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It’s been a very long time since any updates, not for want of material, but for want of time. A couple of weeks ago I was at St Antony’s College Oxford to present a paper in a Taiwan Studies workshop. I spoke about Chiang Kaishek, King Lear, Cape No.7 and the crisis of representation. Here is an excerpt. And an excerpt from the performance I am writing about is here .
One exemplary instance of contemporary Taiwanese culture is produced by the celebrated Taiwanese actor Wu Hsing-kuo 吳興國, who has since the 1980s developed a global reputation for his ambitious interpretations of Shakespeare through his own theatre company the Contemporary Legend Theatre. He began in 1986 with a version of Macbeth that transposed the play to an imperial Chinese setting. In 2001, he presented a radical version of King Lear, which he has performed throughout the 2000s, most recently in 2009 at the Ten Days On The Island international arts festival in Australia.1
Wu premise is to use the theatrical forms of Peking opera as a medium in which to read Shakespeare’s plays. However, he goes further as an artist and transforms King Lear into one-actor piece of performance art, taking on nine of the characters himself: Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Gloucester, Edgar and Edmund, the Fool and the Earl of Kent. At one level, it is a demonstration of theatrical virtuosity. He performs the roles of multiple characters from the play by relying on both his personal skills as a an actor as well as the formalism of Peking opera to present the roles in a lucid and involving theatrical experience. Its works in part through the aura of the virtuoso, in which the audience is allowed to suspend disbelief and experience a particular form of rarefied spectacle.
In his version of King Lear, Wu’s approach to Shakespeare is highly stylized and interpretative, as he adapts the themes and relationships from the play, rather than specific scenes, beginning with the character of Lear is his state of madness. He also appears as himself in moments in which he explores his own identity and his relationship to the tragic characters in the play and his life as an actor.
Wu Hsing-kuo is classically trained in Peking opera, and parallel to his adaptation of Shakespeare, his performance adapts and refracts the imposing conventions of that form. He plays with the archetypes of Peking opera, such as the 老生 “old man” or the 武生 “young warrior” or 青衣 roles of women, to transform the representation of the play’s analogous characters through the different performance motifs. The result is a layered and stylized piece that is accessible and entertaining while allowing an informed audience to explore Shakespeare’s characterization through Wu’s self-conscious deployment of the richness and formalized features of Peking opera.2
Dramatically, Wu’s project is to distil an essence from Shakespeare and recreate that essence in an entirely different cultural mode, so as to offer an audience new insights and a fresh understanding of Shakespeare’s work. If one were to offer a critique of Wu’s King Lear, it might be his failure to grasp the centrality of language in Shakespeare. The wordplays, meters and turns of phrase that characterize Shakespeare’s plays and poetry and his capacity to draw intense and complex characterizations and plots from stage dialogue are a key dimension of what has made him the foundational writer in the English language. Even in its Chinese, Wu’s text is relatively straightforward. Instead, his apprehension of Shakespeare is largely through the performative body, using the esoteric and overdrawn physical performance styles of Peking opera as his dramatic language rather than its textual possibilities, and he focusses on the interior life of characters and their inter-relationships rather than any of the social and political themes in the play. For Wu, his work aims to exteriorize the psycho-analytic interior of the characters through the body and its physical possibilities in performance.
In a broader theoretical sense, Wu’s Lear is a form of trans-cultural performance practice. He takes the two radically different canonical forms of Shakespeare and Peking opera and by bringing them together problematizes their position as bounded within civilizational or national cultures. Each is deconstructed by the encounter with the other, and through the acts of interpretation and translation, he decanonizes both forms, allowing a play and a performance orthopraxis steeped in history to be rethought as innovative or even radical and transgressive. Shakespeare, celebrated and beatified the the greatest English writer and writer in English, is taken apart and reworked through a recondite form of culture from a Chinese classical civilizational tradition. Peking opera, representing high late-imperial culture, is similarly transformed through its appropriation of an alternative, even oppositional, Western literary tradition. One might also note how in the context of global culture and performing King Lear outside of Taiwan, Wu is presenting a doubled translation from Shakespeare to Peking opera and back again into the Angophone performance world, so that western cultural tradition becomes mediated by classical Chinese culture and transformed into a contemporary global high culture. 3
However, Wu is not only deconstructing cultural traditions. In reworking King Lear through Peking opera, he is drawing out from them an appeal to a universal human experience, insisting that even as rarefied or esoteric artistic forms, Shakespeare and Peking opera are both capable of reaching across cultural divides and expressing universal human concerns. The humanism of the performance is accentuated in Wu’s personal intrusions on stage, breaking the barrier between actor and audience so as to include both in a shared experience of subjectivity. As a result, Wu’s appeal to the universalizing humanistic values of both Shakespeare and Peking opera re-canonizes them as cultural objects that transcend the boundaries that valorize them. They are not merely great within their respective cultural traditions, they are great across all human cultures and history. This is a bold move, as most global or transnational culture is popular and commercial, such as cinema or pop music, and Wu is appealing to nothing less than a form of “great” or “high” global culture.
