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Shakespeare in China: A Comparative Study of Two Traditions and Cultures.

Xiao Yang Zhang. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1996. 279 pp. $38.50. ISBN: 0-8791-3536-2.

In this finely detailed cultural history, Xiao Yang Zhang's focus is the reception and use of Shakespeare in modern China, as entertainment and as an example and impetus for cultural change. Zhang does not aim to analyze western influence in general; rather he treats Shakespeare's drama as the primary, if not the only, significant western influence on Chinese drama. Within a generalized context of a Chinese culture entering the twentieth century after 2,000 years of feudalism, still producing a body of highly structured art that was in part a justification for that system, Zhang provides a picture of cultural change by tracing Chinas progressive response to Shakespeare as he was slowly introduced to readers and theater-goers.

Zhang lays the foundation for analyzing Shakespeare's reception by delineating the distinctions between Shakespearean and traditional Chinese drama. He identifies the main difference as a humanistic one: Shakespeare represented what Zhang terms "the general human condition," stressing unpredictable events and characterization of inner conflict, while Chinese dramatists focused on ideological and moral lessons for which the characters were symbols, not "real people." Zhang implies the presence of a Chinese audience ready for changes in choice and self-expression. Shakespeare's work, in his view, combining its "humanistic" view with a consciousness of social upheaval, was uniquely suited to satisfy these cultural yearnings. Zhang quotes three postgraduate students of Jilin University in the post-Cultural Revolution era who wrote, "Shakespeare tells us that the emancipation of individuality is of great importance to the progress of a modern society. Any restriction of the rational demands and rights of man will hamper the initiative of creativity of people" (244). Still, Shakespeare's themes and what Zhang calls his social idealism also jibe with the tenacious ideologies of Confucianism, Marxism, and Taoism embedded in the Chinese intellect. Zhang describes these correspondences in the Chinese adaptations of Shakespeare's plays, revealing a convincing synchronicity between Shakespearean drama and Chinese cultural ideology.

After sixty-five years of growing familiarity' with Shakespeare through performances and translated texts, China suffered the Cultural Revolution of 1967-78, which created a caesura in Shakespeare production and most other forms of artistic expression. Its end was immediately greeted by the first edition of all the translated plays and what Zhang terms a golden age of Shakespearean stage production. The high point was the Inaugural Chinese Shakespeare Festival in 1986 in Beijing and Shanghai, with 102 performances of eighteen plays by twenty-three theater companies.

Despite marked differences between Chinese and western drama in performance style, imagery, and poetic and mythic tradition, the wedding of Shakespeare and Chinese drama proved exciting and enriching to both traditions. Hamlet was cast in a Confucian light in his agony over the future of his country and his own responsibility toward it and his family. Sword fighting in Twelfth Night combined French fencing techniques with Chinese acrobatics. There was an easy translation of Shakespearean characterization of Jacques and Malvolio to classical Chinese dramatic "types." And the adaptability of Shakespearean themes to traditional Chinese poetic, musical, and decorative modes was almost uncanny, and would convince all the more effectively of Shakespeare's unique place in modern Chinese culture if Zhang had provided any other western influences to compare it to. In the absence of a wider context, nevertheless, Zhang's descriptions of the Chinese Shakespeare performances lend insight into this complementary dramatic relationship that has changed but not obliterated traditional Chinese theater.

Zhang supports his claim of a craze over an entire "Shakespeare industry in China" with lists of plays performed, editions published, qualifying exam questions asked, and even commemorative coins minted. He ascribes Shakespeare's popularity to the fact that the Chinese "see his works as a mirror reflecting almost all the features of their own society: the struggle between old and new social forces, the corruption of political power, the temptation of money, the conflict and compromise between personal passions and moral order, the emergence of new ideologies and values" (241). In the last four pages of his book Zhang admits that since Tiananmen square (1989) the Chinese government has tried to re-emphasize traditional Chinese culture and supress some of the enthusiasm for western art, including undermining a second Chinese Shakespeare Festival. However, Zhang sees a newly favorable atmosphere since economic reforms in 1992, and points out that an international conference on Shakespeare studies was held in Wuhan in 1993, and in 1994 the Shanghai International Shakespeare Festival presented ten plays, radio plays, lectures, and even t-shirts. Shakespearean drama, in Zhang's view, has revitalized more than traditional Chinese drama; it has effected a renaissance in Chinese economy, politics, and social life as well. His book reads unavoidably as oversell in certain places, but his wealth of detail regarding the dramatic joining of cultures allows us cautiously to share his optimism for Chinas artistic and humanistic future.

MARTHA J. CRAIG The Indiana Academy, Ball State University
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Author:Craig, Martha J.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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