Farewell My Concubine: Self-Identification in Context

Topics: Gender, Chen Kaige, Opera Pages: 5 (1758 words) Published: December 6, 2010
Directed by Chen Kaige, a highly acclaimed fifth-generation Chinese film director, Farewell My Concubine has received many international film awards and nominations; among them are the Best Foreign Film and the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1993. In the film, Cheng Dieyi, a Peking Opera actor playing the leading female characters, becomes obsessed with his role as the concubine of the King of Chu and blurs his stage role with the real life he leads. The circumstances in which one grows up in are critical factors in shaping his or her sense of self-identity. This paper attempts to explore the gender identity troubles that Cheng Dieyi has undergone in his self-identification and sexuality in the context of the environment of his upbringing.

The story begins when Cheng’s mother takes her son to Master Guan and begs him to take Dieyi (whose nickname was Douzi at the time) into his opera troupe. In order to be a performer in the Peking opera, one must not have any features that are abnormal or that may frighten the audience. Unfortunately, Douzi fails this test because he was born with a sixth finger on one of his hands. His mother was desperate to sell him off and thus cuts off her son’s finger with a cleaver. At this point, Master Guan agrees to accept Douzi as a disciple in his opera troupe. Master Guan notices that Douzi’s “features were surprisingly delicate; he was almost pretty” , which are perfect for playing female roles. Thus, Douzi is chosen as a dan , or the female lead of the opera troupe. He will play the female roles alongside his best friend, Xiaolou who was chosen to be his sheng, or male lead.

Starting from even the earliest scenes of the film, Dieyi’s self-identity has been slowly ripped away from him. Dieyi’s abrupt transition from living in a brothel as a prostitute’s son to becoming a well-disciplined opera singer in the troupe is marked by his mother’s brutal amputation of his sixth finger. This symbolic castration implies that one must abandon his inherited past in order to seek a new social identity. “The root of biological determinism has been severed and the subject freed to pursue a place in a symbolic world of gender fluidity” Dieyi’s finger is not the only thing that has been emasculated, but his self-identity has been castrated as well. The film hints at this in the beginning by including the character of Master Ni, a eunuch who was physically castrated, losing his male reproductive organs. While Master Ni was physically castrated of his male reproductive organs, Dieyi becomes mentally and emotionally castrated through his harsh upbringing in the opera troupe. Whereas the symbolic castration signifies the possibility of Dieyi’s transition from a biological male to a stereotypical female, the harsh corporal punishment he receives during his training in the opera troupe enforces that transition. Corporal punishment is often used in schools to reinforce the relation between master and student. It instills in students a sense of the power of the social hierarchy and their place within it. Dieyi’s designated “place” on that hierarchy, sadly, requires that he learns to abandon his male identity. While corporal punishment remakes Dieyi mentally, costume and make up remakes Dieyi physically. As he performs in the long dresses and fancy headdresses, he sees himself capable of reflecting signs of beauty and femininity. He is forced to sing “I am by nature a girl, not a boy” , and his full transition to femininity went into full motion the moment he mastered this line and accepted it as the truth, that he is by nature a girl, not a boy.

Like most of the male dans in the Peking Opera theatre, Cheng Dieyi must be able to create the illusion of a real female that appeals to the male audience, but Cheng’s femininity is apparent not only on stage, but off stage as well. Clearly, Cheng has fully adapted his female roles into his life off stage. He speaks in a low soft voice, his movements...
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