As China undergoes changes, odd relationship fares poorly


Title: "Farewell to My Concubine"

Author: Lilian Lee

Publisher: Morrow

Length, price: 255 pages, $18

Lilian Lee, the popular Hong Kong novelist, writes about a 20th-century China that is one part Dickensian melodrama and one part Malthusian nightmare in which too many people are compelled to fight over too few resources.

"Farewell to My Concubine" opens in the winter of 1929. A desperate young prostitute has just apprenticed her frail son to an all-boy troupe of street opera performers. Mother and son never meet again.

Eight-year-old Xiao Douzi ("Small Bean") is quickly taken under the protective wing of a stalwart 12-year-old fellow actor named Xiao Shitou ("Small Rock"). The boys' guardian, Master Guan, runs a tight outfit and relentlessly forces his underfed little actors to spend many hours in painful acrobatic drills.

But Master Guan's harsh regime turns out to be flimsy preparation for the agonizing ordeal that the Chinese people will undergo as China enters modern times after centuries of political isolation.

Ten years pass. Xiao Douzi (stage name Dieyi) and Xiao Shitou (stage name Xiaolou) have become successful opera stars. Despite the Japanese occupation, crowds of fans flock from all corners of Peking and beyond to watch the two talented friends perform much-loved Chinese opera classics such as "Spring in the Jade Hall" and "Wandering in the Garden, Waking From a Dream."

As in the theater of Shakespeare's day, female roles are played by young men. Dieyi's specialty is portraying graceful, HTC aristocratic ladies, with Xiaolou as his male lead. Their most popular roles are that of a doomed general and his mistress in the popular opera "Farewell to My Concubine."

Dieyi and Xiaolou enjoy a harmonious relationship until Xiaolou falls in love with a beautiful prostitute named Juxian. In one of the novel's most moving scenes, Juxian gives the brothel-keepers everything she owns in order to buy her freedom and marry Xiaolou.

Juxian and Dieyi treat each other with brittle courtesy, but in reality they have become locked in a silent, bitter struggle for Xiaolou's attention. Then Xiaolou is arrested for refusing to perform for the Japanese.

Dieyi agrees to have an affair with the Japanese commander (an ardent opera fan) in order to spring Xiaolou from prison. In return, Juxian must leave Xiaolou forever. Once Xiaolou goes free, however, Juxian won't keep her end of the bargain. Xiaolou gives up singing opera, and Dieyi loses himself in opium addiction.

After Japan loses the war with the United States, Dieyi and Xiaolou return to the stage, and Xiaolou helps Dieyi kick his opium habit. The Communist regime welcomes actors -- provided they perform new, politically correct scripts.

Then the Cultural Revolution gets under way in the 1960s, and hundreds of thousands of lives are destroyed when Mao's teen-age Red Guards are turned loose to hunt down scapegoats and "bad examples." The actors' devoted portrayals of old-world royalty make them prime suspects in revolutionary eyes.

Dieyi, Juxian and Xiaolou are hauled up before a kangaroo court. The hidden flaws in their fragile relationship break open with tragic results.

As a novel, "Farewell to My Concubine" is closer to real life and offers a grimmer, less conclusive ending than its recent film version. One reaches the final pages of this relatively brief book feeling exhausted by a journey that has left the characters trampled in the dusty wake of history's wild stampede.

Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.

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