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The Plight to Climb the Great Walls

The red lantern has been raised.

One girl smirked, the others bowed their heads in defeat.

Because for her, she has won the battle while for the others, its going to be a cold and dark night once
again. The foot massage, the authority for the menu, and the extra-special treatment of the servants
are all waiting to be enjoyed by the emerging mistress. For whoever has her lantern raised and lit up
shall be pampered with all these luxuries. But now, she also has the target on her back. Her sisters will
try to outshadow her lighted lantern by hook or by crook. This is their unending saga; their strife to
attain power. The question is: Who will sustain the power?

Within the Great Walls of Chen


Locked in a gold cage I pine away, recites the Master's young son, Let me return to the forest/ To sing
my carefree songs. - this poetry recited by the boy voices cries of each mistresses heart.
Four mistresses, enslaved by the reenactment of traditions of the Chen family, struggle for survival. The
confining walls of their houses and the isolation of their environment signifies their bondage towards
the imposed rituals. Their only weapon for this war is to mask their identities with play-act and
deception. But no matter how well they perform their roles, they still are too powerless to change their
fate, which is symbolized by the lighting and the extinguishing of the lantern. This idea was evidently
portrayed by the closing scenes of Songlian, driven mad by the world created by the customs of the
family, helplessly walking in a confined space.

Songlian
Songlian, the newest concubine, is the epitome of ambiguity. She has mastered the art of being
unpredictable. Coming to the sanheyuan in her school uniform, one would picture her as a naive girl
who doesnt know anything and one who would easily be swallowed by the house rules. Even the Yaner
did not pay respect to her at first because she looked like a gullible young girl. She then shifted to the
authoritative side of her as she ordered the maid to bring her luggages in her lair. She has also shifted
personalities towards her competitors and her master. She has been the weak and submissive girl in
front of Zhuoyan and the bold and daring woman in front of Meishan and her master.
As Songlian assumed her position as fourth mistress, she wore a mask of dignity and authority to create
a queenly impression towards the servants and her sisters. What the character thought of herself
manifested in her actions thus, she acted like a queen and thought herself to be one, so that she
would get the others to see herself as one. This is evident as she wore a regal mask as she ate with her
fellow mistress, demanding a separate meal of her choice than what is served. The most effective way
she showed this principle is by defying the long held tradition of eating with the her fellow mistress , so
that she would be thought of as someone with a special disposition by everyone in the household.
As the story grows deeper in its plot, Songlians antagonists emerge in the story. As she understood that
Yaner was one of her potential adversaries, she also learned her weakness: She was obsessed with the
thought of being the next mistress - to the point of fantasizing herself to be one by decorating her room
with red lanterns. Knowing that it is unlawful for a servant to assume the role of a mistress, Songlian
used this weakness to her advantage by blackmailing Yaner to gain information about who is the
mistress who wanted to sabotage her; otherwise, Songlian would expose her scandalous behavior.
Though she did not do it deliberately, she made a move that annihilated one of her antagonists - which
caused one of them to be incapable of inflicting her. Because Songlian knew that Yaner was one of the
accomplice of the second mistress in exposing her secret, she repaid her by exposing the red lanterns
she created in her room. This emotionally affected Yaner so much that it caused her to be ill to the
point of death.
The story did not end well for Songian. Bearing the guilt of the death her female servant and the murder
of Meishan - which she is responsible for exposing her adultery - was enough to drive her into insanity.

Zhuoyan
Zhuoyan, the second concubine, as she was described by Meishan, has a Buddhas face and a scorpions
heart .
Innocence was written all over her face when she humbly welcomed Songlian in her home; acting so
friendly that she even complimented her and gave her an expensive silk, yet on the back of her mind
shes already plotting on how she will outshine the new concubine. As the story progresses the motives
she conceals started to show, like a serpent who is starting to moult its skin, indirectly creating a perfect
storm between the third and the fourth concubine to gain an advancement over them. She knows how
and when to let the wolf in her sheep clothing, be out.
Having an alliance with Yanr, she found out that Songlians pregnancy is a fraud. Shes the one who
insisted the master to call Dr. Gao to check Songlians health. Knowing that the pregnancy is fake, she
already knew that everything is happening according to her plans. Deceitful as she is, she provokes the
people around her to execute the things she had on her mind.

