Individual Freedom and Women Social Protest as a Leitmotif of Three Generations of Chinese Cinema

One of the main themes of Chinese cinema in the XX century is the women’s personal history, right to privacy and freedom, independent living, and their opinion. Especially convex such life dramas look placed in the context of historical events that include a change in a socio-political system, the fight against the occupation, anti-patriarchal house way of life. A women’s right to freely choose their destiny, the problem of establishing equality, and enhancing their social status have  been the focus of many representatives  of Chinese cinema. Apparently, women’s issues and struggle for the independence were coordinated directly with the subject of reforming old, imperial China, with the search for new, more just social order. The films under consideration demonstrate a series of trials, errors and (more or less) effective attempts which are made by independent young women in China in the first third of the twentieth century, wanting to improve and change their destiny.

Goddess with no name

Goddess was released by independent Shanghai Lianhua Film Company in 1934. The film’s title, the Shennu, can be translated as “goddess”, and it is a Chinese euphemism for a prostitute. The movie is focused on the fate of a lonely young woman in a prudish society, who is not capable of leading a normal decent life. When the “goddess” comes to the unemployment office, she stops by the announcement that says – candidates without warranty nominations are not accepted. The problem is that being a single mother, she has no warranties. At the same time, the only way of survival for her is strongly condemned in this society. It overshadows even the life of a young child who has to go through a series of humiliations from his peers and their parents. Although the image of shennu is idealized, it still is very convincing. The life of the heroine shows that a prostitute is not necessarily a fallen woman (by the way, the viewer never knows what kind of a life drama preceded the birth of an illegitimate child, which “goddess” loves so selflessly). It is significant that the boy’s name is Shuiping, but the heroine remains nameless, meaning that this “goddess” is one of many.

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“Goddess” work day  begins at 9 pm and ends at dawn, when she comes out of the hotel, looking back. This look back is a feature of her life. The director delicately avoids demonstrating not only the sex scenes, but all her deals with clients in general. A maximum of what is shown is close-up women shoes, impatiently tapping on the pavement, then leading off towards men’s shoes. The heroine’s weary gait as she climbs the stairs, and, most importantly, the expression of her face, say about how difficult this income is earned. There is a stunning scene when the gambler Zhang comes to the “goddess” house  to get paid for rescuing her during a police raid. Realizing that she and her child are held hostage by this heartless man, “goddess” is about to burst into tears, but her sobbing efforts eventually turn into laughter. Thus, holding the tears, she is smiling, and the viewer sees a distorted face as all the music speeds up. The music that follows with its slightly syncopated rhythm either enhances or softens the tensions. Due to the widespread use of large and medium plans, a non-verbal contact establishes between an actor and a spectator. Subtitles succinctly complement what has already been read from facial expressions, gestures and attitudes, which are very true and natural, emotional, but without excessive expression. Even the murder scenes are filmed gently, without affectation, so that nobody but herself sees the blood on the heroine`s hands.

Nevertheless, this kind of happy ending (the main character is  sentenced to imprisonment for 12 years, but her son is adopted by a good man who would give him a decent education) is doubtful from a modern point of view. However, this honesty should also be attributed to the merits of the Goddess.

The White-Haired Girl: epic and reality

The powerlessness of women in traditional society was also showed in the musical drama The White-Haired Girl (Bai Mao nu). The main character of the movie directed by Choui Khoua and Bin Wang is a country girl, who, by circumstances, turned into a kind of legend-avenger. The almost two-hour long film plays up the Chinese folk-tale of the White Maiden who has an unusually long hair and lives in the mountains of Hebei Province (in a movie maid’s hair whitened because of her grief and emotions)..Using the folk-tales and national musical material can be counted as a successful ideological tool aimed at making the plot more engaging.

An honest and conscientious girl forced to lose her beloved man actually becomes the concubine of a local rich man because of the debts of her father. A quite schematic plot is compensated by a rich poetic language, and texts in the film are more memorable than visual picture. Forced to marry an unloved man because of abuse, she resorted to the same, the only possible way: escape to the mountains. Unlike that of the other two films, the plot of The Gray-Haired Girl entered the third, the external force. It is The Eighth Route army, that was decisively smashing the old world, along with personal  enemies of Xi’er. The film was made on a grand scale: the solemn epic music, panoramic views, detailed paintings of peasant labor and painful life, lengthy lyrical character of the song. It all added up to the movie, making an epic, politicized legend of modern times. For example, the touching scene of Wang Dachun meeting with villagers, especially with his mother, does not  last long: in the words of “our suffering ended,” a cheerful melody sounds off-screen. Even the scene of execution is presented as a kind of celebration: folk choir requires blood; White-Haired Girl demands the same, testifying about the crimes of Huang Shiren. She recites  a paraphrase of the preceding events, which is the technique, borrowed from folk tales. The White-Haired Girl sets an example for the establishment of a kind of justice. It ends with scenes of the crash of the old world: burned debt notes and bills, broken old buildings and the evil rich men who are supposed  to pay “for their crimes and murders.” with their lives. Private Xi’er story, which, figuratively, was a ghost, and became a human being again, is generalized to a national level: the shackles that Chinese people wore for 10 thousand years are broken, the river is free of ice, spring comes, and the flowers bloom. Here is the happy ending as it was shown in Chinese cinema of the 1950s.

