With Raise the Red Lantern, Chinese director Zhang Yimou has created one of the most beautiful Chinese films, presenting a bold and frightening parable in which women are ruled and governed in a hierarchical society of long-established customs. The film is set in 1920s China during the warlord era, years before the Chinese Civil War. Songlian is a nineteen year old college student whose father recently died leaving the family bankrupt, and her step mother is unwilling to support her. She is forced to drop out of college and ultimately comes to the decision to marry into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the Fourth Mistress of the household. The story takes place within the gray stone and tile walls of the Chen compound, where the Master lives in the central house and each of the four mistresses have a house of her own opening onto a central courtyard. They’re several rules and customs that each concubine must abide by, and every evening when The Master selects which mistress he will be spending the night with, a red lantern is placed outside her home. This 'chosen' mistress is then able to receive a foot massage and is allowed to determine the dinner menu for the next day. The Master is vaguely seen, and the household seems to operate at his will even at times when he is not present within the compound. So elusive is the husband’s presence that many audiences have stated that he is never even shown throughout the film, although he is onscreen in several shots, obscured through hanging veils, or shown from behind. (There is one distinct medium shot where we are even able to make out his face). The Master is purposely not developed into an individual or a fleshed out character, and is made to be merely a symbol, a symbol of patriarchal male dominance, as he seems to govern his wives as less of a loving husband, and more like a property owner. Immediately when entering the compound Songlian is met with much hostility and tension as liaisons are quickly formed, one is not who they originally seem to be, and each mistress competes with one another over The Masters attention and affections.
"Mother, stop! You've been talking for three days. I've thought it over. All right, I'll get married."
"Good! To what sort of a man?"
"What sort of man? Is it up to me? You always speak of money. Why shouldn't I marry a rich man?"
"Marry a rich man and you'll only be his concubine."
"Let me be a concubine. Isn't that a woman's fate?"
The film is set in 1920s China during the warlord era, years before the Chinese Civil War. Songlian ( Gong Li), whose father has recently died and left the family bankrupt, marries into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the Fourth Mistress of the household. Arriving at the palatial abode, one of the housekeepers named Chen Baishun tells Songlian that they sent a bridal sedan for her, but she decided to walk there herself.
A maid named Yan'er is watching clothes and when she discovers Songlian is the first mistress she rudely doesn't let her use the cleaning water. Yan'er is bitter because she originally thought that Master Chen would choose her to be his next mistress, but she is told that was born to be a servant. Songlian asks why there is so many red lanterns and Yan'er rudely says it's because she has arrived, setting her luggage at the door.
Songlian is immediately treated like royalty as servants give her lavish foot massages, do her hair, and light many luminous red lanterns outside her compound. Master Chen returns home later that evening and asks Songlian how the foot massage was saying, "A woman's feet is very important. When they feel comfortable, she is healthier and better able to serve her man." He asks her to raise one of the lanterns up close to her and says, "Educated girls are different. Now, undress and get into bed." The first night in bed together Songlian asks Master Chen if he can turn out the light, but he says he likes it bright and formal.
Early the next morning a servant knocks at Songlian's compound saying that the third mistress is sick and is asking for Master Chen. He tries to tell them that he will see her tomorrow, but the third mistress insists. "Damn! What is she up to? I'll have to go, or she won't let me sleep tonight."
The servants announce to order the lanterns to now be lit at the third mistress's compound. While Songlian is left alone, she looks at her reflection in the mirror and begins to cry.
The next morning Chen Baishun asks Songlian that according to their customs she should visit the other three mistresses saying, "The Chen family's custom's go back many generations. It is important that you obey them." Songlian tries to greet the third mistress but Chen Baishun tells her that it seems that her and Master Chen are still asleep.
Songlian goes to greet the first mistress of the Chen home named Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), who appears to be nearly as old as the master himself. Having born a son with Chen decades earlier, she seems resigned to live out her life as forgotten, always passed over in favor of the younger concubines. Yuru asks how old Songlian is and Songlian tells her she is nineteen. Yuru says that it is good Songlian is educated saying, "You'll get used to living here. Get on well with your sister. Serve the master well. You can go now." When leaving the first mistress compound Yuru says to herself, "Such sins, such sin..."