Meishan
Meishan, the third mistress is an opera singer who was spoiled by the master. She felt threatened
knowing that Songlian is younger and might took her place as the masters favorite, so she covers it with
aggression. She sings when the master is in the house of Songlian to distract them both or to ruin their
intimate moments. She is the perfect scene-stealer. She even faked her sickness during the first night of
the master with Songlian. When the master chose to lit the lanterns on her house for the night, she was
given the rights to have a foot massage and to decide for tomorrows menu. Having the privilege to
choose the food to be served, she took advantage of it by asking for a pork dish to aggravate Songlian.
As the film continues, it unfolds the secrets of Meishan about having an affair with Dr. Gao. By
committing an act of infidelity it clearly shows that she does not follow the customs and tradition.
Songlian knows it and when she was drunk she unconsciously uttered it to Zhuoyan. She woke up feeling
sober and she witnessed how Meishan was dragged by the servants. The next day, out of curiosity she
followed the servants to the room on top. When she opened the door, the whole place was disrupted by
her sudden scream. She saw Meishans dead body, which was hung inside the room.
Meishan is not bad as she seems, she just want to express what she feels. She is a tough competitor in
seeking the masters attention as well as the power that comes along.

Yuru
Yuru is the first wife of the Master Chen, and almost as old as her master. She bore him a son who is
already a young adult. Because she is the eldest of all the four mistresses, she gets the least attention of
their master - who often prefers the younger ones. On the other hand, she is the most respected by all
the mistresses because she is the least threat of getting the lantern. She is often regarded as the one
wisest of them in being knowledgeable in their traditions and policies, and also as a ritual authority. She
has the mildest personality of all the sisters, and is most resigned - she has already accepted her lot in
life.

Yaner
One of the servants of the master Chens household, and also secretly has an affair with their master.
She was greatly distressed with the arrival fourth mistress because it trampled on her hope of being the
next mistress. Thus, this caused her to despise the Songlian. Being assigned as a servant in the fourth
mistress household, Zhuoyun uses her puppet and a spy.
She was the one who discovered Songlians false pregnancy. Understanding Songlianss weak point, she
used it against her by exposing her fraudery to Zhuoyun; She knew that she could never win her battle
with Songlian by means of an argument, so she fought and by her action. The way she attacks is
normally done behind the mistress using a voodoo doll to inflict her with a curse, spitting on her
clothes as she walks out of the mistresss house, acting as a spy for Zhuoyun.
She was very cautious in her conversations with her fourth mistress, careful to say less than necessary to
protect her plan: to crush her long despised enemys relationship with her master. Nevertheless, her
caution was in vain - Songlian found out that she was an accomplice to the second mistress. This lead to
her downfall.

Master Chen
Master Chen, the "supreme leader" and the husband of the four mistresses seems to have all the power
in the story. He works and acts as the ruler of their neighborhood, and whoever contravenes to the
customs will have his corresponding punishment.
Master Chen imposes on the mistress his authority by forcing his traditions on them. In their patriarchal
society, their ancestors assumes a spiritual role - thus one of their traditions is to worship, respected in
their family rituals. They believe that their ancestors are able to protect them from harm; thus they
honor them so that they could receive their favor and protection. In view of this, all his concubines and
future ones are obliged to follow this tradition.
Master Chen was never fully exposed in the film. He was always seen behind the silk clothes or the
camera is focused on his back. This treatment to his character imbibed to us a feeling that he will never
be fully grasped. Theres an aura of mystery which radiates a certain kind of sacredness which is
venerated to him.
Housekeeper, get her good medicine. Never mind the money or people will say we let our servant die
Since Master Chen, the ruler of his neighborhood and a well-known man, has so much reputation lying
on his name, he had to protect it from any issues against him. Master Chen wanted to save Yanerwho
served him for a long time after freezing herself to death not because he is truly concerned about her,
but he did not want the people to think that he is a no-good leader, and he wanted to free himself from
guilt.

