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  • Snapshots of a Shakespearean in China
  • Sidney Homan (bio)

I. An Invitation

"My father, who is old, likes Shakespeare." These were Shalang's—Sharon in its English form—words just before she left my office in the fall of 1985, at the end of a charming conversation set up by a colleague who had sent her exchange student in linguistics to pass an hour with me. Sharon was a slender woman, with long dark hair framing her oval face. She had a quick mind, was already well-versed in American idioms, and after nine months of study in Florida missed her husband and child very much.

"My father, who is old, likes Shakespeare." For the next few days the curious statement remained with me. With the eternal present tense of Chinese grammar, for me it was a complex, albeit brief text enfolding a mystery. What to make of the deceptively simple "likes"; the adjective "old," a sign of the daughter's reverence; most of all, the curious link between the father and the playwright, as if they were twin members of an equation. We had not talked about her father, nor about Shakespeare, though surely she knew I was a Shakespearean, a title that, to me, always sounds so pretentious, so odd. In English departments one can be an eighteenth-century scholar, or someone whose field is critical theory, or the medieval period. But only those foolhardy enough to take that exhilarating voyage into the cosmos of the playwright are stereotyped by the name of their study and idolatry—Shakespearean.

Three days later, giving way to impulse, I packed up two large boxes of books on Shakespeare, books I had read and reread since graduate school days and no longer needed, and mailed them to the old man in Changchun City who likes Shakespeare. I relished the idea of these well-worn [End Page 303] old friends traveling to the other side of the world, a chronicle of my graduate student years, through my first teaching position at Illinois, then Boston University, and to the present, a full professor at Florida who has himself written books about the playwright. There, they would be received and—better yet—read and cherished by an old man who "likes Shakespeare."

And that was that, or so I thought, until a month later she paid a second visit to my office, bearing presents from her father—a silk scarf for my wife Norma, a fan for me, two plastic rulers decorated with a Chinese facsimile of the Emperor's Palace for our boys, then ages two and four. At the end of our conversation, as I walked her to the door, she asked, "Homan, would you like to visit the People's Republic of China?" I took the question as an instance of social etiquette, a polite closure to a good hour, the equivalent to our suggesting, as we say good-bye, "Hey, if you're ever in our neck of the woods, drop in for a drink—okay?"

I would learn later that there is no such shallow invitation in Chinese culture. I would also learn that their custom is often to place the most important object or issue of a conversation last, as Shalang had done earlier with that reference to her father.

A short time later, we received an official invitation from Beijing for the family to spend a summer in Changchun City, where I was asked to direct the resident company, the Changchun Modern Drama Players, in a production "of any one of Shakespeare's plays" and to teach a course in Shakespeare and the modern playwrights at Jilin University. Zhang Siyang was one of the most eminent Shakespeareans in China, yet out of modesty his daughter had not mentioned that in our two conversations. As President Deng's way of apologizing for the cruel treatment accorded university intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Siyang was offered the seat of honor next to Deng during his inauguration in the People's Palace, located diagonally across Tiananmen Square from the mausoleum where the Chairman is buried. This old man who likes Shakespeare would be our host.

I accepted at once. [End...