Woman as spectacle in Zhang Yimou’s “Theatre of Punishments”

Uploaded 18 December 1998

Various writers on Fifth Generation filmmaking have noted a characteristic ambiguity which refuses to prescribe a single set subject position for audiences.  [1] Rey Chow, for instance, describes Zhang Yimou’s films as the “enigmatic traps he sets up in order to engage his viewers in an infinite play and displacement of meanings and surfaces.” [2]  She writes:

the seduction of Zhang’s films . . . is that they keep crossing boundaries and shifting into new spheres of circulation. The wish to “liberate” Chinese women, which seems to be the “content,” shifts into the liberation of “China,” which shifts into the liberation of the “image” of China on film, which shifts into the liberation of “China” on film in the international culture market, and so on. (149)

This constant play can be seen as radically opposed to the certainty of totalitarian political ideology which, as Chow points out, “systematically wipes out the elusive” (98).Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (China; 1991) is an example of an “elusive” Fifth Generation motion picture. One critical response to this film, explored by several writers, is that Raise the Red Lantern is a feminist film “about” women’s repression under the Confucianist feudalism which Communism replaced. [3]

It seems to me that this is too literal a reading. I suggest that the film can be read as an allegory – not as an historical recreation, nor specifically feminist, nor particularly concerned about Confucianist repression. I believe it is, instead, a disguised critique of power, discipline and surveillance under the Communist regime. I don’t mean to say that this interpretation exhausts the film’s possible meanings, nor that this resolves the film’s ambiguity. Indeed, Zhang’s skilful strategy of indirectness also comments on Western uses of the visual, including in cinema itself.

In order to make my argument, I will look at Zhang’s use of the image of his star, the beautiful Gong Li, in Raise the Red Lantern. This film is typical of the melodramas Zhang made between 1988 and 1995. In the gorgeous, saturated colours of the three-strip Technicolor process [4] , it demonstrates the lush visual style that has won him a following in the West. And, like Zhang’s other films of this period, it also centres on a female protagonist, played by Gong.

As the protagonist in Zhang’s films, Gong naturally predominates: she simply has more screen time and more closeups than any other performer. In addition, her off-screen romance with Zhang, widely reported in newspapers and journals in China and Hong Kong [5] ,intensified her intertextual star aura, drawing even more attention to her screen image.

Certainly Zhang fully uses Gong as spectacle, a visual treat for the audience’s consumption. This is particularly so in Shanghai Triad (China; 1995), in which she plays a nightclub singer. Reynaud points out that in Gong’s first film, Red Sorghum (China; 1988), her smile revealed crooked teeth; by her next film – Ju dou (China; 1990) – she had had them straightened, aligning her more completely with Hollywood standards of to-be-looked-at-ness (21).

However, Laura Mulvey’s influential 1975 theorisation of woman-as-spectacle in narrative cinema [6] proves inadequate in understanding how the female image functions in this film. For a start, Mulvey’s psychosexual approach creates locked, gendered subject positions. According to Mulvey, audience identification with the active male protagonist and the camera’s eye constructs a masculine audience that looks at passive female spectacle (27). This focus on a male protagonist becomes problematic when a film – like this one – has a female protagonist. In Mulvey’s article, the hero represents not only masculinity but also the dynamics of the narrative. This cluster of qualities – masculine/active/narrative – is set against the cluster female/passivity/spectacle (27). But Zhang’s beautiful protagonists don’t fit this schema. Since the melodramas tell their story, since their actions move the story along, these women are both spectacle and narrative.

I believe that a more productive approach is to investigate the way Zhang uses the body of woman in spectacles of power as described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish:The Birth of the Prison[7] It is important to remember that, in these films, the female body may be signifying something other than sexual “difference.” E. Ann Kaplan records conversations with director Hu Mei, suggesting that her own and many other films dealing with the frustrations of heroines could be seen as a relatively safe way for Chinese directors to comment on the more general frustrations people endure under communism. (24)

In her book Primitive Passions, Rey Chow expands on this idea when she describes Fifth Generation filmmaking as a postcolonial process of autoethnography, of showing “China” to the Chinese. She points out that, in Chinese literature as well as film, “[t]ypically, ‘the Chinese people’ are displaced onto figures of the powerless” (112). Chow argues that:

a certain emotional stability arises from observing the powerless as spectacle . . . . Such pleasure gives rise, through an illusion of “solidarity” with the powerless, to the formation of a “unified” community. (135)

