Course:ASIA355/2023/Ju Dou: Exploring the Fabric of Gender Construct through a Transnational Lens

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Ju Dou: Exploring the Fabric of Gender Construct through a Transnational Lens

Zhang Yimou's film: Ju Dou (1990)

Based upon Zhang Yimou's film Ju Dou (Chinese: 菊豆), released in April 1990.

Group Members' Contributions

Distribution of Contributions
Category Contributors
Introduction A L
Stories Behind the Film E Z
History of Reception A L
Scholarly Literature Review S M
Comparative Analysis K G
Alternative Interpretation H C
Conclusion E Z


Ju Dou is a film directed by Fifth-Generation filmmaker Zhang Yimou, which was adapted from Liu Heng’s novella Fuxi Fuxi. The film was made in a joint venture with Japan and was first released in Japan on April 21, 1990. At the time of its release, the film was banned in China and wasn’t lifted until 1992. The main characters in the film are: Ju Dou (portrayed by Gong Li), Yang Tianqing (portrayed by Li Baotian) and Yang Jinshan (portrayed by Li Wei).

The film begins with Ju Dou being tortured day and night by her elderly husband, Yang Jinshan, and soon she discovers that her adopted nephew Yang Tianqing is spying on her. She falls in love with him and conceives a child, Yang Tianbai. However, Yang Jinshan's accidental death leads to gossip among the villagers about the relationship between Ju Dou and Tianqing. As Yang Tianbai grows up, he begins to oppose his adulterous parents, eventually leading to a decimated family.

By portraying the devastating outcomes of the patriarchal and Confucian cultural norms prevalent in rural China during that era, Zhang Yimou's directorial work in Ju Dou offers audiences a glimpse into the profound impact of the Chinese feudal system. Through the exploration of story behind the film and comparative media reviews, the prevalent pattern unveils how the social ideology in Chinese culture differs greatly from that of Western society. By reading English peer reviews, watching a comparative transnational film and finding alternative interpretation of the film Ju Dou, our group focused on the similarities and differences between Ju Dou and Western cultures regarding female gender construction, social institutional systems, and the meaning of the “fabric” shot. Our comparison of Western academic film critiques and transnational films, has demonstrated the transnational appeal of the film Ju Dou while also reflecting the destruction of humanity in the context of the Chinese feudal system during the 1920s.

Stories Behind the Film

About Director Zhang Yimou and Red Fabrics in Ju Dou

Silk being dyed red in Ju Dou

Set in twentieth-century Mainland China, Ju Dou is part of a trilogy of films that garnered director Zhang Yimou auteur status in the international filmmaking industry. The colour red, such as the silk in Ju Dou, is a common theme across all films. In an interview with the director Zhang, he proposes that “We Chinese have been too moderate, too reserved…[the colour red] encourages unrestrained lust for life”[1].

The film is interpreted as redolent of Zhang’s struggles in his personal life[2]. Born to parents who were classified as “bad elements”. Zhang was the subject of abuse and discrimination since childhood[2]. During the Cultural Revolution, he was forced to go to the countryside to work and be re-educated by peasants. For ten years, he worked on a farm and textile mill unable to escape, until he made a radical decision of selling his blood to buy his first camera. This choice ultimately allowed him to enter the Beijing Film Academy, leading him onto the road of a seemingly better future. It is undeniable that Zhang’s success in the international filmmaking industry is exceptional, yet he is one of the most persecuted directors under the Communist regime[2]. Such persecution is evident in the banning of his films, the self-criticisms he was forced to write, and the repeated demands at constraining creative expression in his films by officials[2]. Zhang’s troublesome political and class background confined him to a state of discrimination and rendered him a persistent subject of criticism and harassment by the Chinese government.

