The Eradication of High Culture

Nick Robison

Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou never seemed to have the luxury of a comfortable life. Starting at a very young age, they were beaten, and tortured for the sake of Chinese opera. Even after achieving fame and fortune, personal issues always seemed to be ever-present in both of their lives. Aside from such issues as Cheng Dieyi's obvious attraction to Duan Xialolou, as time progressed, both characters had to face head-on the radical changes that China had to go through. Such changes as the Japanese occupation, the war between the nationals and the communists, and the Cultural Revolution would test Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou's will to live. Although the Japanese occupation was not for the people of China, both the war between the nationals and the communists as well as the Cultural Revolution were claimed to be done in the name of the people of China. The irony behind this claim is that, although it was for the common Chinese citizen, these events might have hurt that demographic the most.

The reference point of the movie was the performance of the opera "Farewell My Concubine" after which this movie was named. With each change of power, the opera was performed and as expected, there were different reactions with each audience. The first audience was Chinese opera fans before the Japanese occupation. This audience respected and appreciated the opera. The next performance was for the Japanese military that respected and appreciated ancient Chinese cultural institutions like the Peking Opera while treating the Chinese as their enemies. The next performance and maybe the worst audience was the Chinese nationalist army. Not only did they not appreciate the performance, but they were not respectful of it. The last performance was for the Chinese communists. They were respectful, but were so ignorant of their own past that they did not know when to clap. This is not surprising considering that the sentiment of the Cultural Revolution was that anything associated with the past is anti-revolutionary. Therefore, it was not hard to predict that, in accordance to this notion, the theatre troupe would be hunted down and be forced to renounce everything that they had learned and lived for.

It is improper to call such a movement to destroy anything associated with the past a "Cultural Revolution" because it is the past that is the foundation of any culture and therefore, by destroying it there is not a change in the culture, but rather a complete eradication of it. Although it takes the destruction of a structure for it to be changed, culture cannot be changed so easily because culture is the result in centuries of certain practices and rituals. For such a revolution to be a success it would take generations upon generations to create a new culture and that is exactly what any communist government would want, a utopia far off that the people would be working for all their lives to bring about. The reason for this is simply because when there is a constant fight against anything, the people are more likely to obey the government as well as not think about other problems within the country such as a lack of food, or poor economic conditions. If such a question were to arise, the government had a simple answer; it is the capitalists�� fault and that is why the people must continue to fight.

The Cultural Revolution in reality was never meant to help the people because the reality was that, if a person had an education or had a nice life; he or she was a capitalist and therefore must be imprisoned or executed. What was left was the poor and uneducated; a population of unskilled laborers with no culture to be proud of. It would take many years for China to realize what a horrible thing it had done.

The Thin Line Between Loyalty and Betrayal

Tamutenda Chidawanyika

In Farewell My Concubine, Chen Kaige uses emotional complexity to intertwine the qualities of loyalty and betrayal in the lives of the characters Cheng Dieyi, Duan Xiaolou and Jouxian. Chen Kaige uses the love triangle between these three characters to emphasize that there is a fine line between loyalty and betrayal and that this line is greatly defined by the circumstances one is under. Loyalty and betrayal are woven so closely together, that it is difficult to conclude whether there was any genuine and selfless loyalty in any of the three relationships.

"I am by nature a girl, not a boy." These words finally spoken by Douzi (little Cheng Dieyi) after severe physical and emotional abuse from Shitou (little Xiaolou) are a direct indication of the fact that from an early age, Cheng Dieyi felt a loyalty to Xiaolou. Chen Kaige successfully uses the fact that Douzi refers to himself as a female and as a result confuses his sex and eventually dwells on extreme femininity, to show that he is loyal to Shitou and to their dream of becoming successful in opera. This loyalty is based on the intricacy of their relationship and the associated emotions and it continues as Douzi becomes more comfortable as the king's (Shitou's) concubine. However, as soon as pressure arises from the Cultural Revolution, this loyalty dissolves as Cheng Dieyi exposes the fact that Xiaolou is married to a prostitute.

Chen Kaige also shows a sudden shift from extreme loyalty to classic betrayal in the case of Xiaolou and his wife Jouxian. The circumstances surrounding the marriage between Xiaolou and Jouxian require a great degree of loyalty from Xiaolou since Jouxian has been thrown out of the House of Blossoms and Xiaolou seems to be obligated to taking her as his wife. He manages to be loyal to Jouxian for many years but when the Cultural Revolution intensifies, Xiaolou denounces his wife and betrays their love and trust. Through this incident, Chen Kaige once again manages to illustrate the delicateness of loyalty.

Xiaolou also betrays the trust Chang Dieyi has in him. Xiaolou initially betrays Cheng Dieyi when he marries Jouxian. This act violates their need for extreme brotherhood in the opera business, which would make the two of them more successful actors. Xialou is also disloyal when he fails to dedicate and immerse himself entirely in his character as the king and as a result disappoints his concubine. Due to the Cultural Revolution, he exposes Cheng Dieyi for being an opium addict and a homosexual and this shows his lack of loyalty for his brother. Chen Kaige uses this aspect of Cheng Dieyi and Xiaolou's relationship to show how circumstances can drastically change the degrees of loyalty in a relationship.

In Farewell My Concubine, morals and values are compromised due to the Cultural Revolution. Chen Kaige manages to show that many of the people in China at the time were psychologically broken down by the Red Guards and policies implemented by the Cultural Revolution by using characters in the movie. Cheng Dieyi, Duan Xiaolou and Jouxian are examples of how people were changed and how relationships were destroyed due to the pressures from the Cultural Revolution.

