Chinese Shakespeares
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Chinese Shakespeares

Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange

Alexa Huang

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Chinese Shakespeares

Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange

Alexa Huang

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For close to two hundred years, the ideas of Shakespeare have inspired incredible work in the literature, fiction, theater, and cinema of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. From the novels of Lao She and Lin Shu to Lu Xun's search for a Chinese "Shakespeare," and from Feng Xiaogang's martial arts films to labor camp memoirs, Soviet-Chinese theater, Chinese opera in Europe, and silent film, Shakespeare has been put to work in unexpected places, yielding a rich trove of transnational imagery and paradoxical citations in popular and political culture.

Chinese Shakespeares is the first book to concentrate on both Shakespearean performance and Shakespeare's appearance in Sinophone culture and their ambiguous relationship to the postcolonial question. Substantiated by case studies of major cultural events and texts from the first Opium War in 1839 to our times, Chinese Shakespeares theorizes competing visions of "China" and "Shakespeare" in the global cultural marketplace and challenges the logic of fidelity-based criticism and the myth of cultural exclusivity. In her critique of the locality and ideological investments of authenticity in nationalism, modernity, Marxism, and personal identities, Huang reveals the truly transformative power of Chinese Shakespeares.

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Theorizing Global Localities

1 Owning Chinese Shakespeares

 for the eye sees not itself
But by reflection, by some other things.
—Julius Caesar
One of the possibilities enhanced by the encounter between China and Shakespeare might be found in The Tempest:
ARIEL: Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. (1.2.400–402)
Although one cannot say that nothing of Shakespeare or China fades in these historical processes, there has been a sea change in how the world sees them. The cultural space between “Shakespeare” and “China” is a space of (re) writing that is found outside of what is written. It subjects the artists and their local and foreign audiences to see, and be seen, from afar.
As the ideas of Shakespeare and China enter the global cultural marketplace, they initiate collaborative processes by which readers and audiences in different cultures grasp or exclude certain literary meanings and values. Chinese Shakespeares investigates what I suggest is a central moment in Shakespeare's afterlife and in the cultural alterity of China.1 Attending to both the local and the transnational mechanisms through which the expressive and political values of literature emerge, I consider what the Shakespeare–China interrelations are, why they have been used to rhetorically construct narratives about difference and universality, and how such narratives have unleashed new interpretive energy.
The answers proposed in Chinese Shakespeares suggest that the rewrites of Shakespeare and China turn them into syntactical categories that are used to generate meanings. Like words and grammatical patterns, Shakespeare and China are used to generate specific meanings in different contexts. Focusing on how artistic interventions modify the transnational knowledge bank about ideas of Shakespeare and China, my case studies of several major cultural events and texts reveal that Shakespeare and China are narrative systems read and written within the framework of performance and cultural translation. The symbiotic “narrative system” consists of writers’, directors’, and audiences’ (whatever their locations and cultural identities) uses of Shakespeare to accentuate the perceived uniqueness of Chinese culture and vice versa.
That is what the Shakespeare–China interrelations are and how they operate. The provenance of Shakespeare or China in different times has allowed the cross-cultural (for example, intercultural performance) and intracultural operations (for example, Chinese social reform) to be carried out. That is why these networks of meanings are dictated by artistic and ideological forces. However, textual fluidity is not a carte blanche for every reader to concoct his or her own meaning. Certain historical moments demand reading to be carried out in the reader's cultural context, while other historical junctures provoke interpretations that claim to depend on the “text” itself. These patterns of interpretation are informed by recursions to various sites of origin and the reinvention or repression of specific meanings within these sites.
It is commonly recognized that the history of Shakespearean performance is the history of “what we mean by Shakespeare.”2 The Shakespeare–China relations not only reveal what Asian and Anglo-European readers mean by “Shakespeare” and/or “China,” but also constitute histories that, constructed over time, reveal shifting perspectives on the question of the migration of texts and representations. Shakespeare's plays have acquired a number of different political and aesthetic functions, allowing Chinese artists and audiences to see China through the eyes of the Other (Shakespeare). This, in turn, makes Chinese interpretations of Shakespeare a visual projection of the gaze of Shakespeare's Other (Chinese perspectives). This rich network of interpretations and positions enables multifaceted modes of reading both Shakespeare and China.
With the acceleration of economic and cultural globalization, the present time is particularly propitious to investigate the topic of Shakespeare and China. And yet the significance of multiple Chinese Shakespeares extends beyond the clichĂ©d but frequently cited reasons, such as Shakespeare's connection to the formation of world cultures or China—making headlines with increasing frequency—as an important nation to know about in our century. For people who know, or think they know, what China and Shakespeare stand for, the questions are: Whose Shakespeare is it? Whose and which China?

