The inner human freedom and the tribute to tradition have always existed in opposition. People fall in love and persecute personal happiness, while customs and morals make them stay within the limits of cultural dogmas. Women have traditionally experienced numerous restrictions in pursuit of their personal happiness. In China, the relationships between the generations were of the primary importance, and people always sacrificed their feelings and emotions if the family interests demanded it. The love between a man and a woman was not the basis of a traditional Chinese family. Sexual relations and attraction were minor, and, first of all, a bride had to be an obedient stepdaughter to her husband’s parents, not the woman for her man (Ebrey 77).
The concepts of love and romance differed from the Western interpretation and played insignificant roles in the establishment of the marriage union. The fact that Chinese did not focus on romance stipulated the legitimacy of male polygamy in the marital relationships without the feeling of guilt or accusation. Moreover, the wives of the same man had to live in peace and support each other in daily activities. Everything was done for the man’s benefit and the maintenance of the breed.
This paper focuses on the research of legitimacy of long living Chinese tradition in the light of modern achievements. It claims that the sacrifice of personal life for the common good of the family is unfair and abusive. A state should provide equal rights to all citizens, not only stronger and luckier males. Tracing the outstanding works of art such as ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ and ‘Peony Pavilion’ and credible secondary sources, the research reveals the depth of human suffering and despair in the face of dogma. Death and insanity are irrelevantly high prices for the tribute to Chinese family traditions and a direct violation of the human rights.
Peculiarities of Marital Customs in a Rich Chinese Family
China is the country where for centuries people have followed the Confucian tradition of the family priority (Gunde 89). The cult of ancestors and the respect for parents were essential parts of the teaching. There was nothing as important as a strong and thriving family. Everything in the household was subject to this principle. The precise hierarchy distributed the rights and responsibilities of the relatives. The eldest of the male brothers was the head and the owner of the major part of the family’s property. At the same time, he bore the responsibility for all the younger brothers and their families. Female members of the family had to marry and leave their home. The success and profit of girls was generally limited to the marriage outcome. In other words, families tried to sell their daughters into marriage at the best price possible. The highest achievement for a woman was to bear a boy for her husband (Gunde 89).
Such situation created a lot of age-irrelevant marital unions and caused much suffering and despair in more or less independent and critical minds. Nothing could be done in the face of the law of tradition. When parents decided to give their young daughter to an old lord, she had to succumb. Moreover, such marriage was a great luck and the feelings of the young lady were the matter of nobody’s concern. Keeping loyalty to her husband was an unspoken and unquestionable dogma strictly followed and cruelly punished in the case of violation.
The story of Jade from the movie ‘Peony Pavilion’ took place in Suzhou in 1930. The girl was a talented and attractive performer of the Chinese opera who became the fifth official concubine of a rich and noble lord. She settled in his palace and bore a daughter. However, life there was dull and monotonous, and the young woman felt as if she was living in a golden cage. The producer of the film showed vivid scenes of the rich family’s festivities and luxury during the lord’s anniversary (Yonfan 21:12). Numerous relatives gathered to pay the tribute of respect to the eldest family member. The refined and exclusive atmosphere reminds the setting of a traditional Chinese opera and shows the artificial meaning of the ritual.
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‘Raise the Red Lantern’ is a film revealing a family story of the 20th century. The events took place in the estate of a wealthy Chinese feudal Chen aged 50. His fourth wife Songlian has appeared in his house. She was not form a rich family, but she was well-educated and had an independent mind and character. Her father died recently, and the girl had only a flute as a present from him. She had been a student at the university for six months, but due to the financial complications of her family, she had to quit college and marry an elderly man.
Such situation was typical for the patriarchal tradition, and the young wife had to be grateful to the owner for the privileges of her new status. Songlian had her own house, and, when the lord chose to spend the night at her place, a special woman came to give her a foot massage. On the very first meeting, the oldest of the wives noted that Songlian was not strict in following the tradition of marriage and the introduction to the members of the family. The youngest wife came with a modest case and had not many clothes. Her most valuable possession was youth, but it was going to fade away within the nearest years.
