How Communism Failed Cuiqiao: Film Analysis of Cheng Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984)

Yellow Earth, set in the early spring of 1939 follows the journey of a Red Guard soldier, Gu Qing, who is given the task of collecting folk songs from Northern Shaanxi Province to be appropriated by the Eighth Route Army. Brother Gu seeks out a peasant family to live with during his time in the village and audiences are then introduced to Cuiqiao and her family. The relationship that develops between Brother Gu and each member of the family presents the audience with an ambiguous depiction of 1940s communist China and the role of the communist party as a revolutionary presence in the lives of peasants.

Despite limited dialogue, as intended by the filmmakers, the movie draws audiences in with rich cinematography and deeply affective lyrics that guide the film’s narrative. Most central to the film, were the two opposing forces that propelled each of the character’s movements, revolutionary communism and traditional feudalism. Cuiqiao’s character, who is arguably the most oppressed and resistant to the aforementioned central forces, presents salient relationships of contrast and comparison with oppression in both the old and “new” China. By focusing primarily on Cuiqiao this analysis foregrounds patriarchy as the undergirding oppressive force, irrespective of both feudalism and communism, creating an argument for the inherent instability of patriarchy .

Through the film’s depiction of the peasant daughter, Cuiqiao, the filmmakers expose the truly ubiquitous nature of patriarchy. In her introductory scene, Cuiqiao’s existence is both threatened and literally framed by the inevitability of subjugation as a woman living under Confucius patrilineal ideology (Udel). When audiences first encounter Cuiqiao, she appears in a red doorway embroidered with the writing of Confucius, quietly observing an arranged peasant wedding taking place in her village. With the introduction of such a scene, audiences are invited into an exploration of the rigid and oppressive structures of feudalism; marking it as the primary force of oppression in the film.

(Source: Sindie.sg)

A timid Cuiqiao dressed in red, lurks around the door way appearing in and out frame, foreshadowing her attempted but limited mobility in a feudal society where the lives of the peasants are controlled by traditions and rituals. In the wedding scene, feudal gender roles are exemplified through the blessings given to the new bride and groom. The announcer of the wedding wishes that their future daughter “be nimble-fingered” evoking a space of limited domesticity, while wishing for a son that is a “trader”, a position that requires endless movement.

(Source: Pinterest)

In an official introductory mise en scene, Cuiqiao’s figure appears against the backdrop of an ever moving yellow river, collecting water and singing a song that laments the intersectional experiences of peasant women. Cuiqiao sings, in a ‘thinking song’ that defines her character, “among humans, a girl’s life is the most pitiable, pity the poor girls”. Rather than employing the use of a narrative to explain Cuiqiao’s plight, or introducing dialogue, filmmakers instead have Cuiqiao sing her thoughts in private. This quiet and hidden singing signals the exclusion of her female voice in both her family and public life, and her only relfief against feudal oppression. Setting her up an ideal recipient of communism’s liberating force. One could argue, what value a song can bring to a repressed voice. The film addresses this tension when Cuiqiao’s father and Brother Gu engage in a discussion about the fate of women in Chinese society.

(Source: 2019 WINTER CAMS EUROPE OCS)

The film thus creates a juxtaposition between what appears to be archaic feudalist ideology with a more progressive communist ideology that places agency into the hands of Chinese women. Brother Gu asserts at one point that “they’re [women] not worthless, they’re not for sale”, opposing the feudalist ideology that positions women as properties of fathers and husbands. Through the duration of the film, Cuiqiao is lured by the promises of freedom that Brother Gu’s depictions of the communist party hold.

Her desire to transcend her position as a peasant girl is destroyed by the bitter realities of feudal customs. The bartering of women for economic stability is justified through the disguise of custom and a belief in a girl’s need for marriage. Cuiqiao is confronted by this reality when the debt owed for her mother’s funeral is paid with Cuiqiao’s freedom in an arranged marriage.

(Source: timable.com)

In a crucial scene that dismantles the liberating and progressive front of communist party, Chen Kaige introduces the ambiguity of the marginalized who hang in the midst of the transition from feudalism to communism.

In a response to Cuiqiao’s request to join the Eighth Route Army and ultimately escape her arranged marriage, Brother’s Gu enforcement of communist “rules”, reminding her that you must wait until you are approved to join the army as a solider, acts as an immobilizing and a secondary oppressive force on Cuiqiao’s attempt at escape. Before being officially denied by Brother Gu, Cuiqiao poses a salient question to Brother Gu’s hesitation, “Why? What’s in the way?” With Cuiqiao confined between the customs of one male represented ideology and the rules of another male represented ideology, a tertiary level of oppression is revealed. As a peasant girl, Cuiqiao’s path is defined by male acquiescence and structuring.

Another important reading of Cuiqiao’s character arises from her visual depiction.

(Source: rarefilm.net)

Aided by cinematic photographer Zhang Yimou, who transformed chinese film through his bold use of color, a secondary layer of analysis is added to the film. Throughout the film Cuiqiao is the only character to be dressed in red. Her redness is paralleled visually and symbolically with the bride at the beginning of the movie, who represents archaic feudalist oppression of women, and Brother Gu who represents the liberating and revolutionary future of communist China.

By adding two levels of association with this dominating color, both Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige challenges and exposes the lingering patriarchy of the past, present and future. The film closes with a red Cuiqiao disappearing ambiguously into a yellow river, silently lamenting both an inability to imagine female peasant autonomy and a lack of space for such a character. Cuiqiao’s disappearance additionally signals a state of liminality and an uncertainty about the transition and safety of China’s communist future. By centralizing Cuiqiao’s marginalized voice in the film’s narrative, Chen Kaige was truly able to capture the raw ambiguity positioned between the transition from “feudal peasantry” to a more modern, equal and liberating communist China.

On her quest to seek liberation and escape her arranged marriage, Cuiqiao is struck by the reality of her limited mobility and the inescapable force of male dominance. Despite being lured to communist ideology of women’s freedom and suggested equality between the sexes, her ability to access this new heavenly kingdom is within the control of another male figure, not herself. Ultimately the question becomes, how can the communist party be a true revolutionary force, if they are unable to save the most pitiable among humans? Poor girls.

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Essayist. Independent Researcher. Water Color Enthusiast.

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France-Elvie Banda

France-Elvie Banda

Essayist. Independent Researcher. Water Color Enthusiast.

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