- Bernard Shaw and China: Cross-Cultural Encounters
In 1933, Bernard Shaw went to China during his world tour. It is not difficult to recognize what seems to be a global commonplace—that cultural celebrities travel well, as do their ideas and texts. What is challenging is how to think thorny issues of cross-cultural encounters through this phenomenon productively. Kay Li’s book is a study of Shaw’s “comic cultural disconnects” with modern China (1). Li sets herself the task to trace Shaw’s “passage to China” through its two paradoxes: “No matter how much the people of China had wanted to meet Xiao Bo-na [Bernard Shaw] in person, he had never intended such an encounter. . . . On the other hand, over time the Chinese have managed to reach Xiao Bo-na” (3). The loosely organized eight chapters of the book attempt to cover a vast ground: Shaw’s first visit to China, Chinese-inspired characters in Shaw’s own plays and translation, and stage productions and films of his plays in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing. Despite the reservation outlined below, Bernard Shaw and China usefully opens up many avenues of future research into the global circulation of cultural and literary texts. The book will interest students and scholars of theatre studies.
The first chapter chronicles early Chinese reception of Shaw and proposes a number of reasons for the emphasis of his English rather than Irish identity. The thesis is that the gap of knowledge made it possible for Shaw to interpret China freely and for Chinese intellectuals to enjoy greater latitude when introducing Shaw’s works into China. Here Li attends to the crucial fact that such figures as Ouyang Yu-qian and Chen Tu-hsiu (which should be Ouyang Yuqian and Chen Duxiu for the sake of consistency) considered Shaw not in isolation but in relation to other figures such as John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. Chapter 2 aims to examine Shaw’s appropriation of China—on “the imaginary level . . . in Back to Methuselah and on the real-life level in Buoyant Billions” (17). Chapters 3–5 are devoted to the challenges to translate and perform Shaw’s plays in Chinese. Li makes a distinction between what she calls literal and cultural translations: the former could be carried out without consideration of the cultural context of the incoming culture, while the latter (“a translation of experience” ) could give “agency to the host culture by making the incoming culture relevant to the local context” (46). These chapters mull over the same aspects of Mrs. Warren’s Profession in Chinese translation and performance. There is a brief section on how Wang Chung-hsien (Wang Zhongxian) solved “the unsuitability of a Western play [Mrs. Warren’s [End Page 182] Profession] being performed in a Chinese context to a Chinese audience” in his Shaw-inspired play The Good Son (129). Chapter 6, titled “Shaw’s Passage to China,” revisits Shaw’s 1933 trip to China discussed in the prologue, while chapter 7 jumps back and forth in time to describe a vast array of productions of Widowers’ Houses, Major Barbara, and Pygmalion, collapsing several different historical and cultural contexts. The last chapter is a succinct, though somewhat arbitrary, compilation of Shaw’s presence in popular culture, “serious examinations,” and the Internet.
One of the interesting topics the book touches upon is the Chinese emphasis on Shaw’s English rather than Irish identity. According to Li, two major factors contributed to this shift: “young Chinese intellectuals chose to use Shaw’s anti-Englishness in their discourse to counter British and other foreign powers’ colonial and imperialist encroachment into China” (7), and “China’s limited global consciousness” and “the great geographical distance between China and England” allowed “the national difference between the Chinese and the English” to override the “regional difference” (6). These claims are contestable, as the analysis glosses over the important and ambiguous roles of Japan and what was constructed as China’s Confucian tradition in early twentieth-century Sino-Western...