According to academic consensus, the history of the origins and development of Shakespeare in China is very simple. Over centuries, the reception of Shakespeare in China has provided a barometer of Chinese politics. After the Opium Wars, European and American missionaries imported Shakespeare to China as a cultural agent of Western Imperialism. In 1917, the New Culture Movement promoted Western literature to stimulate cultural renewal and modernization. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chinese Shakespeares adopted a Marxist methodology, closely following a Soviet model. During the Cultural Revolution, Shakespeare was banned in China after being variously labelled feudal, bourgeois, revisionist, or all of the above. After the Cultural Revolution, interest in Shakespeare resurfaced and, in more recent times, Shakespearean festivals and productions have become an agent of cultural diplomacy as China flexes its muscles as a world power.
As if to summarize the point, in his influential collection Foreign Shakespeare: Contemporary Performance (1993), Dennis Kennedy states that the reception and performance history of Shakespeare in China “followed almost directly the political condition and changing circumstances of the country” (297).1 Further developing his argument in the same volume, Kennedy then goes on to ridicule the “orthodox Marxist approach” (297) of Chinese Shakespearean criticism, directing the majority of his ire towards Bian Zhilin, an early twentieth-century Chinese poet and academic, who argued that Shakespeare was writing to expose “the evils of capitalism” (Qi-Xin He 154).2 Ironically, both Kennedy’s paint-by-numbers Historicism and Bian Zhilin’s orthodox Marxism, rely on essentially the same precept that dramatic art is nothing other than a reflection of political ideology. We argue that this account of Chinese Shakespeares – this neat “art-as-ideology” equation - is reductive and flatten the fascinating nuances of Chinese Shakespeares (Grady 2). Such readings deny performance the power to create a multiplicity of interpretations that might reflect any number of factors: the director’s or actor’s creative vision, the form or aesthetic of the performance, the genre of the play, multiple theories of adaptation, the theatrical conditions of performance, and any number of other considerations. In recent years, the broader field of Shakespeare studies has experienced considerable resistance against, what Stephen Cohen has termed, “the decades-long hegemony of New Historicism’s insistence on the political and ideological implications of literature” towards a new emphasis on empiricism, form and the aesthetic. We contend that, at least in its Chinese incarnation, global Shakespeare is still very much in the “critical doldrums” rehearsing arguments that enjoyed their heyday decades ago (2).
The principal aim of this article is to question this methodological inconsistency and to interrogate the current state of the field to promote new avenues for academic study. Reflecting on the origins of Chinese Shakespeares as a viable discipline of academic study, this article will offer a radical reassessment of one of the earliest Chinese film adaptations of his plays. Bu Wancang’s 1931 silent film, A Spray of Plum Blossoms (Yi jian mei) an adaptation of Shakespeare’s early comedy, The Two Gentlemen Verona (1589-93), with English/Mandarin intertitles. Furthermore, we will utilize this exploration of Shanghainese film as a critical context with which to address the marginalization of Chinese Shakespeare in research contents. Of the two book-length studies of Shakespeare on silent film (Ball 1968, Buchanan 2009), both fail to consider films made outside of Europe or America. This is a significant oversight. By contrast with their Western counterparts, which often tend to be filmed versions of stage productions, Chinese silent Shakespeare films are far longer, far more sophisticated and far more filmic, demonstrating an extraordinary self-awareness of the medium of cinema itself.
Inspired by Christopher Rea’s book Chinese Film Classics: 1922-1949 (2021) and his accompanying podcast lectures, we seek to raise the academic profile of early Chinese cinema. Prioritising a discussion of film form, Rea has argued that “early Chinese filmmakers made contributions to the cinematic arts that deserve wider recognition” (1). In a similar vein, we aim to address the marginalization of Chinese film adaptations of Shakespeare in academic research contexts, arguing that the obsession with ideological readings of Chinese Shakespeares has distracted attention from the considerable achievements of individual filmmakers and studios. In this respect, this article marks, what Neema Parvini has described as, two methodological “shifts in focus” in the field of Shakespeare studies “the first from culture to the individual, the second from context to text” (3).3 A Spray of Plum Blossoms loosely follows its Shakespearean source. The setting of the drama is transposed from Renaissance Italy to 1930s China, just prior to the Japanese invasion of Shanghai. The film tells the story of two military cadets Bai Lede (Proteus) and Hu Lunting (Valentine) (see Figure 2). At the beginning of the film, the self-styled ladies’ man, Bai Lede falls for Hu Lunting’s sister, Hu Zhuli (Julia) only to cast her off in favor of Hu Lunting’s paramour, the General’s daughter, Shi Luohua (Silvia), on arrival in Canton. Bai betrays his friend and informs the General of the romance between Hu and Shi. Hu is exiled from the city and joins a band of Robin Hood-style bandits. Left alone, Shi is forced to fight off the “affections” of two men, Bai and the foolish Liao Di’ao (Thurio). Ultimately, both couples are reunited, Hu forgives Bai for his betrayal, and they return to Canton to re-join the army.
