Farewell My Concubine (1992, Hong Kong) has left an impressive mark in both the Eastern and Western worlds—at least, the film version of Lilian Lee’s novel has done so. The novel itself has largely been overshadowed by the international success of the film adaptation. Although the book was first published in Chinese in 1992, the English translation did not reach the United States until 1993, the same year that the film—which is widely acknowledged as a revolutionary Chinese film—was released. Yet, even though the film dominates discussions about the story, the book stands on its own merits. Lee’s novel takes readers deep inside the world of Peking opera during the twentieth century. The story, which centers on a love triangle involving two opera singers and a former prostitute, provides an emotionally charged lens through which to view the major historical events in China during the century, most notably the oppressive communist rule of Chairman Mao. Using the historical context of this time period to provide the novel’s structure, Lee explores themes of survival, sex, and love. In the end Lee uses the transformation of Cheng Dieyi—a man who is effeminate as a boy and who, through specific opera training, is trained to think and act like a woman—to demonstrate the power and limitations of art in the real world. While Lee is a bestselling novelist in her native Hong Kong, Farewell My Concubine is the only major in-print English translation for which she is known.
It should be noted that names in China are arranged in reverse order from Western styling. In other words, the first name listed is the family name, or surname, while the second name is the personal name, or first name as Western audiences understand it. In addition, many of the younger characters in the book are referred to by the term “Xiao,” which means small and is an indication of childhood status.
Farewell My Concubine starts out with a brief discussion about prostitution and theater, and how both of these vocations are removed from reality. The reader is then introduced to the stage characters of the woman Yu Ji and the man General Xiang Yu, and learns that both roles are played by men and that one man is in love with the other. Following this short introduction, the narrative jumps back in time to winter 1929 to a marketplace in Peking, China.
Yanhong asks Master Guan, a noted Peking opera instructor, to take on her little boy, Xiao Douzi, as an apprentice. Guan refuses, until Yanhong chops off Douzi’s extra finger—a birth defect—with a cleaver. Yanhong and Douzi sign a contract with Guan for a period of ten years, during which time Douzi’s life and earnings belong to Guan in exchange for opera training. Douzi finds it hard to fit in at first, but he soon befriends Xiao Shitou, the informal leader of the apprentices. The boys spend long days practicing their craft and Douzi and Shitou distinguish themselves as the ones with the most talent. When they are given their roles, which they will play for their entire lives, Douzi is chosen to be a dan, or female lead, and Shitou is chosen to be a sheng, or male lead.
The apprentices stage a successful first performance at the Spring Blossom teahouse, which leads to many other performances. They give a birthday performance for Master Ni, a rich eunuch, who fondles Douzi after the show. During New Year’s, Shitou spends his money on sweets, while Douzi spends his on handkerchiefs—the first pieces for his collection of opera clothes. They both see a magnificent sword and Douzi says he will buy it for Shitou someday. The apprentices and Guan take part in a group photo shoot. Ten years later, in 1939, the boys, who are now as close as brothers, graduate from Guan’s school and enter professional careers.
Douzi and Shitou join an opera company and are given new, adult names by the company’s manager. Douzi becomes Cheng Dieyi and Shitou becomes Duan Xiaolou. Dieyi and Xiaolou...
(The entire section is 1,856 words.)