Farewell my concubine: a queer film classic 9781551523934, 9781282906501, 128290650X, 1551523930

Farewell My Concubine, part of the QUEER FILM CLASSICS series, is a thought-provoking consideration of Chen Kaige's

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Farewell my concubine: a queer film classic
 9781551523934, 9781282906501, 128290650X, 1551523930

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Helen Hok-Sze Leung’s book places the film in its historical and cultural context while drawing on fresh insights from recent works on transgender and queer studies to provide readers with an intimate, provocative, and original look at this groundbreaking film.

Helen Hok-Sze Leung

Farewell My Concubine, part of the QUEER FILM CLASSICS series, is a thought-provoking consideration of Chen Kaige’s acclaimed 1992 Chinese film about two male Peking opera stars and the woman who comes between them, set against the political turmoil of a China in transition in the mid-20th century. The film’s treatment of gender performance and homosexuality was a first in Chinese cinema, and the subject of much controversy there. The movie, which helped to bring contemporary Chinese films onto the world stage, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (the first Chinese film to do so), and was nominated for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar.

ARSENAL PULP PRESS arsenalpulp.com

9 781551 523620


Entertainment (Film) / Gay & Lesbian ISBN 978-1-55152-362-0 $14.95 Canada / $14.95 US


farewell my concubine

Arsenal Pulp Press | Vancouver

farewell my concubine A Queer Film Classic

Helen Hok-Sze Leung

FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE: A Queer Film Classic Copyright © 2010 by Helen Hok-Sze Leung All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any part or used by any means—graphic, electronic, or mechanical—without the prior written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may use a brief excerpt in a review, or in the case of photocopying in Canada, a license from Access Copyright. ARSENAL PULP PRESS 211 East Georgia Street, Suite 101 Vancouver, BC V6A 1Z6 Canada arsenalpulp.com The publisher gratefully acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the British Columbia Arts Council for its publishing program, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund and the Government of British Columbia through the Book Publishing Tax Credit Program for its publishing activities. Queer Film Classics series editors: Matthew Hays and Thomas Waugh Book design by Shyla Seller Edited for the press by Kathleen Fraser All film stills (except where indicated) © Miramax Printed and bound in Canada CANADIAN CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION DATA Leung, Helen Hok-Sze, 1967 Farewell, my concubine [electronic rersource] / Helen Hok-Sze Leung. (A queer film classic) Includes bibliographical references and index. Electronic monograph in PDF format. Issued also in print format. ISBN 978-1-55152-393-4 1. Farewell, my concubine (Motion picture). 2. Kaige, Chen, 1952--Criticism and interpretation. I. Title. II. Series: Queer film classics PN1997.F35L48 2010a




For Kam Wai and in memory of Leslie Cheung

Ah, he … was the man he had loved the most … It’s just so difficult to disentangle how it all began. —Lillian Lee, Farewell My Concubine


11 | Acknowledgments 15 | Synopsis 18 | Credits 21 | One: Evolution of a Sacrifice: From the Battlefield to the Big Screen 49 | Two: In Close-Up: Anatomy Of a Film 83 | Three: Queer Afterlives: New Takes On A Classic 117 | Appendix 123 | References 127 | Index


I am grateful to Tom Waugh and Matthew Hays for their vision in creating the Queer Film Classics series and for their encouragement and support during the writing process. Big thanks also to everyone at Arsenal Pulp Press for facilitating a seamless and pleasurable publishing experience. Writing about a “classic film” is always a treacherous endeavor. So much has been said already. From lavish praise to trenchant criticism, from meticulous background research to ingenious textual play, scholarship on Farewell My Concubine has run the gamut. To come up with worthwhile “new takes” is a daunting challenge but, as I found out, also one that is filled with excitement and discoveries. Nonetheless, it is not a challenge meant to be met alone. Here’s a roster of the wonderful people who inspired me along the way. What has confounded critics most about the film is its treatment of (trans)gender and of (homo)sexuality. I could not have written about the film as a queer classic without confronting these two issues with utmost clarity and care. To that end, I am indebted to the works of two scholars who, luckily for me, also happen to be my friends. Susan Stryker’s pioneering work in transgender studies, especially her generous conception of its theoretical parameters, provides me with an innovative framework to understand the gendering practice in the film. Equally illuminating, and sorely missed

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here in Vancouver, are her “seminars” on single malt whiskey and her rollicking talent for comedic impersonations. Song Hwee Lim’s brilliant analysis of Farewell in Celluloid Comrades demonstrates for me exactly the right way to approach pre-modern queer phenomena with finesse and historical sensitivity. He also lit up my adventures at the 2010 Rotterdam Film Festival with his wickedly dry sense of humor. Leslie Cheung’s suicide in 2003 in sars-ravaged Hong Kong has cast an indelible shadow over the city’s collective memory. Ten years before, his confident star turn in Farewell My Concubine despite vicious rumors surrounding his sexuality was heartening for many queer audiences, myself included. He has since come to embody, paradoxically, both openness and secrecy, assertiveness and reticence, great courage and shattering shame. His contradictions exemplify how queer lives are often led in a deeply ambivalent society like Hong Kong. His talents were prodigious, as was his suffering. Neither should be forgotten. He is the film’s queer soul, and this book is written in his memory. I watched the original release of Farewell My Concubine in 1993 with my mother, whose great love for the film was infectious. Listening to her fascinating stories about my grandfather’s involvement in Cantonese opera has deepened my appreciation for the Chinese operatic tradition. I watched the Miramax release of the film in an old cinema in Madison, Wisconsin, with my pal Jeff Shalan. Even though 12

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I now remember very little of our conversation, I know that his curious questions and lively insights all those years ago influenced my thinking on the film. I was going through a difficult period while writing the proposal for this book and would not have persevered without the extraordinary kindness of my friend Yiu-Fai Chow. He is generosity, gentleness, and grace personified and I happily remain deep in his debt. Jeroen de Kloet’s camaraderie and collaborative spirit kept me from losing faith in our profession. Lara Campbell listened to all my wild ideas with a historian’s patience. Cindy Patton fed me tall tales and nuggets of enlightenment. Kai-Lin Yang gave me guidance and support whenever the going got tough. Finally, this book is for my partner, Kam Wai Kui, whose ten-year stint at the helm of the Netherlands Transgender Film Festival is nothing short of inspirational, and whose love ensures that all my days feel hopeful and joyous.



Beijing, 1977. Opera performers Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou reunite onstage eleven years after they were separated during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Flashback to their first meeting in 1924: Dieyi, then nicknamed Xiao Douzi, is sold by his mother into bonded apprenticeship with Master Guan’s opera troupe to train as a performer specializing in female (dan) roles. Xiaolou, then nicknamed Xiao Shitou, is training for lead male roles. The boys become intimate friends who look out for each other in the harsh environment of the troupe, in which extreme disciplining and severe beatings go on daily. Xiao Douzi and Xiao Shitou make their stage debut at a former imperial eunuch’s residence where they are praised for their performance, and where Xiao Douzi is forced to perform sexual services for his patron. On the same night, Xiao Douzi picks up an abandoned infant, who will be raised as Xiao Si’er in the theater troupe. By 1937, the two boys have grown up to become the most famous performers in Beijing. They have taken up the stage names Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou. Dieyi has caught the attention of Master Yuan, an opera connoisseur who showers him with rare and expensive gifts. Xiaolou, on the other hand, only has eyes for Juxian, a prostitute who is determined to leave her life at the brothel. After Xiaolou gallantly rescues Juxian from some difficult clients, Juxian buys 15

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herself out of the brothel and pressures Xiaolou to marry her. Unable to stop Xiaolou from becoming involved with Juxian, Dieyi turns to Master Yuan for attention and companionship. Soon after, Beijing is occupied by the Japanese army, and Xiaolou is arrested for assaulting a Japanese army officer. One of the Japanese high command, Aoki, is an ardent fan of Dieyi and orders Xiaolou’s release on the condition that Dieyi sings for him at the army headquarters. After the occupation ends, Dieyi is arrested by the Nationalist government for treason. Juxian blackmails Master Yuan into saving Dieyi, if Dieyi will leave her and Xiaolou alone upon release. Dieyi refuses to comply, preferring to stay in prison or be executed. In the end, Dieyi is freed because a highranking Nationalist Party official wants to see him perform. Juxian becomes pregnant, but miscarries when she is injured during an audience disturbance while Xiaolou and Dieyi are performing. After her miscarriage, Juxian continues to pressure Xiaolou to stay away from Dieyi. In the wake of the Communist victory in 1949, the political climate turns against Beijing Opera performers, who are increasingly viewed as perpetrators of a reactionary art form. By 1966, Xiao Si’er, the orphaned baby rescued by the young Dieyi, has joined the radical Red Guards. He accuses Xiaolou of counterrevolutionary crimes and pressures him into denouncing both Dieyi and Juxian in public. After the mass struggle session when all the participants betray each other, Juxian commits suicide. By 1977, at the close of the Mao era, 16

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Dieyi and Xiaolou reunite to rehearse together. While they perform the scene that has made them famous, Dieyi kills himself on stage with a sword.



Farewell My Concubine [Bawang Bieji] 1993, China and Hong Kong, Mandarin, 171 min Color and black and white, sound, 35 mm, 1.85:1, MPAA rating: R Production Company: Tomson Films Co., Ltd. and Beijing Film Studio DVD release: Miramax Awards: Cannes Film Festival (Palme d’or; fipresci Prize), Best foreign-language film (bafta; César; National Board of Review; New York Film Critics Circle; London Critics Circle; Boston Society of Film Critics; Los Angeles Film Critics Association; Golden Globe; Oscar [nominated]). Director: Chen Kaige Producer: Hsu Feng Executive Producers: Bin Hsu and Jade Hsu Screenplay: Lillian Lee and Lu Wei Based on the novel by Lillian Lee

Principal Cast Leslie Cheung: Cheng Dieyi (a.k.a. Xiao Douzi) Zhang Fengyi: Duan Xiaolou (a.k.a. Xiao Shitou) Gong Li: Juxian Lu Qi: Master Guan Ying Da: Na Kun 18

Ge You: Master Yuan Li Chun: Xiao Si’er (in his teens) Lei Han: Xiao Si’er (adult) Tong Di: Eunuch Zhang Ma Mingwei: Xiao Douzi as a Child Fei Yang: Xiao Shitou as a Child Yin Zhi: Xiao Douzi as a Teenager Zhao Hailong: Xiao Shitou as a Teenager Li Dan: Laizi Jiang Wenli: Xiao Douzi’s Mother Zhi Yitong: Aoki Saburo David Wu: Red Guard

Crew Cinematography: Gu Changwei Film Editing: Pei Xiaonan Original Music: Zhao Jiping Production Design: Yang Yuhe and Yang Zhanjia Art Direction: Chen Huaikai Costume Design: Chen Changmin Premieres: January 1, 1993 (Hong Kong); September 16, 1993 (Toronto International Film Festival); October 8, 1993 (New York Film Festival).


One: Evolution of a Sacrifice: From the Battlefield to the Big Screen Dieyi: Why did Concubine Yu choose to die? Xiaolou: (exasperated) Dieyi, you really are obsessed. That’s just play-acting!

Set against the turbulent history of twentieth-century China, Farewell My Concubine (hereafter Farewell) follows the intimately entangled lives of two Beijing Opera performers. The charged exchange above highlights the two men’s contrasting philosophies of life and, consequently, their relation with each other. Cheng Dieyi, a renowned performer of female roles, challenges his stage partner with a rhetorical question. In the aria that has made them both famous, Dieyi plays Concubine Yu who, when faced with imminent defeat in battle, dances for her King one last time before killing herself with his sword as an expression of supreme loyalty to him. Dieyi regards this act of feminine sacrifice to be the highest form of virtue, not only in art but also in life. Xiaolou, on the other hand, finds Dieyi’s attitude unhealthy and obsessive. After all, Concubine Yu is merely a role and her sacrifice a plot device in a staged performance. In Xiaolou’s eyes, Dieyi’s unwillingness to distinguish between the two has rendered him unfit for the harsh reality of modern life.


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figure 1. Dieyi asks: “Why does Concubine Yu have to die?” Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

Indeed, Dieyi’s unflinching refusal to compromise between life and stage or between role and identity lies at the heart of the film’s tragedy. Xiaolou, however, is only half correct. Concubine Yu is undeniably a fictional role: she is, in fact, one of the most famous characters not only in Beijing Opera, but also in poetry, painting, plays, and countless popular legends and household tales. At the same time, she was also a real person, albeit a figure whose initial appearance in the history books was far less memorable than her subsequent literary and artistic incarnations. Her gradual evolution from relative anonymity in history to idealization on the opera stage provides the raw material for the creation of the equally unforgettable character of Cheng Dieyi in Farewell. In turn, Dieyi’s fate follows its own transformation 22

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from an unsentimental survival in a Hong Kong novel to an idealized death in an internationally acclaimed film. In this chapter, we follow the journeys of these two icons of femininity as they find their way onto the big screen. We also look into the historical trauma experienced by a generation of China’s filmmakers while tracing the vicissitude of Farewell’s production, reception, and place in the canon of queer cinema.

Becoming Legend: The Apotheosis of Concubine Yu Who was Concubine Yu? In Records of the Grand Historian, a monumental work by Han dynasty scribe Sima Qian (ca. 135–86 BCE), she appears briefly in an intimate account of the end of a battle that led directly to the founding of the great dynasty. In 202 BCE, the once all-powerful Qin Empire had weakened and disintegrated into scattered regional kingdoms whose leaders were hungrily eyeing the imperial throne. Two of the rebel leaders had emerged as the most powerful contenders. Xiang Yu of Chu was a fierce and arrogant warrior whose valor was said to be unmatched in the ancient world. His arch rival, Liu Bang of Han, was shrewd and cautious, well-equipped with military counsel, and highly skilled in forming and manipulating alliances. The two had been engaged in war for several years when Liu Bang finally managed to draw all of Xiang Yu’s other rivals into his alliance. Emboldened, Liu led his troops to besiege the Chu army in the depths of winter. During the night, Liu 23

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instructed his men to loudly sing songs from the kingdom of Chu. Soldiers from the Chu army, already exhausted from the harsh weather and long years of war, became agitated and despondent when they suddenly heard songs from their homeland. Hearing the music and the agitation, King Xiang Yu was fooled into thinking that his army had all defected to the Han side. In front of his consort, a woman known only as Yu, he sang these lines from the now-famous “Song of Gaixia”: “My strength plucked up the hills / My might shadowed the world / But the times were against me.” He ended the song with a lament about the fate that would befall his beautiful consort. He then fled with a small retinue, many of whom would die along the way. When he reached the Wu River, he was advised to cross the water and reconsolidate his power in a different land. Xiang Yu considered further retreat to be shameful and chose, instead, to kill himself. In this account, which became a story well known in every Chinese household, the final fate of Concubine Yu was not mentioned. It was most probable that she would not have survived the defeat, but where, when, and how she died was not documented. The protagonist of the story had been the warrior king whose valor was no match for the shrewdness of his enemy. Only after many tellings and retellings through the centuries did Concubine Yu displace the fallen king to occupy the central position in the tragic tale, and by the time of the Tang Dynasty (618–907), Concubine Yu was starting to 24

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become a legend herself. Songs were written in her name, and the site of her supposed burial was marked. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), her imagined suicide was dramatized in clearer detail in the play A Thousand Pieces of Gold. In the short episode entitled “Bidding Farewell to the Concubine,” Yu assures the king that she will remain loyal to him and not defect to the enemy. The king commends her and grants her his sword, with which she cuts her own throat in front of him. This episode became one of the most popular in the play and was frequently performed on its own as a “select-scene play.” However, from the evidence that the star performers at the time usually played the role of the king rather than the concubine, scholars have surmised that the center of focus in the play was still the king (Li 2003, 72). It was not until the 1921 adaptation of the suicide scene into Beijing Opera by Mei Lanfang (1894–1961), the renowned actor who partly inspired the character of Cheng Dieyi, that the emphasis shifted decisively to the concubine. Specializing in lead female (known in Chinese as dan) roles, Mei Lanfang was without a doubt the most famous Beijing Opera performer both in China and abroad. During the 1930s and 1940s, Mei traveled around the world to promote his revised version of Beijing Opera as China’s “national tradition.” Many contemporary Western intellectuals such as Bertolt Brecht, George Bernard Shaw, and Sergei Eisenstein cited Mei as a source of inspiration. Unlike Dieyi in Farewell, who insistently blurs his onstage roles 25

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and offstage identity, Mei reconstructed the cross-dressed femininity of traditional opera roles to be purely formal and artistic expressions, while staunchly emphasizing his off-stage heterosexual life as a respectable modern citizen (Zou 2006, 86–89). One of the most successful and influential roles revived by Mei was that of Concubine Yu, whose expanded role in Mei’s version was so prominent that an actor known for playing the king once remarked sarcastically that the scene should more aptly be titled “The Concubine Bids Farewell to the King” (Li 2003, 77). The expansion of the role is accompanied by a heightened idealization of its symbolism. In the earlier play, there is doubt in the king’s mind whether his consort would defect to the enemy, and he is almost relieved to send her to her death. In Mei’s version, there is never any doubt that the concubine represents the purest and most sublime loyalty. She also articulates her own motivation for suicide: she is reluctant to distract the king in his final battle and would rather sacrifice her life to preserve his integrity. To emphasize the tragic dilemma between the lovers, Mei added an elaborate sword dance in which the king refuses to give up his sword while the concubine steals it through trickery and kills herself before he can stop her. In Farewell, both the dance and the sword take on complex significance as symbols of an anachronistic virtue that Dieyi stubbornly fights to maintain in a world that no longer recognizes its value or relevance.


