Friday, May 15, 2015

Adventure classics – Can even a revolution kill love?

Farewell to My Concubine
by Lilian Lee
Hong Kong author Lilian Lee appropriated the plot of a classical Chinese opera for her tale of tragic love, Farewell to My Concubine. But she added a twist to the ancient story of General Xiang Yu and his faithful to death lover Lady Yu Ji by assigning their parts in her 1992 version to the pair of actors who play them on stage. The pair of male actors.

“I didn’t really emphasize the problems of homosexuality,” Lee said in an interview with journalist Lawrence Chua. “In traditional China, in Beijing opera, men always played the female roles.”

But chosen to play female leads since the age of nine, tragic hero Cheng Dieyi can’t separate himself from the roles he plays, including Lady Yu to his best friend Duan Xiaolou’s General Xiang. Unable to return Dieyi’s passion, Xiaolou marries beautiful courtesan Juxian—Chrysanthemum.

Lee determinedly places her characters against the backdrop of China’s tumultuous 20th century history, making them come of age as Japan invades China at the beginning of World War II. When Xiaolou is arrested for resisting the Japanese, Juxian pleads with Dieyi to intercede for him. The Japanese agree to release Dieyi’s friend in return for a private performance by the famous actor. In return, Dieyi makes Juxian promise to desert Xiaolou. But who has the right to ask a lover to leave her beloved? Lady Yu did not and neither can Juxian.

Xiaolou is freed but infuriated by Dieyi’s collaboration. In the end, however, it will take China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s to finally separate the pair of lifelong friends.

“Even in the New China,” Lee wrote, “people still liked to watch the old operas.” But more and more, the old operas are replaced by new revolutionary operas with titles like Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and The Red Detachment of Women (a picture of which illustrates this post). And “Old Society” artists such as Dieyi and Xiaolou are Once Dieyi’s “collaboration” of entertaining the Japanese becomes known, he, Xiaolou and Juxian are tortured in attempts to make them denounce each other. Dieyi breaks, revealing Juxian’s past as a prostitute, and causing her to be sentenced to a labor camp. When Xiaolou enters their apartment for the last time, on his own way to a labor camp, he finds Juxian hanging. “She had put on her bright red wedding dress . . . (and) pinned a red flower into what was left of her black hair. Only a bride could wear that crimson blossom.”

It’s more than Xiaolou can bear. He and Dieyi part forever. Or do they? Because after all, a considerable part of China’s 20th century upheaval remains to be told.

“I know about the Cultural Revolution because of the many interviews I did about it,” Lee said in her interview with Chua, "(but) when I wrote the novel, I wasn’t emphasizing the Cultural Revolution. I just wanted to tell a beautiful story about love.”

Want more about Lee? Read Chua’s complete interview at

(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a May of historical fiction with another classic Chinese story of love, this time in a more traditional setting, Tsao Hsueh-Chin’s Dream of the Red Chamber.)

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