November 15, 2016
Aditi Kumar, Vishrut Nanda, and Christopher Newman
The Temporarily Banned Film…
Who: Chen Kaige
What: Farewell My Concubine
Why: Its political content on Cultural Revolution and the references to homosexuality
Farewell My Concubine is based on a book sharing the same title, written by Lilian Lee. The film takes place between 1925 and 1977 and begins in Beijing. It portrays the lives of two men, Dieyi and Xiaolou, who meet as young boys as apprentices in an opera school. Dieyi is a somewhat effeminate “pretty boy” who was dropped off at the opera house by his prostitute mother and eventually takes on the role of the “dan,” which means he acted in women’s roles. Xiaolou, however, is the “sheng,” the male lead and primary masculine figure (Wilmington). This relationship between the two actors leads to Dieyi developing feelings for Xiaolou, which are not reciprocated. Eventually, Xiaolou meets a woman named Juxian, who he ends up marrying, thus creating a love triangle of sorts. The climax of the film occurs as the Cultural Revolution begins and Xiaolou is questioned by Red Guards about some unpatriotic things he said about China, which was overheard by his manager. This leads to Xiaolou confessing under duress that Dieyi had performed for the Japanese and even been involved with a Japanese woman. In an act of retaliation, Dieyi informs the guard that Juxian was a prostitute. Xiaolou admits that she was indeed once a prostitute and claims to have never loved her which causes her to commit suicide. Dieyi and Xiaolou break apart and do not reunite until 1977. They practice their roles in the play once again and eventually Dieyi commits suicide at the end of the film.
Throughout the film, homosexuality is referenced implicitly. Canby prepares young boys like Dieyi to become future opera performers. It was under these very hardships that he grew close to and later developed romantic feelings toward his heterosexual co-star, Duan Xiaolou.
Although Dieyi is a flamboyant, feminine character, he is never truly able to express himself. Dong claims that, “Cheng Dieyi never comes out throughout the decades when China experienced a series of political events and ends up with a testimonial suicide for his queer identity.”
Farewell My Concubine is critically acclaimed and has received one of the highest honors in cinema, the Palm d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. However, this film was not well received by the Chinese government, which pulled the movie from the public upon its release in order to review and possibly alter the film. The government objected to the film’s representation of homosexuality, which is highly stigmatized in China. The film was allowed to resume public showings in September of 1993, less than a year after its original release. Upon its return to the public, it was revealed that the Chinese censors made numerous cuts, resulting in the film being shortened by 14 minutes.
When the film was unbanned, it was not the result of a change of heart by the Chinese government, but rather served as an effort to silence the international outcry against its actions. Chinese officials felt that the backlash from the ban could threaten its chances at hosting the Olympic games in Beijing in 2000 (Tyler).
Historically, homosexuality has been a criminal offense in China, up until the end of the 20th century. Homosexuality was not only criminalized, but also homosexual desires and tendencies warranted psychiatric aid. According to Lau, “gays were prosecuted under the ‘hooligan’ law while the Chinese Psychiatric Association labeled it a mental disease.” Action was taken by the government regarding these laws in the late nineties. In 1997, the hooligan law was abolished, thereby making homosexuality legal, and 4 years later, in 2001, the Chinese Psychiatric Association “removed homosexuality from its list” (Lau). Since then, China has seen a rapid expansion in the gay community with gay bars, websites, and numerous LGBTQ+ organizations legally in operation.
It is noteworthy that these laws only applied to mainland China as Hong Kong’s legislation on the matter of homosexuality differed and was in fact several years ahead of the rest of the nation. “Homosexual intercourse” was considered “legal in Hong Kong since 1991,” two years prior to the release of Farewell My Concubine (Lau). Even so, the age of consent was 21, half a decade more than that of heterosexual intercourse. However, this discriminatory law was repealed in 2005 on the grounds of “violating the right to equality” (Lau).
These changes in Chinese also mean that the censorship board’s practices in 1993 differ from those of today. Canby claims that today China would allow homosexual representations to be broadcast due to the legislation in support of LGBTQ+ rights. “You don’t have to be a China hand to understand why Farewell My Concubine has had the Beijing authorities climbing the walls,” says Canby. Although the current communist regime does not share the same concerns, at the time of the film’s release these homosexual depictions would be condemned.
