Female in Chinese History and Chinese Films
June 14, 2021
The Chinese patriarchal society and its beliefs are built around the yang and the yin, with yang as the dominant and yin as the subordinate. Therefore, women in this society are referred to as yin, which is feeble, smooth, absent and malign, while men are seen as yang: strong, vicious, dominant and always present. In other words, women in the Chinese society play the secondary role, while men are the main. Most interestingly, the Chinese way of life insists on restraint, moral uprightness, and refrain from sexuality and every overt desire. Therefore, the Chinese films, mostly about Chinese history, depict the marginal role of women, as well as emphasizing the significance of moral conduct and refrain from desires either by mocking the reversal of it or by celebrating its manifestation. The films Red Sorghum by Zhang Yimou (1987), Yellow Earth by Chen Kaige (1984), Lust, Caution by Ang Lee (2007), and Street Angel by Yuan Muzhi (1937) demonstrate the social position of women in the Chinese history and the importance of moral uprightness. The place of women in the Chinese history, as depicted in the Chinese films, is that of passive sexual objects serving for the satisfaction of their male counterparts.
The Chinese films fulfill the national allegory, where the life of the individual is interconnected with the nation and represents the latter. The theoretical allegory of the nation implies that the activities of an individual in public or private are symbolic or significant to the sociopolitical realities of the third world country. In the conformity to this theory, Chinese films use the role of women as a means to achieve the national good or the sociopolitical ends. For example, in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, Chia Chi’s emotional struggle signifies the sociopolitical uncertainties the people of China experienced at the time, unsure of either to fit in with the Japanese or put up the resistance to the end (Lee). Chia Chi is supposed to entice Mr. Yee so as to provide the rebels an apt chance to assassinate him, but she falls in love with him after the initial rough sexual encounter (Mulvey 12). In the following days, Chia Chi develops sexual passion and emotion for the man whoseassassination she is supposed to aid (Lee). This internal conflict is symbolic of the national allegory. The Chinese were attached to the Japanese or the individuals who were supporting the Japanese invaders. At the same time, they were supposed to view these individuals as enemies and fight to exterminate them. As a result of the internal conflict, Chi Chi approaches her comrades and asks them to speed up the assassination to save her from the emotion tearing her apart. That is the public manifestation of the conflict. However, the assassination is delayed for strategic reasons, and Chia Chi must bear the conflict longer. The emotional struggle occurs in Chia Chi’s private and public spheres, and they all symbolize and relate to the national experience. The Chinese could not rid themselves of the traitors or the enemies fast to end the turmoil. They had to bear it for longer time than they expected. Women’s subordinate space helps bring out the national allegory, as a weak and indecisive character is needed to depict the struggle between hating and embracing.Men in the patriarchal society are believed to lack these traits. To affirm to national allegory, the films invoke the yin identity of women as the optional, indecisive and easy to overcome part of nature.
On the same note, Yuan Muzhi’s 1937 film, Street Angel, further depicts the national allegory theory illustrating social classes, inequalities, and social evils. This film conforms to the national allegory theory by demonstrating how the sociopolitical factors directly affect the public and private lives of the characters. Xiao Hong and Xiao Yun, the main characters, live in Shanghai after escaping from the raging war in the northeast China (Muzhi). Further, Xiao Hong underscores the national sociopolitical issues in the songs she performs at the teahouse. This film presents the girls as passive subjects of the male-dominated-world (Mulvey 8). Xiao Yun’s life highlights the social problems through her private life as a prostitute, an occupation that she did not choose but was forced into by her adoptive parents. Besides, the cultural issues are manifested in Xiao Yun’s public life as she tries to blend in with others only to meet utter rejection. Xiao Yun tries to establish a friendship with Xiao Chen and his friends, but Xiao Chen despises Xiao Yun for being a prostitute (Muzhi). In this scenario, Xiao Yun is a passive bearer of the social injustice, which overshadows many women in Chinese town slums (Muzhi). The national allegory is further explored through the idea of the adoptive parents attempting to sell Xiao Hong to a wealthy man. Xiao Hong is another passive receiver of the society’s dispensations, without contributing to or influencing what befalls her. Through the malign position of women in the Chinese films, the film explores the social and political problems conforming to the national allegory.
