Shashibiya: Staging Shakespeare in China (review)
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Shashibiya: Staging Shakespeare in China. By Li Ruru. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2003. Illus. Pp. xii + 305. $49.50 cloth, $29.95 paper.

Instantly recognizable to anyone with a grade-school Chinese education, the name Shashibiya (pronounced Shah-shh-bee-yah) is an otherwise nonsensical transliteration of Shakespeare's name using characters chosen solely for their sound, but which could, in the hands of a Mandarin Malvolio, suggest something along the lines of "The Nutgrass Scholar Compares with Asia." Shakespeare is also sometimes called Sha Weng in China, as Li Ruru explains, or "'Old Man Sha'"—a name that is used reverentially the way some like to say "The Bard" (25). In any case, that final character ya (Asia) in his name somehow makes such a book as this seem as inevitable as the Chinese appropriations that it copiously describes from an insider's perspective. Full of compelling anecdotes, well-informed observations, and original interview material from the author's close involvement with theater professionals over the years (her mother was a famous Peking Opera star, who later married Cao Yu, the great dramatist), Li Ruru's book is the perfect introduction to Shakespearean staging in mainland China for those who know a lot about Shakespeare but little about China.

It would be unfair to disparage Li's book as anecdotal or piecemeal, since its many stories and its selectivity are what make it so much more interesting and valuable than an exhaustive or strictly methodical history might be. Moreover, the [End Page 494] frequent division of the text with subheadings makes for easy navigation as the book darts around in what will probably be completely unfamiliar territory to most readers. In short, despite its occasionally stiff (but always clear) prose and its sometimes careless editing, it is a very informative book—and it is a delight to read. Beautifully printed in Hong Kong, it also contains fourteen (mostly color) glossy plates showing such improbable spectacles as the Macbeths fully appointed in costume appropriate for the kunju style of Chinese opera (Figure 2) and a Chinese Bassanio in a blonde wig, prosthetic nose, and doublet and hose (Figure 1). These pictures are (in the faux-Confucian maxim) worth ten thousand words each.

To be sure, Li has written a work of scholarship, and it's all there: she offers continual analyses of the political, cultural, and artistic forces that filter the plays in their passage to the Chinese stage, including discussions of the influence of Marx's and Engels's comments on Shakespeare, early Soviet workshops in the Stanislavski method, and the specifics of traditional Chinese theatrical conventions (such as those of Peking opera, or jingju, and less familiar regional forms such as kunju and yueju). She helpfully provides a running contextualization of performances through little snippets of modern Chinese history; she offers a few choice excerpts from early publicity materials and theater reviews (fascinating and often hilarious, such as the newspaper blurb about a play that "'involves cutting off a piece of one's own flesh to borrow money, while the heroine, though a woman, nevertheless becomes a lawyer'" [20]); she even surveys the crucial facts of important literary adaptations and translations. She has also compiled an appendix of major mainland productions that will prove useful to other scholars in surveying the terrain. But I must stress that it is the very personal quality of much of the text that makes it so appealing—indeed, she mentions a personal acquaintance or offers a personal observation every few pages—and we should be grateful that we have someone like Li to write such a book for us. Others will undoubtedly write the stage histories of Shakespeare in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and others will rewrite portions of this stage history of the mainland more analytically, theoretically, and methodically, but few are likely to match Li for the intensely personal quality of the work.

When, for example, Li interviews a surviving actor, Li Jinhong, who played Paris in the 1948 jingju adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, some readers may be frustrated to learn only vaguely that the production was staged with a deliberate, but...


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