SCRANTON — A street performer in 1930s China, hoping to teach an apprentice the secrets of his ancient craft, pays cash for an 8-year-old and looks forward to training the child — until he learns “Doggie” is a girl, not the boy he thought he had purchased.
That’s the setting for “The King of Masks,” the first offering in the University of Scranton’s Asian Studies Film Series, and it offers a glimpse into the status of women in China 80 years ago. An impoverished little boy would not have had much status; he could have been bought and sold. But a little girl ranked even lower.
People who attend the screenings of all three movies in the series — next up is the 2002 film “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,” to be shown at 6 p.m. Nov. 10 in Pearn Auditorium of Brennan Hall — will see how women’s positions in society have changed over the decades in China, festival coordinator Shuhua Fan said.
The Nov. 10 movie is set during the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s, a time when Chairman Mao closed schools and sent intellectuals to the countryside to be “re-educated” through manual labor on farms or in mines.
“Thirty million young people went to the countryside,” Fan said, noting that did not happen to anyone in her family but it did happen to family members of some people she knew in China, where she grew up.
In that film, an adaptation of director Sijie Dai’s semi-autobiographical novel, two young men are sent to a remote area, where they meet a young seamstress, the daughter of a tailor.
It’s interesting to compare the young woman’s situation to that of the two young men, who have had more education, said Fan, who is an associate professor of history at the university.
“On the one hand, they are good friends and seem to enjoy equal status,” she said. “On the other hand, the two boys teach the girl new stuff, including how to write Chinese characters and read books, in addition to introducing her to various new ideas and reading Western books to her.”
“The Cultural Revolution was mainly a sociopolitical movement to build a new Socialist culture by destroying traditional and capitalist elements in Chinese society,” Fan said. “Its main goal was not to improve the status of women, so it is hard to estimate the impact of the the Cultural Revolution on women.”
However, she said, as you watch the movie and see that the seamstress makes certain life decisions for herself, you might see that as evidence that by the second half of the 20th century, women in China were becoming more independent.
The third movie in the series, “Women Who Flirt,” is set to be shown at 6 p.m. Nov. 17 in the Pearn Auditorium. “It’s a comedy,” Fan said, explaining it is set in modern times and depicts a woman who is respected and confident in the corporate world — though her love life needs some help.
Overall, Fan said, women’s independence and opportunities have risen significantly during the past century in China. One big step, in 1950, was “The New Marriage Act,” which raised the minimum age for a woman to marry to 18 and required that both parties consent to the marriage.
Still, she said, although there are many educated and professional women in China today, there is still room for improvement.
“Some, not all, employers (still) prefer to have male employees,” she said. “They believe male workers can concentrate more while while female employees need to spend time taking care of kids, etc.”
Admission to the films is free to the public and each film will be followed by a question and answer session.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT