PRINT March 1992


IT IS THE 1920s. When a 19-year-old woman must abandon college after her father dies, she accepts a marriage offer from a wealthy older man. Her unsympathetic stepmother notes that if she marries this man she “will only be a concubine”: then “let me be a concubine,” the girl retorts, “Isn’t that a woman’s fate?” One year later the marriage has reduced her to insanity.

The stark simplicity of this tale, the natural inevitability of its four-act structure—summer, autumn, winter, and summer (alas! no spring)—along with the static, symmetrical series of views through which it is told suggest the classicism of Greek tragedy. Meanwhile the theme of domestic constraint turns Greek agon into feminist narrative. But the setting is northern China. The ingenue, Songlian, is Chinese. The old master already has three wives. And the tale itself is a movie made by director Zhang Yimou. His lead actress, Gong Li, must also be seen as his collaborator.

Difficult to know how this film, Raise the Red Lantern, reads in a culture that approves the so-called “feminine” qualities of “restraint, introversion, refinement” at the same time that “women have traditionally been scaled down to the lowest stratum.” Where “masculine” assertiveness and braggadocio are repudiated but “feminine” passivity is linked to a poor national self-image dating back to accusations of drug-enhanced cowardice in the face of foreign invasion. Where male backlash against the modern Chinese state’s official policy of gender equality is hard to distinguish from liberatory attempts to “unrepress” the masculine, and where, above all, the opposition of the subject, the individual, to the collective is only in the process of being constructed.1

Turning the spyglass around, it’s also difficult to say whether the shallow relief in which the film casts China’s traditional ceremoniousness is not made into deep vistas by the addition of subtitles and a Western audience’s notions of the “mysterious” East. Likewise, how are we to interpret Songlian’s power struggle in the four-wife household: as a heroic attempt at self-actualization—a Western-style struggle for identity—or as a refusal of community responsibility? Zhang has likened the competition among the wives to national “infighting, something inherent in the Chinese feudal mentality.”2 As a survivor of the Cultural Revolution and a director whose films have been suppressed in his own country, he knows the pain of factionalism.

To interpret is always to interpret from some perspective, however, and Western feminists must notice that this is a film focused on women, a film in which the face of the most important male character, Songlian’s husband Chen (Zhao Qi), is never seen clearly. For such an audience there are more similarities than differences between the situation the film describes, a 20th-century feudal survival in which a male authority pits women against women, and the situation arising for us out of capitalism’s bourgeois family. To such an audience, Raise the Red Lantern reads as an instant feminist classic.

IN MANY WAYS the film is a ghost story, though its most obvious haunting occurs only at its conclusion. In her husband’s household, Songlian finds, her comfort depends on competing with his other wives for his attention. In the end this competition turns lethal: having drunkenly leaked word of the adultery of third wife Meishan (He Caifei), Songlian sees the family manservants murder this woman, who is actually her closest ally in the house. “Haunting” Meishan’s quarters and lighting the lanterns there, casting their black shrouds on the ghostly snow, Songlian invokes a haunting herself, for in that room she finds and plays recordings of the dead woman singing. (Before Meishan was married, she had had a career in opera.) Thus a first, semiliteral ghost is a disembodied voice that haunts the killers.

But there are others. Singing, Meishan has often walked the rooftop ramparts, the only open space in the mazelike house. She is hanged up there in a kind of shed. And Songlian has walked those flat roofs with her, like women surveying the deadly New England sea from their widow’s walks, like Mrs. Rochesters sighted above the flames in Jane Eyre, or like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. But here the ghosts are the mothers’. Early on, first wife Yuru (oldest, most authoritative, yet most effaced, in short most motherly) has muttered “Such sins, such sins”—apparently apropos of nothing. Yet family legend has it, Songlian learns, that earlier generations of Chen wives and mothers were also killed in that rooftop attic, for the infraction of seeking pleasure.

Why make a film about misogynistic conditions that a revolution has eradicated? Fear of the return of the repressed? With the current allegations that old Chinese practices of buying, selling, kidnaping, maiming, and imprisoning rural women are reappearing, this fear may be well founded.3 Songlian is almost liberated, almost educated, almost “modernized,” before she is forced to go back, to go home, to a feudal China. Moreover, as with the ghost in Hamlet, the ghosts of the mothers in Lantern are also psychic projections of a guilty wish—the wish to forget, to forsake the victims of the past, to deny one’s identification with their powerlessness, their “lack,” so as to buy indemnification for the present. They die, Songlian learns, “calling your name.” Survivor’s guilt, the anxiety of the newly emancipated—these are Marx’s dead souls weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Ghosts and echoes link up with mirrors in the film. Songlian gazes into mirrors repeatedly after her first night with her husband—looking to see if she is distinguished, distinguishable, different, once she has become a mere repetition in a series. But in the mirror quest for identity, it is the primary caretaker who guarantees the reality of the child’s image, and Songlian’s mother, we surmise, has long been dead, another ghost, more haunting than the others because never mentioned. Her absence may help explain why Songlian is unable to make common cause with the other wives, her “sisters,” as she must call them, but instead falls into plotting and scheming against them.

