Maybe there really isn’t a word like “gender” in Cantonese. But Li Pik Wah (or Lilian Lee as she’s being marketed for the English-speaking world) conveys the artifice and complexity of the construction with the prostitutes, actors, and secret agents who inhabit her abundant screenplays, novels, and columns. Her work is wildly popular in the Chinese speaking zones of the globe and many of her novels, like Rouge and A Terracotta Warrior, have been successfully adapted for the screen. William Morrow just published the English translation of her book The Last Princess of Manchuria, about China’s most infamous sexual and political adventurer. Chinese auteur Chen Kaige (Life on a String, King of Children, Yellow Earth), never one to shirk complexity, just finished shooting her novel Farewell to My Concubine, a story of forbidden eros between two male Beijing opera performers. We spoke in one of those fussy hotel coffee shops in the back of Hong Kong.
Lawrence Chua Chen Kaige said that when he first read Farewell to My Concubine he thought it was pretty superficial. Now that there have been so many changes made in the screenplay, have you thought about working them into the book itself?
Lilian Lee After the pre-production meetings, I realized I could write a better story. The novel was written several years ago. Now I’m going to do an updated Chinese version and then translate that into English. When the first version was published, I thought it wasn’t long enough for me, but it was my best work at that time. After discussing it with Kaige and writing the screenplay, I think now is the best time to re-write it.
LC Kaige told me that the most significant changes were the moments of the story that take place during the Cultural Revolution. It’s clear that anyone of Kaige’s generation would be deeply impacted by the ‘60s in China, but you’re from Hong Kong. There was rioting in Hong Kong during the time, but not on the scale that changes were taking place in China. How do you remember the Cultural Revolution?
LL I know about the Cultural Revolution because of the many interviews I did about it. At the time, I was only a student going from primary to secondary school. So, my knowledge of the Cultural Revolution was rather limited. I still have a lot of curiosity about why the Cultural Revolution happened—and even what happened. I’m also fascinated with idol worship, but basically I am somebody in love with, in support of China, even though I don’t believe in the [Communist] Party. When I wrote the novel, I wasn’t emphasizing the Cultural Revolution. I just wanted to tell a beautiful story about love. But it took place over a 60 year period, and the history of China was needed. Kaige wanted the Cultural Revolution to take up a greater part of Cheng’s life.
LC In your book The Last Princess of Manchuria, out of which you wrote the screenplay for Kawashima Yoshiko, you use the heroine’s bisexuality as a strategy in her struggle against patriarchy. What about the sexual identity of Cheng Dian Yi, the main character in the book and the screenplay, Farewell to My Concubine. Why did you chose to make this a love story between two men?
LL I didn’t really emphasize the problems of homosexuality. In traditional China, in Beijing opera, men always played the female roles. They have been so contained by their upbringing that they aren’t able to pull themselves out of that role. Cheng Dian Yi doesn’t know the difference between art and life, between whether he is a man or a woman. When he was nine years old, he was selected to be a woman. There is a long period where he felt confused. Basically, it’s my philosophy that the fate of the Chinese individual is so tied with history. It changes as history changes its course. In traditional Chinese society, actors occupy a very low position. There are nine kinds of people in the lower classes. Actors rank down there along with prostitutes. For actors, especially the well known ones, there is this problem of low self-esteem. The emperor and the empress on stage are actually despised and stepped on in real life. So they get really involved in their roles. In some respects they can’t distinguish between art and reality. Well, it’s a good escape from reality.
LC What do you mean, the “problems” of homosexuality?
