Raise the Red Lantern

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Raise the Red Lantern
Raise the Red Lantern poster.jpg
Chinese theatrical release poster
MandarinDà Hóng Dēnglong Gāogāo Guà
LiterallyRaise high the red lanterns
Directed byZhang Yimou
Written byNi Zhen [zh]
Based onRaise the Red Lantern (Wives and Concubines)
by Su Tong
Produced byHou Hsiao-hsien
Chiu Fu-sheng
Zhang Wenze
CinematographyZhao Fei
Edited byDu Yuan
Music byZhao Jiping
Distributed byOrion Classics
Release date
  • September 1991 (1991-09) (Venice)
Running time
125 minutes
British Hong Kong
Box office$2.6 million (United States)[2]

Raise the Red Lantern is a 1991 film directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Gong Li. It is an adaptation by Ni Zhen [zh] of the 1990 novella Raise the Red Lantern (originally Wives and Concubines) by Su Tong. The film was later adapted into an acclaimed ballet of the same title by the National Ballet of China, also directed by Zhang.

Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of a young woman who becomes one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era. It is noted for its opulent visuals and sumptuous use of colours. The film was shot in the Qiao Family Compound near the ancient city of Pingyao, in Shanxi Province. Although the screenplay was approved by Chinese censors,[3] the final version of the film was banned in China for a period.[4][5]


The film is set in 1920s Republican era. Nineteen-year-old Songlian (played by Gong Li), an educated woman whose father has recently died and left the family bankrupt, is forced by her stepmother to marry into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the fourth concubine or, as she is referred to, the Fourth Mistress (Sì Tàitai) of the household. 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 (Ma Jingwu), the master of the house, 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 with whom he will spend the night; 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.

The First Mistress, Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), appears to be nearly as old as the master himself. Having borne a son decades earlier, she seems resigned to live out her life as forgotten, always passed over in favor of the younger concubines. The Second Mistress, Zhuoyun (Zhuóyún, Cao Cuifen), befriends Songlian, complimenting her youth and beauty, and giving her expensive silk as a gift; she also warns her about the Third Mistress, Meishan (Méishan, He Saifei), a former opera singer who is spoiled and who becomes unable to cope with no longer being the youngest and most favored of the master's playthings. As time passes, though, Songlian learns that it is really Zhuoyun, the Second Mistress, who is not to be trusted; she is subsequently described as having the face of the Buddha, yet possessing the heart of a scorpion. She also has to deal with her personal maid, Yan'er (Yàn'ér, played by Kong Lin), who hates her and dreams of being a concubine after a few brief flings with the Master.

Songlian feigns pregnancy, attempting to garner the majority of the master's time and, at the same time, attempting to become actually pregnant. Zhuoyun, however, is in league with Yan'er who finds and reveals a pair of bloodied undergarments, suggesting that Songlian had recently had her period, and discovers the pregnancy is a fraud.

Zhuoyun summons the family physician, feigning concern for Songlian's "pregnancy". Doctor Gao (Gao-yisheng, Cui Zhigang), who is secretly having an illicit affair with Third Mistress Meishan, examines Songlian and determines the pregnancy to be a sham. Infuriated, the master orders Songlian's lanterns covered with thick black canvas bags indefinitely. Blaming the sequence of events on Yan'er, Songlian reveals to the house that Yan'er's room is filled with lit red lanterns, showing that Yan'er dreams of becoming a mistress instead of a lowly servant; it is suggested earlier that Yan'er is in love with the master and has even slept with him in the Fourth Mistress' bed.

Yan'er is punished by having the lanterns burned while she kneels in the snow, watching as they smolder. In an act of defiance, Yan'er refuses to humble herself or apologize, and thus remains kneeling in the snow throughout the night until she collapses. Yan'er falls sick and ultimately dies after being taken to the hospital. One of the servants tells Songlian that her former maid died with her mistress's name on her lips. Songlian, who had briefly attended university before the passing of her father and being forced into marriage, comes to the conclusion that she is happier in solitude; she eventually sees the competition between the concubines as a useless endeavor, as each woman is merely a "robe" that the master may wear and discard at his discretion.

As Songlian retreats further into her solitude, she begins speaking of suicide; she reasons that dying is a better fate than being a concubine in the Chen household. On her twentieth birthday, severely intoxicated and despondent over her bitter fate, Songlian inadvertently blurts out the details of the love affair between Meishan and Doctor Gao to Zhuoyun, who later catches the adulterous couple together. Following the old customs and traditions, Meishan is dragged to a lone room (also known as the room of death earlier on) on the roof of the estate and is hanged to death by the master's servants.