To Zhang, red is not a colour of celebration nor a colour of revolution. It is the primary colour of life, like the blood he sold that gave him a second chance at life and his dogged desire to produce films despite being mistreated by Chinese officials. Red is a commemoration of freedom, exuberance, and the most primal desires and aspirations[1]. In the film Ju Dou, red is seen in the silks that are hung to dry. Seemingly unrestrained on the rafters, the fabric shines only to be pulled down to earth and restrained again[3]. The red silk mirrors Zhang’s restrained journey as a Chinese filmmaker and his inability to freely express himself and the true societal issues faced in China. Zhang and his films shine abroad with unparalleled success, unrestrained on the rafters, only to be dragged down and bashed upon in China.

Navigating China’s Tight Control Over Filmmaking

Since the release of Red Sorghum in 1987, Chinese officials had put stricter restrictions on the film-making industry in China, cutting back production and extending funding only to films that supported propaganda purposes[4]. The film Ju Dou sought funding and collaboration with Japanese investors, Tokuma Communications. Such co-production allowed for the film to go beyond national film making guidelines and offer a more realistic perspective on humanity and life in 1920s China. The transnational collaboration supported and applauded Ju Dou’s brave expression of adult subject matter, such as nudity and post-coital bliss, that would otherwise be considered unwholesome by the prudish Chinese audience[5]. Despite Zhang’s careful navigation around guidelines and the film being approved by Chinese authorities before production, Ju Dou was still banned for a few years before its release in China in 1992.

Original novella "The Obsessed" (Fuxi Fuxi in Chinese) by Liu Heng

Deliberate Adjustments Made to the Original Novella, Fuxi Fuxi

The film Ju Dou is adapted from the novella Fuxi Fuxi, by Liu Heng, from which Zhang made considerable adjustments in an attempt to avoid censorship. The most significant change is the date on which the story is based. The film Ju Dou changed the time period from the highly charged political environment of the 1940s to 60s in Fuxi Fuxi to the 1920s. In an interview, Zhang expresses that this adjustment was primarily due to the political sensitivity and drama that characterizes the 1940s and the revolutionary period[3]. By setting the film in the period before the rise of communism, filmmakers can avoid the restrictions imposed on films when representing political and societal matters. Any wrongdoings, human emotions, and moral ambiguities depicted in the film can be blamed on the old society and not the new society under communist rule.

Another adjustment lies in the location of the film, the old textile mill[2].  In an interview, Zhang expresses that films should be about emotions as opposed to philosophical theories and messages, which other Fifth-Generation filmmakers tend to focus on. The subject matter and thoughts should be simplified to allow for the strengthening of the capacity and power of emotions[1]. The mill, and more specifically the use of fabrics in the mill, was added to incorporate dramatic colours and tones that enhance the visual beauty of the film, for which Zhang Yimou’s cinematography is known[5]. The striking colours make the film more appealing to the senses and thus strengthen the emotional aspects of the film.

Histories of the Film’s Reception

Chinese Critiques on Ju Dou

When the film Ju Dou was first released in 1990, it drew strong criticism in China. The film tells the story of a pair of lovers in rural China in the 1920s who are doomed to failure under the feudal social system. Chinese officials at the Chinese Film Bureau, tried their best to prevent Ju Dou's release. They were successful in barring the films release in Mainland China but to their dismay failed to prevent Ju Dou's release outside of the Mainland. At that time, Hong Kong had not yet returned to China, and the main Chinese audience for Ju Dou was the Hong Kong Chinese, who saw the film when it was released in Hong Kong during the winter of 1990. These Chinese audiences responded with tepidity because after the viewing of the film they understood why Chinese officials set restrictions for the Ju Dou. However the real reason was not caused by the realistic depiction of sex and the revealing images but rather it was because of the “somber” tone depicted in the film. The underlining tone that was accentuated by Zhang Yimou was unacceptable in the context of the film’s set during the 1920s.

