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A Chinese Tragedy: Farewell, My Concubine

A Chinese exchange student whom my wife and I came to know quite well recommended the 1993 movie “Farewell, My Concubine” as a classic Chinese film that we should watch.  I pass on the recommendation to you.  The acting and costuming are excellent, and most importantly, it is an epic tale that can be understood on several levels.  It is no wonder that the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

On the simplest level it is a story that traces the trials and friendship of two men over a span of more than fifty years.  Douzi and Shitou meet as young boys while training to be part of the prestigious and traditional Peking Opera.    They become famous opera stars and adopt the stage names of Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou.  They are especially known for their performance of a classic Chinese epic tragedy, “Farewell, My Concubine.” [1]

The historical setting of the movie, which is told against the tumultuous changes of twentieth-century Chinese history, points to another level of meaning.  Douzi and Shitou meet during the chaotic times of 1920’s China’s infant republic.  They are then confronted with occupation by imperial Japan, followed by the Communist victory in 1949, Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s and the subsequent reaction to it.  Significantly, the opera “Farewell, My Concubine,” from which Dieyi and Xiaolou perform selections several times in the movie, is based on the story of the struggle for the unification of China and the creation of the Han Dynasty.  Thus the movie makes a connection between the events of twentieth-century China, which finally becomes unified under the Communists, and earlier historic events.  That a tragic opera story serves as the link between these two events is perhaps a subtle hint that there was loss as well as gain in the process of unifying China.  Certainly the sufferings of the two actors and the tragic end of Dieyi would seem to point in this direction.  The fact that the film was twice banned by the Chinese government, although now accepted, shows that the government censors saw the implied criticism.

Not being Chinese, the most telling part of the story for me has to do with the confusion between fiction and reality in the mind of Douzi or Dieyi.  Born the illegitimate son of a prostitute, his mother wants to leave him with the Peking Opera academy that took in orphans and other poor children to train for the opera.  Born with a sixth finger on one hand, he is rejected by the academy until his mother cuts it off.  It was common in those days for boys to play the female opera parts, as was traditionally the case in English theater, and Douzi is supposed to recite a part in which he says, “I am by nature a girl.”  Being a boy, he would say “I am by nature a boy” and is brutally beaten for the error.  Finally, he says “I am by nature a girl.”  It would appear that in his young mind this meant to him that he really was a girl and is an important factor that leads to his homosexuality.  His rape by a eunuch only reinforces this misperception.  When he begins to play the part of Yujii, the concubine in “Farewell, My Concubine,” he seems to become the concubine and no longer himself.  Dieyi’s confusion of roles is implied by his almost always appearing in costume in the movie.  It is made explicit when Xiaolou exclaims, “I’m just an actor playing a king. You really are Yuji.” He has a strong, but unfulfilled, romantic attachment to Xiaolou, which creates tensions between them and Xiaolou’s wife, Juxian.  In the end he tragically fulfills in real life his role as the concubine.

The confusion between fiction and reality in Dieyi/Douzi’s mind is a result of the circumstances in which he lived.  Indeed his life, with its sufferings and failings and those of Xiaolou and also his wife as well, are often the result of forces beyond their control.  Heroes and heroines caught in a web of circumstances beyond their control is the heart of the epic tragedy, an artistic form the value of which we would do well to appreciate in an entertainment culture awash with superheroes.  As a culture and as individuals we need to regain the maturity of recognizing our own limits and those of our leaders.  Without falling into the opposite error of despair, we need to remember that we are not fully the captains of our fate and the masters of our soul.

I highly recommend “Farewell, My Concubine,” which is available via Netflix.  You should know that there are scenes of violence, especially in the treatment of the students at the school, and the language in the English subtitles can be crude.  Also for Westerners, like me, it will probably be a struggle to appreciate the art form of Chinese opera.  Still, if we want our experience of the cinema to move beyond mindless entertainment, we need to watch, ponder and discuss serious films such as this one which teach us about other cultures and nature of human existence.

[1] My thanks to our friend Sung Yanyun for her help explaining this and other Chinese operas in the film.

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