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  • Lady Precious Stream:A Chinese Chinoiserie Anglicized on the Modern British Stage
  • Min Tian (bio)

Chinoiserie on the British stage had a long history and a time-honored tradition. Interestingly enough, some of the most notable chinoiserie performances on the British stage did not originate in Britain but were imported products. In 1897, at the very beginning of his scathing review of the performance of two "Chinese" plays, The Cat and the Cherub by Chester Bailey Fernald at the Lyric Theatre and The First Born by Francis Powers at the Globe Theatre, George Bernard Shaw attacked what he called "the Chinatown play" imported from America as "the latest attempt to escape from hackneydom and cockneydom" on the British stage.1 In "the Chinatown play," Shaw continued, the Chinese music was "unmitigated humbug" and "simply very bad American music," and the play itself was "nothing but Wilkie Collins fiction disguised in pigtail and petticoats" or a dramatic sensation whose "mother" was but "the cheapest and most conventional of the daughters of art" and whose "father" was "the lowest and darkest stratum of Americanized yellow civilization."2 Seeing no reason that "the Chinatown play"—"a form of art which makes a merit of crudity"—should not have been manufactured in England, Shaw volunteered to supply "'Chinese plays,' music and all."3 As Shaw never produced a "Chinese" play, even after he saw in China an authentic performance of traditional Chinese theatre, posterity was denied a chance to see whether the English playwright was capable of manufacturing an authentic Chinese play instead of reproducing "the Chinatown play," American or British. However, Shaw's sharp critique of the Occidental [End Page 158] representation of China in those "Chinese" plays or dramatic chinoiserie was historically grounded and remains relevant to our study of the early history of the twentieth-century intercultural theatre.

Shaw's sentiment against the sham Chinatown play was shared by one of his contemporary British critics, who, having experienced the same two Chinatown plays, hoped to see a genuine Chinese play: "Undeniably it would be interesting to import a Chinese play, with actors, scenery, and stage complete, but it would require to be a genuine product of the Flowery Land, and, therefore, very different from the two so-called Chinese plays."4 But decades into the twentieth century, Shaw and his like-minded British contemporaries must have been dismayed by the fact that even more "Chinese" plays on the British stage were imported, yet none from China: The Yellow Jacket was imported, again, from America and The Circle of Chalk was imported from Germany. Shaw had nothing to say about these two "Chinese" plays and no record indicates that he ever saw any production of them. But Edward Gordon Craig had a short but pointed response to the sensational success of The Yellow Jacket. He regarded it as "a nice parody of the Chinese way" and saw no need for the English to "affect Chinoiserie."5 He went even further in his position against any kind of chinoiserie or japonaiserie, Western or Eastern, as he warned against any Asian artist (Japanese or Chinese) wishing to go Europe to study and imitate European arts but inevitably ending up only producing Typhoon, a japonaiserie,6 The Yellow Jacket, or some other piece "with an Eastern coat on its back, something which is like a penny peep-show for our stupid grown up children."7

In a sense, Craig's argument could have served as a reminder to S. I. Hsiung (Shih-I Hsiung or Xiong Shiyi, 1905–92) of the intercultural predicament that he could face as a young Chinese playwright who went to Britain in 1932 with an aim to study Shakespeare and European theatre.8 Following Shaw's advice—"Try something different. Something really Chinese and traditional"9—Hsiung ended up producing Lady Precious Stream, an English adaptation of a traditional Chinese play and of the art of traditional Chinese theatre. Much to Shaw's chagrin, however, Lady Precious Stream turned out to be, in his words, "a twopenny-halfpenny melodrama."10 Perhaps no surprise to Craig, who was no longer interested [End Page 159] in Asian theatre in the 1930s, Hsiung...


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