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Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange (Global Chinese Culture)
Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange (Global Chinese Culture)
Alexa Huang
Columbia University Press, 2009
368 pp., 34.00

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Keith Jones


Rich and Strange

Chinese Shakespeares.

One of the best-known modern examples of "Chinese Shakespeare" is Ye Yan, a 2006 film first released under the English title The Banquet and more recently marketed under the more alluring title The Legend of the Black Scorpion. A Hollywood teaser might tout the film as "lush and luxurious, framed against the backdrop of the opulent court of the Emperor of China." A sinologist would be more likely to draw out the film's setting at the collapse of the Tang Empire in a time called the period of five dynasties and ten kingdoms. Those in film studies might begin by classifying the film as a Hong Kong film in the wuxia genre. And a Shakespeare scholar would immediately classify the film as a Hamlet derivative set in 10th-century China.

The literary theory Alexander C. Y. Huang develops in Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange questions the fragmented nature of these approaches, arguing for a more synthetic approach. Even the terminology should be carefully considered to avoid a fractured or unbalanced interpretation. The phrase "Shakespeare in China" has implications that go one direction only. By contrast, Huang argues, "Chinese Shakespeares" promotes the idea that Shakespeare has an effect on China and that China likewise affects Shakespeare—and that is a key component of his approach.

When China and Shakespeare meet, each of them is transformed into something rich and strange—or, less ideally, something merely strange (to both Western and Chinese audiences)—and Huang's book attempts to navigate and negotiate the waters of this sort of transformation. He notes the dissatisfaction that can arise when a particular instance of Chinese Shakespeare is erroneously classified as "too Shakespearean" or "too Chinese." Instead, Huang maintains, the entities themselves must stand on their own merits.

The value of Huang's book is twofold: it offers and expands the literary theory necessary to approach the intersection(s) of China and Shakespeare, and it provides accounts of the past 200 years of such intersections. The book tends to stress the former, launching into the scholarly, critical apparatus that Huang develops to provide a solid foundation for the rest of his study. He convincingly displays the necessity for critical language that will be dismissive of neither Shakespeare nor China, and he rightly objects to the attitude that he describes as "This is how they do Shakespeare over there; how quaint," a mentality too often brought to bear on the subject.

Huang's theorizing gives his study weight, substance, and significance. He posits an inclination in the audiences of Chinese Shakespeares to search for the "authentic"—whether we mean by that "authentic Shakespeare" (which may mean minute attention to the text or its historical setting or a desire to see the plays performed in Elizabethan or Jacobean garb) or "authentic Chinese" (which may mean different things to Western and non-Western audiences). When audiences search for this authenticity, they tend to have an exclusivity complex, an approach that Huang dismantles:

Much of this work will undermine the fantasies of cultural exclusivity of both "Shakespeare" and "China," attending to the fact that even though every reading is a rewriting, more rewritings of a canonical text do not always translate into more radical rethinking of normative assumptions.

Instead of expending energy with issues of "authenticity," an all-encompassing perspective is necessary "to dislodge what China means and how Shakespeare is customarily interpreted." If critics and audiences are able to do so, both "China" and "Shakespeare" will be freed from constraints that Huang views as unnecessary, and the borders between China and Shakespeare will be more open and more transparent.

Integrated into his presentation of a critical approach to Chinese Shakespeares, Huang provides intriguing accounts of Shakespeare's arrival in China, the uses to which he has been put during the past 200 years, and some possibilities for the future. The Legend of the Black Scorpion is only one recent connection between Shakespeare and China in a nearly 400-year history of Shakespeare sailing East. At first, this sailing was very literal—one of the ships of the East India Company, the Red Dragon, carried Hamlet and Richard II at least as far as Indonesia by 1609, seven years before the death of Shakespeare. Even though translations of "Shashibiya" (the standard transliteration of Shakespeare's name) would not be available in China for nearly 300 years, the very name of Shakespeare began to be used for political and moral agendas by the early 19th century.

The complexity of engagement in the early stages derived in part from the attempt to find a national poet who could do for China what Shakespeare had done for England and the British Empire. At this stage in the interaction between the two constructs, more attention was given to biographical sketches of Shakespeare and the penumbra of his reputation than to his works themselves.

Huang continues his survey of interactions between China and Shakespeare by noting early stagings of The Merchant of Venice in 1867 and 1871 (in 1896, an English-language performance of the trial scene was staged by St. John's University in Shanghai, a university founded by missionaries), adding that portions of Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare were translated into Chinese as early as 1904. China had to wait until 1921 to have a complete translation of a play: Tian Han's Hamengleite.

Film versions of Shakespeare plays soon made their way onto Chinese screens. Huang analyzes two feature-length silent films—at least one of which appeared with title cards in English and Chinese: The Woman Lawyer (aka A Bond of Flesh [Rou quan]) in 1927 and A Spray of Plum Blossom (Yi jian mei) in 1931. The former, based on The Merchant of Venice, seems to be no longer extant; the later, a version of Two Gentlemen of Verona, is relatively easy to find. These two plays, with their strong female characters and the device of a woman taking on masculine attire to attain her ends, lent themselves to the genre of nüxia ("martial heroine") film, and they provided a model for Chinese women to emulate as modern gender roles developed.

Huang also spends considerable time providing details of a Chinese-language stage production of Hamlet that was performed in a Confucian temple in 1942. The action was ostensibly set in Denmark, but the language and the actual setting of the production pointed toward Chinese concerns. Huang's account of the layered performance brilliantly highlights both the propagandistic nature of putting on any Shakespeare play during the war and the way its staging before a shine to Confucius in a traditional gathering place gave the performance a localizing effect: Hamlet (despite Western makeup and prosthetic nose) seemed to be a Chinese villager asking advice of one of China's wisest men.

The breadth of Huang's study can be demonstrated in the lengthy attention he gives to a political prisoner's reading of Hamlet in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. Wu Ningkun's literary tastes (enjoying both Hamlet and Les Misérables) were suspect, and he was subjected to re-education. Confirming his love of Hamlet if not his leaning toward capitalism, Wu managed to smuggle a copy of the play into the camp with him. Huang examines Wu's encounter with Hamlet in a sensitive and enlightening manner, developing the ways in which reading Hamlet in such a setting tends to bring certain elements of the play into the foreground.

A third detailed account provided by Huang is that of a joint Soviet and Chinese production of Much Ado About Nothing that premiered in 1957 and was revived in 1961 and 1979. The production was titled Wushi shengfei (or Looking for Trouble in Trivial Matters). Because the play advertised itself as being about "nothing," it could be staged with relative impunity even in the turbulent political atmosphere of China in the late 1950s.

While Huang's insistence that each adaptation "has to be considered on its own terms" is fruitful—he is certainly right that, for example, merely noting the ways in which a film like A Spray of Plum Blossom deviates from the text of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (or from traditional Chinese dramatic conventions) is limiting in the extreme—he is too dogmatic in his conviction that the very idea of being "faithful" to the text or of providing "authentic" productions should be abandoned. Still, Huang's approach is understandable as a reaction against readings that start and end with the author of Hamlet. Knowing both Shakespeare and China intimately is required for appreciation of Chinese Shakespeares, and Huang's book will be the essential starting point for any future studies of this ongoing "cultural exchange."

Keith Jones is professor of English at University of Northwestern in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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