Friday, May 8, 2015

Adventure classics – The times were against them

Farewell to My Concubine
by Lilian Lee
Surrounded by the Han army, Xiang Yu’s soldiers were few and his supplies exhausted. With him were the beautiful Lady Yu, who followed wherever he went, and his favorite steed. ‘My might shadowed the world,’ he said, ‘but the times were against me and my horse runs no more. What more can I do? Ah, Yu, my Yu, what will your fate be?’

(Adapted from Basic Annals of Xiang Yu)

This story of the fallen general in the wars to unite China in the second century BCE is the basis of Lilian Lee’s 1992 historic novel, Farewell to My Concubine, the most recent of centuries of retelling the story of tragic heroism and love.

image: wikimedia commons
Set in a time of turmoil, Lee reset it against the background of China’s 20th century upheavals. But this time around, she reconfigures the romantic leads as a pair of actors who play the roles of Xiang Yu and his adored concubine. Or did she?

In the classical tradition of Chinese opera, all roles are played by men. By a twist of fate, gentle and handsome Cheng Dieyi becomes cast as a dan, a female lead, while his combative classmate in their opera school, Duan Xiaolou, is cast as a sheng, a male lead. Rising to fame, they become most noted for the parts of Lady Yu Ji and her lover Xiang Yu in the opera, Farewell to My Concubine.

It was a role Dieyi would take to heart. Except that in this version, the beauty has a rival for the warrior’s love—an equally beautiful, and unambiguously female rival. For much as Dieyi adores his friend, Xiaolou feelings for him are only those of a brother. When his heart turns to love, Xiaolou only has eyes for the courtesan known as Juxian—Chrysanthemum.

The two actors met as children in opera school in 1929, two decades after the overthrow of China’s last emperor and the establishment of the Republic of China. During their 10-year apprenticeship, their China, like that of Xiang Yu, has been torn by wars between rival factions. Now on their own in 1939, they take the stage as world war looms. With China occupied by Japanese troops, the young actors are faced with the choice of performing for their enemies or resisting them.

One day, “just as the opera reached its most beautiful and moving point,” Lee writes, “a group of Japanese soldiers filed into the theater.” As ushers hurry to empty seats for these escorts of Japanese Marshal Aoki), Xiaolou stops singing. As if enacting his heroic part in real life, he jumps into the audience, fists swinging, shouting “‘The show’s over! This damn theater is full of devils!’”

But once offstage, his immunity from reality vanishes. There will be no graceful exit, no delighted applause, no rapturous fans at the conclusion of this scene.

(For the summary of Xiang Yu and Lady Yu, I am indebted to Jannis Jizhou Chen’s essay, “The Forgotten Themes of Farewell My Concubine – A Comparative Analysis between the Novel and the Film,” available at The illustration for this post is of a late 18th century emperor in ceremonial armor. Next Friday, Adventure classics continues the discussion of Lilian Lee’s Farewell to My Concubine.)

No comments:

Post a Comment