This possibly explains why the melodrama, which has been developing the spectacle of the powerless for over two centuries, should be such a popular form for Chinese filmmakers. And in melodrama, the spectacle of the powerless is often acted out on the body of a woman, which suggests a reason for the preponderance of Chinese filmic heroines. [8]

Raise the Red Lantern is set in twentieth-century, pre-Revolutionary China. Gong plays Songlian, a university student who – following the death of her father – has married a wealthy merchant, becoming his fourth wife. The struggle of the wives and their servants for status in the family hierarchy forms the foundation of the story. Power and control are visually enacted through pageant, ritual and images – Foucault’s “theatre of punishments” (104) – in a discourse that echoes the visual culture of Mao’s China.

Documentaries such as The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995; USA; Carma Hinton and Richard Cordon) or the BBC’s People’s Century episode on China (Great Leap) show many wide-ranging examples of the official uses of visuality. These include the public denouncements of weeping landlords; street parades with outsized paper models of the “four pests” – flies, mice, sparrows and bugs; Mao’s swim across the Yangtze River, complete with fully clothed soldiers, floating wooden models of rifles, and a gigantic poster of Mao’s face. Other examples are the architecture and monuments of Tiananmen Square, as well as the huge rallies and pageants staged there. The King of Chess (1990; Hong Kong; Yim Ho and Tsui Hark) reuses newsreel footage of Red Guard rallies – set to rock music – in its comparative exploration of visuality in modern Taiwan, and in China during the Cultural Revolution. Cultural artefacts such as the Beijing Opera were coopted to visually (as well as in other ways) represent the regime; even people’s clothes became part of a collective visual experience that reinforced the interpenetration of the political and the personal. [9]  And of course there are the spectacles of embalmed leaders:

Mao was placed in a refrigerated glass coffin circled by an endless file of Chinese mourners who cried their eyes out; moreover, a documentary of the mourning scene was immediately released nationwide so that ten billion spectators cried before the scene. [10]

The visual signs of power are crucial to its existence. “Power becomes both the producer and the product of its own discursive formation,” writes Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi. [11]  She explains:

. . . because power has no reality beyond its representation, therefore representation is the very essence of power . . . . Power needs discourse to be represented, and power can only sustain itself through its signs. (note 196-7)

These signs are lived through the body, which, as Foucault reminds us, is political, and its subjection to political power “is not only obtained by the instruments of violence or ideology; . . . it may be subtle, make use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet remain of a physical order” (26). He describes the effects of politics on the body: “power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (25).

As soon as Songlian arrives at the compound of her new husband, her body is “marked”: it is forced “to perform ceremonies” when it becomes the centrepiece of the foot-massage ceremony. The film itself reiterates the process of writing significance on her body, as the camera circles around Songlian while she undergoes the ritual for the first time. Surrounded by servants, she is at the centre of visual attention – theirs and ours. There are at least six different camera setups in this scene, and a number of cutaways such as those of servants lighting lanterns. [12]  The camera’s encircling of Songlian is so complete that it even breaks one of narrative cinema’s golden rules, threatening filmic continuity when it crosses the 180 degree line.

Songlian’s costumes further “mark” her body. She arrives dressed like a western schoolgirl in a white blouse and a dark, below-knee-length skirt. She is soon re-dressed in more obviously ethnic garments made of sumptuous fabrics that emphasise her feminine curves. Her extra-diegetic function as cinematic spectacle is enhanced; within the diegesis her body has been forced “to emit signs” appropriate to the wife of a wealthy man. These signs are not only of tradition and luxury, but also of adult female sexual display. The servants, who wear plain, androgynous outfits, are denied the right to emit such signs.

When Songlian’s new husband joins her for the first time, he orders her to hold a lantern to her face. He also insists the lights be left on while they have sex. Songlian’s obvious humiliation suggests that -although she had been prepared to be sexually owned in her marriage of convenience – it is particularly excruciating for this independent, modern woman to be visually appropriated this way.

By contrast, the husband’s face is not shown at any time throughout the film. The power differential is acted out through visibility: those who are subject to power are also subject to what Foucault calls “a principle of compulsory visibility” (187). But, in contrast, those who exercise power have the privilege of determining that, if they wish, they themselves can remain hidden.

