The art of the Peking Opera is a specific phenomenon in the Chinese culture which combines several different arts as one whole. This traditional theatre which was founded in the 18th century is based on dancing, singing, fighting, and the creative music performance. Thus, the performers who develop various mythical and usual everyday plots are the main figures in this theatre in comparison with the role of writers and directors in creating the performance (Wichmann, 1990).
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In spite of the fact the history of China is full of different dramatic events which changed the social and cultural life of the Chinese people greatly, the main aspects of the Peking Opera remained unchanged, and this unique cultural phenomenon survived in the context of the significant revolutionary changes. The history of the Peking Opera is a vivid background for the development of the plot of the Chinese drama movie Farewell My Concubine which was directed by Chen Kaige and presented in 1993.
The main characters of the movie are the Peking Opera’s stars, and all the events are presented in the context of the Opera. Thus, the peculiarities of the Peking Opera are discussed not only as the part of the Chinese cultural life but also as the reflection of the definite life ideology according to which all the people are the actors and the life is a greatly performed drama.
In his Farewell My Concubine, Chen Kaige concentrates on several topics and ideas. However, to understand the complexity of the director’s vision of the movie as a piece of art, it is necessary to focus on the role of the Peking Opera for the development of the main idea in the movie and on the interdependence of the main characters’ living their life with their acting.
Dieyi and Xiaolou are the performers of the Peking Opera troupe who spend all their life studying and acting in the Opera. Thus, the performances in the Opera are the ordinary part of their everyday life because they do not know the other way of living.
In spite of the fact Chen Kaige presents a wide retrospective of the Chinese history during the period between 1925 and 1977 years, and the characters become the witnesses of such great events as the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, the Chinese civil war, the Communist regime, and the Cultural Revolution, the main accent is made on the Peking Opera as the arena of the major events in the movie and as the symbolical representation of the image of the Dieyi and Xiaolou’s life (Farewell My Concubine, 1993).
However, why does the director pay so much attention to the Peking Opera with depicting it as one more significant element of the plot? The answer to this question is closely associated with the role of theatres in the Chinese people’s lives. Combining the aspects of the historical context, social activity, and cultural development, theatres became the “spaces of social liberation and gender experimentation and sites over which various social fractions…competed for control, while drama as a medium of cultural communication came to be seen as crucial to shaping citizens’ political attitudes and social behavior” (Goldstein, 2007, p. 8).
Thus, the idea of the theatre performance contributed not only to the public’s cultural enlightening and entertainment but also to forming their definite social and political visions. That is why the destinies of Dieyi and Xiaolou are discussed in the context of their working at the Peking Opera where they had the opportunity to experience all the aspects of the life while performing at stage.
The love story which is depicted as a triangle between Dieyi, Xiaolou, and Juxian develops according to the theatrical traditions where all the feelings and emotions of the performers are exaggerated. Thus, Dieyi and Xiaolou are famous for their roles in the traditional Chinese opera about the king and his concubine. Moreover, the distribution of the roles and female and masculine features between the performers and their attitude to the roles are also reflected in their personal life and relations.
The gender shift which is characterized for the Chinese theatres influences the changes in the gender roles and determining the characters’ sexuality in the real life. From this point, the image of the Peking Opera can be discussed as the symbol of the people’s life in which individuals are inclined to play their roles. However, the real life has few similarities with the vivid performances of the Opera, and it is even brutal sometimes.
The tragedy in the theatre is always a kind of the highly emotional and impressive performance, and Chen Kaige depicts the most brutal and rather tragic moments of the everyday life with several emphatic details as it is in the scene when Dieyi’s mother chops off his son extra finger in order he could be accepted to the opera school (Farewell My Concubine, 1993).
Moreover, the scenes of the boys’ studying at school, with accentuating those difficulties which they experienced there, are changed with the scenes of the bright and impressive performances in the Peking Opera which can be discussed as the artificial picture which is used to hide the reality.
The cultural heritage of the Peking Opera’s tradition is presented in each detail depicted in the movie and even in the artistic manner to represent the events and situations provided by the director. Contrasting the events in the Peking Opera with the historical context, Chen Kaige also uses the contrasts to create the vivid movie picture.
Presenting the chaos of the historical background and analyzing the main characters’ obscure intentions and desires, the director looks at the picture through the smoke and mist in order to present his vision of this or that image to the audience. The most important moments connected with the aspects of the personal relations are also seem to be accentuated as the performers’ traits and gestures which are emphasized in the Peking Opera.
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It is an important historical fact that such a unique and specific cultural phenomenon as the Peking Opera was adopted by the Communist authorities and continued to develop in spite of the various examples when the other elements of the Chinese traditions were forbidden or changed according to the new political and social tendencies (Wichmann, 1990). Thus, Chen Kaige prefers to portray the Opera as the extraordinary world which is full of its peculiarities.
That is why the main characters’ perception of the key historical events and changes is affected by the impact of the Peking Opera’s atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is impossible to say that the director avoids depicting the characteristic features of the period discussed in the movie with concentrating on the peculiarities of the theatre life.
The viewers have the great opportunity to observe the peculiar features of the relations between people who follow different political views, the specific behavior of the revolutionaries, the considerations of those friends and lovers who are confused by their strange and chaotic relationships.
Thus, the historical processes affect the personal behavior in China, but Chen Kaige shifts the accents from depicting the story from the historical context to the cultural prism of the Peking Opera’s atmosphere which seems to be so close and so distant from any political and social revolutions.
Chen Kaige presents the reflection of the social and political events at stage while concentrating on the actors’ emotions and inner attitudes to the changes. The author also accentuates that in spite of the illusion of the theatre, it is impossible to be indifferent to those situations and events which are round the person.
It is possible to discuss Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) from several positions and points of view. Nevertheless, the director himself concentrated on combining his vision of the historical background of the described events with the history of the Peking Opera which is presented in the movie in each detail and can be perceived as the symbolic representation of the real life which is full of emotions, passions, and tragedies.
The main characters of Farewell My Concubine try to find the right ways in their lives with the help of following the principles of the theatre because their living is a constant vivid and emotional performance. Farewell My Concubine is a multidimensional movie which can be analyzed according to its various levels in different ways and with references to the position of the director as an artist or with accentuating the audience’s position.
Farewell My Concubine [Video file] (1993). Web.
Goldstein, J. (2007). Drama kings: Players and publics in the re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870-1937. USA: University of California Press.
Wichmann, E. (1990). Tradition and innovation in contemporary Beijing Opera performance. TDR, 34(1), 146–178.