Ju Dou and her "nephew" Yang Tianqing having an affair

According to Chinese scholars such as Sun Longji, the idea of “Yin” (excessive sexual feeling or action) and “Zhen” (female sexual purity, the opposite of Yin) is crucial to understanding Chinese attitudes toward the subject of Ju Dou[6]. After thousand years of cultural baptism, Chinese society at that time had merged with the patriarchal and doctrinal aspects of Confucianism. People who violated the Confucian concepts of “Zhong” (loyalty to one’s country), “Zhen” (loyalty to one’s husband), and “Xie” (filial piety) were severely criticized in the 1920s’ feudal society[6]. When watching the film in the 1990s, the audience was automatically transported to the feudal social background of the 1920s; this is why the film Ju Dou is considered to show a challenge to basic Chinese beliefs, with the film depicting 1920s characters striking a powerful blow against Chinese feudal logic, which perhaps hurt deeply the psyche of many Chinese in the 1990s. Eventually, with the collision of Eastern and Western ideas, the ban was lifted two years after Ju Dou was banned in China, that is, in 1992, after Zhang Yimou made the “acceptable” The Story of Qi Ju in 1992[2]. After that, the film Ju Dou was also gradually coming into the view of Chinese audiences, and Chinese culture was impacted while audiences were experiencing the film’s exciting plot.

Western Critiques on Ju Dou

However, the film won accolades from audiences and attracted enormous international attention from a Western perspective, not only because it was a foreign-language film that won Cannes, the Chicago International Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar but also because its release was controversial among Chinese film officials. The Chinese Film Bureau, the censorship board for all films shown in Mainland China, deemed the film detrimental to the “image of China” and attempted to remove it from the 1991 Oscar nominations on the grounds that it had not yet been commercially released in Mainland China, while the Oscar committee argued that the film already had a paying audience, so it could not be struck off, even though the numbers were small and probably concentrated in Hong Kong.

Ju Dou is highly acclaimed in the West because Western culture does not have the term “Yin” or the establishment of Confucianism; their culture advocates freedom and openness and putting aside the cultural context and environment of China, they found the film’s break from the norm intriguing. As noted from Western film critic Roger Ebert: “The film appealed to me for two reasons. First, because of its unabashed, lurid melodrama, in which the days are filled with scheming and the nights with passion and violence. Second, because of its visual beauty.” [7]

Scholarly Literature Review

Examining Sexuality and Subjectivity Through a Gendered Perspective

In Shu-Qin Cui’s article on representation and construction of gender constructs [8],  she utilizes textual and close cinematic analysis of meanings embedded in cinematic language to argue that representations of women like Ju Dou, when viewed from a gendered perspective, convey a desire to reassert a repressed male subjectivity and lost masculinity.

Jinshan sits saddled atop his wife, showcasing his social cultural power in this cinematic composition of riding a horse

The author further questions whose sexuality and subjectivity are truly being represented, arguing that the visibility of the sexualized heroine Ju Dou, and the social oppression she embodies, is merely a medium on which the hidden “shadow of patriarchal unconscious”[8] is projected.

To examine this theory, Cui uses the example of the first narrative order, the triangle of relations consisting of the husband, the wife, and the nephew. In this gender structure, Cui notes that Jinshan symbolizes the ultimate social authority as head of the household and owner of the dye mill, while Ju Dou’s chief function is to bear an heir. However, delving past the socially assigned relations, Cui remarks that the reason “why” Jinshan brutalizes Ju Dou is not due to the social ownership he has, but rather his sexual lack and fear of not having posterity[8]. The contradiction between gendered power and anxiety to restore masculinity sets Ju Dou as an agent in the film by which Jinshan’s desire to restore his patriarchal power can be fulfilled at her expense.

Cui’s article is significant in provoking thought on the limitations of the Chinese patriarchy. With distinctive features of emphasizing positional rather than personal power, males are dictated in the system by male subjectivity, resulting in Jinshan’s psychological fear and Tianqing’s social castration. The approach Cui takes suggests that women embody neither social identity nor personal subjectivity. How the film shows Ju Dou wrest control over her body from both Jinshan and Tianqing is an example Cui uses to support her argument that females in terms of the gendered perspective, have the capability to claim personal identity and are the cinematic medium through which male consciousnesses search, restore, and affirm their sexuality. In conclusion, when applying the concept of gendered gaze there are aspects of culturally situated feminism within the film.

Unraveling Intricately Woven Textile Messaging

Tianqing lays tangled and bloodied after he is kicked by his son Tianbai

In the article “Chinese Whispers: Variations on Textile” by Ros Gray, she proposes that textiles can come to inhabit the cinematic space. In her reading of Ju Dou, textile is not only presented in the setting of cloth-making but also in “making the meaning of cloth”[9]. By exploring the various interpretations of textiles, Gray identifies textiles in Ju Dou as a metaphor for social fabric, a textile screen to observe processes through, and as a way to structure and lay out projections of multiple simultaneous meanings.

At the beginning of the film, the audience is introduced to the setting of the fabric-dyeing factory of a small remote village in China, heavily governed by patriarchal, Confucian, and ancestral values. The factory is where wet cloth gains its symbolic colours to be used as banners in ceremonies that reinforce the social hierarchy. According to Gray, Ju Dou, as a woman in this patriarchal frame, is the “nomadic element in the social fabric”[9]. Her introduction into the familial structure marks the beginning of changing patterns and movement in the film. Following the line of argument, Gray uses the examples of Ju Dou and Tianqing getting tangled in the drapes of fabric, bruised by the factory machinery and hands discoloured by the pools of dye, as an extension of the restrictive social fabric by which all actions in the factory are tied. Other more explicitly visual images of the metaphorical thread of society include the fabric bound Ju Dou as she is tortured, and the paralyzed Jinshan hoisted to the upper floor by rope.

Gray draws on additional scenes of Tianqing observing Ju Dou amongst the sunlit contours of the draped fabric to support her claim of the cinematic screen as a textile itself. Light acts as moments of clarity to “brea[k] through obscurity”,[9] and surface level messaging filters through the cinematic screen to illuminate more profound meanings. In this way, the desire and love between Ju Dou and Tianqing is conveyed to the audience through layers of visuals.

Biographical and Ideological Intersection in Ju Dou

In Vincent Brook’s article “To Live and Dye in China: The Personal and the Political in Zhang Yimou’s Judou”, Brook highlights the uncanny similarities between Director Zhang Yimou’s own personal struggles and political past with the film Ju Dou. These similarities are not only allegorical to the struggles of the Chinese people as a whole[2] but as the author suggests, extend beyond the auteur approach of a filmmaker.

To underpin a thorough examination of the film, Brook first notes some key facts from Director Zhang’s past. Zhang comes from a bad political and class background, as a child, Zhang suffered discrimination and abuse over his father’s and uncle’s political involvements. At 16, Zhang was sent to the countryside, where he worked on a farm for three years and a textile factory for seven. Already, many similarities are found in just a brief overview of Zhang’s past. The turbulent childhood experience of Zhang is not only reflected in Tianqing’s background as an orphan adopted by his uncle Jinshan but also by Tianbai, an unrealistically inexpressive boy who encounters scenes of gossip about his family.

The article also argues that there is also a physical reflection of Zhang’s appearance as Ju Dou’s “bow-legged”, shaven-headed”[2] Tianqing” is remarkably close to that of Zhang’s youth, described as a “short stocky farm boy”[2] with a crew cut.

Moreover, Tianbai can be considered the embodiment of feudalism. According to Brook, much like the inability of the death of Mao to end persecution for the Chinese people, the death of Jinshan does not emancipate Tianqing from his social disgrace with Tiabai taking over the helm of tyranny. This echoes China’s inability to break away from its feudal past, the trauma of this single family warns audiences of generations of trauma caused to victims of feudal China’s claustrophobic social order.

Comparative Analysis

Transnational Narratives: Ju Dou, Lady Chatterley's Lover

Specific plot parameters and commonalities between Ju Dou (Zhang Yimou, 1990) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, 2022) show the universality and transnational appeal of the narrative structure, whereas the manner in which the characters intersect with their respective country, culture, society and gender constructs are radically convergent.

Both films are set circa 1920s, with female protagonists living in a rural village; their choices challenge a dying feudal-patriarchal structure. The framework of the century-old structures reflects their respective countries in a historical context.