LL When I wrote the novel, I didn’t intend to focus on the homosexual aspect of their relationship. Of course, I realized it would be an issue of discussion. Homosexuality in Chinese society is, so to speak, nothing new. It’s been there for a couple of thousand years, but it’s always been a taboo subject. It happened even in the palace. Many generals, many officers, bureaucrats… had cultivated groups of gay men around them. Probably because of their cultural upbringing, Chinese people fully know the situation but never talk about it. This is particularly true in the opera scene. When I wrote Farewell to My Concubine, I felt very strongly that this character simply can not escape this social fate. For him, his life on stage and off are basically the same. He has no sense of any other person or any other woman. His fascination with the hero is transferred from stage to real life. So, the development of the character is constructed along the lines of his raw emotion. His stubbornness is based on a willfulness, just like in gambling. It’s obsessive behavior, like when you have no money but you let all the stakes ride anyway.
LC Several things struck me watching the rushes for Farewell in Beijing. There was one scene where the young Duan grabs Cheng and sticks a metal instrument down his throat, bringing blood up. He’s angry that Cheng isn’t singing the female part properly. The role literally changes his body. I wonder, was the fact that gender itself is a cultural construction important for you when you were writing this?
LL Gender is an extension of your “normal” life, what you’re born with. I think that homosexuals and bisexuals are shaped by the psychological behavior that comes with their birth. I’m sympathetic and understanding of gay people. Whether it’s homosexuality or heterosexuality, these are just different ways of expressing emotions. In contrast to a heterosexual relationship, which is constantly in crisis, a homosexual relationship, at least as I know it, can be very steady, because they rarely can meet someone else. “To death do they part.” But, there’s no word in Chinese that explains “gender.” In Chinese society, there’s not much importance in separating the two sexes.
LC But there’s a great deal of importance on placement and sexual control in our society. You sound quite patronizing when you say you’re “sympathetic” to Cheng’s character and yet he kills himself in the end. In Farewell his desire was linked so closely with historical tragedy.
LL The opera is based on certain historical details. After Cheng performed many times and in many places, he felt that death was very beautiful. In reality, one can not commit suicide just because you want to die. “The show must go on.” Only on stage can one die at the appropriate moment and in a reasonable manner. This concept is very similar to my attitude towards writing. When I’m writing, I feel like a schizophrenic. One writer has to write many characters, analyze them and have to care about the visuals. It is an abnormal life. You close yourself off from the rest of the world. My novels are filled with these aggressions. In every novel, I kill somebody. It’s either an accident or suicide because in real life, one can not murder someone else or commit suicide. It takes great courage and many things in return. Thus drama and real life are both bloody. Once you wash your hands, that’s the end of it.
LC I’m not sure I’m satisfied. The story still conveys meaning, regardless of your anecdotal experience or intentions. But, let me ask you about Rouge (the award-winning film of which was directed by Stanley Kwan) and A Terracotta Warrior (the film of which stars Chinese director Zhang Yimou and his muse Gong Li). These are two novels and films you wrote where history and contemporary “reality” confront one another. How does memory intersect these things for you?
LL There are two different inclinations in these books. Needless to say, I have my fondness for ancient things. Particularly the things that I will never be able to obtain, that are disappearing. In our feelings, the ones we cannot obtain are always the best. For instance, the film Rouge is a ghost story where a prostitute’s ghost comes back to search for her lover. I don’t think love is eternal. Something makes it change. When she comes back to search for her lover, she feels disappointed and leaves. To the spectator, the persistence in love is somewhat stupid. To the persons themselves, it’s an enjoyable act.
LC By bringing the terracotta warrior out of his time, you also suggest the persistence of that mentality. Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China and the terracotta warrior’s master, has strong historical resonances. He is the embodiment of patriarchal despotism, but he’s also a symbol of nationhood. He enslaved and tormented the masses, but he did get them to build fabulous monuments. You were also just in Beijing. Do you think this feudal attitude is still there?
LL Chinese people are very feudal minded people. From the first emperor to now, there exists an idolatry. I find it very painful, this Chinese slave mentality. What’s the difference between Qin Shi Huang and Chairman Mao? The only difference is probably that the clothing and the standard of living has been improved. Their character has not improved much. The road to democracy is a very difficult one. Both parties have to take responsibility. Both the people and the emperor. Because people are lazy, they did not rebel. They are like a pile of sand. You can never make them together into anything. I hope this emperor worship will soon disappear.
