February 3, 2010 at 10:33 am (East Asian Shakespeare, Eastern Performance, Hamlet in Performance, Literature Review, Translation)

This brings me to the key texts on Chinese Shakespeare. Amongst the most enjoyable and accessible is the afore-mentioned Li Ruru’s Shashibiya: Staging Shakespeare in China (2003). Li unashamedly allows the autobiographical to enter into her analysis, presenting much of the material as informed and academic but, nonetheless, personal extended reflections. She also looks at productions put on by her family members and herself, bringing in the voice of a practitioner as well as a critic. Thus early allusions to her own experiences as a ‘re-educated youth’ sent to the countryside to live and work as a peasant during the Cultural Revolution (ix, xi) and anecdotes about returning to China in 1999 only to find herself left out of conversations between her friends (newly introduced to each other!) because she was the only person around the table not caught up in the ‘national sport’ of buying stocks and shares (85), are set alongside critical evaluations of key Chinese appropriations of The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and Troilus and Cressida. However, these details bring alive for the non-Mainland Chinese reader the lived reality that gave rise to the performances in a way that listing dates and historical figures or events alone cannot do. Initially, I was very excited to see Troilus and Cressida listed at the front of the book, as I have always had a tendency to lean towards the less canonical, and this is a story that has fascinated me since reading Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as an undergraduate. Unfortunately, there is only a photograph and an eight-line mention of the production, which was a high-budget Western-style opera put on for the Shanghai International Shakespeare Festival in 1994, and which closed after its four performances (211), and I have not been able to find any other references to the production. However, it was through Li’s book that I began to think about exploring how Shakespeare came to be not simply adapted and put on for festivals but truly appropriated, so that I stopped thinking about Lin Zhaohua’s version of Hamlet as a standalone production, and began to see how it was part of a greater process. Shakespeare’s introduction to China was independent of any Western colonial agenda and was linked to an increased sense of national cultural pride in the face of a Western cultural hegemony on the one hand and part of a modernisation movement that leaned towards Westernisation on the other. Thus, Li quotes from Lin Shu’s introduction to his Chinese Tales from Shakespeare (1904), illustrating the debate among Chinese reformers and modernisers about the desired extent of Westernisation. Clearly, some of the most radical reformers, ‘those young people in our country’, were asserting that ‘superior’ Western ideas should replace ‘uncivilized’ Chinese ideas (13), those uncivilised ideas including liking to talk about ‘gods and spirits’. Lin Shu continues: ‘If westerners are really civilised, they should have already burnt [Shakespeare’s] works and banned them. However, the fact is that the intellectual elite of the west is so fond of Shakespeare’s poetry that every household in the country seems to be reading and reciting his lines all day long […] Nobody reproaches him for his antiquated thoughts, nor is anyone angry that he is talking about gods and spirits.’ (1904, cited in Li, 2003, 13) Lin Shu deliberately categorised his translation as shenggui xiaoshuo, ‘stories of ghosts and spirits’, which Li explains is a very familiar genre in China (13). It seems to me that this passage and categorisation is not saying that Chinese culture is as good as Shakespeare, but actually cleverly reversing it; the emphasis is that Shakespeare, that ambassador for Western civilisation, is in fact just like the old Chinese storytellers, the moral of the story being – don’t be taken in by these new ideas that West is best. However, the modernisers appropriated Shakespeare just as effectively, holding him up as a humanist ideal that Chinese should strive for if they were to move forward. Thus, many ‘civilised drama’ productions, the forerunners of huaju or Chinese spoken drama, were based plays on Lin’s tales. ‘Civilised drama’ (which means modern) and huaju both developed in the early twentieth century from the imported foreign theatrical form of spoken drama (Chinese traditional theatre is operatic). Li, in a theme that is developed and expanded on by  Alexa Huang (published as Alexander C. T. Huang) in her book Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Intercultural Exchange (2009), looks at the phenomenon of what Huang calls ‘Shakespeare in Absentia’ (Chapter 1) i.e. how Shakespeare as a personality and as a concept was popularised, politicised and performed in China for twenty or more years before anyone directly translated anything he had actually written. Li also touches on issues of translation/transliteration in chapter 1, which I would like to develop further.

Her book also has an extract of an interview with Lin Zhaohua about his  huaju (spoken theatre) adaptation, the revival of which I saw in Japan, and a close analysis of the performance and its reception.  It is also interesting to note Lin’s insistence that he has never heard of Kott even though the programme notes quote the critic!  This Kottian resonance nonetheless highlights for me a possible link back to the influence of Soviet ‘experts’ on the Chinese understanding of Shakespeare, or more likely, the effects of living in a totalitarian regime (Lin’s early acting career with the Beijing People’s Theatre Company was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution).  The book also clearly introduces to a Western reader the various operatic forms which constitute China’s indigenous popular theatre.

Video clips and explications of several of these performances are available from John Gillies and Li’s Stamford University website Shakespeare in China. This is one of several university websites that aim to introduce World Shakespeares to their students (their web addresses can be found in the bibliography).  Other web resources include the University of Victoria’s Internet Shakespeare Editions ‘Shakespeare Around the Globe’, with yet another article by Li Ruru.  Although this covers much of the same ground as the above, it is beautifully illustrated with colour stills from various productions, giving a reader new to the culture a visual understanding of the material.


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