She thinks she can rise above the existing order, or can manipulate it. She refuses the traditional bridal sedan chair and procession, walking to her perverse choice, carrying her own suitcase, very much under her own power. Yet the moment she steps into the system, control eludes her. The system, homologous with the endlessly recessive courtyards nesting within the mansion compound, becomes a hall of mirrors. The first inhabitants she encounters are servants—reflections of her own true state—most significantly her future maid Yan’er, a young woman who resembles her (same hairdo, similar features). This servant’s pathetic wish to have been selected as Chen’s mistress, and her degraded position, drive Songlian to abuse her—anything to separate herself from her secret sharer.

In a sense, Yan’er is to Songlian as child is to mother, just as the other wives are mothers and older sisters to Songlian. The women reflect and reproduce each other. Unfortunately, Songlian will turn out a bad mother. She punishes Yan’er too harshly, invoking an outmoded rule that requires the servant to kneel outdoors until called; Yan’er dies of exposure. It is in guilt and anger over this death that Songlian gets drunk, on her 20th birthday, and betrays the secret of Meishan’s affair. With Meishan executed, Songlian is last seen wandering the premises, completely mad—as her replacement, yet a fifth wife for Chen, is introduced to the household. Through this domino effect and mirroring among the women, Raise the Red Lantern suggests that in using patriarchal methods to achieve power, a woman is apt to destroy other women, and in destroying other women—the source of her identity—she destroys herself.

TRADITIONALLY, film has provided its own form of mirror stage for fixing the identity of the viewing subject. In Lantern there seems to be a battle for control of this mirror. Songlian’s face in close-up is the pivot on which the film turns and turns again. So frequently are we confronted with this huge and motionless countenance (blank, numbed with sorrow) that the character almost seems all face, the moon that eclipses the sun—the old husband, whose face is seen only at a distance—and the son, his attractive heir, for whom the spunky Songlian is simply too much. This makes it harder to identify with a male gaze, there being no visual suturing of Songlian to her husband, despite the fact that he, like the camera, controls all. If the camera represents a male gaze, it must be a conscience-stricken one, independent of but still shaken by Songlian’s suffering.

The camera may imprison Songlian’s face, but it is itself free, it can penetrate the architectural maze and then escape up and over the roofs, where it hovers contemplatively and sadly, like God’s eye. This antiphonal movement upward and outward is almost a panic flight, a retreat from Songlian’s cultural captivity (and maybe a shaken retreat from the identity-swamping force of that immense pre-Oedipal female countenance). Songlian is the ghost in the machine of the camera. It sometimes seems in those close-ups as if a power struggle were underway, as if, rather than being held by the camera, she were mesmerizing it, keeping it trained on her. In these head shots she is like both Ancient Mariner and albatross (more ghostly figures), her face a mute dead thing haranguing a captive audience with a guilty and horrific tale. Alternatively, the camera’s persistent removal to high ground can be seen as expressive of Songlian’s yearning, since all the yearning in the film is released at roof height. The catch is that for the characters this escape, this sexually charged fantasy of soaring from the pinnacles, ends as a soul’s heavenward lift after rooftop assassination, whereas for the camera the flight upward puts things back into perspective, diminishes urgency.

In the last scene, the deranged Songlian’s face is no longer shown fully or frontally but is viewed asymmetrically through a scrollwork panel. By the end of the film, then, she has been written upon. fully inscribed. For a moment, though, her madness infects the camera. It loses focus, as if hallucinating or refracting many Songlians through tears. But like the Victorian family that Dora’s hysteria disturbed but did not explode, the camera stabilizes, safe from her dementia. The overlapping images coalesce, and a “realistic” view of a pacing Songlian returns. As in her struggle against the system, Songlian has lost the battle to control the camera. Possibly she has lost not to a human agency but to time itself: the return to the “natural,” with its suggestion of the fatedness of Songlian’s end, may simply signify the impossibility of rescuing anyone from the past.

IN ALL SONGLIAN’S battles the cards are stacked against her. All apertures are mirrors, either literally or functionally, in this endlessly echoing house; the face of the man responsible is truly a blind spot. Consequently, anger richochets back and forth from self to mirror image. With no way to get out, it festers. Only by attacking each other can the women safely release their fury over this feudal arrangement. To attack the faceless man would mean certain annihilation. In Red Sorghum and Ju Dou, 1987 and 1989, two previous Zhang films, everything happens through breaking the rules. In Lantern everything happens as a result of adhering too closely to the homicidal letter of the law.

Songlian’s hardheaded choices have been no choices at all. The early scene wherein she allows the bridal procession to take a different path at the crossroads, and watches the entourage vanish down the only avenue or prospect the film shows, is deeply ironic. Songlian is both clear-sighted and deluded, aware of the situation she finds herself in yet teased by the mirage of access to phallic power. But Chen takes from her her father’s flute, an instrument played only by men. On her birthday, Chen’s son gives her a gift—the kind of present, she remarks, only given by women to men. (This seals his unavailability to her and they never meet again.) In fact, as we have seen, her assumption of the male role is marked by harm to herself and to other women. She lights the red lanterns—signs of heat, light, a woman’s sexuality, and the warmest presences in the film’s distinctly chilly formal vistas—only after her behavior has inadvertently led to Meishan’s death. And even here she is usurping a male prerogative, for the lanterns are ordinarily lit only at Chen’s command to indicate his preference among the wives. Taking the initiative of lighting them herself, Songlian is nearing her final madness.

