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Women, are they really liberated?

  Women


Foreword

The role of women in Chinese cinema has changed over time. In this paper, I will try to research on the changing image and role of women in Chinese cinema by performing a comparative analysis of two representative films in the 1940s and 1990s, A Spring River Flows East and Ju Dou, using reference and evidence from various related articles including Brett Sutcliffe's "A Spring River Flows East: Progressive' Ideology and Gender Representation", Paul G. Pickowicz's Victory as Defeat: Postwar Visualizations of China's War of Resistance, Mary Ann Farquhar's "Oedipality in Red Sorghum and Judou", Shuqin Cui's Gendered Perspective: The Construction and Representation of Subjectivity and Sexuality in Ju Dou, and Wang Ban's Desire and Pleasure in Revolutionary Cinema.

My analysis will focus on Sufen and Ju Dou, the two respective female protagonists in A Spring River Flows East and Ju Dou. I believe that although there is a progressive change in the depiction of female characters from A Spring River Flows East to Ju Dou, due to social and historical context, the underlying principle remains unchanged indeed. Women are still unable to surpass the boundary of traditional patriarchy in Chinese cinema. In the first half of this paper, I will briefly introduce the two characters Sufen and Ju Dou, and illustrate their differences in terms of their entrance to the family, their suicides and their romantic relationships with their men. While in the remaining portion, I will point out their similarities and how they are the same in my opinions.


Sufen and Ju Dou

Spring River Flows East was made in 1947 after the end of the war. The story is about the romantic relationship between Zhang Zhongliang and Sufen, and how their lives are impacted by the war. The image of Sufen follows the traditional Chinese conception of a virtuous wife and good mother. As Brett Sutcliffe writes in his essay "A Spring River Flows East: Progressive' Ideology and Gender Representation", "the image of Sufen as the ever faithful and hardworking wife and mother, conforms most closely to the traditional image of the virtuous wife and good mother (xianqi liangmu)" (Sutcliffe p. 9). She is loyal to her husband, Zhongliang, as well as to Zhongliang's mother and their son. During the wartime when she is separated from her husband, she works very hard to take good care of Zhongliang's mother and their son. Throughout the film, we keep seeing her washing dishes, cleaning the house, cooking meals and playing with children. She never complains, or forgets her duty as a faithful wife and mother.

Ju Dou was made in 1990 by the fifth generation director Zhang Yimou. It is about the romantic relationship between Ju Dou and Tianqing, an adopted member of the family headed by Jinshan, the owner of a dye factory. But it is not a normal romantic relationship. As Sheldon Lu suggests in his essay National Cinema,Cultural Critique, Transnational Capital: The Films of Zhang Yimou, "the illicit, incestuous' affair between Ju Dou and Tianqing is a transgression of the laws of the patriarchal system, which is represented by Yang Jinshan and the whole Yang clan" (Lu p. 114). This relationship is incestuous and immoral because of two reasons. First, Ju Dou is a married woman. She is supposed to be loyal to her husband. Having an affair with another man signifies the violation of this marital commitment. Second, Ju Dou is the auntie of Tianqing, their relations in the family are vertical. That means, Tianqing is supposed to respect Ju Dou as a maternal figure, any sexual relationship between them can be viewed as the transgression of this vertical relation. Although the background of the story of Ju Dou is set in the 1920s, it reflects the contemporary Chinese conception rather than the traditional attitudes. Ju Dou is a rebellious character who rejects traditional conception of a virtuous wife and good mother. Throughout the film, her behaviors are outrageous. She always complains her husband Jinshan and shows no respect by regarding him as a "Lao Bu Xi", which literally means "old but still not dead". She also seduces her nephew Tianqing and propels their sexual relationship that ends up with the birth of an illegitimate son, Tianbai. After Jinshan is paralysed in the middle of the film, she even puts him into a bucket and makes him aware of her sexual relationship with Tianqing, and that Tianbai is not his son indeed. Compared with Sufen, Ju Dou is exactly an opposite in terms of the general conception of a good wife and mother in China.


Love?

It is interesting to compare how Sufen and Ju Dou are brought into the family. As Brett Sutcliffe summarizes the story of A Spring River Flows East, "Zhongliang declares love to factory girl Li Sufen and soon afterwards they are married and have a baby, named Kang'er. With the outbreak of war, Zhongliang is sent to the front and Sufen and her mother-in-law return to Zhongliang's home town to live with his father and brother, Zhongmin" (Sutcliffe p.9). Their matrimony is a practice of free choice marriage that is against the traditional practice of arranged marriage since they fall in love and decide to get married themselves. There is no external driving force (i.e. from their parents) at all. I think it is related to the progressive movement proposed in China in the early 1920s. As Sutcliffe writes, "With the May Fourth reform movement, the practice of arranged marriage was abolished and free marriage instituted by law. The 1931 KMT and CCP (Chinese Communist Party) Marriage Laws both continued provisions for free choice marriage and divorce" (Sutcliffe).

