Review: Farewell my Concubine by Lilian Lee

A sweeping saga, Farewell my Concubine runs the gamut of China’s modern history, from 1924 to the 1980’s, and takes the revered Peking Opera as its centre stage. Xiao Douzi and Xiao Shitou become friends under the harsh training regime of the opera (a mix of martial arts, deprivation and singing) and continue friends through the good and the very bad times of over 50 years of the country’s turbulent history

Review by Erastes

I’m going to say right out that if you have seen the film and are thinking about reading the book, and you expect the same optimistic conclusions to the character’s stories and actions within the film, you are likely to be either disappointed or surprised by the changes made – or both. Although the book does not end tragically, the film has a softer ending and also within the book the plotline regarding the abandoned child is not how it shown on the film. So be warned.

Ok – that’s that out of the way and I can concentrate on the book. Like many books about China, this is a fascinating read, because the cultures and mores of that culture are so very alien to most of a western audience. Lee lets us see Peking from the ground up; the surface “glamour” of actors and protitutes,looking affluent but look closer to see the ragged cloth shoes and the unhealthy pallor. Lee doesn’t flinch from the poverty and the squalour, and later on, the violence and degradation that the characters are forced to endure.

A young woman is desperate for her son to live, and to have a trade, carries her son to the Opera and asks them to take him on. We learn that Xiao Douzi (literally: Little Bean) has six fingers on one hand and in order for him to join the Opera–despite his excellent voice–he has to sacrifice it.There’s a theme of sacrifice that runs through the book, but you have to squint to see it.

Douzi’s mother was–for me–one of the unresolved plot lines, as this mother is never seen again, and despite Douzi missing her terribly, he does nothing to try and seek her out. It’s perfectly reasonable that she would disappear, but for him to do nothing about it, for he surely would have remember where he had lived, seems a little off, considering his character as it is painted for us.

We are introduced to the training regimen of the Opera, and from what I have read it’s not unusual, however harsh. I remember an interview with Jackie Lee who tells of his martial arts school and the terrible rigours he went through, so this is not much different, although absolutely shocking to our eyes, that young boys could be starved, beaten and humiliated in such a way. The training master is rather a cliche, I found, redolent of a sargeant major in a British sit-com or film, although he shows he does care about his charges, and whether they care for him or not, the respect they show him in later life (China, of course having a tradition of high respect for the older generation) is also highlighted.

Douzi is a natural “dan” due to his high clear voice and delicate features. A dan is a singer who specialises in female characters on stage—and in a similar fashion to the way that man-playing-female actors were trained in Shakespearian Britain – (see Stage Beauty for reference) – a dan is encouraged to consider himself female much of the time, and Douzi has to remind himself that he’s not.

The two friends stay together when they “graduate” from the ten years of their apprenticeship and they go out into the city singing their repetoire and getting better known. They are best known for the opera “Farewell my Concubine” in which Douzi (now renamed Deiyi as an adult) and Shito (renamed Xiaolou) play the concubine Yu Ji and her lover General Xiang Yu. Like many operas in the east and west, it has a tragic ending.

In the film it appears that Douzi’s sexual identity is a much bigger deal than the book, for here I found it incredibly muted, and other than a fierce loyalty, one touching scene in make-up when Shito was injured, I never really got the sense that Douzi loved Shito in some enormous way. It was very brotherly, quite hands off, and even his intense hatred and jealousy of Juxian–the prostitute that Shito marries–comes over as more of a Yoko Ono deal, and not ‘he would have loved me if it wasn’t for you.’ Douzi, doesn’t ever act on that love, so we never get a chance to find out.

The scenes where the Red Guards, consisting mainly of teenagers,  terrorise everyone who don’t adhere to the new ideals, were the most moving for me; the inhumanity of man against man, and the demonstration of just how blood-thirsty and cold young people. Harnessed for a task of cleansing the populace this section really shook me–particularly aligned against how very polite Chinese society was. The way that–even after the revolution of 1911–the country clung to its traditions, nearly had them entirely swept away in an Orwellian frenzy-only to start regaining a sense of their past was terrifying and made for a wonderful section to read.

There is a scene towards the end which is could almost be a scene from Orwell’s 1984, which is not terribly surprising, given the regime the three characters find themselves in, and it’s every bit as heartbreaking, although the real heartbreak comes at the end of the book.

However, I don’t know whether it was the translation, or just the book itself, but it didn’t really move me in the same way that other gay love stories have. I note that the translator was an academic but she wasn’t an author–perhaps it needed an author’s hand, because there were many grammatical issues, and there was some very American slang at times at times that was a tad jarring for 1920 and onwards. It’s when I read things like this that wish that I could read it in the original, but fat chance of that!

In fact I think that also, the book fails where the film shines, because it never really gives us a taste of the gorgeousness that the film is able to portray, the life of Deiyi and Xiaolou after they left the training regime and became actors, and started climbing the greasy pole to success is rather rushed, and I for one would have liked a bit more of this section.

It’s a fascinating read, however, if only for the portrait of a culture lost, and subsequent descriptions of the Mao regime as it attempted to eradicate anything that smacked of the “old traditions” and anyone with any interest in China will enjoy it for that reason, but the promise of the book in the first chapter  that it’s a story of men in love smacked just a little of a ploy to pull in people who want a gay romance, and it never delivers on that score.

Not a masterpiece, but well worth a read.

Amazon UK Amazon USA

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