Locality Criticism

The unnatural longevity of Shakespeare's viability begs the question of the value of local reading positions. The question of where Chinese Shakespeares are situated is ultimately connected to the question of where critics and audiences discover themselves. This question—along with the relationship between the local and the global—calls for a reexamination of Shakespeare and China as two amorphous discursive entities.
An awareness of the fetishization of the universal values of Shakespeare has prompted scholars to forsake the character criticism established by A. C. Bradley and G. Wilson Knight and turn to various forms of historical knowledge. Interpretive possibilities have multiplied when Shakespeare's text is lodged in its social networks, then and now. Elizabethan knowledge has been brought to bear on the operation of Shakespeare's theater.3 Cultural materialism and new historicism have also transformed other fields through their attention to the interplay between decidedly local forces and artistic production.
However, the local knowledge that informed our contemporary performance has remained marginal in the scholarly inquiries into the meanings of “Shakespeare.”4 Many contemporary rewrites, especially non-Anglophone ones, are seen as obscure bits of Shakespeariana and too far removed from the core of Shakespearean knowledge to matter. Despite their recognized status as an integral part of postcolonial and performance criticism, literary and dramatic adaptations have long been regarded as secondary and derivative, and the field has accordingly been relegated to the status of an “[un]acknowledged genre in criticism.”5 To counter this bias, we need to consider the itinerant projections of Shakespeare and various localities where Shakespeare has been put to work.
As Konstantin Stanislavsky suggested, “spectators come to the theatre to hear [and see] the subtext, [because] they can read the text at home.”6 Elements of cultural politics, nationalism, revolution, and postmodernism form a prominent set of subtexts in which Shakespeare and China are read. Since literary interpretation is always done from specific cultural locations, at the center of my study lies the notion of locality. Artists and critics work through various cultural locations, some of which lie at the crossroads of fiction and reality, such as “Hamlet's castle,” Kronborg Castle in Denmark.7 I distinguish not only between historical hindsight and blind spots, but also between individuals reading in the same historical period but in different contexts. Any manifestation of Chinese Shakespeares must be understood in relation to the subtexts of the multiple deferrals to local and foreign authorities, authenticity claims, and unexamined silences.8 Such an approach opens up the notions of Shakespeare and China to new temporalities and locations. As representations of Shakespeare multiply, so do the localities where these representations themselves are appropriated. These localities constitute a set of historically significant practices—the practices of locating global Shakespeares and transmitting such location-specific epistemologies as the idea of Chinese opera.
While Shakespeare in other locations often speaks simultaneously in the coercive voice of Prospero and the agonized accents of Caliban, the case of Shakespeare and China does not fit easily into the postcolonial theoretical models commonly used to interpret Asian rewrites of Anglo-European literature.9 Michael Neill rightly observes that Shakespeare's plays were “entangled from the beginning with the projects of nation-building, empire and colonization” in many cases.10 However, regions with more ambiguous relationships with the West can be doubly marginalized when dominant critical paradigms, such as postcolonial criticism, are deployed. There are two historical forces behind Chinese Shakespeares’ unique mythology in the historical record of globalization. Except for Macao, Hong Kong, and a handful of treaty ports, China was never quite colonized by the Western powers in the twentieth century. In most parts of the Chinese-speaking world, Shakespeare has rarely been resisted as a dominant figure of colonialism. Further, throughout its modern and contemporary history, China often played multiple and sometimes contradictory roles simultaneously, including the oppressor and the oppressed. In relation to the paradox of China's status, one may legitimately ask: “Is China a postcolonial nation?” or “Are contemporary Chinese cultural discourses too ‘nationalistic’ and potentially hegemonic to be included in that cultural frontier?”11 Cultural production in the territories that were not directly influenced by European colonial forces has begun to attract the attention of scholars such as Gayatri Spivak and Prasenjit Duara.12 While such locations as India, Africa, and Latin America continue to be the core of postcolonial criticism, my study suggests that it is precisely by virtue of being in an estranged, ambiguous relationship to the post-colonial question that Chinese Shakespeares can provide rich opportunities for reexamining the logic of the field.
