A Case of Ethics and Adaptation

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Photo from a production of Lady Mu and the Yang Family Generals at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, February 2014.

Hello blog readers!

I was recently involved in a Chinese jingju (Beijing opera) production at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa (UHM).  That’s me in the front, second from the right, holding the sanxian (three-string plucked Chinese lute) in the picture.  The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s theatre program presents one main stage Asian theatre production every year, performed by university students.  Jingju in particular has been a staple at the University of Hawaii for the past twenty-five years, and every four years, the theatre department mounts an English-language jingju production.  For this year’s production, actors and musicians trained for a full year with three professional jingju performers from China – for the musicians, this involved learning playing technique, rhythmic and melodic patterns, and jingju style, or “flavor,” of playing these instruments.  A previous blog post discussed the importance of “performing” ethnomusicology, and in that same vein, having the opportunity to perform jingju was a very passionate and exciting experience, and provided an excellent educational opportunity for learning more about a genre through first-hand exposure and participation.  This experience also got me thinking critically about cultural change, issues of authenticity, essentialization of cultural elements, and cross-cultural interaction, and the ethical challenges that adaptation can present to the critical ethnomusicologist. While I don’t necessarily have any clear-cut solutions for overcoming the ethical issues I was confronted with in this production, or whether this is even a scenario that needs “solving,” I wanted to share my experience as food for thought.

Jingju at UHM is unique for several reasons.  It provides a rare opportunity to see jingju outside of China, as well as one of the only opportunities available outside of China to actually participate in jingju performance as an educational endeavor.  Jingju at UHM is also unique in that shows are presented in English – as far as I know, this is one of the only cases, if not the only case, of jingju being presented in a language other than Chinese.  Actors first learn the Chinese text – while the Chinese is not memorized, the tonal inflections and movements associated with particular words are committed to memory.  The actors then begin work on memorizing an English-language translation, applying the stylistic and linguistic tonal inflections and movements from the Chinese to the new language.

The challenge (and problem) with this is that the tones of Chinese syllables do not necessarily equate or match with the syllable stresses of English.  Several actors discussed a “breakthrough” point with preparing individual roles when they began applying the concept of Chinese tonal inflection loosely as a tool for word stress and vocal projection, altering the syllables receiving inflection to fit the natural stress of English syllables.  This was a very practical and logical approach to translating the language, as it allowed for increased clarity of speech, while retaining an essence of the style of speaking in jingju.  However, the use and projection of language in jingju is one of the genre’s defining characteristics, and presenting a jingju work in English, assuming that one has to essentialize and adapt tonal inflections in order to communicate with clarity, greatly changes the overall flow of the work, and affects the aural characterization of different stock characters.  By essentializing tonal inflection into a selective tool for language emphasis (which was used to different effect by individual actors based, at least to some degree, on personal decision), the purpose and effect of tonal placement was changed.

Adaptation is, of course, not inherently bad – music and culture are commonly in states of flux, with changes brought about through political, social, etc. etc. action and interaction.  However, when dealing with cross-cultural communication, interpretation, and translation, something is bound to be lost, and when adapting without acknowledging the adaptation, this can potentially be dangerous – or, at least, this kind of adaptation without qualifying the process and intent raises questions about authenticity and cultural authority.  The production was advertised as being “traditional” jingju, although the audience was being exposed to an adaptation brought about by changes of meaning inherent in the use of English language.  In this production, there was also selective adaptation of the show itself to account for an audience that had likely never encountered jingju previously – several scenes featuring sung music were cut in favor of scenes that emphasized action and martial arts for commercial reasons, catering the performance for a local audience.  Also, an entirely new scene was invented for the end of this production to give the show a “flashy” finish.  This adds an extra layer of adaptation to the show, where the entire nature of the show is changed.  The word “traditional” was used in advertisements and programming as a hook of sorts, while the performance itself was adapted to what audiences with little previous jingju exposure would expect to see in “traditional jingju.”  Particular elements are selectively emphasized as being of particular import to the genre (movement, costumes, martial arts) over others (music, language) and, more broadly, for an audience with possibly little previous direct exposure to Chinese culture, become selected representative aspects of China as a whole.

On the other hand, the use of English language and selective adaptation of scenes were both decisions made with understandable purpose and practical intent.  From my conversations with others, I gather that the practical purposes of this adaptation were twofold.  First, the directors were trying to provide as much exposure and educational value to students as possible while simultaneously acknowledging the constraining limits of time, training, and ability.  Learning movement and stylistic singing, as well as remembering and internalizing how specific movements coordinate with musical punctuation, is an immense challenge for anyone, let alone myself and fellow students who are largely not familiar with jingju prior to beginning preparations for the show.  Memorizing three and a half hours of an unfamiliar language would certainly add to the difficulty of mounting the production, and, while some students could speak Chinese, or had previous exposure to jingju, producing the show in this way allowed more students with less exposure to take part in this excellent and rare learning experience.  Secondly, the directors wanted to allow for audience accessibility in order to expose a larger and broader audience to the genre, and likely felt that an emphasis on movement, costumes, and action would help bridge the gap for audiences who had no previous exposure to jingju.  Although the work we performed was heavily adapted in an effort to create something accessible, it did get apositive audience response.  By aiming for audience accessibility, we ultimately exposed a much larger audience (one with largely no previous jingju experience) to jingju, ideally also increasing interest in jingju in the community, which would have a positive effect on interest and funding of future jingju projects.

 In the case of this jingju production, change and adaptation were arguably necessary, and had desired results, but also raised ethical questions about adaptation of a genre, and, more broadly, processes in which cultural change occurs.  While I questioned adaptations that were made, I was also aware of their practical function and ultimate intent.  Regardless, I had a lot of fun playing music, and am extremely grateful for the educational opportunity that I was able to partake in, both through getting a chance to perform jingju music and for the critical engagement that the production lent itself to.

What do you think about this? Feel free to leave comments!

Padraic Costello

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