Farewell to My Concubine: A Novel

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9780688120207: Farewell to My Concubine: A Novel

The story of a male Beijing opera star, his love for another male singer, and the beautiful courtesan who comes between them sweeps through five decades of Chinese history, from the decadent 1930s to the present day. 35,000 first printing. $25,000 ad/promo.

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About 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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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. One belongs 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 China Strong, 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 ha d 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.

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