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  • A Country Bumpkin in Cosmopolitan Shanghai John Woo’s My Fair Gentleman and the Evolution of Pygmalion in Contemporary China1
  • Kay Li (bio)

This article explores how stage and film productions of Pygmalion in contemporary China present the image of a country rising to affluence and international importance. Chinese adaptations of Pygmalion keep featuring Elizas who are country bumpkins moving to the huge metropolitan centers of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Their training by the Western-educated Chinese Higgins is an analogy of how China adapts to intense cross-cultural encounters as it enters the global arena. As we shall see, gender reversals in two of the four Chinese adaptations of Pygmalion highlight how China is moving from the shadows of imperialism and the foregrounding of the West to a more egalitarian recognition of the complex interchanges between Chinese and Western cultures.

My focus will be on John Woo’s 2009 film adaptation of Pygmalion, My Fair Gentleman (Yao Tiao Shen Shi),2 and on its portrayal of the newly affluent Chinese entrepreneurial peasants. This is an important concern in China, where numerous entrepreneurial peasants moved from the impoverished countryside to the metropolis and became actively engaged in economic, social, and cultural exchanges. Likewise in Woo’s film, the entrepreneurial peasant Charles Zeng Tian-gao, the Eliza Doolittle figure, moves to metropolitan Shanghai and amassed his wealth. His transformation by Candice Wu Jia-qian, the Higgins figure, from country bumpkin to gentleman, is an analogy for how the country quickly emerged from the devastating poverty caused by the Cultural Revolution to the affluence resulting from China’s modernization. Above all, My Fair Gentleman shows how intricately Shaw wove his theory of the Life Force and Creative Evolution into Pygmalion. [End Page 135]

Pygmalion is the Shaw play most frequently adapted by the Chinese, and with each adaptation the roles of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins acquire new meanings that reflect the country’s current social and political situation. In each there is a movement from countryside to large cosmopolitan city. In the 1988 film Gongzi Duoqing (The Greatest Lover),3 Locomotive Fat (Eliza), played by Chow Yun-Fat (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Killer fame),4 is an illegal immigrant sneaking away from his village in Southern China to Hong Kong. The role kept evolving as China increasingly took center stage in the international arena, with the Chinese Elizas becoming richer and more socially powerful. The 1997 Hong Kong stage production of Pygmalion featured a flower girl dressed in country garb speaking the Toishan country dialect,5 in contrast to a Higgins dressed in Western clothing speaking perfect Cantonese and English. The 2003 film, co-produced by Hong Kong and mainland China, Pao Zhi Nu Peng You (My Dream Girl),6 featured Zhang Nin, a country girl newly reunited with her rich industrialist father living in Shanghai. As I have covered previous adaptations in my Bernard Shaw and China: Cross Cultural Encounters,7 I will focus here on the latest adaptation of Pygmalion in China, Yao Tiao Shen Shi (My Fair Gentleman), produced by John Woo, Terrance Chang, and Michelle Yeoh, and show how this 2009 version is much more significant than previous Chinese ones. We will see that Shaw’s play, set in London in 1912, is so versatile as to be easily adapted to any time and place in China.

Shanghai: Marketing in a Big Cosmopolitan City

The Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Gentleman is the rich Charles Zeng Tian-gao, an entrepreneurial peasant developing his farming business in Shanghai. Such a protagonist reflects the success of the city’s marketing economy and its rapid developing consumerism. My Fair Gentleman is dominated by the city of Shanghai; in fact its working title was Dirt Rich in Shanghai. The first shot of the film is the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, a futuristic landmark emblematic of the city’s history. According to the Shanghai government website, the population of Shanghai in 2009 was 19,213,200 and according to the China Daily may have topped 23 million in more recent years.8 The city continues to play an important role in the economic and social development of the...


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