Chinese Shakespeare through Western Eyes

Murray Levith’s 2004 Shakespeare in China is an enjoyable read, giving another general introduction to the Chinese Shakespeare scene.  Unlike Li Ruru and Alex C. T. Huang, he is writing and seeing from a Westerner’s perspective, I presume (although names can be misleading in our increasingly intermixed world), and much of the book contextualizes the Chinese ‘backdrop’ of the texts and performances he focusses on.  I felt an immediate bond with Professor Levith because he, like me, was a sojourner in Shandong Province, a ‘Foreign Expert’ at Qufu Teachers University (I taught at Shandong University in Jinan between 1993-5 and again in 2000-03).   Qufu, he is quick to point out, like a true Shandongren (native of Shandong), is Confucious’ ‘hometown’.  As one of my post-graduate students once put it – because of this heritage, ‘Shandong is to China what Jerusalem is to Christendom,’ and at a number of places in his analysis Levith touches on how Chinese translators and scholars view Shakespeare’s plays through Confucian spectacles.

Like most books on Shakespeare in China, Levith starts out by looking at that first translation of Shakespeare’s works by a named author, Lin Shu(Lin Qinnan)’s The Mystery Fiction of the English Poet.  Lin rewrote Lamb’s Tales  at the beginning of the 20th Century, in classical Chinese.  Levith, along with other scholars, notes how Lin flags up  in his preface that Shakespeare wrote of ‘gods, fairies, ghosts and demons’, continuing that, ‘If westerner’s are so civilized, then maybe these works mentioned [Shakespeare’s] should be banned and burned so as not to interfere with scientific knowledge’ (Lin cited in Fei cited in Levith, 2004: 6).   This same passage is commented on by Li Ruru in her book.   Li places Lin’s ‘Preface’ in the context of his challenge to the Chinese modernizers who wanted to get rid of ‘superstitious’ Chinese culture and replace it with what they saw as ‘rational’ Western culture, whereas Levith reads it quite differently, concluding:  ‘As a good Confucian, and perhaps to anticipate criticism for choosing Shakespeare to translate in the first place, [Lin] also castigates the playwright for his non-scientific ‘superstition’ (5-6).  Personally, I feel that Li Ruru’s argument is strongest, as it makes sense in the historical contexts of the time (see my entry on her book Shashabiya).  It also avoids the anomaly of Lin having dedicated so much energy to translating something that he thought worthy only of burning…   Levith, unlike me, has fluent Mandarin and often uses his own translations, so I am not suggesting that he has misinterpreted the passage.  Nonetheless, this sort of discrepancy in interpretation between equally authoritative scholars highlights to me some of the pitfalls I will face in being fully reliant on other people’s translations.   

Something I really liked about this book is the way that Levith, like Li, is able to conjure up a sense of real people.  It is hard not to be moved by the story of the Keats-like Zhu Shenghao (1911-44).  Determining to translate the Complete Works of Shakespeare, despite war and illness, he set himself a ten-year deadline, but unfortunately, in 1936, shortly after starting, all his books and criticism were destroyed. ‘What I was able to carry away in haste were the one volume Oxford Shakespeare and a few of my draft translations’ (in Levith, 2004:11).  He died at 33 of TB.  ‘Song Qingru, his widow, reported that his deathbed words were: “Had I known I would not rise again after this illness, I would have exerted all my efforts to complete the translation”‘(cited in Meng in Levith, 2004: 11)!  What an image – thousands of miles and hundreds of years distant from Shakespeare and early modern England, the shivering, impoverished Zhu sat hunched over tissue thin pieces of  paper, hands blue with ink and cold, in the Siberian conditions of a Chinese winter, coughing up blood, and knowing that he will die before his task is completed.

However, although extremely knowledgeable, Levith (like many Westerners writing on China) is only able to see Communism as a Bad Thing, both in terms of the country’s social/economic development and its intellectual development. The book gives a sense that contemporary China (and its understanding of Shakespeare, of course) has been held back by the events of the last sixty years: ‘Even today many People’s Republic Shakespeare scholars, translators, and theatre people still begin with ideological assumptions and dated models, and tailor their analyses or productions to these analyses and models’ (xiii). Obviously, I am not about to condone the suffering of millions of people during the various campaigns of the Mao years, from A Hundred Flowers and the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution.  However, it is simplistic and ironic to make ‘an important distinction […] between older generation Shakespeareans, who remember campaigns against intellectuals and the Cultural Revolution and are understandably cautious, and the younger generation with a freer and more global viewpoint’ (xiii), if the distinction is that the first category are somehow less valid than the second.  Simplistic, because it is these ideological contexts, and indeed this very ‘caution’, that makes our study of Shakespeare in post-1949 China so fascinating, and ironic because it seems to me that Levith is unhappy that older Chinese Shakespeare scholars are not adhering to his idea of ‘correct thinking’ (although I am sure he would not think of his intellectual worldview in these terms)…:

‘The paradox of Shakespeare in the New China, however, is that the Chinese have mostly adapted and appropriated the playwright for their own ideological and aesthetic purposes [Well, duh! = inappropriate, non-academic response to the ideas of a very useful-to-my studies scholar!  But I can hear an echo in his tone of the sentiments of the dear, sweet, oh-so-infuriating American missionaries who used to live upstairs from me in Shandong…]. They have dressed the Bard in various Chinese opera styles, forced him to be an apologist for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, celebrated his lesser plays, neglected several of his masterpieces, excised sex, religion, and contrary politics from his texts, added to them, and at times simplified, corrupted, or misunderstood his characters and themes.  Perhaps more than any other nation, China has used a great artist to forward its own ideology rather than meet him on his own ground’ (137).

Well, thank goodness for that, or I’d be up a PhD without a thesis…!

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