In previous studies, this film has been interpreted from within the political context of the May Fourth Movement, being primarily understood as a gender-conscious narrative that documents the rise of the New Woman in twentieth-century China. In this vein, Alexa Huang has convincingly argued that the movie feeds on the conventions of “the martial heroine (nüxia) film” and “thus turns Shakespeare’s picaresque adventure into a bildungsroman about two modern women” (121, 120). In another important contribution, Bi-qi Beatrice Lei has expounded on the symbolic significance of the plum blossom as a nationalistic symbol of resistance against foreign incursions. Furthermore, she has identified what she has termed the “paradox of Chinese nationalism” in the film, which both flaunts its Western influences and, at the same time, articulates a profound anxiety towards anything foreign (251). Meanwhile, taking a more filmic approach, Zhang Zhen has explored the “question of cross-cultural adaptation” and the way in which the depiction of the New Woman in the film functions as “a translated cosmopolitan product” (2004, 148).
By contrast with previous studies, which have concentrated for the most part on the ideological content of A Spray of Plum Blossom, we contend that the film should instead be considered for its broader ruminations on the narrative and aesthetics of filmmaking. Taking inspiration from this structural tension, A Spray of Plum Blossom cleverly weaves together two modes of filmmaking, narrative cinema and the aesthetics of spectacle, what the film theorist Tom Gunning has coined the “cinema of attractions” (64). In this way, the film offers an exciting meta-cinematic reflection on cinema as an art form, by reflecting on contemporary discussions amongst Chinese cinema-makers on whether film (yingxi) was primarily a verbal or visual medium.
In a final maneuvre, and following on from the work of Linda Hutcheon, this article will consider adaptation as an act of interpretation, as “an engagement with the original text that makes us see that text in different ways” (16). Overturning the normal hierarchies of the original and the derivative, this article will explore what A Spray of Plum Blossom might reveal about Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in a deliberately retrospective reading. Previous studies of the play have long acknowledged that letters have an important narrative and metaphorical significance in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona but, we argue, that the play is structured around a tension between narrative diegesis, through the motif of letter-writing, and the power of visual spectacle, through the display and adoration of women; a long unacknowledged tension that viewing this Chinese silent film makes evident.
The nature of filmmaking, its aesthetic and formalistic qualities, is the major preoccupation of the film from the very opening sequence. The film opens with an establishing shot inside the military academy in Shanghai. We are introduced to the two main characters, Bai Lede and Hu Lunting (played by Jin Yan whose showstopper good looks gave him the epithet the "Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai"). The two friends have just graduated. This opening sequence quickly establishes that while Hu is an ambitious military man, Bai Lede, played by Wang Cilong, is a bit of playboy. Inside his travel trunk, hidden beneath a series of military books and pamphlets, we discover some decidedly less educational material: romantic literature and poetry, and a rather steamy illustrated classical drama, The Romance of the Western Chamber. After digging further into his trunk, Bai pulls out a collection of photographs of various Shanghai actresses and other female celebrities of the period (see Figure 3). As well as establishing Bai’s rather problematic attitude towards the opposite sex, the contents of the trunk sets up the central tension of this film: the tension between desire, as expressed through words, text or narrative, and desire, as expressed through images or spectacle.
