The Edinburgh International Festival starts later this week. Chinese artists are using western classics to address contemporary concernsby Isabel Hilton / July 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Wu Hsing-kuo performs his one-man version of King Lear. Shakespeare is hugely popular in China, with stage, film and operatic adaptations
When cultural events are billed as “Asia meets Europe,” it’s a safe bet that Shakespeare will be present, although not always in familiar versions. Major performances at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, starting on 12th August, include the Shanghai Peking Opera Troupe’s interpretation of Hamlet, The Revenge of Prince Zi Dan, and the energetic Taiwanese actor Wu Hsing-kuo in a one-man version of King Lear. Alongside indigenous work, Asian artists also perform western classical music: the festival’s programme reflects an Asian fascination not only with Shakespeare but with the western canon as a whole.
It wasn’t always so. Western cultural offerings were all but unknown in east Asia until the 19th century, when the strange and unwelcome foreigners made their presence felt. Convinced of its invincibility, China was particularly slow to respond to the art and storytelling of the west. Jesuit missionaries had been busy translating religious and scientific texts into Chinese since the late 16th century, and in the 19th century the Protestants also churned out translations. But neither group had much interest in translating literature.
Nor was there much demand in China. Before the rude arrival of western trading fleets, gunships and opium dealers in the first half of the 19th century, China believed it had little to learn from outside. Beyond, from the perspective of the Manchu imperial court, lay a world of tributary states. It was only when the barbarians forced entry, scattering imperial fleets and defeating imperial armies, that the Qing court’s officials decided they needed to discover the secret of the foreigners’ strength.
A handful of remarkable intellectuals undertook the task of rendering western culture intelligible to China. One of the most prolific was the scholar Yen Fu, a translator of political and philosophical works, including by Darwin and TH Huxley. These, though, had the unfortunate effect of infecting Chinese political thought in the early 20th century with social Darwinism.