- Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China by Siyuan Liu
Hybridity, once a stranger to the vocabulary of cultural criticism, has become a hackneyed buzzword in the era after Homi Bhabha, one that needs to be contested, complicated, or redefined. Siyuan Liu’s new book on the formation of modern Chinese theatre is a scholarly attempt to do just that. Titled Performing Hybridity in Colonial-Modern China, this new monograph is one of the few pioneering works in the field of modern Chinese theatre/performance studies. It provides a historical narrative that demonstrates the rigorous archival tenacity expected for a historian; yet it places this historical narrative within a refined theoretical framework. The keyword here is hybridity. Visiting existing intellectual discussions and debates on the cultural politics of this concept, Liu intervenes in the discourse of hybridity with his sophisticated and insightful reading of a set of historical materials that he uses to map the contours of wenmingxi, the (literally) “civilized drama” that, in the early twentieth century, constituted China’s first, partially western-style theatre.
By treating wenmingxi as a site of intercultural production, Liu revives pre-existing models of theatrical interculturalism and proposes that “all intercultural theatre models fail to explain the case of wenmingxi because of its multiple source cultures” (4). Wenmingxi emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, when the traditional operatic form was challenged by new concepts about theatre imported from Japan or Euro-America. Its aesthetic elements derive from traditional Chinese opera, western-style spoken drama, Japan-influenced forms of performance, and forms of popular entertainment. In the traditional historical narrative, wenmingxi is not worth any in-depth scholarly attention because it is not aesthetically “mature.” Scholars mention it simply for its historical function as a transitory genre that led to the more “evolved” form of Chinese modern spoken drama.
Liu’s scholarship challenges previous historiography by way of a modified discourse of hybridity. Unsatisfied with current discourse on intercultural theatre as well as postcolonially informed concepts of hybridity, Liu suggests his appropriation of hybridity must be “qualified by the theoretical [End Page 278] framework of colonial modernity developed by a group of postcolonial scholars familiar with the East Asian situation” (5). Liu refers here to the hybrid forms of culture that emerged in East Asia at the turn of the twentieth century, which cannot accurately be examined through the dichotomized power dynamics of colonizer and colonized that obtain in more typical colonial situations. Drawing on Mikhail Bakhtin and Brian Stross, Liu points out that these cultural forms could be intentional or unintentional hybrid cycles; they are “a complex field of relations as opposed to positively defined elements” (6). They are cultural attempts to reorganize institutions, technologies, and practices as a way to respond to the threat of colonial modernization. In Liu’s view, because the situation of China is semi-colonial rather than colonial, the power dynamics within this reorga-nizational attempt move beyond the binary of source and target cultures. They are caught in a complex web of global colonial capitalism.
For Liu, the engine propelling the spread of this global colonial capitalism is nationalism. That’s why Liu starts his narrative of wenmingxi with theatrical nationalism. Indeed, a key strength of his scholarship lies in his comparison of China’s and Japan’s reflections on the nationalization of the French stage. In making this juxtaposition, he seeks to transcend the ossified model of imperialist expansion, followed by postcolonial reaction, and presents, instead, a complicated series of cultural transactions, situated in a global network. For this reason, Liu’s scholarship will appeal predominantly to two groups of scholars, Chinese theatre historians and postcolonialists. The book corrects traditional Chinese theatre history’s teleological mapping of the formation of modern Chinese theatre; it also broadens the theoretical horizon of cultural hybridity by yoking a postcolonial discourse with one of East Asian colonial modernity. Furthermore, Liu multiplies the discourse of hybridity by introducing the concepts of literary hybridity, translative hybridity, and performance hybridity, thereby also expanding the scope of intercultural theatre...