The film 'Yellow Earth", directed by Chen Kaige is based on a book called 'Echo in the Dark Valley' by Ke Lan and depicts the story of a communist comrade, Gu Qing who is visiting Lin Village in the Shaanxi province to learn folk songs to teach the 8th route army to sing while marching. On this visit he lives in a poor peasant family's home and during his stay there, he talks of a different, more promising life that the south has already come to know and which he believes the north must come to experience, too. Cuiqiao, a girl probably in her teens, is taken up by this kind of life where girls and women don't seem to be suffering the way she has to and can join the army, marry who they want and also work in the fields. Cuiqiao's mother is dead and she lives with her father and her younger brother, Hanhan.
Her elder sister was already married when she was very young.
This film touches on two very important issues. Firstly, it depicts the subdued and subjugated life the women in the northern provinces of China had to live and secondly, it illustrates the deprived existence of peasants of these regions and shows what Communism really had to offer. The film effectively uses song to communicate suffering and these take on gloomy, depressing and mournful tones.
The film starts with a wedding procession in the desolate and dry valley near Lin Village. The acute poverty of the peasants is manifest in the serving of wooden fish. Even here it is evident that mostly men are performing all the important functions and conducting the ceremonies. When the bride is revealed, she is just a little girl. Cuiqiao, who is attending the wedding, watches quietly and sadly and appears to be frightened; later it is revealed that she too has been promised in marriage to an older man ever since she was a child and it is this fate she dreads while she watches the procession.
Cuiqiao's job is to fill and carry water from the river to her home, which is three miles away, while her father and brother work in the fields. Here at the river, she sings a song about how a girl's life is the "most pitiable". When she gets home, Gu has just arrived and is sitting with her father. He is to live with them during his stay. They discuss the previous days wedding and Gu, having more revolutionary notions of a woman's position, expresses surprise at how young the bride was and tells them it's different in the south, where girls there got married on their own. Cuiqiao's father says that the bride was almost fourteen and "more than a child" and remarks that "girls must be worthless if they can just get up and go with a man". When talking and around her father and Gu, Cuiqiao's head is bowed at all times. That night, when everyone had gone to bed and while she was weaving, Cuiqiao again bursts into a doleful song about a woman's suffering and how she could speak to no one about her "bitterness and hardships". The next morning, Gu tells her about how women in the south "work in the fields and fight the Japanese" and "look smart with their short hair". To Cuiqiao, this is such a strange picture, for she has seen nothing like it in her parts of the country where women got married when they were just girls, were not always treated well by their in-laws and overall had a hard way of life. She is even more surprised when she sees that Gu can sew and found it most extraordinary that a man could sew.
That women were not held in much regard is apparent from the way Cuiqiao's father talks of his other daughter who was already married. When Gu asked him whether she liked being married, he says that she did at first when she had enough to eat at her in-laws, but did not like it much later when she had nothing to eat. He rules out Gu's suggestion that maybe there were other reasons too, like them not loving each other, for to Ciqiao's father love in a marriage was dependent on whether there was food. This conversation certainly does prove how little a girl was worth thereabouts, but it also shows how poor and deprived the peasants were. Theirs was a highly precarious position and if they did not get rain and their crops did not grow, they were in a terrible state of affairs. The very fact that Ciqiao's father could think of happiness in terms of food points to how severe their poverty was.
Ciqiao's father then tells Gu about how his daughter had come back to their home once and said that her husband had beaten her and that she did not want to go back. However, Ciqiao's father just reminded her of the saying, "If a boy gets married its happiness. If a girl gets married, it's sadness". He told her that even if she had to beg for food, she still had to keep her word and that it was fate.
Gu was this completely radical communist, who fully believed in the rightness of his cause and its potential to change the way things were for the poor of China. To Ciqiao he stood for the promise of a better life for a girl. Gu told the family that when the "bitter songs" were sung, "people will know why they are suffering, why women are beaten, why workers and peasants should rise up" and "fight the rich bravely". He also spoke about how their leader Mao Tse Tung had told them to get educated and how even girls in Yan'an could read and write. He also spoke about Mao wanting "the poor to be able to eat properly". It is obvious that he truly believed the Communists could offer a better way of life to the poor people and alleviate them from their miserable plight. He even teaches the little boy a song that soldiers in the army sang: "with sickle, hammer and pick, we make the new road for the poorÃ¢ÂÂ¦our methods will achieve so much...It's the communists who save the people". So the Communist ideology came to stand for the opportunity of a better way of life for the peasants of the Northern provinces, too.
When Gu asked Hanhan to sing a song he knew, he too sang a song about a girl whose mother wanted to sell her, but wouldn't ask her how she felt. The girl wanted a "good husband, not a bed-wetter". That same day, when Ciqiao returned home, she found her father sitting with the mother of the man who she was supposed to marry. Her father tells her that he had beaten her once regarding this marriage and that it was her "fate" to marry him, even though he was older. The wedding is set for April. He tells her that the dowry they had received when the match was made had been used for her mother's funeral and her brother's betrothal. A dowry is essentially a sale of one's daughter and must be seen in such terms only.
