Xiang Yu is ubiquitous in Chinese culture, appearing in countless TV shows, plays, and films (including the classic Farewell My Concubine). Who was this tragic historical character?
In Chen Kaige’s sweeping Farewell My Concubine, a male Peking opera actor plays the tragic Lady Yu and yearns for the heroic romance to be real — in the play and in life he is in ill-fated love with the man on stage. What Western audiences miss — as I first did — is that this Peking Opera they are performing is a famous one, and moreover the characters in that drama belong to a historical legend that lives widely in the Chinese popular imagination.
Lady Yu was the lover of Xiang Yu, the man who contended with Liu Bang for control of China. Xiang Yu deposed the Qin Dynasty to rule as the Hegemon-King for four years, and ultimately fell to Liu Bang — the founder of the Han Dynasty — at the will of Heaven. The story of Xiang Yu and Liu Bang has been told and retold for 2,000 years, and it has been the subject of dozens of TV shows, films, and plays.
The story goes like this: Years of stringent Qin rule has led to widespread peasant rebellion. Xiang Yu, born from a line of Chu generals, rises rapidly in the rebellion on account of his bold and fearsome prowess. The new Chu king places Xiang Yu as a leader of one army, and gives another army to the peasant leader Liu Bang. The king declares that the first army to enter the old Qin palace would rule it. While Xiang Yu is busy defeating an army of 300,000 Qin soldiers and then burying his 200,000 Qin prisoners alive, Liu Bang gets there first. Furious, Xiang Yu invites Liu Bang to a banquet to kill him, but mysteriously (fatedly?), the typically hot-tempered hero is suddenly lenient, and lets him go. Many say that moment was the beginning of the end for Xiang Yu.
Liu Bang runs away and Xiang Yu takes the palace. Then he kills the Qin emperor and burns the palace and all its priceless history to the ground. Our hero has achieved the impossible — in only three years he has risen to command China almost entirely of his own skill and ambition. He’s 26.
But over the next four years, the tides turn. More rebellions and alliances among the old kingdoms feed the rise of Liu Bang, and despite Xiang Yu winning battles against Liu Bang again and again, he loses ground.
Xiang Yu brings his paramour, Lady Yu, to every fight. They become trapped in the city of Gaixia with their dwindling army. This is the Peking Opera scene in Farewell My Concubine. Xiang Yu sings a song blaming Heaven for his downfall, fearing what will become of his lover. Lady Yu then commits suicide. In a final stand, Xiang Yu single-handedly kills a hundred men and an enemy colonel, proving that he has lost not for lack of military prowess. Then he cuts his own throat and dies.
Farewell My Concubine is by far the best-known of the modern renditions of this story and a classic by all accounts, but I watched three other films about Xiang Yu, and my personal favorite out of those was The Great Conqueror’s Concubine 西楚霸王 from 1994. It was produced by Zhang Yimou and features Gong Li — the omnipresent star of Fifth Generation Chinese cinema and the leading woman in Farewell My Concubine — as Liu Bang’s wife, Lü Zhi.
If you can get past the production value, which looks like it came from the 50s, and some buffoonish combat scenes, the writing turns out to be excellent, and it truly delivers on that feeling of epic that you might get from old Ben-Hur. I’d say it’s that slight cartoonishness that makes this feel so much better than the modern adaptations I watched, which try so hard to feel cool that they drop the magic.
I can’t tell you exactly what this production innovated, but it makes a fascinating study into the original tale, weaving in Xiang Yu’s passion for Lady Yu as a speculative motivation for the hero’s most savage deeds.
Why did Xiang Yu command 200,000 prisoners to be buried alive? Because his love had been captured, his friends lost in battle, and he was drunk with grief.
Why did Xiang Yu burn down the Qin palace? Because the jealous Lü Zhi knew his temper, and so she told him the Qin emperor had raped Lady Yu, expecting Xiang Yu to burn it down and make it easier for Liu Bang to rally the people against him.
The character of Lü Zhi is another fantastic bit of writing — she holds a secret love for Xiang Yu, and she envies the heroic devotion Xiang Yu has for his consort. Meanwhile, Liu Bang has a thing for Lady Yu. So even while Liu Bang is eventually the victor and Heaven’s choice to found the Han Dynasty, he is emasculated by the tragic hero. The film does a great job maintaining — and manipulating — the contradictions and ambiguities that make the original history so compelling.
As for the other films I watched, White Vengeance (2011; 鸿门宴) we can best call juvenile. The Last Supper (2012; 王的盛宴) has more going for it. It explores the story from Liu Bang’s perspective and goes into his life as emperor, focusing on his aging and paranoia.
So now, as you go watch or rewatch Farewell My Concubine, a movie so dense with history and emotion it deserves multiple viewings, you can appreciate how the film links modern China with its ancient past. As the plot tumbles through the flames of the 20th century, and as Leslie Cheung’s character struggles with his unrequited love for Xiang Yu’s player, you can appreciate how the opera they perform is a symbol of tragic fate and the beauty in the lives of the fated.
You can watch The Great Conqueror’s Concubine on YouTube: