- Shaw & Chinese Culture
IN 1937, BERNARD SHAW wrote to Chinese stage director Wang Tjo-ling: "Up, China.… Go ahead with your plays—only don't do mine." A good many Chinese directors have disregarded this injunction on stage and screen, as Kay Li shows in Bernard Shaw's Bridges to Chinese Culture. Yet, as Li also shows, the staging of his plays is only one of many ways in which Shaw and Chinese culture have left their marks on one another—and continue to do so. Li describes Shaw's 1933 visit to China, Chinese productions of his plays both during his lifetime and after, Chinese figures who may have served as prototypes for Bill Buoyant and other dramatic characters, shared traits between Shaw's [End Page 475] writing and that of recent Chinese Nobel literature laureates, and online student discussions of Major Barbara. Such intercultural bridges, she argues, offer unique angles from which to appreciate both Chinese culture and the works of Shaw.
The book offers illuminating looks at the Shaw plays most often performed and adapted by Chinese artists, and at the emphases and modifications by which directors and actors made the plays responsive to Chinese concerns. Mrs. Warren's Profession, for example, first performed in Shanghai in 1920 (well before the first public performance in England), gained extra shock value due to the recent sensational murder of a red-light-district singer by an extravagant young man—first-night audiences, Li suggests, might have identified the ex-prostitute Kitty Warren and the gambler Frank Gardner as stage doubles of the victim and murderer. Likewise, in film adaptations of Pygmalion such as John Woo's My Fair Gentleman (2009), Shaw's narrative of linguistic upward mobility is adapted to respond to the specific Chinese concerns of urbanization, modernization, and the global economy. Woo's Eliza becomes Charles Zeng, a rural-born entrepreneur who, having already made a fortune in Shanghai, must be transformed from peasant to gentleman with the help of the Higgins figure, Candice Wu. In reversing the genders of the two principal characters, substituting Shaw's poor woman with an already rich man, Woo soft-pedaled the grimmer aspects of Eliza's lot and presented the story not only as a lighthearted romantic comedy but as a celebration of "Chinese national pride, illustrating the rise of the entrepreneurial peasants who played a major role in the emergence of China's modern economic success."
Perhaps even more than staged and screened productions, Shaw's written play texts have served as a touchstone for cultural discussion, especially among Chinese youth posting on Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia. Here Li's digital humanities expertise is put to valuable use. In following microblogs and Baidu discussions on Major Barbara (a play seldom produced in China, but much read and discussed), she gives a fascinating outline of the ways in which Chinese responses to the play have altered as social and intellectual preoccupations have changed: whereas posts in the early 2000s see Barbara and Undershaft as an exposure of the "inequality of wealth" and "the malicious intention of capitalists," later posts, less sternly anti-capitalist, tend to focus on generational conflict and especially on the ignorance of younger characters, the "good-for-nothing Stephen" in particular. With context as well as memorable quotations, Li gives a sense of the Chinese [End Page 476] and the North American online resources on Major Barbara as two overlapping but different conversations, a case study of the ways in which popular views on Shaw (and literature more broadly) are evolving in the internet age.
As part of the Palgrave series Bernard Shaw and his Contemporaries, Li's book gives attention to prominent individuals with whom Shaw's long lifetime overlapped, especially those who influenced his writings or drew inspiration from them. These include Chinese notables such as emperor Henry Pu-yi Aisin-Gioro, whose relationship with his English tutor, Sir Reginald Johnston...