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  • Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange
  • Charles Ross (bio)
Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange. By Alexander C. Y. Huang. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 361 pp. Cloth $84.50; paper $26.50.

Chinese Shakespeares is a critically sophisticated study that is grounded in firsthand knowledge of every major stage production, film, and critical article on the subject of Shakespeare in China. Alexander Huang has established himself as a driving force in archiving records, organizing conferences on Shakespeare in Asia, and formalizing the history of the subject. Much of this book is the result of that extensive, original research. [End Page 384]

A critical approach is necessary to complement this archival work because the issue of Chinese Shakespeare is vastly complex and cannot be adequately addressed merely by reviewing a few full-length productions in Beijing. Shakespeare has been subtly exploited by various movements, including the Cultural Revolution, and so his function in China must be understood in terms of changing historical circumstances. Both "Shakespeare" and "China" signify even to people who know little about them. Both conjure a reputation and values. Shakespeare was famous in China before he was translated, just as China retains a certain magic despite ever-changing fortunes. But then, the "West," according to Huang, is also a shifting category, sometimes local, sometimes global (40).

The first chapter of the book corrects the critical neglect of Shakespeare's reception in China. It argues that the textual migration of Shakespeare to China by way of references, performances, translations, and drastic rewritings in which a large element of parody figures, challenges our underlying assumption of an ethics of fidelity. What China gives back to us is an image of Shakespeare that helps us more fully appreciate the richness of interpretive possibilities of his work and a new way of looking at theories of cross-cultural appropriation. The clash of aesthetic principles creates an important bridge between two worlds at a time when understanding is needed more than ever.

After the introductory chapter outlining the theory of intercultural exchanges, the book divides into three sections. Case studies form the heart of these sections. In the first, Huang concentrates on the need to move away from a morality of correctness; in the second, he details the dynamics of localization; and in the third, he makes a case for rejecting the notion of "Shakespeare and China," arguing that it obscures the dialects of exchange. Despite his refusal to draft a history of performance, Huang manages to show how Chinese theater practices are influencing Chinese film versions of Shakespeare. Many of these practices were originally part of attempts to adapt Shakespeare to older cultural forms, but often both stage and screen versions owe much to particular, influential artists whose names are just now becoming more familiar in the West. Lu Xun appears in every anthology of Chinese literature, but many of the names Huang discusses will become equally familiar in the future, such as Lin Shu, who translated Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare (a work that was also an important influence in Korea) and the amazing Wu Hsing-kuo of Taiwan's Contemporary Legend Theater.

For China in the nineteenth century, Shakespeare offered a clue to the nature of Englishness, making his fame for many years more important than his works. For early twentieth-century authors and for cultural reformers, he was an example of Western literature and a model for the [End Page 385] creation of a national literature. China in Chinese means "middle kingdom" [zhongguo], and a look at the map reenforces this self-perception. The country is surrounded by deserts to the west, cold Siberia to the north, tropics to the south, and an ocean to the east made unsuitable for surfing because Korea and Japan calm the swells. Since except for small enclaves China was never colonized, Shakespeare was not appropriated but instead served a model for identity, not least because he had a reputation for genius [xiancai, "genius from heaven"]. Given the richness of Chinese culture, it has not been hard to identify Tang Xianzu's late sixteenth-century romance drama The Peony Pavilion with Romeo and Juliet.

It was the Chinese...


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pp. 384-387
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