Similarly, the film Yellow Earth by Chen Kaige follows the national allegory, in every essence. The film depicts the story of Gu Qing who records folk songs for use by the Communist soldiers (Kaige). The Yellow Earth displays the national allegory directly, unlike the other films discussed in this essay, by presenting the life of a politically inclined individual. As a soldier, Gu Qing has dedicated his life to the Communists call, and lives to fulfill it. In the film, Gu Qing’s private life, as well as public, is full of political discourses as he tries to record the folk songs and spread the Communist ideology (Kaige). This film presents the life of Cuiqiao, a subordinate human being, who has little ambition and even the hope or strength to pursue those ambitions (Kaige). Cuiqiao gets into an arranged marriage at the age of fourteen because her family was in debt. They owed money which was used for her mother’s funeral as well as her brother’s engagement. In this case, Cuiqiao is a family property and has no individual or human right to an identity of herself (Kaige). Gu Qing’s attempt to lure her into Communists’ activities and the girl’s obvious interest and admiration of it underscore the potential of this marginal being, becoming an active Communist soldier (Kaige). However, the uncertain ending, as Cuiqiao goes to cross the Yellow River at night after her wedding, symbolizes the insignificance and lack of acknowledgment of the women’s contribution to the fight against Japanese. Through the character of Cuiqiao, the film explores the social and political lack of recognition of women’s contribution to crucial national and social landmarks and milestones. The film ends without informing the audience whether Cuiqiao succeeded to cross the river and join the Communist camp on the other side, or she disappeared to elsewhere or drowned in the river. This inconsequential treatment of women or the social placement of women to the secondary roles, as shown in this film, helps highlight the way their efforts and achievements went unnoticed, even when they contributed to changing things.
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To sum up the national allegory theory in Chinese films through women characters, the film Red Sorghum by Zhang Yimou demonstrates the desire to return to roots and liberate the Chinese from all the social ideologies imprisoning them (Zhang 34). Although the film has a deliberate depoliticized narration and depiction, its core is considerably political. The ideology of the body in the film underscores the need for the Chinese people to surrender to the basic nature (Zhang 34). The depiction of the men’s body, as well as the role of the only permanent woman character in the film, underscores the theme of returning to the roots (Zhang 38). The film tells the story of a young girl married to an older man through an arranged marriage where the father receives a young mule in payment. The husband to be of Jiu’er owns a wine distillery. The film shows the girls sexual intimacy with one of her sedan chair carriers, on her journey to her husband’s house from her parents (Zhang). In this scene, Jiu’er does not resist the supposed rape, but lies, eyes closed on the circle the man prepares in the sorghum field (Zhang). Jiu’er failure to resist the sexual intimacy, although she is married to another man, highlights the body ideology. She gives in to the body’s needs for sex, which the social ideologies could not give her. Being married to a man over thirty years older than her, as well as leprous, she could never get the sexual satisfaction her body needed. Therefore, through her character, the film portrays the inevitability of defiance, to restore the roots, against the set social ideologies (Wang 89). The insistence on the return to the roots, through the body ideology, underpins the Chinese political awareness of the time, which portrayed the enemys were not the colonizers or the Japanese invaders, but the Chinese people’s beliefs. Zhang Yimou uses the character of an insubordinate woman to show that although the return seems impossible, as it is heavily guarded by the ideologies, it is possible through liberal thinking. Whether directly as in the Yellow Earth, indirectly as in Lust Caution and Street Angel or negated as in Red Sorghum, these four films depict the national allegory, depicting the social, cultural and political factors of the communities in and through the individuals’ private and public lives.