But for Songlian, as for the other wives, visibility becomes an indication of proximity to the centre of power – the patriarch. [13] This visibility is cruelly underscored by the nightly ritual of the red lanterns, in a visualisation both of patriarchial power and of women’s reproductive role in it. While all the wives and their maids watch, the patriarch’s choice of wife-for-the-night is signalled by the placing of the glowing, womb-like lantern in front of that wife’s quarters. The symbol is elaborately worked out: the lanterns also have black covers which can be used as a public symbol of punishment, an absolute extinguishment of their light. The ritual lamp-lighting elevates the honoured wife, and humiliates the others, who melt back into invisibility, retreating out of sight into their darkened doorways. Thus visibility, a condition of the wives’ subjection, becomes so internalised that it also becomes a reward, something they vie for through Machiavellian plotting. As Foucault puts it, “In discipline, punishment is only one element of a double system: gratification-punishment” (180).

Foucault describes how power is not owned or exercised solely by those in control, but is manifested throughout all strata of the society (27). Because the power relations are internalised and naturalised at all levels, the master’s “eyes” are everywhere; all eyes carry out surveillance. Zhang has said of his own childhood, “I grew up under the surveillance of people who kept an eye on me through the cracks of the door.” [14] In Mao’s China, women became official hygiene officers, inspecting other women’s houses for dust. [15]  Other recent Chinese films deal with invasive surveillence. A painful scene in The Blue Kite (China/Hong Kong; 1993; Tian Zhuangzhuang) shows an inspector denouncing a thrifty housewife who must have – the inspector claims – used black market flour to make such a large batch of buns to welcome her son home; the buns are confiscated. In the Sixth Generation film, The Postman (China; 1995; Re Jianjun), the notion of privacy is explored through a postal worker’s opening the letters he is supposed to deliver. Raise the Red Lantern suggests that there simply is no privacy. This is emphasised by the foot-massage ritual, repeated each night on the chosen wife’s feet. Although the other wives have sequestered themselves within their own quarters, their “private” space is invaded by the tapping sounds of the massage hammer; power penetrates thick walls.

In another instance, a wooden flute – Songlian’s only legacy from her father – is removed from where she has hidden it in her suitcase. The master had thought it was a gift from a lover and confiscated it. This resonates with an anecdote which Zhang has told about his childhood, recounted by Stuart Klawans. His father had been a Kuomintang Army major, and young Zhang one day found, in a drawer, a brass button with the Nationalists’ flag on it. His mother promptly effaced the flag, unwelcome visual evidence of a suspect connection (12).

When Songlian foolishly attempts to bend the system to her own advantage by pretending to be pregnant, she temporarily gains the privilege of constantly having the red lanterns and the master’s attention. But her maid Yaner exposes Songlian’s underwear, spotted with menstrual blood – visible proof of her duplicity.

Yaner has made her own attempt at circumventing the system, her own paradoxical effort to gain access to visibility. Although a sexual partner of the master, she has no right to the public affirmation of this status through the red lanterns. So she has collected discarded lanterns, patching them and hiding them in her room, where she lights them privately. In an act of revenge for the maid’s exposure of the fake pregnancy, Songlian flings the lanterns into view in the courtyard, denouncing her. The red lanterns on the white snow visually echo the red spots of blood on Songlian’s white underpants, the two crimes of in-visibility poignantly linked together.

The maid is forced to kneel in the snow while the lanterns are burnt. It’s a public ceremony of punishment which results in the maid’s death. But when the third wife is discovered having an affair, she suffers an even more extreme punishment – her death is invisible, without ceremony or ritual. A former opera singer – that is, a woman who had displayed herself on stage, whose visibility was part of her career – she is dragged through the misty predawn and secretly hung in a locked room on the roof.

As punishment for bringing herself to the attention of another man, she vanishes. Foucault writes:

The art of punishment, then, must rest on a whole technology of representation . . . . To find the suitable punishment for a crime is to find the disadvantage whose idea is such that it robs forever the idea of a crime of any attraction. (104)

And, he reminds us, “the guilty person is only one of the targets of punishment. For punishment is directed above all at others, at all the potential guilty” (107). The third wife’s death – for which Songlian is partly responsible – also punishes Songlian, who is one of the “potential guilty” because of her attraction to the master’s adult son.

