Conflicts and Conformities between Chinese Tradition and Modernity in The Story of Qiu Ju

The Story of Qui Ju by Zhang presents a specific panorama of Chinese life of the 1990s. Though the meaning conveyed by the movie can be perceived in a straight-forward manner, the message embedded in this 200-minute narration should be explicated and thoroughly explored between the lines. On the one hand, a viewer observes the overwhelming poverty of the country in light of its awkward attempts of industrialization. Hence, the film may initially seem to be a story of human’s struggle with hardships due to innovations. On the other hand, the above set-up becomes a core of the paradoxical interpersonal and individual conflict versus society conflict, which cannot be understood unambiguously. On a similar note, Zhang, a researcher who studies the film’s interpretation in-depth, has aptly characterized the picture as “continuity and reinvention of tradition, the legacy of Chinese socialism, and the political nature of contemporary China” (289). Indeed, a brief acquaintance with a stubborn Qui Ju enables the audience to recognize and comprehend an array of problems which the whole Chinese society encountered with in the identified period. Namely, the film juxtaposes such issues as traditional moral code of behavior and modernized worldview of state-law oneness, along with humane attitudes and self-fixated perceptions of external pressures, to list a few. These notions shift around the concept of justice and its morality as controversial and uncertain factors of contemporary existence. Thus, through conflicts and conformities, The Story of Qiu Ju unveils the struggle between traditions and modernity in Chinese politicized society that overturns long-term human life benchmarks.

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Justice versus Morality Conflict

The primary conflict between tradition and modernity can be felt from the first meeting with the protagonist, since Qui Ju’s understanding of fairness and legitimacy are undermined by her husband’s injures. The pregnant woman cannot accept and even self-explain the fact that the village Chief dared to kick Wan in his genitals. Thus, a starting point of the growing tension is clearly traced in faces of two conflicting sides whose perspectives are articulated further. The first party in this story, the initiator of the conflict, is the Chief who embodies the modern, localized, and self-centered power. His all-embracing disgrace to Wan is seemingly secured by the authority he is given by the state. Such a position, though taken as given by his colleagues, intervenes with the woman’s concept of state power as she used to perceive it previously. Qui Ju believes that the Chief had no right to perform such actions and emphasizes his deeds as wrongdoing. Her belief is supported by the traditional perception of rulers in China as rightful and respectful leaders rather than offenders. Therefore, further woman’s fulfilling a mission to “find an explanation of justice” and “apology” to the act that has become an underpinning of the plot is more than justified (Zhang 304). Her inner ideology based on traditions is confronted by the external contradiction of these beliefs. It follows that the initial conflict between the parties representing the flawed or misinterpreted modern and historical worldviews reveals the eternal fight between morality and unethical behavior at the different stratum domains. Further, tradition versus modernity regression continues as soon as the heroine addresses the first-level authority of seeking justice, Constable Li, whose moderating position in the conflict determines degradation of legislation and its moral side.

In Qiu Ju’s view, justice and morality are inseparable or even interchangeable. This perspective is an integral part of Chinese traditional ideology and world perception. Interestingly, she notes that even hitting her husband in his face would be fine or somehow understood given the circumstances of the conflict (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment). Hence, she recognizes that the Chief is more authoritative than her husband, an ordinary farmer. However, the fact that Wan was kicked in genitals within the constraints of one-family-one-child state policy overturns her beliefs in law as just and equal, especially in the socialist country. This is especially due to the fact that the constable practically supports the Chief-abuser. In this light, she pursues a so-called “peasant concept of justice” that embodies the twofold justice, with legitimate and moral constituents (Zhang 302). In contrast, she encounters the immoral justice that has no humane faces and hides behind the state’s curtain. As a result, besides beliefs, the film reveals the characteristics of identity conflict. At the same time, Qiu Ju’s odyssey for moral satisfaction of her individualized view of justice has the notes of modernity in itself whereas contradicting the Chief’s would have meant a deathly sacrifice. Foremost, seeking morality in the judicial system based on the incident is a huge challenge for a Chinese woman. Given the context of the picture, females are laborers and entertainers in a society. They work hard at homes, farmlands, and any other places requiring workforce. Their work duties and responsibilities are at equals with those of men since they carry heavy loads or pull the pushcarts among other issues. Thus, contemporary Chinese society has seemingly equalized genders. In this respect, Qiu Ju starts her pursuit within still deeply patriarchal system. Based on the film’s narrative, all officials are men. Therefore, the discussed modernity-to-tradition conflict is not only social but also gender-mediated. Hence, the maturity of the modernized country’s governance is questioned. Undoubtedly, “the system is not modern or modern enough” as soon as its inner balance is not maintained with regard to the acutest societal issues (Zhang 302).

In this respect, the conflict in The Story of Qiu Ju expands from solely interpersonal to a wider social context, with more difficult and complex problems.  Conformity versus Morality: Society-wide Conflict Apart from the fact that the conflict in the movie concerns traditions and modernity, the societal contrast is even more vivid through the lens of conformity of state officials with the state centrism. Such a factor debunks the myth of moral justice to the fullest. The issue is perfectly explicated from the invisible confrontation between Qiu Ju’s standpoint and the Chief’s state-based security. In this regard, the film’s plot development can be correlated with westernized promotion and guarantees of “the rule of law” that is “highly valued as an effective means of delimiting the scope of rights and obligations and of securing the principle of universality, impartiality, and equality” (Hsiau 196). Although these principles are not West-centered for Qiu Ju, she believes that they are morally right and should be granted for all notwithstanding one’s background. Nonetheless, her understanding of equality as moral and legitimate truth is opposed by the Chief and the system he represents. The village official disgracefully stresses, “I did kick him. So what? . . . I am the law. I am a governmental official . . .” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment). The most offensive for the heroine is to realize the fact of neglecting an individual dignity. What is more, each new layer of the judicial system which she addresses in a stubborn manner reveals predictive conformity with the aforementioned position circled by the Chief. This part is the explicate illustration of the state’s overly focus on securing its power at all dimensions. At the same time, such a state of affairs is alien to the peasant woman who got used to relationship-based behavior that is dictated by the traditional code of conduct. Further, the plot of the story intertwines the state-centric conformity with respect to the issue and individualized factors of morality among the officials of the socialist system. Namely, the film is not endlessly negative. Whereas Qiu Ju believes in traditional “differential moral principles according to specific personal relationships and specific contexts” (Hsiau 197), she indeed meets state authorities who reveal such traits. For instance, the Constable Li purchases sweets for the woman as an apology from the Chief. In this way, he attempts to soften his conformity with state-focused worldview and his empathy to Qiu Ju and her situation. In addition, Director Yan is “a good man with a good heart” who treats the pregnant woman with respect (Sze 177). By the same token, the phenomenon of conformity does not fully release the positive values and moral potential of the characters since they abide the state power to be state officials rather than simple humans.

This circumstance once again evidences that the modernity as overwhelmingly state-centered authority of each governmental layer leaves no room for the seemingly dated sentiments of the customary law and moral standards. Another important issue to consider is recognition of the fact that “enforcement of law” does not automatically mean “fulfillment of justice” (Hsiau 193). The Story of Qiu Ju eloquently demonstrates this rule in practice based on the final scenes of the film. The fact that the Chief saves the woman and her newborn child evidently shows that Qiu Ju partially achieves the anticipated outcome of her odyssey. To be more precise, she has been able to retrieve the humane traits in the Chief regardless of their difficult and confused approaches to find mutual understanding with one another and opposing views on the conflict. In contrast to his initial confidence in his own legal immunity, the village official is ready to be brought to fair court if Qiu Ju further issues the case. For this reason, the border line between traditional morality and modern distorted form of justice is thin but still available to be revived. Nonetheless, “the legal system knows too well how to punish, but is incapable of engendering humane engagement or conceptualizing its own limits” (Sze 181).

Symbols: Conflict of Values and Identity


One more significant underpinning of the plot that vividly articulates past-to-present conflicting relationship is manifested through a number of symbolic implications since their meanings are modified in the film. For example, red hot chili pepper is one of such symbols of multidimensional significance. As Zhang aptly notes, this item appears “in perfect harmony between use-value (i.e. value determined by quality and usefulness) and exchange-value (prevailing market price), and between the exchange-value and esthetic value” (292). First, chili embodies the core of the incident that becomes the primary cause of the conflict in light of conformity. In particular, the spouses wish to build a place for drying peppers, while the Chief forbids this activity. He conforms to the state norm that does not allow using the land for the purposes other than growing the crops. Thus, chili is a symbol of traditional peasant work activities and a vital means for sustaining one’s own life. Second, the pepper becomes the tool for Qiu Ju’s fixated endeavor to prove the immorality of her husband’s abuse and get an apology from the village official. In this way, it transforms to the means of Third. Chili is also a symbol of industrialization times that allows peasants to strive and survive. While its actual value is priceless for this category of people, speculators buy it for miserable money since woman has no other means to pursue her objectives.