Secondly, through the women characters, the Chinese films reinstate the national virtue of restraint in desire. In the film Lust, Caution, the tragic death of Chia Chi is a mockery of her lack of restraint and giving in to her emotional and sexual desires. Chia Chi is on a mission to save her country from the traitor, Mr. Yee, but instead, she falls in love with him and helps him escape her comrades’ attempt to assassinate him. The film captures the supremacy of the Chinese virtues of restraint from sexual pleasure and personal desire, when Mr. Yee signs the order to execute all the KMT members, including Chia Chi (Lee). Although Chia Chi betrayed her comrades to save Mr. Yee, she dies by his order. Mr. Yee upholds the Chinese virtue of refraining from personal desires and executes his duties as a Japanese assistance in the region (Lee). On the other hand, Chia Chi’s insubordination to the Chinese traditions and weak nature lead her to death. In the Yellow Earth, Cuiqiao’s decision to abandon her marriage and pursue her dreams of joining the Communist army is seen as insubordination, which possibly underlies her end. In the Chinese traditional culture, women are supposed to be submissive and hold their husbands and marriages above their personal ambitions and desires. Cuiqiao fails to conform to this traditional virtue, and thus she becomes an outcast. By not showing what happened to the girl, the film mocks her insubordination and upholds the righteous nature of subordination and denial of personal desires and ambitions. Similarly, in the film Street Angel, Xiao Yun ends up tragically as punishment for giving into the sexual pleasures. Although Xiao Yun did not embark on prostitution for sexual pleasure, the Chinese traditions of restraint do not acknowledge exception (Berry 36). Adoring sexual pleasure and prostitution are grave sins which have no atonement. Therefore, for the violation of the virtuous ways of the Chinese traditions, Xiao Yun, although a victim of social inequalities and political instabilities, dies to reinstate the supremacy of the virtues. Xiao Yun tries to save Xiao Hong from the Erhu Player who wants to sell her to Mr. Gu, and in the process the girl dies from the hand of the Erhu player (Muzhi). Regardless individual’s efforts to defy the natural second place of women and the Chinese values, the ultimate force of nature restores order through punishing the violators.
On the same note, in the Red Sorghum, the Chinese virtues are reinstated through the tragic death of all those who live against the virtues. Jiu’er fails to conform to the Chinese expectation of a woman, refrain from sexual pleasure and honor her husband through faithfulness. Instead, she enjoys sexual pleasure with the muscular sedan chair carrier in the sorghum fields. Consequently, she suffers the death of her husband and is degraded when the man, the narrator calls “my grandpa” (Zhang), storms the distillery and uncovers her acts of shamelessness (Wang 89). As a result of her husband’s death, Jiu’er takes over the wine business and occupies a traditionally man’s position and role, thus mocking the Chinese virtue and patriarchal system. Jiu’er tries to organize a rebellion to ambush the Japanese army which destroyed the distillery, but the workers’ army is distracted by hunger, and her attempt to bring the food, brings her to death. The Japanese army is the symbol of the ultimate force, the patriarchal system and the traditional virtues she tried to fight against, but lost (Wang 89). For the violation of the social norms, the film enacts the supremacy of the patriarchal system and the permanency of the women’s yin nature through Jiu’er’s untimely death (Mulvey 11). The man’s (the father of Jiu’er’s son) survival as well as that of her son, further emphasize the second place of women in society and the futility of trying to fight that natural order. This is so, because, although the man also engages in the profanities and vulgarism which are against the Chinese virtue of moral uprightness, he survives with his son, showing the yang nature of men. It was futile for Jiu’er to try to reverse or fight her fate of being yin and mocking the Chinese virtues, and as a result of the violation, she pays with her life (Mulvey 8).
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Ding Xiaoqi in an interview with Chris Berry explains the twist in the Chinese films to allow the traditional values to prevail. Ding Xiaoqi argues that the Chinese audience seeks role models from films, unlike in the West where the audience seeks pleasure from films (Berry 114). Therefore, even films which seem outrageous and challenging the social norm must end with a reaffirmation of the latter, so as to fit in the Chinese culture and society. Although films may be wild from the beginning to the end, the conclusion must reaffirm the supremacy of the Chinese virtues so as to serve the needs of the Chinese audience. Hence, everything that is unacceptable in the Chinese culture such as prostitution, female insubordination and enjoying sexual pleasure, must be presented as with dire consequences (Berry 110). The audience looks for role models, and the films must deliver them.
In conclusion, the Chinese films tell a lot about the Chinese history, always the reaffirming the Chinese values of the patriarchal system, women’s second place, and the inevitability of restraint from sexual and personal desires. The films may resent women characters who defied the patriarch system, or others who conformed to it, and regardless of the direction the plot takes, the results are always the same, the inevitability of male dominance and the importance of refraining from sexual pleasure and sexual desires. Interestingly, the films also use the women characters to explore the national allegory. Through the second place position of women, the films explore the social, cultural and political concerns overwhelming or that overwhelmed (in history) the Chinese people.