Reviews / June 2015 (Issue 28)

Journey to the West: The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity

by Huiwen Shi


Diana Yeh, The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity, Hong Kong University Press, 2014. 224 pgs.


In the 1930s, Hsiung Shih-I (1902–1991) was one of the very few Chinese writers whose reputation overseas far outshone his reputation in China. Hsiung was a translator, playwright, stage director, novelist and professor. Lady Precious Stream, both a translation and a reinvention of a work from Peking Opera, made him an international phenomenon: the play was so successful that it had over 900 shows on the West End, entered textbooks for British schools and was translated and staged in various countries in Europe and Asia, as well as on Broadway.

Hsiung was a well-known figure in Britain, but not in China, partly due to the fact that he left the Mainland early in his career, but mainly because his works are largely written in English. His political positions also contributed to his obscurity in China—because he wrote a biography of Chiang Kai-Shek (The Life of Chiang Kai-Shek, 1948) and made his stance against Communism clear, he was for a long time denied an audience in Mainland China. It was not until 2003 that the Mainland version of Lady Precious Stream appeared, and not until 2012 that the Chinese version of his novel The Bridge of Heaven was finally published, almost 70 years after its original release (1943). Since then, however, scholarly attention has started to focus on Hsiung, whom Shu Yi[i] has declared as "one of the three masters who greatly contributed to the cultural exchange between China and the West," alongside Lin Yutang and Chiang Yee. Given the rising interest in this forgotten literary figure, Diana Yeh's study of Hsiung is timely.

The Happy Hsiungs is the very first major work in English to chronicle the life of the once highly popular Chinese writer and his marriage to Dymia Hsiung, who wrote Flowering Exhile, the first fictional autobiography published by a Chinese woman in Britain. Yeh has clearly undertaken significant research, as she traces the couple's life prior to their success in Britain and long after they faded from the literary stage in the West. More importantly, Yeh shows how the Hsiungs' struggle to become visible and modern in the West, particularly in relation to notions of race and identity, is still a pressing issue faced by contemporary Chinese writers.

As the prelude states, Yeh seeks to avoid "nation-centred conceptions of identity," preferring instead to investigate the couple by "accounting for processes taking place on a transnational level." In other words, she sees their identities as fluid and constantly reproducing themselves in different forms. Yeh uses the Hsiungs' case to argue that there isn't a fixed "Chineseness," and rejects the lens of reading Chinese writers as the exotic Other. Her account proves that the couple, before their arrival in Britain, had already emerged in the context of globalised artistic ideas and were part of a hybridised modern Chinese culture.

Yeh's portrayal of the Hsiungs is convincingly narrated and expertly researched. She draws on a wide range of sources: from interviews with friends and family to Hsiung's correspondences with figures such as George Bernard Shaw, T. S. Eliot, Xu Zhimo and Lin Yutang, from conflicting theatre reviews to archival manuscripts in cities across Europe and America. Yeh strikes a balance between personal anecdotes and historical documents and travels smoothly between intimate moments and the epic scale of China's social and political currents. The end of Chapter One, for example, witnesses a moving moment, when Shih-I Hsiung's departure for London is explained: despite his highly qualified profile as the translator of George Bernard Shaw and J. M. Barrie, he was not considered a strong enough candidate for a permanent position at Wuhan University, as he lacked an overseas degree. His son, Deni, recalls Hsiung's fury at the news and his decision to sail to England for further studies. Given that it would took over half a century for Hsiung to return to Mainland China, this moment of farewell is especially poignant:

The young Deni, who returned home with his mother in a rickshaw, recalled the journey back from the station. Suddenly the world had become very quiet and dark. When he asked his mother when his father would come back, she said, "Never." The small boy burst into tears, and his mother cried too.

The book has many such affecting moments, where personal dilemmas and choices are blended with historical transformations in China.

Another crucial point Yeh makes is that "Chineseness" itself is performative. By examining the Hsiungs' life and art, she argues that both Lady Precious Stream and Flowering Exile are in effect performances of "Chineseness" despite their promise of an authentic Chinese experience. On the textual level, Yeh examines how Shih-I complies with the conventions of the English stage while maintaining Chinese elements. And while he rejected Fu Manchu-style demonisation, he inevitably fed "strangeness" into his Lady Precious Stream for the entertainment of the British public. Yeh also insightfully points out how the Hsiungs reconfigured family and social relations in both works to suit the British audience's moral and sexual principles. In Lady Precious Stream, for instance, Shih-I transforms the original story that conveys Confucian principles such as filial piety and female submission to a story of an independent woman in control of her own marriage, and the play's ending replaces polygamy with monogamy, presenting an "improved," modernised (if not westernised) China. In a similar fashion, Yeh asserts that Dymia's autobiography is "an entire exercise in the performance of perfect family life." Indeed Dymia deliberately left crucial facts out of the text because "foreigners could never understand why."

On a socio-political level, the book reveals what factors, other than the art itself, contributed to Shih-I's global success. He was always sensitive to the literary market: in China, for example, he only translated books that were famous in England. To use one phrase that Yeh repeatedly employs, he "rubs shoulders with" elite artists, politicians and celebrities. Lady Precious Stream's run coincided with a grand exhibition of Chinese art at the Royal Academy, which served as a form of protest and resistance against the Japanese invasion. Shih-I's success, therefore, is arguably a combination of his literary and social talents.

Yeh's inclusion of Dymia is a key aspect of the book. Needless to say, very little has been written about her as a writer. Yeh, however, devotes at least three chapters solely to her work, shedding light on Dymia's potentially very important autobiography that has been completely ignored in Chinese literary scholarship. Interestingly, in both Shih-I's Lady Precious Stream and Dymia's autobiography, the Chinese is reconfigured through a "very, very good woman." In one way, Dymia herself became an updated version of Lady Precious Stream.

What is absent from the book is a more detailed comparison between the original opera and Hsiung's adaptation, because Hsiung, on several occasions in Lady Precious Stream, touches upon the issue of a foreign encounter. The play's ending, for example, explicitly addresses the problem of cultural difference in a humorous way. "How ridiculous!" exclaims the foreign princess when she witnesses the Chinese mode of saluting. "They say that the hitting a dog salute is equally, if not more, ridiculous," answers her servant. Hsiung also ends the play on an ambiguous note: "Our affection is for each other, and not for public entertainment." It remains open to interpretation whether this is a way of ridiculing western manners or a commentary on the play's sublety.

In the end, Yeh's "Happy Hsiungs" is an entirely ironic title, as the Hsiungs seem to eventually have completely disappeared from literary circles, and their well-portrayed fairytale family ended in shatters: Shih-I and Dymia did not spend their olde age together, and their children who returned to China dared not keep in touch with their parents until the 1980s. The happiness in their life paralleled their success in art: it was short-lived and performative.

[i] Shu Yi is the former president of National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature and the son of one of the country's most famous modernist writer, Lao She. He made this claim in 2012, when the Chinese version of The Bridge of Heaven was first published.

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