While in Ju Dou, with the background of the 1920s, the matrimony is a clear example of arranged marriage. As Shuqin Cui writes, "the dye-house owner, Yang Jinshan, an old and cruel man, purchases a beautiful young woman, Ju Dou, in expectation of her bearing him a male heir. Impotent and hostile, however, he uses his new wife as slave labor during the day and abuses her at night for failing to bear him a child" (Lu p. 304). Ju Dou and Jinshan do not have any romantic relationship at all. Their marriage is arranged by Jinshan in order to provide a family lineage. It fits the traditional conception of marriage in China, in which the biggest value of a wife is to bear children for the family. As Sutcliffe writes, "In the feminist critique of Chinese tradition, marriage has been seen as a primary site for women's subordination. As the ultimate of exchange commodities, women were highly valued for providing a family lineage" (Sutcliffe p.10). As I have said above, it is interesting because the progressive marriage in A Spring Rive Flows East ends up with the regressive tradition of suicide of Sufen. On the contrary, in Ju Dou, the regressive marriage results in the suicide of Ju Dou triggered by progressive attitude. In my opinions, the transitions from progressive to regressive attitude and vice versa are probably arranged by the filmmakers in order to maximize the dramatic tension of the story.


 Spring River Flows East   Ju Dou


Suicide!

The suicides of Sufen and Ju Dou represent two different sets of value and conception entirely. Sufen commits suicide because she realizes that Zhongliang is not going to give up his prosperous life, which is provided by his new wife Lizhen. For Chinese tradition, a wife does not have the right to divorce or become independent, because such actions are viewed as immoral and a departure from the patriarchal dominated family. Therefore the only option available to Sufen is to give up her life. As Brett Sutcliffe suggests, "In traditional China, the motivation for suicide was based on a code for moral uprightness that placed a high honor on the maintenance of chastity. Such were the codes of honor set by traditional Chinese society that individuals may have sought death in preference to an illegitimate' existence. ... When we consider the possible alternatives to her suicide - divorce and independence, both of which represent a clear break from dependence on a patriarchal dominated family, suicide then becomes the only means by which the text can reassert control over the fate of women and contain them within the confines of a patriarchal moral code" (Sutcliffe p.11).

Ju Dou's suicide is much different from the former one. Her suicide is not triggered by her will to maintain chastity or morality. It is rather an emancipation from the traditional conception of morality. As Shuqin Cui suggests, "with no way out from under the blanketing power of the feudal system, Ju Dou sets a fire that sends the dye factory and her years of longing for liberation up in the smoke" (Lu p. 305). Throughout the film, Ju Dou's sexual desire is always oppressed. She is forbidden to get married with the man she loves even after her husband is dead. At the end of the film after Jinshan is dead, Ju Dou and Tianqing are still unable to announce their relationship to the clan. What they choose to do is to continue the love affair secretly. They steal outside to make love in the wild and in the tunnel. In addition to this, she is also prohibited to express her own thought and stance. For example, in Jinshan's funeral, Ju Dou and Tianqing are forced to block the coffin forty-nine times in order to show their respect for Jinshan. Applying Shuqin Cui's analysis, "a worm's eye-view shot of the coffin and two figures prostrating themselves and rolling under declares the authority of the dead and the subordination of the living" (Lu p. 322). That means, even though Jinshan is dead, there is still no way out for Ju Dou to escape from this patriarchal system she is trapped in. Her suicide, on the other hand, is viewed as a liberation because it is the only moment in the film when she is allowed to make a decision herself and take control of her own destiny. It is also the only moment when she is not required to care about traditional conception or the criticism of the others, since her death means a total detachment from the world.


Matrimonial life...

