- The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity by Diana Yeh
This is the first biographical book in any language to offer a critical survey of Shih-I Hsiung’s family story, which has been long obscured and underre-ported. Shih-I, a prolific writer and translator born in late imperial China and the first Chinese stage director in the West End and on Broadway, sought a way to transform the image of Chinese culture in Europe and United States during the heyday of rampant Orientalist bias by reshaping the Chinese image through theatre and fiction. His wife, Dymia, the first Chinese woman to publish an English fictional autobiography in Britain, also expressed her eagerness, anxiety, and embarrassment to refigure Chinese image in her writing and social activities. Once tremendously popular in the world, they became anonymous among peers such as Lin Yutang. Yet their significance should not be neglected by scholars, and Yeh’s book is such an endeavor to trace the forgotten history of the Hsiungs.
This complete family history, spanning the twentieth century, weaves a web of Chinese, British, American, and wider Asian events on shifting historical and geographical planes: the collapse of feudal China, the May Fourth Movement, the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese Civil War, the two world wars. The strength of this book lies in Yeh’s research into substantial primary sources—memoirs, works, letters, personal accounts, diaries, interviews, news reports, and pictures—most of which are revealed for the first time. It blends criticism [End Page 655] and biography. Despite its focus on the Hsiungs, this book offers a unique and vivid overview of overseas Chinese intellectuals’ struggle to perform China as an interruption into deep-rooted misunderstanding and misrepresentation of China among Westerners. This theme is manifest in the book cover, on which an ancient Chinese couple, possibly Wang Baochuan and Xue Pinggui (protagonists of Lady Precious Stream), or Shih-I and Dymia, intrude on the incomplete map of the United Kingdom.
This book comprises a prelude and ten chapters, which can be roughly divided into four parts. The first part (chapter 1) begins with a sense of the social, cultural, and political context of early twentieth-century China. Dymia’s and Shih-I’s sisters’ modern education, Shih-I’s study of English, their import of foreign films, their subsequent translation of English works, and their departure for Britain all contributed to the surging flux of modernization/Westernization in urban China. By emphasizing the importance of Western influences in the Hsiungs’ early life, Yeh lays out the foundation for an understanding of their entire career.
The bulk of part 2 (chapters 2–5) is on Shih-I’s translation and adaptation of the momentous Lady Precious Stream (1934) and its commercial, social, and political reverberations. Before delving into this play, Yeh elaborates how Shih-I, with his writing about China and previous translation, befriended such cultural elites as George Bernard Shaw and James Barrie, whose interest in China reinforced his determination to become a cultural ambassador to correct Britain’s “false suppositions about China” (p. 43). Lady Precious Stream was a famous jingju piece rendered within a Western melodramatic structure while borrowing a number of jingju’s performing vocabularies. Drawing on every possible material, Yeh paints a panoramic picture of the Anglo-American reactions to this exotic story, while simultaneously highlighting the cultural and sociopolitical contexts for its success, which, as Yeh analyzes, had multiple reasons. Firstly, Shih-I Westernized this story regarding plot, structure, comic timing, ethics, and the use of language, “to suit the sensibility and moral and sexual principles of British theatregoers” (p. 40). His search for audience acceptance in early translation continued in this adaptation. Second, he emphasized Chinese elements (exotic spectacle and story) to seize audiences, which were, however, dismissed by Northrop Frye as “Chinoiserie” (p. 51). This technique anticipated many contemporary touring Chinese theatre groups that attract tourists with overt and unnatural Chinese elements. Third, the alliance between China, Britain, and the United States...