- Significant Other: Staging the American in China
Popular historian Jonathan Spence's observation of Western fascination with China that "has remained primed over the centuries" applies equally well to ongoing twentieth-century Chinese engagement with all things Western in a wide range of sentiments: fascination, resistance, ambivalent love, and hate.1 With China's post-1990 reemergence in world economies and its attendant anxieties, a host of "China" questions return in multifaceted forms to scholarly inquiries, including one of the most important questions that Significant Other addresses: how are China's self-image and knowledge of China's cultural Others produced, authorized, and circulated in the People's Republic?
Asian cultural production has frequently been used as an example to sustain or dispute claims about globalization, Orientalism, and Occidentalism. Claire Conceison's study of contemporary theater in China reframes this debate by problematizing modes of intercultural encounters—in both theatrical representations and academic endeavors to study them. Itself a pathbreaking project, as evidenced by its theoretical framework and selection of a group of understudied plays, Significant Other builds upon and engages such pioneering scholarship as Edward Said's Orientalism (1979) and Xiaomei Chen's Occidentalism (1995; 2nd ed., 2002).
To examine the imaginaries of the Chinese Self and its "significant Other"—the American—Conceison has chosen a significant but marginalized subject matter: Chinese huaju (spoken drama). More so than other forms of cultural production, theater—as a public event and entertainment—provides a venue where cross-cultural negotiations are physicalized on stage in front of audiences who not only witness but also participate in these processes. Further, huaju is arguably born at the junction of cross-cultural epistemologies. From its inception in the late Qing and early republican periods, foreign and fused performance idioms, characters, and themes have propelled its development. Therefore, huaju provides rich materials for cross-cultural studies. Last but not least, as Conceison and other scholars are well aware, huaju—as opposed to fiction, poetry, or huaju's perceived counterpart, xiqu (traditional stylized theater)—has remained marginalized in Chinese studies. Significant Other sets out to change this, but at the same time the book reaches out to diverse groups of readers through an engaging prologue, a chapter providing a critical history of Sino-American relations, a chapter on Occidentalism, an accessible style, as well as a chronological structure for case studies that are grouped around related concepts such as exile, anti-Americanism, and American self-representation. [End Page 404]
Prompted by this undue pressure to defend the choice of subject matter, huaju, Conceison points out in the prologue that "though the theatergoing population in China comprises only a slight percentage of the television- and film-viewing population, the influence of images emanating from the live stage is not inconsequential, [because these urbanite theatergoers] are usually highly educated [and . . . ] likely to directly influence the course of future cultural and political interaction with the United States" (p. 10). The unique presence of "live corporeal representation of the Other" empowers ephemeral theater works to shape the cultural landscape in unique ways. Thus, even though Conceison declares in the prologue that the purpose of her study is to "provide some access" and "prompt further discussion" about selected "domestically recognized but internationally underacknowledged Chinese artists" (p. 12), Significant Other's approach to intercultural issues and Sino-American relations is of interest not only to Chinese studies scholars but also to scholars in other disciplines who may not have otherwise included stage representations in their observation of the dizzying social and political changes in modern China. Many of the issues discussed within the pages of Significant Other have resonances beyond the confines of the theater scene.
An in-depth study of Chinese stage representations of Americans between 1987 and 2002 that manifested "intercultural idealism," "neo-nationalism," xenophobia, and anti-Americanism (p. 11), Conceison's book challenges the paradigm of Occidentalism as simply a mode of reverse Orientalism by analyzing the plays both as text and production. These...