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Made in Hong Kong: The Novel Behind the Film The historical event of King Xiang Yu’s devastating defeat, the numerous adaptations of the story over the centuries, and the final apotheosis of Concubine Yu into a paragon of feminine virtue in Beijing Opera provide Hong Kong novelist Lillian Lee with rich layers of source material to weave into intertextual intrigue in her 1985 novel Farewell My Concubine. Lee is a highly prolific writer with more than ninety books (including novels, essays, and screenplays) to her credit. Critic Siu-Leung Li characterizes her style as “strategic re-writing” with a postmodern penchant for recreating literary, historical, and bibliographic sources across multiple temporalities and textual universes (2003, 209–210). As a writer based in (post-)colonial Hong Kong, a city known disparagingly amongst the literary elite as “a cultural desert,” Lee inserts herself into the center of Chinese culture from the margins. As if flaunting the putative literary “poverty” of the city, Lee makes no claim to originality. Rather, her work constantly plays with “original” material through creative acts of repetition, adaptation, and rewriting. These tactics have not endeared Lee to the cultural establishment, which often deems her literary style to be “mediocre.” Congruent with their intertextual character, Lee’s novels tend to receive much higher appraisals when they serve as cinematic vehicles. The intricate plots, complex temporal and textual layers, and daring exploration of gender and sexuality in her fiction translate extremely well 27

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into moving images. Numerous acclaimed directors, including Stanley Kwan (Rouge, 1987), Clara Law (Reincarnation of Golden Lotus, 1989; Temptation of a Monk, 1993), Tsui Hark (Green Snake, 1993), Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine, 1993), and Fruit Chan (Dumplings, 2004), have successfully adapted Lee’s fiction for film. What makes Lee’s fiction so ideal for adaptation? The quality that is most frequently criticized in her writing is its “shallowness.” Yet, it is precisely this elliptical characteristic that instills a tantalizing sense of incompletion. Her writing courts adaptation and, consequently, continual reincarnation of its (already multiply reincarnated) self. It is perhaps no coincidence that reincarnation is a recurrent motif in Lee’s fiction. Many of her most memorable characters find themselves mired in the cause-and-effect logic of karmic recurrence. Lee’s own writing frequently reenacts this motif at the meta-textual level as it goes through layered processes of multiple rewriting. The adaptation process of Farewell is no exception. There are at least four known written versions of Farewell. The first was a screenplay Lee wrote for a television production in Hong Kong directed by Alex Law (1981), four years prior to the novel’s original publication. The novel is thus itself already an adaptation of a previous screenplay. When Chen was preparing for production, he felt that Lee’s novel was “a bit thin” and that the author “didn’t have a very clear grasp of the situation in China or the world of Peking opera … or any real emotional understanding of the Cultural 28

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Revolution” (Chen 1993). Chen thus brought in a writer from Mainland China to rework Lee’s screenplay, ostensibly to add historical depth to the existing screenplay. Most unusually, but characteristic of Lee’s penchant for rewriting, a “revised and expanded” version of the novel was published in 1992 to coincide with the release of the film. This edition of the novel is more than double the length of the 1985 version, incorporating the detailed exposition of historical events found in Chen’s film. The relation between the novel and the film is thus much more entangled and organic than that of “original” and “adaptation.” The various versions of Farewell on (small and big) screen and on the page all add up to form an inextricable intertextual universe. Among the multiple versions of Farewell, two endings stand in stark contrast with each other. The difference between the two has been the subject of much discussion. In the 1981 television film and both the 1985 and 1992 editions of the novel, Xiaolou’s and Dieyi’s respective fates after the Cultural Revolution are detailed. Lee takes pains to show how the actors’ reality departs from their stage roles. Xiaolou is famous for portraying King Xiang Yu onstage, but in life he is unable to act like Xiang Yu, who nobly kills himself after the humiliation of defeat. Instead, Xiaolou lives on in ignoble anonymity: “In reality, the King did not look back. He crossed the water. He did not kill himself for his country. This ‘country’ did not even want him. But what awaited him on the other side of the water? History had its 29

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own fate. Was there anything left for a defeated King other than anonymous survival?” (Lee 1992, 275–76). The water that Xiaolou crosses is a metaphor for the border between Mainland China and the (then) British colony of Hong Kong. There, he is no longer recognizable as anything other than a pathetic old man eking out a meager ­living. By chance, he sees that Dieyi is now working as an artistic consultant in a Beijing Opera troupe that is touring in Hong Kong. The two meet again. After bathing together in a bathhouse, they sing the farewell scene one more time in an empty theater. At the moment of Concubine Yu’s suicide, Dieyi becomes lost in his own reverie, contemplating the beauty of sacrificial death, until: Xiaolou shook him. “The performance is over.” Startled, Dieyi woke from his thoughts. The. Performance. Is. Over. The glorious tragedy had ended. The beautiful suicide was only an illusion. He had woken up, completely, from his delirious dream. He had been fooled.


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It was so perfect. He clambered up from the floor, patting the dust off his clothes, an inscrutable smile on his face. “All my life I have wanted to be Concubine Yu.” He had tried with all this strength. He could not anymore. (Lee 1992, 303)

Thus, even Dieyi, whose only wish is to truly become Concubine Yu in body and in spirit, finds that he “could not anymore” in real life. In sharp contrast to this anticlimactic and dispassionate tone of the novel’s conclusion, the 1993 film ends with much more drama. We are not shown what has happened to Xiaolou and Dieyi after the Cultural Revolution. The two simply appear again in an empty stadium in Beijing. While performing the suicide scene, we see a close-up of Xiaolou’s expression of dismay, as we hear, offscreen, a slashing sound and someone falling. Xiaolou’s expression then softens as he calls Dieyi by his childhood name, and the film ends. Even though the scene is filmed in a fairly ambiguous manner and could be open to various interpretations, this ending has largely been taken to signify a literal suicide by Dieyi in front of Xiaolou, as a way of fulfilling his wish to finally become Concubine Yu. This is also the interpretation 31

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figure 2. Xiaolou’s expression in the film’s last shot. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

given by director Chen (Kwan 1996) and actor Leslie Cheung (Cheung 2007, 20–21), who both clearly intended the scene to mean exactly that. Yet, even though Lee incorporated many elements of Chen’s film in the 1992 revised version of the novel, she chose to retain her previous ending. In doing so, she ensured that an alternative resolution to the story, one that is ironic rather than heroic, remains to haunt the intertextual universe of Farewell. The distinctive flavors of the two endings are frequently attributed to the cultural and geopolitical difference between Hong Kong and Beijing. They also highlight a philosophical disagreement between Lee and Chen that echoes the exchange between Dieyi and Xiaolou quoted at the beginning of this chapter. The novelist sides with Xiaolou: Dieyi is not 32

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and cannot be Concubine Yu. The role is “just play-acting,” and try as he might, he cannot become the character offstage. Life wins out; art remains an illusion. The filmmaker, on the other hand, sides unreservedly with Dieyi. As he intends it, the film’s ending grants Dieyi a chance to defy the historical forces that have been thwarting his wish all his life. Suicide on his own terms becomes his heroic weapon to circumvent the cruel irony of history. Song Hwee Lim suggests that Chen’s ending is motivated by his “valorization of feminine sacrificial death as the highest virtue” (2006, 83). Lim details the long historical construction, dating as far back as the lore of poet Qu Yuan (338–278 BCE), of a “structured feminization” that characterizes the relation between the artist-intellectual and the state (2006, 82–85). To further understand Chen’s fierce identification with Dieyi, particularly his investment in the character’s triumph (even if only in death) over historical forces that threaten to overwhelm and brutalize their subjects into submission, we must also turn to more recent history to examine its traumatic influences on Chen and an entire generation of filmmakers.

The Making and Unmaking of China’s Fifth Generation Chen is one of the best-known representatives of China’s “Fifth Generation,” a moniker given to the group of filmmakers who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in the early 1980s. These graduates were among the first to 33

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complete their studies after a decade of disruption caused by the Cultural Revolution, an event that wielded enormous influence over the thematic concerns and aesthetic directions of these filmmakers. Born in Beijing in 1952, three years after the establishment of the People’s Republic, Chen was a teenager when the Cultural Revolution erupted. The explosive violence of the event would later be dramatized by Chen in the last part of Farewell. The term “Cultural Revolution” refers both to the mass campaign against “reactionary and anti-revolutionary forces” that Mao Zedong unleashed in 1966–68 and also to the campaign’s aftermath that lasted until the official close of the Mao era in 1978, when most of the policies associated with the campaign were terminated. The very beginning of Farewell, when the aged Xiaolou and Dieyi are being told “everything is all right now,” is set in this immediate post-Mao period. Mao’s efforts in the campaign to “transform” all aspects of the superstructure that he perceived to be falling short of the socialist economic project were driven both by fundamental tenets of Mao’s political philosophy and, more cynically, by the exigency of his situation within the Party at the time. Depictions of the Cultural Revolution in films and novels always contain scenes in which old things are being destroyed, old ideas criticized, and authority figures condemned and publicly humiliated. This suspicion of everything associated with the “old China,” from physical objects to ideas to people, is rooted in an iconoclasm that flourished 34

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during the New Culture Movement in the early twentieth century, when intellectuals began to regard “tradition” as the cause of the nation’s weakness (Lin 1978). In fact, many prominent intellectuals specifically denounced the “backwardness” of Beijing Opera and its associations with male same-sex prostitution and onstage cross-dressing (Zou 2006, 86; Kang 2009, 125–26). These attitudes would later return, particularly after Mao’s wife Jiang Qing was put in charge of the task of “revolutionizing” Beijing Opera in 1963. The contempt expressed by intellectuals of an earlier generation would intensify into violent persecution of opera performers during the Cultural Revolution, just as depicted in Farewell. While Mao was heavily influenced by these iconoclastic ideas in his youth, he had at first been more sympathetic to traditional culture and was himself a fine poet in the classical language (Meisner 2007, 5–11). His attempt, during the period of revolutionary struggle, to fuse tradition with socialist demands and to “sift” the folk culture of the people from the “decadent” feudal tradition of the elite is a theme that Chen explores with great subtlety and originality in his first film Yellow Earth (1984). Some twenty years after the establishment of the People’s Republic, however, Mao would become increasingly pessimistic and fearful of “revisionism.” His notion of “cultural revolution” revisits many of the main ideas from the New Culture Movement, including its rejection of traditional culture and its cult of youth (Meisner 2007, 167–68). 35

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Aside from ideological motivations, Mao also needed the Cultural Revolution to serve his immediate political needs. By 1966 Mao viewed with alarm what he perceived to be rising elements of disloyalty within the party ranks. He needed a means to purge his enemies, and his “weapon” was the young people of Chen’s age who were raised under the mythology of the revolution and who longed to participate in a mass movement of their own (Hinton 2003). Capitalizing on his cult-like status, Mao called upon the youth of China to forestall the “bourgeois restoration” plotted by party bureaucrats who, in his eyes, had become carriers of “old ideas, cultures, customs, and habits.” Historian Maurice Meisner suggests that Mao’s ambivalent use of the term “bourgeoisie” to denote the “enemy” caused enormous confusion and gave rise to indiscriminate violence against anyone who could vaguely be associated with “bourgeois” values (2007, 172). The spontaneously formed Red Guards took Mao’s call literally, wreaking havoc in their attacks upon authority figures that included not only party bureaucrats but also their parents, teachers, and anyone perceived to be feudal or counterrevolutionary—or who were simply standing in their way. In his autobiography and in numerous interviews, Chen recalled his own experience as a Red Guard, dwelling especially on his guilt over joining in the vicious attacks on his filmmaker father. His shameful memory of betrayal would find complex expression in Farewell, especially through the character Xiao Si’er, the abandoned child rescued by Dieyi 36

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to be raised in the theater troupe, who later turns against his famous mentor. By 1968 the Red Guards had outlived their usefulness for Mao, who started to fear that their escalating violence was getting out of hand. The “rustication campaign” that ensued was launched partly as an instrument to displace the violent energy Mao had unleashed in young people. Mao issued a call for urban and educated youths to “go up to the mountain and down to the village” to be re-educated by the peasants. Like many idealistic young people from intellectual families, Chen answered Mao’s call and volunteered to be “sent down” to the countryside. Others, who were unwilling, were “removed” by force. Chen labored in the forests of Xishuangbanna in the southwestern province of Yunnan for three years. This rural experience inspired his film King of the Children (1987), which examines the pedagogical tradition of unthinking “copying” through the eyes of a sentdown youth working as a teacher in an impoverished village. Chen managed to escape his harsh life in the countryside by joining the People’s Liberation Army in 1970, another experience that he portrayed on film in The Big Parade (1986), which follows a group of soldiers preparing for a National Day parade in Tiananmen Square. The film explores the nature of collectivity, with an undercurrent of homoeroticism (Kwan 1996) that finds clearer expression in Farewell. Chen’s early films, much like the works of other Fifth Generation filmmakers during the 1980s, explore the 37

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unique experiences and emotional trauma he went through during the Cultural Revolution era. The Fifth Generation’s aesthetic vision also signifies a categorical rejection of the socialist realist conventions dictated by Maoist policies. The philosophical and historical inquiry in Chen’s early films is expressed through a unique visuality. His use of long takes and empty shots creates a contemplative sense of space that has frequently been described as Daoist (Yau, 1989; Donald, 1997). Even when dealing with politically sensitive subject matter like rural and army life, which to this day remain subject to heightened official scrutiny, Chen eschews the “safe” route of realist representation. Instead, he presents a visually and thematically complex exposition of life under the first twenty years of the People’s Republic. However, unlike his contemporary Zhang Yimou, whose films Red Sorghum (1987) and Judou (1990) immediately garnered massive international success and made lead actress Gong Li a star, Chen’s early films languished in relative anonymity despite their critical acclaim. As fellow Fifth Generation director Xie Jin admits with candor in an interview, “Hardly anyone understood Kaige’s films before Farewell” (Kwan 1996). In 1987 Chen started living in New York, where he made a music video for the song “Do You Believe In Shame?” by Duran Duran and the experimental film Life on a String (1991), but he had yet to reach a wider market, either abroad or at home. In Chen’s absence, a political crisis of monumental scale occurred in China. The 1989 protests in 38

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Tiananmen Square ended in brutal suppression, resulting in another unhealed trauma on the national psyche and a sea change in the political and intellectual climate of the country. After Deng Xiaoping’s “southern trek” in 1992, when he lauded the rapid economic development of the coastal cities while affirming the policy of economic reform, a new era of rapid and intense commercialization began. The most popular slogan during the 1990s was “to plunge into the ocean,” meaning to go into business and make money. As more and more artists and intellectuals took that plunge, Chen was faced with a dilemma in his career. In an interview in 1993, he admitted that he was under pressure to make more popular films; otherwise, his career “was going to die” (Chen 1993). It was at this juncture that Chen made Farewell, a film that marks not only a watershed in Chen’s career, but also the turning point—some would argue the end—of the Fifth Generation. Henceforth, the mantle of dissent would be passed on to the so-called Sixth Generation filmmakers, most notably Zhang Yuan, Lou Ye, and Zha Jiangke, who began to develop a vibrant underground cinema in a lowkey, gritty, and ironic style that defines itself against Fifth Generation aesthetics. In turn, Fifth Generation filmmakers themselves began to abandon their aesthetic signature in order to pursue big commercial productions. Many of these projects involved collaborations across Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, each with an established film industry and its own distinct cinematic culture. Farewell is a 39

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successful pioneer of this coproduction method and an early example of a new transregional Chinese cinema.