The similarities are prevalent: a marriage occurs between man and a young woman, with an emphasis on the woman’s ability to produce a male heir; both husbands are able-bodied at the beginning of the films but lose the use of the lower halves of their bodies; their wives encounter a male servant in a scene of bathing and voyeurism; the wives initiate physical contact with the reluctant servant; an extra-marital affair begins and the wife becomes pregnant; the husbands and villagers learn of the affair, creating scandal and public derision.

Global and Rural Realities

Ju Dou is set in a nameless village in China, without any explanation of the broader world, or its interaction in a global-political context[9]. The director Zhang Yimou describes the purpose behind the portrayal of rural life: "China is a peasant nation.... China's land, its population, its ideology and many other things, all belong to the countryside" [2]. The film world seems to end a day’s journey away, with no mention of a new republic or the ending of dynastic rule. As Ju Dou is purchased by her husband, the new country’s freedoms from the feudal system have not yet arrived or affected the systems of the village. The house-as-country analogy symbolizes the end of the feudal system, as the house is ultimately burned by a destructive fire.  

Lord Chatterley in his study

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is set in the English pastoral countryside, where the landholder reaps the rewards of both regional and colonial power. The villagers lease land from Lord Chatterley, and he owns the coal mine they work in, which is a form of a residual feudal structure, morphing into postwar industrialism[10]. The manor house is replete with objects and symbols of British imperial/colonial power: Lord Chatterley sits before a giant globe, surrounded by stuffed animals, carpets, and paintings. World War One has just ended, and the global-political world affects the individual, as shown in the war-wounded Lord Chatterley[11] and the weak-lunged veteran Oliver Mellors.

A rock eroded by rainwater in the courtyard

The modernization and mechanization of the 1920s has not reached the world of Ju Dou. Verisimilitude within the film is created by elaborate sets and mise-en-scene, including a rock eroded under centuries of rain, broken tiles, and well-worn wooden infrastructure/tools. The focus on traditional fabric dyeing techniques represents the lack of mechanization and uninterrupted tradition in both living space and industry, “It functions as a material extension of the restrictive social fabric to which all actions are tied.”[9].The lack of modernization reveals both isolation and an outdated feudal system operating in the last vestiges of its power; the characters are “at odds with traditional society”[3].

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, technology is used as an allegory of the changing world and modernization[10]. Lord Chatterley is obsessed with new technology and mechanization[12], he pushes his motorized accessibility scooter to the limit of purpose, and he invests in mining equipment to optimize his coal mine. In both instances, Lord Chatterley wishes to decrease manpower without considering that the system is based upon the villagers needing employment to pay rent to him, and the enormous number of workers required to run his large country estate. This dichotomy creates an economic paradox and failed model, in which the Lord-of-the-Manor system becomes unsustainable and collapses.

Jinshan pleads with his ancestors to intervene

As feudal systems are based upon generational handing down of power through a genealogical line, how each system interacts with their ancestors reveals social and cultural norms. The Confucianist adherence to ancestor veneration is practiced in Ju Dou[9].The men of the village gather in front of Jinshan’s family shrine to deliberate and pass counsel. In a telling scene, Jinshan hangs, suspended in a barrel, while his wife and nephew go to a bedroom. Jinshan begs his ancestors to correct the wrong; by speaking to them directly and believing in their intervention, this reveals the unobstructed relationship between living and ancestral family members.

Lady Chatterley cuts family portraits off the wall

The ancestral family is not revered in the world of Lady Chatterley's Lover, and the power lies in the physical ancestral seat of Wragby Hall. At the wedding, instead of toasting the married couple, they toast to a future heir, devaluing the importance of both the current and past occupants. When Lady Chatterley informs her father of her infidelity and wishes to divorce, he answers her to “Please yourself, but stick by Wragby” (1:42:53). Within Wragby itself, Lady Chatterley takes the second floor, occupied by family portraits. Frustrated by her situation, she takes scissors and cuts all the ribbons holding the nameless portraits, strewing them on the ground in an act of ancestral disrespect.

