"The Story of Qiu Ju" - Film Criticism

Zhang Yi Mou’s film “The Story of Qiu Ju” (Qiu Ju Da Guan Si) is ostensibly a story of a rural Chinese woman seeking justice for her family when the village chief beats her husband. The film chronicles her battle with the Chinese judicial system, and more fundamentally, Chinese bureaucracy. Before this conflict, however, there are primary and secondary root conflicts, which led to the main conflict of the story.

The primary conflict is between Qiu Ju’s husband, Qing Lai, and the village chief, Wang. When the chief refuses to let his family build a storage shed for their crop of chilies, Qing Lai insults Wang by telling him he would “never raise anything but hens.” Wang then beats Qing Lai, including kicking him in the groin.

The film begins immediately after these events, with a pregnant Qiu Ju waddling beside a cart pulled along by her sister-in-law Mei Mei, carrying her husband to the doctor. She is deeply concerned that there might have been damage to Qing Lai’s genitals. As viewers there is no reason for us to question this concern as fear of damage to one’s sexual capability is a universal human theme. On the long way back though, after assurances from the doctor, Qiu Ju reveals that she is worried specifically about her husband’s reproductive capacity because of the newly-instated One Child Policy.

“If we can’t fix your plumbing,” she says, “we’ll be stuck with this one child policy for good. And who knows if this child inside here is a girl or boy?”

Her words imply, though it is never explicitly stated, that if the child was a girl they would abandon her to the elements, as is still known to happen in rural China today. Then she would be able to get pregnant again, this time hopefully with a male child. If her husband becomes impotent or sterile because of his injury, however, they will have no other opportunity to have another child, regardless of the sex of their eminent child.

This primary conflict between Qing Lai and the chief leads to a secondary conflict, that between the chief and Qiu Ju for the endangerment of her husband’s reproductive capacity. Qiu Ju tells Wang that beating her husband for insulting him is socially acceptable, but that kicking him in the groin is not, and demands an explanation.

To a Western audience, her demands may seem entirely reasonable, but according to the principals of saving face, Wang would never stoop to explaining himself to one of his villagers. Doing so would have elevated Qiu Ju, and by association, her husband, to equals. This is made even more unacceptable because of the fact that Qing Lai insulted him so grievously.

Watching this film for the first time, I was fascinated by how these two root conflicts, the conflicts that create every other conflict in the story, were predicated on genetic survival. It is important to remember that in traditional Chinese culture, genetic survival means survival through the male line. For much of Chinese history, only male children could be legal heirs, carrying on the family name and inheriting goods and wealth. Culturally, having a male child was one of the paramount concerns of any family.

Despite being an official and Communist Party member, chief Wang has broken the One Child Policy, and for his trouble begotten four daughters, none of whom will ensure his genetic survival according to patrilineal and patrilocal Chinese culture. Wang is “mortalized” by his inability to sire an heir; he will not achieve immortality through posterity. His name will die with him. So Qing Lai’s insult that the chief would only raise hens, or daughters, was salt in the wound. Being insulted in such a way also made Wang lose face socially, which he considered regained by beating Qing Lai.

By injuring Qing Lai’s genitals, Wang has also threatened Qiu Ju’s genetic survival through the male line, which will be in question until the birth of her child. Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu goes as far as to call Wang kicking Qing Lai in the groin as a form of parricide.

Wang’s refusal to give Qiu Ju an explanation creates a tertiary conflict, as Qiu Ju approaches higher and higher levels of authority when each official decision for reparation continues to neglect the issue of the chief’s explanation. She does not want the monetary reparation the courts readily award her, she wants an explanation, which culturally is more costly to the chief than money. It is possible that Qiu Ju subconsciously wants the socially more expensive reparation as a way to avenge the threat to her immortality through a male child.

The scale of the tertiary conflict escalates as Qiu Ju appeals to larger and larger branches of the judicial system with zeal and drive, even to the point of temporary estrangement from her husband. The conflict abruptly ends, however, when she goes into labor and begins hemorrhaging heavily. Qing Lai must then appeal to chief Wang to gather enough people to carry Qiu Ju in a stretcher through the snow-covered countryside to the doctor in town. Putting aside their argument, Wang helps them, thus saving Qiu Ju and her baby– a boy.

“With [the chief’s] help, she safely gives birth to a healthy son, a significant male heir, to the immense happiness of herself, her whole family, and the entire village.”

Upon the birth of her child, Qiu Ju is immediately magnanimous, and insists that the chief attend her son’s ritual one-month celebration as a guest of honor. He demurs, courteously, but seems to be unable to drop the disagreement entirely out of pride; after all, Qiu Ju’s genetic survival is no longer in jeopardy, but his is still futile. I argue that Qiu Ju did not declare peace only because the chief saved her and her child’s life, but because her child was male, and therefore root of her part of the conflict with Wang is eliminated from the equation.

The theme of conflict predicated by genetic survival dominated this entire film, in my mind far overshadowing Qiu Ju’s claims of quest for justice. This is not to say that her proclaimed reasons did not play into her refusal to accept anything less than her own terms. I do, however, see a fascinating play of pragmatic motives that the characters are not aware of behind the abstract motives they are conscious of. I do not think this was Zhang Yi Mou’s intention, but I believe his humorous and melancholic study of hierarchical interactions between social classes and rural/urban environments also provides excellent insight into these human survival instincts.

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