Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002) 326-346
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Eastern Authenticity and the Commodification of Chinese-ness on the 18th-Century Stage
Four years after the premiere of Voltaire's L'Orphelin de la Chine in Paris, the English playwright Arthur Murphy adopts it, makes "moral improvements," and claims the superiority of his Chinese "English Orphan" even as he pays due respect to Voltaire's representation of Eastern virtue. 1 Despite their Western conventions and concerns, the two Orphan'sare in fact adaptations of the first Chinese play to be translated into a European language, the Orphan of the House of Chao (Chao-Shih Ku-Erh). A thirteenth-century Yuan Dynasty drama about the Chao family's near-destruction, resistance, and vengeance, it is translated into French by the Jesuit Prémare and first published in 1735 in Du Halde's Description géographique, historique, etc., de l'empire de la Chine; this authoritative ethnography undergoes a craze of rival translations into English in book form and popular magazine installments between 1738-42. 2 Once published in England, a host of theatrical productions follow. Why the interest in this Chinese play? In eighteenth-century Europe, we see a pseudo-philosophical turn to China for moral authority; if the Yuan version is concerned with violence, revenge, loyalty, and self-sacrifice, the Western interpretations embrace the latter two themes and add the Enlightenment virtues of morality and emotionalism to the characterization of China. Authors, translators, and booksellers draw from a common source of Jesuit translations to capitalize on the moral and cultural fund of China's "Eastern virtues"—a sinophilia driven by philosophical idealization of China's good reason, nationalistic and commercial competition, as well as literary controversy over the "authentic" Chinese original.
Set during the conquest of China by Ghengis Khan, or "Timurkan" the "Emperor of the Tartars," Murphy's play follows the resistance and sufferings [End Page 326] of the Chinese mandarin Zamti and his virtuous wife Mandane. Twenty years or so before the start of the play, they had rescued the orphaned prince of China Zaphimri from Timurkan's total annihilation of the royal family. Substituting their own infant son Hamet for the royal babe, they send Hamet away and raise Zaphimri as their own son under the name of Etan. Neither boys are aware of their true identities. Unlike previous versions of the play, Murphy begins his Orphan with the infants already grown to intensify the questions of "morality" they face as mature adults. When Hamet re-enters China as a prisoner along with fellow resistance fighters from Korea, he is suspected of being Zaphimri, the lost prince-in-exile and is condemned to death by Timurkan. As the biological parents of Hamet, Zamti and Mandane watch in anguish as their son is mistaken for the prince. But while Zamti patriotically refuses to disclose the identity of the real prince, Mandane cannot bear to sacrifice her own son for the national cause, and in a fit of passion declares Hamet to be her son. Amdist the confusion of identities, Timurkan imprisons them all. Meanwhile Etan, having learned from Zamti of his royal birth, steps in to sacrifice himself for his adoptive family; through a bit of help from a court insider, he kills Timurkan and defeats the Tartars. Unlike Voltaire's rendering of a repentant Timurkan figure, here virtue resides unequivocally with the Chinese family. The tragedy that concludes the sequence of filial sacrifices is that Zamti dies from being tortured on the rack, and Mandane kills herself out of grief. In the end, the two "brothers" are left to rebuild the Chinese empire.
Despite its remarkable proliferation in the European tradition, the Orphan of China has received little scholarly attention. Liu Wu-chi, in his informative genealogy of the play, is right to argue for its impact in both Chinese and European literary history, East and West. But the approach of his article, "The Original Orphan of China," is limited by a question he...