"Farewell My Concubine" remains relevant in China for its depiction of the turbulent periods in Chinese history and its exploration of complex themes such as loyalty, identity, and sacrifice. The film's portrayal of the struggles of the Chinese opera actors to survive amid political upheaval and societal change resonates with audiences today, especially in light of China's journey towards modernization and globalization.

Li Bihua's novel "Farewell My Concubine" was adapted into a cinematic masterpiece directed by Chen Kaige, featuring Zhang Guorong, Zhang Fengyi, and Gong Li in the lead roles. The film garnered international acclaim, winning the Palme d'Or at the 46th Cannes Film Festival in 1993, and was subsequently selected by Time Magazine as one of the "100 Best Films of All Time" in 2005. The film was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film and the 66th Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The film "Farewell My Concubine" follows the story of two brothers, Douzi and Xiao Shi, who are part of a Beijing Opera troupe. Douzi, who takes on the stage name of Cheng Dieyi, plays the role of a dan, while Xiao Shi, who takes on the stage name of Duan Xiaolou, plays the role of a raw actor. The two brothers become very popular with their joint performance of "Farewell My Concubine" and hope to play together for the rest of their lives. However, when Duan Xiaolou marries Juxian, a prostitute, Cheng Dieyi becomes attached to her brother and decides not to act with him in "Farewell My Concubine". The two brothers are later forced to perform for undisciplined soldiers, leading to chaos and Juxian's miscarriage. Cheng Dieyi is then arrested for being a traitor, but Duan Xiaolou rescues him with the help of a high-ranking official. After the liberation, the two brothers' skills are no longer taken seriously, and Cheng Dieyi's voice deteriorates. During the Cultural Revolution, Duan Xiaolou is framed and forced to accuse Cheng Dieyi, who refuses to do so and is paraded through the streets. Juxian hangs herself in despair, and the two brothers perform "Farewell My Concubine" together for the last time after 11 years of separation. Duan Xiaolou draws out Cheng Dieyi's words, "I am a man, not a woman," and realizes that she has been living in a play all along. Cheng Dieyi ends her acting career and tragedy in the arms of her brother Xiaolou.

The film's poetic language and seamless integration of drama and reality tell the tale of two Peking opera singers, Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, whose love-hate relationship spans nearly half a century and ends in tragedy. Set against the backdrop of significant historical events in modern China, the film explores themes of theatre, dreams, life, human existence, and human nature. The movie portrays various themes and messages, including love, loyalty, sacrifice, and the impact of political power on personal lives.

"Farewell My Concubine" is a portrait of an artist and the fate of the art of Peking Opera amid modern historical changes. The film's dramatic conflicts of life and death, interweaving of historical figures and protagonists, and fictional character relationships and storylines create a magnificent historical vision and atmosphere. The film's appeal is further enhanced by its skilled use of camera language, symbolism, and thematic presentation.

The movie portrays various values and norms in Chinese society during the 20th century. The Peking Opera was an essential art form during this period, and the movie depicts society's value on this art form. The movie also explores gender roles and sexuality, mainly through Cheng's controversial performance as a concubine. The movie portrays the societal norms and expectations that dictate the roles of men and women in Chinese society.

Loyalty is also a critical theme in the movie, and the bond between Cheng and Duan is an excellent illustration of this. Despite their differences in personalities and upbringing, the two men form a bond that transcends their conflicts and shared passion for the opera. Duan is fiercely loyal to Cheng, even when Cheng's actions threaten his career and well-being. This loyalty is also seen in the relationship between the opera troupe and the CPC. The troupe remains loyal to the party even as the changing political climate threatens their art form.

Sacrifice is also another central theme in the movie. Cheng and Duan sacrifice to maintain their friendship and stay true to their art. Cheng sacrifices his dignity and safety when he performs as a concubine in the opera, an act which leads to his arrest and torture by the authorities. Duan sacrifices his desires and ambitions to remain loyal to Cheng and the opera.

Socially and politically, Farewell My Concubine reflects the tumultuous changes that China experienced in the twentieth century. The film depicts the rise of communism, the emergence of a new, modern China, and the struggles and sacrifices made in the process. The film also explores how traditional values and beliefs were challenged and upended during this period, particularly about gender and sexuality. It also offers insights into the impact of the Cultural Revolution on Chinese society and culture, highlighting the tension between traditional Chinese culture and the Communist ideology promoted by the CPC during that time.

One of the most striking themes of the film is the tension between individual expression and the demands of the state. The Communist Party of China (CPC) is depicted as an authoritarian force that seeks to control all aspects of society, including the arts. Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou's artistry and passion for Peking opera are often at odds with the CPC's strict guidelines for cultural expression, leading to conflicts and consequences that affect them deeply.

Furthermore, another essential film theme is the complex relationship between gender and power. The film explores how traditional gender roles and expectations are challenged and subverted through the lives and experiences of its characters. Cheng Dieyi, in particular, is a fascinating study of gender and identity as he grapples with his sexuality and struggles to express himself in a society that often shuns and punishes those who deviate from established norms.

The film in question had stirred up controversy due to its explicit depiction of homosexuality, suicide, and violence during the Cultural Revolution under the leadership of Mao Zedong's Communist government. Despite premiering in Shanghai in July 1993, it was removed from theaters after just two weeks for further review by censors, and was subsequently banned altogether in August. However, the international outcry caused by the film's winning of the prestigious Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival prompted Chinese officials to reconsider the ban. Fearing that the ban might jeopardize China's bid for the 2000 Summer Olympics, they relented and allowed the film to be shown again in September, albeit in a heavily censored version. Scenes dealing with sensitive topics such as homosexuality and the Cultural Revolution were edited out, and the final scene was modified in order to lessen the impact of the suicide.

In conclusion, "Farewell My Concubine" remains relevant in China for its depiction of the turbulent periods in Chinese history and its exploration of complex themes such as loyalty, identity, and sacrifice. The film's portrayal of the struggles of the Chinese opera actors to survive amid political upheaval and societal change resonates with audiences today, especially in light of China's journey towards modernization and globalization. Moreover, the film's exploration of gender roles and sexuality, which challenged prevailing norms and conventions, continues to be thought-provoking for contemporary Chinese audiences. Overall, "Farewell My Concubine" remains a timeless masterpiece of Chinese cinema that offers profound insights into the human condition and the enduring power of the arts.


Bablu Kumar Singh is a research scholar at the Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India. His current research focuses on “Perceptions and Images of India in Chinese Discourse: A Study of Select Contemporary Chinese Writings”. His research interests include perceptions and images of China’s Indologists on Contemporary India, India-China civilizational interactions and India-China relations under Xi Jinping.

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