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"Raise The Red Lantern" 1991, China Zhang Yimou


In 1991, Zhang Yimou released a movie regarding a story about an aristocrat family entitled “Raise the Red Lantern”. This aristocrat’s leader was a man known as the master. The master had a large mansion. The master lived with four wives (mistresses), two children and many servants. The main story was about how the fourth mistress entered a polygamist marriage and her adjustment to it. Additionally, there were clear distinctions between the mistress’s servants, and a doctor. Throughout the master’s property, there are red lanterns that represent which mistress the master is going to spend the day with. On that day, they got perks like massages, a choice of meals and any other amenities. This contributed to the conflicts in the movie between each of the wives. In total, the master had 5 wives overall, which in other words is known as polygamy.


The time period where this story took place was the 1920s, when polygamy was highly practiced in China, which lasted until the ending of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. In patriarchal societies, most women were more tolerant of the fact that their husband has other wives. A year after the ending of the Chinese Civil War, Communist Dictator, Mao Zedong created the New Marriage Law in 1950, which outlawed polygamy. Even after the 1950s, polygamy was outlawed two additional times, in 1980 and again in 2020.


From the very start of the movie, the 4th mistress just showed up to the mansion and she just met the master right at the wedding. Following the wedding, the 4th mistress was given a tour of the mansion where she met the other mistresses and her servant, “Yan’er”. Upon their introduction, there was immediate tension between Yan’er and Mistress 4 that we find out later that she wanted to become the 4th mistress, but she was unable to because she worked for the master as a maid and had a lack of skills. She continued to wander around because she wanted to be left alone. Throughout the movie, it was illustrated that the mistresses gossiped and caused trouble for each other, so they have attention from the Master. Some of these troubles caused great conflict and tragedies due to the strict rules of the family. As the movie progressed, Mistress 4 started to act out against the other mistresses where she faked a pregnancy. On her birthday night, got intoxicated and spilled some family secrets from the other wives, leading to more tragedy.


The general theme for this film was what a Chinese Aristocrat family was like in the 1920s. Additionally, the lanterns contributed to many other conflicts and moments domestic violence and homicide where there was on the roof that was used to hang people that did not adhere to the polygamist structure of the society and the customs of this family.

The younger mistresses were not so accepting of the polygamist structure and the two older mistresses were more accepting of the structure.


China’s society today is not as patriarchal as it was back in the 1920s. It was interesting to see China’s illustration of their patriarchal society of the 1920s. Today, marriages in China are very typical where a man has only one wife and then they have children together. If they grow apart, they can file a divorce, but during Mao’s era, it was not practiced as much because many wives were hesitant that they would be penalized if they did divorce their husbands.

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Michael Atkinson
Michael Atkinson
Mar 08, 2021

As you note, the film is all about the "traditional" ways in which Chinese society oppressed and used women, as all patriarchal societies do in one way or another; Zhang's best movies (like, the first six) are all about spirited women (usually played by Gong) confronting their limited or dreadful social-cultural choices -- that's the theme. Polygamy was for ages a common practice in Asia, Africa, Mid-East, etc., and today it can be seen as an extreme metaphor for the subjugation of women, which continues in subtler forms. Visual style?

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