- Representing China on the Historical London Stage: From Orientalism to Intercultural Performance by Dongshin Chang
In the epilogue to Representing China on the Historical London Stage, Dongshen Chang jotted down his paradoxical experience of watching Aladdin in London. On the one hand, the play "sets in China and depicts Aladdin as a carefree Chinese boy" (p. 180); on the other hand, "the Aladdin pantos are not really about China at all but rather utilize the clearly artificial Chinaface look to joke, share, and commiserate as an intimate community" (p. 181). Chang's book historicizes this paradox of the presence and absence of Chinese to examine Britain's representations of China in theatre from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. Specifically, Chang tackles two major questions: first, why did the British pay constant attention to China and frequently represent Chinese on stage and second, why did the British's adaptation of Chinese stories and history deviate from the Chinese's own representations? Chang identified the four reasons for the continuous and constantly changing interest: Jesuit writings on China, Britain's expanding material interest in China, the presence of British imperial power in Asia, and the establishment of diasporic Chinese communities abroad.
The book is chronologically organized. Four chapters examine the process of interculturation in different historical periods, analyzing [End Page 490] why the presence of China on stage takes a different shape in each time period. The first chapter analyzes The Conquest of China by the Tartars performed in 1675. The play was the first show performed on stage that depicted Manchu's conquest of China, and China was "portrayed as a militarily weaker but culturally stronger political entity" (p. 1). What the British were interested in seeing were China's historical changes, and the performance depicted a feminized continual ancient Chinese civilization, a perception highly influenced by Jesuit characterization of the country.
The second chapter explores The Chinese Festival (1755) and Arthur Murphy's The Orphan of China (1759). In this time period what triggered British interest was China's material delicacies, such as porcelain, architecture, and costumes. However, the idealization of Chinese culture was very much diminished. The China represented on stage was now culturally less superior and less refined. Chang proposed to understand this paradox of being fascinated by China and ridiculing China at the same time as "Chinaface" (p. 80), depicting China but at a superficial level, from "dress to human features, aesthetics values, lifestyles, and mannerism" (p. 80).
The third chapter explores the works of John Francis Davis (1795–1890) and Chinese Sorcerer (1823). With an expansion of its colonial power and Anglo-Chinese trade, British interest in China had increased; however, as a result of visits by British embassies and their personal experiences, China continued to appear "as a material and visual spectacle, but lost much of its allure as a land admired for its high cultural achievements" (p. 100). The fourth chapter analyzes the three plays A Chinese Honeymoon (1901–1904), The Yellow Jacket (1913), and Mr. Wu (1913–1914). While the first two plays depict China as alluring, feminized, and childlike, Mr. Wu depicts a China that is destructive, reversed, and menacing. Such a change resulted from direct contact between the British people and the local Chinese diasporic community and reflected "British superiority, anxiety, fear, and paranoia about the interculturalizing impact of closer contact with Chinese on the British themselves" (p. 127).
The paradox of presence and absence and the simultaneous inclusion and exclusion of China are intricate matters. By looking into British performance history, Chang demonstrates an intricate past that reveals a changing narrative of how China was represented by Britain, which corresponds to Britain's own history and economy. One of the strengths of the book is Chang's extensive use of archives, including play scripts, diaries, illustrations, photos and playbills. Chang's expertise in theatre allows him to provide an extremely detailed analysis and close readings of the texts and performances. The lucidity of his writing...