Farewell My Concubine
Do young people today know more about world history than children of my generation? Sadly, I suspect not. In fourth grade we learned some world geography. Fifth grade was about American history, starting with the European explorers - Magellan, Drake, Balboa and the rest, - all heroes, of course. In sixth grade we got some ancient history - the Babylonians, the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans. Seventh, eighth and ninth grades seemed to have focused on civics as I recall. Then in tenth grade there was a World History class - I believe it was an elective. Mrs. Walters, to her credit, did her best, but it was a huge subject, and could really do nothing more than hit the high points. After that - nothing. I didn't take a single history class in college.
In recent years the books and films I'm most drawn to are those that teach me something about the past, especially about non-Western cultures. This beautiful 1993 movie won a Golden Globe and Cannes "Best Picture" award. It's a strange story about the fifty-plus year friendship between two men who meet as children in the 1920's in the horrifically cruel and intense training school for the Peking Opera, and become its most famous stars. Through their eyes we see the Japanese invasion, the war years, the Nationalist Chinese takeover, then the Communists, and, finally, the Cultural Revolution. We see repeated snatches of the opera itself, particularly the dramatic conclusion of the classical opera, "Farewell My Concubine", in which the friends play the leading roles of the Emperor and his concubine.
I had never seen any Chinese opera before. My first impression was - how odd! Why would anyone think these strange sounds were beautiful? And how do cultural differences determine our aesthetic preferences? By the end of the movie, I had seen this scene quite a number of times, and I found that in that short time my perception had changed. What was strange had become familiar. I don't think that was the main point of the film, though, like any work of art, the film works on many levels. But I've added to my understanding of Chinese history, and learned something about classical Chinese opera.