As Tom Gunning has described, early silent cinema “has been largely written and theorized under the hegemony of narrative films” (64). Even today, early films continue to be “assessed in terms of their contribution towards the development of film as a storytelling medium, particularly through the evolution of narrative editing” (64). This is partly due to the fact that the Lumière Brothers’ L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) (1895) is one of most widely recognizable early French films. The film, as short as it might be, follows a clear narrative structure: a train arrives at the station and people get onboard. As such, it is a realistic portrayal of an everyday life event. As contemporary spectators, this kind of film feels quite familiar to us because much of the cinema we see today is derived from this naturalistic “Lumiere tradition.”
But not all early films were solely focused on telling stories. In the early 1980s, André Gaudreault and Tom Gunning coined the phrase “cinema of attractions” to describe the cinema of George Méliès. Méliès was a stage illusionist turned cinematographer. As Tom Gunning has explained, his films are better understood “as a way of presenting a series of views to an audience,” through spectacle, tableaux and special effects. Méliès’s films were an “exhibitionist” form of cinema (64). For example, in George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (The Trip to the Moon) (1902), a spaceship suddenly crash lands on the moon, through a trick shot involving superimposition. Méliès’s films are all about visual spectacle and its power to shock, surprise and entertain an audience.
This dichotomy between narrative cinema and the cinema of attractions was not a uniquely Western phenomenon in the early development of cinema. A similar debate about the nature of cinema was also prevalent in early Chinese treatises on cinema. Hou Yao and Xu Zhuodai were two important figures in the development of early Chinese silent film; their treatises on filmmaking are – to an extent – representative of wider Chinese discourses on the nature and purpose of cinema.4 For Hou Yao, filmmaking was a primarily verbal art form. As such, Hou saw cinema (yingxi) as being closely aligned with theater. Hence in his treatise, Techniques of Writing Shadow-play Scripts (1925), he pointed out that the: “[s]cript is the soul of a film” (8). For Hou, cinema was a form of a play (xi), a drama. He placed emphasis on scriptwriting and realistic portrayals of life: “Shadowplay is realistic. Plays are always concerned to achieve the highest reality” (5-6). By contrast, Xu Zhuodai was a popular comedian and humourist, the self-styled Charlie Chaplin of the East.5 In The Science of Shadowplay (Yingxi xue) (1924), he interpreted the ‘xi’ in ‘yingxi’ rather differently, as playfulness. For him, cinema was about spectacle; he relied on visual comedy and slap-stick gags. Xu argued that “those who have no experience in acting and photography” failed to appreciate the visual power of cinema (21). He even went as far as to suggest that “pure, moving shadowplay should contain no words, subtitles, explanations or supplementary music” (2-3).
By closely examining The Spray of Plum Blossoms, we can see precisely the same tension between verbal and visual art play out. Throughout the film, love letters frequently metamorphosize into intertitles and, hence, drive the narrative forward.6 Equally, Bai Lede’s failure as a man is very clearly linked to his failure as a letter-writer. Hu Zhuli gives Bai a guide to letter writing after Hu Lunting asks Bai to do him a favor by writing a letter of introduction to his uncle. Bai sits down, holds the brush pen, but hesitates for a few seconds perhaps because he cannot find the right words. The implication is clear: Bai’s clownish inability to express himself on the page is representative of his personal failure, it alludes to the shallowness and awkwardness of this character. But letters also make things happen in the film; they are powerful and dynamic in terms of plot development. A judge frees one of Hu Lunting’s bandits after a threatening letter fired by an arrow lands on his desk, the threat to Hu’s life is spelled out by a wanted-dead-or-alive poster, and Shi Luohua receives the news that Hu is still alive via another arrow missile.
Perhaps more striking is the central moment in the film, where Hu Lunting and Shi Luohua, the Valentine and Silvia figures, compose a classical poem on a rock in the forest (see Figure 4). This episode finds no equivalent in The Two Gentlemen of Verona but perhaps seems to recall another Shakespearean comedy, As You Like It (1599), when Orlando wanders around the forest of Arden posting declarations of love to Rosalind on trees. This additional Shakespearean source-text is tellingly sign-posted by the slightly paraphrased quotation from As You Like It, “All the world is a stage and men and women merely players” (2.7.139-40), which appears alongside the film’s opening titles. As the film historian Zhang Zhen has pointed out, the poem which “generat[es] the poetic Chinese film title […] is one of the points where the film takes on a life of its own” (144). Representative of a significant tradition running throughout Chinese poetry and art for centuries, the plum blossom, as one of the three friends of winter, epitomizes the Confucian ideals of love, fidelity and fortitude in spite of adversity.7 The classical Chinese text on the rock reads:
A spray of plum flowers is lovely in all its forms. Dots of cherry stir; images of spring melt. In the coldness of spring, it outstands alone, charming like mellow wine, enchanting like a pretty jade. Bones tough as jade, surface smooth as ice, the spirit high. Wind and rain will not scratch, frost and snow can withstand. In the bustle, the thin shade appears as its fragrance floating, in an instant the mood is lifted, in a moment the soul is evanished.