Across Two Coasts and Three Regions: The Art of Coproduction During the 1980s, the respective film industries of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were all undergoing major changes. A perfect storm of circumstances led to a new coproduction model that still prevails today. Each region had something that the other regions needed, and collaboration grew out of mutually beneficial ventures. Political changes on the Mainland (the end of the Mao era and economic reforms) and in Taiwan (democratization and the end of martial law) had resulted in the opening up of the regions’ film markets. As a result, domestic productions began to falter in the face of new competition from both Hollywood productions and commercial films from Hong Kong. At the time, the film industries in Mainland China and Taiwan lacked the technical expertise and marketing savvy that Hong Kong excelled at in commercial productions. In turn, Hong Kong’s film industry was attracted to the Mainland’s vast resources in locations and talents as well as the potential of its untapped market. Meanwhile, the critical success of Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang abroad and the emergence of the Taiwan New Wave had created a new domestic market in Taiwan for internationally successful art house films. Many Mainland productions with just such international potential were 40

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attractive to Taiwanese investors. However, their scope of investment was limited by the government’s politically sensitive policies restricting the amount of Mainland content on Taiwan’s screens. One good way for Taiwanese investors to bypass such restrictions was to route their funds through Hong Kong. Jenny Lau succinctly summarizes the coproduction model (1995, 8): “While Taiwan put out the money and the Mainland contributed its artists, Hong Kong used its experience in marketing and its neutral status both for entrance to international competitions and for screenings in Taiwan. Thus the Taiwan-Hong Kong-Mainland China triangle formed a perfect team to work around the bureaucracy and the political taboos of all three societies.” Farewell is a quintessential example of this model of coproduction. Financed by the Hong Kong subsidiary of former Taiwanese actress Hsu Feng’s Tomson group, coproduced by the Beijing Film Studio with a Mainland director, cast, and crew, adapted from a popular Hong Kong novel, and with one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars in the lead role, the film indeed draws on the financial, artistic, and technical resources of all three regions. While audiences overseas might have viewed Farewell simply as a “Chinese” film, Chinese-speaking audiences see it through a far more complicated prism. Depending on their background and cultural expectations, they find some elements in the film with which they identify, and others from which they feel alienated. Yet they all claim the film as their own. This explains some of 41

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the harsh judgments, particularly on issues of cultural authenticity and national character, that emerged in the wake of the film’s commercial success. While it may not have met any one region’s cultural expectations, the film’s transregional character actually reflects the heterogeneous, negotiated, and not necessarily coherent nature of contemporary Chinese film culture. The clear international ambition of both the producer and the director had a considerable impact on the film’s casting. Gong Li, by then an international celebrity, was cast in a role that carries only minor importance in the novel. Chen admitted that he had to expand the role of Juxian for Gong Li, but also defended his revision of the script on aesthetic grounds. According to Chen, he intended Juxian to provide a study in contrast. Her expanded presence was thus meant to amplify, not diminish, the importance of Dieyi (Kwan 1996). The casting of Dieyi also involved quite a few twists and turns. Even though the role involves the performance of many classic Beijing Opera roles, thus posing an extremely demanding challenge for an amateur, Chen did not specifically look for an actor with operatic training. As he had been in casting Gong Li, Chen was first and foremost concerned with star power. Leslie Cheung, who had had an immensely successful musical and acting career in the 1980s, was living in retirement in Vancouver, BC, at the time and looking for new career challenges. He was approached for the part 42

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figure 3. Gong Li as Juxian. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. Publicity still. Courtesy of Photofest.

and had accepted the role when rumors began to circulate that John Lone, who was famous for his star turn in The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987), was also interested. News reports abounded about a “fight” for the role. According to Cheung’s account long after the dust had settled, he chose to step down voluntarily because he felt that Lone—an international star and someone with basic Beijing Opera training—would be more suited to the role (Cheung 1995). However, just as Lone seemed to have secured the part, rumors swirled during preproduction about Lone’s creative differences with both the director and the producer. Finally, Lone’s contract negotiations broke down, and the 43

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role went back to Cheung. In retrospect, it seems unthinkable that the role should have gone to anyone else. Cheung’s contribution to the film was unique and, in turn, the role of Dieyi took Cheung’s career down an adventurous new path that would later define his iconicity. Moreover, as it turned out, even without the star power of Lone, the filmmakers’ international ambition would be more than amply realized.

From Love-Fest to Hate-On and Back Again: Critical Reception Farewell made a stunningly successful debut in 1993 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it became the first Chinese film to be awarded the Palme d’Or (shared with The Piano). It earned rave reviews from international critics and went on to receive, among many other honors, a Golden Globe and a British bafta for Best Foreign-Language Film, as well as an Oscar nomination in the same category. It was also extremely well received in Japan, garnering a Film Critics Society Award for Best Foreign Film and a Best Actor Award for Leslie Cheung. Domestically, the film was a major box office success in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. The film was initially banned in Mainland China, not only because of its queer content, but also because of its ideologically ambivalent outlook on the history of the People’s Republic of China. After fulfilling the censor’s request for three cuts, the film was eventually allowed limited release and enjoyed huge success in Beijing and Shanghai (Lim 2005, 30–31). 44

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Despite, and in some instances because of, the film’s commercial success and international accolades, the initial scholarly reception was surprisingly hostile. “Purists” who admired Chen’s early works were disappointed with what they perceived to be his capitulation to international and commercial demands (Rayns 1994, 41–42). Echoing earlier objections to internationally successful Fifth Generation filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, critics who were invested in cultural “authenticity” dismissed the film’s depiction of Beijing Opera as an Orientalist spectacle (Li 1997, 226). Others who were leery of chauvinistic Chinese nationalism accused the film of portraying a Beijing-centric view of national culture. For example, Hong Kong critic Leung Pingkwan suggested that the excision of the novel’s ending, which takes place in Hong Kong, marginalized the source material’s Hong Kong origins (1995, 49). Leung also objected to the portrayal of Cheng Dieyi, the only major role played by a Hong Kong actor, who appears onscreen “without closeups, without much dialogue, only as an object” (1995, 50). Feminist scholar E. Ann Kaplan praised the film’s “political passion” (2009, 273) but questioned what she saw as “a fairly stereotypical representation of homosexuals” (2009, 270). She criticized the film for portraying “the male queer as necessarily a feminized aesthete” and for suggesting that “male homosexuality emerges as resulting from a problem with the mother,” both of which she viewed as “well-worn Western images” (1997, 270). Bonnie McDougall tempered 45

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her overall appreciation of the film with the observation that “possibly for reasons of censorship, the film portrays homosexuality as unnatural and perverted” (1994, 7). Most significantly, several prominent gay critics and queer studies scholars expressed their dissatisfaction with the film’s representation of same-sex desire. Chris Berry criticized what he perceived to be the film’s homophobic and sexist rendition of the feminized Dieyi as “a hysterical faggot” (1993, 21). Hong Kong critic and filmmaker Shu Kei, who would go on to tackle the problem of closeted gay life in A Queer Story (1998), faulted Farewell for attributing homosexuality to enforced gender inversion (1993, 19). Tony Rayns suggested that the inflation of Juxian’s role in the film “prevents the film from dealing with Dieyi’s homosexual feelings for Xiaolou” (1994, 42). In a response to Tze-lan Deborah Sang, who took issue with the negative responses many gay men had towards the film, Taiwanese scholar Chu Wei-cheng conceded to the film’s “richness and intricacy” as well as its “implicit message of subversion” (1994, 148), but nonetheless worried that its representation of homosexuality would have a “homogenizing” effect (1994, 144) because it coincided too much with that of the heterosexual imagination (1994, 145). In retrospect, these initial objections seem to be placing a disproportionately heavy burden of representation on the film. Many critics appear to be faulting Farewell for failing to be a critique of Sinocentric nationalism, an empowering portrayal of gender and sexual minorities, or a 46

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realistic representation of contemporary gay subjects. Song Hwee Lim suggests that these expectations are rooted in a concern with combating negative stereotypes of minorities on screen (2005, 77–78) and take for granted many assumptions that are relevant primarily to our own contemporary context (2005, 81). Lim’s own analysis of the film, which deliberately does not concern itself with representational politics, is exemplary of a more recent critical trend that prefers to pursue a nuanced and historically sensitive understanding of the film (2005, 69–88). As Teri Silvio puts it succinctly, “Dieyi is not gay” (2002, 186). Rather, the character signifies a historically specific way of being that must disappear in order for a modern subject-position like “gay” to emerge. As I will detail in Chapter Three, the film dramatizes the overpowering and traumatic historical process through which premodern subjectivities (like that of the feminized dan actor embodied by Cheng Dieyi) are being transformed, often at great human costs. Farewell is thus a “queer classic” not because it portrays realistic or positive images of gay and transgender lives in the present day. Rather, the film shows us a queer way of being that we can barely recognize, that may even offend our modern sensibilities, but that deserves to be remembered and understood in all its human complexity.


Two: In Close-Up: Anatomy Of a Film

If we pull back into an extreme long shot—one of those non-perspectival shots of landscape that Chen loves to use in his early films—and show an overview of Farewell, we can immediately see with startling clarity the film’s thematic coherence and structural unity. Farewell tells a story about horrific chaos and violent disruptions: it portrays an era in which people are persistently subject to overwhelming forces of history that repeatedly brutalize them. All of the major characters, Cheng Dieyi in particular, have to struggle against the devastating demands on their bodies and psyches leveraged by different power regimes. Yet, despite its subject matter, the film’s form could not be more elegant and controlled. Its meticulous use of repetition and mirroring, not only in thematic motifs but also in the staging of mise en scène, recreates the novel’s mood of fateful recurrence and inevitability. This contrasting relation between form and content—the assured control exerted over form to express the theme of human vulnerability—may be the filmmaker’s attempt to salve the wounds of the historical trauma that the film unfolds onscreen. Theater provides the film with its principal motif. Most obviously, the theatrical tradition of Beijing Opera influences the ideological outlook, gendered dynamics, and bodily being of the major characters. Equally significantly, the theater 49

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as a place, a venue where spatial experience is structured by the relation between the stage and the audience, provides a template for how power relations are staged in recurrent scenes. Theatrical objects—including props, makeup, and costumes—are place-holders for personal memories. They act as visual triggers of unhealed trauma and unresolved dilemmas throughout the narrative. Now we zoom back in to take a closer look at how specific elements in the film contribute to its main themes.

Staging: Spatiality and Power As has been noted by many critics, Farewell marks a major stylistic departure for its director. The best known of Chen’s previous films are characterized by a unique visual style best described as a contemplative vision of space. Yellow Earth and King of the Children are both known for their long takes and use of extreme long shots. The camera’s stillness over a prolonged duration stalls the movement of the narrative while its non-perspectival framing of empty space and “nothingness” reduces the signifying function of the image. This contemplative style is obviously absent in Farewell, which adopts a far more conventional narrative structure and visuality. However, the filmmaker has continued to explore spatiality. While the earlier films contemplate the limitlessness of space, Farewell details how theater constructs a spatial relation—which is at the same time a power relation—between the stage and the audience. However, this spatial relation 50

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of power is also precarious and subject to violent invasion, which the film portrays in scenes of political upheaval and regime change. Furthermore, the invasion of established spatial boundaries often involves mass participation. Chen has explored the nature of collectivity visually in previous films, most notably in his depiction of the peasants’ ritual dance in Yellow Earth and the soldier’s marching training in The Big Parade. In Farewell, this collectivity takes on a sense of menace. In portraying “the masses”—whether in the form of theater audiences, the army, or the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution—the film focuses on the rips in the collective fabric, and the chaos and violence that threaten to erupt from its core. The opening shot, appropriately enough, shows the two principal characters about to enter a theater space. In full costume and makeup, they walk into the frame and move down the corridor of a stadium. The camera pulls back slowly as they walk, equally slowly, into the shot. The two are visibly aged, their gait plodding and a little weary. At the moment they enter the auditorium, the camera cuts to a wide shot that covers most of the venue. The performers now stand, small and obscured, in a large, vacant space surrounded by stalls that appear empty. A voice coming from the stalls shouts authoritatively at them to identify themselves, then softens to convey recognition and admiration. Hearing that they have not seen each other or performed together for a long time, the unseen 51

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figure 4. Dieyi and Xiaolou in their old age entering a stadium. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

speaker blames the Gang of Four (Mao’s wife and her allies), whom post-Mao leaders considered to be solely responsible for the chaos and bloodshed during the Cultural Revolution. The voice, still in a tone of authority, reassures them that “everything is all right now,” and then offers to prepare the stage for the performers. The house lights dim into darkness as the spotlight shines on the two figures. The screen fades to black and the opening credits appear over an ink painting depicting Concubine Yu’s suicide. During the short exchange between the performers and the faceless voice, the camera cuts from the wide shot back to a medium-long shot of the two characters, just close enough for us to notice a subtle contrast in their body language and demeanor. Dieyi stands still and remains silent except for two remarks, when he corrects Xiaolou on the exact number 52

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of years that they have not seen each other and on when they last performed together. Xiaolou, on the other hand, bows his body forward obsequiously and speaks in nervous deference. Xiaolou is eager to show he is in agreement that “everything is all right now.” Whether he truly believes it is another matter. Since the film was released just four years after the massacre at Tiananmen, when the city of Beijing was once again embroiled in deathly political turmoil, the announcement would ring ironically hollow to a knowing audience. Unlike Xiaolou, however, Dieyi does not betray any visible sign of emotion. He stands poised and inscrutable, as though unconcerned with both his surroundings and the unseen speaker. This opening sequence sets up a power dynamic constructed by a theater space that will recur throughout the film. Even an admiring gaze from the audience, represented here by a faceless and authoritative voice, is shown, through Xiaolou’s body language, to be intimidating. The wide shot accentuates the vulnerability of the forlorn figures standing in the spotlight as though under surveillance. Later in the film, a scene of interrogation during the Cultural Revolution is staged in a similar way: Xiaolou is made to sit onstage with a spotlight glaring in his eyes, while Xiao Si’er lurks in the shadows of an empty arena throwing loaded questions at him. Xiaolou answers haltingly and is unable to defend himself against “evidence” provided by Na Kun, the theater manager who “reports” an innocent phrase Xiaolou 53

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had uttered years ago as a counterrevolutionary statement. Scenes of such staged humiliation were commonplace during the Cultural Revolution. In this opening sequence, the film is subtly drawing a parallel between the theater of political terror and an actual theater space. Since the film’s concluding scene begins where this opening sequence leaves off, everything that transpires in between is, narratologically speaking, always leading back to this time-space. Beginning the film in this way foreshadows—and casts a shadow of foreboding on—the many theater scenes to come. The very first of Dieyi and Xiaolou’s public performances takes place at the time when they were still boys nicknamed Xiao Douzi (Little Bean) and Xiao Shitou (Little Stone). They perform the scene “Farewell My Concubine” for the former imperial eunuch Master Zhang at his residence. The stage is erected outdoors, surrounded by greenery and directly facing a long row of seats, with Zhang seated in the middle. A medium shot of the young Dieyi onstage shows the boy giving a breathtaking performance, already a star in the making. A shot/reverse shot sequence between the performer and the old eunuch establishes that the primary relationship inscribed by this theater space is that between the most powerful patron and the dan performer. Young Xiaolou, who plays the king majestically onstage, does not even register in old Master Zhang’s gaze, which the camera shows to be blatantly lascivious and solely fixated on Dieyi. The boy’s glorious first appearance onstage also turns out 54

