Farewell to my Concubine
by Lilian Lee
“. . . life is just a play. Or an opera,” Lilian Lee writes in her 1992 novel of hopeless love set against the backdrop of China’s 20th century struggles. “It would be easier for all of us if we could watch only the highlights. . . but the players have no choice. Once the curtain goes up they have to perform the play from beginning to end. They have nowhere to hide.”
The two young boys who will become known as Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou meet for the first time in 1929 (the 18th year after the overthrow of China’s last emperor, Lee lets us know), as apprentices in the centuries-old art of classical Chinese opera. The school where they study singing, acting and martial arts for stage fighting is a repository for the orphaned and abandoned, the young castoffs hoping for a start in life. It’s also a place of Dickensian grimness, misery and abuse, but all in the name of art.
Originally called Xiao Douzi (Little Bean), Cheng arrives at the opera school with his opium-addicted, prostitute mother. Seeking a refuge for her nine-year-old son, the mother begs the school’s Master Guan to take the boy, extolling his beauty and intelligence. But during the master’s examination, Douzi “kept his right hand carefully hidden in his coat pocket, where he seemed to be fingering some mysterious object.”
What is it, the master demands, and is horrified to learn that Douzi has a vestigial sixth finger. The defect, the master insists, will disqualify the boy from working as an opera singer. In the uncertain political and economic circumstances prevailing in China at the time, the master has more than his pick of the brightest and most beautiful apprentices to choose from.
Douzi’s mother flees with him to the school’s kitchen, searching desperately, but not for food.
From the kitchen, the students heard a piercing cry and find the little boy whimpering. “The cleaver had cut through flesh and bone, replacing his deformity with an open wound. But he had survived the shock. He was going to live.”
Twelve-year-old Xiaolou, then known as Xiao Shitou (Little Rock) for his head so hard he can break bricks against it, is the biggest boy at the school. He protects the wounded younger boy from the school’s bullies. And although willing to hide in the older boy’s shadow, Douzi decides initially that he’s mostly full of hot air and “wasn’t worth getting to know very well.”
“But we are still in the theater,” Lee writes. “Still, their story is not that simple. When one man loves another, it can’t be simple; and it’s hard to know how to begin. . . The lights dim again until there is nothing but a lone spotlight shining center stage. A faint creak, and the curtain parts. It is their first meeting.”
And with their 10-year contracts of apprenticeship signed, Douzi and Shitou have survived the first of the many perils that assail them during the tumultuous 20th century. The best – and worst – is still to come, as the specter of war with Japan looms over their country.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a May of historical adventure with Lilian Lee’s Farewell to my Concubine.)