Navigating Gender Constructs

Female agency within the patriarchal system is diametrically different between the two films. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a central theme questions what male characters can provide the female characters, with the ultimate choice and power being left to Lady Chatterley at the conclusion of the film. In a gender-swap of a similar scene in Ju Dou, Lady Chatterley watches a naked and unawares Oliver Mellors bathe. There is a network of female friendships surrounding Lady Chatterley, and even her sister encourages her to have an affair. The maid, Mrs. Bolton[11], has known Lord Chatterley since he was a child; she is the symbol of virtuous marital dedication and is a spinster widow, yet she both covers for the affair and defends Lady Chatterley to the other women in the village.

In Ju Dou, the lack of other women in the film is prominent; they are tangential and in the periphery. Ju Dou stands out as the singular female of childbearing age and the sole subject of the male gaze. She understands the power dynamic and chooses to allow herself to be watched in an act of rebellious agency: “She exhibits her female body for the male gaze literally.... The effect of this gesture-of quoting the most-quoted, of displaying the most-fetishized-is no longer voyeuristic pleasure but heightened self-consciousness[2]. The gossip in the village and repercussions of the affair stem from the men in the village; as a standalone figure, Ju Dou’s gender is symbolically minimized to a powerless figure in a world controlled by men and patriarchy.

Dominance and Dominion

The ownership over another human being as an animal, and its relationship to chattel, is explored in both films. Ju Dou was sold to her husband, Jinshan, who tortures her by placing a saddle on her and whipping her. As Tianqing asks about Ju Dou’s torture markings, the asynchronous diegetic sound of a pig screaming can be heard in anthropomorphic fashion; Ju Dou explains her husband is killing the animal for a festival. This sound is mirrored in a subsequent scene when Tianqing hears Ju Dou screaming in pain by her husband’s hand[3].

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, class is distinguished as an allegory to animals. In a telling scene (1:22:23) Lady Chatterley and her husband talk about that distinction, as she informs him that the village men hate him:

Lord Chatterley: They’d starve without someone to tend them.

Lady Chatterley: You talk about them as if they’re herd animals.

Lord Chatterley: Not all of them. An individual may rise from the pack now and again.

Lord Chatterley ends the conversation by declaring that the lower class has always been ruled, and it is his birthright to rule them.

Resolve and Resolution

Ju Dou can be viewed by as a narrative parallel to Oedipus Rex with themes of incest[2]. In the original book, the nephew is blood-related, whereas in the film he is adopted. As in Greek tragedies, universal justice/harmony in Ju Dou has been disturbed by mortals, and characters must be punished in order to be restored; this occurs when all the major characters die.

Conversely, Lady Chatterley’s Lover inverts the tragic ending: the two lovers create their own vows and are together at the end. Interestingly, this textbook happy ending, with Mrs. Bolton declaring “It’s a love story,”[11] varies from the ambiguous ending of the book, in which readers are left to speculate the outcome[13].

The implication at the closing of the film is that Lady Chatterley and Oliver Mellors will live in a pastoral setting and raise their child together, as a dream fulfilled for the two English lovers. Across the world, in the same era, the equivalent wish was dreamed of by Chinese lovers Ju Dou and Tianqing, but due to social, cultural, historical, and political differences[3], they had neither the agency nor opportunity to accomplish their goal.

Alternative Interpretation

Unveiling Yang Tianqing's Dual Fabric of Desires

Set in a tumultuous time period within rural China, many scholars and academics viewed Ju Dou as an Oedipal tragedy that realistically depicted how sensualized women portrayed in film serves as a means to satisfy, reinforce and validate the desires of men. Embracing a similar methodology, Cui proposes in “A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Gender and Representation in Chinese New Cinema”, that the representation of women in terms of narrative system and gendered perspective forms a medium in which male subjectivity and sexuality are sought, restored, and reaffirmed[8].

While analyzing the film, with an emphasis on the layers of gender construct in place, it became evident that an alternative interpretation has yet to be explored by scholars. Gong Li’s character, Ju Dou, was essential to not only validate and sexualize the desires of Yang Tianqing, but also plays a crucial role in fulfilling Tianqing's own personal longing for a true sense of belonging and home.