LC That’s an ambitious comparison. Can you be a little more clear about the similarities between Qin Shi Huang and Chairman Mao?
LL Actually, my next project is a book on Madame Mao, Qiang Qing. For me, Chairman Mao and the First emperor were two great and intelligent men. When one wants to rule the world, it’s not a bad thing. But if the approach and the way to achieve it is filled with bloodshed… Of course, the First Emperor had many great achievements. He unified the system and the written language. Chairman Mao also had that same ambition. Thus the whole country became “red.” Their characters are similar as well as their approach. They make many mistakes. The First Emperor said that one man’s wrong and rightfulness can only be judged from a 1,000 years away. We can’t put in a verdict in the next 100 years.
LC Did you notice the laminated Chairman Mao charms people have hanging from their rearview mirrors in Beijing? It’s so strange. I’m used to seeing images of the Buddha like that.
LL Yes! I bought some of those photos. “Get rid of evil.” They adore him as a Buddha. They adore him every night. It may have a reparative effect because people today are not as good as they used to be. Those who are in power and their approaches do not satisfy the people. Don’t you think so?
LC Yes, absolutely. Director Tsien Zhen told me those charms became really popular last year, when three cars collided and everyone died except, miraculously, the people in the middle car, who had one of those charms hanging in their window. I think it’s also a symbol of their discontent with the current regime.
LL Well, I don’t know if they’re a symbol of rebellion. Of course, there’s an unconscious sentiment that it was better before. In reality, during the Cultural Revolution, there was a period when there was no corruption because everybody was poor and bore the same poverty. But now the contrast is huge. In socialist countries, even though they are socialist countries, it’s extremely capitalistic. Particularly in Beijing.
LC Novelists always complain when their books are transformed into screenplays. You do both.
LL When I write a novel, I treat it as a novel and use my method. When I write a screenplay, I must discuss it with a director. There will be some struggle trying to convince each other. There is more coordination. It’s not very private. Writing a novel is very private. “I don’t care what you think about me.” Anyway, filmmaking is teamwork. Besides the director, there’s the art director and actors. Every director is not the same. Just like falling in love. I can’t tell which one is more critical. Each time is a new experience.
LC Tell me about your Qiang Qing project.
LL I won’t touch the Cultural Revolution. I’m more interested in her early life and then up to Yenan. It’s a historic novel.
LC What about Mao?
LL Maybe I’ll pay more attention to what she feels. But I have no ideas now, just inspiration. It needs a lot of research.
LC What was it that drew you to Qiang Qing’s story? She seems so much more willful than the female characters in your other work.
LL I love to write bad women.
LC Oh? Why is Qiang Qing a bad woman?
LL There is only one kind of good woman. There are many different possibilities for bad women. Madame Mao is bad. She’s similar to Kawashima Yoshiko. But why are women bad? I believe they’re bad because of the men they encounter. Depending on whether she meets a good or bad man, her life will change accordingly. I’m particularly most interested in the psychology of bad women. Like a detective searching for a case within a case.
LC Are you saying women don’t get to choose for themselves whether they’re bad or not?
LL In most cases, but also they have their own period of maturity. To be bad is not an easy thing.
LC Speaking of bad girls, what’s it like to work as a woman in the Hong Kong film industry, which is so notoriously male?
LL All my first steps were good. I didn’t think there were many bad tidal waves, but there are always these small problems that come along the way. It has nothing to do with these gigantic masculine men. Sometimes, I’m even more notorious than these men. In Kaige’s case, he always lets me do it my way. He’s six feet tall and I’m only 5’3". It’s like a dwarf struggling with the giant. In most cases we try to persuade each other. No violence takes place.
—Lawrence Chua is managing editor of BOMB and contributor to Crossroads, a weekly newsmagazine on National Public Radio. His writing appears in The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Artforum, and Transition.