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The "confusion Ethics" of Raise the Red Lantern

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Raise the Red Lantern/Da Hong Denglong Gao Gao Gua (China 1991 125 mins)

Source: Level Four Films Prod Co: Palace/Era/China Film Prod: Chiu Fu-sheng Dir: Zhang Yimou Scr: Ni Zhen, from the

story by Su Tong Phot: Zhao Fei Ed: Du Yuan Art Dir: Cao Jiuping, Dong Huamiao Mus: Zhao Jiping, Naoki Tachikawa

Cast: Gong Li, He Saifei, Ma Jingwu, Cao Cuifeng, Zhou Qi, Kong Lin

Only when things are investigated is knowledge extended; only when knowledge is extended are thoughts sincere; only

when thoughts are sincere are minds rectified; only when minds are rectified are the characters of persons

cultivated; only when characters are cultivated are families regulated; only when families are regulated are states

well governed; only when states are well governed is there peace in the world.

- Confucius (551-479 B.C.) (1)

Confucianism formed the basis of Chinese culture when the Han Emperor Wu, who ruled China from 140 to 87 B.C.,

instituted it as state ideology and orthodoxy (2). Zhang Yimou's fourth film, Raise the Red Lantern, is the last of

a trilogy (Red Sorghum [1987] and Judou [1990] are earlier instalments) that is deeply critical of Confucianism and

Chinese culture. The film was banned in its home country and never made it to the silver screen in China; after the

ban was lifted, it was "marginalised" and only shown on television.

According to Sheldon Lu, the Fifth Generation filmmakers (such as Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang and Zhang) were part

of a nationwide intellectual movement that swept China in the mid- and late 1980s, and embarked on a cultural

critique of the deep structure of the Chinese nation: "their (the Fifth Generation filmmakers') frequent deployment

of long takes, long shots, and deep focus, are anguished, self-reflexive, slow-paced, scathing critiques of

entrenched patterns of traditional Chinese culture" (3). Raise the Red Lantern portrays life in a stifling and

constrictive sanheyuan or Chinese courtyard house (which usually belong to families established for many

generations). The family institution is central to Chinese culture, as according to Confucian philosophy, it is

believed that only when families are well run, will the state also be well governed. The sanheyuan was developed in

China based on Confucian ideology and epitomises classical Chinese architecture - the way in which space is outlined

and occupied in these houses is an expression of the complex social rules that are supposed to embody domestic

utopia. Sanheyuan(s) were self-contained and everything that one needed could be found within these courtyard

houses; doctors and even entertainment were brought into the compound when required; at auspicious occasions,

Chinese operas would be staged to entertain the household and guests. The Forbidden City in Beijing was the ultimate


Women would never venture beyond the enclosing walls of the sanheyuan, as it is supposed to protect them from the

hardships of the outside world. Within these high walls, the writing of poetry and the study of Confucian philosophy

were supposed to be pursued in celestial peace (4). But this is certainly not the idyllic setting that we find in

Raise the Red Lantern, where infighting is rife and the web of deceit spun by the wives and maids is impenetrable!

One of the lasting images that we are introduced to at the beginning of the film is when Songlian enters the

sanheyuan in her school uniform. She is symmetrically framed by a huge Chinese plaque behind her, inscribed with

archaic Chinese characters gilded in gold - the image is a presentiment of how the rules of the Chen household will

eventually swallow her up. Songlian is immediately engaged in the intrigues of the house; when a maid

disrespectfully acknowledges her as the "new" Fourth Mistress, our protagonist quickly foils the maid's disrespect

by responding, "yes, and you can bring my luggage in!"

Joann Lee analyses the film through what she calls the "Confucian/feminist matrix" (5). This "matrix" is indeed

complex in Raise the Red Lantern. Ideally, the sanheyuan is supposed to protect the women from the hardships of the

outside world, but ironically in Raise the Red Lantern the hardships found within its high walls are perhaps even

more virulent! Quite the contrary to the pursuit of poetry and learning in the utopian celestial peace supposedly

offered by the sanctuary of the sanheyuan, we witness the events of what is essentially a "domestic bordello" -

where the wives ruthlessly fight for the lighting of red lanterns in their quarters, so that the master will spend

the night with them, and they will subsequently receive the privilege of exotic foot massages. Throughout the film,

Zhang demonstrates the "confusion ethics" that run amok within



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