Gu is scheduled to leave the next day and Ciqiao again asks about the women soldiers and wanted to know how far Yan'an is. That night before he leaves, the father sings a song about a girl who was "betrothed at 13, married at 14, widowed at 15" and who then killed herself. It's somewhat peculiar that even the men who are the force behind the suppression of the women also sing these songs.
The next day, Gu departs, but he doesn't go far before he comes across Ciqiao waiting for him; she tells him to take her with him because she wanted to join the army. He tells her it doesn't work that way and that she could only join after she was approved; but he promises to come back for her in April, after his leader agrees that she can join the army. As he leaves, she sings a song about how "the communists sent a man who was free" and how "the comrades are the best people". This is again proof of the belief the peasants had in the Communists and their ability to make things better for them.
But Ciqiao hopes it will happen as she sings, wondering "when will we poor people be able to live a new life". The next scene is a wedding procession and this time its Ciqiao's wedding. Gu hadn't come and Ciqiao is scared, but the wedding happens. It was a hard lot for her and soon after she got married, she decides to escape by boat to Yan'an. Only Hanhan knows and he tries to stop her and tells her to go walking instead or by ferry the next morning; but Ciqiao has waited enough and feels she must leave and does leave after giving Hanhan instructions on what to tell her father and to choose a wife for himself. She did not get toYan'an, but drowned.
Gu does return to Lin Village, but finds no one in the house. All the peasants of the village had gathered to pray to the Dragon King of the Sea, asking him for rain. Tears were streaming down their faces, as they sang mournfully, desperately begging for rain. It's strange, that at the end of the film, it's not the Communists they turn to or whom they believe can save them from their hardships. At the end of the day, it's not the Communist methods and ideologies that they believe can see them through. On the contrary, it's a completely unscientific solution that they seek.
This film is simply soaking in subtle political ironies. Despite all the promises that Gu made regarding the radical change the Communist Party would bring to China, many years later not much had improved. Even Ciqiao, who was the most taken up by what the Communists could do ended up drowning while trying to get toYan'an to join the Communist forces. And the fate of the peasants wasn't much better than before either. That the Communist Revolution had failed to improve the conditions of the peasants of the Northern provinces is what the viewer of the film is really left to ponder on. Without making any direct political claims or appearing in anyway anti-Communist, the films still conveys the disappointment that the Communist Revolution turned out to be. There are many films that over dramatize the Communist Revolution, many of which are Communist propaganda films that are "generally didactic" (Havis 2000). Unlike these, Yellow Earth, through the sheer "force of its presentation" conveys the role the revolution played as far as "land ownership, the position of women and the general social attitudes" were concerned (Clark 1987: 180). This film superbly demonstrates how the leaders of CCP, along with the political reins of the country also assumed that the "leadership of the culture" of the people was in their hands (Clark 1987: 182). Yellow Earth also examines Maoist thought on the ties between the yellow earth, the striving and struggling peasants and the party (Havis 2000).
Gu, in this film is an intellectual and like many left-leaning intellectuals of the Communist Revolution, must have been disturbed by the national and international political events. Being educated and knowledgeable of western ideas, many intellectuals of the 20th Century in China knew well enough that the traditional system wasn't the answer to their problems and yet, capitalism represented too drastic an alternative. Despite the "collectivist and totalitarian outcome" of the Revolution, the idea of individual freedom is what lured intellectuals to the Revolution. Communism represented a less drastic shift from Confucianism as compared to capitalism (Boecking 2008). There existed an "intellectual tension between China's traditional ideological and value system and . . . modern Western thinking" (Xiaoming Chen: 92) in the mind of these intellectuals and Communism seemed to offer them the perfect outlet to resist imperialism and the traditional system without replacing it with a capitalistic order and modernity. It seemed to them just the right balance and the perfect path for them to take to make changes in the country. Some argue that the intellectuals were more taken up by Leninism as it seemed to "cater to wounded national pride", and provided the possibility of China becoming significant in the world (Saich and Van de Ven, 1995:2). Many left-leaning students joined the Red Guards and took part in massive demonstrations. While the peasants were really the force behind the Revolution and it is purely through the building up of military strength that the CCP were ultimately victorious, it is the Chinese intellectuals like Gu who were really responsible for the spread of communism amongst the peasants. These intellectuals who were disillusioned with the imperialist government had founded the CCP in 1921 and were determined to bring large number of peasants to the movement and forge an active resistance to the Nationalist forces. In 1949, they were victorious and the People's Republic of China was established. (Leman 2009).
The film "Yellow Earth" is in a way subtle commentary on the social, economic and political conditions of the peasants of China during the Revolution and finely elucidates the manner in which these intertwine and come to bear fearful and tremulous results on one another. The links cannot be missed: a miserable existence and poverty results in daughters being sold in marriage to older men; deprived economic conditions becomes the reason to embrace a new political ideology; a desperate and insufferable existence for a girl leads her to attempt an escape to join the Communist forces; an educated man finds in the Communist ideology the hope of changing China and making the world better. Unfortunately for the peasants and for the Communists, it didn't work that way and it is still the yellow earth and the natural forces that determine their fate.
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