Ideology shaped holes.

 

Romanian Flag, 1989.

Healy, Thomas. “Past and Present Shakespeares: Shakespearian Appropriations in Europe.” Shakespeare and National Culture. Ed. John J Joughin. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997. 206 – 232.

Thomas Healy’s article, “Past and Present Shakespeares”, explores the issues around contemporary localizations of Shakespeare’s culturally and historically specific texts, and the concept of a “universal” Shakespeare in relation to expressions of national identity.  He opens and closes with re-visionings of Shakespeare in post-Communist Eastern Europe: a Bulgarian Romeo and Juliet and a Croatian Titus Andronicus. The former, a near silent, experimental production, is celebrated as a critique of any attempt at nationalist hegemonic appropriations. Having been absorbed initially as a symbol of European resistance to Ottoman culture, Romeo and Juliet had a highly politicized reading in this Bulgarian context, and under its later Soviet influences.  Although Shakespeare was then “celebrated in the Soviet world as a heroic representative of the progressive historical will,” (Healy in Joughin, 1997: 208), it nonetheless continued to be read as a symbolic representation of “the struggle for national self-determination against a controlling power.” (207)   Quoting Bulgarian critic Boika Sokolova, both she and Healy liken the silence in the production to the symbolism of protestors in neighbouring Romania cutting a hole in their national flag during the 1989/1990 protests against the regime, the hole literally removing the symbol of the Communist Party:

“This largely silent production exemplified a past no longer complete, a future still undecided, and, most prominently, a present where known theories and structures for understanding known happenings were displaced, yet where nothing had confidently replaced them.” (208)

Healy explores the second production through an article by Croatian critic Janja Ciglar-Zanic, “Recruiting the Bard: onstage and offstage glimpses of recent Shakespeare productions in Croatia” and both production and article cause him considerably more unease as they transform the text, and understanding of the significance of texts by Shakespeare, “to address a contemporary Croatian political and social climate.” ( 223)  Healy is “disturb[ed]” that here, “this essay illustrates the dangers of the protean, placeless Shakespeare”, the very same protean, placeless Shakespeare that is fashionable in the world of Shakespeare conferences and festivals at the moment.  His concern is that Shakespeare “ is open to co-option to every history” (my emphasis,  223).  Ciglar-Zanic reportedly asserts that Central Europe is really Western Europe in “spiritual” terms; in other words, it is in opposition to the East, both Russian and Near Asian, including Serbia:

“what actually underlies Ciglar-Zanic’s argument, however, is a desire to have a Croatian use of Shakespeare seen as evidence of this country’s proper participation in ‘a common European cultural unity’, allowing this nation’s perspectives to be legitimised is being authentically European.” (224).

He goes on to argue that:

“Shakespeare is recruited by a specific national platform because it is hoped this gives European, or even universal, cultural approval to its politics: civilisation is on our side.” (224).

What is different in this Croatian example is that the “climate”, in which the former Yugoslavia descends into religious, cultural and ethnic “cleansing”, is much less palatable to Healy, and to most readers, than Romania’s rejection of Ceausescu’s vision, or Bulgaria’s identification with an ideology shaped hole at the centre of the psyche of former Eastern Europe (although I remember feeling sick at the execution of the Ceaucescus a week after their capture).

Other than its specific local details, what interests me here is, to what extent do we, as critics, stand back from the politics of our material?  How differently do we respond when Shakespeare is appropriated by the ‘wrong side’? Dobson addressed this in a lecture at the University of York when he explored British POW Shakespeare productions in German prison camps in WWII.  What about the ethics and politics of prisoners who put on The Merchant of Venice, with costumes and sets provided by their captors? Can we, with hindsight, view them as anything other than collaborators? (York, November 2009)

Returning to the Croatian appropriation, I wonder if Healy is arguing against the validity of any form of making Shakespeare our contemporary, because of the dangerous political uses to which his works can be put?    This isn’t expressed in the main text, but is there in the subtext.  He compares Ciglar-Zanic’s argument to the content of an article by Milan Kundera: ‘A Kidnapped West or culture bows out.”  According to Healy, Kundera identifies a spiritual geography thus: ‘the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Slovenes and Croats belong to the West, opposing the Orthodox Slavs.” (Healy in Joughgin, 1997: 225)