Songlian asks Chen Baishun how ancient the first mistress is and that she is looks about a hundred years old. The Second Mistress, Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifen), quickly befriends Songlian, as Zhuoyan immediately says how pretty Songlian is. Songlian tells Zhuoyan that she was a university student for six months but her father tragically died young and she couldn't no longer afford school. The two get friendly as Songlian tells Zhuoyan she is from Fengcheng, her father was in the tea business before he died, his business was closed down, and that her mother is really her step-mother. Zhuoyan asks Songlian if she enjoyed her foot massages and when Songlian asks her if that every night Zhuoyan says, "Silly! You can't have it whenever you wish. Where the master spends his nights, that mistress gets a foot massage and lighted lanterns. With a new wife as young and pretty as you, I'm afraid I won't be enjoying these privileges for quite some time." Songlian is introduced to Zhuoyan's daughter Yizhen. Zhuogyan also warns Songlian about the Third Mistress, Meishan (He Caifei), a former opera singer who is spoiled saying, "Ashing for the Master on your wedding night! So impolite to you!"
When Chen Baishun takes Songlian back to the third mistresses home, she is told she will see Songlian another day. When introduced to Meishan's son, she angrily turns her back and leaves. When Yan'er is set to be Songlian's maid, Songlian quickly takes that to her advantage and states that it looks like Yan'er has lice in her hair. Saying she also stinks, she orders Yan'er to go wash her hair, and to wash Songlian's clothes while she is at it.
While Yan'er goes to wash Songlian's clothes, she repeatedly spits in them. At dinner it is custom that all the mistresses sit with one another, which is where Songlian finally meets the third mistress Meishan. While eating Songlian tells Master Chen that she doesn't eat meat and according to custom, the mistress with the lighted lantern chooses what to eat. Another family custom is that all the mistresses must stand outside the main courtyard before the Master is about to go to bed, as he chooses which mistress he will spend the night with, and her compound is quickly lit with red lanterns.
After another night with Master Chen, he says to Songlian, "Well, lighted lanterns, foot massages...Do you like it here? After a few days you won't want to leave." Suddenly they are interrupted again by the third mistress who says she is sick again. Master Chen says he will see her tomorrow. That morning Songlian can hear Meishan singing out on the roof of the compound. Songlian can't believe that she said she was sick the night before but now sings at this hour. Master Chen says, "She sings when she's happy, cries when she's mad. That bitch! Never mind her."
Songlian angrily walks outside and in the open watches Meishan sing. When Meishan sees Songlian watching her they confront each other. "Did I wake you from our sweet dreams?" Meishan asks. Songlian insists that she continues but Meishan says she no longer feels like singing. When returning to her compound Songlian catches her servant Yan'er messing around with Master Chen. Furious, she tells Master Chen to leave. Master Chen asks if Songlian is sure she wants him to leave, because others are eager for footmassages.
Master Chen leaves and the servants blow out Songlian's lanterns and instead light them at Meishan's compound. Songlian confronts Yan'er on touching Songlian as she angrily kicks over the foot water.
That evening Songlian hears Meishan get a foot massage and sing for Master Chen. Songlian decides to roam the rooftop and Zhuoyan calls Songlian down asking her if she is unhappy and gives her a silk dress that she made for a gift. Songlian asks Zhuoyan what the mysterious room is up on the roof that is locked with a chain. Zhuoyon tells her it is the 'house of death' and that several women from past generations were hung there.
Since Meishan's compound was lit the other evening during dinner she gets to choose the foods, and she purposely chooses all meat products, and no vegetables. Songlian angrily storms off and heads back to her compound. Meishan comes by Songlian's and asks to join her for a game of mahjong, while Master Chen is away, and to not be petty. Songlian reluctantly accepts and the two women play with Mr. Wang and Dr. Gao, a regular visitor. While they play Dr. Gao plays one of Meishan's famous opera records as her entire compound is decorative of her past singing career. During the game Songlian drops a few chips, and while reaching down and picking them up she notices Dr. Gao and Meishan are playing footsie under the table.
When Master Chen arrives home and finds Songlian out of her compound he orders his servants to light the lanterns at the second house. Worried, Meishan reassures her that she is doing Zhuoyun a favor, as she is so lonely. When Dr. Gao asks Songlian why she didn't finish the university she says, "What's the use? I'm just one of the Master's robes. He can wear it or he can take it off." While Zhuoyan is giving Master Chen one of her great back massages she tells him that she wants to give him a son. (She is the only mistress of the three who hasn't."
