At the beginning of the twentieth century China experienced many changes in nearly every respect. The country transformed into a modern state and in doing so traditions changed as well. For example China changed its form of government by abolishing its empire and establishing a republic. The old imperial regime was seen as very old-fashioned: „un monde que la technique et les idées modernes n‘ont pas encore touché“ (Bauchau, 1982, p. 19; translation: a world which has not yet been touched by the modern technic and ideas). If China wanted to be part of the modern westernised world, it had to modernise itself. But even though the last emperor abdicated in 1912, many traditions still lived in the Republic of China, some until the 1940s (cf. Brugger, 1977, p. 20). This can be seen in the Chinese film „Raise the Red Lantern“. This movie which original title is „Dà hóng denglóng gaogaou gua“ was made by the fifth generation director Zhang Yimou, and was published in 1991. The film set in the 1920s is about the young woman Songlian who actually has studied at university for one year. When her father dies, she cannot afford going to university any longer. Her stepmother marries her off to a rich man, Chen Zuoqian, in whose household traditions are most important. Songlian becomes the fourth concubine of this man. Every evening red lanterns are being hung up in the quarter of that wife who Chen Zuoqian is going to spend the night with. This also means that the respective wife seems to be the favourite one so that she gets more power over the whole family, e.g. she can decide about the dishes. Thus the four women, who see each other as rivals, fight each other whenever they can. Songlian tries to struggle hard for a place in the family, but she somehow fails. In the end she causes the death of two people, of her servant Yan‘er and of the third concubine Meishan, so that she finally gets insane.
In this film one can watch the traditional Chinese gender relationships. In the first place the whole power lies in the hand of the man. The head of the household decides everything, when he is not at home his oldest son is getting the whole control, and after him the first wife, who is the only real wife of the man by law, succeeds. Besides, only men were part of the public life in the traditional China, whereas women only played a role in private life. This is shown in the film as the whole movie is set in the huge family estate. But the women never leave it, even though the husband asks Songlian once if she wants to go to the town with him. It also becomes clear that men and boys always had a much higher position in society than women and girls because the family life also often revolves around offspring. The most important goal of the four wives is to get a baby boy. This is why the second wife Zhuoyun, who got a baby girl, hates Meishan, who got a baby boy at the same time, so much. Another important point is that originally only men had access to education. In the movie Songlian is the only wife who is educated.
These are the most important and most obvious points which defined the gender relationships in traditional China. I am going to look at all these points more closely in the following.
The traditional China was very much influenced by the ideas of Confucianism. A main emphasis here lies on the hierarchical structure of the social system. People always have to be loyal to superior people. (cf. http://www.chinakonzi.net/2550/eng/) There are five bonds which frame Confucian behaviour, namely father-son, elder brother-younger brother, husband-wife, ruler-minister and friend-friend. Except for the last bond, all the relationships are hierarchical. This implies that the inferior always has to obey the superior. (cf. http://www.exeas.org/resources/pdf/chinese-women-modernity.pdf) Other main features of Confucianism are a „considerable respect for age (scarcity of old men), gerontocratic organisation of society; essentially patriarchal form of organisation which gave women inferior status“ (Brugger, 1977, p. 21). All these hierarchical relationships define the social life very much. In the end, women are always the most inferior parts of society whereas old men are the most superior ones. Thus the traditional Chinese society was organised in a patriarchal way, i.e. the oldest man is always the head of the family, and all the property belongs to the male family members (cf. http://www.exeas.org/resources/pdf/chinese-women-modernity.pdf). All this can be seen in the „Raise the Red Lantern“. Chen Zuoqian decides what is happening in his family, all his wives and servants have to obey him and his family traditions, which set strict rules. As head of the house everything also belongs to him so that he can take and burn Songlian‘s flute. In contrast to him the wives do not have any real power. They have to resign theirselves to Chen‘s rules. If they violate the rules, they get punished. When Songlian reveals that Meishan has got an affair with the doctor, Meishan gets sentenced to death. In this scene the hierarchical structure which defined the traditional Chinese life becomes very obvious: actually all power lies in Chen‘s hands, but when he is absent, his oldest son, and after him Chen‘s first wife decides about all matters. But the woman is always only the last possibility.
This scene also shows another important fact: women were not allowed to be unfaithful to their one husband, whereas men could have as many women as they wanted. This system is called Concubinage, and it made polygamy in traditional China legal. It meant that only the first wife was the legal wife, but a man could have as many concubines as he wished to. (cf. http://www.exeas.org/resources/pdf/chinese-women-modernity.pdf) „‘Marriage‘ was defined broadly, for it included concubinage and relations with one‘s slaves. [...] Similar, polygamy was for men only; although a man could have only one principal wife, the law placed no limit on the number of concubines.“ (http://www.jstor.org/view/00440094/ap030799/03a00170/0) Here one can again see the superior position of the man. This is also shown in „Raise the Red Lantern“ as Chen has got four wives, i.e. he has got his first wife and three concubines. It is also indicated that Chen has sex with his servant Yan‘er. But women had to get punished for committing adultery. Their only duty was acutally to give birth to as many sons as possible. Here the patrilineal principle took effect, a family could only continue to exist through its male line. (cf. http://www.exeas.org/resources/pdf/chinese-women-modernity.pdf) Therefore Zhuoyun hates Meishan so much in the film because she only got a worthless daughter whereas Meishan got a son. Even when Songlian pretends to be pregnant and lies that she will probably get a son, she is getting special treatments. This shows again that only men were important in the traditional Chinese society. Beside this, only men were part of the public life, whereas women only played a minor role in the private life. „The ideal woman would not appear in public.“ (http://www.grin.com/de/fulltext/ ena/23650.html) All the woman had to do was again to obey his husband. There was also the patrilocal principle which meant that women had to leave their home once they got married to move to her husbands‘ house. From that moment on the women did not belong to their original family any more. (cf. http://www.exeas.org/resources/pdf/chinese-women-modernity.pdf) Songlian walks a long way to her husband‘s home, and she never returns to her family. Actually she never even leaves the estate.