Not only the government, but the citizens too have grown to be more accepting of homosexual individuals over the last two decades. According to Lau, “public attitudes are also changing, with many people growing more accepting of gays. The vast majority of educated, young people in urban areas have no problem with homosexuality.” Historically Chinese people had nothing against homosexuality. In accordance with Confucianism, after marriage and the bearing of children, men were free to do as they pleased with regards to the choice of romantic partners. Western colonization however brought homophobia along with it. Hsu confirms this in a personal interview when asked about how the protagonist’s character challenges Chinese ideologies or expectations about masculinity:
Before modernity arrived, Chinese masculinities were constructed along the wen/wu divide—the former refers to the cultivated learned literati who show genteel and sophisticated traits that lean towards femininity, whereas the latter refers to fighters and warriors who show masculine traits of bravery, dominance and muscular force. The former was held with higher esteem given the imperial bureaucratic system. Nevertheless, with the advent of modernity, masculinities were reconstructed more along the fashion of modern Western gender ideologies, especially in the condition of China’s shameful history of the 20th century. Dieyi’s “pathological” masculinity was considered by most modern Chinese intellectuals as an indication of degeneration, associated with past feudal cultural illness that must be done away with. In the context of the changing regimes of Chinese gender codification in the 20th century, Dieyi’s deviant gender identity was a threat to expected normative gender behaviors.
Western powers—specifically regarding British rule—caused a shift in values in modern China, which affected its moral values and, as a result, its censorship policies.
Farewell My Concubine, however, was also censored is due to its references to the Cultural Revolution, a taboo topic to discuss in China. The Cultural Revolution was a decade of “political and social chaos” lead by Mao Zedong that historians are still trying to piece together (Phillips). Zedong officially declared this violent revolution in May 1966 (Phillips). He asserted, “Our objective is to struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road… so as to facilitate the consolidation and development of the socialist system.” However, in reality, Zedong manipulated the Chinese public with this objective in order to gain control over the Chinese Communist Party (Phillips). In this revolution, Chinese students took the lead as Red Guards to destroy the four olds: “old ideas, old customs, old habits, and old culture” (Phillips). In effect, academic institutions were shut down; religious institutions, shops, and libraries were destroyed due to their feudal qualities (Phillips). People with “bourgeois clothes or reactionary haircuts…party officials, teachers, and intellectuals” were attacked, publicly humiliated and even murdered (Phillips).
After a few years, Mao tampered the revolution, sending the Red Guards to re-education. Reeducation meant living a peasant life (Phillips and Hille). These elementary, middle, and high school students were separated from their families and deprived of their childhood (Hille). According to Phillips, Mao “ordered the army to restore order, effectively transforming China into a military dictatorship.” When Mao died in 1976, so did the revolution. Contrary to popular belief, most of the murders were caused by the government (Phillips).
The aftereffects of the Cultural Revolution were far-reaching. It destroyed the economy, starved the people, and incited many murders (Phillips). This chaotic period traumatized the nation to the point where many Chinese choose to ignore that this period happened (Hille). They do not discuss or learn about the Cultural Revolution at school because the Communist Party fears that its reputation would be damaged (Phillips).
Kaige’s film touches upon this forbidden subject, a subject that strikes a personal chord as Kaige himself participated in the Cultural Revolution (Kim). As a member of the Red Guard, he had to condemn his own father. Although his father was only jailed, Kaige feels distraught that he did that. He went out to the countryside to work in a rubber plantation for re-education( Kim). In the movie, Kaige illustrates the “turmoil in the Communist world” through showing the Cultural Revolution’s resistance to the “aristocratic art” (Armstrong, Grenier). Persecuted and beaten by the Red Guards, the main characters, Dieyi and Xiaolou, publicly confess to false crimes and, according to Grenier, “hysterically denounce each other” (Chen, Grenier). Dieyi and Xiaolou betray each other and Xiaolou disowns his wife (Chen). Kaige shows this scene with “crowds of excited bystanders,” blind followers of the Cultural Revolution (Chen). As a result, both Dieyi and Xialou are sent to re-education camps, which maintained horrible conditions (Grenier). Eventually, Dieyi commits suicide. This event shows that the Cultural Revolution pushed people to their breaking points (Chen). It shows the shattering of relationships that was ubiquitous during the Cultural Revolution through “stage brothers” Dieyi and Xiaolou betraying each other and Xiaolou disowning his wife (Chen).
While Farewell My Concubine was only temporarily banned, it was not shown in theaters after its ban was lifted. However, many Chinese citizens watched the film and it is considered an “elitist work among the educated in China” (Hsu). Altogether, Kaige warns that although the film is now available to the public, there are broader concerns to consider regarding the power of the Chinese government: “there still is no system of laws, no guarantee of basic democratic or human rights, to prevent these destructive forces from being loosed again,” as in the Cultural Revolution itself (Tyler).
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