“on the Eastern border of the West –  more than anywhere else –  Russia is seen not just as one more European power but as a singular civilisation, an other civilisation.” (Kundera in Healy 225)

What bothers me about Healy’s argument isn’t that he disagrees with Ciglar-Zanic’s and Kundera’s standpoint, but that he rejects it out of hand as a “fatuous […] line of argument…” (Healy 225). Without compromising our own values, do we not need to try to understand the contexts of such attempts to redefine national identity, even whilst rejecting, in the case of Croatia, the emerging politics? I suppose that for me, it’s not the rightness or wrongness of appropriations that interest me in the context of my PhD.  I don’t feel great anger that “the Bard” is usurped.  This is because on the one hand that is allowing my liberal thinking to co-opt him to my own liberal agenda (which I confess I do as a teacher).  Communist societies in transition were alien and admittedly fascinating societies to me as a lefty teenager growing up during the Cold War.  So, on the other hand, looking at the politics of these alien societies through the lens of plays that are familiar to me from my own culture, gives me a way into trying to begin to understand the contexts of those very other experiences.

As usual, I have skipped down a side alley in my thinking.  However, how will I deal with the politics of a nation that is alien to me and presented in terms of an other civilisation by Western media and analysis?

‘H’ Turning Japanese

From Pavis (1996) The Intercultural Performance Reader London and New York: Routledge.

Christel Weiler ‘Japanese traces in Robert Wilson’s Productions’ (pp. 105-13) and Robert Wilson interviewed by Der Spiegel, ‘Hear, See, Act’ (pp. 99-104):

(I haven’t worked out whether Christel is male or female, so instead of using s/he throughout, I’ll plump for female.  Apologies for any unexpected gender realignment!)

Christel Weiler’s article exploring the Japanese traces in Wilson’s work also offers a couple of useful insights.  Although she points out that Wilson’s aesthetic is essentially personal rather than cultural (?), she explores through his example how a practitioner can be energised by intercultural exposure.  Weiler compares Wilson to Brecht: Brecht was already thinking about his theory of alienation, but his exposure to Chinese theatre helped it to be ‘formulated […] more clearly’ (p. 106).  Likewise, when Wilson discovered Noh theatre years into his career it confirmed his ‘aesthetic perception’ – ‘It respects the spectator, doesn’t afflict or attack him [sic] but leaves him space’ (citing Wilson p.107).  Weiler’s comments on Wilson/Noh sheds light on certain aspects of Ryutopia Noh’s Hamlet. The Wilson/Noh artist ‘does not force his emotions on the audience’ but ‘walks on stage fresh, as if he knew nothing’ (p. 107).  Noh actor Hideo Kanze comments, ‘It doesn’t do you any good to act on the basis of how you feel; you’ve got to work on the basis of how you look’ (p. 107).  This separation of feeling and appearing is apparently typical of ‘stylized’ kata movements in Kabuki. Citing Jacob Raz, ‘the emphasis on [kata] has developed into the interesting Kabuki convention of separating action from reaction.  If the hero hits his enemies, their reaction occurs – temporally and spatially – separately, thus breaking action and reaction into small fragments of time and space […] Every move is important.  There is no such thing as a meaningless gesture’ (p. 110).  Raz goes on to discuss the slow tempo of Kabuki, which doesn’t bear any resemblance to my memory of going to see Kabuki in Tokyo, however.  I remember a fast-paced comic plot that, to my alien eyes, seemed to sit comfortably somewhere between Pantomime and Gilbert and Sullivan…

But back to Wilson turning Japanese!  Weiler concludes, however, that the appropriation of Japanese theatre elements in Wilson’s work aren’t necessarily about Japan/ese, but are rather ‘symbols of the “foreign” in general’ (p.112). They represent ‘alienation’ and ‘incommensurability’, and in this, Weiler argues (or, at least, I think Weiler argues), the audience finds the attraction, ‘the beauty in the “foreign” which fascinates us’ (p. 113).  This, I suppose, links to what Alex Huang notes as the Westerners fascination with the visual ‘exoticism’  of Asian theatres.

