The Poetics of Difference and Displacement: Twentieth-Century Chinese-Western Intercultural Theatre (review)
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The Poetics of Difference and Displacement: Twentieth-Century Chinese-Western Intercultural Theatre. By Min Tian. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008; pp. 282.

The Poetics of Difference and Displacement by Min Tian makes an important contribution to scholarship on intercultural theatre and Chinese theatre. Interculturalism, as a broad concept of syncretism or exchange between one's own and foreign cultures, has been hotly debated among theatre and performance critics for the past several decades. Tian distinguishes his work from that of scholars like Erika Fischer-Lichte, Patrice Pavis, Rustom Bharucha, and John Russell Brown by treating intercultural theatre as an "inevitable" (5) phenomenon that is "both constructive and deconstructive," and by approaching it from both "an aesthetic-artistic perspective" and "a cultural-social-historical-political perspective" (6).

Tian proposes a poetics of difference and displacement as the key mechanism of intercultural theatre: at the center of intercultural theatre, he argues, are differences between one's own and foreign forms, where, from the perspective of one's own familiar culture, some cultural and aesthetic elements are "displaced" (or lost), while others are "re-placed" (or reconstructed). This interpretive model of intercultural theatre underscores the importance of making visible what is lost or altered from the original (or source) in the process of creating new theatre works. Consequently, Tian's analyses emphasize the differences rather than the cross-cultural affinities, identifications, or resemblances that may exist between the Chinese and Western theatre traditions that he takes as the primary subject of his study. Indeed, these differences, more than the aesthetic and sociopolitical implications of intercultural transformation, are what matters most for Tian in considering such performances.

In part 1, Tian examines the ways in which Western theatre theorists and artists have appropriated or responded to Chinese theatre since the eighteenth century. Focusing primarily on the twentieth century, he devotes a chapter each to Bertolt Brecht, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Edward Gordon Craig, Eugenio Barba, and Peter Sellars. As a scholar conversant in both Chinese and Western theatre traditions, Tian provides indispensible perspectives, especially when he critiques Eurocentrism in Chinese and Western intercultural practices. Of special note are chapters 2 and 3, in which he discusses Brecht's "alienation effect" and Meyerhold's Theatre of Convention alongside traditional Chinese theatre (xiqu). Tian demonstrates how Brecht misinterprets (or displaces) Mei Langfang's art and Chinese acting in the process of theorizing the alienation effect, and how Meyerhold fails to note the essential difference between his idea of the grotesque and Mei's art of the beautiful when he develops his avant-gardist vision. Tian's juxtaposition of Western and Chinese perspectives in these chapters and others gives tension and energy to his writing, which makes for enjoyable reading. [End Page 663]

In part 2, Tian considers how Chinese theatre practitioners in the twentieth century (including traditionalists, the New Youth, the National Theatre movement, and the left-wing theatre movement) negotiated differences between Western and traditional Chinese theatrical forms, illustrating how his model of displacement can yield new insights into Chinese appropriations of Western theatrical forms, such as Chinese adaptations of Western tragedy. In chapter 10, for example, he maintains an "inherent difference" between Chinese xiqu and Greek tragedy, given the former's emphasis on acting and the latter's on words (193). He observes that productions like Loulan nü (The woman of Loulan), an adaptation of Medea by the Contemporary Legend Theatre in Taiwan, resulted in an "inter-displacement" (205) of both forms by "deviat[ing] radically from the conventional form of Chinese xiqu, [and] fail[ing] to represent the form and substance of the Greek tragedy" (208). In chapter 11, Tian provocatively contends that "Shakespeare's realism is in essence incompatible with the principles of xiqu and is in practice destructive of its very identity" (214). Chinese adaptations like Xue Shou Ji (The story of the blood-stained hands), an adaptation of Macbeth by Shanghai Kunju Troupe, and Wangzi Fuchou Ji (The revenge of the prince), an adaptation of Hamlet by the Mingyue Troupe of Shanghai Yueju Theatre, "severely reduced the richness, complexity and depth of Shakespeare's tragedies and his characterization" (215). Despite this focus on the destruction of...