In this context of global or transnational culture, Wu’s focus on embodied performance makes sense as a more fruitful technique for cultural translation, functioning visibly and viscerally as site of meaning that can make sense across cultural boundaries. The body becomes the most viable form of expression that can remain comprehensible across multiple translation acts across civilizational boundaries.
In the narrower context of Taiwan’s contemporary culture, however, such a deep engagement with a classical Chinese cultural form has an unavoidable politics. That Wu’s King Lear can be identified as “Chinese” is to position his work as inauthentic in the context of Taiwanese nationalism and the localist cultural movements that have driven much cultural expression in Taiwan since the 1970s. Peking opera is necessarily hegemonic, positioning its local equivalent of Taiwanese opera as a provincial subset of the imperial form, and marginalizing other traditional popular culture such as music and puppet theatre. This hegemony might be an intrinsic and unavoidable part of Wu’s project. His King Lear is, in a sociological sense, legitimized by the symbolic capital of Peking opera, which draws upon centuries of imperial history and active valorization by the KMT government on Taiwan. To engage with as dominant a cultural figure as Shakespeare from outside of the Western or Anglosphere might need an equally compelling interlocutor for the dialogue to be meaningful.
Therefore, a simple reading of Wu Kuo-hsing’s King Lear might be to link it to the same “crisis of representation” that could be said to shape the language of politics in Taiwan today: Peking opera is Chinese, and its presence on Taiwan expresses the failure of Taiwanese culture to define a uniquely and specifically “Taiwanese” cultural language as it continues to constrain the possibilities of Taiwanese culture. In terms of symbolic capital, perhaps one could so far as to say that high culture in Taiwan, such as theatre, might need to be Chinese culture to be legitimized.
However, this is a very crude reading of Wu’s work, equating his version of King Lear with Chinese culture, and indeed equating it with Peking opera, when in fact it is a richer and more complex form of transnational culture. The transformations of Peking opera effected by Wu are too profound for his work to be understood as simply a version of Peking opera transplanted to Taiwan.
Wu’s King Lear is self-reflexive and self-conscious, and ultimately ungrounded by its Chinese classical tradition. It deliberately and explicitly breaks the boundaries of Peking opera as a form of performance and takes on with a demonstrable confidence the most canonized writer in the English language. In other words, Wu Kuo-hsing is deliberately taking the cultural legacy of China on Taiwan, a pre-Republican legacy, and using to develop a transnational cultural form. What is being culturally represented in King Lear is not “China”, but a cultural legacy transformed in ways that might only be possible in Taiwan. Indeed, symbolically, in the third scene in his Lear, Wu wipes the opera make-up from his face, and explores in vernacular Chinese his own subjective relationship to aspects of Lear’s isolated and troubled character with which he identifies and with the difficulty of maintaining a life as a performer. He symbolically wipes the mask of Chinese high culture from his face and speaks outside of it in a very different linguistic register.
Wu, therefore, is offering a wholly self-reflexive engagement with the theatrical tradition with which he is working. He then goes further, taking an ungrounded and free approach to the performance of Peking opera to embrace not that tradition but Western tradition in the form of a canonical piece of English theatre. In other words, the logic of renewal or revitalization to which Chiang Kai-shek appealed in 1950s or the notion of “saving” Taiwan in the 2000s, is unravelled in Wu’s art. Renewal of classical Chinese culture means appropriating it from a position of mastery and re-deploying it knowingly in ways that enable cultural innovation, and especially cultural translation. Wu stands between both Chinese and Western traditions uses them to deliver a high cultural “mash-up”. The temporality of greatness-crisis-revitalization-and greatness again is rendered politically meaningless when the renewal is actually an act of creative translation that deconstructs the very boundaries of Chinese culture upon which Chiang and subsequent bearers of Chinese nationalist ideology rely.