Robert Wilson, in his Der Spiegel interview, sheds further light on why Japanese theatre in particular helped him develop his vision. ‘ Theatre should not interpret, but should provide us with the possibility of contemplating a piece of work and reflecting on it.  If you behave as if you’ve grasped everything, then the work is finished […] I always tell my actors, “It’s not our job to provide answers, but to raise questions.  We must ask the questions so that the text opens itself to us, and by doing that we enter into dialogue with the audience”‘ (p. 101).  Interestingly for me, his example is, of course, Hamlet.

‘The text is just the surface, in some ways the skin and there is flesh underneath it and underneath that the bones. One single word, let’s say “Hamlet”, or even in one single letter of that, “H” can contain everything a man has ever felt, experienced or suffered.  It’s very complex‘ (p.103, my emphasis).  I’ve singled out this sentence because of its possible relevance to the recent Gdansk production, H.

Japanese Shingeki

From Pavis (1996) The Intercultural Performance Reader London and New York: Routledge.

Erika Fischer-Lichte ‘Interculturalism in Contemporary Theatre’ (pp. 27-40):

Fischer-Lichte explores alterity, or Otherness, in theatre through a European lens – from Goethe to Brook and Mnouchkine.   She notes the worldwide phenomena of ‘interculturalism’ in theatre being recognised/named in the 1970s but points out that it had been going on for generations. In the 18 and 19C, Goethe thought that world literature would replace national literature (p28).  Nonetheless, he revised Romeo and Juliet to suit the tastes of his German audience.  He also read an Indian drama, the Sakantala, claiming that it influenced not only his work, but his ‘whole life’ (p29); however, he ultimately concluded ‘that our sensibilities, customs and ways of thinking have developed so differently from those in this eastern nation that even an important work such as this… can have little success here [in Weimar]’ (cited p29).  Thus, it was the European avant-garde movement which first began to actively engage with the ‘foreign’: ‘By calling for the re-theatricalization of theatre which they felt was long overdue, they rejected the form of bourgeois theatre of illusion so dominated by language, and turned to theatre traditions from completely foreign, non-European cultures to encourage and advance European theatre’ (p30) e.g. Gordon Craig’s use of African masks, Reinhardt’s hanamichi flower path through the audience, Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt from Chinese opera.  This was all ‘a conscious and productive encounter’ with foreign traditions (p30). 

Most of Pavis/Fischer-Lichte’s readers are probably already familiar with much of this.  What Fischer-Lichte introduces as new information (at the time of publication) is what she calls the ‘remarkable fact’ that, just as the West was appropriating the East, so was the east appropriating the West.  In 1885 The Merchant of Venice was put on Kabuki-style; this lead to a fully Westernised production of Hamlet in 1911.  This ‘new drama’ or Shingeki was fully established by the 1920s, often staged by the ‘Literary Society’ or Osanai Kaoru’s ‘Tsukiji Little Theatre’ (1924), drawing particularly on Chechov, Ibsen and Stanislavski.  In a reversal of the vision of the  European avant-garde, ‘The members of the Shingeki movement believed that traditional theatre forms such as Noh and Kabuki were outdated and sterile.  They felt such forms were no longer in touch with the problems of contemporary Japanese society.  By turning to realistic drama of european origin, they tried to stimulate the development of modern Japanese society by offering a model’ (p30-31).

Fischer-Lichte goes on to explore three case-studies, not all of which have direct relevance for my work.  However, there are a couple of points that she makes about intercultural theatre in general and Japanese theatre in particular that I would like to draw out.

Again, as the ‘new’ intercultural avant-garde (Brook, Wilson, Mnouchkine) took off in the West, the ‘Little Theatre tradition’ was re-established in Japan, but not in the form of Shingeki which, post WWII, was ‘now considered to be the symbol of a thorough Westernization of Japanese society’ (p33).  Contemporary Little Theatre practitioners, such as Suzuki Tadashi, interpret ‘Western play texts with a performance style which clearly draws on the performance techniques’ of traditional  Japanese drama (p33).  This, I assume, is the influence which lies behind Ryutopia’s Shakespeare productions.  Suzuki combines what he sees are the strengths of two traditions, Western linguistic expression and Eastern physical expression, to make a new theatre language (p34).

Fischer-Lichte gives an example of Suzuki’s use of Japanese tradition: the Suri-ashi or sliding step and the Ashi-byoshi or stamping step.  Suri-ashi makes the walker appear rooted to the ground, as with Lady Macbeth in Throne of Blood. Stamping simultaneously suppresses evil spirits and ‘activates  the energy of the good spirits living under the stage’ into the actor’s body (p34).  Out of context of  traditional drama, however, directors can free these actions of their traditional connotations, and give them new meaning.