Songlian, already in agony due to the fruitlessness of her life, witnesses the entire episode and is emotionally traumatized. The following summer, after the Master's marriage to yet another concubine, Songlian is shown wandering the compound in her old schoolgirl clothes, appearing to have gone completely insane.


  • Gong Li as Songlian (simplified Chinese: 颂莲; traditional Chinese: 頌蓮; pinyin: Sònglián) - Known as Lotus in the English version of the novel.
  • He Saifei as Meishan (梅珊; Méishān), the third mistress (三太太; Sān tàitai) - Known as Coral in the English version of the novel.
  • Cao Cuifen as Zhuoyun (卓云; 卓雲; Zhuóyún), the second mistress (二太太; Èr tàitai) - Known as Cloud in the English version of the novel.
  • Kong Lin as Yan'er (雁儿; 雁兒; Yàn'ér), Songlian's young servant - Known as Swallow in the English version of the novel.
  • Zhou Qi (Chinese: 周琦) as housekeeper Chen Baishun (陈百顺; 陳百順; Chén Bǎishùn)
  • Jin Shuyuan (金淑媛) as Yuru (毓如; Yùrú), the first wife (大太太; dà tàitai) - Known as Joy in the English version of the novel.
  • Ma Jingwu [zh] as Chen Zuoqian (陈佐千; 陳佐韆; Chén Zuǒqiān) or Master Chen
  • Cui Zhihgang as Doctor Gao (高医生; 高醫生; Gāo-yīshēng)
  • Chu Xiao (初曉; Chū Xiǎo) as Feipu (飞浦; 飛浦; Fēipǔ), the master's eldest son
  • Cao Zhengyin as Songlian's old servant
  • Ding Weimin as Songlian's mother


Raise the Red Lantern
Soundtrack album by
LabelMilan Records

All songs composed by Zhao Jiping.

  1. "Opening Credits/Prologue/Zhouyun/Lanterns"
  2. "First Night With Master/Alone on First Night Second Night Third Night"
  3. "Summer"
  4. "Flute Solo"
  5. "Record"
  6. "Autumn"
  7. "Births/The Peking Theme"
  8. "Pregnancy/Yan'er's Punishment"
  9. "Meishan Sings"
  10. "Young Master Returns Meishan's Punishment"
  11. "Realization"
  12. "Winter"
  13. "Ghost"
  14. "Seasons"
  15. "Next Summer"
  16. "House of Death"
  17. "Fifth Mistress"
  18. "Songlian's Madness/End Credits"


Raise the Red Lantern has been distributed on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD by numerous different distributors, with many coming under criticism for their poor quality.

The Razor Digital Entertainment DVD release has been widely criticised. DVD Times states "Many other viewers will find this DVD release simply intolerable."[6] DVDTown criticised the same release, giving the video quality 1 out of 10 and the audio quality 6 out of 10, summarising that "the video is a disaster".[7] DVDFile adds to this stating "this horrible DVD is only recommended to those who love the movie so much, that they’ll put up with anything to own a Region 1 release."[8] The translation on this version has been also widely criticised for its numerous inaccuracies.[9][10] A release by Rajon Vision has also received poor commentary[11]

ERA's first release received similar attention[12] but the second digitally remastered edition has been more warmly received with DVD Times stating that "It's a film that really needs a Criterion edition with a new print or a full restoration, but in the absence of any likelihood of that, this Era Hong Kong edition is about as good as you could hope for."[13] DVDBeaver broadly agrees stating "Now, this is not Criterion image quality, but it is not bad at all. It is easily the best digital representation of this film currently available."[14] DVD Talk, though, believes that "This new version is a stunner".[15]

A new MGM release in 2007 has also received some positive feedback.[14]


Described as "one of the landmark films of the 1990s" by Jonathan Crow of AllMovie,[16] where it received 5 stars, since its release Raise the Red Lantern has been very well received. James Berardinelli named it his 7th best film of the 1990s.[17] It has a 97% certified fresh rating at review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 29 reviews, with an average rating of 8.5/10.[18] and TV Guide gave it 5 stars.[19] However, there were a small number of negative reviews. Hal Hinson of The Washington Post stated that "the story never amounts to much more than a rather tepid Chinese rendition of "The Women."[20] The film ranked #28 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.[21]

