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Reviewed by:
  • Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange
  • Christopher G. Rea (bio)
Alexander C. Y. Huang. Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. xi, 350 pp. Paperback $26.50, isbn 978-0-231-14849-8.

Chinese Shakespeares explores a history of global exchanges, from the nineteenth century to the present, through two über-cultural signifiers: China and Shakespeare. Developing a theory of global localities, Alexander C.Y. Huang argues that multiple Chinas and multiple Shakespeares have intersected in a variety of context-specific configurations of ownership and cultural resonance. With a temporal scope ranging from the first Opium War (1839–1842) to the present; a geographical scope spanning mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the global Chinese diaspora; and a media purview covering stage drama (text and performance), [End Page 521] opera, fiction, textbooks, essays, silent and sound cinema, music, and translation, Chinese Shakespeares is an ambitious work of cultural history that chooses its battles and case studies judiciously. Comparative in approach, it contributes to multiple fields, including comparative cultural and literary studies, Shakespeare studies, modern Chinese history and culture, global intellectual history, performance studies, and cross-cultural theory.

The book comprises a prologue, an epilogue, and seven numbered chapters grouped in four parts: "Theorizing Global Localities" (chapter 1), "The Fiction of Moral Space" (chapters 2–3), "Locality at Work" (chapters 4–5), and "Postmodern Shakespearean Orients" (chapters 6–7). In the back matter—before the notes, select bibliography, and index—Huang has included a handy select chronology that allows the reader to see "Historical Events," "Worldwide Shakespeares," and "Chinese Shakespeares" since the late sixteenth century in parallel, diachronic perspective. The bibliography reflects Huang's multilingual scope, including sources in English, Chinese, Japanese, French, and German. A glossary of Chinese and Japanese characters (some appear in the bibliography) would have been a useful addition. Overall, the book is extremely well written and edited; this reviewer found few language errors or typos (p. 244).

In the prologue and the first chapter, "Owning Chinese Shakespeares," Huang demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the perils of bringing the cultural tokens of China and Shakespeare into dialogue with one another. Each carries its own burden of received wisdom and cliché—Shakespeare as the Writer of the Millennium who belongs to the world, and China as a mysterious antithesis of things Western, to mention just a couple. Huang is loath to repeat these essentializing discourses, much less to magnify them by bringing Shakespeare and China together. He thus takes pains to enumerate and distance himself from these views, highlighting, in particular, how an obsession with authenticity often pushes cross-cultural comparisons into a dead end. Recent multilingual productions, such as Ong Keng Sen's LEAR (1997) and David Tse's King Lear (2006), illustrate the challenge of such critical inertia for contemporary directors and audiences alike, as new experiments may be readily subsumed under the logics of cultural tourism or platitudes about globalization. In its first pages, then, Chinese Shakespeares presents cultural exchange as a field beset by pervasive reductionism.

Weaving his way through this methodological minefield, Huang rejects, for example, treating traveling Shakespeares solely as a form of cultural colonialism, and the condescending so-that's-how-they-do-Shakespeare-over-there attitude of much reportage on Chinese performances of Shakespeare. Instead, he "examines encounters of Shakespeare and China as a transformative process" in three dimensions: as cultural practices, as texts, and as performances (p. 39). As Huang's plural categories suggest, a primary agenda of this book is to demonstrate the multiplicity, heterogeneity, and heteroglossia of discourses about Chinese Shakespeares in order to "frustrate intellectual tokenism and monolithic stereotypes" (p. 229), [End Page 522] both of which, Huang persuasively argues, continue to cling to both China and Shakespeare.

The history that Huang lays out demonstrates the diversity of these exchanges in dramatic fashion, and I will attempt to summarize them only briefly. Chapter 2, "Shakespeare in Absentia," discusses how Shakespeare became a hypercanonical presence in China beginning in the nineteenth century despite the absence of his texts. In this reception prehistory, missionaries, translators, and Chinese reformers present Shakespeare as an exotic commodity, a symbol of Western...