Shakespeare in China: A Comparative Study of Two Traditions and Cultures (review)
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Shakespeare in China: A Comparative Study of Two Traditions and Cultures. By Xiao Yang Zhang. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996; pp. 279. $39.50.

Since the introduction of Shakespeare into China at the beginning of the twentieth century, Chinese studies and productions of his plays have steadily increased. However, the Chinese contribution to the worldwide Shakespeare industry has not yet been made fully known to the West. Xiao Yang Zhang’s Shakespeare in China attempts to fill this gap. The book provides English-speaking readers with a good deal of useful information on productions of Shakespeare in China and their reception. However, its more troubling assertions and conclusions need to be addressed.

Zhang speaks to such important issues as the general impact of Shakespeare on Chinese theatre and culture, the convergence of Shakespearean and traditional Chinese drama on the Chinese stage, and what he sees as “the Chinese vision of Shakespeare.” Each of these are treated in rather problematic ways. He claims that Shakespeare not only has had “an impact on the formation and development of modern Chinese theatre,” but also “has entered into numerous domains of Chinese culture and exerted a widespread and profound influence upon them as well” (13), becoming “the most important and authoritative dramatic form in Chinese cultural circles today” (129). He also asserts that “the impact [of Shakespeare] has brought the decline of traditional Chinese drama to the point where it could die out completely as a feeble and decaying art with unfashionable beauty or survive through reform at the risk of losing its own distinctiveness” (129).

Shakespeare’s impact on Chinese culture, has been by no means as widespread and profound as Zhang suggests. For one thing, Shakespeare’s general prestige in terms of Chinese theatre and culture was very limited until after the Cultural Revolution. From the early twentieth century to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Shakespeare’s work exerted less influence than the problem plays of Ibsen and Shaw, which, as Elizabeth Eide illustrates in China’s Ibsen: From Ibsen to Ibsenism [London: Curzon, 1987], had a powerful appeal to Chinese playwrights and intellectuals during the May Fourth Movement and the war against Japanese occupation. In the second period from 1949 until the Cultural Revolution, Shakespeare’s plays were received favorably, although their study was sometimes negatively affected by the changing political situation. But during this time it was the work of socialist realists and Stanislavsky that not only determined the orthodoxy of spoken drama, but also most helped change attitudes towards traditional theatre. During the Cultural Revolution, Shakespearean criticism and production virtually came to a halt.

In the past two decades, to be sure, Shakespeare has become the most popular foreign playwright in China. This new popularity does not mean, however, that “Shakespeare has replaced traditional Chinese drama to become the most important and authoritative dramatic form.” Traditional Chinese theatre was viewed in a negative light by many of the intellectuals in the May Fourth Movement; in sharp contrast, contemporary Chinese playwrights, directors, and critics have become increasingly conscious of its significance. Shakespeare never replaced (and could never replace) traditional Chinese dramatic form. On the contrary, traditional Chinese dramatic and theatrical forms have provided new and successful modes of producing and adapting Shakespeare. The broader impact of Shakespeare in China also remains limited since the majority of China’s population lives in agricultural areas; these people may have opportunities to view traditional Chinese operas but not Shakespearean productions in Beijing or Shanghai. Thus, Shakespeare has never functioned as a “major and indispensable figure in the cultural landscape of China” (209).

Zhang’s exaggeration of Shakespeare’s influence in China suggests an underlying critical problem. In his introduction, Zhang claims that his study “was undertaken from the viewpoint of cultural materialism” (15). But in fact, his arguments are based on, and valorize, a form of essentialist and idealist humanism that has been critiqued vigorously by cultural materialism. According to cultural materialism, what is most crucial in cultural study is not simply to emphasize “the relevant cultural contexts” (15) but to explore the heterogeneity, discontinuity, contradiction, and marginality inherent in them. Unfortunately...