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to be his forced initiation into a sexualized power dynamic that he must inhabit for a long time to come. In the next sequence, the boy is delivered to Zhang for sexual service, in the musty interior of a room full of relics from a past era. Dieyi will henceforth be the object of an obsessive gaze that is both adoring and predatory, that wields tremendous power over him but is also prepared to give up some of that power in exchange for his attention. The film marks every subsequent regime change with a theater scene, set in a venue that resembles the theater that the young Dieyi and Laizi visited after they ran away from the troupe. The layout of the space follows Qing dynasty theater architecture: the audience is divided between the downstairs stalls that directly face the stage and the upper balcony stalls reserved for influential patrons and high officials. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when dan performers were at the height of their popularity, the upper stalls provided an intensely homoerotic space where the rich and the powerful competed for the most prestigious seats in the hope that they would receive a visit from the dan performers they admired (Wu and Stevenson 2006, 48–49). The film shows that this eroticized atmosphere of the upper stalls lingered well into the early twentieth century. We first meet Master Yuan in the upper stalls, in a sequence of shots that are very similar to those that establish the relation between Zhang and the young Dieyi. The only difference is that while the old eunuch appears to be primarily 55

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figure 5. Young Dieyi and Xiaolou performing at Eunuch Zhang’s residence. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

interested in Dieyi sexually, Master Yuan is portrayed as a connoisseur who is obsessed with Dieyi’s performance, especially his ability, as Yuan describes it, to literally become the roles he embodies onstage. Actor Ge You, who plays Master Yuan, particularly emphasizes the character’s eyes. Yuan is always looking softly into the distance, as though he is seeing beyond Dieyi. In a scene during his visit backstage, Yuan is explaining the history of “Farewell My Concubine” and praising Dieyi’s portrayal of Concubine Yu. The medium shot is focussed on Yuan, who sits with his back to a mirror in which we can see Dieyi’s reflection. Yuan is looking into the camera until he slowly turns his head to look instead at the mirror behind. After a quick reaction shot of the other characters in the room, the camera returns to Yuan’s reflection in 56

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figure 6. Master Yuan at the upper stalls. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

figure 7. Master Yuan looks into the mirror, entranced by Dieyi. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.


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the mirror. We see him looking, in turn, at the mirror reflection of Dieyi. “For a moment or two,” he muses, he really thinks “Concubine Yu has come back to life.” The composition of this shot, which shows Master Yuan looking at himself looking at Dieyi’s reflection in the mirror, is a literalization of the saying “Flowers in the mirror, moon in the water,” a phrase commonly used to refer to an aesthetic state where the distinction between reality and imagination dissolves. Yuan’s obsession with Dieyi is not simply sexual in a conventional sense. His mirrored “look” at Dieyi in this scene, later repeated in his next visit backstage on the night of Xiaolou’s engagement, reveals a very specific form of erotic appreciation within Beijing Opera spectatorship. Through the dan performer’s perfect embodiment of his feminine roles, the connoisseur feels himself transported from his worldly reality into that of the stage. Yuan’s look of entranced infatuation also appears on the faces of other powerful figures who watch Dieyi perform, such as the Japanese official Aoki who blackmails Dieyi into singing for him after his officers have arrested Xiaolou, and the high official in the Nationalist Party who stays the charges of treason against Dieyi just so Dieyi can perform live for him. These military men’s infatuation with Dieyi’s artistry leads them to literally turn political venues like the Japanese army base and the Nationalist Party Headquarters into theater spaces. While they exert power over Dieyi to extract what they want from


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figure 8. A Japanese general, Aoki, applauding Dieyi. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

figure 9. A high Nationalist official applauding Dieyi. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.


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him, they also give concessions to Dieyi (releasing Xiaolou and acquitting Dieyi) in return. Thus, while the relation between patron and performer is fundamentally exploitative, it is nonetheless one that exists in a negotiated context of exchange, much like the structured spatial relation each occupies in relation to the other in the theater. In times of political crisis, however, a more invasive form of power disrupts this relation. Every change in political regime in the film is heralded by a scene in which an army marches through the streets. The public space previously filled with vendors, children, and street performers is suddenly transformed by the orderly military rhythm of an occupying or liberating (depending on where one stands politically) army. Such orderliness ironically also presages a dissolution into chaos, which the film signifies through the disruption of theater space. During the Japanese occupation, Dieyi is performing an aria entitled “The Tipsy Concubine” when the presence of Japanese army officers begins to cause agitation in the theater. Disruption seems imminent until it is forestalled by Dieyi’s mesmerizing dance at the end of the aria, which brings everyone to their feet. From the agitated audience downstairs to the most powerful Japanese high official in the upper stalls, all look on in rapture and the tension is eased. A similarly staged scene takes place after the defeat of the Japanese, when the city is about to plunge into civil war. During a performance in front of Nationalist army officers, the audience members become rowdy and start to 60

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rush the stage, shining electric light on Dieyi while he is performing. Xiaolou’s attempt to intervene does not yield the same results as Dieyi’s rapturous performance. The crowds become aggressive, storming the stage and eventually causing both physical damage to the theater and personal injuries. (Xiaolou’s wife miscarries after she rushes into the crowds to intervene.) After the Communist victory, another identically staged scene shows Dieyi and Xiaolou performing in front of the newly triumphant Communist army. Their two voices are strained and their performances falter. Fearing disturbance from the audience, they stop to apologize. Unexpectedly, the audience suddenly breaks into applause, followed by a collective chorus of revolutionary songs. This odd turn of events indicates that a radically different era has begun. The seeming politeness of the audience actually betrays a lack of appreciation for Beijing Opera. Just as they are not able to recognize the subpar performance, they would also not appreciate, even less become enraptured by, Dieyi at his best. Moreover, despite the apparent cohesion on the surface, aggression and violence are brewing underneath the show of collectivity. In the scene following the performance, a theater space is transformed into a mass show of political terror. “Bad elements,” including “opera tyrant” Master Yuan, are paraded onstage, pronounced counter-revolutionaries, and promptly sent off to be executed. Amidst a cheering audience, Xiaolou sits in terror, stunned by the violent turn of events. Henceforth, the 61

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figure 10. Master Yuan awaiting his execution. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

carefully calibrated spatial relation of the theater, as well as the delicate balance of power sustained by that relation, will be completely overturned, while the random violence of the Cultural Revolution takes over. The mass struggle session during the Cultural Revolution is staged in the film as a frighteningly spectacular scene of theater. Paraded through the streets in their opera costumes and makeup, Dieyi and Xiaolou are flanked by a massive crowd, as a Red Guard physically restrains them and forces each to expose the other’s “crimes.” In previous theater scenes, including the struggle session that sentences Master Yuan to his death, the boundary between stage and audience is still firmly differentiated. In this scene, the boundary has completely dissolved. 62

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figure 11. A struggle session during the Cultural Revolution. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

Not only is the stage of humiliation set up amidst—not apart from—an audience of accusers, anyone in the audience is always in danger of being exposed and having the spotlight of accusation turned on them instead. The most dramatic example of this deadly game of musical chairs is the fate of Xiao Si’er who, after betraying Xiaolou and Dieyi, receives a taste of his own medicine. This scene was originally cut from the Miramax release of the film, most likely because American distributors at the time failed to grasp its significance and viewed it as an anti-climax after the drama of Juxian’s suicide in the previous scene. While the cut scene has since been restored, the subtitles on the DVD still misidentify Xiao Si’er as “Dieyi.” Both the original omission and this subsequent mislabeling of the character convey how 63

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figure 12. Xiao Si’er facing his fellow Red Guards. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

difficult it is for those unfamiliar with modern Chinese history to truly grasp the nature of the Cultural Revolution. What Mao unleashed was not a simple power struggle between clearly defined factions. Instead, power changed hands rapidly and an accuser could become an accused at the merest suggestion of his or her disloyalty toward a vaguely defined ideal. In this scene, Xiao Si’er, wearing full opera makeup and the precious jewels Master Yuan gave Dieyi, is singing while seated at a table in front of a wall mirror. As Xiao Si’er becomes absorbed in his performance, we see in the mirror that a crowd of Red Guards is slowly streaming into the large hall. The camera pulls into a long shot, and we see a long red banner above the mirror, proclaiming that “revolutionary culture is the most powerful weapon of the 64

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revolution.” In the next shot, the camera cuts to one of the Red Guards and follows him as he slowly walks toward Xiao Si’er. In the last frame of the scene before it fades to black, Xiao Si’er is standing alone on one side facing the collective of which he was previously a part. Although the film does not make clear what will ensue, there is no doubt to anyone familiar with the history of the Cultural Revolution that Xiao Si’er will now stand accused of the very “counterrevolutionary crime” that he has accused his mentors of committing: namely, being in love with the “decadent” and “feudal” art form of Beijing Opera. This scene is important for at least two reasons. First, it completes the cycle in which all who have wielded power over Dieyi have had that power turned back against them: the old eunuch Zhang has become a beggar and his imperial residence turned into a coffin shop; Aoki does not survive the war; Master Yuan is executed by the Communists; and finally, Xiao Si’er will be struggled against by the Red Guards. In this light, Dieyi is not the lone victim of oppression; he simply lives in a time of relentless cyclical violence. Second, the scene’s arrangement of spatial relations also signifies a radically different form of power struggle unleashed during the Cultural Revolution, one whose horrifyingly volatile nature many—perhaps including the filmmaker himself—are only just beginning to grasp and come to terms with.


Queer Film Classics

Remembering: Objects of Traumatic Recall The film’s staging of theatrical space as a template for the persistence and mutation of power certainly contributes to the epic and spectacular dimension of the film. There are, however, more personal and intimate aspects of the film that we should not overlook. In his study of Farewell’s evocations of old Beijing through the reconstruction of traditional courtyards houses (siheyuan) and narrow alleyways (hutong), Yomi Braester reminds us of the director’s own claim that he intended the film not to symbolize history or nation, but rather to honor personal memories (2003, 89–90). In light of this declared intention, it is not surprising to note that the film conveys acts of personal memory, particularly of unhealed trauma. A brief moment during an incidental scene before one of Dieyi’s opera performances illustrates the film’s subtle handling of the theme of personal memory. A medium shot shows Dieyi at the entrance of the theater, flanked by adoring fans who are screaming for his attention. He gently smiles to the crowds and turns to walk toward the theater. Out of nowhere, a street vendor walks rapidly through the frame. His sticks of candied crabapples momentarily block everything in the shot while his shouts of “Crabapples for sale!” are heard over the crowd. Dieyi suddenly stops and we see a brief flash of emotion in his face before the theater manager Na Kun interrupts and hastens him to enter the theater. This moment, which lasts for no more than eight seconds 66

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figure 13. Dieyi remembering Laizi. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

in a visually busy shot, subtly and wordlessly recalls the death of Laizi, Dieyi’s playmate in the theater troupe who committed suicide after stuffing his mouth with candied crabapples. The two boys had run away together, but after visiting a theater and seeing the opera stars perform, Dieyi brought Laizi back to the troupe. Both were facing brutal punishment from the troupe master. While the young Dieyi silently endured the beatings, Laizi took his own life in fear. The film never makes clear whether Dieyi, upon hearing the crabapples vendor, is remembering his friend with sadness or with guilt, or whether he is simply recalling the horrors he endured as a child. What is clear is that for that brief moment, Dieyi is engaged in the act of remembering. This scene is typical of the way the film signifies memory: as gaps 67

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figure 14. Dieyi refusing Juxian’s cape. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

in the narrative that are filled by a visual trigger, usually an object that recalls past events but does not necessarily instigate resolution or closure. Such objects mark the persistence of trauma, even when it is never verbalized. For instance, when young Dieyi was abandoned by his prostitute mother into bonded apprenticeship with the theater troupe, the only thing she left him with was the cape she was wearing. Young Dieyi burned the cape, scorned by the other boys as a “dirty” object from the brothel, with a look of silent determination. This early experience of betrayal by a woman is later recalled, again wordlessly, when Xiao Si’er steals Dieyi’s role and Juxian, encouraging Xiaolou to continue his performance, wraps a cape around Dieyi. Dieyi walks away from Juxian while letting the cape fall from his shoulders. Just like 68

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the boy’s burning of his mother’s parting gift, Dieyi’s rejection of Juxian’s cape continues his refusal to forgive (or forget) acts of betrayal. Objects are also used in the film to recall the logic of karmic cause and effect, a theme that is central to Lillian Lee’s original novel. Every action has consequences which, even when forgotten, will persist and recur. The most significant object that continues to reappear throughout the film, weaving memories of past actions into consequences of the present, is the sword that initially belongs to the former imperial eunuch Master Zhang. We first encounter the sword after the young Xiaolou and Dieyi perform “Farewell My Concubine” in public for the first time. The boys are playing in a waiting room at Zhang’s residence when Xiaolou finds the sword. Xiaolou exclaims that he should be wielding such a sword when he performs the role of King Xiang Yu onstage, and the young Dieyi promises him that one day he will get a sword like that for him. Alarmed by the boys’ casual handling of the weapon, Na Kun takes it from them, warning that it is “not a prop but the real thing.” This reminder of the sword’s “realness” is later repeated by Master Yuan, who claims to have expended “enormous efforts and resources” to get the sword from Zhang after the eunuch has fallen on hard times. Seeing Dieyi’s attachment to the sword, Yuan offers it to him as a gift, but not before using it to reenact the famous suicide scene from the opera with Dieyi. In a sequence of shots that will be repeated in the 69

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figure 15. Dieyi holding the sword. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

film’s very last scene, a close-up of Dieyi’s hand taking the sword from Master Yuan’s hands is followed by a tight shot on Yuan’s alarmed face, warning Dieyi that the sword is “the real thing.” Then we see Dieyi at a longer distance, holding the sword to his throat and eventually dropping it to the ground; a close-up of Dieyi shows tears streaming down his perfectly made-up face. The distinction between a prop and the “real thing” applies to more than the sword in this scene. It also illustrates a dilemma Dieyi will continue to face: is he only Concubine Yu onstage or is it possible for him to fulfill the role as an ideal in his life? Furthermore, how can he fulfill the role in life when no one around him is playing their parts? In other words, how can the concubine show her loyalty when there 70

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is no king around to cherish it? This problem is fully borne out by the next sequence, when Dieyi brings the sword to Xiaolou just as the Japanese army is about to enter Beijing. Drunk from his engagement celebrations, Xiaolou does not even recognize the sword, much less remember the promise Dieyi made to him during their boyhood. He asks Dieyi what use is there for a sword when they are not performing onstage. The sword, though real, immediately becomes a prop in Xiaolou’s hands. His easy distinction between stage and life here also becomes a complete rejection of Dieyi’s need to remain true to the roles they have been brought up all their lives to play. The sword turns up on screen again after Dieyi has been arrested for treason by the Nationalist government when Juxian uses it to blackmail Master Yuan into helping Dieyi. She threatens to use it as evidence of Yuan’s connection to Dieyi should Dieyi be found guilty of collaboration during the war. However, to everyone’s shock, Dieyi refuses to corroborate the false evidence Yuan provides in court, thus refusing to save himself from the charges. It also signals his continual refusal to be in debt to Juxian in any way. Later, Dieyi asks Xiao Si’er to deliver the sword to Xiaolou on the eve of yet another regime change, as the Nationalist Army prepares to evacuate to Taiwan just before the Communists enter Beijing. This second gifting of the sword will lead to Xiaolou’s downfall during the Cultural Revolution, when Xiao Si’er uses it as evidence of Xiaolou’s counterrevolutionary 71

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figure 16. Xiaolou does not remember the significance of the sword. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

crime. Xiaolou’s misfortune triggers him to betray Dieyi during the mass struggle session, when, once again through the sword, he exposes Dieyi’s connection with the “opera tyrant” Master Yuan. Ironically, the sword seems to be leading Dieyi further and further away from the onstage ending of sacrifice and loyalty he so desperately wants to reenact with Xiaolou in life (where betrayal is the recurrent theme). In yet another twist of irony, it is Juxian, herself betrayed by both Xiaolou and Dieyi during the struggle session, who rescues the sword from the Red Guards’ burning pit and returns it to Dieyi just before she kills herself. In a beautifully composed scene shot in front of a dilapidated temple, we see Dieyi in full opera costume and makeup, collapsed on the ground among torn pages of burnt and destroyed books like a heap of garbage. 72

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figure 17. Dieyi after the mass struggle session. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

Above the scene of desolation hangs a banner with the words “Role Model for Teachers Through the Ages,” an epithet commonly used in reference to Confucius, shown here as an ironic reminder of the Cultural Revolution’s total devastation of cultural heritage. As Juxian quietly lays the sword by Dieyi’s side, both the artist and the sword appear to have become two more of the millions of symbolic and actual artifacts destroyed during the chaos. As Juxian turns to walk away from Dieyi, a sequence of close-ups shows each looking at the other in what will be the very last exchange between them. No words pass, and no words can adequately describe the expression—borne out of a lifetime of suffering, mutual incomprehension, and frustrated longing—that lingers on each of their faces. 73

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figure 18. Dieyi stealing the sword on stage one last time. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

The sword reappears in the film’s final scene, when it is used as a prop in the suicide scene performed by Xiaolou and Dieyi. Of course, we cannot be sure it is literally the same sword as the one Dieyi received from Master Yuan. What is more important, however, is that only in this scene does the sword become real, not in the sense meant previously by Na Kun or Master Yuan, but rather in Dieyi’s sense, as it provides him with the means to defy life, fate, and circumstances to finally become Concubine Yu, in a death dealt by his own hands and on his own terms.