A variety of old marital traditions was strictly observed in the house of Chen. The most vivid and discriminatory towards women’s rights was the choice of wife for the night. In the morning, all the women would come to a common corridor, and a servant would announce who wanted to hold the night with. A lot of red lanterns were hung on the eaves of the wives’ houses. The attention of the Master gave power, status and privilege during the day, and the wives were doing everything possible to be selected by Chen (Zhang Yimou 24:25).
Analysis of the Relationships Between the Wives of the Lord
In the Chinese family, women lived a safe and wealthy life, full of decency and order. At the same time, they had to put up with the fact that they would never have the chance to love and be loved openly by another man (Rainey 42). In the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’, each of the Sisters, as they called each other, had a separate house in a large estate. The wives called each other by numbers, and only the lord could address them by names. It was a typical order in a traditional patriarchal family (Hsu 91).
Yuyzhu, the First Sister, was of the same age as Chen and behaved very respectably. When she was young, she was lucky to feel love towards her husband and bore him a son. It was enough for the lord’s gratitude until the end of her days. With the course of time her physical beauty faded, and the woman had to put up with the fact that she did not attract her beloved man any longer. She humbly maintained the role of the oldest wife, though the red lanterns never burned in her apartments any longer.
The second Sister Chzhoyun was simple and caring. She warmly met Songlian and gave her expensive silk for dresses. She had a daughter and dreamt to bear a son, as it was an essential condition for status maintenance. Chzhoyun wanted to be intriguing and applied all possible methods to lure the lord to her apartment.
Besides legal wives and concubines, lords could have affairs with servants (Rainey 44). Yaner was a village girl who was serving Songlian. She dreamt of becoming a mistress herself and felt jealous towards her mistress while washing her clothes and keeping order in her room. Chen had seduced her, and hoping that she could be the fourth Sister, the girl secretly decorated her room with the same red lanterns as the wives had at night. When the fourth Sister appeared in the house, Yaner made a voodoo doll with the subscription of Songlian’s name and stuck needles into it. The second Sister wrote the name of the young wife revealing that she was not as friendly as she tried to look.
The only thing left after her father was a flute that Songlian kept in her case. Chen found the instrument and burnt it thinking that it was a present from some young man from the university. When the girl found out that the instrument was missing, she started looking for it everywhere. She discovered the lanterns and the doll in her servant’s room and became furious with the fact that the second wife helped to write her name on the doll. As a result, no one treated each other sincerely with a genuine desire to be helpful and friendly.
Meishan, the third wife, was a former opera singer. She was bright, flirtatious and selfish. Songlian became the youngest woman of the lord causing vivid enmity, jealousy and hatred from the third Sister in the beginning. Meishan had a son and felt like the most desired and loved women in the estate until Songlian had appeared. She demanded the lord’s attention and used to sing early in the morning waking up everyone in the house, when the master slept in another apartment. The lord did not mind her enjoying her skills wherever she wanted. However, with the course of time, the third and the fourth Sisters got closer and began to spend much time together becoming close in age and interests. Meishan warned Songlian that her main task was to bear a boy, and it would provide her the trouble-free future in the family. It was the primary duty of a woman willing to gain status and well-being in the traditional Chinese family (Hong Fincher 40). However, the third Sister turned out to be the most vulnerable one because of her youth and beauty. Being neglected by the lord, she dared to be unfaithful to her husband with the family doctor, and Songlian accidentally discovered the truth.
Meanwhile, Chen began to spend many nights with the second wife, and Songlian decided to simulate pregnancy. The master resumed his visits to the youngest wife, but the servant Yaner found her bloody pants, and it was discovered that the fourth Sister deceived the master. Since then, her lanterns were forever put out.
Winter came and Songlian had her 20th birthday. The Chinese tradition was to marry girls between the age of 14 and 20. Males had to find a spouse of up to 30 years (Hong Fincher 41). Songlian was desperate, because even though she was so young, she was already neglected by her elderly husband. She was inconsolable and asked for some wine to forget her misfortunes. Under the influence of alcohol, the girl revealed the secret of the third Wife. The second Wife sent for Meishan to the city, and the young woman was caught in the arms of the doctor. The next day, the servants hang her in the upper room of the estate in accordance with the laws and traditions of the family. Songlian saw the execution and the feelings of helplessness and guilt drove her crazy. The following summer, Chen married another young girl for the fifth time.
The relationships between family members showed many signs of artificial interest and insincerity. Every one of the wives tried to win the fight for the lord’s attention. Behaving freely and independently, Songlian created a lot of troubles in the traditional perceptions of the family. Involuntarily, her behavior led to the deaths of her servant and the third Wife. On the one hand, the woman was right in her reasoning about the fakeness of the customs and their irrelevance to human rights and needs. She claimed that there was no life left in the hearts of people living in the estate. On the other hand, her non-consequent actions led to ruinous outcomes. She wanted the truth, but the truth turned out to be too cruel and severe. When the third Sister’s and Yaner’s secrets were revealed, they were deprived of their existence. If Songlian had not broken their secrets, the deception would have continued silently in its usual way, and the women would be alive.
The Violation of Women’s Rights in Traditional Chinese Families
The subordinate position of women that was typical in the Chinese families dated back to the cults of ancestors. In accordance with the Confucian teaching, men continued the human race and maintained the graves of ancestors (Ebrey5 8). After marriage, the woman lost connections with their families of origin and, consequently, they were of minor importance for the new family. Obedience and humility were the main virtues of a woman. As a maiden she obeyed her father. After marriage, she became a servant in her husband’s home.
However, not every man was always demonstrating virtues and merits. In the film ‘Peony Pavilion’ it soon became clear that the lord was addicted to smoking opium, which put the family’s wealth and under the threat. Jude’s daughter did not see her father often in her mother’s apartments. During the ceremony dedicated to anniversary, the servant taught the girl that all she had to do was to come and kneel in front of her father with all the other numerous offsprings. The fragment showed that there was no affection between fathers and daughters, and every girl was taught to submit to males from the early childhood.
The most important and the best qualities of a woman were shyness, restraint and an ability to adapt to the character of her husband. Female world was limited to home and family. The guests who came to the house always asked the owner about his health, the health of his father, grandfather and sons. However, they never inquired about the health of the wives and daughters. Such a question would have seemed improper and it could be perceived as an expression of incivility (Rainey 78).
Lan noted that the celebration of the lord’s anniversary required a lot of money, while Jude’s birthday was unnoticed by the family members (Yonfan 29:22). Lan and Jade’s daughter prepared a present in a form of short opera excerpt for the anniversary. Women became closer since their last interaction, and nobody in the lord’s family objected to the connection of two beautiful women belonging to the same breed. The same as the head of the family, Jade smoked opium for relaxation, and she allowed herself to get drunk without being accused or punished. It was typical for the members of the privileged society (Gunde 66), and Lan noted that the habit made Jade even more beautiful.
The feeling of loneliness made Jade closer to her husband’s cousin Lan, and the girls seemed to have a refined lesbian relationship. Lan was an unmarried, freedom-loving and independent young woman. In other words, Lan behaved like a man and carried out atypical for women roles in the society. She became a teacher in the folk school and hoped to help the country. The development of education required women who were capable of teaching and serving the country’s needs. Belonging to a highly ranked family made it possible for the woman to choose her way without being financially dependent on the man. From time to time, she looked into the palace of her rich relative and took part in luxurious family celebrations. Lan was charmed and attracted to Jade, as she admired her beauty and the art of singing.
Soon the ruinous addiction led the lord to squandering the family’s wealth, and Jade as well as her daughter were forced to leave the house of the master. Jade had nowhere to go and she asked Lan to shelter them, and the woman agreed happily. They lived peacefully, but unexpectedly their subtle decadent connection was broken when Lan fell in love with Sean, a school inspector. Jade humbly accepted the situation, but her heart was broken. Finally, Sin forsake Lan and departed to her man’s home place. Their passion was just a momentum of weakness accepted by both sides. The behavior of Lan was not typical for a Chinese woman, but it reflected progressive changes that were happening in the Chinese society.