But this poem carries a political as well as a romantic message. As Bi-qi Beatrice Lei has pointed out, the plum blossoms also function as a “national allegory” through the film and seem to express China’s defiance in the face of foreign invasion (266).
To truly understand the significance of the poem to the film, however, it is also important to identify the ultimate source of this classical poem, which the lovers etch onto the rock. The poem, “Yi Jian Mei” (A Spray of Plum Blossoms), derives from the work of Zhou Bangyan (1056-1121), the ci poet of the Northern Song Dynasty. Possibly providing a useful indication as to why Bu Wangang decided to incorporate this classical poem into the film, the aims of the Lianhua Film Company are clearly stated in their marketing:
Resist Foreign Cultural Economic Invasions;
Propagate the Essential Virtues of Our Nation.
Down with Films That Are Nonartistic and Harmful to Society;
Regain the International Status of Domestic Film. (Zhang 2004, 158)
As Alexa Huang has observed, these tag lines reflect the “self-contradictory” ideological positioning of the film, and by extension May Fourth writers more generally, which articulated both a need for cultural renewal and international recognition and a profound anxiety towards foreign influences at a time of national crisis (119). By taking account of the source of the poem, the paradoxical nature of the film becomes even more profound. A Spray of Plum Blossoms addresses both an international and a domestic audience simultaneously. Seemingly Janus-faced, the film openly acknowledges that it has been “adapted from the Shakespearian play ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’” but the movie also takes its inspiration and, indeed its title, A Spray of Plum Blossoms, from a classical Chinese poem. In a sense then, the incorporation of Zhou Bangyan’s classical poem, provides a rival source-text for the film, and thus enables Bu Wangang to promote “the [e]ssential [v]irtues” of Chinese culture and to challenge the “[i]nvasions” of Western culture, in the form of Shakespeare.
Significantly, the poem on the rock is one of a minority of Chinese texts in the film, which go untranslated into English. In a review of the film, published in 1931 in Yingxi zazhi (The Film Magazine), a publicity-mouthpiece for Shanghai cinema, one Chinese-speaking viewer wrote of his “enthusiasm” for A Spray of Plum Blossoms but complained that:
My only misgiving has to do with the English translation of the [diegetic] announcements and letters. They should have been put in intertitles consistently, and not projected on the wall sometimes in Chinese and sometimes in English (42).9
Indeed, there is some scholarly debate about the extent to which the film is genuinely “bilingual”. Some critics, such as Laikwan Pang, have gone as far as to argue that “there were almost no Westerners who attended Chinese films in Shanghai, these English titles were there more to provide a Westernized aura than to serve any real function” (26). But this account seems to be too far based on conjecture, as it would be difficult, if impossible, to reconstruct the ethnic, or linguistic, make-up of Shanghai audiences in the period with any certainty. Making a rather more balanced judgement, Zhang Zhen has argued that “the bilingual intertitles of a film like A Spray of Plum Blossoms made it possible for the Chinese actors, and spectators as well, to “pose” as translingual and transcultural subjects” (160). Thus, according to Zhang Zhen, the Lianhua company seemed to be trying to “woo Chinese audiences by concentrating on productions that capitalized on cultural and linguistic difference” in order to distinguish themselves from “Hollywood and European talkies” (160). Yet, as Kristine Harris has observed, the founders of Lianhua Film Company, Luo Mingyou and Li Minwei, were not just concerned with appealing to domestic audiences, they were also ambitious in terms of marketing their films abroad, and the accuracy of their bilingual intertitles reflect that ambition (2003, 41).10 Indeed, there is evidence that some silent Chinese films were distributed to British Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, Australia, North America.11