Fashioning: The Politics of Costume Change “Ah, a costume change!” Xiaolou teases theater manager Na Kun when Na and others from the opera troupe visit Dieyi 74

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figure 19. “Ah, a costume change!” Members of the theater troupe dressed in Mao jackets. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

during his recovery from opium addiction. During these early days of the People’s Republic, everyone looks out of place and slightly comical dressed in Mao jackets, the officially endorsed attire of the new regime. Changing costumes is, obviously, a habitual practice for any theatrical performer. Xiaolou’s cavalier belief that adapting to changing political climates simply requires the same degree of sartorial dexterity will later prove not to be entirely accurate. In John Zou’s account of the evolution of clothing practices in China, he documents a long-standing tradition ­dating as far back as Confucius that “assigned enormous consequence to the correspondence between male habit and effective political rule” (2006, 83). In other words, men’s clothing 75

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figure 20. Dieyi and Xiaolou in Western suits during a photo shoot. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

figure 21. Dieyi and Xiaolou in Manchu robes during a photo shoot. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.


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supposedly bore a direct relation to the vicissitudes of the political order. Zou argues that the political turmoil after the fall of the Qing empire in the early twentieth century is partly reflected by the confusion over male dress codes. The search for a modern and authentic “Chinese” way of dressing amidst lingering influences from the Manchu tradition of the Qing dynasty and imported fashion tastes from Japan and the West led to the coexistence of a multitude of clothing styles in this period (82–83). For instance, during a photo shoot in the 1930s, Dieyi and Xiaolou pose in both Western-style suits and the Manchu magua jackets and robes. The photographers praise the two actors for looking handsome in whatever fashions are assigned to them. This statement, like Xiaolou’s assumption that political adaptation is akin to “costume change,” fails to foresee the inability of anybody to truly adapt to the demands of the Cultural Revolution. Even though the historical figure of opera performer Mei Lanfang has often been cited as a source of inspiration for the character of Dieyi, in fact Dieyi and Mei are a study in contrast. Fifteen years after the release of Farewell, Chen made Forever Enthralled (2008), a film based on Mei’s life and officially sanctioned by Mei’s family. Described by critics as a “workmanlike biopic” (Elley 2009), the film emphasizes the actor’s respectability, patriotism, and reluctance to be “forever enthralled,” as his fans were, by his stage persona. In short, Mei’s temperament could not be more different 77

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figure 22. Dieyi in partial makeup and costumes while off stage. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

from Dieyi’s. Zou has argued that Mei’s success in the nationalization and heterosexualization of Beijing Opera during the 1930s and 1940s, a time when opera was beginning to lose popularity, can be partly attributed to his costuming practice. Zou documents how Mei “transfigures the semiunclothed male body into a fully clothed, concealed one” (2006, 85). The effect of this costuming practice, according to Zou, is the reassertion of a bare male body that is clothed but detached from, therefore uncontaminated by, the feminine costumes performers wear onstage (2006, 85–95). Zou further suggests that this “bare body” was indirectly associated with “the culturally unencumbered—hence ‘bare’— youth” and the “political and economically deprived—hence ‘bare’—peasants” (2006, 95). Thus Mei’s costuming practice 78

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contributed to the discourse of national modernity by elevating “the fantastically despicable cross-dressed actor to the moral level of the mystically young and the innocently poor” (2006, 95). The film does not show Dieyi’s bare body in any way and there is no effort to emphasize, as Mei did in reality, the detachment between Dieyi’s feminine costumes and personae onstage and his male body offstage. Quite the opposite, the film demonstrates a continuity between Dieyi’s psyche, body, and his stage costumes. In fact, costumes for the opera are the only clothes Dieyi appears to be “at home” in and he sometimes continues to wear them, fully or partially, offstage. In several pivotal scenes, such as when he rebukes Juxian for making a play for Xiaolou’s affection and when he gives the sword to Xiaolou right after he receives it as a gift from Master Yuan, Dieyi is still partially in costume and fully made up for the stage. This sartorially in-between state is in perfect accordance with Dieyi’s self-identification, which also straddles his stage personae and his offstage life. Dieyi only attempts to comply with the demand for costume change offstage once. Unlike those around him, he does not do it out of political expediency but rather out of anger at Xiaolou, who did not try to stop Xiao Si’er’s scheme to replace Dieyi in a performance. After Dieyi quietly asks Xiaolou the reason for Concubine Yu’s decision to die, Dieyi takes out a match and burns all of his theatrical costumes with the same expression of quiet defiance he wore when, as a little boy, he burned his mother’s cape. In the next sequence, 79

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figure 23. Dieyi burns his theatrical costumes. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

figure 24. Dieyi looking awkward in a Mao jacket. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.


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we see Dieyi dressed in Mao jacket and pants for the first time. The camera stays still and in deep focus as Dieyi walks gingerly into the frame. Wearing white socks and sandals, he slowly and awkwardly makes his way through the winding corridors in eunuch Zhang’s old residence where, in resplendent costume, he once performed the role of Concubine Yu. This tragicomic image of Dieyi, looking completely out of place in contemporary clothing, economically sums up his inability to perform this costume change. The Maoist demand to “revolutionize” Beijing Opera is also a demand on Dieyi to discard the self he has perfected, not an authentic essence but an artistic creation that has been forged in his body and psyche through physical hardship, immeasurable pain, and complete devotion to the art form. To detach his body from his stage costumes and personae as Mei Lanfang did historically, or to comply with the political demand of “costume change” as Na Kun, Xiaolou, and many others do for survival during the Cultural Revolution, would mean, for Dieyi, an abandonment of self that he is unable and unwilling to attempt. This stubbornness is costly to Dieyi, but without it, he would not have dared to remain, in his words, “true from beginning to end” (congyi erzhong). In this respect, the film’s structural unity and formal coherence can also be seen as a stylistic complement to the defining trait of its main character: his integrity.


Three: Queer Afterlives: New Takes On A Classic

If I had proposed to write about Farewell as a “queer classic” during the 1990s, I would likely have been faced with a chorus of objections. Farewell was not marketed as a “gay film” when it was released. In fact, director Chen was always very indirect when he discussed the nature of the relationship between the two main male characters during the film’s promotion. In an interview included in the DVD release, Chen describes Dieyi and Xiaolou’s relation as a “friendship” or “a deeper kind of attachment.” He suggests that many people would consider such relations between actors from “the old society” to be devoid of beauty but that he himself sees “a very substantial form of beauty” in them. When asked in a 1993 interview about homosexuality in China, Chen claims that during preproduction he did not do any research on the topic but knew that it was “very popular in the Ming dynasty” for intellectuals to have relations with male actors. Without linking Dieyi to this history, he somewhat enigmatically describes Dieyi’s life as “a beautiful mistake stemming from identity” (Chen 1993). Three years later, in an interview seen in Yang ± Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema (Stanley Kwan, 1996), a documentary in which Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan referred to himself as a gay man in public for the first time, Chen is asked by his fellow filmmaker whether 83

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the explicitly homoerotic tone of Lee’s novel is abandoned in the film due to homophobia. Chen sidesteps the question and focuses instead on the issue of the film’s ending, exclaiming emphatically that Dieyi himself would have protested the fate that the novel fashions for him. To the Village Voice, Chen was only slightly less evasive: “I don’t know that much about homosexuality,” admits Chen, pausing slightly. “It’s still a very sensitive subject in China. I don’t want to argue whether it’s nature or culture—that’s not important. This is life, and sooner or later, Chinese people will face that.” Breaking into a light laugh, he notes that one popular gay pickup spot “is very close to Tiananmen Square.” (Kim 1993)

Given Chen’s seeming hesitation and opaqueness when confronting questions about the film’s representation of homosexuality, it is no wonder that the film had invited confusion, unease, and hostility from some gay critics and queer studies scholars. As detailed in Chapter One, the critical trend at the time expected a queer film to provide empowering, realistic, or oppositional images. Farewell does not come remotely close to meeting such expectations. Now, almost two decades later, new developments in queer and transgender scholarship enable us to view the film through more complex and historically sensitive frameworks. In fact, Chen’s 84

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very hesitation and opaqueness take us to the heart of the film’s conundrum: how to represent a sexual subjectivity that is no longer recognizable through contemporary lenses. Furthermore, the unexpected and widely mourned death of its star, as well as the posthumous embrace of his queer iconicity, have significantly changed the film’s queer reception. A film sometimes has more lives than the proverbial cat. This chapter engages with these queer afterlives of Farewell.

Lost in History: The Disappearing Queer Dieyi is not gay. Rather, his sexuality is a synecdoche for a whole way of being a Chinese person that had to be sacrificed in order for “gay” to come into existence as a possible identity category. —Teri Silvio

Silvio’s description of Dieyi’s sexual subjectivity (2002, 1986) provides a good antidote to criticism that faults Farewell for failing to portray gay identity properly. Lim suggests that critical discussions in that vein “presuppose an identity category that may not be applicable to Dieyi” (2005, 81). I would go further and argue that our notion of “gay”—which did not come into circulation in Mainland China until well into the 1980s during the post-Mao era of reforms and globalization—is definitely not applicable to Dieyi. A character living in that time period would not have been able to conceive 85

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of his sexuality in such terms. Unfortunately for Dieyi, he also lives through such rapid and intense social and political changes that previous categories of sexual subjectivity— those that precede the emergence of gay identity—are also slipping into irrelevance right in front of his eyes. In a very real sense, Dieyi, as a sexual subject, is lost in history. Leslie Cheung has remarked that Chen’s treatment of Dieyi’s desire seems “overly restrained” and “evasive.” Cheung speculates that Chen may be responding to the “sensitivity of the topic in Mainland China” (2007, 23–24). It seems to me that Cheung’s insights into Chen’s stylistic choices are dead on but that his explanation does not tell us the entire story. If we can let go of our contemporary epistemological framework for understanding sexuality and place Dieyi in a specific historical context, we see that the filmmaker’s struggle lies not so much with his ability to portray a gay person openly and accurately, but with how best to present a sexual subject that is caught between identity categories. The opaque and inarticulate quality of Dieyi’s desire in the film is a poignant reflection of how his sexual subjectivity has disappeared into the margins of history. At the struggle session during the Cultural Revolution when Xiaolou is forced to denounce Dieyi, he comes up with a long list of “crimes,” such as Dieyi’s obsession with the “feudal” art of Beijing Opera, his opium habit, which “smokes away the sweat and blood of the working masses,” and his “unpatriotic” activities during the Japanese 86

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figure 25. Xiaolou exposes Dieyi during the Cultural Revolution. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

occupation. However, there is one accusation that hovers on Xiaolou’s lips but which he cannot quite say aloud. Pointing at Dieyi, a sudden rush of real emotions on his face, Xiaolou says in a trembling voice: “He … he was Master Yuan’s … Were you? Did you?” What Xiaolou is thinking of but cannot bring himself to say is, by contrast, explicitly named in the novel, in a passage that describes the same scene from the film: A Red Guard took out evidence of their counterrevolutionary crime. The sword flashed before Xiaolou’s eyes. “Did Cheng Dieyi give this sword to you? What was its origin?”


Queer Film Classics

“This … he got it from that big opera tyrant Master Yuan when he … served as his xianggong!” (Lee 1992, 253)

Literally meaning “gentleman,” xianggong is a term that was widely used from the middle of the Qing Dynasty (1644– 1912) onward to refer to dan actors who were also available as prostitutes to patrons amongst court officials and literati. As in the film, the historical presence of this sexual subjectivity hovers precariously on the threshold of intelligibility. As Wu and Stevenson explain, this is not because of any obscurity within the Chinese source material: the references to homoerotic actor-patron relationships are relatively abundant. However, these references belong to “very different discursive and epistemological realms” from contemporary discourse, thus leading to contentions over their actual meaning. For instance, some scholars have argued that references to homoerotic behavior were meant to be read rhetorically rather than literally (Wu and Stevenson 2006, 44–45). In the scholarship on Beijing Opera specifically, the (for some embarrassingly) sexualized presence of xianggong has often been explained away or simply ignored (Wu and Stevenson 2006, 45). Others have debated the actual nature of the relationship, questioning whether it was primarily social, sexual, or emotional (Kang 2009, 122–23). One thing, however, is quite certain: by the early part of the twentieth century, a sea change was taking place in the country’s 88

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cultural climate and it had direct impact on the visibility and viability of xianggong as a subject-position. There was a rapid rise of nationalist sentiments against looming colonialist aggression from Western powers, whose armies were perched on the country’s doorsteps. The concomitant rise of the discourse of modernization resulted in a fierce rejection of all aspects of “traditional” culture. The Beijing Opera world and the undercurrents of its sexual culture became a popular target for young, patriotic, and socially engaged intellectuals. After the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, the xianggong system was officially abolished in Beijing. Actors, previously of low status, were elevated under the new discourse of equal citizenship. There was evidence, however, that the old relationship between patron and xianggong continued to develop, especially between powerful officials and esteemed dan actors, even after the abolition (Kang 2009, 130–31). Even so, the stigmatization became more intense, and the term xianggong devolved from its relatively neutral valence into a shameful, barely speakable term of contempt. Beginning in 1924, just over a decade after the fall of the Qing dynasty, and ending in 1977 at the close of the Maoist era, Farewell spans this period of ideological transformation. As the film illustrates through Dieyi’s experience, xianggong has lingered as a recognizable subject-position, albeit one that is slowly vanishing behind a veil of stigma. Dieyi himself is brutally hailed into this subject position when, as a boy, he is “delivered” to former imperial eunuch Master 89

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Zhang for sexual service after his first public performance of the aria “Farewell My Concubine” with Xiaolou. The rape of the boy has clearly been prearranged between the troupe manager and one of Zhang’s staff, who coldly pronounces it to be “an old and established rule,” referring to the takenfor-granted relationship between a patron and his catamite. However, the film’s portrayal of Zhang as a senile old man lost in the delusion of past grandeur makes it clear that this “rule” is fast becoming outdated. In fact, Zhang insists on using the Qing Dynasty calendar, even though the dynasty had by then ended well over a decade before. Silvio has also observed that Zhang’s bedroom is staged like a “virtual museum,” a living tomb filled with relics from a past era (2002, 186). Zhang’s position as a patron, while still palpable and powerful (as evidenced by his power over Dieyi), likewise belongs to this disappearing past. Thus, even as the young Dieyi is forced into becoming xianggong for the first time, he is already being cast outside of time and made as anachronistic as the precious crystal bowl Zhang instructs him to pee in. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, objects like the crystal bowl, once a treasure of the imperial court, would be treated as evidence of counterrevolutionary consciousness and would be smashed to smithereens. Foreshadowing Dieyi’s lifelong tragedy in the making, the crystal bowl in that scene serves as a heartbreaking synecdoche for Dieyi’s fate. The second character who enters into a patron-xianggong 90