Foot massage, different houses for each concubine, wealth, luscious food, power these are some of
the privileges of the mistresses get, the things people want to get in life, the reason Songlian entered
the walls of the Sanheyuan. The promise of better life hides the reality of pain and oppression, which
they will never get away with, except the day of their death.
Is power really on the hands of the Master?
After a few days, you won't have to leave
That bitch, never mind her
A man who seems to be strong and manipulative is ironically controlled by her mistresses. He is a moth
that is attracted to a blazing flame. The fourth mistress was able to deceive all people, including the
master, when she pretended to be pregnant. He was not even able to resist the request of Songlian to
eat her breakfast with the other mistresses, which was their tradition. And the loud singing of the third
mistress every morning was not stopped by the Master, only showing that he is not in full control when
it comes to the mistresses.

The Red Lantern, the Foot Massage, and the Flute


Throughout the course of the film, the red lantern had several symbolisms.
First, red lanterns became a symbol of power. Even in the ancient times, Chinese people have used
lanterns as a status symbol. The mistresses vied for the lanterns because they are hungry for power. In a
fortress like theirs, where tall walls have excluded them from the rest of the world, they lost their sense
of free will. Having their lanterns lighted, it created an illusionary freedom (which they thought of as
power) to them. They got to decide for the menu and they were pampered with the very symbolic foot
massage. These privileges fed their egos and left them wanting more.
The red lantern may also signify Songlians emotions. The fire in the lantern are her passionate desires
which are being protected by the red cloth - the filter that she uses to mask her emotions. She played
the game well because she guarded her emotions, which became very evident when she spent the fight
for the first time with her master. When she said, Put the lights out, she may be talking about her
emotions. Because in a game like this, emotions must be set aside.
The red lantern is also a symbol of knowledge. In a game where emotions would lead to discourse, one
should resort to his/her wise discernment of things to win. Songlian was the most educated thats why
she had all the cards in her hands at first. But when the power and luxuries got into her, she has let her
emotions overrule her thinking. If only she had used her education better, she couldve get it together
and didnt end up insane.
The foot massage is a very symbolic tradition for Chinese women. The feet of a woman is said to be a
mans fetish. A womans feet is believed to another gateway to her genital. The smaller the womans
foot is the smaller her genital is and the better for the man. What added up to the hype for this massage
are the sounds that it made which echoed throughout the compound. These echoes are like slaps to the
other mistresses faces, creating a tension in the atmosphere.
The hammer used for the foot massage symbolizes privilege, and the echo of the sound created is
represents the constant competition between the fellow mistresses. This gives an erotic implication of
the physical ministrations enjoyed by the privileged mistress.
Her capacity to play the flute is one of her distinctions among her co-mistresses. This reiterated that her
knowledge is the key to her power. The flute, its resemblance with the phallic pen, and the way it is
played denote that she can satisfy her master not only psychologically, but she can also satisfy his
masters fetishes.

The Astronomical Seasons


Summer, autumn, and winter. The use of traditional theatrical techniques serves as one of the mise-en-
scnes that established the environmental setting and the passage of time of the film. The atmosphere
of the overworld was concocted and elevated with sceneries that depicted the said seasons which
divided and ordered the films progression.
However, these seasons dont only suffice the film itself as a milieu, but as well as a certain kind of
manifestation or embodiment of the life experiences of the fourth concubine and the prevailing mood
of the locale.
The story is disjointed into four seasons, namely summer, autumn, winter, and then summer again. Each
season has its own emblematic bourne, from color schemes and motifs to dominant feelings, each of
which bears a kind of zealous and intellectual implication and significance.
Each evident paramount color conveyed implies its own symbolism which sets the fashion and style for
each seasonal division.
Summer: the season of vitality, passion, exuberance, and initiation. The period when Songlian
commenced to the ill-fated, regrettable concubine microcosm drenched in diversifying hues of red.
Nevertheless, the color of desire and willpower sooner or later somehow emblematized wrath, earthly
desires, and portentousness. Songlian comprehended that grasping the masters enthrallment lays her
at the zenith of the concubine hierarchy which in turn she is granted the opportunity to certain
benefactions like choosing what food shell have for dinner and receiving foot massages.
In whatever manner or way, the granted power is only evanescent and ephemeral. By the end of the
day, the red lantern is moved from one place to another, depending on the verdict of the master. The
lantern is bestowed to the mistress with whom he wants to spend the night with. The concubines face
mortification in witnessing the lantern transferred from place to place that draw on discordance and
hostilities between them.
It is apparent that both the second and third mistresses already knew how to contravene their coequals
schemes to get the attention of the master. The first concubine is the only one who declined to
immerse in such competition. Due to the fact that she bore the master a son many years ago, she is now
regarded as antiquated or archaic. Nonetheless, she is considered to be the autocrat of the mnage
when the master is away. Despite of this authority, shes still imperceptible to the eyes of the master for
his bedazzlement is only directed to the alluring beauty of his younger mistresses. Songlian on the other
hand, quickly learned that she, too, without a hitch, is easily disposable and oblivious after witnessing
the lantern withdrew from her place. Envy and resentment ignited her desire to partake in this so called
disgraceful game.
But nothing is permanent.
In Change, Poole writes, Seasons come and go / Sceneries change over time / Nothing stays the
same (1-3).
Autumn: the season of transition, preparation and culmination - its mother natures last hurrah!
before indulging into winters dormancy and slumber. The perfect embodiment of the changing foliage
people see this time of year.
By this time, the erudite and shrewd Songlian ascertained that it is impossible to earn the master
entirely, in spite of her labor. Her fate is just the same as the others in which their value is at the
clemency of their masters self-forbearance. The purpose of the mistress is to merely appease the
master, and if it abates, the master shifts on to the other.
The colors of this season is emulsified by embrittled shades of orange and yellow, which implies
Songlians ebbing crave for life as her sense of self is removed from within her soul. Her zest for life has
already vanished. Latterly knowing that her flute was burned by the master and that it was the only
keepsake of her past, she felt her life was fading away.
Everything seems to be falling apart.
Winter: the season of silence, introversion, and contemplation. Life is still, life's potent, life is indwelling.
Or is there even life left? It is the season that invites us to quiet the mind and tranquilize the soul. But in
contrast, it mainly stand for hopelessness in the film.
The austerity of the tintless plain white color made every scene cold, desolate, and gloomy that also
accentuates Songlians frivolousness.
From the time Songlians lanterns were covered, when Yaner was punished of her wrongdoings, and
when Meishan was caught having an affair with the doctor. It is apparent that hopelessness was
knocking at the door to each of the characters hearts. And just like a burglar, it creeped inside the heart
and soul of Songlian, corrupting every bit of hope she had within her.
It seems as though to perish and die became the more bewitching option in spite of the profusion that
encircles her. From the the numbing death of Yaner to the nefarious demise of Meishan, it is evident
that the prevailing emotion of this season is disconsolation and melancholy. However, the death of
Meishan can also be considered as a blessing in disguise for Songlian herself since it gave her a chance to
be free from being the masters center of attention. The death of Meishan later on gave way for the
master to choose a new concubine.
There is no longing for life, since there is no life at all.
And where there is no life, there is no hope.
Spring: the season that was never seen. By being another transitional period, it is a time of phenomenal
renewal. The earth rejuvenates and reawakens from her slumber.
Of all the four astronomical seasons, spring was not shown in the movie. Heck no one mentioned it even
once. But why?
Spring represents hope and vitality, thus represented by the vivid color green, the exact opposite of the
dominant mood and theme being portrayed in the film. The concubines were all filled with
hopelessness, hatred, and deviousness as they continue to do the same things over and over again: to
compete and struggle for power.
A granted power that will not last, a granted power that will soon fade away.