When Master Chen spends another night at Songlian's compound she states that the place must be haunted because of that chained room where people have died. Master Chen says that two people who were having illicit affairs were hanged there in the past, and when Songlian suggests they were concubines Master Chen says, "Don't talk nonsense." When food is announced Songlian throws another tantrum and says that she wants the food served at her compound, which angers the other mistresses because it's against custom.
One morning Songlian goes out to listen to Yuru's oldest son Feipu (who seems to be around Songlian's age) play the flute. You can feel a form of sexual tension between the two of them. When Songlian looks for her father's flute it's nowhere to found. She immediately accuses Tan'er of stealing it, and decides to search her room. When upon entering she finds her place completely full of lit lanterns, which is against the rules because she is simply a servant. While searching her room Songlian comes across a voodoo doll of her with pins in them. "You've put a curse on me!" She yells furiously attacking Yan'er. She immedietly stops and apologizes for her behavior. But Songlian knows that Yan'er cannot read or write and she asks her who helped her write her name. At first Yan'er won't say but ultimately Songlian makes the shocking discovery that it was Zhuoyan who had helped her write it.
"Whom are you mad at now?" Master Chen asked Songlian. Songlian asks him where he placed her flute and he tells her he burned it because he thought it was from a boy from her university. "It's only a flute," he tells her. "I'll have them buy you several good ones." Songlian is furious and Master Chen hates nothing more than women who throw tantrums. Songlian tells Master Chen to go to Zhuoyan because she always wears a smile.
The servants light the lanterns for the second house, and the next day Zhuoyan comes by to ask Songlian to cut her hair for her because Master Chen told her she would look younger with short hair. While she begins to snip away at Zhuoyan's hair, Songlian purposely cuts a piece of Zhuoyan's ear and she is quickly assisted medical attention. Because of this Meishan comes by and befriends Songlian saying, "If I hated someone, I'd also cut her ear off. I'd cut it all off."
Meishan sits down and then tells Songlian to the truth about Zhuoyan saying, "Zhuoyun has a Buddha's face and a scorpion's heart. She's the truly wicked one. You think I'm against you. She's the one I hate the most. I'm no match for her. Perhaps you can do better. I thought so when I first saw you." Meishan then tells Songlian when her and Zhuoyan both became pregnant at the same time, Zhuoyan tried slipping some drugs into Meishan's food to have her cause a miscarriage. She didn't and Zhuoyan wanted to have her baby first so she ordered expensive injections to speed up the delivery. In the end, Meishan had her boy and Zhuoyan only had a daughter three afters after Meishan. She then warns Songlian that she better give Master Chen a son or she will be in for some hard times. "You may be a student, and I'm only an opera singer, but our fate is the same," Meishan tells Songlian.
Master Chen decides to spend a few nights with Zhuoyan because of her recent suffering, and Songlian arrives to apologize and Zhuoyan fakely accepts it. While Zhuoyan is getting her foot massage Yan'er is in her room with her own lighted lanterns with her feet up imagining she is getting her feet massaged. Songlian calls her in ordering Yan'er to massage her feet, but she says that she doesn't know how. Songlian tells her, "Leave it! If I can! Wait and see what I can do!"
Songlian announces to Master Chen that she is pregant and he happily orders the lanterns day and night as a symbol of longitivity. Because of Songlian's supposed pregnancy, she garners the majority of the Master's time and, at the same time, attempting to become actually pregnant. During dinner, Meishan eggs Zhuoyan on in that if Songlian has a boy, she will be very unhappy. Suddenly Chen Baishun is ordered to retrieve Zhuoyan, so she can give Songlian one of her great back massages, which Master Chen probably had told Songlian about.; which greatly upsets Zhuoyan.
However, Yan'er finds a pair of of bloodied undergarments when washing Songlian's clothes which suggests that Songlian's pregnancy is a fraud. Yan'er informs Zhuoyan of this, since the two are in league together, suggests to Master Chen to have Dr. Gao arrive and check give Songlian a routine checkup feigning concern for Songlian's pregnancy. Doctor Gao examines Songlian and determines the pregnancy to be a sham. Infuriated, Master Chen yells at Songlian saying, "Don't you know we have rules in this family? Rules we've been following for generations. How dare you!" He furuously orders Songlian's lanterns covered with thick black canvas bags indefinitely.