In terms of the matrimonial life of the couples depicted in the films, it seems that Sufen and Zhongliang's love is more spiritual than Ju Dou and Tianqing's. As Chris Berry writes about the director of A Spring River Flows East Cai Chusheng in the Appendix of his book Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, he refers him as a leftist director who "helped to establish the openly leftist Kunlun Film Studio, which worked against the Nationalist Guomindang government" (Berry p.187). A Spring River Flows East was a product of this studio. It is a revolutionary film that aims at promoting the Communist culture. Based on this origin of production, I would then like to apply Wang Ban's analysis about love in revolutionary films in his article Desire and Pleasure in Revolutionary Cinema. He proposes that "in the revolutionary film, real images of love and affection are not to be found in depictions of sexual love between man and woman, even though such images are not wanting. ... The most compelling spectacles in the revolutionary film are the scenes of warm family relations, the emotional bonding of comradeship and brotherhood, the festive conviviality of the revolutionary collective" (Wang p. 136). Because the aim of the film is to promote a collective comradeship, it explains why viewers do not see any explicit depiction of sexual relationship between Sufen and Zhongliang throughout the film, and why Zhongliang's brother Zhongmin's comradely relationship with his friends are highly praised. Zhongmin is like a role model who leads an exemplary and fruitful life in the film. Moreover, when Sufen is detained in the concentration camp, she always shows love and compassion to other inmates and tries to help them as much as she can. In regard to her family, she takes good care of her mother-in-law and her son in order to maintain a warm family relation. There are more depictions of her concern for these people than her romantic relationship with Zhongliang.

In Ju Dou, Ju Dou and Tianqing's love is totally different. Their romance is mainly constructed through an explicit portrayal of sexual intercourse. Sexuality plays a very important role in this film. While seduction and love-making scenes are shown again and again throughout the film, Zhang Yimou also utilizes different cinematic techniques to reinforce the connotation of sexuality powerfully. For instance, the use of color and point-of-view structure are remarkable. In terms of color, Mary Ann Farquhar has done an interesting analysis in her article Oedipality in Red Sorghum and Ju Dou. She proposes that "sexuality in Ju Dou is primarily described through color in Ju Dou's clothes and the vibrant rolls of dyed cloth which hang suspended in the factory" (Farquhar p. 336). In sum, she believes that the colors of Ju Dou and Tiangqing's clothes at different moments of the film are related to different stages of their relationships. The names of the characters, like Jinshan, Tianqing, also have specific association with different colors that connote their social and moral status brilliantly (Farquhar p. 336). In terms of the point-of-view structure and the concept of male gaze, Shuqin Cui's analysis is comprehensive. As Cui writes, "shot/reverse shots keep Ju Dou and Tianqing in separated frames. Tianqing is often set against a background of darkness. ... In contrast to the framing of Tianqing, Ju Dou appears in a position of sexual power. The sense of power and its perversion involves a carefully framed composition between the female figure and the objects around her" (Lu p. 315). Contrary to A Spring River Flows East in which any explicit or implicit implication of sexuality is strongly prohibited by the filmmakers, Zhang Yimou addresses the issue of sexuality diversely and comprehensively in Ju Dou. Not only is the sexual desire and the act of sexual intercourse being emphasized, the motives and the sexual power of the characters are also being examined carefully. Moreover, the use of Jinshan as the impotent husband and Tianbai as Tianqing's competitor of Ju Dou's love complicate the romance and turn it into a power struggle against the social and cultural context in China. While for A Spring River Flows East, the romance is very pure and straightforward. Sufen's son only wants to reunite with his father. There is absolutely no sense of antagonism involved. Although Zhongliang has an affair with two other women in the film, Sufen is not aware of that until the end of the film; his second wife Lizhen is also not aware of his mistress. It seems that the filmmakers do not want to raise this issue overtly since power struggle of sexuality is not the theme of the film. It is rather the representation of femininity that the filmmakers want to emphasize. Because Zhongliang is never criticized or physically hurt, it seems that this representation of femininity is positioned within a patriarchal society that is different from Ju Dou in which Ju Dou is trying to overthrow the domination of patriarchy by torturing Jinshan and seducing Tianqing in order to become the real figure in charge at home.


Illusion?

Judging from all the reasons above, it seems that there is really an obvious change in the depiction of female characters from A Spring River Flows East to Ju Dou. But I think it is not exactly true. When I examined the cotents of the films more carefully, I found out that Sufen and Ju Dou are still unable to liberate from the patriarchal dominated society.

