Farewell My Concubine Essays and Criticism
by Lillian Lee

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Art and Reality

(Novels for Students)

From the first few paragraphs of the novel, Lee sets up a contrast between art and reality. The novel begins with a discussion of the acting that prostitutes must do to make their living, then moves on to talk about how professional actors also must remove themselves from reality and play a role for their customers. As Lee notes, “The stage is populated by brilliant young scholars and beautiful ladies whose exalted passions are more vivid than the drab colors of our workaday existence.” From this overt expression of the contrast between art and reality, Lee goes on to include several other direct addresses to her readers about this contrast. “The actors bask in the admiration of hundreds of strangers, who are transported out of their small lives by the deep emotions enacted before them,” Lee notes in another passage. While these heavyhanded ideological statements help to underscore her ideas in a plain fashion, Lee’s most powerful tool is her transformation of the character of Cheng Dieyi. It is through this development that Lee makes the impact of the communist revolution seem that much more tragic.

When the story begins and Dieyi is the little boy known by the nickname of Xiao Douzi, Lee starts planting little details, foreshadowing the character’s transformation into a man who is more like a woman. When Yanhong, Douzi’s mother, takes her son to Master Guan, Lee notes that Douzi’s “features were surprisingly delicate. He was almost pretty.” But in order to be a performer in the Chinese opera, Douzi must not have any features that make him stand out. He must be as perfect as possible to maintain the willing suspension of disbelief that audiences expect. Unfortunately, Douzi fails this test because he was born with an extra finger. Desperate to have her son accepted by Master Guan’s studio, Yanhong uses a cleaver to chop off the extra finger. Satisfied that Douzi will make a good opera student, Guan accepts him. It is at this point that Douzi’s naturally effeminate looks and demeanor help to determine the course of his life and relationships. He is chosen as a dan, or female lead, while his friend Shitou is chosen to be his sheng, or male lead.

In Chinese opera at this time, these roles were meant to be played for life, so each actor received very specific training. In Douzi’s case, “His once deformed hand became the embodiment of feminine beauty as his wrists circled elegantly, the posed fingers of his ‘orchid hands’ weaving through the air.” Guan also teaches Douzi how to “play the coquette,” flirting with Xiaolou’s male characters. As Lee notes later in the novel, “A dan has to be even more feminine than a woman.” Douzi is taught how to be the ideal woman in a theatrical sense, and he relishes this task, preferring to live in this fantasy world. Later, as he enters his professional career as Dieyi, the lines between himself and Yu Ji—his character from the opera Farewell My Concubine—become even more blurred, and Dieyi attempts to live in this fantasy world all of the time. “The theater was a world of illusion, but it was the only world he knew. The rest of the world seemed to drift by him, no more substantial than a dream.”

Others also fail to make the distinction between the actual man and the roles he plays. As the political situation gets darker and people seek comfort in the theater, each person finds what they need in Dieyi. As he notes after a fan tries to break into his dressing room, saying that she is his future wife, “It wasn’t him they loved—it was the idea of him. Men loved him as a woman; women loved him as a man. Nobody knew who he really was.” In fact, at this point, neither does Dieyi. He has been socialized, through his profession and his own choice, to be more of a woman than a man. One day when he is examining his soft hands, noting how they had never done a day’s labor, he has the following thought: “It was as though they had been emasculated the day...

(The entire section is 6,605 words.)