Blaming the sequence of events on Yan'er, Songlian finally reveals that Yan'er's room is filled with lit red lanterns, throwing them all on the pavement in front of everyone. "A servant secretly lighting lanterns in her room!'" shouts Songlian. "Doesn't this family has rules? Mistresses are mistresses! Maids are maids!" Since Master Chen is away at the moment Songlian asks Yuru to be the judge and she agrees to follow the old custom, and for Yan'er is punished and is ordered to remain kneeling in the snow throughout the night to watch her lamps burn. She is only allowed to get up off her feet if she agrees to apologizes, but she doesn't and ultimately she collapses and is immediately taken to the hospital.
Songlian retreats into solitude but one early morning Songlian watches Meishan sing. Meishan tells her, "Singing's all playacting. If you play well, you fool the others. If you play badly, you only fool yourself. If you can't even fool yourself, you can fool the ghosts." Meishan tells Songlian that she shouldn't have gone after Yan'er the way she did, as she only dreams of being a mistress. Songlian says, "She's only a scapegoat. I was after someone else. Light the lanterns, blow out the lanterns, cover the lanterns. What do I care. What do I amount to in this house?" Songlian begins to speak of suicide and Meshan tells her to not think about death saying, "Why worry how people are? Just go on living." Songlian says that it's easy for Meishan to be happy since she has Dr. Gao. Meishan tells Songlian to not joke about that or tell anyone, or she will have her to deal with.
Songlian is now assigned another maid, as she is told that Yan'er had died in the hospital, and that her last words of Songlian. Songlian says to herself, "Why cry? It's better to be dead than alive and suffering." Since it is Songlian's birthday, Songlian orders a bottle of wine and gets severely intoxicated and uncontrollable. Yuru's son Feipu comes to visit, and as much as Songlian wants to reach out to him, she is too intoxicated to do so. Her drinking continues and Songlian inadvertently blurts out the details of the love affair between Meishan and Doctor Gao to Zhuoyun; who then later catches the adulterous couple together in a hotel near town.
The next morning after recovering from a hangover, Songlian watches Meishan being gagged and carried by several of the servants into her compound. "I'm glad you told me yesterday. Or there would be such a scandle!" says Zhuoyan. Following the old customs and traditions, Meishan is hanged to death by the master's servants in the mysterious locked 'House of Death,' while Songlian witnesses the entire episode and is emotionally traumatized.
When she opens that locked house, she finds Meishan dead and Songlian screams out, "Murderers!!" Master Chen tries to calm Songlian down and asks her what she had seen. Songlian keeps repeating, "Murderers...Murderers.."
That evening the servants and house keepers are extremely frightened when the lanterns in Meishan's compound are lit, and they overhear her voice singing. Believing it is haunted by Meishan's dead spirit, the servants believe the house is haunted and quickly scramble out; Even though Songlian had lit the lanterns and played one of Meishan's records, as she sits in Meishan's compound for the remainder of the night.
THE NEXT SUMMER
The following summer, after the master's marriage to fifth concubine, while the new mistress is getting a foot massage, she asks who the mysterious woman is wandering around. She is told it is the fourth mistress who has gone mad. The last shot is of Songlian wandering her compound in her old schoolgirl clothes, having gone completely insane.
Chinese director Zhang Yimou was born in 1951 and was a member of the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese filmmakers who also began working after the Cultural Revolution, which delt with Chinese society in a more open and artistic away than what was permitted at the height of Maoism. Unfortunately not all of the generation's films were approved by Chinese authorities, and Raise the Red Lantern was originally banned in China for a period of time. Yimou made several other great films, including Sorghum about a young woman's life working on a distillery for sorghum liquor. To Live is set in the 1940s and tells the story of a wife's husband who loses his family entire property to gambling. Yimou's later films Hero and House of Flying Daggers are two beautifully shot martial art epics which are compared to the likes of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Raise the Red Lantern is still looked upon as Yimou's finest achievement and one of the greatest films ever made.
Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern is a bold and frightening parable in which women are ruled and governed in a hierarchical society of long-established customs. The film is set in 1920s China during the warlord era, years before the Chinese Civil War, as the story is divided into a prologue and four different segments. Songlian is a nineteen year old college student whose father recently died leaving the family bankrupt, and her step mother is unwilling to support her. She is forced to drop out of college and ultimately comes to the decision to marry into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the Fourth Mistress of the household. The entire story takes place within the gray stone and tile walls of the Chen compound, where the master lives in the central house and each of the four mistresses has a house of her own opening onto a central courtyard. They’re several rules and customs that each concubine must abide by, and every evening when The Master selects which mistress he will be spending the night with, a red lantern is placed outside her house. This 'chosen' mistress is then able to receive a foot massage and is allowed to determine the dinner menu for the next day. Raise the Red Lantern is all about Songlian's experiences as the audience watches her fight for her place among the mistresses, discover plots against her, and rails against a system that has been followed through several generations.
The film portrays marriage as a cold and disconnected tradition, as Master Chen never seems to express any intimate affection towards his new bride. Master Chen is vaguely seen, and the household seems to operate at his will even at times when he is not present within the compound. So elusive is the husband’s presence that many audiences have stated that he is never even shown throughout the film, although he is onscreen in several shots, obscured through hanging veils, or shown from behind. (There is one distinct medium shot where we are even able to make out his face). The Master is purposely not developed into an individual or a fleshed out character, and is made to be merely a symbol, a symbol of patriarchal male dominance, as he seems to govern his wives as less of a loving husband, and more like a property owner. It seems that the master visits his concubines not so much for his pleasure as to keep them all in their social places, and to remind them of their duties, one which of course is to produce male children.
Raise the Red Lantern is a gorgeously lush and elegant film, as the Master’s compound becomes the neutral backdrop in the story. The compound is sometimes covered with rain or snow, as the interiors of the four apartments are seen in rich bold colors, passionately and predominantly drowned in bright red, particularly the lofty red lanterns which is a symbol of passion and power. Much of the action takes place on the rooftops, which is a link to mysterious labyrinth of stairs and passageways including an ominous locked shed, where it is said women in the past who have been convicted of infidelity have been sent to their death. The film stars Gong Li, who starred in several of Zhang Yimou's earlier films including Ju Dou and To Live. Raise the Red Lantern made Li into an international star, as Yimou uses her beauty to become of the key subjects throughout the photography, presenting her as an enchanting and voluptuous beauty.
Raise the Red Lantern is said to be a veiled allegory against authoritarianism and sexual politics, as it explores such themes as the prisons of men, sex and money. The story expresses how one prominent young woman had ultimately sold herself to the wills of a man, and whose life is tragically now limited to the four walls of her hierarchical compound which is bounded by rules, customs, and traditions. The Chinese government didn't approve of the film and if you look beyond the surface of its story, this film can be looked at as a parable on the corruption of modern society in China. Songlian is the individual who is exploited, the master is the government that exploits her, and the customs of the house are the laws of the country she inhabits. It's an archaic system that rewards those who play within the rules and destroys those who violate them. The housekeeper Chen Baishun establishes to Songlian the rules and customs early on in the film, stating that they are extremely important rituals that go back several generations of the Chen family. These rules are extremely important to obey and it seems that anyone who violates such customs upsets the established order of the environment. (This theme is most obviously expressed in the sequence in which Songlian refuses to eat with the other three concubines, and instead orders her food to be served at her home which greatly upsets the other three women.)
The film depicts the struggle and competivity between the four concubines simply to receive an limited amount of attention from the Master, all the while being enslaved within the symmetrically designed compound of their environment. Upon entering the compound Songlian quickly learns of these rules in that whoever the master presently favors, they will be graced with lavish foot massages, and gloriously red lanterns which are lit in front of their home. The passionate competition among the three other concubines for the master's rewards soon entangles Songlian in a fierce battle for the winning of the red lanterns. This game simply starts out as a simple competitive strife but soon manifests itself into much more dangerous and devious themes such as deception, backstabbing, exploitation and even death, all within the confines of the Chen household.
The world of Raise the Red Lantern is controlled by the husband Master Chen, who can manipulate and mold the events within the surroundings as he seems fit, and whoever disrupts these types of events are easily punished. Because the mistresses are bound in a form of slavery with no way of controlling situations or events, this leads them to try to compete for control and power among each other. Even if it seems all four concubines hate this man, and hate the imprisonment that was engulfed by them, they all try their best to present their love for him, simply as a way to get one up on each other. This is typically what happens when people become enslaved within an environment that is completely out of their control, in that they become their own worst enemy, accept the order and establishment, and in turn try to dictate and empower the ones who are their equals. These competitive power struggles are greatly similar to the environments within prisons and even the work field, because when people feel they are enslaved, they feel more empowered by bickering, backstabbing, and forming liaisons among other people. (We all have met that one co-worker who seemed extremely nice in the beginning, who later turns out to be anything but...)
