Being Sold into Marriage Sucks…lesson from a "Scar Film"

Yesterday afternoon the TIFF goddess took me to see a depressing film called “The Women from the Lake of Scented Souls” (Winner of the Golden Bear at the 1993 Berlin Film Festival).  The main character is a woman named Xiang, who was sold at 7 years of age to a rich family and forced to marry a crippled husband.  She wanted to commit suicide, but didn’t, due to her iron mother-in-law’s lecturing.  Later on, she establishes a scented oil business and made her family the wealthiest in the village.  Her husband would party all night (watching singing and HK movies on boats with other men, as well as drinking) while she did all the hard labor, running of the business, etc.  They have a son who is mentally delayed (also has epileptic seizures) and a normal daughter.  One day her son demands a wife as he sees some children pretending to get married.  Since her son has a crush on a local girl from a poor family, she buys the girl to become her son’s wife after some manipulations of local lenders who couldn’t collect from this family.  The business grows bigger as a single, modern Japanese lady invests into the business, making  Xiang realize that her life is pretty crummy in the rural village and she has a really crappy husband.  In the end,  Xiang becomes enlightened as she realizes she may have destroyed this girl’s life by buying her and forcing her to marry her son.  So she offers to let the girl go.  But the girl cries as she doesn’t think anyone would want her as a wife.

The cinematography was incredibly beautiful in this movie and the people traveled down the river in wooden boats, adding to its exoticism.  The director Xie Fei was there, explaining that he had been sent to this village for “re-education” as he had been a professor during the Communist Revolution.  The TIFF staff who did the Q & A asked if he was sent to the village to learn, as if it was a vacation or something.  Xie Fei just smiled politely and said that he learned a lot about the struggles of women there, as he said the women did all the hard labor while the men partied on the boats, doing no work.  We learn that because of the Cultural Revolution, films were not made for popular consumption between 1966-1977.  He is a “fourth generation” director, which means he had received his training before 1966, but then had his career disrupted by the revolution.  This film is also considered a “scar film” which depicts the harsh reality of rural life, oppression, subjugation of women/peasants, old patriarchal system, death, destruction, war and lots of suffering.

women scented

Are Chinese women gaining more ground in society?  There are articles on rich Chinese women in Forbes and many are more educated than before; but there is much contradictory data on the web.  In a study by National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the New York-based Asia Society, they state that just 10 of the 205 Communist Party’s Central Committee members are women, and no woman has ever held a spot on the Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s top decision-making body.  In a 2010 survey of women’s social status in China by the All-China Women’s Federation, 61.6% of men and 54.6% of women surveyed said that “men belong in public life and women belong at home,” which actually increased in numbers from a survey done in 2000.  Accounting firm Grant Thornton surveyed 200 businesses in China, of which 94% employed women in senior roles, which is good news.  If you are interested in reading more, there is an article with links about the topic here.

This movie reminded me of my grandmothers as one had an arranged marriage and one did not.  The grandmother that got to chose her spouse seemed happier I suppose, but there were also other factors; such as her wealthier family background, a chance at education and a choice in career (she became a high school principle).  The other grandmother grew up in a rural community and was arranged into marriage at the old maid age of 18.  This grandmother laments that her family refused to educate her, although her father was a school teacher and ended up only being able to do manual labour or crafts for money as a result of this (farm & embroidery work).  Both grandmothers wanted the best for their children and grandchildren, especially the females, and passed on the lesson of the importance of education and not depending on anyone else for survival.  Years later I asked the grandmother with the arranged marriage if she ever fell in love with grandfather, like on the Hong Kong soap operas.  Her answer was that “it was different back then.”  Today, the project manager that I work with listened to my description of all this and commented on how in present day that things are skewed the other way.  People have fantasies and expectations of the other sex which are not realistic.  They are all looking for a perfect someone which does not exist.  The reality is that no one is perfect and being with someone means accepting their flaws.

The Price of Marriage in China is a fascinating article about modern spouse hunting in China in a country by the end of this decade, which will have a surplus of 24 million unmarried men.  Chinese women postponing marriage to pursue careers, but are pressured to try to marry before 28 or they become stigmatized as “leftover women” or shengnu. Opposite are shengnan, “leftover men”, mostly poor rural men left behind as female counterparts marry up in age and social status. The article follows Diamond Love, a dating agency for rich men (fees range from $50,000 USD to more than $1 million USD) who want women that are young, beautiful and of course, a virgin.  Interestingly, the agency rejected a rich woman client who wanted to spend $100,000 USD to find a husband which they said was impossible as she was too successful.  The reporter also follows a mother trying to find a wife for his son who has a lower salary than women he meets.  The girls either reject him, or offer to take care of him for the rest of his life.  Very interesting and long article, have a look if you have time!