A political allegory disguised as a family melodrama, Zhang Yimou’s 1991 Raise the Red Lantern, a tale of privilege, deception and hatred, where mistresses fight for their master’s sexual attention, stands as a metaphor for human nature’s propensity towards willing submission.
Is the ultimate allegorical meaning of Raise the Red Lantern [Dà Hóng Dēnglóng Gāogāo Guà] to do with archaic elements still present in modern China? Does the film hides behind its simple story of deception and betrayal a criticism of how women are still treated in this immense communist country? The near obvious is given a poignant meaning – through spectacular frames and aural delight within a maze of malice and artifice – in the story of Songlian, the fourth wife-cum-concubine of a wealthy master in 1920s China.
In less than three seasons, we are shown how Songlian (Gong Li) is transformed from the victim of a rigid and cruel hierarchical system into an abuser of that system herself, albeit a regretful one at the end. Her initial loneliness and isolation, provoked by the master’s third wife’s caprices, are soon transformed into a bitter and cynical armour, worn by Songlian with disconcerting ease.
A rather more intriguing reading of the film than the common criticism of seeing communist China as a feudal society is to see the movie as a representation of power relations everywhere. Like great works of art, Raise the Red Lantern is truly universal when it comes to its themes. The story is a perfect reflection of the power games played by people, by communities, by societies and nations. And in each and every one of these relations, the parts that ought to feel shame and guilt are the ones with the cleaner conscience of them all.
..The Chosen One: The Dubious Benefit of Being Favoured.
Thus the mistresses lie, betray and compete with each other to please someone who they don’t much care about, while the very person responsible for the whole shameful situation, the master, keeps his posture intact. The women lose their integrity and conspire in their own submission, without any coercion from their oppressor. The victims are both oppressed and oppressors. It is interesting to see how the master, a secondary character in the story (in fact, we never fully see his face!) presides invisible over the household. From the feudal lord, through colonizing nations to the chief executives, times never really change: immemorial power keeps control from behind the scenes.
The film might be set in China, in a feudal-like framework, with no real freedom for the women or the servants, but its allegorical meaning reaches far beyond its own set and characters. And although, obviously the personal is political, I would rather not confine the idea to a narrow feminist perspective, but would instead understand it as universally applicable. I would argue that the oppressed – the four wives and the female servants – represent archetypes, instead of female stereotypes. They are not the depiction of women’s oppression. They are the representation of people with little or no power at all. They are the poor of the world, everywhere, anytime.
To read Raise the Red Lantern as only an allegory of modern communist China is not only short-sighted but actually bound to miss the greater point: that the film showcases human’s willingness towards submission. And that is universal. In fact, this power relation where people have a tendency to bow their heads to the first person with more power than themselves is mostly clear in capitalist societies, which venerates money above everything else. Paradoxically, the triumph of capitalism over communism brought about this state of affairs. After the fall of The Berlin Wall, when a consensus was reached, modern, industrialised, capitalist societies have homogenized what everyone actually wants. Therefore, in countries where nobody anymore understands power relations as a struggle of classes, then all respect the same parameter. We all want to be rich, therefore let us not condemn the wealthy.
Perhaps this timeless ‘carrot on a stick’ paradigm explains the absurd irrationality behind a tiny minority being able to dominate and oppress the vast majority of people. Why, instead of fighting between themselves for the privileges afforded by their lord, don’t the wives plot with the servants for the death of the master? If this seems too revolutionary, why not then, connive among themselves for the privileges to be shared equally? Choosing a menu that benefits everyone is not that hard. Instead, like us, the audience, they are mystified by the sumptuous palace, with its curvaceous rooftops and labyrinthine structure, as a metaphor for the city, the eternal centre of political rule. Even though this urban epicentre seems rather empty, permeated by a ghostly silence – are those the echoes of everyone that have ever lived? Power certainly corrupts, but it also fascinates.
Raise the Red Lantern is indeed a magnificent work of art – as universal as it should be. And although made in China, by a Chinese director, and populated by a Chinese cast inside an impressive house-cum-palace-cum-fortress, the film tells a story that is more relevant to us than we would like to admit.