Contrary to the perspectives of many scholars, Tianqing's obsession over Ju Dou stems from not only his biological beliefs of reinforcing gender roles and male dominance but also from his thirst for a loving family and someone who truly cares about him. Beyond the surface-level of sexualizing Ju Dou and having her as a medium for validating his own personal desires, Tianqing longs for a sense of fulfillment and an authentic family connection that he finds in Ju Dou. His attachment to her goes beyond societal constructs and delves into the realm of his own personal greed for a loving family, highlighting the complexity of his motivation of yearning to be engrossed in a true emotional bond.

Throughout the film set in an era of Chinese feudal system, Zhang Yimou slowly reveals the motivation behind the character Tianqing and his intense longing for a family. Simultaneously, major scenes throughout Ju Dou gives audiences an introduction of the character Ju Dou and how her role serves as a catalyst for the gradual creation of the familial love Tianqing never got to experience.

Scene 1 & Clip 1

Raised by his non-biological uncle Yang Jinshan, Tianqing has never truly experienced the sentiments of being part of a home. Jinshan treats Tianqing as an outsider intruding into his home, and has never shown Tianqing familial love that he so desperately craves for.

Ju Dou's serenity against a mountain view: a representation of her stillness in Yang Tianqing's life

In this particular scene of Ju Dou and Tianqing, she expresses her concern over his weight. Ju Dou is framed in front of a picturesque mountain backdrop. The combination of her concerns and worries over his well-being and the backdrop of the mountain exemplifies her role as a true sense of a home for Tianqing. With her face bearing the scars of Jinshan's abuse, Ju Dou radiates stillness and constant-ness in Tianqing’s life. The scene draws emphasis on her silhouette that is framed against the outlines of a grey mountain. Similarly to mountains that represent stillness and the unknown, Ju Dou assumes a comparable role in Tianqing's life. As a new member to the dye mill she has become the stillness in his life, rescuing him from the loneliness of being an extraneous character in the Yang family. Prior to Ju Dou arriving as Jinshan’s new punching bag, Tianqing's days resembled the somber grayness of the mountains. With her presence in the dye mill, Tianqing experiences a genuine familial bond for the first time. Ju Dou’s simple words of commenting on whether he has lost weight is insignificant, but marks an unknown territory for Tianqing, as he has never been caressed with any type of affectionate love before.

By contrasting the mountain in this scene, Zhang Yimou suggests that Ju Dou’s presence is parallel to a mountain. She bears the scars of Jinshan's abuse against the bleak grey mountains, and represents a sense of constancy and stillness in Tianqing's life. She assumes the role of a rescuer; a hero in Yang Tianqing's story, by rescuing him from loneliness and introducing a genuine familial bond he has never experienced before.

Scene 2 & Clip 2

Tianqing's genuine wide smile as he expresses his happiness surrounding his first familial bond and the birth of Tianbai - a product of his illicit affair with Ju Dou

Tianqing’s sense of belonging was not only affirmed by Ju Dou herself but also validated with the birth of Tianbai. Albeit Tianbai was assumed to be Jinshan's offspring and brought up referring to Tianqing as brother; he still bears the burden of the affair of his biological parent's. The rejection and hate that Tianbai has shown him is insignificant to Tianqing because as an adopted nephew of the Yang family; Tianqing has finally been able to establish is legitimate lineage through the birth of Tianbai and experience the familial bond he so desperately craves for.

In the following scene, Zhang Yimou illustrates the after effects of Ju Dou giving birth in shots that express the thrilling emotions that Tianqing goes through. With the dye mill ringing with the cries of a newborn baby, Tianqing turns towards the camera and away from spectators with a heartfelt smile. His smile is a reflection of the happiness he is experiencing because Ju Dou has granted him with a family. His authentic shot is further emphasized as he shares a wide smile to the camera while Tianbai’s name was being read aloud by Jinshan and the elders of the dye mill. The birth of Tianbai further supports the claim on Ju Dou’s presence, not only serving as a validation for Tianqing's desires, but also solidifies her role as the pillar of his newfound family.

