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  • The Poetics of Difference and Displacement:Twentieth-Century Chinese-Western Intercultural Theatre
  • Ronald Gilliam
The Poetics of Difference and Displacement: Twentieth-Century Chinese-Western Intercultural Theatre. By Min Tian. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008. 292 pp. Cloth $49.50.

The role of intercultural theatre in a globalized society is never void of politics or opinions. While some artists and scholars believe artistic intercultural exchange to be a bridge leading to universality, others view any form of "borrowing" as cultural appropriation. Despite the fact that intercultural theatre tends to reside on a dynamic idealistic-cynical binary depending on one's personal viewpoint, the majority of scholarship on this topic has been one-sided. By this, I mean the bulk of scholarship in the English language has come from Western scholars attempting to validate the work of intercultural artists through either the creation of an intercultural model void of cultural politics or a blatant critique of those who choose to "loot-and-plunder" the cultural aesthetics of a foreign culture. As a welcome alternative, Min Tian's recent publication focuses on the displacement of various intercultural moments from both the West and within China rather than solely attempting to create another idealistic model or critique the use of foreign aesthetics. Instead, Min Tian chose to highlight specific experiments in which intercultural performance entered a new "space" as various artists from the West and China attempted to negotiate borrowed aesthetics in order to ensure their audiences would appreciate a renovation of their theatre tradition.

The Poetics of Difference and Displacement is divided into two parts: the first focuses on Western intercultural theatre and its Chinese influences while the second examines how Chinese theatre became influenced by the West. In addition, Min Tian includes an extensive theoretical introduction, which is one of the highlights of the book, to underline his theories of the various displacements encountered within twentieth-century intercultural performances. This introduction provides a theoretical foundation to the performance examples given throughout the remaining chapters as he attempts to explain how elements of an intercultural performance are displaced for numerous reasons [End Page 371] specific to the theatre artists and genres he explores in each chapter. At times, these displacements are necessary in order for the spectators to gain an understanding of the production, but Min Tian also brings forward examples to showcase experiments in which certain displacements were either misread or misinterpreted. His categorization of various displacements is not solely in regard to aesthetics and culture as he comments on nationalistic and orientalist displacements as well.

The first chapter of the book focuses on the misreading of Chinese theatre by early artists who attempted to recreate Chinese plays. These theatrical productions, ranging from The Orphan of China to The Chalk Circle, highlight a cultural and artistic displacement mentioned in the previous introduction. The most intriguing segment of this chapter occurs within Min Tian's analysis of the displacement of the property man in the production of The Yellow Jacket. The role of this individual was modified from its original Chinese function in the Western production as an "invisible" character who simultaneously acted as a "centre of interest." Min Tian makes an argument that the role of this character in The Yellow Jacket allowed the inclusion of an element of Chinese theatre while maintaining a traditional role as a chorus character customary to the Western theatre tradition. This displacement allowed the spectator to analyze the production through a Eurocentric lens while allowing the director to attempt the creation of a new intercultural art form.

The following chapters in part 1 focus on the theatre artists more commonly known for their Chinese influence in the development of nonrealistic Western theatre—Brecht, Meyerhold, Craig, Barba, and Sellers. The chapter on Brecht is especially insightful; Min Tian gives a history of Brecht's exposure to Chinese art and solidifies how his concept of verfremdungseffekt (A-Effect) was only superficially connected to Chinese theatre. Rather than being solely influenced by Mei Lanfang's performance, Min Tian argues that his concept of the A-Effect was already formulated and was perhaps only solidified upon seeing Mei's performance. In regard to the displacement of...