The film has also been praised for its artistic merit. Desson Howe of The Washington Post stated that "In purely aesthetic terms, "Raise the Red Lantern" is breathtaking"[22] and James Berardinelli stated that "the appeal to the eye only heightens the movie's emotional power". John Hartl of Film.com described it to be "a near-perfect movie that often recalls the visual purity and intensity of silent films."[18]

The film has been interpreted by some critics as a criticism of contemporary China, although Zhang Yimou himself has denied this.[23] Jonathan Crow of AllMovie stated that "the perpetual struggle for power that precludes any unity among the wives provides a depressingly apt metaphor for the fragmented civil society of post-Cultural Revolution China". James Berardinelli made a similar analogy in his review where he stated that "Songlian is the individual, the master is the government, and the customs of the house are the laws of the country. It's an archaic system that rewards those who play within the rules and destroys those who violate them.".[24] An online article suggested that in such a system, the innocent individual becomes the executioner of new incoming victims, making the outcome even more tragic.[25]

Chinese journalist and activist Dai Qing has said that the film, along with many of Zhang Yimou's earlier works, caters too much to Western taste; "this kind of film is really shot for the casual pleasures of foreigners".[26]

The film's popularity has also been attributed to a resurgence in Chinese tourism after the government response to the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 due to its use of exotic locations.[27]

Raise the Red Lantern was one of the films with most appearances on 1992's year-end lists, appearing on 36 lists.[28]

Accolades and nominations[edit]

Awards Year Category Recipient Result
Venice International Film Festival[29] 1991 Silver Lion Zhang Yimou Won
Golden Lion Raise the Red Lantern Nominated
Academy Awards[30] 1992 Best Foreign Language Film Hong Kong Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics[31] 1992 Best Foreign Language Film Raise the Red Lantern Won
David di Donatello Awards[32] 1992 Best Foreign Film Raise the Red Lantern Won
Guldbagge Awards[33] 1992 Best Foreign Film Raise the Red Lantern Nominated
Independent Spirit Awards[34] 1992 Best International Film Raise the Red Lantern Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle[35] 1992 Best Foreign Language Film Raise the Red Lantern Won
London Film Critics' Circle[36] 1992 Foreign Language Film of the Year Raise the Red Lantern Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards[37][38] 1992 Best Cinematography Zhao Fei Won
Best Foreign Language Film Raise the Red Lantern Runner-up
National Board of Review[39] 1992 Best Foreign Language Film Raise the Red Lantern Top 5
National Society of Film Critics Awards[34] 1992 Best Foreign Language Film Raise the Red Lantern Won
Best Cinematography Zhao Fei Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards[40] 1992 Best Foreign Language Film Raise the Red Lantern Won
Best Cinematography Zhao Fei Runner-up
Australian Film Institute Awards[41] 1993 Best Foreign Film Raise the Red Lantern Nominated
Belgian Film Critics Association[42] 1993 Grand Prix Raise the Red Lantern Won
British Academy Film Awards[43] 1993 Best Film Not in the English Language Raise the Red Lantern Won
Hundred Flowers Awards[44][45] 1993 Best Picture Raise the Red Lantern Won
Best Actress Gong Li Won


  • Empire 100 Best Films of World Cinema – #28[46]
  • Time Out 100 Best Chinese Mainland Films – #13[47]
  • Included in The New York Times's list of The Best 1000 Movies Ever Made in 2004[48]
  • Included in BBC's 2018 list of The 100 greatest foreign language films voted by 209 film critics from 43 countries around the world.[49]


