customs and traditions. It is all encompassed under culture which is simply defined as “the way of life” of a particular group of people. Anthropologists are among those who support cultural preservation to protect indigenous societies from the onslaught of globalization. The concept of cultural relativism is often used in the defense of conservative societies to inhibit people from ethnocentrism. Now, based on what foreign viewers have seen in the film, it now becomes a question of how far can this concept of cultural relativism go? Culture, after all, is both adaptive and maladaptive. The latter means that certain practices can lead to a group’s obliteration rather than preservation if these practices are to continue (Kottak 2007). Universalism and liberalism have their fair share of critics because they are seen as an imposition of Western standards on other cultures. But the right of one’s group to self-determination and their own identity is not the main target of universal standards and liberalization. The inalienable right of every human being from threats to his existence is the main concern of the efforts to institutionalize standards for living.

Both ends have tendencies towards implications that ought to be avoided. Taking universalism and liberalization as a dogma can lead one to ignore the important delineations between cultures which is essential for the preservation of ethno-linguistic identities that are truly threatened by globalization. It also disregards contextual differences which may lead to the dreaded one-size-fits-all approach of certain Western scholars in analyzing foreign societies. However, as Ju Dou would show, proponents of cultural preservation also need caution in leaving cultures as they are. In undertaking an absolutist approach to preservation, both the adaptive as well as the maladaptive practices of that group are retained.

faysah said...

Part 2:

Ju Dou’s ordeals as Jin Shan’s bought wife makes it easy to understand why viewers would immediately invoke a feminist framework in analyzing the film. However, it is also apparent that the other characters especially Tian Qing have also undergone oppressive measures that was imposed by a society that insists on putting people in labelled boxes based on the circumstances of their birth. Even characters that are very hard to sympathize with, like Jin Shan and the teenage Tian Bai can also be pointed out as victims of this tyrannical society like what Miss Petterson has pointed out. The rural Chinese society where the film takes place lurks in the background all throughout the film. While its presence is subliminal, it actually frames the lives of the film’s characters. Ju Dou is subjected to all types of oppression in a society with a predetermined set of beliefs on the role of women. It is a society where wives are not equal partners but objectified possessions of their husbands. The fact that she is brutalized on a nightly basis for failing to produce a son by her impotent husband is something that society has fostered by condoning the notion that husbands can regard their wives as properties to be treated as they see fit. The failure to produce an heir is blamed on Jin Shan’s three wives yet it has never occurred to anyone that the inadequacy might be on his part. Furthermore, Ju Dou’s fate is sealed even after Jin Shan’s death because her life has been passed on to her son to be controlled and regulated according to the norms of a society. The prohibition on a second marriage is a manifestation of the totalitarian nature of society which aims to take control over the life of women after the death of their husbands by preventing them to take the reins over their future. Worst, Ju Dou is forced to abort her own child and inflict serious injury on her reproductive health to conceal her infidelity from a judgmental society which can never comprehend the nature of her relationship with Tian Qing.

faysah said...

Part 3:

But while it is of no doubt that Ju Dou lives in a patriarchal society, the oppression of the other characters must not be overlooked by using the narrow lens of feminism. Jin Shan was also reared in the same society that puts a premium on the ability to sire sons. The tragedy of his impotency is not on his lack of ability to reproduce but on its cultural interpretation that he does not qualify as a man because of his condition. However, it must be taken note that this is an explanation rather than a justification of his sadism. Next, there is Tian Qing who is perpetually stuck in a role where he can never be with Ju Dou and his son. It is through the norms of society that he gradually became the object of his son’s wrath. His actions are constrained because of filial piety in Chinese culture which prevents him from asserting himself even if his uncle’s actions are nothing short of barbarism. Finally, there is Tian Bai whose homicidal tendencies may leave the audience dumbfounded. However, taking the proposed theme in mind, Tian Bai is the unfortunate product of a society which inculcates a fierce and unquestioning loyalty to one’s family name as depicted by Ju Dou and Tian Qing’s attempts to stop Jin Shan’s coffin to prove their loyalty. The fixation to protect the “honor” of a family name from baseless rumors separated Tian Qing from his family and led to Tian Bai’s resentment of his parents which culminated into parricide and his mother’s sanity. The unforgiving scrutiny of this tyrannical society which relentlessly controls its people is the main culprit behind the tragic ends of the film’s characters. However, I would argue that the film does not negate the value of cultural practices. Culture is not the antagonist but those absolutists who insist on purist preservation. Culture was never supposed to be static. It should change and adapt to the current time frame. Locking a culture around its incipient period results into anachronism that isolates a society and perpetuates oppression among its people by instilling a hegemonic worldview of outdated bigotry and double standards.

Kottak, Conrad Philipp. 2007. Anthropology: The Exploration of Human Diversity. New York: McGraw Hill.

Abdullah, F.