Summer once more. The film concluded with summer again and within this period, a fifth concubine is
welcomed to the menage. After witnessing the distress, the depravity, and the atrocity of being at the
mercy of another mans self-centeredness, Songlian became insane and went lunatic. Her dementia is
her last resort primarily because it is the disallowance of her past, the refusal of her present, and the
rejection of her future.

Mistress or Master, who is more powerful?


In the Chinese culture, a man can be determined powerful if he has multiple concubines with him. These
women can be related to personal properties of a rich man. He could use it any time he wants.
Concubines purpose is to add or beautify a mans reputation or self-esteem by being able to produce
lots of children and also for limitless sexual use of these women.
A man can only have one wife but can have numerous concubines depending on how they can afford it.
Songlian, being the fourth mistress, is another addition to the masters ego on being a man. The master
can use her any time for his sexual desires. But is it really the man who uses a woman for his desires
more powerful or the woman who manipulates the feelings of the man?
In the movie, the mistresses used strategies to win the man by making their competitors look bad. At
first, Songlian tried to order his husband by telling him to turn off the lights but it did not work,
therefore the man is still in power. She then tried different strategies to be able to be dominant like how
she acted cold when the third mistress asked for the master to accompany her on Songlians wedding
night. Songlian said Go, dont come back to me again. By acting this way, the master preferred to stay
on Songlians palace.
She also used her ill-temperedness by bluntly asking for the food to be delivered in her house. Despite
the fact that the master warned her about being backstabbed, she still won over the argument. Songlian
feigned pregnancy in order to gain authority in the compound. According to the customs, when one of
the mistresses is pregnant, the lanterns would be lit day and night as a sign of longevity. She was then
given all of the masters and servants attention. She can request for a foot massage any time, ask for
the food to be brought on her room and even requested to the master for a massage from her
competitor, the second mistress.
Even if the man thinks of himself as the powerful one, he is still the one being played at. He who only
thinks of his own pleasures is the one who is easier to be fooled by his wives charms or act. The
mistresses make their master feel like he is in authority when they themselves are the ones
manipulating the feelings of their man. The master is being given an illusion of power.

Conclusion
For whoever has her lanterns raised and lit up shall be pampered with all those luxuries, only for the
night. Theres no sustenance of power. Their endless saga would continue. They would just use and
outsmart each other just to have the illusionary power that they thirst for. Because just like the seasons,
power is not permanent nor absolute.
In the struggle to attain power, one has to play the game well. It takes more than authority to be
considered powerful. It takes wit and composure to sustain power, because theres always a threat of
havoc which is bound to happen if this power is not controlled.
As they wait in front of their respective doors, one is anticipating to give her smirk of victory, while
others are preparing for their moment of shame.

The red lantern will be raised, again.

References:
Books
Giskin H. & Walsh B. (2001) An introduction to Chinese culture through the family. Albany, New York:
State University of New York Press.
Greene, R. (1998). 48 Laws of Power. Great Britain: Profile Books LTD.
Cui S. (2003). Women Through the lens: Gender and nation in a century of Chinese cinema. USA:
University of Hawaii Press.
Fielding J. (2008). Discovering world religions at 24 frames per second. USA: Scarecrow Press, Inc.
Journals
Xie, Y. (2013). Gender and family contemporary china. Retrieved from
http://www.psc.isr.umich.edu/pubs/pdf/rr13-808.pdf
Rutgers, J. (2011). Dissonance rising: subversive sound in zhang yimous raise the red lantern. Retrieved
from file:///C:/Users/mis/Downloads/226-1687-1-PB.pdf
Hsiao, L. (2010). Dancing the red lantern: zhang yimous fusion of western ballet and peking opera.
Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Volume 32, pp. 12936. Retrieved from
http://www.uky.edu/Centers/Asia/SECAAS/Seras/2010/14_Hsiao.pdf