Farewell My Concubine Themes
by Lillian Lee

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Farewell My Concubine Themes

(Novels for Students)

Survival is a key theme in Farewell My Concubine. In the beginning of the novel, many Chinese people have a hard time just trying to acquire the basic necessities of food and shelter. The marketplace scene in which Yanhong and Douzi are introduced is a good example of this harsh life. For example, one street urchin weaves his way through crowds, collecting cigarette butts before they can be trampled. “When he had gathered up enough discarded butts, he would take them all apart and salvage the tobacco. Then he would roll new cigarettes to sell on the street.” This boy is most likely an orphan, and collecting the cigarettes is his only way to make money to try to pay for food and shelter. Yet, even those with adult caregivers are not much better off. When Douzi is introduced, his mother Yanhong is working in the only types of odd jobs she can find, “like rolling wax-coated pills in the back of some pharmacy during the influenza season, or washing other people’s filthy clothes and fetid socks.” And these types of activities do not earn enough money to provide adequate shelter for her and Douzi, especially during cold winter months when they have to huddle together “on a makeshift bed made out of a wooden board set up in the loft of a down-at-the-heel courtyard.”

Faced with this grim reality, Yanhong signs Douzi’s care over to Master Guan, hoping that her son will be able to have a better life. But Douzi must also struggle to survive at the school. He sleeps on a communal bed with several other boys, his clothes are rags, and his days are long and hard, filled with endless hours of physical training. They rarely wash, and they almost never have enough to eat. As Lee notes, “Their faces were never entirely clean, and their bellies were never completely full as they set out every morning behind Master Guan.”

While basic survival necessities such as food and shelter remain a concern for most Chinese people throughout the novel, when the Communist Party takes over the Chinese government, people’s physical survival is increasingly influenced by politics. People begin to exert extreme caution over the things they say and do, for fear they may be singled out to be tortured or killed. As Lee notes about a time shortly after the Communist Party takeover: “But fear had become contagious, like a lingering flu nobody could shake. Politics was a matter of life and death, and people learned not to discuss certain subjects if they could help it.” In this climate of extreme paranoia, nobody feels safe, even those who have power in the Communist Party. For example, during one scene, the party secretary in Peking is reciting a speech over a loudspeaker, and it is so loud it causes him to pause and think about the attention he is drawing to himself. “He looked up, a wary expression flickering across his eyes. He had only just begun to exercise some power himself, and already it seemed precarious. Anyone could become a victim, even he.” In the end nobody is safe from the effects of communist politics. Those who are too traditional are labeled counterrevolutionaries and tortured, killed, or sent to work camps, as Dieyi and Xiaolou are. And those who embrace party politics often meet grisly fates after the Communist Party is overthrown. For example, at the end of the novel when the aged Dieyi and Xiaolou are discussing what happened to Xiao Si, a young man who wielded some power in the Communist Party and who helped determine the sentence for the two actors, Dieyi notes that Xiao Si was accused of following the Gang of Four, was tortured until he went crazy, and is most likely dead. “It frightens me to think about it,” Dieyi says. “You can’t escape from politics—and it’s always life or death, kill or be killed.”

Sex and Love
Lee also explores the themes of sex and love in the novel. For some characters, sex becomes another tool for survival. In the beginning of the novel, Lee notes that Yanhong, Douzi’s...

(The entire section is 1,540 words.)