Songlian peeps through the locked door of the roof room and sees the third wife’s body. When she calls her husband a murderer, the master – whose power gives him control of the visual – tells her, “You didn’t see a thing. You’ve gone mad.” Songlian does indeed go mad, is stripped of her lanterns, and -dressed again in the clothes in which she arrived – she haunts the compound as someone without status, barely visible. In fact, the last few frames of the film show her dissolving into the darkening courtyard.

The sentence of invisibility is also one that the Communist regime carried out:

The day after Mao’s funeral, all Chinese newspapers carried photos of the top leadership standing in a long line in front of the crowd at the memorial ceremony. When it was the monthlies’ turn to carry the same photos, the “Gang of Four” had meanwhile been purged. The photos, already known to the Chinese public, were issued again, but this time the disgraced leaders had all disappeared from the pictures, leaving awkward gaps . . .- the general effect being underlined, rather than alleviated by the censor’s heavy handling of the airbrush, and by his clumsy retouching of the background. [16]

As an aside, note that Rey Chow indicates that the room on the roof does not exist in the novel on which the film was based. Instead, the third wife is thrown down a well (148-9). The Freudian symbolism of a female void has been replaced by a male tower; the tower, while not a literal spy tower, has a symbolic connection with Bentham’s Panopticon, analysed by Foucault:

the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. . . the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. . . The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad. (201-2)

Intriguingly, the film itself continually complicates the “seeing/being seen dyad.” For example, the audience is encouraged to look at Songlian as a sexual object. In the scene where the new husband orders Songlian to hold the lantern to her face, the camera’s view is clearly aligned with his scopophilic gaze. The husband’s shadowy insubstantiality may prevent the audience identifying fully with him as a character. However, in a complex intertwining of visibility, power and desire, Zhang’s off-screen relationship with Gong can set up an intertextual parallel between the cinematic husband, and the film director, whose commands to his actor (“Lift your head”) are similar to those given by the husband. In another twist of the braid, the invisibility of the husband parallels that of the audience.

But even though these cross-connections re-emphasise that Songlian is the subject of the scopophilic gaze – even though we enjoy consuming her that way – our pleasure is undercut by the strong identification with her we have already been encouraged to feel. Our pleasure is a guilty one, as it implicates us in the patriarchal forces ranged against her. The double identification – with both the person who gazes and the person who is gazed at; that is, with both the powerful and the powerless, with both male and female – is compromising and uncomfortable. Zhang could possibly have a political agenda here, in turning the discomfiting mirror on Westerners. As Chow points out, “voyeuristic aggression” is often associated with orientalism: the West gazing at the spectacle of the feminized East (171). (And in fact, Chinese writers have criticized Raise the Red Lantern on the grounds that Zhang made it to appease foreigners’ tastes for the exotic.) [17]

The double identification with both the one-who-looks and the one-who-is-looked-at echoes the way that Foucault theorises the invidious internalisation of power:

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjections. (202-3)

To conclude, then, I ask: What is the significance of Zhang’s use of woman-as-spectacle? First, it provides an illustration of the complex ways cultural influences work. Zhang’s films have been successful in the West partly because they are so accessible to Western audiences; the films, after all, are shaped by Zhang’s familiarity with Western forms such as melodrama, the musical, and the gangster film, in addition to European art films of the sixties and seventies. [18]  As well, the beautiful Gong Li provides a focal point in Zhang’s films in a manner that is reassuringly familiar to those who are schooled in watching mainstream narrative. As Chow points out, she is part of a process of deliberate “packaging” that helps the film “to contend for attention in metropolitan markets” (58).

But Zhang has, in the process of using his sources, transformed them. His use of Gong’s to-be-looked-at-ness, for example, can be seen as a conscious quotation of a “cultural cliché” that critiques the West’s use of woman-as-spectacle, as Chow notes (167). By setting up his scopophilic shots, Zhang tempts the audience into a certain position of subjectivity, which is then destablised and subverted by audience identification with Songlian.

But I believe that, for many among the film’s Chinese audiences, Raise the Red Lantern had a different “meaning,” providing an important but disguised critique of repressive power relations in a totalitarian state.

Zhang’s “evasiveness” arises from the multiple subject positions possible in response to his spectacle of Gong Li. What is breathtaking, however, is the extent to which his use of imported cultural forms has allowed him to reflect subversively on two cultural contexts at once, as he comments on the repressiveness of the visual regimes of both the West and China.