Tianqing did not grow up with the luxury of being immersed in familial love or had the pleasure of being raised by biological parents. Instead Tianqing grew up working in a dye mill for a non-biological uncle, who never considered him family. Deprived of the opportunity to experience a relationship with his own parents, Tianqing is shown in the latter half of this scene diligently crafting a wooden toy for Tianbai. Symbolizing his own heartfelt effort, in order to compensate for the absence of parental affection in his own childhood. His efforts of crafting a wooden toy for Tianbai draws further attention to the argument that his obsession for Ju Dou stems from his own trauma of never experiencing a true genuine relationship.

Layers Beyond the Male Gaze

Contrary to prevalent scholarly viewpoints depicting Ju Dou as only a woman that serves as an objectification and validation of Tianqing’s desire through the male gaze, her character actually holds a much deeper significance and representation in unveiling the true desire of Tianqing. Amidst the ongoing theme of complex interplay of gender norms and societal constructs in the film, the arrival of Ju Dou's character emerges as a central figure in Tianqing's life that influences his life trajectory in a profound way. When considering the intricate layers of gender constructs at play, it becomes apparent how crucial Ju Dou's character is in shaping Tianqing's existence. The director Zhang Yimou accentuates Ju Dou's importance by stressing in scenes her role that acts as a remedy in Tianqing’s profound yearning for a genuine familial belonging and bond.


Adapted from Liu Heng’s novella Fuxi Fuxi, the film Ju Dou garnered director Zhang Yimou a revered spot in the international filmmaking industry. Reflecting upon his own experiences as a director under the oppression of the communist regime, Zhang Yimou employs Ju Dou to bring to life a realistic view of humanity and life in 1920s China. His use of bright colours and particular appeal to the striking yet beautiful colour red invokes emotions in the audience and signifies the strong lust for life and freedom. From production to its first release in Japan, the film struggled against China’s tight control over the entertainment industry. It was banned for several years and faced persistent criticism for the negative portrayal of a patriarchal, repressive, and ritualistic society as well as the exotic, orientalist imagery that supposedly indulged Western tastes and perpetuated stereotypes. From a transnational point of view, the film attracted enormous attention internationally. It was applauded for its visual beauty and melodramatic narrative that is distinctive from Western films. However, as seen in a comparative analysis with the popular European film Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the films share similarities in the manners in which the characters intersect with their respective country, culture, society and gender constructs. Such commonality is a reaffirmation of the universality and transnational appeal of Ju Dou’s narrative structure.  

After delving into the film, it is evident how Ju Dou has emerged as one of Zhang Yimou's most accomplished directorial works, receiving significant recognition from acclaimed scholars. Overall, our group highly recommends the film as the powerful cinematic messages that are encompassed in the film, producing an accurate reflection of masculinity, societal oppression, and desires in China. The relationship between Ju Dou and Jinshan represents not only the oppression and commodification of females but also Jinshan’s loss of masculinity and fears of not having posterity. The cruelty of humanity and a desperate desire to restore his male subjectivity and power is seen through the brutality and abuse of Ju Dou. Moreover, the obsession Tianqing has over Ju Dou is also an attempt at restoring his masculinity, but on a deeper note, shows his desperate desires for love, as well as a whole and affectionate family. The use of textiles in the film acts as a metaphor for social fabric. Last but not least, Director Zhang Yimou draws on his personal experiences during the Cultural Revolution by mirroring the discrimination and abuse he suffered, through the depiction of characters. Tianqing, an orphan forced to seek refuge under a tyrannical uncle, as well as Tianbai, who carries on the helm of tyranny, represent the continuation of feudalism and China’s inability to break away from the trauma and the feudal past. Overall, the film has successfully bridged important themes of humanity, desire and love, to showcase for Western audiences, while effectively exploring the intricacies of the Chinese feudal system. Ju Dou is certainly worth watching for those who enjoy appealing visuals and are interested in exploring these themes.


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