The 1993 film Farewell My Concubine (directed by Chen Kaige) is now referred to as one of the Chinese cinematography’s finest works. There are several reasons for it, but the most important one has to do with the film’s high educational value. After all, even though Farewell My Concubine is, in essence, a love story with the strongly defined ‘queerness’ overtone to it, this movie does provide a rather accurate account of many turning points in China’s history. Therefore, by watching Kaige’s film one will indeed be able to learn a great deal about China, in general, and the socially predetermined workings of people’s ‘Oriental’ (Confucian) mentality, in particular. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length while expounding on what should be deemed the social and cultural significance of some of the film’s most memorable scenes and episodes.
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Discursive context in the film Farewell My Concubine
Among the main factors that contributed substantially towards making it possible for Farewell My Concubine to win the Palme d’Or award during the 1993 Cannes Film Festival can be named Kaige’s success in ensuring the psychological plausibility of this film’s themes and motifs. In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that Farewell My Concubine does provide a strong discursive context to the on-screen action. The film’s initial scenes, in which the main characters of Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou are seen subjected to harsh beatings by a teacher (as trainees in the Peking Opera), illustrate the validity of this statement. The reason for this is that they exemplify the practical implications of the Confucian paradigm in education, which justifies physical punishment as an effective instrument of disciplining students.1 It is understood, of course, that those Western viewers who are to watch Kaige’s film for the first time may end up experiencing much emotional discomfort as a result of their initial exposure to the mentioned scenes.
However, by the time the movie reaches its conclusion, the audience will be likely to realize that there are many discursively ambivalent dimensions to the film’s cinematic representations of violence. For example, the recurring episodes of child abuse that continue to take place throughout the film’s first half are shown having caused much suffering to Dieyi and Xiaolou. On the other hand, however, the film’s context implies that both individuals were able to become better men because of their childhood experiences in this regard – in full accordance with the fatalistic provisions of Confucianism. In its turn, this emphasizes the unmistakably ‘Oriental’ (holistic) sounding of Farewell My Concubine, as a whole. As Xu aptly pointed out, “Farewell My Concubine is neither a collector of Chinese curiosities nor a disquisition on the politics of blame. The film is not principally about child abuse, prostitution, homosexuality, communist brutality, or oriental despotism… Its principal concern is with the barbarity contained in a civilization”.2 Moreover, it also helps to explain the significance of the film’s other peculiarities within the context of how it portrays Chinese society through the historic stretch in question.
Probably the most notable of them has to do with the fact that, as it can be inferred from Farewell My Concubine, throughout the Republican period in China’s history (1912-1949); it was not only that Chinese society remained deeply divided along the class-lines, but that there was a ‘feudal’ quality to it. For example, in one of the film’s initial scenes, Master Guan tells Dieyi’s mother, “Prostitutes and actors are equally despised by society”.3 As the plot unravels, viewers slowly realize what accounted for the full scope of this statement’s discursive connotations. After all, even after having attained the status of opera celebrities during the thirties, Dieyi and Xiaolou never ceased to be seen as a ‘commodity’ by the society’s rich and powerful. The homoerotic relationship between Dieyi and Yuan Shiqing exemplifies the legitimacy of this suggestion. The reason for this is that despite his admiration for Dieyi’s acting talents, Shiqing could never bring himself down to be willing to think of Dieyi outside of his role as Concubine. In the eyes of Shiqing, Dieyi was nothing but a trophy to own. Such Shiqing’s attitude appears to have been fully consistent with the ways of Chinese society at the time, reflective of its strongly hierarchical structure, on one hand, and its traditional affiliation with the bureaucratic form of political governing, on the other.
In this respect, we can refer to the film’s another scene where Master Guan adopts an utterly subservient posture while trying to win Na Kun’s (important official) favor, followed by the take in which the former is seen subjecting young boys to a brutal beating as if he were a slave owner of some sort. This once again highlights the earlier mentioned holistic quality of one’s ‘Chinese living’ – the Chinese have traditionally been known for their unconscious strive to ‘blend’ within the surrounding social environment, as opposed to trying to control it (as it is the case with most Westerners). This creates many objective preconditions for the former to be stereotyped in the West as the masters of psychological mimicry. The same goes to explain why Chinese culture has traditionally been known for its strong collectivist ethos.
Unfortunately, the fact that Chinese society adheres to the communal/collectivist values is exactly what causes it to be prone to corruption – yet another motif, explored in Farewell My Concubine. What is especially notable about how the director addresses the theme of bribery in pre-Communist China is that he refrains from ascribing any moralistic overtones to it. According to the film, corruption/bribery is nothing but an integral part of the society’s functioning – neither ‘good’ nor ‘wicked’. The validity of this argument can be illustrated regarding the film’s scene in which Dieyi sings for the Japanese to free his stage brother Xiaolou out of imprisonment, and also the one where Xiaolou’s wife Juxian comes to visit Dieyi in the Chiang Kai-shek’s jail to tell him that Shiqing was able to arrange his release by bribing the court. Both episodes help to clarify the implications of the uniquely Chinese concept of guanxi, which stands for “the establishment of a connection between two independent individuals to enable a bilateral flow of personal or social transactions”.4 This simply could not be otherwise because the mentioned scenes in the film imply the ‘self-governing’ quality of Chinese society – hence explaining how it was able to retain its innate integrity, despite having been heavily affected by numerous socio-political upheavals throughout the 20th century.
