Yellow Earth (1984) and Ju Dou (1989)

Posted: September 5th, 2013


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Yellow Earth (1984) and Ju Dou (1989)


In ancient China, women were regarded to be unconditionally inferior to men and everything they did was decided by the men in their lives. A woman’s first and prime duty was to take care of and obey her husband and her husband’s parents, look after the homestead and bear healthy sons. According to Confucian ethics, women were expected to display laudable behavior and selfless obedience. This obedience was to be displayed throughout the different growth stages of their lives. As a child, a girl was obliged to obey her father, as she became a wife, she was required to obey her husband and as a widow, she was expected to obey her grown-up male children.

Jeffery Richey adds that, “ at no point in her life was a woman, according the traditional Confucian view, expected to function as an autonomous being free of male control” (“Confucianism, gender and sexuality”) In fact, the Confucian hierarchy placed women at the bottom. Men were allowed numerous wives and concubines, however, women were forbidden from seeing or being with other men other than the men in their lives. These were their fathers, husbands, masters and close relatives. Conventionally, patrician men and women lived independently. This independence allowed for the difference in privileges between men and women.


Yellow earth is a film set in the 1930s that tells the story of an encounter between an army-soldier who influences a peasant girl to struggle away from her feudal family. First, the issue of forced marriages of young girls is seen in this film when Cuiqiao’s father arranges for her to be married off to a middle-aged peasant in their village. Jerome Silbergeld says that the major issue in the film yellow earth is “traditional contracted marriage of child brides” (157). This situation depicts the fate of women in China as one that remains in the hands of men. This is seen where Cuiqiao’s future is decided upon by her father who arranges for her marriages to the middle-aged man. Cuiqiao is helpless in this situation because as a girl, she has no choice but to obey her father.

In the beginning, Cuiqiao apprehensively observes her arranged marriage because this was what custom dictated of her. Her older sister had also been beaten by her husband showing how inferior women were to their husbands. Domestic violence and wife battering in ancient china was entirely left up to the men. Women had to obey their husbands or face serious physical abuse. Before they were married off, women were expected to obey their fathers. The fathers picked their husbands and organized the marriages. The duty of the women was simply that of accepting and conforming. Women were positioned at the feet of the men in their lives and the men were the controllers of the women.

Since the film was set in the 1930s, these were the conditions in the homes and in villages of Chinese communities. The women were mostly beaten by their husbands like animals, some succumbed to these beatings and died. Those who tried to show signs of disobedience would sometimes be excommunicated from their homes and villages. They would be publicly humiliated and every now and then suffer severe physical abuse from all the men in that village. This was because the men made all the decisions concerning the village and homestead affairs of al the families and the women played their conventional roles.

Second, the struggle for liberation in women is also seen in the film when Cuiqiao runs away from her arranged marriage ceremony to join the army. This was brought about by the stories that the soldier told them about the army and liberation of women in the army. Esther Yau states that the soldier “tells them of the social changes brought about by the revolution, which include the army’s women’s chances to become literate and to have freedom of marriage” (“yellow earth”). This aroused her urge to want to escape from her father and family. She wanted liberation from feudalism therefore, she ran away. She did not want to get married to the middle-aged man because she had fallen in love with the soldier and she wanted to be free. She sails off on her own to join the people’s liberation army.

In the stories told by the soldier, it is apparent that the women in the army could read and write and they made their own decisions. The women in the army did not let m run their lives or control their decisions; they were liberated. Cuiqiao wanted this kind of life. She wanted to be able to get an education and for once make her own decisions without having her father make them for her. The thought of sovereignty and independence is what motivated her to rum away from home and cross the yellow river.

Women in ancient China hungered for freedom from their traditions. There were those who were able to escape this kind of life for example those who were lucky enough to join the army. However, majority had to conform to this kind of lifestyle because they had no other choice. They could not escape or run away because they feared for their lives, as punishment for disobedience was too rigorous. This meant that they continued to endure suffering in the hands of their fathers, their husbands and their masters.

These harsh treatments of women are no longer existent in today’s China. Very few cases of male domination in a woman’s life are heard. These cases are present in rural China where people still believe in the ancient traditions and try to uphold them. Times have changed and women today understand their rights. They are educated and more liberated in terms of making their own decisions. Young girls in China understand that arranged marriages were only allowed in the old days and not today. There is gender equality in all sectors of life between men and women. Men no longer consider themselves as superior to women, even in matters domestic. Decisions are made after thorough consultation between the two.

Third, there is a picture of love in the film when Cuiqiao falls in love with the soldier who comes to stay with them. The soldier helps her to fetch water as he continues to tell her stories about the army. The soldier also loved her voice every time she would sing; her voice would capture his attention and his heart. Nevertheless, the soldier has to go back to the army and as soon as he goes, Cuiqiao is sold into marriage by her father. Cuiqiao wanted to go with the soldier and join he army but the soldier promised to come back for her. The film’s director displays love and affection between these two even though their love does not eventually work out.