What exactly is interculturalism?

I recently took out of the library two books on intercultural performance in the hopes that they would answer my question, what exactly is ‘interculturalism’ and how is it a useful term in relation to the work I am doing on Chinese Shakespeare performance?  The books are Patrice Pavis, ed. (1996) The Intercultural Performance Reader and Bonnie Marranca and Gautum Dasgupta, eds (1991) Interculturalism and Performance: Writings from PAJ.

What is culture?

I have to admit that Pavis’ first chapter, although interesting, was extremely hard-going!  That is possibly because it is in translation – I found myself having to read every other sentence at least three times and I still didn’t always get it!  Either that or I’m thick…   He first introduces the idea of ‘culture’ through the words of Camille Camilleri (1982) as that which is related to the practices and perspectives of a specific community: ‘Culture is a kind of shaping, of specific ‘inflections’ which mark our representations, feelings, activity – in short, and in a general manner, every aspect of our mental life and even our biological organism under the influence of the group’ (cited p. 3). Cultural order is ‘artificial’, is ‘art’, as opposed to natural order, or nature (p. 3) In the words of Geertz (1973), it is:

a system of symbols thanks to which human beings confer a meaning on their own experience.  Systems of symbols, created by people, shared, conventional, ordered and obviously learned, furnish them with an intelligible setting for orienting themselves in relation to others or in relation to a living work and to themselves. (cited p.4)

Thus, ‘the body of the actor is […] penetrated and moulded by “corporeal techniques” (Marcell Mauss) proper to his/her culture and by the codifications of his/her tradition of performing[…] Actors simultaneously reveal the culture of the community where they have trained and where they live, and the bodily technique they have acquired, be this rigorously formalized by an established tradition (as in the Peking Opera, for example) or camouflaged by an ideology of the “natural” (as with the Western naturalistic actor’ (p. 4). 

What is intercultural?

So, if that is cultural, what is intercultural and how does it affect our ways of seeing and understanding?  Pavis introduces the idea of ‘intercultural’ as what happens, in the case of theatre, when practitioners self-consciously bring together disparate elements from within and without their community, or create an intercultural community, in order to make something new.  For example, perhaps a dramatic text ‘ accumulates innumerable sedimentations resulting from various languages and experiences, and re-forms them into a new text’  (p. 3).  One of the things that intercultural performance also does, argues Pavis, is ‘expose’ as ‘conventions’ the practices of a community’s practices, even the supposed naturalism of realism.  Thus, the familiar is made unfamiliar and vice versa. My understanding of what he is saying is that it is the amalgamation that takes place that makes the process and product intercultural, not simply its international ingredients. Pavis argues that a performance simply being put on in an international setting, such as a festival, for example, does not automatically make it an intercultural experience. 

Eurocentrism

Pavis  issues a warning to his readers to be aware of Eurocentric attitudes and perspectives in their approach to intercultural performance,  and he is careful to bring in references to Japanese theatre in particular.  Nonetheless, he places Peter Brook, Eugenio Barba and Ariane Mnouchkine at the centre of his argument (p.1 ), later acknowledging  that his collection is ‘largely produced and aimed at a European and Anglo-American readership’ (p25).  The one article/performance in his collection that is by mainland Chinese is referred to quite negatively in his introduction: ‘one should avoid turning intercultural theatre into a vague terrain for comparing themes or cultural identities, as in China Dreams’ (p2).  This, and other non-Western voices are collected in Part III, the final section of the book, so although Pavis wishes to avoid East/West oppositional viewpoints (p. 25), or the privileging of the ‘dominant’ (West) over the ‘dominated’ (‘Third World’), as he terms them, the structuring of his book does just that.    Therefore, it appears that ‘interculturalism’ is very much understood to be a Western dominated, post-World War II phenomenon, for although Shingeki, the pioneering modern Japanese theatre from, is mentioned, it is not followed up.  From my reading outside of this book, my understanding is that the appropriation of spoken drama in Japan in turn influenced the evolution of spoken drama, huaju, in China, and also helped create the genre of theatrical drama in Korea.    