By contrast with this emphasis on cinema as a verbal art form, with the inclusion of intertitles, letters and poems, much of the film reflects on cinema’s use of spectacle and visual effects to provoke an emotional response in audiences. The first meeting of Bai Lede (Proteus) and Hu Zhuli (Julia) is one such meta-cinematic moment. After arriving at his friend’s home. Bai spies on Hu, played by the silent movie star Ruan Lingyu, as she practices her dancing and singing in another room in the house. The implication of this sequence is clear. Cinema is a form of voyeurism. The window, through which Bai stares, doubles as a cinema screen (see Figure 5). Like Bai, we, the viewer, also stare transfixed at Ruan Lingyu, who in this moment portrays both Hu Zhuli, her character in the film, but also herself, Ruan Lingyu, the female movie star, the object of the male gaze. The performative aspects of her gender, and her status as a spectacle due to her female celebrity, are even further emphasised by Bai’s subsequence applause. The whole sequence seems strangely reminiscent of an episode from the classical drama, The Romance of the Western Chamber, which Bai earlier dug out of his trunk with relish, in which the young scholar Zhang Sheng sees Cui Yingying, for the first time, in the grounds of a Buddhist monastery. But while Cui Yingying reciprocates Zheng Sheng’s love, Bai Lede has no such luck. His applause is not well-received by Hu Zhuli, who, on realising she is being observed, scowls back at him (see Figure 6). This is – of course - well-trodden theoretical territory. Combining film studies with psychoanalysis, Laura Mulvey’s 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” has documented, what she terms, actresses' “to-be-looked-at-ness”, the way in which in “their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed” and how we as cinema audiences – be we male or female – are also complicit in this look, by replicating this act of male voyeurism (715).
Although A Spray of Plum Blossoms pre-dates her appearance in Goddess (1934), perhaps the most celebrated Chinese silent film, this voyeuristic scene nevertheless capitalises on Ruan Lingyu’s rising celebrity status. Making her first film at the age of sixteen, Ruan Lingyu was one of the most highly renowned actresses of the Chinese silent era. Assessing her legacy to Chinese filmmaking, Jay Leyda has stated that “any one of her films, even one of her worst, will support my opinion that here was one of the great actresses of film history, as perfectly and peculiarly adapted to film as we recognize Greta Garbo to be” (87).12 At the age of twenty-four, after years of press intrusion into her private life, Ruan Lingyu committed suicide. There was widespread speculation and controversy surrounding her death. Much the public outrage was directed either towards the press, as in Lu Xun’s 1935 article “Gossip is a fearful thing,” or towards one of the two men in her life: her estranged husband, the gambler Zhang Damin, or the playboy tea tycoon, Tang Jishan. As Kristine Harris has demonstrated, the theatricality of massive funeral procession and “studio and press coverage of the funeral accentuated the circle of correspondences between the star’s personal life and her roles” in films depicting “fallen” or abused women (293). As Michael G. Chang has described, for many of the actresses of the silent movie era “[t]heir rise to frame was part and parcel of visually orientated mass media revolution, which included the emergence of China’s Shanghai-based film industry as well as the pictorial press” (128); Ruan Lingyu’s image appeared on numerous film magazines and autographed photographs and was even used to market numerous commercial products, including Bayer aspirin and Coca-Cola. Thus, this voyeuristic scene in A Spray of Plum Blossoms, as Bai stares at Ruan Lingyu lustfully, seems to recall the commodification of her image in the popular press; she is like one of the celebrity pin-up girls, from Bai’s trunk, come to life on screen.
Furthermore, running concurrently with the intertitles, the film also develops a visual shorthand, with which to express male desire. The playboy, Bai Lede (Proteus), frequently rubs his nose in the presence of beautiful women. The first time he does so, is when he is admiring the photographs of female starlets, in the opening sequence of the film. From then onwards, the rubbing of his nose quickly develops into a visual shorthand for sexual desire. He rubs his nose when he first sees Hu Zhuli and he rubs his nose when he is first introduced to Shi Luohua , so clearly in A Spray of Plum Blossoms, love letters are not the only thing that betray the inner workings of men’s minds.