Sexual Pretext

One more conflict versus conformity domain is “the invisible relation between the crisis and its sexual pretext” (Sze 178). This aspect of the movie is a distinct and self-explanatory feature. Modern openness of individual family life to the public, especially its urban dimension, allows frequent discussing of the fact that Qiu Ju’s husband is hit in genitals. This issue is considered by the doctor, the constable, people, and within each domain of judicial system. The officials find it an absolutely normal issue whereas the society is free to see half-naked models on the posters sold on bazaars as an impact of modernity that is demonstrated by one of the episodes. This is a part of Chinese modernity. In contrast, the wife who fights for morality feels overwhelmingly embarrassed due to this situation. In accordance with traditional Chinese beliefs, people should always keep the intimate details of their family life as sacred since understanding of sexuality is taboo-based. Therefore, the above symbol of sacredness is now a commodity and an ordinary concept that becomes another pressing point for modernity-to-tradition acute opposition.


Drawing upon the analysis, The Story of Qiu Ju is thoroughly based on conflicts and conformities that appear on the verge of an attempt to integrate ancient traditions and the controversial modernity in order to govern Chinese people within the socialist regime. This situation results in the clash of concepts and understanding of reality in conformists, such as the Chief, the constable, and other officials, while it evokes the willingness to oppose the alien ideology in Qiu Ju. Each aspect of the plot vividly demonstrates the tension between the conflicting sides, while newer conflict versus conformity issues occur in the process of adding more parties in the process, especially from the state’s or modernity side. From a solely interpersonal conflict, it grows to the nationwide context if to consider the whole set of events in a holistic manner. Even the beginning of the film depicting the endless crowd of people on the town bazaar and a sudden shifting of a focus on two women carrying a man on the pushcart encourages a viewer to think that the story could have happened to any of them. Hence, the conflict as a central building block of the plot reveals such dimensions of human relationships as peasant versus officials of different levels, where a paradigm shift is evident from a more localized to a country-wide dimension. Moreover, the depth of this conflict is expanded on the grounds of gender opposition, since Qiu Ju rebels against the patriarchal hierarchy. Apart from the interpersonal domain, the conflict relates to the factors of political culture and customary law and morality. In this light, peasant’s conformity with the moral code of conduct conflicts with utopian idealism of collectivity relevant for modernized China that adheres to socialist rather than traditional principles. Following the rationale by Zhang, the film attempts to show that Chinese peasants “uphold a notion of justice (and equality), which as unwritten law, governs their world of everyday life and informs their moral and political behavior” (304). There is no indication that either of the sides is right or wrong. However, the fact that each side understands the essence of the situation from one’s own perspective enables the audience to clearly distinguish both positions and decide on whom to empathize. In this way, the main message is traced, namely, whether one should become a blind conformist of a new political ideology, like the Chief, or stay outdated but loyal to traditions, like most peasants. At the same time, the third path is to become like Qiu Ju and try to gain the essence and meaning of previous moral beliefs in light of contemporary expanded opportunities and develop a synthesized worldview as the best practice for all.


The analysis of The Story of Qiu Ju indeed makes it justified to assert that the conflicts and conformities that initially develop on individual grounds allow observing traditions-to-modernity opposition in Chinese politicized society of the 1990s. This complex situation makes commoners reconsider and reevaluate their ancient beliefs with respect to the ideology which contemporary state power offers to them and enforces them to take these dogmas as a given. As a result, the movie entices the audience to trace a number of flaws in the socialist ideology that thoroughly contradict the system of behavioral patterns which people have followed for ages. For instance, peasants’ understanding of justice as an embodiment of morality, equality, and fair attitude is confronted by the state’s emphasis on confirmed legality of the Chief’s actions. Although the judicial system theoretically grants the citizens an opportunity to be heard in their claims for justice, its mechanisms secure its servants in practice. In addition, the whole system of traditional beliefs of Chinese people is transformed and violated by too naked modernity. To illustrate, the sacredness of intimate family relationships becomes a site for open discussions in public. Moreover, the value of human labor activities embodied in growing chili as a priceless symbol of entrepreneurship and independent survival is changed to a bargaining chip. In this way, a hope for better future becomes the subject of speculation just like human ethics and morality. {t_essay_1}

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