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The film is set in 1920s China during the warlord era, years before the Chinese Civil War. Nineteen-year-old Songlian, whose father has recently died and left the family bankrupt, marries into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the fourth wife or rather the third concubine or the “Fourth Mistress.” Arriving at the palatial abode, she is at first treated like royalty, receiving sensuous foot massages and brightly-lit red lanterns, as well as a visit from her husband, Master Chen, whose face is never clearly shown.
Songlian soon discovers, however, that not all the concubines in the household receive the same luxurious treatment. In fact, the master decides on a daily basis the concubine he will spend the night with; whomever he chooses gets her lanterns lit, receives the foot massage, gets her choice of menu items at mealtime, and gets the most attention and respect from the servants. Pitted in constant competition against each other, the three concubines are continually vying for their husband's attention and affections.
Goal: To assess the degree to which the movie is a good historical source.
You may not know the answers to all of these questions, but you will want to consider the following in your analysis:
• What do we know about the film? Is it a film made for a popular audience? Is there an obvious bias in the film?
• Is the material in the film backed up by information we read elsewhere? In this case, since we only briefly studies this period in Chinese history—the closet thing being the “Unbound Women” PowerPoint and associated readings—think about we learned about “New Women” in this period in Korea and Japan.
• If the material in the film is different from what we know from other historical sources, it that a problem?
• Do the visuals help us better understand gender issues in 1920s China?
There, of course, may be other issues to consider, but these questions should get you jump-started. Remember that you are not to summarize the film—evaluate!
The film is set in 1920s China during the warlord era, years before the Chinese Civil War. Nineteen-year-old Songlian, whose father has recently died and left the family bankrupt, marries into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the fourth wife or rather the third concubine or the “Fourth Mistress.