As we have seen, A Spray of Plum Blossoms is structured about a tension between two modes of desire, as it is expressed verbally, through love letters and poetry, and desire expressed through visual forms, such as the display and adoration of women as spectacle. This tension finds an interesting resonance in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona and perhaps this offers one possible explanation of why the film director, Bu Wancang, was attracted to this Shakespearean source material.
As it has been long acknowledged, love letters play a crucial part in driving forward the narrative in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The play itself includes about six letters and, as Frederick Kiefer has argued, issues concerning textuality predominate:
Despite their quantity in Two Gentlemen, love letters paradoxically frustrate love as well as foster it. […] For such letters are not always what they appear to be. Although they may contain pledges of enduring love, those oaths may not stand the test of time (141).
So as Kiefer points out, letters become metaphors for love or sexual desire, be that mutual, or unfulfilled and hence problematic. As Silvia points out, men’s “new-found oaths” can be untrustworthy, as insubstantial as the paper they are written on:
She tears the letter
I will not look upon your master’s lines.
I know that they are stuffed with protestations,
And full of new-found oaths, which he will break
As easily as I do tear his paper. (4.4.126-9)13
Yet as Julia’s fetishization of Proteus’s letter testifies, letters still carry an emotional, or even sexual, potency. Jonathan Goldberg develops this argument still further, highlighting Silvia and Valentine’s ultimate status as text. Silva, he argues “moves through a chain of signifiers to arrive in the place her name determines, the woods” and is ultimately silenced, “placed within a discourse that is not her own” (68-9). Valentine’s name is equally significant, meaning both “lover” and a text, “a Valentine,” a common abbreviated expression for a “Valentine’s Day love letter.” According to Goldberg, Valentine’s “figurative submission to the discourse that gives him his name is what disables him from recognizing himself within the discourse to which he submits” (74). Like the object of his affections, Silvia, Valentine is trapped within a discourse that is betokened by his own name.14
But by placing so much attention on the role played by letters in the play, and by emphasising the way in which many of the characters lack autonomy because they are trapped in a play that has already been written by their own names, many critics overlook the fact that the play’s emphasis on theatre as text is only part of a wider dichotomy between language and spectacle. If words are seen as powerful and problematic in equal measure in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, then so too are images. In the opening scenes of the play, Valentine and Proteus revel in the “sweet glances” and “[c]oy looks” of love (1.1.4, 30). Later, when Silvia’s beauty holds Valentine’s “eyes locked in her crystal looks,” he dismisses her contention that Cupid “should be blind” by concluding that “Love hath twenty pair of eyes” (2.4.87, 91, 93). Likewise, after Proteus’s first glimpse of Silvia’s “true perfection”, his affection for Julia “is thawed” (2.4.195, 198); for Proteus, the mere sight Silvia completely overwhelms his rational senses:
’Tis but her picture I have yet beheld,
And that hath dazzlèd my reason’s light;
But when I look on her perfections,
There is no reason but I shall be blind. (2.4.207-210)
In perhaps the most famous speech of the play, Valentine’s soliloquy in Act 3 also emphasises the overwhelming emotional effect that the act of looking at Silvia has on him: “What light is light, if Silvia be not seen?” (3.1.174). But the aesthetic power of women’s bodies is also problematized. Elsewhere in the play, Silvia likens the “worship” of “shadows,” or more specifically the adoration of her portrait, to the sin of idolatry:
I am very loath to be your idol, sir;
But, since your falsehood shall become you well
To worship shadows and adore false shapes, (4.2.125-7)
Thus, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is clearly structured around a tension between narrative diegesis, through the motif of letter-writing, and the power of visual spectacle, through the display and objectification of women’s bodies. Although it is far more common to associate this dichotomy with the late plays of Shakespeare and with the famous conflict between Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones, there also seems to be plenty of evidence of this tension – between word and image - here in this early comedy. But this tension only really becomes evident, when we move away from considering the play as a text and start to think about it more in terms of its performance history. By watching this early Chinese film adaptation, a tension between word and image which has laid dormant in the source text, Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, becomes self-evident.
By way of a closing commentary, it should be clearly stated was that it was not the intention of this article to deny that A Spray of Plum Blossoms reflects the political context in which it was produced. It clearly does. To deny the political agenda of this film would be to make an argument just as political as any essay spouting Marxist orthodoxy. It would be to adopt to the policy of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” a popular survival tactic of many present-day Chinese academics, who practice apolitical Shakespearean criticism, in the fervent hope of not attracting the wrong sort of attention.