1. “Lier zai ci (Lear is here),” DVD, Wu hsing-kuo, Contemporary Legend Theatre, (Tianxia 2005).
2. for a detailed description of Wu Hsing-kuo’s interpretation of King Lear, see Li Ruru, “‘Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ / ‘Lear’s shadow’: A Taiwanese Actor’s Personal Response to King Lear,” Shakespeare Quarterly; Summer 2006; Vol. 57, No.2, p. 195-241.
3. ibid., 196.
July 17, 2009 1 Comment
I have another chapter in a new book that just came out with HKU Press. The chapter is “How to Speak About Oneself: Theory and identity in Taiwan. Book blurb as follows.
What difference does a region make? Are the new regional cultures of Northeast Asia the product of individuals fighting to overcome national trade barriers, or are they driven by governments promoting national interests in new ways? Are they the result of economic pursuits alone, or do cultural and political forces play a role? Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia takes a Cultural Studies approach to the cultural industries in Northeast Asia. The volume opens with an innovative section considering the discipline itself as a kind of cultural industry, highlighting the challenges and possibilities that arise from the context of Northeast Asia. Other essays on specific cultural industries and their products range in coverage from labor in the Korean animation industry to anti-Korean manga in Japan, the emergence of an East Asian brandscape, Chinese consumption of Japanese animation, the Asian regional strategy of the Pusan International Film Festival, and more.
“The publication of Cultural Studies and Cultural Industries in Northeast Asia marks one of the first efforts to address the emergent shape and shaping of a distinctive Northeast Asian cultural sphere in our time and surely represents the best portrayal of the complex tapestry embracing the plural forces of nation, market and cultural industries that is currently constituting this new configuration. From ‘Cool Japan,’ regional ‘brandscapes’ to hybrid forms of animation, politicized cartoons, and regional pop music, these essays explore how cultural studies has expanded its disciplinary vocation to meet the demands of a cultural zone different from the usual suspects and expanded its reach to examine policy and the cultural industries implicated in figuring and producing this new cultural unity. Above all else, the collection authoritatively demonstrates the continuing tension between envisioning a Northeast Asian cultural imaginary as a displacement of older historical grievances capable of exceeding the nation and the more difficult labor of realizing political and economic cooperation among the region’s nations to actualize a new history.” – Harry Harootunian, New York University
“This timely and erudite intellectual interrogation of regionalism offers a potent counter-discourse to challenge nation-state boundaries and problematize the binary model of globalism/localism. There is no comparable book on the market.” – Ming-bao Yue, University of Hawai’i at Manoa
Chris Berry is Professor of Film and Television Studies in the Department of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
Nicola Liscutin is Head of the Japanese Department and Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.
Jonathan D. Mackintosh is Lecturer in Japanese Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.
February 13, 2009 3 Comments
This is the Taiwan episode from a 1991 Australian documentary series about the four little dragons, or Asian tigers. Like all documentaries, it says as much about the maker as the subject. In this instance it expresses Australia’s uncertain reorientation towards Asia and the appeal of, and anxiety caused by, the success of the Asian economies at a time when Australia’s was painfully restructuring along neo-liberal lines. It also says a lot about Taiwan, and although there are some simplifications, it gets the major issues pretty right, and offers some interesting images of the politics of the period. And in the last year many of those issues seemed to have returned to beset Taiwanese political and social life.
Parts 1, 2 and 3
January 8, 2009 1 Comment
I have a chapter in a new book that just came out with Routledge. Blurb as follows.
This inter-disciplinary volume of essays opens new points of departure for thinking about how Taiwan has been studied and represented in the past, for reflecting on the current state of ‘Taiwan Studies’, and for thinking about how Taiwan might be re-configured in the future.
As the study of Taiwan shifts from being a provincial back-water of sinology to an area in its own (albeit not sovereign) right, a combination of established and up and coming scholars working in the field of East Asian studies offer a re-reading and re-writing of culture in Taiwan. They show that sustained critical analysis of contemporary Taiwan using issues such as trauma, memory, history, tradition, modernity, post-modernity provides a useful point of departure for thinking through similar problematics and issues elsewhere in the world.
Re-writing Culture in Taiwan is a multidisciplinary book with its own distinctive collective voice which will appeal to anyone interested in Taiwan. With chapters on nationalism, anthropology, cultural studies, media studies, religion and museum studies, the breadth of ground covered is truly comprehensive.