Lady Precious Stream: A Chinese Chinoiserie Anglicized on the Modern British Stage


Min Tian


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Chinoiserie on the British stage had a long history and a time-honored tradition. Interestingly enough, some of the most notable chinoiserie performances on the British stage did not originate in Britain but were imported products. In 1897, at the very beginning of his scathing review of the performance of two "Chinese" plays, The Cat and the Cherub by Chester Bailey Fernald at the Lyric Theatre and The First Born by Francis Powers at the Globe Theatre, George Bernard Shaw attacked what he called "the Chinatown play" imported from America as "the latest attempt to escape from hackneydom and cockneydom" on the British stage.1 In "the Chinatown play," Shaw continued, the Chinese music was "unmitigated humbug" and "simply very bad American music," and the play itself was "nothing but Wilkie Collins fiction disguised in pigtail and petticoats" or a dramatic sensation whose "mother" was but "the cheapest and most conventional of the daughters of art" and whose "father" was "the lowest and darkest stratum of Americanized yellow civilization."2 Seeing no reason that "the Chinatown play"—"a form of art which makes a merit of crudity"—should not have been manufactured in England, Shaw volunteered to supply "'Chinese plays,' music and all."3 As Shaw never produced a "Chinese" play, even after he saw in China an authentic performance of traditional Chinese theatre, posterity was denied a chance to see whether the English playwright was capable of manufacturing an authentic Chinese play instead of reproducing "the Chinatown play," American or British. However, Shaw's sharp critique of the Occidental representation of China in those "Chinese" plays or dramatic chinoiserie was historically grounded and remains relevant to our study of the early history of the twentieth-century intercultural theatre.


1. George Bernard Shaw, "Chin Chon Chino," The Saturday Review 84 (November 6, 1897): 488–90 (488).

2. Ibid., 488–89. A "candid playgoer" also noted "the extraordinary 'Chinese' music" in the production of The First Born. Dick, "Letters of a Candid Playgoer," To-day 17, no. 209 (November 6, 1897): 23. Given Shaw's disdain of the fakeness of American Chinatown plays, it is interesting to note his first direct experience of a traditional Chinese theatre performance during his 1933 visit to China. According to S. I. Hsiung, in their first meeting upon Shaw's return to Britain, Hsiung was anxious to know what impressed Shaw most in a traditional theatre house Shaw had visited in Peking (Beijing). Having been looking forward to hearing from Shaw "some sharp attack" on the Chinese "theatrical custom," Hsiung was, however, "staggered" by Shaw's answer that "the most impressive sight in a Chinese theatre was nothing on the stage done by the players, but the throwing and the catching of bundles and hot towels deftly performed from great distances in the auditorium by the ushers," and he could only conclude that Shaw "must have been sitting most of the time with his back to the stage." See S. I. Hsiung, "Through Eastern Eyes," in G.B.S 90: Aspects of Bernard Shaw's Life and Work, ed. S. Winsten (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1946), 198. However, in a letter to English composer Edward Elgar, dated May 30, 1933, Shaw spoke sympathetically of the function of percussion music in the Chinese "operatic" theatre: "The Chinese will reveal to you the whole secret of opera, which is, not to set a libretto to music, but to stimulate actors to act and declaim. When there is a speech to be delivered, the first (and only) fiddler fiddles at the speaker as if he were lifting a horse over the Grand National jumps; an ear splitting gong clangs at him; a maddening castanet clacks at him; and finally the audience joins in and incites the fiddler to redouble his efforts. You at once perceive that this is the true function of the orchestra in the theatre and that the Wagnerian score is only gas and gaiters." See Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters, 19261950, ed. Dan H. Laurence (London: Max Reinhardt, 1988), 4: 341.

3. Shaw, "Chin Chon Chino," 488.

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