Western-style Drama comes to China

19th Century Chinese Opera (Image from Wiki Commons)

The chapter ‘The Appearance of Western-style Drama’ in William Dolby’s 1976 A History of Chinese Drama, starts with what seems like the overstatement of an enthusiast: ‘Developments in twentieth-century Chinese drama have often closely reflected, and strongly influenced, national political and intellectual events’ (p.197).  However, it was the publication of a criticism in a newspaper in 1961 of a play by Wu Han, Dismissal of Hai Rui, which is seen by many as the event that kick-started the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (p.250).  Among its casualties were Lao She, one of China’s greatest novelists and playwrights who, unable to take the public beatings and struggle sessions, drowned himself in a Beijing lake, and Tian Han, China’s first translator of Hamlet, who died in a prison camp. 

Dolby’s chapters on 20th century Chinese drama are particularly pertinent, therefore, because they would have been written during the height of that massive cultural and social upheaval, and published at the moment of its end.   The conclusion of his book could be applied to more than the future of  Chinese theatre: ‘For what lies ahead, the imponderables are legion and prediction is vain…'(p.255).  

I wonder whether Dolby, or any of the playwrights he wrote of who survived, could have imagined what lay ahead only 30 years later: Zhang Yimou, who a decade or so earlier had been the much-banned baddest of bad boys out of the Fifth Generation film directors, stage-managing the breathtaking multi-million extravaganza that was the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, alongside scooping international awards and putting on western opera. All three of those elements would have been beyond imagination – China’s filmmakers dominating global cinema, Beijing HOSTING the Olympics, and  Turandot sung in the Forbidden City! 

Traditionally, Chinese drama has been operatic, with many regional forms, from Beijing’s all male troupes to the female Yue opera of Zhejiang (see Women Playing Men by Jin Jiang). By the beginning of the last century, Beijing Opera (京剧 jingju) began to dominate and be identified as a the main force in the emerging Chinese ‘national’ theatre. Beijing Opera is a highly stylized and visual art form, with elaborate costumes, symbolic make-up, dance and acrobatics.  Like Western opera, its vocal medium is primarily music: choruses, arias, etc. However, unlike Western opera, it is popular rather than elitist (although my students insist that ‘Nowadays it is mostly popular with only with old people and foreigners!’).  

Lao She's spoken drama 'Teahouse' (c) China Daily, 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Early Years (post 1895) 

Dolby’s chapter on huaju (literally ‘speech drama’) explores the introduction into a long-established tradition of musical theatre what was initially a strange, foreign art-form. It was originally, therefore, largely the interest of the educated elite. Although it gradually gained acceptance, even as late as 1963  ‘the problem of adjustment persists’ (Dolby, endnote, p.281).  He cites Jin Jian: ‘Some people say that peasants like xiju and are unwilling to watch huaju […] How to facilitate peasant acceptance of huaju is a vital problem to be solved at the moment’ (endnote, p.281). Dolby suggests that peasants needed to accept huaju partly in order for it to be considered fully Sinicized, and also because of its potential to be used for propoganda purposes (p.213-4). 

Chinese made a conscious decision to ‘appropriate large quantities of Western knowledge’ (197) in the aftermath of their defeat by the Japanese in 1895.  Japan, a traditionally subordinate country, was seen to have risen so rapidly because of its ability to adopt ‘the weapons of Western science, technology and ideas’ (197).  Thus both traditional Chinese forms of theatre and imported Western forms were both utilised as part of a reawakening of a desire for national strength (197). Some playwrights also began to combine elements of both Eastern and Western culture.  In a play called New Rome, Liang Qichao saw ‘parallels between the plight of China  and that of nineteenth century Italy’ (197)  [i.e.  to Metternich and Italy’s highly unstable and fragmented state]. In the Prologue of this incomplete, Sinicized  dramatisation of the Risorgimento, Dante, dressed as a Daoist, sings ‘But the spirit of nationalism and principles of liberty/ blazed all over Europe with their fire,/ the cries sped, the wails spread fast,/ ah, how much blood streamed forth in that sole hour!’ (Liang in Dolby, 198).  Dante then goes off with Shakespeare and Voltaire on a cloud to watch the action!  ‘The psychological link in many minds between national humiliation and the uses of drama is seen in many writings around the turn of the century’ (endnote, 277). 