[1] E. Ann Kaplan,”Melodrama/Subjectivity/Ideology: Western melodrama theories and their relevance to recent Chinese Cinema,” in Melodrama and Asian Cinema, ed. Wimal Dissanayake (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 9-28.Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets. Chris Berry, “Neither one thing nor another: toward a study of the viewing subject and Chinese cinema in the 1980s,” in New Chinese Cinemas: Forms, Identities, Politics, ed. Nick Browne et al (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994): 88-113.
[2] Rey Chow, Primitive Passions: Visuality, Sexuality, Ethnography and Contemporary Chinese Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press): 150. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[3] See for example Joann Lee’s “Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern: contextual analysis of film through a Confucian/feminist matrix,” Asian Cinema 8, no.1 (1996): 120-7.
[4] Roger Ebert (27 March 1992) “Review: Raise the Red Lantern,”Chicago Sun-times, http://www.suntimes.com/ebert/ebert_reviews/1992/03/748213.html/[November 1 1998]. Interestingly, in September 1998, Zhang directed a sumptuous $15 million production of Puccini’s opera Turandot, staged in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Like his films, the opera focuses on a female protagonist (Lynne O’Donnell, “Unforbidden opera,” Weekend Australian, August 15-16 1998, Review: 16-8).
[5] Berenice Reynaud, “Glamour and suffering: Gong Li and the history of Chinese stars,” in Woman and Film: Sight and Sound Reader, eds. Pam Cook and Phillip Dodd (London: Scarlet Press/BFI, n.d.): 21. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[6] Laura Mulvey, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” in The Sexual Subject: Screen Reader in Sexuality (London: Routledge, 1992): 22-34. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[7] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979). Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[8] For example, see Chris Berry, “China’s new ‘women’s’ cinema,”Camera obscura 18 (1988): 8-19.
[9] Antonia Finnane, “What should Chinese women wear? A national problem,” Modern China 22, no. 2 (1996): 99-131.
[10] Yuejin Wang, “Melodrama as historical understanding: the making and the unmaking of communist history,” in Melodrama and Asian Cinema, ed. Wimal Dissanayake (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 75.
[11] Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi, Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini’s Italy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997): 3. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[12] Pointed out in Stuart Klawans, “Zhang Yimou: local hero,” Film Comment 31, no. 5 (1995): 16, 18. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[13] See Great Leap for footage of a schoolgirl’s excitement and fame after being selected to shake Mao’s hand.
[14] Luo Xueying, “Chao zhe xin zhong de yishu shengdi – ji daoyan Zhang Yimou,” [Toward the aesthetic holy land in the heart – remembering director Zhang Yimou], Hong gaoliang: 115, qtd. Chow, note: 238.
[15] See the documentary Great Leap.
[16] Simon Leys, “Human Rights in China,” in The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics (New York: Henry Holt, 1985): 118-9, qtd. Wang: 82.
[17] Jane Ying Zha, “Excerpts from ‘Lore Segal, Red lantern, and exoticism,” Public Culture 5, no. 2 (1993): 329, qtd. Chow, note: 233; Dai Qing criticised the film on the grounds that “this kind of film is really shot for the casual pleasures of foreigners” (“Raised eyebrows for Raise the Red Lantern,” trans. Jeanne Tai, Public Culture 5, no. 2 [1993]: 336, qtd. Chow: 151).
[18] (17)David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994): 781. Note, however, that Zhang claims “I don’t understand a Western audience’s taste” (Mayfair Yang, “Of gender, state censorship, and overseas capital: an interview with Chinese director Zhang Yimou,” Public Culture 5, no. 2 [1993]: 305, qtd. Chow, note: 233).

About the Author

Jeannette Delamoir

About the Author

Jeannette Delamoir

Jeannette Delamoir’s enduring interest in Australian silent film led to a PhD in media studies at La Trobe University, and a dissertation on silent actress Louise Lovely. During 2008, she coordinated the National Film and Sound Archive’s DVD release of The Sentimental Bloke. As a visiting fellow at the NFSA during 2011, she researched filmmaker Franklyn Barrett’s 1925 Queensland tour presenting DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Her second doctorate - this one in creative writing - involves a non-fiction project on traveling performers, vaudeville and silent film in regional Queensland in 1913.View all posts by Jeannette Delamoir →