Alexandra Lange | Essays

Little Dictators

From deep in the auteur files, last night we watched Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou (1990), starring a young and beautiful Gong Li. It is nice to see someone so glamorous and so often presented to us in form-fitting silk qipao, look just as beautiful in a navy padded jacket and flowered pajama pants (her costume, with some variation, for most of the film). I could reasonably write a sequel to my Brick Lane post on textiles and Asian women, since passion in early 20th-century rural China, as well as late 20th-century urban Britain, is expressed in lengths of gloriously filmed red and yellow silk. The fabric fetishism is worked into the plot neatly: Yang Jinshan, husband of Ju Dou is a fabric dyer and he, adopted nephew Yang Tianqing and Ju Dou live and work in a two-courtyard, thatched roof house, just one of the multitude that make up their village. They work together to dye, dry and fold the seemingly endless lengths of cloth, which hang in the larger courtyard like heraldic pennants, bringing light to the lower depths as well as a false sense of privacy.

The plot of Ju Dou is diagrammatic in the extreme, almost Greek tragic, with a limited cast of characters all locked up in that house, and situations that repeat, with the players switched, time and again. Before Zhang Yimou forsook such rice bowl melodrama for wire-work spectacles, his films were seen as subversive commentary on the Chinese state. Ju Dou was suppressed in China, for it suggests that feudal authority and the Communist state rule with the same iron fist.

That iron fist does change from an old, wrinkled hand to a young, firm one, both stained by the vats of dye. Ju Dou has a son, Tianbai, who first seems like freedom. She has seduced Tianqing, knowing the impotent old man will beat her until she bears him a son, and sees Tianbai as her ticket to respect. But Tianbai is a spooky child, watchful and silent, who appears each time Ju Dou and Tianqing think they are alone together and simply scowls. He does not love his mother, or his real father, but the old man. He respects authority, not love. And so he becomes their new jailer, almost without saying a word. He may represent the Red Guard politically, but he demonstrates the conservatism of children domestically. He wants his family to be normal, everyone to keep to their place, and effects this by playing on their love and the cultural worship of sons. He is the only Yang of the new generation, so he will inherit the mill, so mother and uncle are working for him. The movie expresses his power best in the funeral scene, where mother and uncle must prostrate themselves before Jinshan’s coffin 49 times; Tianbai sits atop the coffin, his face blank, showered in paper money over and over again.

The movie is a melodrama, but in Tianbai’s silent power, I see a parallel to the current parental state, good and bad. Many people wait so long to have children, and spend a great deal of time and money in the process, adding extra layers of emotional investment to a successful birth. The family refocuses around the child’s needs, wants and desires, before he or she really has any. (Think of parents imprisoned by naptime.) People don’t get divorced for the sake of the children, allowing form to precede personal happiness. Children like structure, and will figure out who the most powerful person in the household is through the imposition of rules. They don’t have to love us as we love them, but take it as a given.


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