Dolby argues that huaju was so suited to political subjects because instead of using classical Chinese in intricate song and poetry, like traditional theatre, its playwrights adopted a written form of ‘bald’ contemporary ‘spoken’ Chinese (202).  He also notes that although the impetus for modernisation and Westernisation came from a sense of humiliation at losing a war with Japan, Japan was also seen as a haven for political and cultural change and fostered many early practitioners of huaju (202). In fact, one of the earliest troupes, the Spring Willow Society, was made up of a group of Chinese students studying in Tokyo who were guided by a Japanese actor. 

The Republic (1911) and May Fourth Movement (1919) 

After Sun Yi Xian (Sun Yat-sen)’s revolution, the Spring Willow Society became the Spring Willow Theatre company, putting on over 80 plays in 3 years based on traditional Chinese tales and foreign novels.  Then a Shanghai based literary organisation, the Enlightenment Society, put on kaimingxi  (enlightened plays) or wenming xinxi (civilised new plays), generally referred to as wenmingxi (civilised plays) (203). I go into this detail because I think the terms coined for this new drama form indicates how closely it was linked to ideas of reform and modernisation, and suggests a rejection of the old ways, perhaps. 

Also, Dolby points out, thousands of Chinese students went to Europe during the first world war and some to America. I suppose that they brought back a taste for communism as well as  for Western art forms – I think that Deng Xiaoping studied in Paris as a young man.  The May Fourth Movement, a student led anti-Imperialist protest that started when the Treaty of Versailles handed the German Concession of Shandong to Japan, not back to China, also encouraged cultural and political change.  I remember wanting to buy a pair of black cloth shoes with a strap and white soles when I was first in China.  My Mandarin language partner, Zhou Yan, told me that they were ‘May Fourth’ shoes. Young women had begun to reject foot-binding and other old ways, and politically minded female students wore these black cloth shoes to identify with the peasants, if I remember rightly. Likewise, supporters of huaju became ‘openly and violently scornful’ of traditional drama (205), which Dolby describes as too ‘earthy and sensual […] with the bawdy and homosexual atmospheres of the old theatre world’ (205) for their reforming tastes.  As the manifesto of the Popular Drama Society (founded 1921) put it: 

‘Bernard Shaw once said:”The theatre is a place for propagating ideas” […] The time is past when people took theatre-going as [mere] recreation.  The theatre occupies and important place in modern society.  It is a wheel rolling society forward.  It is an X-ray searching out the root of society’s maladies.  It is also a just and impartial mirror, and the standards of everybody in the nation is stripped stark naked when reflected in this great mirror, that allows no slightest thing to remain invisible […] This kind of theatre is precisely what does not exist in China at present, but it is what we, feeble though we are, want to strive to create’ (in Dolby, 1976: 205).  

One young playwright, Hong Shen, returned from the USA in 1922 and ‘perhaps because I had read too much Freud on sexual abnormality’ found he could not stomach the tradition of men playing women.  To prove a point, his company put on an all male performance, followed by a performance by a mixed gender cast: ‘loading his dice’ as Dolby puts it (209). Early Chinese huaju not only reacted to traditional Chinese forms but also traditional values.  The young students who had received their tertiary education abroad, came back opposing not only acrobatics and singing, but also the old family system (206), a theme often reflected in their drama. 

Huaju gained increasing popularity during the 1920s and 30s, with both Communists and Nationalists. 

Another important feature in the growth and acceptance of huaju during this period was the advent of cinema which ‘helped accustom the public to purely spoken and Western-style performances, and to create a taste for them’ (204). 

The Long March (1935-4) and the war years (from 1937) 

Drama was important to the Communists because it maintained ‘morale and disseminate[d] propoganda’ (213). Throughout the war years, itinerant troupes performed all over China, to all classes.  A Western reporter told of one makeshift performance in a temple court: ‘Under […] crude conditions the two dramatic troupes put on their performances which held their audience spellbound for many hours.  The sun went down and the winter stars shone on the village drama; kerosene lamps were brought to light the stage.  Till after ten on a bitter January night the blue-grey soldiers stood watching, laughing and applauding.  The dramas showed aspects of the war against japan; they were portrayals of life as those soldiers knew it’ (Strong in Dolby, 1976: 214).

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…!