What has been mentioned earlier reveals yet another rationale as to why Farewell My Concubine was able to win a critically acclaimed status – the way this film address the most important events in China’s modern history is fully observant of the ‘unity of opposites’ (yin yang) principle of dialectical reasoning. To exemplify the full soundness of this statement, we must refer to the specifics of how Kaige’s film treats the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution (1966 -1976). The first thing that comes into one’s sight in this regard is that Farewell My Concubine refers to these events as having been objectively predetermined.
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According to how Kaige’s film presents it, the Communist Revolution of 1949 was brought about by the fact that throughout the Republican period, most people in China suffered from extreme poverty, as well as from having been considered ‘second’ and ‘third’ class citizens by the country’s corrupted high-ranking governmental officials, whose main task was to preserve China’s semi-colonial status.5 The director’s positive attitude towards the founding of PRC in 1949 is revealed in one of the film’s advanced scenes, in which Dieyi and Xiaolou end up being applauded by the audience of Communist soldiers – even though Dieyi could not sing properly at the time. After all, this scene stands out in contrast with the earlier one, where Nationalist soldiers are shown giving both actors some strong beating because of Dieyi’s presumed affiliation with the Japanese. It is quite obvious that the film refers to the concerned historical development as such that proved overall beneficial to China.
The same cannot be said about the film’s treatment of the Cultural Revolution – the event that Farewell My Concubine appears to be critical of. In this respect, we can refer to the scene with Xiaolou and Juxian burning theater prompts in their house while anticipating that the Cultural Revolution will eventually result in outlawing the Peking Opera as the example of ‘bourgeois art’. What makes this scene even more tragic are the ‘revolutionary announcements’ (broadcasted over the radio) heard in the background – both characters cannot help having some shots of alcohol one after another while listening to the propagandistic slogans and feeling helpless to do anything about the situation. The director wanted for this scene to be evocative of how intelligent people in China have felt throughout the Revolution’s duration. Nevertheless, it is namely the film’s episode in which Xiaolou, Juxian, and Dieyi are seen escorted by the crowd of Red Guards (presumably to be executed for their ‘bourgeois crimes against the people’), which provides viewers with the most memorable insight into what used to be the Cultural Revolution’s unsightly realities.
This in part can be explained by the Orwellian sounding of the episode’s take in which Xiaolou begins to describe Dieyi’s ‘crimes’ while cheered by the crowd – something that occurred quite unexpectedly even to himself. There can be only a few doubts that by having this particular scene prominently featured at the film’s end, Kaige wanted to warn the audience about the main danger of authoritarianism, concerned with the fact that one’s continual exposure to the emotionally charged political propaganda will necessarily result in affecting the very workings of his or her mind – just as it happened to Xiaolou. Such a director’s intention makes perfectly good sense, given the subtleties of the socio-political climate in China during the mid-nineties, “In the political atmosphere of the mid-1990s, criticizing the Cultural Revolution had become permissible, even fashionable”.6
This contributes even further towards ensuring the believability of the film’s tragic ending. After all, having been obsessed with the opera and Xiaolou, Dieyi did not have what it takes to be willing to conform to the newly emerged socio-political circumstances – quite unlike what it turned out to be the case with his stage brother. The reason why Dieyi ended up committing suicide is that it was the only way for him to resist being forced to act just like everybody else. Hence, the innermost significance of this specific character – in Kaige’s film, he serves as a living metaphor of ‘old China’, where one’s individualistic mindedness (and even ‘queerness’) used to be considered an asset. And, according to the principle of historical materialism (the officially endorsed ideology in today’s China); one’s inability to adjust to the constantly changing external circumstances suggests that the concerned individual is evolutionarily unfit – pure and simple.
I believe that what has been said earlier is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. There is indeed much rationale in the idea that the film Farewell My Concubine is both historically and psychologically insightful – just as it was shown through the analytical part of this research paper. As such, this film can be recommended for viewing by just about any person who aspires to attain a better understanding of China, in general, and the ‘Oriental’ outlook on the surrounding reality and one’s place in it, in particular. There is even more to it – Kaige’s film contains many implicit clues as to what will account for the ways of Chinese society in the future. However, outlining them will represent a separate deductive task.
Farewell My Concubine. Directed by Chen Kaige. 1993. Beijing, China: Beijing Film Studio, 2002. DVD.
Hui, Luo. “Theatricality and Cultural Critique in Chinese Cinema.” Asian Theatre Journal 25, no. 1 (2008): 122-37.
Joseph, William. Politics in China. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Qi, Sun. “Confucian Educational Philosophy and its Implication for Lifelong Learning and Lifelong Education.” International Journal of Lifelong Education 27, no. 5 (2008): 559-578.
Xu, Ben. “Farewell My Concubine and its Nativist Critics.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 16, no. 2 (1997): 155-170.
Yeung, Irene and Rosalie Tung. “Achieving Business Success in Confucian Societies: The Importance of Guanxi (Connections).” Organizational Dynamics 25, no. 2 (1996): 54-65.
- Sun Qi, “Confucian Educational Philosophy and its Implication for Lifelong Learning and Lifelong Education,” International Journal of Lifelong Education 27, no. 5 (2008): 565.
- Ben Xu, “Farewell My Concubine and its Nativist Critics,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 16, no. 2 (1997): 165.
- Farewell My Concubine, directed by Chen Kaige (1993; Beijing, China: Beijing Film Studio, 2002), DVD.
- Irene Yeung and Rosalie Tung, “Achieving Business Success in Confucian Societies: The Importance of Guanxi (Connections),” Organizational Dynamics 25, no. 2 (1996): 55.
- William Joseph, Politics in China. 2nd Ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 120.
- Luo Hui, “Theatricality and Cultural Critique in Chinese Cinema,” Asian Theatre Journal 25, no. 1 (2008): 128.