Farewell My Concubine: A Novel

Farewell My Concubine: A Novel

by Lilian Lee, Lilian Lee, Bihua Li

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Beginning amid the decadent glamour of China in the 1930s and ending in the 1980s in Hong Kong, this brilliant novel, which formed the basis for the award-winning movie, is the passionate story of an opera student who falls in love with his best friend, and the beautiful woman who comes between them.  See more details below


Beginning amid the decadent glamour of China in the 1930s and ending in the 1980s in Hong Kong, this brilliant novel, which formed the basis for the award-winning movie, is the passionate story of an opera student who falls in love with his best friend, and the beautiful woman who comes between them.

Editorial Reviews

Seattle Herald
Remains endearing and sensitive in its portrayal of the delicate relationships of the protagonists while scathingly indicting the revolution and its effect on the art and culture of China.... A refreshing divergence from the often redundant offerings in the world of Western literature.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The film version of this novel, which created a furor at this year's Cannes Film Festival, might well be more satisfying than the novel itself, which has both an irresistible setting and a smart plot crying for more heartfelt emotion than the wooden reactions Lee has given to her characters. The title comes from the name of a Peking Opera classic that is also the preferred showpiece of Duan Xiaolou and Cheng Dieyi, two actors who have been together since they started as young boys under the same strict master. Xiaolou becomes a sheng , playing generals and other male leads, while Dieyi becomes a dan , playing his consort, concubine and other female leads in the all-male Peking Opera. Completely immersed in his role, Dieyi falls in love with his ``general.'' Much to his chagrin, Xiaolou prefers a common prostitute. Alternately feted and despised, the two friends weather the vicissitudes of the nationalists, the Japanese occupation, early communism and final humiliation at the hands of the Cultural Revolution. The author of The Last Princess of Manchuria has tailored an intricate brocade gown, but has neglected to put a body inside it. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Prolific Hong Kong writer Lee ( The Last Princess of Manchuria , LJ 7/92) sets an intricate love triangle against the backdrop of China during the warlord period, the Japanese occupation, the Communist victory, and the Cultural Revolution. Singers Duan Xiaolou and Cheng Dieyi grow up together and come to play leading roles at the Peking Opera; their bravura performance is Farewell to My Concubine , in which the devoted mistress of a general kills herself rather than face her man's defeat. Cheng incarnates female roles so totally that he falls passionately in love with Duan, who feels only brotherly affection for his stage partner and marries a beautiful courtesan. The obsessive Cheng tries repeatedly to undermine the marriage. Unlike most Chinese fiction, this novel seamlessly integrates the personal and the social; its riveting drama of a menage a trois also reveals the burden of recent Chinese history. For most collections.-- Cherry W. Li, Univ. of Southern California Lib., Los Angeles

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.61(d)

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Chapter One

Prostitutes have no heart; actors have no morals. So people say. A prostitute has to make her living by putting on a show of feeling in bed; an actor may be the embodiment of virtue and integrity as he struts upon the stage. He may be an emperor, a statesman, or a great general. The stage is populated by brilliant young scholars and beautiful ladies whose exalted passions are more vivid than the drab colors of our workaday existence. Compared to their stories, everyday life is like the plain and pale face of an actor stripped of his makeup.

Without a stage to prop him up, the actor is just an ordinary man, with an unmemorable face and unfulfilled expectations. His strength and power come from artifice-he relies on them to live, just as an embryo draws nourishment from the body of the mother, and the growing child holds fast to her hand. In the same way, women have long depended on men to sustain them. In exchange they reveal a part of the elusive secret that is their charm. But how much of that is just stagecraft?

After all, life is just a play. Or an opera. It would be easier for all of us if we could watch only the highlights. Instead, we must endure convoluted plot twists and excruciating moments of suspense. We sit in the dark, threatened by vague menaces. Of course, those of us in the audience can always walk out; but the players have no choice. Once the curtain goes up they have to perform the play from beginning to end. They have nowhere to hide.

But we are still in the theater, watching the opera being performed for us onstage. Both of the actors are in full makeup, and we see two brightly colored faces. Onebelongs to the actor playing the beautiful concubine Yuji. Opposite him is the actor who plays General Xiang Yu, Yu Ji's lover. Yuji's entire existence depends on Xiang Yu. And he has lost his kingdom to a rival.

Yu Ji is singing an aria to him:

"My lord is doomed,
I have nowhere to turn."

His life is over, and she will choose not to go on living.

But this is only an opera. The actors feign death, and the curtain falls. In the end they both stand up and walk away.

Actually, one actor really is in love with the other. Still, their story is not that simple. When one man loves another, it can't be simple; and it's hard to know how to begin. We might as well start at the beginning.

The theater is dark. As the houselights come up, the musicians enter and start to tune their instruments. The percussionist holds one hand ready to strike a leather drum while the other holds up clappers. He seems to be ready. The other musicians are still busy tuning. Everyone is filled with nervous excitement. Tonight they have a chance to participate in a moving drama. They will be part of someone else's story.

The fights dim again until there is nothing but a lone spotlight shining center stage. A faint creak, and the curtain parts.

It is their first meeting.

Winter, 1929. The eighteenth year of the Republic of ChinaStrong, icy winds blew out of the North. It was the darkest and coldest time of the year, when a feeble sun wavered in the sky. Some days it peeked out; but on this day it was hidden behind the clouds. People looked up at the sky, wondering if it might snow, although it was still early in the season.

It was market day at Tianqiao, the Bridge of Heaven, and the clamor of voices filled the air. The Bridge of Heaven lay between Zhengyang Gate and Yongding Gate, just to the west of the Temple of Heaven. During the Ming and Qing dynasties the emperor made yearly offerings at the temple, and he always crossed this bridge on the way. The temple lay on the south side of the bridge, and people imagined the emperor's crossing from the north side to the south symbolized a passage from the earthly realm to heaven. Because the emperor, or Son of Heaven, used this bridge to cross to heaven, it was called the Bridge of Heaven. But after the fan of the Qing dynasty, in 1911, the bridge became part of the common world. Never again would it be used solely by the Son of Heaven.

A small but bustling marketplace grew up on the north side of this bridge. Lining the north-south street were teahouses, small restaurants, and secondhand clothing stalls. To the west ran a bird market, facing a row of stands that sold snacks of every kind. In the midst of all this, street performers plied their trades among the shoppers.

Little urchins wove through the crowds where they were thickest. One of them spotted a cigarette butt on the ground and quickly bent down to grab it. When he had gathered up enough discarded butts, he would take them all apart and salvage the tobacco. Then he would roll new cigarettes to sell on the street.

He had to be alert and snatch up the butts before somebody stepped on them. This last butt had narrowly missed being crushed by two pairs of feet, a woman's and a child's.

The woman had almost tread on the urchin's fingers with her worn cloth shoes. Once crimson, those shoes had faded to the brown of an old bloodstain. The woman herself had the sallow complexion of an opium addict, and her lips were tinged with a bit of lipstick. A red hairline mark, running like a scar between her eyebrows, suggested that she suffered from frequent headaches and had been pinching her forehead to cure them. Any careful observer would have known that she was an unlicensed prostitute.

Farewell My Concubine. Copyright � by Lilian Lee. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Lilian Lee is the author of more than thirty books and fifteen feature films. One of the Chinese world's leading writers, Lee's books are instant bestsellers in her native Hong Kong. She cowrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Farewell My Concubine. Farewell My Concubine was translated by Andrea Lingenfelter, a scholar and translator affiliated with the University of Washington in Seattle.

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