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Raise the Red Lantern: mirrors the past and the present

Goddess was a black-and-white and silent movie; The White-Haired Girl was expressively voiced, while the third one, Raise the Red Lantern, directed by Zhang Yimou, presents both a sound, and a color. This retrospective film re-actualizes the problem of women’s fate and depending, in a patriarchal family in China in 1920-ies . As in the Goddess, there are no sex scenes, and in the meantime,  everything is mixed up with the sex.

All the action takes place during  one year (the plot is divided into four seasons), in the same spot: the Chinese feudal estate, with its many rooms, courtyards, and passages. Massive architecture plays a significant role in the development of the plot, reflecting the insignificance of the characters fate. It is facilitated by the widespread use of long-range plans, but the camera does not often come closer to the faces. It is almost impossible to discern individual owner of the house, which symbolizes the detachment of his female characters. Only sometimes the main character gets in close-up. Color in Zhang Yimou’s film becomes an effective working tool. First of all, red color, which is symbolic and expressive. The frame gets an abundance of red in  costumes and interiors. The greenery is completely absent in the frame; there are only cold gray stone walls and red lights. The sound also matters – the staccato of massage hammers, which causes all the female occupants of the estate to throw back their heads and rub their feet. Even the silence becomes important. The Fourth Mistress is silent when she detects a betrayal of a Second mistress (Zhang Yimou shows her pain as background singing). The young maid is silent while punished: a condition for her forgiveness is a public apology, but the girl does not say a word and falls on the frozen snow. The Third Mistress is a former singer; singing for her is at the same time a way  of attraction and anger, as well as the manifestation of herself. A rag in her mouth becomes a symbol of destroyed will.

Playing the flute and singing are  the only attempts to somehow confront the insanity of the mad polygamous life. The fourth mistress has a flute, but never uses it. In one scene, she pulls out a flute from the chest from her past life, twirls it in her hands, and then hides again. A moment is lost, her husband will burn a flute in a fit of jealousy. Thus, the director tells that his heroine loses autonomy and the last link with her past. Gong Li has created a vivid image of a woman who rebelled against the pressure of secular traditions. Her rebellion and her trial to protect her freedom are doomed. She cannot afford to change the rigid rules, adopted by centuries. The camera goes away, capturing  Gong Li as she is wearing her old uniform and roaming the yard absently, as if her character was locked in a prison cell.

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Three women, three fates

Three selected movies, shot by three generations of directors, depict women’s protest,. All three young women have imposed on them the status of “objects” and try different ways to deal with it. “Goddess”,  who sells her body every night,  is the most direct and immediate example. However, the Gray-Haired Girl also was “sold married” for her father debts, and Fourth Mistress is getting married on the inevitability (her study, primarily because of financial reasons, lasted only for six months). An important difference is their motherhood. “Goddess” is a gentle mother, while Xi’er is forced to kill her child, and The Fourth Mistress  mimics her pregnancy and fails.

The characters  of the films the Goddess and Raise the Red Lantern become hostages of circumstances in the world, where they are no supported and must act independently  The nature of  their actions is very different, though. “Goddess” is a type of a conformist. Timid and kind by her nature, the young woman is trying  to maneuver in severe circumstances until the last moment, until finally, she comes to the last degree of despair. Her quiet determination, maternal sacrifice, trying to find a home for herself and her child are worth of respect. The main character of the “Raise the Red Lantern” is much less appeasable and patient. She is a young suffragette, confident that she could single-handedly defeat the system (in her case, a system of home with almost harem foundations).The matter is that solutions that seemed very natural decades later were unimaginable in the period under review: “goddess” cannot get a normal job; the Fourth wife cannot gain  an education (the first step towards self-reliance). The escape (even escape into the self, like the Fourth wife) does not bring salvation. Changing social norms in China can be pointed  as a long and painful process, complicated by several reasons. However, in Chinese society there  always  was a female person, not ready to submit to circumstances, and thirsting for change. Although  their fate was often tragic,  these were probably the living examples and tools, that helped in the transformation of Chinese society of the first third of the last century.


The three films discussed above present three different periods of Chinese cinema. Each female  character chooses her way to revolt against the circumstances of society, domestic tyranny, superstition, etc. From these  three stories, only one ends  with a purely happy ending. It can be easily explained by the fact that female identity, as well as the emancipation movement , at a specified time (1920 – around 1935) in China was just emerging . However, it can be assumed that it is the cinema, revealing the complex problems of the forced marriages and improving the social status of women and their role in the family, that served the search for yield and progressive reforms in the society.

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