How Tradition Is Lost

Emma Powell

The film is about the conflict between tradition and modernity, which china went through in recent history. The characters are portrayed as everyday men who just keep trying to perform their art while the rest of the country goes through major upheavals. As artists they become famous. Because they are artists they are not respected and pushed around by the people in power. They are used for entertainment by each new government. The plot is rambling as one system takes over the next. The plot gets lost in the chaos of who the characters are trying to survive. In order to keep working and stay alive they agree to perform their show for each new crowd. They are caught between the traditional opera, which is what they were trained to do from a young age, and the modern values of each new regime. The point of view is initially provided by Cheng Dieyi trying to join the acting troupe but subsumed by a tale about the three main characters and their hardships. Cheng Dieyi becomes an increasingly less relatable character as he becomes more obsessed with his own traditional role as a concubine. He rejects modernity and becomes irrational. His public persona is also very separate from the boy he was at the beginning of the movie. The only explanation for this is he embraces his theatrical role to an extreme, the role he initially rejected and refused to play. This change in personality made it harder to connect with the character because it does not seem like the same person and so feels false.

The characters do not take political stands. In the film no government is portrayed in a positive way. Each government attacks or threatens the theatre. The film is not showing how one government saved or destroyed but about how the people tried to live through each and the problems they were faced with. Dieyi agrees to perform what the Japanese want to see in order to save his friend Xiaolou. This puts them in danger later on when the Japanese are defeated. While performing for the Japanese Dieyi also continues to live out his role as the faithful concubine. Dieyi retreats into his theatrical role of an ancient heroic concubine and loses a sense of his own reality. This might have been his way of escaping the chaos around him. Dieyi doesn't understand why Xiaolou chooses modernity and things such as his new wife over the opera and living the part of their traditional characters. Dieyi refuses to accept a modern role both on stage and in life. Dieyi is rarely shown without his stage makeup. Xiaolou is trapped between his friend and "brother" who wants them to always stay the "king and concubine," and his wife who wants him to be safe and there for her. This is a way of showing the conflict with modernity subtly and in terms of personal relationships not just political statements.

This film emphasizes human relationships and shows how the political unrest tears them apart. No one is trustworthy and they all turn against each other in an attempt to save their own skin. This is not a story about the strength of human relationships but an explanation of how traditional Chinese culture disintegrates because of these historical events and how people lose their morality and even humanity to the point where they betray the ones they love. The film also shows how people, not political leaders or revolutionaries, but the common people were forced to abandon their tradition, to move on and embrace the communist revolution. They did this out of fear and in an attempt to live their lives in peace. In the end it was a matter of whether they could let go of their former lives. For Dieyi this was not possible. He could not live if his stage persona was no longer a part of his reality. And so he killed himself in the traditional way his character had, thus never giving in to the modernity he was fighting against. He was a personification of the traditional side of the culture and the film is about how that culture was given up.

The Revolution of Opera

Manu Samanna-Spagnoli

In Farewell My Concubine the traditions and history of 20th century China are displayed through Peking Opera. Throughout the movie, the elaborate costumes and sharp vocal renditions of old stage texts illuminate and paint for the viewer the culture of Peking Opera. Continuously through this "life of opera" the actors are faced with historical changes that force them to change their lives. Director Kaige Chen shares the story of a family influenced by the dynamics of Chinese history. The movie portrays rising conflict that pins his characters in dynamic situations, such as performing for the Japanese invaders and denouncing love during the Cultural Revolution.

The love Cheng Dieyi feels towards his stage brother, Duan Xiaolou, while performing in the Peking Opera, provides both tension and identity for the two characters. From the beginning the loyal and devoted "concubine" exhibits the passion and love pivotal to the story of Concubine Yu. Dieyi is caught between his stage persona and his private self off-stage. This confusion is due to the fact that he was an orphan as a child that needs Beijing Opera as a surrogate family. Through his devotion to opera and his "king," Dieyi gets lost in his emotions and continually moves closer, sexually, to his friend. When Juxian marries Xiaolou and thus replaces him as the king's "concubine," Dieyi becomes jealous. This jealousy causes conflict between his stage identity and personal self.

When Dieyi performs in front of the Japanese, tension arises from his love for opera and his resentment towards the Japanese after the invasion. He is also "proving" his devotion to the "king" by securing Xiaolou��s release. The display of such tension serves to show the influence of Japanese occupation upon Chinese culture as a whole, families, and individuals, complicating their love for Peking Opera and their hatred for foreign aggressors.

The movie's strongest theme comes through Chen's depiction of the Cultural Revolution. Here the viewer is faced with a culmination of dynamic factors: a relationship plagued with tension, the destruction of a past culture, and the cleansing of "Old Society." The "revolution" is depicted as the destruction of individual identity, culture, and history. This begs the question, "What does the destruction of an old way bring?" One may argue happiness, fairness, and equality - a "70s Maoist ideology. Yet, the loss of identity brings with it misdirection, as the total destruction of culture transcends into a struggle for power - the Red Guards vs. China. But what Chen allows for us to see is the end of meaningful life for Xialous and death for his companions. Such an "end" is brought about by a revolution that serves to progress the Chinese people��s social and civic duties and gain support for communism.

In the final moments all love and trust between the characters seem to wither away when the Red Guards march Dieyi, Xiaolou and Juxian in front of the public. Xiaolou breaks under the pressure of "revolution" and drives Juxian to death. The pressure of the Cultural Revolution and its destruction of opera force the loyal Dieyi to finish his act, one last time. Farewell My Concubine depicts the relationships of people and the traditions of an era, simultaneously interweaving the destruction of Chinese tradition and the many faces of revolution.

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