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Imagining China: The View from Europe, 1550-1700 (review)

From: Asian Theatre Journal
Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 251-256 | 10.1353/atj.2011.0003

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This exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library (2009) was a testament to how views of China changed and developed during the 150 years concerned, as Europe learned about the country, as well as how balances are shifting in the United States today. It included information on how Shakespeare performance has developed in Chinese film and theatre, especially since 1986, via video examples selected by Alexander Huang that were available in a well-developed media kiosk. Though the artifacts in the exhibit reflected Elizabethan and Jacobean views of China, as a viewer I left thinking how presenting China has complexified in contemporary American museum display and how China—the "bamboo curtained" other of my childhood—has shifted from periphery of American consciousness toward China's historically self-conceived place, the center of things, culturally, economically, politically.

The Folger library sits at the head of the national mall close to the Supreme Court, US legislative buildings, and Library of Congress. Henry Folger of Standard Oil established the library in the 1930s to plant Shakespeare firmly in the head of the American nation. His dream is alive and well in today's Washington: for example, the NEA's Shakespeare in American Communities program (http://www.shakespeareinamericancommunities.org), established in 2003 under the Bush administration, continues, sending teachers free DVDs featuring American teens of all ethnicities enraptured as they play Shakespeare and funding groups to crisscross the nation with Shakespeare performances. Paul Collins's lecture at the Folger, which greeted my arrival in Washington, included readings from his The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World (Collins 2009) detailing his pilgrimages to the first folios in Japan. So I went to the Folger with visions of a literary-industrial complex dancing in my head. Was this a celebration of Shakespeare appropriating China, and did not the current debt economics have something to do with China being featured here? (Contemporary politics indeed "made this exhibit very easy to fund," as one staff member volunteered when we chatted during a break at a conference associated with the exhibit.)

But the display was not a case of finding "new sites for Shakespeare" (to borrow John Russell Brown's (1999) enthusiastic phrase regarding his Asian theatre adventures). Rather, the display showed Timothy Billings's careful choices of books, images, and historical figures to clarify sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European perceptions of and encounters with China. Huang's video choices likewise convince us that, while there is definite West to East influence going (especially British to Asia) in film or theatre, it would also be productive to spend time researching inter-Asian influences (mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore were all included here) and seeing how different Chinese Shakespeares reflect the variety of Chinese relationships to Shakespeare (and of course other areas of Asia, notably Japan), historically and at present. This review will briefly consider the exhibit and then discuss Huang's video kiosk, inset near the entrance to the display.

Billings selected a number of themes, and I will only hit on a few. The exhibit started with Jesuit-inflected images and writings on China, including those of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) and Athanasius Kircher (1622-1680). It continued with early maps and images and then explored oddities that struck the European imagination—cormorants, medicines (including rhubarb and musk, as well as moxa), sail coaches ("cany wagons light" mentioned by John Milton in 1667, small vehicles which used wind power to move over flat beaches in the windswept south)—and showed an undelivered letter from Elizabeth I to the "Emperour of Cathaye." Versions of Voltaire's 1755 Orphan of China, the theatre text that introduced China to Western theatre audiences, with a plot from Jesuit accounts of Chinese tales, was the only true theatre-related object. Overall, the material clarified how the Jesuits became interpreters of China to the West and the West to China. The display impressed upon visitors how Europe (at least England and France), despite growing power, were lacking the wares and curiosities to lure Chinese markets while Europe found musk, tea, pots, and other aspects irresistible. One left the exhibit thinking that Europe was a peripheral place then and...

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