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relationship with Dieyi is opera connoisseur Master Yuan, a well-connected official in the republican government. The tense and ambivalent triangulation between Master Yuan, Dieyi, and Xiaolou reveals another complex set of historical factors that affect Dieyi’s sexual subjectivity. When Master Yuan first visits the actors backstage, showering Dieyi with gifts and extravagant praise, Xiaolou shows unfettered disdain for his attention. He insults Master Yuan by declining Yuan’s invitation to dine at his residence while declaring that he is going to visit a brothel instead. The proliferation of brothels in Beijing during the early part of the twentieth century has been linked by scholars to the decline of the institutionalized prostitution of xianggong to patrons, which had previously taken place inside private residences and was for centuries considered a tasteful pursuit amongst the literati (Wu and Stevenson 2006, 54–55). With the steady stigmatization of xianggong in this period, cross-class desire was finding more public and more heterosexualized expression in the brothel. However, Xiaolou, being an actor and of equivalent status to a prostitute, does not represent the brothel’s elite clientele. When he arrives at the establishment, Juxian is not available to him because she is serving clients who are socially superior. Xiaolou’s “heroic” act of rescue opens Juxian’s eyes to the possibility of an equalstatus relationship, which she subsequently pursues with cunning and tenacity. Through Juxian and Xiaolou, the film portrays the emergence of a more modern discourse of 91

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egalitarian desire amongst those (such as actors and prostitutes) who traditionally would tend to engage in cross-class relationships. Ironically, while actors and female prostitutes found their status elevated by the advent of heterosexualized modernity, the xianggong were erased. In the scene where Dieyi questions Xiaolou’s exploits at the brothel, Xiaolou treats Dieyi as though he, too, is entering into the modern subjectivity of a heterosexual citizen. He suggests that Dieyi should visit the brothel to understand its pleasures. Dieyi is deeply offended by this suggestion and ends up pleading with his stage partner to show integrity, which for Dieyi means performing the opera together for the rest of their lives. Dieyi’s notion of integrity (congyi erzhong, literally translated as “following a principle until the end”) is always expressed through the opera, prompting Xiaolou to surmise that he has become “obsessed” with art. In fact, as is evident in his refusal to be addressed in the terms of heterosexual modernity, Dieyi’s “integrity” also signifies his reluctance to conform to changing definitions of his selfhood. While Dieyi does not fit into the emergent discourse of modern heterosexual personhood, neither does he fit entirely into his xianggong role. Or, to put it more accurately, he desires beyond what is allowed by that role. With Master Yuan, he always appears somewhat hesitant, and he does not reciprocate the intensity of Yuan’s passion, which is rooted in an extravagant form of opera connoisseurship. The film shows Dieyi visiting Master Yuan’s private residence twice, 92

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on the night of Xiaolou’s engagement and on his wedding night. As Xiaolou enters so confidently into heterosexual marriage, Dieyi can only fall back into a xianggong relationship with Master Yuan. His love for Xiaolou does not resemble the cross-class and transactional nature of patron-xianggong relations. There is no existing framework for Dieyi to understand or express such feelings except in reference to the opera, which is immediately written off by Xiaolou as evidence of his obsession with art. Same-sex love between two equals appeared only in the scattered references to tongxing’ai (literally same-sex love), which at the time was articulated through the imported discourse of sexology and discussed amongst intellectuals as a form of sexual perversion (Kang 2009, 41–59). It was not yet a category of lived experience and existed in a discursive context that would not have been available to someone of Dieyi’s station. Whatever Dieyi feels for Xiaolou could not have found expression in any available sexual discourses at the time. As a xianggong, Dieyi is only able to enter into a crossclass relation with someone like Master Yuan. His love for Xiaolou can find no viable expression except through the highly gendered and idealized terms of the opera they perform together. Furthermore, because he can only express himself in those terms, Dieyi now appears, within our contemporary discourse of gay identity, suspiciously anachronistic and “incorrect.” From where he stands, Dieyi has no place in the past, present, or future. While it has been 93

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figure 26. Dieyi’s love for Xiaolou can find no adequate expression. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. Publicity still. Courtesy of Photofest.

remarked that the xianggong “did not make it into the 20th Century” (Wu and Stevenson 2006, 57), it seems to me that someone like Dieyi never made it into history at all.

Beijing Opera: A Trans Practice Just as Dieyi’s sexual subjectivity is historically contingent and does not fit modern notions of sexual identity, his gendered subjectivity presents us with a similar conundrum. Because of his male embodiment and feminine identification, Dieyi resembles a transgender subject. However, the film’s explicit association of his femininity with the abusive training 94

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he receives in the opera troupe is a flagrant departure from contemporary discourse around transgender identity, which first and foremost emphasizes a subject’s self-actualization. To put it simply, transgender subjectivity is about becoming who you know yourself to be. By contrast, Dieyi’s femininity is, as Lim describes starkly, “literally beaten into his body and psyche” (2005, 76). It is a gender identity that is coercively inculcated on a child specifically for the purpose of perfecting an art form. It would be logical for transgender rights advocates in the present day to dissociate themselves from the film’s representation of Dieyi, lest its portrayal of unnaturalness and coercion become wrongly projected onto presentday narratives of transgender identity. Just as Silvio declares, “Dieyi is not gay,” we can likewise say, “Dieyi is not transgender” (at least not in the identitarian sense of the term). The issue of Dieyi’s gender is best approached with a more recent branch of transgender studies scholarship that aims to expand the meaning of “transgender.” As the editors of a special issue on “Trans-” in Women’s Studies Quarterly explain, there is an impetus in the field to articulate “new generational and analytical perspectives” by building on the “insights and analyses drawn from the study of phenomena that disrupt or unsettle the conventional boundaries of gender” but without perpetuating a “minoritizing or ghettoizing use” of the term transgender (Stryker et al. 2008, 11). In Susan Stryker’s overview of the field of transgender studies, she describes its theoretical impact this way: 95

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Transgender studies helps demonstrate the extent to which soma, the body as a culturally intelligible construct, and techne, the technique in and through which bodies are transformed and positioned, are in fact inextricably interpenetrated. It helps to correct the all-too-common critical failure to recognize “the body” not as one (already constituted) object of knowledge among others, but rather as the contingent ground of all our knowledge, and of all our knowing. (Stryker 2006a, 12)

Stryker is suggesting that the study of transsexual, crossdressed, or otherwise gender-variant bodies can yield insights about somatic technologies and processes that constitute all bodies, whether they are recognized to be thus constituted (e.g., a tattooed or cosmetically altered body) or have been normativized to appear “natural” (e.g., a “healthy” body that has gone through regimes of exercise, dieting, and other medical interventions). Stryker’s postulation of the inextricable relation between soma (body) and techne (technique) leads to the formation of a field of study designated by the newly coined term “somatechnics,” which takes as its object of study “the body as the incarnation or materialization of historically and culturally specific discourses and practices” (Somatechnics Research Centre). Philosopher Nikki Sullivan, one of the most active proponents of somatechnics, uses the term “trans practice” to 96

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denote processes and procedures that “transform bodily being.” Sullivan’s examples range widely from piercing, tattooing, and corsetry to hormone treatments, mastectomies, and sex reassignment surgeries (2006, 552). In a similar way, we can approach Beijing Opera training as a historical trans practice. As vividly depicted in the film, the training involves life-long physical discipline that moulds pliant bodies into stylized theatrical role-types. Drawing from descriptions found in Qing Dynasty literati’s accounts, Wu and Stevenson describe the process by which pale and delicate-looking boys were chosen by the opera troupe to be trained in dan roles. Immediately upon arrival, they would be “forced to affect a weak, feminine manner and maintain a light complexion” (Wu and Stevenson 2006, 46). The training in the city of Beijing was said to be particularly involved, “with more care taken to nurture the tender, elegant, and spontaneous manner required of dan” (2006, 46). As documented in one literati’s account: “In Beijing when the actors train their own students and the elegant steps and seductive gaits are carefully executed, the turn of the head and the flashing of the eyes are extremely refined” (Luomo’an in Wu and Stephenson 2006, 46). In addition to dieting and exercise, which changed and maintained the physical appearance of the body, training in deportment and imitation helped the boys perfect the appearance and air required by the operatic roles (2006, 47). The film presents the process and outcome of this 97

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figure 27. A young Dieyi enduring the brutality of opera training. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

physically transformative training in the perfection of Dieyi’s artistry, with conflicting sentiments. The first half of Farewell emphasizes the brutal and coercive aspects of the training in its inclusion of the scene where young Dieyi’s mother brutally chops off the boy’s extra finger so he can train properly, the long sequences of boys enduring merciless beating to achieve the arduous perfection of form and movement, and the scene in which Dieyi, after having an opium pipe shoved down his throat, finally delivers the line “I am by nature born a girl” without hesitation. Once Dieyi has grown up and become a renowned artist, the film turns its focus on the results of the painful training. The second half of the film is punctuated with long sequences of Dieyi’s beautiful performance of classic opera roles in 98

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figure 28. Dieyi as Lady Yang in “The Tipsy Concubine.” Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. Publicity still. Courtesy of Photofest.

front of rapt audiences. These scenes showcase an artistry that the film clearly celebrates and values. The ambivalent feelings invoked—disgust at the abusive violence on the one hand and admiration for its end results on the other—illustrate a common cultural response to a historical irony. In an account describing the reception of these scenes amongst a group of Chinese opera fans in Taiwan, Silvio observes: “While none of them would ever again want to put a child through the kind of torture depicted in the film, Chinese opera fans often lament that the world will never see again the likes of the stars of the past” (2002, 182). This audience response is echoed by actor Jackie Chan’s discussion of 99

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figure 29. Dieyi as Du Liniang in “The Peony Pavilion.” Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. Publicity Still. Courtesy of Photofest.

the rigorous and harsh training that, for centuries, produced eminent acrobats, opera performers, and martial artists like himself. Chan remarks that the discipline required for such perfection would now be considered criminally abusive. Like the opera fans in Taiwan, Chan is not about to condone child abuse. At the same time, he frankly acknowledges his own admiration and nostalgia for the artistic perfection that such an abusive practice produced (Silvio 2002, 182). What should we make of such ambivalence? Surveying the scholarship on various trans practices, Nikki Sullivan shows that there is a critical tendency to make a distinction between “good” and “bad” forms of body transformations. 100

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Second-wave feminists like Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys infamously condemn sex reassignment surgery and transsexuality, fiercely defending the notion of an inviolable “natural” body. Standing this logic on its head, many contemporary theorists choose instead to celebrate “non-mainstream” body modification as subversive acts against the cult of the normative body. At the same time, they condemn procedures that are aimed at bringing the body closer to normative standards (e.g., dieting and cosmetic surgery) as oppressive. In Sullivan’s view, no matter where one locates “good” and “bad,” such dichotomization is ultimately untenable. This kind of judgment is often based on an assumption that we can disentangle individual agency from ideological conformity. Sullivan reminds us of their inextricability (2006, 561). After all, every subject, whether or not conscious of it, acts within institutional and ideological limits. It is presumptuous, if not downright impossible, to categorically draw a line between agency and ideology. In Dieyi’s case, there is no question that he is forced into an abusive regime of training that has had an impact on his body and psyche. At the same time, he clearly has choices about how he acts, relates to others, and cultivates his own sense of self within an embodiment that is not entirely of his choosing. Furthermore, whose embodiment is entirely of their own choosing? Even without experiencing the more severe and obvious form of somatic transformation that Dieyi goes through, all of our bodies are susceptible to growth and decline and myriad 101

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other changes, and subject to a range of disciplining regimes from physical education to medical intervention. Sullivan proposes that we forgo the dichotomizing impulse and regard all trans practices as distinct forms of “transmogrification,” which she defines as “a process of (un) becoming strange and/or grotesque, of (un)becoming other” (2006, 561). She suggests that we regard all bodies, whether visibly undergoing transformation or not, as being in a state of becoming and unbecoming, and that we approach trans practices as potentially illuminating those states. In other words, any somatic practice that reassembles the body’s seemingly “natural” boundaries—however we evaluate its benefit or harm—can show us the constructedness of all bodies. By highlighting the dynamics of how bodies become transformed, trans practices denaturalize the line between what appears “normal” and what appears “strange.” In the film, the process of Dieyi’s “becoming” a dan performer and an embodiment of an ideal type of femininity through “unbecoming” a boy may initially appear to be a uniquely coercive form of gender transformation. Yet, on closer look, the process appears to be a paradigmatic process of gendering, period. In other words, how Dieyi learns to embody a type of stylized femininity is similar to how other characters learn to embody other roles. Dieyi’s fellow trainees in the theatrical troupe, whether they are learning to be sheng (the lead male role), chou (the clown’s role) or other role-types, have to undergo similarly rigorous physical 102

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processes, which are so intense that one boy chooses suicide over his training. Dieyi’s “stage-brother” Xiaolou, who later becomes successful playing lead male roles alongside Dieyi, must inculcate his masculinity through the same kind of transformative training. In fact, the constructedness of Xiaolou’s seemingly “natural” masculinity is exposed when opera connoisseur Master Yuan criticizes him for taking “too few steps” in a performance and falling short of the regal air of a king. The scene shows us that a male actor’s embodiment of masculinity can fail and that the ideal of masculinity is no more natural to a male body than that of femininity. Although not as obvious, the inculcation of masculinity in Xiaolou is in fact as much a trans process as Dieyi’s training for feminine roles. Dieyi is simply more successful in his training. As Master Yuan observes, he has perfected the art to such an extent that the actor has become “the living reincarnation” of all the roles he performs. Master Yuan’s learned appreciation of Dieyi’s perfect performance of femininity represents a discourse of connoisseurship around dan actors. A literary genre called the “flower guide” that flourished during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was devoted to detailing and identifying distinct feminine traits displayed by dan actors, both on and off stage (Wu and Stevenson 2006, 47). Within this discourse, the perfection of a stylized femininity on a male body was the realization of an ideal, not an aberration. However, concurrent with the stigmatization of xianggong 103

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as a sexual subject in the beginning of the twentieth century, the femininity of dan performers was also condemned. Adjectives such as “lurid,” “perverse,” and “shameful” appeared in descriptions of dan performances by reformist intellectuals who viewed Beijing Opera as a symbol of the nation’s backwardness. This cultural climate is illustrated by a scene in the film: when Dieyi and Xiaolou come out of their photo shoot in 1937 and are confronted with student protests against the weak government response to Japanese aggression, one student indignantly demands to know how the actors can “perform in such freakish (yaoli yaoqi) ways on stage” when the country is under threat. The equation of Beijing Opera’s “freakish” presentation of stylized gender with national weakness is a major reason for the art form’s steady decline in respectability during the first half of the twentieth century. When Mei Lanfang tried to rehabilitate the cultural status of Beijing Opera during the 1930s and 1940s, he meticulously purged potentially objectionable elements from the performance, taking great pains to dissociate his male body from the staged femininity he avowedly performed rather than embodied. John Zou describes the changes Mei introduced to the costuming practice in Beijing Opera in this way: “But where [an actor considered obscene] gave the clothing its ‘femaleness’ in a way that also implicated his own body—presented with ‘female’ clothing, the male body was contaminated by it and took on the aspect of scandal—Mei Lanfang … determined 104

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the classicism of his outerwear in a categorically detached manner” (2006, 95). Unlike Mei, Dieyi makes no such concessions to the changing ideological climate that follows the decline of connoisseurship and the corresponding rise of nationalist moralism. The execution of Master Yuan at the beginning of the Communist era represents the former, while the struggle sessions against Dieyi during the Cultural Revolution represent the extreme development of the latter. What was once admired as artistic perfection has turned gradually into a monstrous object deserving scorn and shame. In an impassioned article on “transgender rage,” Susan Stryker theorizes and performs Frankenstein’s monster by embracing the rage and suffering that come with being an outcast. Stryker does not flinch from claiming the transgender body as “unnatural”: “a flesh torn apart and sewn together,” and a body that “literalizes the violence” of a normative order that produces but shuns this body. She acknowledges that scientific discourse and medical institutions play a part in constructing transgender bodies. Yet she insists that they neither preclude these bodies from being “sites of viable subjectivity” nor guarantee “the compliance of subjects thus embodied” (2006b, 248). Stryker shows that it is possible to act from the “monstrously powerful place” of otherness, to expose the artificiality of the so-called “natural” order and the foundational violence of gendering that constitutes all subjects. 105

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As I outlined in Chapter Two, Farewell shows through repetitive staging how successive regimes of political power continue to make and remake the subjectivity of those under their rule. Most, like Xiaolou, struggle to reform themselves over and over—ideologically, sartorially, and bodily—in order to fit into a norm that always threatens to elude them. By contrast, Dieyi’s stubborn “loyalty” to his anachronistic ideal is a refusal to be thus reformed. Instead, he clings to his otherness—the feminized body and psyche that were coercively forged on an anvil of pain, sweat, and blood—even long after it has passed from the limelight of admiration into the shadows of condemnation. Dieyi’s artistic and personal integrity amidst overwhelming forces of history allows him to carve out, however partially and tentatively, a “self” on his own terms, against a “natural” order that never stops trying to brutalize him into form. From this “monstrously powerful” place of Dieyi’s otherness, we may begin to resuscitate him from the moribund fate of victimhood. From there we see Dieyi with fresh eyes, as someone caught in the unrelenting flux of social and political transformation but who hangs on to shreds of his own being, even as history threatens to erase him as it winds its violent way into modernity.

