Watching Farewell My Concubine As A Teacher and A Father

Netflix is streaming Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. The movie is as good as I remember it. But watching it now as a former New York City school teacher and a father of two, there’s a message there that wasn’t there when I first saw the movie (pre-classroom and pre-parenthood). It’s a message about the subtle disparities between what we (the adult world) teach and what they (our children) learn.

The first half of the movie takes place in a Chinese Opera school, a school for castoffs and orphans who are taught to act and sing emotionally complex narratives. Chinese Opera schools are stereotypically portrayed as brutal, unforgiving places – But not cold or dispassionate. For many of its students, it is their only opportunity to escape their impoverished condition. There is a culture there that only its teachers and students understand.

This is illustrated in the scene where one of the main characters, Douzi, and his classmate run away from the school, only to return shortly after being moved by a professional opera performance.  Watching the performance, his classmate cries: “What does it take to become a star? How many beatings? When will I ever enjoy such fame?”

(I should say now that I don’t speak Mandarin, so my interpretations of the text are based on the movie’s translation of the language.)

The assumption is that through strict training, discipline, and corporal punishment students at the opera school will excel in their no nonsense study of the art. Upon returning to the school Douzi and his classmate witness the entire troupe being beaten by their Master and his assistants. Douzi tells the Master, “I am the one that ran away beat me instead.” He voluntarily accepts his beating for running away and in doing so he saves his classmates from further punishment.

However, the classmate he ran away with takes a different course of action. As Douzi is being beaten by the Master, there is a cry and one of the Master’s assistants comes running saying something terrible has happened. The Master, his assistants, and his students look and see their classmate hanging from a rafter. Douzi’s runaway cohort has killed himself. The Master is shocked. This obviously wasn’t the lesson he wanted to teach. However, it is the lesson that Douzi’s classmate had learned.

It is interesting to consider that Douzi’s classmate kills himself not because he is afraid of his impending punishment (he has runaway before) but because he has been convinced he will not be able to rise to the expectations of the Master and his classmates — And no matter how hard he tries, he will never escape his fate of poverty and brutality.

While there is no evidence the Master speaks about fate before the suicide, in his introduction of the opera, Farewell My Concubine (from which the movie is named), after the suicide, he speaks about inevitability and the futility of fighting fate. In reference to the Chu King’s defeat, he says,”No matter how resourceful you are, you cannot fight fate.” At the conclusion of the story, however, the Master, who had been pacing back and forth as he told the story, sits down in his chair and states,”There’s a lesson in this story for all of us. Each person is responsible for his or her own fate.”

What’s the lesson here? The dilemma is in the notion of fate itself. If you cannot fight fate or manipulate it, how can you be responsible for it? It calls into question the notion of thinking before you act.

There is also a lesson in Farewell My Concubine about a student’s responsibility to his peers and the pressures that he puts upon himself to their expectations. In education, this is termed “collaborative learning” (or in plain English: Working in Groups). Douzi demonstrates this in the scenes immediately following his classmate’s suicide.

He is given the difficult task of playing the concubine in the school’s production of the famous opera, Farewell My Concubine. He keeps messing up his lines. He keeps saying, “I am by nature a boy, not a girl.” The correct line is: “I am by nature a girl, not a boy.” Time and time again, he keeps screwing up his lines. Then one day, during a visit from the representative of a prestigious and wealthy benefactor, Douzi’s best friend and protector, Shitou, rams the Master’s pipe into Douzi’s mouth and curses him, saying he’s ruined the opportunity for the troop to become successful.

After the tears are shed but before the scene ends, Douzi boldly recites the troublesome lines again, much to the surprise of his classmates and teacher. He is fundamentally changed. He has gone against his “nature” and internalized his role as a nun – a girl – a woman. In fact, he has learned his lessons so well and so completely that after he is raped by his school’s benefactor, he takes in an orphaned baby he finds on his way home and becomes its “mother.”

Returning briefly to the lesson on fate, the Master makes a comment about fate when he, Shitou, and Douzi find the baby. Douzi picks up the baby. The Master says, “Fate has determined each of our lots. Leave him (the baby) to his destiny.” Douzi goes to return the baby but the scene ends with the Master, Shitou, and Douzi walking away with the baby in arms.

Despite his teacher’s beating, Douzi is unable to speak his line correctly. The teacher-directed model (that’s what educators call it) does not work. It isn’t until his peer relationships are threatened that he learns his lines. He gets his lines right when he is punished by his closest friend for the sake of the rest of the troupe. In 21st Century speak, we might call this “collaborative learning” or “shared learning” (without the violence of course), a process of peer-to-peer teaching and learning similar to what occurs on the playground when children interact on the periphery of an adult’s watchful eye.

Unmanaged, however, this powerful process can be quite harmful. Unmanaged peer-to-peer interactions can lead to bullying, bias, and negative hive behavior. Each peer group requires someone trusted by the group who can effectively question its actions.

Jaron Lanier wrote about the dangers of “digital collectivism” in his aptly titled essay, Digital Maoism. Using Wikipedia as his reference, he makes it a point to state that he is not opposed to a collective knowledge building resource like Wikipedia but:

the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise… This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it’s now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

The movie begins and ends at the end of China’s Cultural Revolution, one of the dreadful historical periods Lanier mentions. Douzi and Shitou reunite after over a decade of separation. In that time, the Gang of Four and the Red Guards devastated China’s artistic heritage including outlawing traditional Chinese Opera. The two friends reunite to perform the opera that made them famous (and infamous) after the Gang of Four are deposed.

Though I don’t think I list it anywhere as a favorite movie, watching Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine again – almost 20 years since the first time – strikes the familiar chords that made it a good movie to me that first time and there are additional notes making it a good movie to me this time.

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