Most people are familiar with Farewell, My Concubine as a result of the 1993 film adaptation which is considered a revolutionary moment in time for Chinese (Hong Kong) cinema. The film was released coincident with the first English translation of Lillian Lee’ novel, which was originally published a year earlier. While the film version has dominated the discourse, Lee’s novel is every bit equal in terms of quality; this is one of those rare occurrences where neither the book nor the movie is substantially “better” but instead both media offer more than ample opportunity for enjoyment and intellectual engagement.
Farewell, My Concubine is a title that gives every indication of being a lurid peek into the world of sexual excess, but in fact the novel’s milieu is primarily within the world of Asian opera. Sexuality is a major theme in the narrative, but it is more a tool of basic human survival than it is a key for unlocking prurient interest in Lee’s tale. Sexuality is presented through the form of prostitution which becomes the other dominant arena in which the narrative progresses through most of the 20th century within its Chinese setting.
Farewell, My Concubine exists alongside only The Last Princess of Manchuria (published in the same year) as a novel by Lee which has been translated for publication in English. Despite this seeming obscurity, she has enjoyed a long and successful career in her homeland in which she published over thirty volumes. She also co-write the screenplay for the film adaptation under the pen name Pik Wah Lee.