In Chinese culture red means happiness and spontaneity. But in the movie’s central trope, Songlian tries to control her redness—her menstruation. In the competition among the wives, she decides to fake pregnancy for the status it will confer. She attempts, it might be said, to impregnate herself. Successful for a time, she is eventually discovered and is doomed. But the fate suggested here is more than purely social: this is a culture in which even inwardness—the only possible orientation in a cul-de-sac—is frustrated. In the false pregnancy, it is as if Songlian has journeyed inside herself to find only hollowness and absence. She is missing from there as well.

On her arrival in Chen’s house, passing through doorway after doorway, courtyard after courtyard, Songlian reaches what appears to be the innermost apartment—hers. Figuring forth interiority, the light darkens with her entry into this gray-stone, gray-tiled edifice. Mythically, metaphorically, and actually, the house operates as labyrinth, and part of Songlian’s journey as a new bride is the fantastic voyage into her own body—fulfilling my dictionary’s definition of “labyrinth” as “a group of communicating anatomical cavities.” What she finds, oddly, at the heart of this organic mission is the inorganic: if this is Songlian’s body it has been thoroughly organized, managed, and every part of it has been inventoried, aligned, stacked, folded. It is as incarceral as the room in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, 1892, and suggests as much about the inability to wake from the nightmare of biology. With its déjà vu principle of construction, its reiteration of forms, the house is a trope for reproduction in extremis, pushed over the edge into sterility. Although begetting heirs ensures their survival, the four wives, one now past childbearing age, have only two children. And if every labyrinth has its minotaur, hasn’t the minotaur always hinted at the fetus—the monster-man who must be slain before the hero can give birth to himself? The fetus in the center of Songlian’s labyrinth is a fabrication, still another ghost. Small wonder she cannot give birth to herself, or that she is never resurrected from the underground quest to take her place in the world as an adult.

One of the key questions in the film is: how does Songlian think she can get away with pretending to be pregnant? She must know the ruse will collapse (though she claims to believe that Chen’s heightened attention to her in her supposed pregnancy will soon result in the real thing). This riddle is a little like the one about what women really want: the answer is not deducible because the pairing of question and answer is one of logic’s false binaries, and because the word “really” already discounts women’s own testimony about their desires. In the feudal catch-22 of the film, coincidentally also the Freudian scenario, a woman can get power, the phallus, only through pregnancy and delivery of a male child. She must submit, then, to being a woman, which is to say submit to powerlessness. This is oxymoronic. Instead, Songlian creates a substitute (imaginary child) for the substitute (male child) for the phallus. The child must be a figment as a sign of her unwillingness to be placed and her inability to place herself, of her suspension between the rock of a raised consciousness and the hard place of the way things are.

The fraudulent baby smacks of both refusal and accommodation. Songlian creates it to gain immediate political control over her circumstances. Psychic control is another factor: to have a baby is to have power over another human being, which escapes Songlian in her relationship with her servant child Yan’er. But being pregnant also means Songlian can become a child herself: pampered, indulged, attended to loved. As an orphan she may be hoping to provide herself with parental care, and to give birth to herself. Looking for love as well as power, she gets biology; looking for the play of music, she gets the law. The question of why she gambles on this imposture is a question aligned with legal literalness and therefore with the institution. She is acting in a different register, one not recognized by the law, which makes all its symbols seem natural and self-evident, constantly claiming to have turned the imaginary into the real.

The law is successful in Songlian’s case. Although the master realizes that there is not only no baby but no miscarriage, that there never was a baby, to the audience it must be clear that although there is no baby, there is an abortion, a miscarriage, of justice if nothing else, as death follows death, in a reverberating succession among mothers and daughters—among women. And of course the child Songlian is also aborted. The tragedy of Songlian is that she cannot fool father nature.

Jeanne Silverthorne is a writer and artist who lives in New York. She contributes frequently to Artforum.

Raise the Red Lantern is released in the U.S. this month after an award-winning appearance at last year’s Venice Film Festival and a tribute to the director at the Sundance Festival in Utah in January.



1. See Yeujin Wang. “Red Sorghum: Mixing Memory and Desire,
and E. Ann Kaplan, ”Problematizing Cross-Cultural Analysis: The Case of Women in the Recent Chinese Cinema," both in Chris Berry, ed., Chinese Cinema, London: British Film Institute, 1991. pp. 80–103 and 141–65 respectively.

2. Zhang Yimou. in “Interview with Zhang Yimou,” production notes for Raise the Red Lantern, Orion Classics, New York, 1991.

3. See Nicholas D. Kristof, “China: The End of the Golden Road,” The New York Times Magazine, December 1991, pp. 53–87.