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SHASHIBIYA: Staging Shakespeare in China, by Li Ruru. Hong Kong University Press, 2003, 306 pp., 14 plates, £21.50 (cloth).

It has been 100 years since Shakespeare was first staged in China. His name now sinicized to Shashibiya and even colloquialized, (“Old Man Sha”), productions of his plays continue to reflect the continually changing political, social and cultural practices of the country.

“The Merchant of Venice,” China’s favorite Shakespeare, was the first to be performed, a 1902 Shanghai production. It was also the first produced after the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, a 1980 Beijing production that, despite some criticism of its moral depravity (people kissing on stage and lines “too dreadful and vulgar for our ears”), was considered successful and even sent on tour.

A part of the success, it has been suggested, is that China’s merchant class is an important one, and that the Chinese title, “The Female Lawyer,” suggested wonders yet unglimpsed on the stage. Also, just as had earlier occurred in the West, the plays were routinely retitled and often rewritten to suit the expectations of the audience.

Thus “King Lear” became “The Heart of a Filial Daughter,” “Hamlet” was titled in one production “The Arch-Careerist Brings Calamity on the Country” and “Much Ado About Nothing” was called “A Grumbling Couple Made Happy.”

In this last-named play, the role of Beatrice had to be extensively rewritten because “All the opinions Beatrice expresses about men and marriage are against traditional Chinese ethics and morality.”

Such sedition could also be somewhat moderated by staging the plays in a supposed Western manner: wigs, false noses and blue eyelids to suggest blue eyes. The costumes were “Western,” and both they and the decor were to suggest Shakespeare’s own time, the “Renaissance.”

This period of history was found acceptable because both Karl Marx and Frederick Engels had agreed that it was “the greatest progressive revolution that man had so far experienced,” and had been “a time that called for giants and produced giants” — Shakespeare among them.

China also needed giants during its own revolution and the Renaissance author, it was hoped, might produce some ideas. One of the ways to find them was to adapt Shakespeare into traditional Chinese theater with its aria-singing, dance, mime and acrobatics.

“Macbeth” (“Blood-Stained Hands”) was a favorite vehicle for such experiments. It fitted into the “martial” category, and certain parts of its conventions could be successfully adapted. For example, in the scene titled “Frenzy in the Boudoir,” the actor playing Lady Macbeth effectively symbolized water by waving her long white sleeves during the hand-washing scene.

Another military favorite was “Hamlet.” Here too the play was given a local theme. The first sinicized production was entitled “Kills the Elder Brother and Snatches the Sister-in-Law.” In later productions, however, the Melancholy Dane is seen as less socially disruptive.

One Chinese director found a way to express something rotten in Mao Zedong’s state itself. Hamlet in Denmark was seen as analogous to the intellectual in China. The play was performed in a Confucian temple and the director later said of his hero that “he had to think over everything he encounters and then fails. We Chinese people are often too cautious and as a result we lose courage. In the end we can do nothing.”

“Othello” is another favorite much given to adaptation. A 1994 production “set out to create a new Iago who was a product of an unjust society and had suffered from the unfairness of the system of competition.” Such freedom with the original should perhaps not surprise when one considers what happens to the text itself.

Othello’s reaction to Iago’s insinuations received in China a form quite different from Shakespeare’s. It becomes an extended aria that takes twice as long but contains only half as much. As the author states, this “illustrates that the process of filtering out or adding to the source material depends on the communication between the source and target cultures.”

Postmodern criticism (Roland Barthes et al.) holds that the author is in no privileged position, that any reader or spectator is free to make from literature anything he or she chooses. Perhaps now more than ever when “the whole country is run on a dual-track system which attempts to maintain the communist ideology while operating a capitalist economy.”

This is a very interesting account of what happens during cross-cultural endeavors. It is scholarly but not stiflingly so, and comes with interesting notes, a chronology of all Chinese Shakespearean productions and a Chinese-language glossary.

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