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Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine was created to criticize the abuses made by China’s communist regime. It does not require great talent to create a movie that talks about the flaws of the Chinese Communist Party and the failure of the Cultural Revolution.
However, if the goal is to persuade influential people all over the world, it is prudent to develop a film that is acceptable to the taste of ordinary moviegoers. Chen Kaige solved this problem by developing characters transformed by their personal interpretation of fate and personal responsibility. He developed a film with this attributes and he also utilized the events of 20th century China as an effective backdrop for the film (Schultz 61).
Fate versus Personal Responsibility
According to an extensive study of Chinese culture and history, the concept of fate is an important part of the people’s identity and value system. One can trace the emergence of the concept in the time of classical Chinese scholars. They made the proposition that the events and circumstances in a person’s life are the byproducts of the decree or Mandate of Heaven (Perkins 145).
From the point of view of ancient Chinese philosophers, the Mandate of Heaven is the impersonal power that governs all created things (Perkins 145). According to this particular philosophical framework, the Chinese people have a moral duty to place themselves in harmony with the will of Heaven (Perkins 145).
In order to create a story that the audience can understand and appreciate, Kaige allowed a conflict to arise between the principal characters in the movie. The conflict was due to their interpretation of fate and personal responsibility. Duan Xiaolou represented the people who placed their destiny in the hands of fate.
Mr. Duan believed that human beings were powerless against the Mandate of Heaven. He also believed that it was the personal responsibility of individuals to harmonize their actions in accordance to fate. On the other hand, Cheng Dieyi believed that fate was the byproduct of personal actions. Therefore, in Mr. Cheng’s belief system, it was the personal responsibility of the individual to take the necessary steps in order to bring himself in harmony to the Mandate of Heaven.
Duan Xiaolou and Cheng Dieyi’s belief systems were shaped by the circumstances of their early lives. A pivotal moment in Duan Xiaolou’s life occurred when he attempted to change the circumstances that surrounded his life. When he was a young boy he tried to escape the oppressive life of a trainee in a theater company.
He found his chance when the opera troupe performed in public. However, when he darted towards the fences to initiate his escape plan, the social forces around him collapsed upon the group, and he felt the iron grip of fate around his neck. He acknowledged the fact that there was no way out. It was the era of the warlords in China’s history, and the country was under the control of unscrupulous men.
Cheng Dieyi realized at an early age that the Mandate of Heaven was something that was never set in stone. In other words, human beings have the power to change their destiny. This realization came to him when he was presented to the owner of the Opera house. His mother pleaded with the businessman in front of her, because she was a prostitute and had no capability to raise a child in a brothel. She knew that she cannot keep a growing boy inside the whorehouse.
Therefore, she made great effort to give up the child for adoption. However, her desperate cries fell on deaf ears. The owner of the Opera house was sympathetic. Nevertheless, he pointed out the genetic abnormality that effectively destroyed the chances of the young Cheng Dieyi to become a candidate for the Opera troupe.
The extra finger in his hand was the irrefutable proof that the Mandate of Heaven had spoken. However, Cheng Dieyi’s mother refused to believe that she did not have the power to save the boy’s life. She took matters into her own hands, and with a sharp knife sliced off the obstacle that stood between Cheng Dieyi and the theater’s apprenticeship program. As a consequence of that decisive action, Cheng Dieyi was convinced that he was the captain of his soul.
Reactive versus Proactive Actions
Chen Kaige shot numerous scenes to highlight and contrast the impact of fate and personal responsibility. In a pivotal moment in the lives of the two main characters Dieyi decided to escape. Xiaolou followed in hot pursuit not to join him, but to enforce the idea that it was their fate to stay within the confines of the Opera house.
Once Xiaolou accepted the Mandate of Heaven he reacted to every event on the basis of his perceived role. However, Dieyi believed that he can transform his life and his environment. In essence he was correct, because the few hours spent outside the training ground gave him a glimpse of a superstar’s life, and this vision inspired him to become one of the greatest actors in Beijing.
In another scene, Xiaolou and Dieyi discovered an abandoned baby in the city’s public square. The advisers made it clear that it was the baby’s fate to die. However, Dieyi made a counter-argument, and he brought the baby home. Later in his life he realized that his problems were never the outcome of a cosmic action. Dieyi suffered as a consequence of helping a baby.
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Xiaolou’s belief system made him accept his fate when the Chinese Cultural Revolution was in full swing. He came to the conclusion that it was the Mandate of Heaven. As a result, he never saw the evil face of the communist regime. In addition, Xiaolou was merely reacting to the social forces that were swirling around him. When he was brought into a quasi-court system, Xiaolou betrayed his friend and lover. Xiaolou made the decision that he was powerless to stop the Mandate of Heaven..
Xiaolou made the realization that in order to survive he needed to adapt to the changing circumstances around him. However, Dieyi was convinced that it was not fate that paved the way for the senseless massacre of artists and intellectuals of Old China. He believed that they died because of the decisions that they made in the past.
As a result, Xiaolou blamed others for his fate, while Dieyi took personal responsibility for the consequences of his actions. In an emotional scene wherein the main characters took off their masks in public, Dieyi spoke against the communists, and he said that the failure of the Chinese people was not due to the Mandate of Heaven. Dieyi remarked that they reaped the fruits of their labor and the inevitable outcome of the sins that they committed in the past.
Chen Kaige’s Farewell, My Concubine resonated in the hearts and minds of audiences around the world, because he tackled an age old dilemma with regards to the tension between fate and personal responsibility. It was also a clever ploy, because he was able to develop a subtle way of conveying a personal message, which was a negative criticism to the abuses made by the communist regime in China.
The tension between the Mandate of Heaven versus personal responsibility also explained the gradual transformation of China. Those who believed in fate were powerless to speak out against the injustices and grave abuses that were committed around them. The misguided belief in the Mandate of Heaven did not produce outstanding citizens; on the contrary it produced opportunistic people that did not have the moral courage to speak out against evil.
Perkins, Dorothy. Encyclopedia of China: History and Culture. New York: Springer, 2013. Print.
Schultz, Deanne. Filmography of World History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007. Print.