Politics can be mainly concerned with the distribution of power relationships within a hierarchy, as Master Chen is the one with the highest amount of control and power among every other player in the story. It seems that when he is not present the oldest mistress Yuru or to the other mistresses known as Big Sister seems to be the next in command, (as she is the one who allows Songlian to cruelly punish Yan'er, and to have Yan'er's lanterns publicly burned while the Master is away). Yuru is an aging woman with a son named Feipu who is around Songlian's age. Yuru does her best to ignore Songlian's presence, and no longer seems to bother trying to be competitive for the Master's attention. She is older, much more wise, and more or less doesn't stress with petty things. The third concubine Meishan, is a beautiful ex-opera singer, and is a fiercely jealous and competitive individual, who is immediately worried that the master will find his new, educated bride much more enticing.
The second concubine Zhuoyan is the most ruthless and cunning, immediately offering friendship and kindness to Songlian on arrival, or so it initially seems. Zhuoyan is also in competiton for the Master's affection, and is much more sly in deceiving her opponents. She instantly befriends Songlian with compliments and by offering her silk as a way to gain her trust, which we learn shortly after are tools she will use against Songlian, to ultimately destroy her. As the film slowly begins to unfold, the audience comes to learn more about each player's intentions, and we discover that not only is Meishan not as bad as she originally seems, but that Zhuoyan is the true enemy, a women so bent on having the Master all to herself, that she will plot to poison and harm the other mistresses, all so they won't be able to give the Master the son that Zhuogyan cannot give him. Like Meishan had said to Songlian: "Zhuoyun has a Buddha's face and a scorpion's heart. She's the truly wicked one." Fortunately Songlian soon learns the truth about Zhuoyan's deceitful intentions when searching Yan'er's room and coming across the discovery of a voodoo doll with her name printed across it. Songlian knows that Yan'er cannot read or write and she asks her who helped her write her name. Believing it to be Meishan or Yuru, she is greatly shocked and hurt to learn that it was Zhuoyan who had helped her write it, the only one who has befriended Songlian since arriving to the compound.
There is a hierarchical power struggle also between the mistresses and of their servants, and if the Master can control and dominate the mistresses, the concubines surely can control and dominate the servants. Immediately Songlian and her servant Yan'er get off on the wrong start, as Yan'er is extremely bitter and jealous that she had been turned down in becoming the Master's fourth concubine. Besides her spatting in Songlian's clothes, Songlian also walks in to catch Yan'er and the Master groping one another, which causes their immediate dislike to worsen. Yan'er secretly has her room decorated to resemble those of a concubine, and will at times fantasize about the luxurious lifestyle that a concubine's life brings. When Songlian discovers that Yan'er and Zhuoyan were in league together when her supposed pregnancy is exposed as a sham, Songlian decides to get her revenge on Yan'er by exposing Yan'er's room of lit lanterns, which is forbidden against servants. "Doesn't this family has rules? Mistresses are mistresses! Maids are maids!" Songlian will not allow herself to be subjected to the family rules without Yan'er being subjected to the rules as well. Yuru agrees to follow the old custom, and Yan'er is punished because of her lit lanterns, ordered to remain kneeling in the snow throughout the night until she apologizes. Yan'er will not give in, which ultimately causes her to collapse and later die when taken to the hospital.
There is not one character throughout the story who makes Songlian genuinely happy, besides for Yuru's oldest son Feipu. Songlian seems to be happy when watching Yuru play the flute early one morning, as it immediately brings up memories of her deceased father who had taught Songlian to play the flute at a young age. The sequence later when Songlian is drunk and belligerent on her 20th birthday, has Songlian feel the need to want to reach out to Feipu, and he seems to want to do the same. The two can feel the love that they have for another, but the two hold back these urges because of their circumstances. When Feipu decides to leave it seems as if Songlian is begging for him to stay and keep her company, but she either is unable to express any of her feelings, or feels the need to repress them. Meishan however doesn't care to abide by such rules and customs, and is secretly having an affair with Dr. Gao. Songlian inadvertently exposes this secret love affair to Zhuoyan when highly intoxicated, which leads Zhuoyan in catching Meishan at a hotel with Dr. Gao. Infidelity is an unforgivable act within the Chen household and like other women in the past, Meishan's punishment is death.