But what this article does propose is relatively simple. First, that the increasing politicisation of Chinese Shakespeare studies threatens to stall methodological innovation in the field. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, if we must historicize, we must historicise our own readings first (Smith 153). We must acknowledge the increasingly stark division of the academics who work in this field into partisan groups, into pro-PRC and anti-PRC factions. We need to acknowledge the fact that many of most prominent academics working on Chinese Shakespeares in Western universities today are from Taiwan, Hong Kong, or are a member of the Chinese diaspora who openly criticizes the government in Beijing. We need to acknowledge the fact that many of the Western academics who provide glowing commentaries of Chinese Shakespeare festivals and productions have worked for, are working for, or are in some way connected to Chinese universities and cultural institutions. We all have our own agendas. Perhaps the only way to circumnavigate these agendas, to rescue Chinese Shakespeares from the ideological quagmire, is to shift the emphasis of our analysis away from politics and ideology and towards form and aesthetics.
1 Kennedy’s argument is symptomatic of a wider tread. For a similar thesis, see Murray J. Levith, who argues that “[p]erhaps more than any nation, China has used a great artist [Shakespeare] to forward its own ideology rather than meet him on his own ground” (137).
2 See Bian Zhilin, “On Hamlet,” Essays on Literature. Issue 2. Beijing: Beijing University Press. 1956, 70-173.
3 For a similar methodological stance, see Ewan Fernie, Shame in Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 2002.
4 For further discussion of these treatises, see Zhang Zhen. An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896-1937. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005, 157-169.
5 See Xu Zhuodai. China’s Chaplin: Comic Stories and Farces by Xu Zhuodai. Trans. Chrisopher Rea. New York: Ithaca. 2019.
6 For further discussion of the symbolic significance of letters in the film, see Bi-qi Beatrice Lei. ““Ay, So True Love Should Do: It Cannot Speak”: The Trafficking of Love Letters in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In Lingua Tsing Hua: A 20th Anniversary Commemorative Anthology. Eds. Liou Hsien-Chin, Johanna Katchen, and Wang Hsu. Taipei: Wenhe [Crane], 2003, 28-29.
7 For further discussion of the symbolic significance of plum blossoms in Chinese poetry, see: Hans H. Frankel. “The Plum Tree in Chinese Poetry.” Asiatische Studien. 6 (1952): 88-115.
8 Laurence Mann. Personal Communication. 4 June 2022.
9 The translation of this passage is taken from: Zhang Zhen. “Cosmopolitan Projections: World Literature on Chinese Screens.” A Companion to Literature and Film. Eds. Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, pp. 158, 163.
10 See Huang Yicuo. “Chuangban Lianhua yingye zhipian yinshua youxian gongsi yuanqi [The origins of the establishment of the Lianhua Film Production and Printing Company].” and Luo Mingyou. “Wei guopian fuxing wenti jinggao tongye shu [A letter to members of the industry about the issue of reviving the nation’s cinema].” both in The Film Magazine 1.9 (Aug. 1, 1930.): 44–45.
11 See the opening credits of Song of China (dir. Fei Mu and Luo Mingyou, 1935). Christopher Rea. Private Communication. 10 June 2022.
12 For further discussion of Ruan Lingyu’s significance in the history of the development of Chinese cinema, see: Richard J. Meyer. Ruan Lingyu: The Goddess of Shanghai. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2005; Lea Jacobs. The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991; Laikwan Pang. “Women’s Stories On-screen versus Off-screen.” In Building a New China in Cinema: The Chinese Left-Wing Cinema Movement, 1932-1937. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002. 113-137; Christopher Rea, Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 78-96, 117-136.
13 All quotations from the play are taken from William Shakespeare. The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Ed. Norman Sanders. London: Penguin Books, 2015.
14 For further discussion of the problematic relationship between signs and referents in the play, see: Peter J. Smith. “Re(-)fusing the Sign: Linguistic Ambiguity and the Subversion of Patriarchy in Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” In Peter J. Smith. Social Shakespeare. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1995. 120-145.
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