Challenges of a Good Citizen

1 January 2017

A good citizen fights for justice. A good citizen resists unfair laws. And a good citizen also rebels to change the rules that they feel needs to be adjusted. Socrates in Plato’s Crito makes it a point that a good citizen follows the government of the place that raised them. His claim on why he fought for his right to go unpunished in Plato’s Apology is that he was hoping to create a change in the government, and this is a thoughtful favor for him to do because it is important that the members of a state are involved in politics and the government.

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Socrates was happy living where he was for about seventy years, so why would he be mad at the rules now? “You have had seventy years to think about [the laws], and during that time you were free to leave if we did not please you or if our agreements appeared to you to be unfair. ” (Plato 61). A good citizen must respect his home and where he comes from. This appreciation to the citizen’s home will better help him be considerate for other places. Education is also an important factor in becoming a good citizen, according to Martha C.

Nussbaum. Her work Education for Profit, Education for Freedom discusses on how education shouldn’t be limited to just books and numbers, but it should expand to teach students about critical thinking. Individuality should be more emphasized, and by having people think for themselves regardless of what others do or say, there would be more improvement on personal development. They know that they are responsible for their own actions and can one day create change in this world.

Nussbaum argues that schools should focus more on global issues and have the students state their opinions on them. By having these opinions, students can then take what they know and become more involved in politics and other matters of society. “Education will promote the enrichment of the student’s own senses, imagination, thought, and practical reason…” (Nussbaum 2). Students educated in critical thinking are, in Nussbaum’s and even Socrates eyes, good citizens because they will be active members of society.

Using Socrates’ and Nussbaum’s ideologies on what defines a good citizen, the actions of Songlian from the movie Raise the Red Lantern, directed by Zhang Yimou, can be assessed and judged to determine if she fits the criteria of being a good citizen. Songlian is the fourth mistress of a wealthy master in China. She is forced to leave her home and live in a new household with the master and his three other wives. But Songlian, who was just a young woman in her late teens, was different than the other women in the house because she was educated.

Her independent attitude in the beginning of the movie where she travelled to the master’s home by herself showed that she was independent and that she wasn’t going to be easily controlled. Songlian has to live within a new set of walls and rules, and throughout the movie, she is constantly testing her limits and her authority in the household. The wives all fought for respect through gaining the attention of the master. They would even scheme plans behind each other’s backs for their own benefit.

Songlian soon found out that she had to play her own game to hold her standards in the house, and with her education, she felt the need to exert and know her place and power in the house. Songlian is placed unwillingly into a new environment where she felt misplaced. Her role as a mistress was to be an obedient her master. But along with that, she had to dodge the demeaning schemes of her “sisters”, who she calls the other wives of the master. To do so, she had to bend around the rules of the household. First of all, it must be noted that the household is not a democracy, which was the society that Socrates was in.

Socrates’ appreciation for democracy was the reason why he didn’t push the challenge of his death sentence that was imposed on him. Songlian couldn’t change the master’s traditions, but she still managed to challenge them whenever possible just to push it to the limit. An example in the movie was when she requested to eat her food in her room instead of with her sisters. Normally, Socrates would not approve of this attitude, but since there wasn’t a democracy in Songlian’s world, Socrates would actually encourage this rebellion.

He would hope that Songlian would test her boundaries and challenge the authority of the master. Also, the master’s home isn’t where Songlian is originally from, so Socrates would observe her to be just scrutinizing and pressing the new laws that are laid before her. The death of her father is the reason that Songlian had to stop her education halfway through her university. Her stepmother told her that there wasn’t enough money to have her continue her schooling and forcefully suggested her to get married and move on with her life.

Even though Songlian wasn’t able to complete her education, 2 years is quite a significant amount of time to spend in college, especially for a woman in China at that time period. When the other ladies of Songlian’s new household found this out, they knew that she was a clever girl, and they had to somewhat be careful when they tricked her. Her behavior wasn’t always good, but according to Nussbaum, that is acceptable from an educated woman. “Knowledge is no guarantee of good behavior…” (Nussbaum 5). The fact that Songlian is an educated woman completely contributes the way we look at her and the reasons for her actions.

Nussbaum would argue that Songlian’s education was her motive to act the way she did. Regardless of what others thought, she felt that she was able to do whatever she wanted that pleased her. Although this leaning towards the selfish side, Nussbaum would still state that Songlian had her own values that she lived up to, and being educated, she was able to be an individual and adapt (and attempt to sway) the rules of the household. To me, Songlian would be considered a good citizen because she is able to first observe the unjust laws of her new living space and decided to resist it and try to cause trouble around it.

She did listen to her stepmother in her original home and get married. She seemed to have a satisfying life back home, but when she was told to do something that she didn’t approve of, she couldn’t accuse her home of being horrible for doing so. This is just like what Socrates faced. He was content living in this democratic state for his life, so why should he defy the rules now? Both Socrates and Songlian agreed with the rules that they grew up in, and both couldn’t think to break the rules of their own homeland, even if the outcome wasn’t favorable.

Therefore, Songlian in my eyes is seen to be a good citizen of her old home because of the way she respected her elders of the society that raised her. Using Nussbaum’s work, I can show how Songlian is a good citizen as well. Being educated means being opinionated and also being able to think like an individual. In the house, Songlian did things just to please herself, like asking for foot massages or her favorite dish at dinnertime. She doesn’t give in to the other mistresses and she is clever enough to catch on to their game.

She knew and tested her authority in the household, and she never silenced herself because she wanted to make a statement and show her strength. In the end, Songlian is rebellious when she sets up the third mistress’s house as a ghost home when she was brutally murdered by the master’s guards. She felt that the third mistress shouldn’t die in vain, and justice needed to be set. Songlian proves to be a good citizen by the way she respected her old household rules and rebelled against her new and unjust ones.

The filmmaker Zhang Yimou shows us how taking this girl from er home into a new society can be harsh, and how her education and her opinions of how a household should be affected her actions in the master’s house. Socrates established that a good citizen fights for her democratic rights, and also obeys them justly, even if there are consequences to be faced. Being opinionated and alert is also important, according to Nussbaum, because Songlian is able to challenge the traditions and test her limits. Bad behavior doesn’t demonstrate the actions of a poor citizen, but of a citizen who isn’t afraid to question the laws of a different society.

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