Given her exposure to the wider world, Songlian feels betrayed that she must become the fourth wife in a cheerless homestead of a wealthy landowner. The wives’ living quarters are along both sides of the courtyard. Traditionally, the Master requires the lighting of a red lantern outside the apartment of the wife he is to visit on that particular night. Paradoxically, Songlian is forced to entice her husband even though she does not like being around him. In fact, the fourth wife has since noticed that the others resort to manipulation and deceit in order to retain the interest of the elderly Master. They do this because a wife’s status in this family is determined by how much Master Chen regards them.
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The Historical Background
The movie takes place in the 1920s and during what used to be known as the Warlord Era in the Republic of China. The recent death of a father has left the family destitute, and as a result, the 19-year-old educated girl is forced to become the fourth wife of Master Chen (World Films 2015). This is the period when warlords have taken control of the country in the wake of the power vacuum brought about by the demise of dictator Yuan Shikai (Pecic 2016, 32-3). Although the warlords have significant power and influence, many lack the resources needed to bankroll their troops.
The troops take to such actions as kidnapping, extortion, and outright robbery. Strange as it may seem, Songlian is actually lucky to have been married in view of the fact that women are routinely being raped and/or condemned to sexual slavery (Pecic 2016, 107). Given the circumstances surrounding her father’s death, and the fact that concubines are commonplace during this era, Songlian’s stepmother seems to have acted in her daughter’s best interests. Master Chen has the capacity to protect her from sexual abuse, enslavement, or other kinds of dangers that are synonymous with lawlessness.
Of all the wives, only Songlian has been forced into this marriage. In addition, she is unique because nobody else has formal education, and these are probably the two most significant reasons why she struggles to fit in. While she is fascinated with the world, Songlian must settle for life in the compound. The only people she interacts with are the servants, Master Chen, and his family. Her pessimistic sadness is exacerbated by the fact that she does not get along with Yan’er, her maid (World Films 2015). No amount of luxury in the home can alleviate the desolation.
A few days after she arrives in the family, Songlian starts divergent relationships with the co-wives. Yuru is an aging first wife and has an adult son called Feipu. She opts to largely ignore the presence of Songlian, possibly because she has been used to sharing her husband with concubines. The third wife is the flip side of the first one as she is fierce and intolerant of Songlian. Meishan was an opera singer and is evidently worried that Master Chen will fall for Songlian’s charms. Zhuoyun is the second wife, and she seems to be a kind and friendly person (World Films 2015). The film depicts an ever-shifting power base where the concubines win through duplicity and guile.
Although the concubines have multi-faceted personalities, each of them is often cold and calculating. This seems to be the only way to survive the demands of the ritual-saturated environment. Songlian, for instance, is worried that Yan’er may one day replace her as the youngest concubine. The maid has such ambitions, and she is Master Chen’s favorite among the servants (World Films 2015). This is what drives Songlian into causing bodily harm to the maid.
Significant Cultural Events
Master Chen’s wives live luxuriously seeing that they are pampered with massages, quality food, and top-notch care. Because the services they get are at the whim of Master Chen, however, they all must bow to his wishes. The entire household appears to be an extension of Master Chen’s will. His dominance makes him appear to be present even in his absence (Pecic 2016, 39-40). Indeed, while he is only in long shots, obscured behind the veils, or indistinct; his patriarchal supremacy is unmistakable.
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Gender roles during the Warlord Era are predominantly influenced by Confucianism. Women must abide by The Three Obediences and Four Virtues. The Three Obediences are that women obey their fathers prior to their marriage, their husbands upon getting married, and their sons in the aftermath of their husbands’ deaths (Pecic 2016, 32; Taylor 2014, 76-7). These Obediences are not enough, and this is why they are coupled with the Four Virtues.
Even as they obey, women are required to embody basic goodness, and this is what is defined by the Four Virtues. The Virtues include morality, apt speech, modesty in manners, and diligence in needlework. The virtues are precisely meant to make women subservient to men (Taylor 2014, 78). They cannot work, and hence are to forever remain as economic captives who rely on the goodwill of the men in their lives. Women must not end the marriage, irrespective of how painful the experience is. This is the situation Songlian has to endure for the rest of her life. Even when Master Chen dies, all his surviving wives must continue living with his family (Pecic 2016, 45). Therefore, none of them will ever achieve the kind of freedom desired by Songlian.
Resolution of the Conflict
The relationship between the Master and his concubines is not for pleasure. Indeed, the Master constantly reminds the concubines of their place, as well as their duty to bear male children. Being Feipu’s mother, Yuru has achieved the feat desired by many women of the time. She is protective of the son because she knows that having him has greatly improved her status. For example, when she finds out that Songlian and Feipu are together on the rooftop, she quickly summons him (World Films 2015). Songlian is jolted back to the reality that she will never love and marry such a handsome and youthful man.
Feipu ultimately leaves and this, in addition to Yan’er’s death, reignites Songlian’s state of solitude. She starts to envy Yan’er who is no longer required to cope with the depravity of life. When Meishan is condemned for having an affair with Doctor Gao, Songlian starts to get haunted by her horrific death. A fifth wife arrives and by this time, Songlian is disheveled. She mumbles to herself, and a servant says that she has gone mad (Pecic 2016, 110; World Films 2015). The film ends with her being emotionally and mentally exhausted and, therefore, the conflict remains unresolved.
Songlian has difficulties fitting into the polygamous household of Master Chen. She is educated, and she feels as if her stepmother erred in demanding this marriage. Nonetheless, the family is in a precarious situation following the death of Songlian’s father. The Warlord Era is the period in China when women needed protectors, and the stepmother finds Master Chen suitable for that role. Songlian resents her fate, especially the fact that she has to compete with three other women over the attention she does not even crave. Nevertheless, this is a dangerous time, and culture has sealed her fate.
Pecic, Zoran L. 2016. New Queer Sinophone Cinema: Local Histories, Transnational Connections. New York City: Springer.
Taylor, Rodney L. 2014. Confucianism. New York City: Infobase Publishing.
World Films. 2015, “Raise the red lantern | Zhang Yimou (1991).” Web.