As I have mentioned above, Sufen is a victim of the patriarchal dominated society. Although the film is about the representation of femininity, it is positioned within a patriarchal society. In his article Victory as Defeat: Postwar Visualizations of China's War of Resistance, Paul G. Pickowicz proposes that men are impotent in the film. "Men were not able to prevent the Japanese invasion and, after the war, were not able to reunite the nation. ... If ware brought out the worst in men, it appears to have brought out the best in Chinese women, at least according to these popular postwar visualization. The picture of wartime China shows patriarchal norms and the family institution itself to be in serious disarray, ... men are irresponsible and unpredictable, while women are strong and capable" (Pickowicz p. 389). I do not completely agree with what he says. Although women appear stronger and more capable than men in the film, it is very important to realize that the underlying principle, that the society is still strongly dominated by patriarchal figures, remains unchanged at all. Although Zhongliang is irresponsible and unpredictable, the filmmakers never try to accuse him of being immoral explicitly, nor does he receive any punishment throughout the film. It is rather the women, Sufen and Lizhen, who are the suffering ones. It is especially obvious for the case of Sufen. Her suicide indicates the failure of liberating from patriarchy. As Brett Sutcliffe writes, "suicide then becomes the only means by which the text can reassert control over the fate of women and contain them within the confines of a patriarchal moral code" (Sutcliffe p.11).

Similar to Sufen, Ju Dou's actions are also strongly oppressed by the patriarchal dominated society. Failure of men are also stressed in Ju Dou. The two male protagonists are weak. Jinshan is an impotent and infertile figure while Tianqing is a representative of masculine inferiority whose actions and behaviors are always controlled by Ju Dou. It seems that patriarchy is totally destroyed by the failure of these two male characters. But it is not the end yet. The emergence of Tianbai in the later portion of the film reverts the order of patriarchy. As Shuqin Cui writes, "Tianbai's acceptance of Jinshan as his father comes from comprehending Jinshan's symbolic patriarchal authority... He keeps Ju Dou in an imagined castrated stage by disrupting her sexual affair with Tianqing... The virtue and positions so specific to certain relationships are fixed; ... it can be read as a search for lost male subjectivity and masculinity" (Lu p. 324). That means, although there is a short period in the middle of the film when Ju Dou almost succeeds in overturning the ruling of patriarchy, it still turns out to be a failure eventually. Tianbai has brought everything back to order by eliminating everything that is destructive to the patriarchal dominated society. In the end, Ju Dou still attempts to liberate from patriarchy by committing suicide. Zhang Yimou does not let viewers know whether she is dead or not. Therefore whether her liberation is a success or failure remains open. In regard to my analysis above, I would tend to believe that patriarchy is restored eventually. Because whether Ju Dou is dead or not, Tianbai, the remaining male figure, is still a guardian of the patriarchal dominated society, and he will soon take over to be the head of the household. That means, the root of patriarchy will still remain unchanged. Everything will be back to normal again. Moreover, Ju Dou's revolution is not that successful actually. For instance, in Jinshan's funeral, Ju Dou and Tianqing are forced to block the coffin forty-nine times in order to show their respect for Jinshan. That means, even though Jinshan is dead, there is still no way out for Ju Dou to escape from this patriarchal system she is trapped in. In addition, as Shuqin Cui writes, "as Ju Dou and Tianqing taste the pleasure of the love affair, they are haunted by the fear of violating ritual principles - especially the principles of chastity for woman and filial piety" (Lu p. 316), in which all of these principles are withheld and regulated by the patriarchal clan of the village they live in.


Conclusion

Although the depiction of female characters do consist certain changes due to the progressive evolution of social and historical context, the underlying principle remains unchanged. I believe that after forty years, from A Spring River Flows East to Ju Dou, women are still restricted within the same boundary of patriarchal dominated society and traditional conception. There is still no way out for women to liberate genuinely.


written by Kantorates


Work Cited

Berry, Chris. Appendix 1: Major Directors. Perspective on Chinese Cinema. BFI Publishing, 1997

Cui, Shuqin. Gendered Perspective: The Construction and Representation of Subjectivity and Sexuality in Ju Dou. Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender(Ed. by Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu). University of Hawai'i Press, 1997

Farquhar, Mary Ann. "Oedipality in Red Sorghum and Judou" . Cinemas. Universite de Montreal, 1993

Lu, Sheldon Hsiao-peng. National Cinema,Cultural Critique, Transnational Capital: The Films of Zhang Yimou. Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity, Nationhood, Gender (Ed. by Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu). University of Hawai'i Press, 1997

Pickowicz, Paul G.. Victory as Defeat: Postwar Visualizations of China's War of Resistance. Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond. University Of California Press, Berkeley, 2000

Sutcliffe, Brett. "A Spring River Flows East: Progressive' Ideology and Gender Representation". Screening the Past. Internet, 1995

Wang, Ban. Desire and Pleasure in Revolutionary Cinema. The Sublime Figure of History; Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China. Stanford University Press, 1997