In the relationships between Lan and Jade, the young teacher took the dominant role and behaved freely in expressing her sexual desire, similar to a men. Her lover just accepted the situation the same way as girls were expected to behave in a legal marriage. She did not object openly to the appearance of a new favorite person in the life of her beloved. Jade even offered to invite Sin to their place for a dinner one day. Such relationship vividly showed the female position of silent and humble submission to the leader and provider as well as humility. The adherence to non-traditional lesbian love saved girls from legal disgrace and punishment. However, this example showed once again that all types of partners want the feelings of loyalty and belonging without any third party interference. After Sin’s escape, nothing separated Jade and Lan. The young teacher gave into the passion, but it resulted into negligence from the side of her beloved man. The lesbian love was a vivid example of the adaptation of the desire to love and be loved to the dogmas of the Chinese cultural tradition.
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Death and Insanity as the Outcome of the Tribute to Tradition
Jade and Lan were lucky to find each other and preserve the inner balance by their mutual understanding without any effect on the traditional order. However, the characters of the film ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ had many more complications in their adaptation to the cultural dogma. Being an educated person, Songlian realized the fake values of the relationships based on submission and obedience. However, unlike Lan, she had no powerful relative to protect and support her desire to study and develop. Her intention to live an independent life was ruined, which had led her to helpless insanity.
On the one hand, Songlin should be more restrained and reserved in revealing her distress and dissatisfaction. Many young women might feel jealous of her fate. She did not have to work hard and was provided wealth and luxury. On the other hand, her spirit could not cope with the stagnation that she experienced, and the fact that she had no rights for self-development made the young woman the slave of traditions. She became their hostage.
The producer of the motion picture used a range of stylistic techniques that helped to enhance the feeling of helplessness. Only a year passed from the moment of the arrival of Songlian to the estate when the unpunished lord took a new victim into the house. The plot of the story was divided into parts corresponding to the seasons of the year. It hinted that the length of female beauty is short, and it physical attraction away quickly. In the same manner, the estate of the Chinese feudal family consisting of have many rooms, patios and transitions was an image of the stable and ever-lasting tradition. Massive architecture played an important role in the development of the depressing impression and reflecting the insignificance of the fate of the characters. This situation is facilitated by the widespread use of long-range scenes. The camera never approached characters closely.
Thus, it was almost impossible to discern the face of the house owner, which symbolized his detachment from the female characters. Sometimes Songlian was in a close-up. The girl seemed to be capable of experiencing the usual for the western culture emotions of jealousy, pride and repentance. Finally, Songlian strongly regretted the underestimation of the force of tradition. However, she understood the price of the tribute too late. At the same time, the person who was responsible for the maintenance of the tradition remained untouched and unaffected. The case of the two young wives might have taught him not to plunge into the relationships based on mere profit. However, the lord followed the tradition and inflated his sense of self-importance by taking a new young woman into the estate. This fact emphasizes impunity, unawareness of guilt and responsibility for the fate of the concubines. Taking into account that everyone has the right for life, the lord committed a crime that required tough justice. At the same time, in the light of the Chinese tradition, execution was the only right response to the woman’s infidelity.
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The Chinese culture is rich and versatile. It is attractive because of the refinement of feelings and the depth of emotions expressed in the art. This society developed and progressed as the result of the Confucian model that was always devoted to the common good of the family. However, being able to experience deep feelings, the Chinese people were traditionally put in the situation of self-sacrifice. Men were the beneficiaries of the male-oriented social hierarchy. They could experience a wide range of joys and opportunities, such as common respect and the maintenance of a large number of wives. On the contrary, after being married, a woman had no other choice than to submit to the will of her husband and new relatives. Her primary task was to bear a son and maintain a balanced co-existence with the other Sisters of the family. Those who refused to follow the tradition were condemned and doomed to negligence. The man could choose different women throughout his life, while the woman had to obey her fate and forget about sexuality and equal right for enjoyment in a loving relationship.