Confucianism in Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum: Significance of Formal Context in Creating Positive Depiction

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University of British Columbia

Confucianism in Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum
Significance of Formal Context in Creating Positive Depiction

Ian Godman
ASIA 355 (921)
Rui Wang

Red Sorghum is a complex cinematographic exploration of Chinese cultural roots resistant to unambiguous interposition within the socio-political spectrum, particularly in relation to Confucianism: a lingering and historically viable doctrine intimately intertwined with the Chinese civilization. Zhang Yimou’s works are sometimes ascribed with an anti-Confucian sentiment (Neo, 2). However, such observation can be traced mainly to a medium-free contextualization of feminism within a historical framework of patriarchal dominance affiliated with Confucianism. In other words, establishing the aforementioned contextual connection in a complex medium such as cinematography requires a validation that relies on factors other than the mere mention of China to prove that Confucianism is the dominant force behind the tyranny of patriarchal environment. While such factors are present in some Zhang Yimou’s works, they are by no means universal to all of them. For instance, David Neo manages to establish sound grounds for such a connection in his article about “Raising the Red Lantern”, through visual factors of immediate significance to the cinematographic medium: he argues that architectural positioning has metaphorical significance to epitomize the restraints established by Confucianism, saying that “the way in which space is outlined and occupied in these houses is an expression of complex social rules”. The discourse space in Red Sorghum on the other hand is defined by a radically differing set of elements, which offers no substantial evidence in support of Confucianism as a restraining system, other than on the level of the narrative itself where the girl is initially taken to marry a leprous guy to fulfill the obligation of filial piety to her father. In fact, through its formal elements, the movie is more readily perceivable as a depoliticized environment. Yingjing Zhang argues along similar lines as he explores the relation between ultimate liberation from constraints, and the symbolic significance of human body (49). The lack of political presence is also seen from formal elements such as frequent depictions of the geographical landscape: a deserted environment resembling barrens, and the fact that the wine is produced from Sorghum – a fairly dry grain crop. The physical space could be a metaphor for the national space, and lack of hydration is akin to lack of ideological backbone which is allegedly is necessary for a nation to flourish. Having established that, we can now concentrate on the philosophical aspect of Confucianism decontextualized, and depoliticized from contemporary political ideas, and current social issues. I will further attempt to argue that two of the symbolic frameworks in the movie Red Sorghum embody primeval Confucian ideas pertaining to government, exonerating their original philosophical significance, which is exemplified by works such as the Analects.

The first scene in the movie reveals a peculiar dynamic which can be subjected to a symbolic interpretation. Jiu’er is confined within the Sedan, also confined against the wooden square frame behind her back. However, she is being placed higher in relation to all the men carrying her, and above the ground: something indicative of a higher hierarchical standing. If we allow ourselves to step outside of the narrative context, and assume based on these formal features that Jiu’er is not an oppressed victim, but a ruler figure: her confinement and other formal elements begin to fall into a single framework. Her confinement now is not a form of oppression, but a display of the Confucian virtue of moral force in relation to the concept of the Rectification of Names. Just like Confucius is known to have prescribed a correct moral course of action in accord...
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