Shashibiya

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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Foreign Shakespeares

The starting place in terms of secondary reading on intercultural Shakespeare is Dennis Kennedy’s Foreign Shakespeare.  This 1993 edition was the first collection of essays by the main theorists and academics in the field.  Its focus is on translated Shakespeare, and has a strong emphasis on the socio-political mise-en-scene, particularly in the former Eastern European and Soviet communist bloc, and particularly in productions of Hamlet:

[…] if to the liberal west Hamlet is an expression of the individual spirit, to a censor in a more repressive land it is a threat. In Eastern Europe the play frequently received frank political readings at odds with the standard romantic interpretations [of Britain, America and pre-divided Germany etc] (Kennedy, 1993, 4).

Significantly, this collection, concentrating on post-War European productions, would have been put together shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and as such was a record of performances in an already past historical era at the moment of its publication.  Kennedy mentions East Asian Shakespeare only as a coda, with one chapter on Japan and a brief mention of China, yet recognises the potential and need for future research.  However, for me it is in many ways the essays on Shakespeare under occidental communism that have strongest relevance for Lin’s production despite the very different theatrical traditions of these diverse cultures.  According to Li Ruru in her book Shashabiya: Staging Shakespeare in China (see below), Chinese huaju or spoken theatre, and especially Chinese adaptations of Shakespeare, were heavily influenced by Soviet ‘experts’ working in China (2003, 42-3), and the experiences of artists constrained within a totalitarian communist regime must, I believe, have some point of similarity.  Thus, Guntner’s descriptions of Heiner Műller’s 1979 avant-garde performance Hamletmaschine  and his 1990 post-communist Hamlet/Maschine: Shakespeare/ Műller seem to be speaking of some of the same issues I felt were raised by Lin in his initial performances, such as the relocation of Elsinore to whatever environment was imprisoning that particular, localised audience.  Likewise, in the same essay, Frank Castorf’s 1989 Hamlet Material von Shakespeare is described, immediately bringing to my mind Lin Zhaohua’s production which was originally devised and performed in Beijing in the same year. In Castorf’s version ‘Plot, character, and text were broken apart and reassembled […] Gertrude spoke Claudius’ opening monologue’ (Guntner in Kennedy, 1993, 134); this is very similar to Lin Zhaohua’s dividing of Hamlet’s key speeches between the characters, so that Polonius, Claudius and Hamlet, for example, share out ‘To be or not to be.’ In his introduction to the essays, Kennedy also highlights the tendency towards Brechtian and Kottian readings and asserts that,

when the plays were used in post-war Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union [they were used] as dissident texts.  If new plays and films critical of a repressive regime are regularly censored, producers are sometimes tempted to make the classics into coded messages about the present: Shakespeare thus became a secret agent under deep cover (1993, 3-4).

Golub’s exploration of Lyubimov’s Hamlet at the Taganka Theatre in Moscow (1971) and again Kennedy’s insistence on the influence of Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Kott, translated into English, 1964) throughout European theatre, also resonates with some key points addressed by Li Ruru. Other useful articles in Kennedy’s edition are Lieblein’s case study of French translations, which suggest a methodology for exploring translation/re-scripting in relation to mise-en-scene, Hortmann’s essay on German scenographic metaphors and Pavis’ ‘how to do’ intercultural theatre criticism.

After Kennedy’s book, a small number of publications appear which concentrate on the Far East, either as a region (John Russell Brown’s 1999 New Sites for Shakespeare: Theatre, The Audience and Asia) or individual countries, such as Japan and China (Zhang Xiaoyang’s 1996 Shakespeare in China.) Simultaneously, an interest was growing in African, Sub-continental and, particularly in the last decade, Arabic responses to Shakespeare.  The flurry of publications on Chinese and Arab Shakespeares must be linked in part to the recent raised awareness of these two cultures in the Western consciousness: China because Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy has led to it being the newest Superpower – and of course, Olympic host – and Arab cultures because of 9/11, the ‘War on Terror’ and academia’s reaction to these. This is perhaps an area for further exploration.  Li Ruru (2003) argues that the history of Shakespeare in China is the history of modern China.  Therefore, it is also possible to argue that the history of Shakespeare performances and Shakespearean scholarship in the late 20C/early 21C world is a reflection of ‘the very age and body of the time’ (Hamlet 3.2.20-24).  Obviously, all literary criticism reflects the concerns of the era in which it is written.  Shakespeare’s global status, however, makes him a focus for many competing global and political agendas, in a way that James Joyce is not.

Other texts that explore some of these agendas include Kingsley Bolton’s study of Chinese Englishes (2003) which looks at the politics behind the introduction of English to China; Sonia Massai’s edited collection of essays World-wide Shakespeares (2005) which includes a chapter by the ubiquitous Li Ruru on Chinese adaptations; Ton Hoenselaars’ edited collection Shakespeare and the Language of Translation (2004), which includes Alexander Shurbanov and Boika Sokolova’s ‘Translating Shakespeare under Communism’ and Shen Lin’s essay on the prolific Chinese translator Liang Shi Qiu.  To further contextualise these, it will be important for me to look at texts on Chinese history and experience, such as Jonathan Fenby Modern China: Fall and Rise of a Great Power (2008), Kristoff and WuDunn’s China Wakes (1994), Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (1991), etc. Willam Dolby’s A History of Chinese Drama (1976) will also be the first point of reference for Chinese drama in general.