Farewell to Leslie: A Queer Legacy I put so much of my emotions in Farewell My Concubine that I found it difficult to extricate myself from it long


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figure 30. Leslie Cheung as Cheng Dieyi. Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. DVD still.

after its production had finished. One night during my despondency, I dreamt of Leslie Cheung. Wearing the ethereal long robe that Cheng Dieyi likes to wear and with his familiar smiling eyes, he quietly said to me: I am now bidding you farewell. At that moment I woke up suddenly, tears streaming from my eyes. I could no longer tell if it had been Leslie or Dieyi. Ten years later, that goodbye has closed the karmic circle between life and death. Indeed, Leslie Cheung is Cheng Dieyi. —Chen Kaige

Chen Kaige wrote these words in 2003, shortly after the tragic and unexpected suicide of Leslie Cheung. Rumored to have been suffering from severe depression, Cheung jumped to his death from the Mandarin Oriental hotel in 107

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Hong Kong’s Central district on April 1. At that time, the city was ravaged by the sars epidemic, reeling in economic woes, and embroiled in political turmoil over controversial proposed legislation on anti-sedition. The intense discontent would erupt three months later into one of the largest anti-government demonstrations since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997. Cheung was a high-profile artist of enormous popularity whose career was still at its peak. His death immediately became an outlet for both genuine grief and displaced frustration over the city’s other troubles. For weeks, the site of his suicide was awash in a sea of flowers while eulogies and commemorations poured in from artists, writers, journalists, and politicians, many of whom knew him intimately and many who had admired him from afar. The widespread expression of grief became a part of the city’s collective memory, marking both the passing of a well-loved star and a generation’s most uncertain time. What was unexpected was a sudden and public embrace of Cheung as a gay icon. When he was alive, Cheung maintained a complex and ambivalent narrative around his sexuality that paradoxically rendered him neither completely closeted nor completely out. To a certain extent, Cheung embraced a queer profile both personally and professionally. Despite relentless speculation by the tabloid media, he did not try to hide his connection to his rumored lover and frequently appeared with him in public. As a musician, he excelled in flamboyant, gender-bending performances 108

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onstage, evident in the “Across 1997” (1996–97) and “Passion” (2000–01) concert tours, both of which generated considerable controversy in Hong Kong. On film, he acted in numerous queer roles and often discussed them publicly with intelligence and respect. In an interview about the role of Cheng Dieyi in Farewell, he spoke of his extensive research on dan performers, their gender identification, and his admiration for their femininity (Leung 2008, 92). When playing an effeminate man in the comedy All’s Well That Ends Well (Clifton Ko, 1992), he overruled the director’s original instructions because they replicated stereotypical views of “sissy men.” He offered his own interpretation, based on the many effeminate men he said he knew in real life, in order to make the role more human (Leung 2008, 93). And even though he did not say much about his famous gay role in Happy Together (1997) because he was on tour and skipped most of the film’s promotion, Cheung’s complete ease with playing a gay character in Wong Kar-Wai’s award-winning melodrama about an expatriate gay couple facing relationship upheaval in Buenos Aires (especially in contrast with fellow actor Tony Leung’s tension) and his insight into the role are amply documented in cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s on-set journal (Doyle, 1997). Despite such openness, Cheung also took a great deal of care to maintain the closet, at least in public. He was extremely suspicious of the media and consistently refused to divulge details about his personal life. He admitted to 109

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being bisexual once, and only in the context of correcting an interviewer who presumed he was gay (Corliss 2001). This somewhat passive admission did not endear him to many in the lesbian and gay activist community in Hong Kong (Leung 2008, 95–97). He maintained a fair distance from gay politics and, even after the disclosure of his bisexuality, never acknowledged his partner in public except as his “very good friend” and “his mother’s godson.” From the many commemorative texts written by Cheung’s colleagues, friends, and family in the wake of his death, it is clear that he was in fact very open about his male lover in his personal life. He was never outed when he was alive— evidence of the loyalty he inspired in those who knew him. Despite relentless pressure from the media, he was able to live as he seemed to have intended: in an ambivalent space between the closet and public outness. I have suggested elsewhere that his constant flirtation between openness and secrecy is exemplary of how queer lives often have to be led in a cultural space like Hong Kong (2008, 103–105). Reminiscent of an activist campaign in Taiwan in 1997 when queer men and women marched in masks, thus remaining closeted yet also outing themselves (Martin 2003, 213–214), Cheung embraced queerness while adamantly refusing to be disclosed and consumed as “gay,” an identity whose significance and connotations remain constrained within terms that are defined by a prurient mainstream media. Whether Cheung’s ambivalence resulted 110

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from a feeling of shame, a spirit of defiance, or (most likely) a combination of both, his life deserves to be remembered in all its contradictions, with affection and without apology. The posthumous public discourse around his sexuality, however, has largely constructed a simpler narrative of courage and gay identity. The well-intentioned rush to memorialize him as an “out and proud” gay icon risks obscuring the complexity of how he negotiated his queer life. In light of this posthumous discourse, however, queer reception of Farewell changed. Disgruntled critics had attributed the film’s treatment of gender and sexuality to Chen’s limited experience with the subject matter. In the wake of Cheung’s death and the accompanying full disclosure of his sexuality, the attention has shifted instead to Cheung’s performance in the role of Cheng Dieyi. The uncanny coincidence of the character’s and the actor’s final fates has transmuted Dieyi’s anachronistic sacrificial femininity into a modern narrative of suffering, one reportedly shaped by homophobia and depression. The devastating blurring between art and life, an important motif in the film, compels many to project Cheung onto his character and vice versa. In this way, Cheung’s death has breathed new life into the role he often said was his favorite. Dieyi, once barely considered a “proper” queer character, has now been revalued and “authenticated” through Cheung’s posthumous iconicity. One example of how Dieyi becomes projected onto Cheung comes from none other than the film’s director. 111

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In the eulogy quoted above, Chen recounts a dream he had many years ago in which he could not tell whether it was Cheung or Dieyi who had come to say goodbye to him. He clearly believes there is a “karmic” connection between Dieyi’s fictional death and Cheung’s actual death. In his conclusion, he categorically equates Cheung with Dieyi. A somewhat less spiritual parallel is drawn by the film’s crew members when they commemorate Cheung’s work ethic and absolute commitment to his performance. Beijing Opera performer Zhang Manling, who served as Cheung’s opera tutor on the set, wrote movingly of the actor’s dedication. Learning Beijing Opera gestures and movements as a complete amateur is a tremendous challenge. Zhang recalls how Cheung would practice non-stop for over four hours every day in the studio, and would not stop even when he had a high fever. He practiced even while eating and walking, comically but also accurately showing a finger gesture or a head tilt to his teacher in between bites or while walking together on the street (Zhang 2004, 64). Song Xiaocun, another opera performer who served as Cheung’s makeup artist, describes the heavy head gear and costumes that Cheung had to wear for over eight hours every day. Song also recalls Cheung saying to him, “In my past life I was an opera performer!” (Song 2004, 68). In her examination of the persistent comparisons made between Cheung and Dieyi, cultural critic Natalia Chan 112

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suggests that Cheung’s effect on the audience is akin to Dieyi’s effect on connoisseurs like Master Yuan, who feels that once Dieyi steps onstage, he becomes the “living reincarnation” of all the roles he performs. In language befitting a Lillian Lee novel, Chan muses: “Did Leslie Cheung bring Dieyi to life, or did Dieyi become reincarnated in Cheung?” (2008, 140) Ironically, the novelist, who is enamored with themes of reincarnation and karmic connections, refuses to project such notions onto the actor and the character. Lee had known Cheung much longer than Chen or any of the crew members of Farewell. She could not bring herself to view Cheung as Dieyi, her own most famous creation. Instead, Lee sees Cheung simply as a friend, not a symbol or an ideal, and even less a living incarnation of a fictional character. In her eulogy to Cheung, she wrote, “That was not you! I do not believe it. You were always afraid to die, and so afraid of height. You loved to look beautiful and you took care of your health. You went to the gym, you played badminton and mah-jong, you were a connoisseur of red wine, you enjoyed life …” (2003). Not unlike the difference between the novel’s and the film’s portrayals of Dieyi, Lee’s memory of Cheung also differs radically from Chen’s. In the novel, Dieyi lives on, divested of his illusions and unfit for idolization. In the film, Dieyi becomes Concubine Yu in her final apotheosis. Likewise, in Lee’s memory, Cheung was an ordinary man 113

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figure 31. Leslie Cheung becoming Cheng Dieyi or vice versa? Chen Kaige, Farewell My Concubine, 1993. Publicity still. Courtesy of Photofest.

with a great joy for living. She could not reconcile the friend she knew with the “legend” who scripted his own violent and public death. In Chen’s memory, Cheung had already become Dieyi. To him, Cheung’s death was a fulfillment of his destiny, in the same way that Dieyi’s was in the film. Regardless of one’s perspective, Farewell has now become an inextricable part of Cheung’s legacy. The film, and the role of Dieyi, will invariably be viewed from within the narrative of Cheung’s extraordinary life and devastating death. However, it is not so much that Leslie Cheung is, or has become, Cheng Dieyi. Rather, Cheng Dieyi is becoming 114

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Leslie Cheung, whose untimely death is resurrecting his beloved character from historical oblivion into the lasting legacy of a queer icon.



An excerpt from Leslie Cheung’s lecture on “How to interpret characters from Lillian Lee’s Fiction.” The Chinese University of Hong Kong, February 22, 2002. Translator’s Note: In 2002, Leslie Cheung was invited by Lu Wei-luan, a professor of Chinese literature at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, to participate in a lecture series on “Image and Literature: A Comparative Reading.” In his lecture, Cheung discussed his interpretive process as the lead actor in two films adapted from Lillian Lee’s novels: Rouge and Farewell My Concubine. The full lecture appeared in Wenxue yu yingxiang bidu (Literature and image: a comparative reading), edited by Lu Wei-luan and Hung Chi-kum (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 2007): 10–28. I am very grateful to the editors for generously allowing me to translate and reprint the following excerpt.

The film’s ending The ending of the film Farewell My Concubine is very intriguing. It differs a great deal from the ending of the original novel, in which the other “concubine” Juxian dies, while the “king,” Duan Xiaolou, “crosses the water” to reach Hong Kong. Many years later, Xiaolou encounters the aged Dieyi. Washed of all their previous glamor, the two reunite in a


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bathhouse, flesh to flesh. But they are now both old men, and the ambiguous feelings between them have receded. In the film, the whole section in Hong Kong has been axed. It only shows Dieyi, in the role of Concubine Yu, killing himself on stage. Duan Xiaolou, as the king, calls out the childhood nickname of this “woman,” with an ambivalent smile on his face. Then everything ends. Actually, Zhang Fengyi and I came up with this ending ourselves. After he and I had experienced the entire production and interpretation of the film as a tumultuous historical epic, it would have been difficult to shift to the king’s retreat to the south! The part about the Cultural Revolution is so intense, it seems unnecessary to reunite the men in their old age, which would surely lessen the dramatic impact. The ending just needs to show the two men subtly remembering each other from their past memories and feelings.

The relation between the two main characters Let me talk about the development of the relation between my character and Zhang Fengyi’s character, especially Dieyi’s changing feelings towards his stage brother. It begins with Dieyi’s admiration for Xiaolou. Then, when Xiaolou falls for Juxian, Dieyi still stubbornly continues to be in love with his stage brother until the end, when Dieyi has grown old and nothing is the same, including his love for Xiaolou. That’s why I think three things cause Dieyi’s death. First, it’s his stubbornness and his wish to die before the king. In the 118

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story, Dieyi is actually Concubine Yu, and their fates mirror each other’s. The world no longer has any use for the “king” so “she,” who acts opposite him, also cannot continue her role. The only thing left to do is to die in front of him. Second, Dieyi wants his suicide to fulfill the narrative of the story. Dieyi is someone who has aspirations. He loves the passion and vivaciousness of performing live on stage. Also, it is only on stage that his wish of becoming a couple with his stage brother can be truly fulfilled. The stage is where Dieyi can realize his dreams. So when he discovers that in real life he and his stage brother no longer share that intimate feeling they used to have, he would rather end his life on stage as Concubine Yu and perform “Farewell My Concubine” for real. Third, Dieyi cannot accept becoming old. He used to be so beautiful and was adored by everyone. He can only choose to die now all that is over. We can see that the feelings between the two main characters really cannot be separated from their fates in the source material. The film’s ending, which returns the narrative to the source, is the only logical and dramatically plausible treatment. Also, it is not in Dieyi’s nature to accept this state of affairs: the world has no use for the “king” anymore; for her to lose her beauty while hanging on to what’s left of their relationship would be intolerable. In real life, Dieyi is someone who refuses to be disciplined. Because of that, “she” cannot accept the sordid state of this reality. Furthermore, from our understanding of Cheng Dieyi as 119

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a performer of “Farewell My Concubine,” she is a “woman” with a dream, with tremendous passion for the stage. Only on stage can “she” have the most authentic life. So, letting her die on stage would indeed be the best dramatic resolution! In the novel, Lillian Lee’s handling of, and attitude towards, homosexuality are more explicit, accepting, and natural. In Chen Kaige’s film, we find, to a great extent, a ­“homophobic consciousness” that prevents a gay subject from achieving agency and independent choice.

Treatment of homosexuality Perhaps I really did subvert the film’s interpretation! Regarding homosexuality, I feel that director Chen’s visual representation of the theme is excessively restrained. Admittedly, within the PRC, such themes need to be handled with great sensitivity. Chen had reasons to be evasive! I can understand that. Also, Chen had to consider many other factors, including his own experience while growing up. That history contributed to many of his choices in the film. In addition, Chen had to consider whether the film would find distributors or even be allowed to be shown. Many of you know that political censorship in the PRC is very strict, and many films do not pass the censors. Farewell dealt with very sensitive issues and was thus also banned. Even after the film won the Palme d’Or and the Golden Horse in Taiwan, it remained banned in Mainland China. Yet, if we look at 120

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the development of Beijing Opera and its specific context, we will find that the “husbands and wives” on stage are all men. It’s natural and human that special feelings between men would develop in that context. However, Chen’s film never explicitly represents the actual feelings between the men. It uses Gong Li’s character (Juxian) to balance the same-sex relation in the plot. This elevates Gong Li’s role in the film. As an actor, I could only do my part to play Dieyi’s role as best as I can. I used my eye expressions and body language to communicate to the audience his unflinching and insistent same-sex love. At the same time, I still had to consider how to balance the director’s evasive treatment of the theme. Zhang Fengyi’s attitude towards interpreting homosexuality was also very evasive. For example, in a scene when we had to embrace each other around the waist, he was so nervous he was trembling! Personally, when I accept a role, I need to be psychologically prepared beforehand so I can be completely immersed in the role during production. Actually, when Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) was making a TV version of the novel, I was invited to play the role of Cheng Dieyi. I considered the part for a long time and then decided not to accept. Many years later, I was able to accept the same role in the film. By then I could completely release myself. I was able to totally abandon myself to the role, and to create a life for 121

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the character I was playing. In this way, an actor can shuttle between different lives, and let his roles come to life vividly. In my view, if the film Farewell My Concubine can come closer to the original novel in giving a fuller depiction of homosexuality, it would have been a greater achievement than other films dealing with a similar subject matter, like my later film Happy Together. In my process of interpreting a character, basically I do not allow myself to be restrained by the original material. I think an actor should have an openness, and a film can achieve independence from its source. Only through this openness can an actor give a character an entirely different life! Transcribed by Chan Lo-ming and Wong Yan-ping. Edited by Lu Wei-luan and Hung Chi-kum. Translated by Helen Hok-Sze Leung.



