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  • Very Big China—And Shaw? Very Droll
  • John A. Bertolini
Kay Li . Bernard Shaw and China: Cross-Cultural Encounters. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007. xviii + 286 pp. $59.95

Kay Li has certainly rendered a significant service to Shaw scholarship by detailing the context in which Shaw and his work became known to the Chinese as well as demonstrating the way the Chinese absorbed things Shavian along a continuum from adaptation to distortion. Her work builds on and extends that of Wendy Chen's 2002 study, The Reception of GBS in China, which Li acknowledges as a foundation for her own research, in addition to Piers Gray's pioneering essay on Shaw and China (1985). Li identifies the larger context as "China and the outside world"; but she focuses on the ways the Chinese responded to, or misunderstood, both Shaw and his plays. While Li charts the reception of Shaw himself and the various productions of Shaw's plays (which halted during Mao's Anti-Rightist movement of 1957), she also reports some news: namely, the ubiquitousness of Shaw on Chinese websites, which she calls "Cyber-Shaw." Apparently, our Chinese contemporaries find Shaw's wry sense of humor and skeptical view of social institutions to be reflective of their own to the point that his aphorisms—circulated extensively on the internet—have become "bi-lingual proverbs," making him a well-known and affectionately regarded figure in China. In addition, Shaw quotations illustrate correct English usage in grammar school writing instruction. There is [End Page 216] even a nationwide "George Bernard Shaw Essay" competition. Considering that Shaw, in response to being offered an honorary degree from Harvard, advocated instead burning the university to the ground and salting over the site, one wonders what he would have made of such pedagogical employment of his writings. On the other hand, he certainly courted public recognition, and would likely have enjoyed the wide circulation of his ideas within Chinese culture.

Li describes how Shaw's perception of China evolved. His earliest substantial representation of China came in his portrayal of Confucius in the visionary Back to Methuselah (written 1918–1920), where Confucius appears as a model of wise but pragmatic governmental responsibility. Yet it was just such a view of Confucius that Chinese who wanted change strongly wished to undermine, feeling as they did that "Confucianism" by emphasizing tradition, custom, respect for elders and ancestors promoted patriarchy and kept the country politically paralyzed and socially stagnant. By 1933, Shaw, having visited Hong Kong and Shanghai, was predicting correctly (in the Preface to On the Rocks) that China would go communist. (He did not foresee, however, that millions would be murdered as a result of communist rule.) Those Chinese who wanted a communist China, as always in such cases, drawn from the elite, the educated, the intellectuals, the young, regarded Shaw as useful to their purpose since they perceived him as anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, and anti-English. The last mattered to these vanguard revolutionists because nationalism mattered to them and the Versailles Treaty had given Shantung province to Japan. Likewise, Shaw, they hoped, would help stir opposition to Japan's invasion of China. By the end of his life in his 1949 play, Buoyant Billions, Shaw more accurately appreciated and represented Chinese culture. Li asserts that the change resulted from Shaw's visit to China, especially from his being exposed to a Chinese shrine in the Hong Kong dwelling of the industrialist millionaire, Sir Robert Ho Tung. The home-temple's soothing art and ceremony impressed Shaw so greatly that he wrote about it at the time (1933), and then incorporated the experience into his last full-length play. Li quotes a 1948 letter in which Shaw explains that the word "buoyant" in his title refers to being "energetically high-spirited, gaily superior to misfortune." Coincidently, ten years before, in "Lapis Lazuli," Yeats had imagined three "Chinamen" gazing "on all the tragic scene" while "Their ancient, glittering eyes are gay." On second thought, perhaps not so coincidently. [End Page 217]

The more valuable research in the book concerns the translation, publication, and performance of Shaw's plays in China. Of course, Mrs. Warren...


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pp. 216-219
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