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Reviewed by:
  • Shakespeare in China
  • Stewart Hawley
Shakespeare in China. By Murray J. Levith. New York: Continuum, 2004. xiv + 156 pp. Cloth $39.95.

Murray Levith, Shakespearean scholar and author of Shakespeare's Italian Settings and Plays, What's in Shakespeare's Names, and Renaissance and Modern, takes on a significant challenge in his new book Shakespeare in China, in which he broadly traces the history of Shakespeare in the country from first translations in the early twentieth century to the PRC's second Shakespeare festival in 1994. Levith focuses on the many translations of Shakespeare works into Chinese. So, those interested in studying the political and cultural events that helped spawn interest in Chinese translations of Shakespeare will find this book is a great place to start. This book does include information about various Shakespearean productions, but limits its focus to dates, places, and the translation used for the perfomance. Those interested in the staging of Shakespeare in China should go to Li Ruru's book Shashibya: Staging Shakespeare in China (Vancouver: University of British Columbia, 2003), which gives details on significant Shakespearean productions.

Each of Levith's seven chapters is broken into two important sections: the translations and the notable productions of the plays. Unlike other books, such as Xiao Zhang's Shakespeare in China: A Comparative Study of Two Traditions and Cultures (Newark: University of Delaware, 1996) that speaks of the profound impact of Shakespeare on China, Levith presents a more conventional approach to the Bard's rocky relationship with China. While Zhang's book bypasses how the Chinese came to interpret Shakespeare works, Levith relates the generally slow process and, more recently, growing impact that Shakespeare's work had in the country. Levith's book takes an extensive look at the numerous endeavors over the twentieth century to translate the complete works. Levith compellingly tells of how translations often completely change the title of the play to fit with Chinese codes. Thus Two Gentlemen of Verona [End Page 163] becomes Proteus Betrays His Good Friend for the Sake of Gratifying His Lust. The Merchant of Venice becomes Antonio Borrows Money by Agreeing to Have His Flesh Cut. Levith argues that these adapted titles show what the Chinese hold to be the focus of the play. He further argues that the renaming of Shakespeare's plays is typical. Levith offers a long list of plays whose titles have been altered and lightly touches on the reasons for the title changes. The reason for revamping the titles he relates to Confucian ideas of honor and family. Integration of these ideas into the plays allows the script to be accepted by Chinese. He notes what he considers the most important translations of Shakespeare. The first work he notes is Professor Liang's 1936 translation, which included fifteen of Shakespeare's plays. However Levith, also points out the controversy surrounding this translation. Some critics such as Cao Weifeng claim Liang's translations are only the stories and without concern for the poetry. Other critics attack Liang's work on ideological grounds for his beliefs in the universality of Shakespeare, which came to be considered a bourgeoisie approach. For these reasons Liang's translation is seldom studied or used for production in the PRC today.

One of the most important translators of Shakespeare in China Zhu Shenghao is discussed at great length. Zhu completed thirty-one of Shakespeare's plays in 1944, and his translations are the most widely used in Chinese Shakespeare production. Levith notes that "Zhu's translations are considered the best because of its [sic] fluency and sensitivity to Shakespeare's nuances and diction as well as word play." This would have been a good place to demonstrate the finesse of Zhu's translation and compare it with others, by giving examples of how the works differ, but Levith ignores the opportunity and goes on to spend the next half of the book talking about Shakespeare's plays in production, which makes one wonder if Levith has sufficient Chinese to allow the discussions of such translations.

A small section of the book deals with historical accounts of Shakespearean productions in China. Here, Levith goes into great detail about...


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