Berry, Chris. 1993. Farewell my concubine: At what price success? Cinemaya 20:20–22. Braester, Yomi. 2003. National myth and personal memories. In Chinese films in focus: 25 new takes, ed. Chris Berry, 89–96. London: British Film Institute. Chan, Natalia. 2008. Butterfly of forbidden colors: The artistic image of Leslie Cheung. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing. Chen Kaige. 1993. Interview by Peggy Chiao and Lawrence Chua. Bomb Magazine 45. http://bombsite.com/issues/45/articles/1698. Cheung, Leslie. 2007. Ruhe yanyi Li Bihua xiaoshuo zhong de renwu [How to interpret characters from Lillian Lee's fiction]. In Wenxue yu yingxiang bidu [Literature and image: A comparison], eds. Lu Weiluan and Hong Zhiqin, 10–28. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing. Chu, Wei-cheng. 1994. Shi diren haishi tongzhi? Yetan Bawang bieji [Enemy or comrade: Also on Farewell my concubine]. Dangdai (Contemporary) 100:142–49. Corliss, Richard. 2001. Forever Leslie. Time Asia. http://www.time.com/ time/arts/article/0,8599,108021,00.html. Donald, Stephanie. 1997. Landscape and agency: Yellow earth and Demon lover. Theory, Culture and Society 14.1:97–112. Doyle, Christopher. 1997. Don’t try for me Argentina: Photographic journal of “Happy together.” Hong Kong: City Entertainment. Elley, Derek. 2009. Forever enthralled. Variety. http://www.variety.com/ review/VE1117939312.html?categoryid=31&cs=1.


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Hinton, Carma and Richard Gordon. 2003. Morning sun. San Francisco, Independent Television Service and Center for Asian American Media. VHS. Kang, Wenqing. 2009. Obsession: Male same-sex relations in China, 1900– 1950. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. Kaplan, E. Ann. 1997. Reading formations and Chen Kaige’s Farewell my concubine. In Transnational Chinese cinema: Identity, nationhood, gender, ed. Sheldon H. Lu, 265–75. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. Kim, David D.  1993. The next generation. Village Voice, Nov 2, 68–69. Kwan, Stanley. 1996. Yang ± yin: Gender in Chinese cinema. London: British Film Institute. VHS. Lau, Jenny Kwok Wah. 1995. Farewell my concubine: History, melodrama, and ideology in contemporary Pan-Chinese cinema. Film Quarterly 69.1:16–27. Law, Alex. 1981. Xianggang Xianggang: Bawang bieji [Hong Kong, Hong Kong: Farewell my concubine]. Hong Kong: Radio Television Hong Kong. http://www.rthk.org.hk/classicschannel/video/80s_0003.asx Lee, Lillian. 1992. Bawang bieji [Farewell my concubine]. Taipei: Crown Publishing. ———. 2003. Xuesi yanzhi ran Dieyi [Blood stain like rouge on Dieyi]. Next Media, April 10. http://lesliecheung.cc/memories/leepikwah.htm. Leung Ping-kwan. 1995. Hong Kong culture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Arts Centre. Leung, Helen Hok-Sze. 2008. Undercurrents: Queer culture and postcolonial Hong Kong. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. Li Siu Leung. 2003. Cross-dressing in Chinese opera. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.


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———. 1997. Bianyuan xieru zhongxin: Li Bihua de gushi xinbian [Writing the margin into the centre: Lillian Lee's revised fiction]. In Fouxiang Xianggang: Lishi, wenhua, weilai [Unthinking Hong Kong: History, culture, future], eds. Li Siu-Leung, Wang Hongzhi, and Stephen Chan, 209–40. Taipei: Rye Field Publishing. Lim Song Hwee. 2006. Celluloid comrades: Representations of male homosexuality in contemporary Chinese cinemas. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. Lin Yu-Sheng. 1979. Crisis of Chinese consciousness: Radical antitraditionalism in the May Fourth era. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Martin, Fran. 2003. Situating sexualities: Queer representations in Taiwanese fiction, film, and public culture. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press. McDougall, Bonnie S. 1994. Cross-dressing and the disappearing woman in modern Chinese fiction, drama and film: Reflections on Chen Kaige’s Farewell my concubine. China Information 8.4:42–51. Meisner, Maurice. 2007. Mao Zedong: A political and intellectual portrait. Cambridge: Polity Press. Rayns, Tony. 1994. Nights at the opera. Sight and Sound 4.1:41–42. Shu Kei. 1993. Letter to Chen Kaige. Cinemaya 20:18–20. Silvio, Teri. 2002. Chinese opera, global cinema, and the ontology of the person. In Between opera and cinema, eds. Jeongwon Joe and Rose Theresa, 177–97. New York: Routledge. Somatechnics Research Centre, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. http://www.somatechnics.mq.edu.au/ Song Xiaocun. 2004. Tiantang leng ma? [Are the heavens cold?]. In The one and only … Leslie Cheung, edited by Leslie Cheung Cyberworld, 68–69. Hong Kong: City Entertainment.


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Stryker, Susan. 2006a. (De)Subjugated knowledges: An introduction to transgender studies. In The transgender studies reader, eds. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 1–17. New York and London: Routledge. ———. 2006b. My words to Victor Frankenstein above the village of Charmounix: Performing transgender rage. In The transgender studies reader, eds. Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, 244–56. New York and London: Routledge. Stryker, Susan, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore. 2008. Introduction: Trans-, trans, or transgender. Women’s Studies Quarterly 36.3–4:11–22. Sullivan, Nikki. 2006. “Transmogrification: (Un)becoming other(s).” In The transgender studies reader, 552–64. New York and London: Routledge. Wu Cun Cun and Mark Stevenson. 2006. Male love lost: The fate of male same-sex prostitution in Beijing in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Embodied modernities: Corporeality, representation, and Chinese cultures, 42–59. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. Yau, Esther. 1989. Yellow earth: Western analysis and a non-western text. Wide Angle 11.2:22–33. Zhang Manling. 2004. Wo xinteng ta, zhengde xinteng ta [I hurt for him, really hurt for him]. In The one and only … Leslie Cheung, ed. Leslie Cheung Cyberworld, 64–65. Hong Kong: City Entertainment. Zou, John. 2006. Cross-dressed nation: Mei Lanfang and the clothing of modern Chinese men. In Embodied modernities: Corporeality, representation, and Chinese cultures, eds. Fran Martin and Larissa Heinrich, 79–97. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.



Note: Page numbers for photographs in bold. Film character names in quotation marks, e.g., “Cheng Dieyi,” “Duan Xiaolou.”

Aoki, 58, 59, 65 awards and honors for Farewell My Concubine, 44

“Concubine Yu,” 21–23, 30–33, 54, 69–70; played by Leslie Cheung, 42–44, 106–07, 107, 111–15, 114, 118–20; sexuality and gender, 46–47, 83–88, 89–95, 98; youth, 54–55, 56, 57, 66–69, 98. See also xiangong; dan actors Cheung, Leslie, 32, 106–15; as “Cheng Dieyi,” 42–44, 107, 109, 111–15, 114; on “Dieyi” and “Xiaolou,” 118–20; on homosexuality in Farewell, 120–22; on the film’s ending, 117–18; sexuality, 108–11 Chu Wei-cheng, 46 “Concubine Yu,” 23–24; played by “Cheng Dieyi,” 21–23, 30–33, 54, 69–70; played by Mei Lanfang, 25–26; suicide, 21, 24–26, 30–33, 52 Corliss, Richard, 110 costume, 74–81. See also theatrical objects

Beijing Opera, 22, 49, 61, 78, 88–89, 94, 97–100, 104; during Cultural Revolution, 35, 65, 81, 105; transgender practices in, 35, 94–106. See also dan actors; xianggong Berry, Chris, 46 Big Parade, The, 37, 51 Braester, Yomi, 66 cape, 68–69, 68, 79. See also theatrical objects Chan, Natalia, 112–13 Chen Kaige as member of the Fifth Generation, 33–34, 37–39; as Red Guard, 36; casting of Farewell, 42–44; during Cultural Revolution, 37; in New York, 38 “Cheng Dieyi,” 15–17, 22, 52, 58–62, 67, 71–73, 73, 76, 78, 79–81, 80, 87, 99, 100, 107; as

Cultural Revolution, 15, 29, 31,


Queer Film Classics 34–37, 52–54, 62–65, 63, 86–87, 105. See also struggle sessions

Jiang Qing, 35, 52 “Juxian,” 15–16, 42, 43, 46, 63, 68, 68–69, 71–73, 91, 121; as played by Gong Li, 42, 121

dan actors, 15, 25, 47, 54–55, 58, 88–89, 97–98, 102–04, 109. See also Beijing Opera, transgender practices in; xianggong Deng Ziaoping, 39 “Dieyi.” See “Cheng Dieyi” Donald, Stephanie, 38 Doyle, Christopher, 109 “Duan Xiaolou,” 15–17, 52, 72, 76, 86–87, 87, 92–93, 94, 106, 118–20; arrest and blackmail, 58–60; as “King Xiang Yu,” 29–33, 69, 103; during Cultural Revolution, 29, 53–54, 61–63, 71–73, 77, 86–88; old age, 30–31, 117–18; youth, 54, 56, 90–91

Kang, Wenqing, 35, 88–89, 93 Kaplan, E. Ann, 45 Kim, David D., 84 King of the Children, 37 “King Xiang Yu of Chu,” 23–25; played by “Duan Xiaolou,” 29–33, 69 Kwan, Stanley, 38, 42, 83, 87 Lau, Jenny Kwok Wah, 41 Law, Alex, 28 Lee, Lillian, 27–29, 32–33, 113–14. See also Farewell My Concubine (novel) Leung Ping-kwan, 45 Li, Gong (as Juxian), 42, 43 Lim, Song Hwee, 33, 44, 47, 85, 95 Lin Yu-Sheng, 75 Liu Bang of Han, 23–24 Lone, John, 43–44

Elley, Derek, 77 Farewell My Concubine (novel and screenplays), 27–33. See also Lee, Lillian Fifth Generation (Chinese filmmakers), 33–34, 37–39 film coproduction in China, 40–41

Madame Mao. See Jiang Qing Mao Zedong, 16, 34–38 Martin, Fran, 110 “Master Yuan,” 15–16, 55–58, 57, 58, 61–62, 62, 69–70, 91–93, 103, 105 “Master Zhang,” 54–55, 69, 89–90 McDougall, Bonnie S., 45–46

Hinton, Carma, 36 homosexuality in China, 83, 85–94, 120–22. See also xianggong; dan actors


Farewell My Concubine Mei Lanfang, 25–26, 77–79, 81, 104–05 Meisner, Maurice, 35–36 memory and mirroring, 49–50, 56–58, 64, 66–69, 74, 104–05, 119

theater, 49–51, 53–55, 58, 60–63, 66. See also spaciality, theatrical objects, 50, 66–74. See also cape; costume; sword Tiananmen Square massacre, 39, 53 transgender practices, 96–97, 100–02. See also Nikki Sullivan; in Beijing Opera, 94–106. See also xianggong; dan actors

opera. See Beijing Opera props. See theatrical objects Rayns, Tony, 45, 46 reviews and critiques of Farewell, 45–47, 84–85

Wu Cun Cun, 55, 88, 91, 94, 97, 103 xianggong, 88–94, 103–04. See also dan actors; Beijing Opera, transgender practices in “Xiao Douzi.” See “Cheng Dieyi” “Xiao Shitou.” See “Duan Xiaolou” “Xiao Si’er,” 15–16, 53, 63–65, 64 “Xiaolou.” See “Duan Xiaolou”

Shu Kei, 46 Silvio, Teri, 46, 85 Sixth Generation filmmakers (China), 39 somatechnics, 96. See also Susan Stryker Song Xiaocun, 112 spaciality, 50–62. See also theater Stevenson, Mark, 55, 88, 91, 94, 97, 103 struggle sessions, 16, 62–63, 72–73, 86, 105. See also Cultural Revolution Stryker, Susan, 95–96, 105. See also somatechnics Sullivan, Nikki, 96–97, 100–02. See also transgender practices sword, 25, 26, 70, 72, 69–74, 79. See also theatrical objects

Yau, Esther, 38 Yellow Earth 35, 50–51 “Yu.” See “Concubine Yu”; “King Xiang Yu” Zhang Fengyi, 118, 121 Zhang Manling, 112 Zou, John, 26, 35, 77–78, 104–05


Helen Hok-Sze Leung is an Associate Professor in Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, Canada. She has published widely on queer cinema and is the author of Undercurrents: Queer Culture and Postcolonial Hong Kong (UBC Press, 2008).

About the editors Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based critic, author, programmer and university instructor. He has been a film critic and reporter for the weekly Montreal Mirror since 1993. His first book, The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp Press), won a 2008 Lambda Literary Award. His articles have appeared in a broad range of publications, including The Guardian, The Daily Beast, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, CBC Arts Online, The Walrus, The Advocate, The Toronto Star, The International Herald Tribune, Cineaste, Cineaction, The Hollywood Reporter, Canadian Screenwriter, Xtra and fab. He teaches courses in journalism, communication studies, and film studies at Concordia University, where he received his MA in communication studies in 2000. Thomas Waugh is the award-winning author of numerous books, including five for Arsenal Pulp Press: Out/Lines, Lust Unearthed, Gay Art: A Historic Collection (with Felix Lance Falkon), Comin’ at Ya! (with David Chapman), and Montreal Main: A Queer Film Classic (with Jason Garrison). His other books include Hard to Imagine, The Fruit Machine, and The Romance of Transgression in Canada. He teaches film studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, where he lives. He has taught and published widely on political discourses and sexual representation in film and video, on queer film and video, and has developed interdisciplinary research and teaching on AIDS. He is also the founder and coordinator of the program in Interdisciplinary Studies in Sexuality at Concordia.

Titles in the Queer Film Classics series: Arabian Nights by Michael Moon (2014) Before Stonewall/After Stonewall by Ross Higgins (2013) C.R.A.Z.Y. by Robert Schwartzwald (2014) Farewell My Concubine by Helen Hok-Sze Leung (2010) Female Trouble by Chris Holmlund (2012) Fire by Shohini Ghosh (2010) Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives by Gerda Cammaer and Jean Bruce (2015) Gods and Monsters by Noah Tsika (2009) I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing by Julia Mendenhall (2014) Law of Desire by José Quiroga (2009) L.A. Plays Itself by Cindy Patton (2013) Ma vie en rose by Chantal Nadeau (2012) Manila by Night by Joel David (2015) Montreal Main by Thomas Waugh and Jason Garrison (2010) Paris Is Burning by Lucas Hilderbrand (2012) Scorpio Rising by Robert Cagle (2015) Strangers on a Train by Jonathan Goldberg (2013) Trash by Jon Davies (2009) Visconti/Venice: Senso and Death in Venice by Will Aitken (2011) Word Is Out by Greg Youmans (2011) Zero Patience by Wendy G. Pearson (2011)