Such rethinking may find its inspiration from the cultural-historical contexts of traveling texts and their readers. Locality is a useful concept to understand the audience–performer or reader–text interactions. The concept of locality is a lynchpin of sociological theory that is only beginning to be applied to literary and cultural criticism.13 The term takes into account the cultural coordinates of a work, including the setting of a play, its performance venue, and the specificities of the cultural location of a performance such as Jiao Juyin's wartime Hamlet in 1942, in which parallel and antagonistic readings of local and world histories are evoked. The performance in a Confucian temple in rural China offered particular articulations of various localities recognized both in medias res and in retrospect: Hamlet's Denmark, Fortinbras's Norway, a China under Japanese invasion, and symbolically defined Chinese virtues. The crux of these readings of Confucianism and Hamlet emerges from the temple, a venue that becomes a fictive and historical space for reflection. These localities shape and define Shakespeare's extensive post-humous encounters with the world. While it has now been recognized that Shakespeare has occupied an international space for centuries, the theoretical implications of this international space remain unclear. The Shakespeare–China interrelations are determined by interactions between local histories embedded in and superimposed on the works of art, shaping an interchange repeatedly staged since the nineteenth century. The notion of locality recognizes that representations signify relationally. Cultural difference, as Homi Bhabha observes, often introduces into “the process of cultural judgment and interpretation the sudden shock of the successive, non-synchronic time of signification” rather than a simple contention between different systems of cultural value.14
The local is not always the antithesis to the global or an antidote to the hegemonic domination that has been stereotypically associated with the West in the shifting reconfigurations of Shakespeare and China in this history. We live in an age when global or universal claims are suspect and the local is often celebrated as a Quixotian hero resisting hegemony or guarded as an “endangered space” in need of being “produced, maintained, and nurtured deliberately.”15 In China, the global finds subtle articulation in the institution of cultural translation and in politically divisive discourses of modernity. There are indeed times when artists who appeal to Shakespearean universalism are deluded and complicit, although a performer can also let his or her politically driven agenda set up the work as alternative to dominant academic or artistic practices. Odd as it may seem, in other times, such as the Cultural Revolution, the local is the coercive and oppressive agent. Likewise, rampant Sinophobia in Taiwan's cultural institution subjugates jingju performers in the name of preservation of “local” performing arts. In those moments, the global represents a potential space for liberation. While the local is sometimes deployed to confront transnational values represented by Shakespeare's increasing, or decreasing, global clout, in other instances the additional purchase of the global is summoned...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Chinese Shakespeares
APA 6 Citation
Huang, A. (2009). Chinese Shakespeares ([edition unavailable]). Columbia University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2009)
Chicago Citation
Huang, Alexa. (2009) 2009. Chinese Shakespeares. [Edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press.
Harvard Citation
Huang, A. (2009) Chinese Shakespeares. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Huang, Alexa. Chinese Shakespeares. [edition unavailable]. Columbia University Press, 2009. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.