  1. ^ a b "Raise the Red Lantern". Hong Kong Movie Database. Retrieved 21 October 2021.
  2. ^ "Raise the Red Lantern (1992)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  3. ^ "Raise the Red Lantern Review". TV Guide. Retrieved 6 August 2007. Though Zhang's screenplay for RAISE THE RED LANTERN ... got a stamp of approval from the Chinese censors, the finished production was banned at home while playing to great praise abroad.
  4. ^ "Zhang Yimou's RAISE THE RED LANTERN". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 6 August 2007. Originally banned in China.
  5. ^ Zhang Yimou. Frances K. Gateward, Yimou Zhang, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2001, p. 64.
  6. ^ "DVD Times - Raise the Red Lantern". DVD Times. Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  7. ^ "DVD review of Raise The Red Lantern". DVDTown.com. Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  8. ^ "DVDFILE.com". DVDFile. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  9. ^ "DVDFILE.com". DVDFile. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 8 August 2007. The English subtitles contain an inordinate amount of typos and grammatical inaccuracies.
  10. ^ "DVD Times - Raise the Red Lantern". DVD Times. Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  11. ^ "Raise the Red Lantern (Da Hong Long Gao Gao Gua) (1991)". Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  12. ^ "DVD Talk Review: Raise The Red Lantern". DVDTalk.com. Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  13. ^ "DVD Times - Raise the Red Lantern". DVD Times. Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  14. ^ a b "Raise the Red Lantern - Gong Li". DVDBeaver. Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  15. ^ "DVD Talk Review: Raise The Red Lantern". DVDTalk.com. Retrieved 8 August 2007.
  16. ^ "Raise the Red Lantern > Review". AllMovie. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  17. ^ "The Best Films of the 1990s". Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  18. ^ a b "Raise the Red Lantern". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 27 May 2022.
  19. ^ "Raise the Red Lantern Review". TV Guide. Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  20. ^ "'Raise the Red Lantern' (PG)". The Washing Post. 8 May 1992. Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  21. ^ "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema – 28. Raise the Red Lantern". Empire.
  22. ^ "'Raise the Red Lantern'". The Washington Post. 8 May 1992. Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  23. ^ "Raise the Red Lantern". The Village Voice. Retrieved 6 August 2007. Zhang Yimou has strenuously denied that Raise the Red Lantern, itself a violent tale of revolt and repression in the master's house, was a vehicle of political critique.
  24. ^ "Review: Raise the Red Lantern". Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  25. ^ Gong Li in 'Raise the Red Lantern' and 'Shanghai Triad' – The Tragedy of a Victim who Reinforces the System, ThinkingChinese.com,21 May 2010
  26. ^ Dai, Qing (translated by Jeanne Tai). "Raised Eyebrows for Raise the Red Lantern." (Archive) Public Culture. Duke University, (northern hemisphere) Winter 1993. Volume 5, Issue 2. p. 336. doi:10.1215/08992363-5-2-333. Retrieved on 3 December 2011.
  27. ^ Bentham, Jon (17 February 2006). "The set-jetters". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 6 August 2007.
  28. ^ MacGilligan, Pat; Rowland, Mark (10 January 1993). "Year of the Low-Costs". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  29. ^ "1991 Venice Film Festival". YesAsia. Archived from the original on 16 March 2016.
  30. ^ "The 64th Academy Awards (1992) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Archived from the original on 15 March 2016. Retrieved 15 September 2015.
  31. ^ "Past Winners: 1990s". Boston Society of Film Critics. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  32. ^ "Vincitori 1992" (To access, click on the 1992 tab) (in Italian). Accademia del Cinema Italiano. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  33. ^ "Da hong deng long gao gao gua (1991)". Swedish Film Institute. 22 March 2014.
  34. ^ a b "Raise the Red Lantern: Awards". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2016. Archived from the original on 23 March 2016. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  35. ^ "KCFCC Award Winners – 1990-99". Kansas City Film Critics Circle. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  36. ^ "Da hong deng long gao gao gua: Awards". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  37. ^ "1992 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards". Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Archived from the original on 16 March 2016.
  38. ^ J. Fox, David (15 December 1992). "Is 'Unforgiven' sweep of L.A. Film Critics awards just start of round-up of honors?". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. China's 'Raise the Red Lantern,' directed by Zhang Yimou, came in second.
  39. ^ "1992 Archives". National Board of Review. Archived from the original on 27 September 2015.
  40. ^ J. Fox, David (18 December 1992). "N.Y. Film Critics Honor 'Player,' Altman". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on 6 March 2016.
  41. ^ "AFI 1993 Winners". Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  42. ^ "Archives – Les Lanternes". Le Soir (in French). 11 January 1993. p. 8. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016.
  43. ^ "1993 Award". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  44. ^ "历届大众电影百花奖获奖名单 (Best Actress Winners)" (in Chinese). Xinhua News Agency. 9 September 2008. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  45. ^ "Zhang Yimou". Xinhua News Agency. Archived from the original on August 3, 2003. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
  46. ^ "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema". Empire. Retrieved 14 March 2016.
  47. ^ "100 Best Chinese Mainland Films". Time Out. Retrieved 14 March 2016.
  48. ^ "The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 March 2016.
  49. ^ "The 100 Greatest Foreign Language Films". bbc. 29 October 2018. Retrieved 10 January 2021.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]