Starting a Literature Review

Bill suggested that I do an informal Literature Review, partly to survey for both of us the work being done in the area.  For me, however, its primary purpose  is to ensure that I have put in writing my responses to my reading. I have decided to add it (and, of course, continue to add to it) in this blog. There is a comfort in knowing that my words are backed up in cyber-space, and I am finding the postings categories extremely useful for organising disparate snippets of information.  Unlike my paper folders and my Word folders, I can actually find them after I have filed them here!  going back to my literature review,  I do not yet possess the critical vocabulary or understanding to summarise and expand on the intellectual questions raised by these critical texts.  Unlike their reviewers in literary journals, I do not recognise the methodologies that the writers utilise, nor do I feel confident to enter into a dialogue with them!!!  That will come with re-reading and redrafting. It also reminds me that a first year PhD student is in a very similar place to a first year undergraduate at the beginning of a degree course.

This literature review will focus on the reading relevant to the final appropriation of the Prince of Denmark’s adventures mentioned above: Lin Zhaohua’s 1995 revived and touring production of Hamuleite. This is the standard pinyin (Romanised) transliteration in Mandarin of the title Hamlet.  It has no meaning in Chinese, but has come to be recognised across Chinese culture as the name of the most famous play by the most famous world playwright, Shashibiya, Shakespeare. In fact, Guo Xiaolu’s fictional protagonist in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers notes that even her shoemaking peasant father ‘know Shakespeare big dude, because in our local government evening classes they telling everyones Shakespeare most famous person from Britain’(2007, 26), and Chinese schoolchildren across the nation, without having read Hamlet,  learn ‘yi qian ge ren yan li you yi qian ge hamuleite’ 一千个人眼里有一千个哈姆雷特  (inside one thousand people are one thousand Hamlets).

In order to contextualize Lin’s production of Hamlet and the issues surrounding it, I will begin with an overview of current literature in the field of trans-cultural appropriations, foreign Shakespeares and localizing Shakespeare in Asia.  On the one hand, this is relatively easy, as Shakespeare scholars have only recently shown a mainstream and concerted interest in non- Anglo transformations of his plays, with Anglo meaning primarily British or North American.  On the other hand, the lack of in-depth scholarship on the particular performance I am interested in could perhaps prove limiting, with only one academic, Li Ruru, writing about it at any length.  Nonetheless, there are a range of resources in English which focus on either Chinese adaptations of Shakespeare or on Chinese theatre forms, operatic and spoken, to help with this contextualisation.  These include journal articles in Asian Theatre Journal, TDR, Shakespeare Quarterly etc, a handful of theses and, especially useful for introducing how these performances look and for viewing short performance extracts, several university web resources.   The latter give an introduction to Shakespeare performances beyond his traditional linguistic and cultural boundaries to Western students, once again indicating that this is a growing area of scholarship globally.  I have also recently attended two major Shakespeare Conferences that gave centre stage to intercultural re-visionings of Shakespeare: the University of Nottingham Ningbo’s Crossing Continents Shakespeare Conference (2008) and the BSA Local/Global Shakespeare Conference (2009) hosted by KCL.  The guanxi (or connections) that I established with other academics interested in this area is already proving invaluable…

I have used Chinese name ordering throughout my work: family name followed by given name.

Hamlet in White

I knew I had something to return to: the mini-Shakespeare, Peele and Performance Conference at the University of York on November 2nd, and visiting speaker Michael Dobson’s surprised exclamation: ‘Hamlet in white!?!’ He was referring to the moment on his trip to China a few years previously, when he had been shown some pictures of a Chinese Hamlet. Was he talking about my Chinese Hamlet, I wondered? After all, Hamlet (Pu Cunxin) wore black jeans/trousers and an off-white hessian top in Lin’s production. And of course, in a western production Hamlet should have been wearing black – or at least should have according to Shakespeare’s script, although not according to Gertrude. ‘Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,’ she commands or begs in I.II. There are two reasons why I think Lin may have dispensed with this tradition. Firstly, it seemed to me when I watched Lin’s play that Pu’s contemporary western clothing was referencing Olivier’s loose white shirt in his film, which was widely shown in China at communal film-showings (Zhang). It was interesting to hear Judith Buchanan talk about the tradition of Hamletian clothing and editions being literally passed on from actor to actor in her talk at this conference. In this context, Hamlet is being aligned with a cinematic image that represents most of the target audiences initial contact with the play. However, even more significantly, this white shirt in Lin’s production makes sense of the meaning of Gertrude’s words in the local culture: i.e. ‘It is time to stop dressing in mourning for your father, son.’  For white is the colour of death in China, traditionally worn at funerals.

Dennis Kennedy explores this in his chapter on ‘Shakespeare and the Visual’ in Looking at Shakespeare (1993).  He argues that:

‘No visual element can have an absolute or fixed signification, since meaning depends upon shifting cultural perceptions’ (14). Thus, ‘A Hamlet set in contemporary Berlin is a different play than one set in medieval Elsinore or in Elizabethan London, yet all three have some legitimacy and even some Shakespeare authorization. To put it as simply as possible, how Hamlet is dressed reveals as much about the style and intention of  the performance as anything he says, and may well influence a spectator more  than Shakespeare’s poetry’ (15).