The presence of the soldier in their house changed things. One of those things was Cuiqiao’s heart. She finds herself falling in love with the soldier because he treats her better than her father does. The soldier is seen to help her fetch water, a task that was daunting since she had to walk for miles to bring water. This gesture softens Cuiqiao’s heart towards him and she falls in love. Her singing also softens the heart of the soldier and he finds himself drawn to her. Cuiqiao’s was reported to possess the most beautiful voice in the whole village.

The soldier’s presence also changes the culture that had been instilled in these children by their father. This change is brought about by his stories about the revolution. Before he came into their lives, they had never heard about the revolution. They had never heard of how people’s lives were changing thanks to the revolution. After hearing his stories, Cuiqiao wanted to leave their village to experience the revolution and freedom. These stories led her to abandon her womanly duty of marriage and run away to join the army.

In the film Ju Dou, objectification, abuse and oppression of women are evident. Ju Dou is in an arranged marriage and is constantly beaten by her husband because he claims that she has refused to bear him an heir. Physical abuse was a common occurrence because husbands had every right to treat their wives as they pleased. Wives were obligated to obey their husbands; Ju Dou’s husband saw his lack of an heir as disobedience on the part of Ju Dou., hence the continuous physical abuse. Shuqin Cui says, “The bruises on her abused body utter a painful yet powerless cry. A Chinese woman’s chief function in life was to further her husband’s lineage” (133).

The cry was painful because the physical abuse was brutal. She would be tied down and beaten like an animal. This was what she went through every evening after slaving away at her husband’s factory all day. The cry was also powerless because she could get herself out of that predicament. She was powerless against her husband because she could not match his physical strength. She had no choice but to endure her misery as she patiently waited to die in the hands of her abusive husband, just like his previous two deceased wives.

It was quite common to see women with bruises all over their bodies in ancient China. These bruises were because of physical abuse by their husbands. This ordeal could not be talked about because it was considered taboo to talk about men in their absence. The women kept their melancholy to themselves; they suffered in silence. Husbands had unmitigated control over their wives and that warranted their beating them even to the point of killing them. Those who were ‘lucky’ enough to escape death continued to bear the wrath of their husbands’ abusive natures.

Ju Dou is also sexually abused by her husband in his quest for an heir. The husband uses her as an object of sexual pleasure. Ju Dou is viewed as more of a slave than a wife in her own house. This was her place as a woman since women were expected to be seen and not to be heard. She could not fight for her rights, as that was unheard of in ancient China. Her husband had killed his two previous wives and death seemed to be the fate of Ju Dou.  Nyiri & Breindenbach ascertain that “Ju Dou is expected to accept her fate, even at the point of death” (289).

Her husband claimed that she had refused to bear him an heir. This justified his sexual abuses against her. The husbands must have been impotent because after Ju Dou had sexual relations with her husband’s adopted son, she got pregnant and bore a son. She seduced his adopted son in order to liberate herself and because she did not want to die in the hands of her husband. She allowed the adopted son to watch her bathing. This portrays women as sexual objects since the adopted son used her naked body to satisfy his sexual desires. In addition, Ju Dou used her body to save her life.

The mistreatment of women in ancient China, as depicted in the movie led some of them to engage in unacceptable sexual behavior. Unacceptable because Ju Dou had an affair with her husband’s adopted son. The lines between family ties were crossed by both of them because Ju Dou was supposed to be like an aunt to the adopted son. Her seduction was unwarranted but she felt she had to do it because she was tired of the abuse form her husband. Women like Ju Dou were considered minorities and sexual promiscuity was a character branded to them.


In both films, women find themselves deprived of their basic rights by men. They are abused physically, sexually and verbally. They are forbidden from making any decisions on their own as man stand at the helm of decision-making in their lives. The abuse that they are enduring is given by the fact that tradition commands them to obey and respect the men. Their efforts to attain independence prove futile as they are overcome by death. However, today things are different as women are more liberated than they were in ancient China. Oppression does not take place since there are human rights groups to fight for the rights of women. Women are educated; they know and understand the law. Therefore, no one can tyrannize them.















Work cited

Cui, Shuqin. Women Through the Lens: Gender and Nation in a Century of Chinese Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2003. Print.

Jeffery Richey. “Confucianism gender and sexuality.” n.d. web. 20 June 2012.

Nyíri, Pál, and Joana Breindenbach. China Inside Out: Contemporary Chinese Nationalism and Transnationalism. Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2005. Print.

Silbergeld, Jerome. China into Film: Frames of Reference in Contemporary Chinese Cinema. London: Reaktion Books, 1999. Print.

Yau C.M.E. “Yellow Earth.” Western Analysis and a Non-Western Text. (1991): 62-79. Print.

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