Ultimately, rules and the roles that we inhabit are a large importance within our society. The rules and roles that are performed by the women in Raise the Red Lantern are dictated by hundred-year old traditions and customs, which unfortunately shape the behaviors and thoughts of the women within that household. For example, in the concubine-master relationship, the concubines always bear in mind that they are always competing for the affections of one man. They try to please him and make him happy, usually by using their skills, looks and wits, to do whatever they can in having him choose them to spending the night. Competition becomes so intense among the mistresses that serving another mistress who was equally in pursuit of the Master’s attention is certainly something they don't want to do, and only do it to please the Master. (This was highly evident in the scene when Zhuoyun was very reluctant in giving Songlian a back massage.) There is some power that can go along with the position of the mistresses, as they are the ones that are able to give the Master his needed sons. For a while Songlian held a power among everyone else including the Master within the compound, when it was believed that she was pregnant with the Masters child. Once it was discovered that it was all a lie, the Master furiously ordered all of Songlian's lantern's to be covered with black canvas bags. One of the main objectives in being a mistress is to competitively try to win the affections of the Master, and once that goal is nonexistence the mistress ceases to have a purpose. This explains why Songlian decides to get intoxicated and highly belligerent, because she no longer has nothing to give to anyone, and she no longer cares how erratic her actions become.
The embededness of incentives and rewards, such as the lavish foot massages, scores of red lanterns being lit, and the favors of the Master, within these family norms and traditions greases the engine of competition among the four wives and at the same time, affirms the stability of such rules. Why is it that whenever we win a competition we express our outright gratitude to someone else other than ourselves? Instead of thanking ourselves, we appreciate the role our family, friends, coach, or even God, and we tend to forget ourselves on the accomplishments we have achieved. And whenever we fail, we often blame ourselves. Are we just being unselfish or has society dictated us in doing so?
There is a feminist message brewing throughout the story of Raise the Red Lantern, primarily the theme of wealth which is the main reason why the Master has complete power and why the women are oppressed in the story. Because of this wealth and the economic power that the Master embodies, this gives him an advantage to others who are poorer than him, as he can set the parameters of the rules and also define the behaviors of others. The Master buys women similar to a land owner purchasing property, and whenever he gets tired of his objects, he purchases another one which is much younger and livelier, and simply discards the older one. And yet the established social roles created for women aren't simply the work of men, but they also seem to stem for how they are portrayed and looked upon within society. Such female individuals within society who don't seem to culturally define these standards of normalcy are usually labeled as deviant or even mentally ill and are simply ignored. And so, in this strictest intuitive sense, sharing the suggestion of many existential philosophers, we can label society as evil and the main cause in how we are shaped in the ways we view others and the world.
On the issue of women's rights with Raise the Red Lantern, it's quite difficult to recognize any violations that were perpetrated by the Master, simply because Songlian in the beginning of the film made a personal choice to become a concubine. Since Songlian received a certain level of education at a university, she must have possessed some form of knowledge what concubines were, and how they were treated. And so, if anyone is really to blame for Songlian's current predicament, we can either blame Songlian, or even her stepmother who seemed to no longer want to support Songlian's education after the unfortunate passing of Songlian's father. As the film progresses, the audience can see how the concubines are being pampered by the master, as they're provided with their basic necessities such as shelter, food, clothing, servants, etc. They receive all these things in exchange for offering their body to the Master which can label the Master as a violator of women's rights. All the character's within the film were bounded by family rules, customs and traditions, and yet there were those who chose to challenge those rules, ultimately having to deal with the consequences of their actions. For instance, Yang had to kneel on the snow until she admitted that she was wrong in secretly lighting lanterns in her room which led to her death; Meishan had to be hanged secretly in the locked shed at the top of the roof after the discovery of her affair with Dr. Gao; and Songlian no longer won the Master’s affection anymore after deceiving everyone about a fake pregnancy. In the end Songlian cannot accept the reality of the third concubine being murdered, and in retort, one way for her to stop responding to the dictation of society all the while protecting herself from punishment for non compliance is to become insane. And yet family rules continue despite resistance and punishment, as the fifth mistress arrives at the end of the film and the unfortunate cycle of oppression continues.