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Farewell My Concubine is a strikingly beautiful tale about love and betrayal, of not only individuals but also a country and its culture. The story spans fifty years, as Chinas turbulent history is the counterpart and contributing factor to the relationships between two young opera stars and a prostitute who changes her life and gets herself involved in a complicated triangle of love and betrayal. The times of the Cultural Revolution in China puts pressure on the opera stars and of course forces them to abandon their one and only passion acting. Douzi, one of the famous actors to-be, has a hard time adjusting to school life after his mother who couldn t afford to keep him anymore abandons him at the acting academy. The tough tyrant of the academy, Master Guan and the other boys ridicule Douzi because of his prostitute mother. He does, however, find comfort with a tough yet kind student, Shitou.
This is the beginning of a special and very close relationship that both Douzi and Shitou will endure for the rest of their careers as actors and life. In the Beijing Opera, actors are trained in certain types of roles, in which they specialize for life. Douzi, with a natural feminine beauty, is trained for female roles, while Shitou is given masculine military parts. Douzi, however, has difficulty accepting his role as a woman, but eventually does so for he does not want to disappoint his fellow students. Douzi, a confused, pained, and jealous man who cannot distinguish between male or female, reality and dream.
He is doomed to fail the one thing he wants: Duan's love. His movements, both on-and offstage, are careful and precise, much like a womans. At times, in fact, it is hard to believe he is a man. Both boys go through many years of hardship and torturous beatings at the academy, but they so badly wanted to be great, well-known actors, they kept up and endured the pain until finally they became what they wanted. As famous stars known to all, they changed their real names to names they use because of their status.
Douzi is now called Cheng Dieyi and Shitou is now called Duan Xiaolou. As professional, great actors, they were famous for their performance of Farewell My Concubine. Sadly, the story is all too true in the actor s own, non-fictional lives. For Cheng (Douzi), their stage relationship crosses over to real life. He is in love with Duan (Shitou) and believes him to be his king. As in the opera, Cheng vows to stay loyal forever.
His heart is broken, however, when Duan announces his engagement to a beautiful prostitute, Juxian. Crushed, Cheng announces that he will never sing with Duan again, then begins an illicit affair with Master Yuan, who becomes his supporter and lover. Deep down inside, both actors still want to act and have a strong relationship, but Cheng thought that Duan would never break away from always being with him. At first he couldn t handle it and was absolutely devastated. This definitely wasn t a good way for Juxian and Cheng to become close because of the tension in the air caused by Juxian and Duan becoming engaged. Cheng was left in the dust because Juxian and Duan loved each other and Cheng loved Duan.
Duan eventually started to break away from Cheng and the time he did spend with him was in the opera and acting. At the same time, the political tension in the city of Beijing was getting fiercer with the occupation of the Japanese in 1937 and before that, the Civil War between the Nationalists and Communists. One rainy night, Cheng was walking to his quarters in the Opera Academy and he found an abandoned baby, who would later also become a famous actor. His name, Xiao Si, showed himself to be an important figure in the theme of love and betrayal. Even the opera itself is changed to agree with the new ideology.
Xiao Si and Cheng are at odds in their political and acting views. On one night of performing, Cheng is replaced by Xiao Si to play the role of the concubine. Duan, not wanting to be politically persecuted, decides to go on regardless of who his concubine partner is. Cheng is once again left heartbroken and Duan makes the decisions for his own benefit, not keeping interests of others in mind. Japanese troops forced the two aspiring actors to perform for them, which would later get them into a horrendous amount of trouble for accusations of being traitors to the Chinese. Duan Xiaolou was forced to take sides with the Communists, because all he cared about was his own survival.
The relationships between him and Juxian and Dieyi seemed less important to him than his own survival. Cheng Dieyi was the only person throughout the story who actually stayed true to his profession. His famous quote throughout the play he performed goes: I am by nature a boy not a girl Although he was forced to change his ways and tell himself that he is a girl and not a boy, just to please his friends and master. Growing up with the constant pressure of everyone telling him that he was a girl and is conditioned to live as a girl in order to perfect his role. This would explain his very intimate love affairs with men and his longing for Duan Xiaolou as a life partner. By the time the Cultural Revolution was upon them, they were already devastated from losses they had endured and tried to cope with.
The Chinese Communists had accused them of not being loyal to the government and taking sides with the Japanese. Duan and Cheng are persecuted nevertheless in 1966 when the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution arrives. Under pressure from a wild mob, Duan betrays Cheng by revealing his homosexual crimes. Cheng responds by telling them about Juxian's prostitution past. To save himself, Duan declares that he is leaving her, and never had any love for her in the first place. Betrayed, Juxian then kills herself.
Finally, the story returns to the opening court scene, where Cheng performs Farewell My Concubine one last time with Duan then kills himself with the sword that has been in so many hands throughout the story. Duan stands contemplating above Cheng s dead body. The utmost theme again, is love and betrayal between the once closely bonded characters.
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