Prospect Magazine



The Edinburgh International Festival starts later this week. Chinese artists are using western classics to address contemporary concerns

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.

Yen Fu had perfected his English at the naval academy in Greenwich. By contrast, another famous translator of the period, Lin Shu, produced versions of some 170 novels despite understanding no English. Lin’s output, created from summaries in Chinese, included Shakespeare, Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle.

The authors Lin translated might have been surprised by the results of his efforts. So compelling was his 1904 version of Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare that it inspired a surge of interest in the playwright quite independent of the availability of his plays. Shakespeare was famous in China long before any of his work could be read there: the first full translation of any of his plays (Hamlet) did not appear until 1922 and the first complete works were not published until 1967, just in time to be banned in the Cultural Revolution.

Those years, from 1966 to 1976, were bleak not just for western culture in China but for all creative output in the country, condemned as reactionary or bourgeois. But after Mao’s death in 1976 and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, China embarked on its second great phase in a hundred years of nation building. Again, China turned to the west—for business, technology and ideas. New generations, cut off under Mao both from their cultural past and the outside world, rediscovered western theatre, literature and music.

This had official backing—to be a global power, it seems, China needed to demonstrate it had global culture. The biggest cities embarked on grand building projects, including concert halls, theatres and museums. The most spectacular is Beijing’s National Grand Theatre, locally known as “the egg,” which opened in 2007. The showpiece complex, designed by French architect Paul Andreu, lies in its own artificial lake opposite the Forbidden City.

As in the early 20th century, what Chinese audiences find in western works, the messages they seek, can be different from their western counterparts. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose A Doll’s House was first performed in the country in 1914, still resonates in China. But instead of looking for his insights on patriarchy, audiences are grappling with the importance of material versus spiritual wealth, reflecting recent social upheavals. During Ibsen’s centenary year, a production of The Master Builder—with its story of worldly riches and spiritual impoverishment—spoke to a nation in which making quick fortunes has become a universal ambition.

Chinese audiences differ not only in their interpretation of the work but in their attitude to the experience of performance. Western performers who go to China are often startled at—and sometimes offended by—audiences who behave much more like those of Shakespeare’s day than the respectful atmosphere of modern western theatres and concert halls.

Chinese audiences think nothing of calling their friends during a performance and commenting on the show, or simply talking about something else. Children run around; audiences sleep, chat and fidget their way through shows. Even the opening production in the National Grand Theatre, a spectacular if shortened performance of Prince Igor by the Kirov Opera, complete with horses, was ruined by cameras flashing, phones ringing, noisy eating and out-of-control children. Nearly half the audience bailed out at the interval.

The imported practice of sitting still and listening is only 100 years old in China. Traditional opera performances, which could last for days, were the backdrop to noisy social encounters. While some audience members are there today because they want to engage, others have been given free tickets at the office or government department and come to be seen, to say that they have been, or to browse western culture in much the same spirit as a Chinese property developer will order up a copy of an English village, or the White House, or a French château to be built in the countryside.

But serious interest does exist and will increase as audiences gain greater exposure to western culture through the growing numbers of Chinese who study or work abroad. A small theatre festival in Beijing this summer boasts a variety of Chinese versions of western plays, including Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen and a production of Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, in which the director insists not only that the audience shut up and sit still but that the air conditioning be turned off so that the pauses can have the weight the playwright intended.

There is still censorship, of course, even in music. Religious choral works, such as Handel’s Messiah, have been intermittently banned, but these days it is rock musicians who are more likely to offend the cultural police. Meanwhile, western rock and pop music blasts out from Chinese bars, and each year some 30m piano students and 10m violin students enter China’s music schools to play works by western composers who were once publicly denounced.

Many Chinese bookshops now stock a rich selection of translated literature. Bertolt Brecht, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco are regularly performed. As in the early 20th century, authors might not always recognise their works: Three Sisters Waiting for Godot, staged in 1998 by the prominent Chinese director Lin Zhaohua, might have puzzled both Anton Chekhov and Beckett. But perhaps they would have applauded the spirit of homage.

Above all, Shakespeare, in his much edited and highly adapted Chinese canon, is still booming on stage, on film and in operatic versions. China does not yet have its own Globe Theatre, as Japan does, but with faithful copies of entire European villages being built in Chinese provinces, it is probably only a matter of time.

Asia in Edinburgh: To the Far West

The theme of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival is “To The Far West,” writes Ian Irvine. Drama and dance from China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and India will demonstrate to audiences how these vibrant storytelling and performance traditions have absorbed the best of the west.

In The Peony Pavilion, the National Ballet of China fuses western classical ballet with Chinese dance, while Princess Bari does the same with traditional Korean music and contemporary choreography. On the prominence of Shakespeare in an eastern guise, Wu Hsing-kuo, performing his one-man King Lear in Mandarin, notes: “How do people in Asia today see Shakespeare? I would say that they believe he tells people what it is to be human, and makes them feel what society is. In that way, his work is similar to our traditional opera; it talks of ethics and morality, and of how we should live.” During a recent visit to Stratford-upon-Avon, China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao also declared himself a lifelong admirer of Britain’s greatest dramatist.

The Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, meanwhile, brings India’s famous temple carvings to life. There are also many concerts by celebrated classical musicians from China and Singapore, including the pianist Melvyn Tan and the guitarist, Xuefei Yang. Jonathan Mills, Edinburgh’s director, observes: “What the festival is attempting to do is not simply to demonstrate the influence of Asia on Europe, or Europe on Asia, but build a bridge between Europe and Asia.”

The Edinburgh International Festival runs from 12th August to 4th September. For more information click here

  1. August 8, 2011

    Stanford Chiou

    You don’t need to have had a Chinese grandfather to fully appreciate ‘King Lear’, but it helps.

    (comment via Facebook)

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Isabel Hilton

Isabel Hilton is editor of chinadialogue.net 

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