Farewell My Concubine takes place during the Chinese cultural revolution, and throughout the novel the political and social aspects of China are constantly changing. As the novel is based around the Peking Opera, the role of beauty is greatly significant within both the themes and characters, and the author demonstrates how the cultural revolution transforms the idea and purpose of beauty from the beginning of the novel to the end. Throughout Farewell My Concubine, Lilian Lee describes the radical political change in China and demonstrates its effects on the perception of the arts, emphasizing the artificial aspect of beauty and its fragile and adjustable nature.
In the beginning of the novel, physical beauty is portrayed as the key to success, and the author establishes the idea of superiority among the attractive while simultaneously demonstrating the idea of physical beauty as artifice. Firstly, throughout the novel the author puts a great emphasis on the professions of prostitution and acting. When Lee writes, “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” (1), she forms a parallel between the two, alluding to both as a materialistic purchase of physical beauty. During the scene at the House of Flowers, Lee describes the area as a “glamorous illusion,” alluding to artifice, and she emphasizes the objectification regarding physical beauty when she writes, “Whenever one saw a girl he liked, he summoned her with a wave, and she would walk over languidly in her high heels, hips swaying” (89). Lee compares this idea of the purchase of physical beauty in prostitution with acting in Master Guan’s school. In the school, there is also a large emphasis on physical beauty and the distinct separation between the beautiful and the ugly. When Master Shi visits the school, he must assess the attractiveness of the students in order to determine their roles in the opera. Lee writes, “It was a lot like buying pork in the market – one chose lean or marbled meat depending on one’s own taste. The only essential was that a boy be good-looking” (31). By comparing the boys to meat, their humanity is diminished to their physical appearance, and Lee is representing the parallel between acting and prostitution. She goes on to write, “One by one, the most attractive children were singled out, leaving only the fat, the dull-witted, and the homely to stand to one side. They were the rejects” (31). The fact that the unattractive children are deemed as “rejects” accentuates the negative connotation of ugliness, something evidently crucial that cannot be changed or avoided. The immense significance of physical attractiveness is what makes Dieyi stand out and become so successful; he is constantly described as beautiful and delicate and meeting all the harsh beauty standards. Lee describes Dieyi as “utterly convincing as the beautiful Yu Ji” (69), conveying him as the exemplification of what it takes to succeed in the Peking Opera.
Throughout the novel, Lee represents the power of beauty within the arts as a way to conceal reality, and she incorporates makeup and costumes as symbols in Dieyi’s life to demonstrate the artificial foundation of his character. In the novel, makeup symbolizes the utilization of beauty in order to conceal. Lee introduces the powerful impact that makeup has before the boys’ first ever performance: “They had been transformed from little boys to timeless characters” (44). Later, when Dieyi is much older but still performing, after he puts on his makeup Lee writes, “Dieyi completed his transformation into the lady Yu Ji” (80). The parallel between these sentences demonstrates the consistency of Dieyi’s character from youth onward, as well as the unchanging ability of makeup to transform. As the application of makeup symbolizes a transfiguration, the removal of it symbolizes an uncovering. After meeting Juxian, Deiyi is distraught and depressed, and Lee writes, “He began to furiously scrub off every last trace of makeup from his face, as though he wouldn’t be satisfied until his skin had been rubbed raw” (104). Lee uses the makeup to allude to the artifice within Dieyi’s character and his constant attempts to conceal his true self through beauty. Furthermore, as a child Dieyi says to Xiaolou, “Today I’m buying handkerchiefs. Later I’ll save up to buy the best costumes I can. And props and headdresses and jewelry, too” (65). Lee demonstrates how even from a young age Dieyi’s role in the theatre is the basis of his identity. As he grows older, his obsession for the opera only grows stronger. When Lee writes, “His room was a treasure trove of curios and objects of art, all of them the finest that money could buy” (142), she demonstrates how Dieyi’s character did not change throughout his life; he is still that young boy passionate about collecting valuable artifacts of the opera. She goes on to describe Dieyi’s treasures as “Empty garments of long dead beauties” (143), and the way she connects his materialistic passion to death conveys an illusion and lack of life within his obsession. Lee highlights Dieyi’s emotional connection to his material artifacts when he has Xiao Si rip up his costumes, “The damaged fabric made a loud grating sound, and Dieyi closed his eyes in a mixture of pain and pleasure” (144).
As the Chinese government is constantly changing, the importance of beauty in the arts diminishes within Chinese culture, and Dieyi’s only skill, which used to be vital, becomes minimized and eventually targeted during the regime. After the Japanese troops withdraw in 1945, the government transitions to a communist ideology, and the Chinese nationalists take over. Lee demonstrates the declining appreciation of the opera during this time, writing “Unable to fill their theaters to capacity, most owners disbanded their opera companies and turned the theaters into dance halls” (154). However, Dieyi’s passion never ceases, and Lee demonstrates his dedication when he writes, “No matter how much difficulty he was in, Dieyi would not pawn his costumes. He would rather have gone hungry. He loved the opera with a passion few outsiders could have understood” (155). Lee demonstrates the epitome of Dieyi’s devotion to the Peking opera through his reaction when he is charged for treason for performing for the Japanese. He says, “‘I did it of my own free will. I love the opera; and I’ll sing for anyone who appreciates it. Art does not recognize the limits of nationality’” (159). Dieyi’s inability to conform to the communist ideology demonstrates his pride and resilience; he is willing to sacrifice everything for his passion for the arts, and Lee indicates the severe consequences of his actions when she writes, “Unrepentant and unremorseful, Dieyi was headed straight for the executioner’s gun.” (160)
As communist China develops rapidly, the Party eradicates traditional opera because it does not speak to the new ideology, since actors are celebrated and raised above the population. The Party alters the intentions of the arts in order to use it as propaganda, eliminating and ridiculing the authenticity of Peking opera. Firstly, after the Party performs renovations on the opera house, they hang up propaganda signs where the poetic couplets used to be, stating, “‘Art should serve the goals of socialism.’ The verses were clumsy and did not attempt to match the poetic quality of the lines they had replaced” (190). Additionally, Lee incorporates the motif of sounds when describing the impact of the revolution to demonstrate how the new regime pays no attention to beauty or melody and only intends to be loud and noisy. She writes, “Ever since liberation, loudspeakers had been the Party’s most powerful and irresistible tool for propaganda” (197), and “People often couldn’t make out the words because of the distortion created by the tremendous volume” (197). Furthermore, the diminishing of the Peking opera is exemplified during the carnival in chapter 8, “It looked like a carnival, with all of the players in makeup and costumes, but they had had to make up in a hurry, and their faces were crudely drawn masks of red and white” (200). The carnival implements aspects of the opera, the symbolic costumes and makeup that Dieyi cherishes so greatly, and eliminates the purity and beauty from it in a humiliating manner.
In Farewell My Concubine, Dieyi’s character exemplifies the ‘perfect fit’ for an opera star; he is beautiful, talented and passionate. However, as a child he had to cut off his finger in order to achieve that ideal fit, and at the end of the novel he ironically loses another finger. The loss of his first finger symbolizes the sacrifice he had to make for his success, but when he loses his second finger his career is over, and that critical imperfection serves as a representation for the fragility within beauty and the arts.