The effects Civic Osmosis and the Growth of Global Monoculture on Performance: Through the Eyes of China

Introduction

In recent history the world has gone through rapid changes.  The rise of the age of technology has changed the lives of everyone.  The world of communication and transportation have been some of the groups of technology that have felt the greatest effect.  The ability to easily travel across the country or even across the entire world changes everything. And you don’t even have to physically go somewhere to have an amazing amount of information about it at your disposal.  The mass communication of the internet has globalized the world, making everyone see and hear about everywhere else.  This rise in technology has had hefty effects on the rate of civic osmosis and the growth of a global monoculture in the world. This is especially true between the eastern and western countries of the world. 

Performance culture has been one of the areas that has been the most affected by this change, and is one of the most important, and representative parts of a society.  I’ll specifically look to how this age of technology has affected China’s performance culture, and how China’s performance culture has impacted the world.  To be able to do this I need a Chinese adaptation of something western, and a western adaptation of something Chinese.  However, I don’t want something modern for either of them to be adapting from, as this would remove a lot of the freedom.  So, I used two of the more famous classics from the east and the west, Journey to the West, and Macbeth, to study how modern adaptations in the world relate to each other.  I specifically look at Monkey: Journey to the West, a 2016 stage performance that was conceived by Chen Shi-Zheng, Damon Albarn, and Jamie Hewlett; and at MacBeth, a 2016 stage production directed by Chen Dailian [1].

What are Civic Osmosis and Global Monoculture

I realize that before we get into any of the performances, I should first define what civic osmosis and global monoculture are. Well Kenneth Keniston defines Global Monoculture as such:

“the de facto dominance of a single culture across all the important sectors of the world.” [2]

Kenneth Keniston

In this global monoculture there is a toleration of many languages, and one dominant culture is seen in the world as overwhelming the others, and while the world may not be quite to that yet it’s definitely getting closer.  We live in a world where of the 7 billion people, 2 billion of them speak English [3], 90% of websites are in English, and countries, like France, with rich nationalism around film creations’ most popular films are always American films [2].  This change is happening naturally around the world, but that does not mean that there is no opposition to this world culture change.  Leader’s of many eastern countries including the People’s Republic of China claim that there exists something called “Asian values” that are distinct from Western values [2].

Civic Osmosis is in the same vein of thinking.  Civic osmosis is the concept of how the world exchanges culture, and other civic values [4].  This effect is at what is probably an all time due to the ease of access of communication.  In the past the ways civic osmosis could take place were through travelers and letters.  And that is not even considering the travel time that both of those forms would have had in the past.  Nowadays we have the internet, we have global television, and we have planes that can travel around the entire world in only 9 days [5].  The world is connected massively at a global scale.  This allows for people all around the world to communication with each other and exchange culture.  This transfer of culture is in itself civic osmosis. Looking at both of these things it is relatively easy to see how they are connected.  The global monoculture grows through the civic osmosis that people in world experience every day through the all many different forms of mediums including, television, newspapers, the internet, and many more.

China Adapts the World: MacBeth

The performance of Macbeth created by Chen Dalian was an experimental adaptation of Shakespeare’s 7th most performed play in modern times [6].  The performance features 3 actors.  Two of these actors play the roles of Macbeth and Lady MacBeth (Yi Wang and Yi Ding), and the third actor plays every other part in the entire play (Tao Geng).  What is especially interesting is that the male and female actors for MacBeth and Lady MacBeth are not specifically tied to one specific character or the other.  Throughout the performance the actors switch which character they each play [1].  Now characters of a gender different from the character are fairly common in performance culture all around the world (Shakespeare’s plays were originally played by only male actors) (Chinese Yue opera is performed by only female performers).  However, it is extremely uncommon for the gender of a character to switch within a play.  This is especially an interesting decision considering the gender roles that are exhibited in China.  This performance is not a typical Chinese adaptation that’s for sure. 

So, what makes a typical Chinese adaptation then?  Emily Wilcox in her paper “Dynamic Inheritance: Representative Works and the Authoring of Tradition in Chinese Dance” talks about how performances, specifically dance, are adapted into version that are meant to be used in China.  She refers to 3 principle in dance that can be applied to the adaptations in many other performance types.  These 3 principles are as follows:

  • 1.  That indigenous performance practices would serve as the foundation upon which new dances were built
  • 2. That artists would be systematic and thorough in their study of indigenous performance
  • 3. That artist would be innovative in their adaptation of indigenous sources to serve the tastes of and needs of contemporary audiences [7].

To change this to apply to stage performances and non “indigenous” performances there are really only very few changes that need to be made.  The altered version I used to describe the 3 principles that can be applied to adapting a stage performance from the 3 principles listed by Emily Wilcox are as follows.

  • 1.  That original performance practices would serve as the foundation upon which new performances were built
  • 2. That artists would be systematic and thorough in their study of original performance
  • 3. That artist would be innovative in their adaptation of original sources to serve the tastes of and needs of contemporary audiences [7].

The changes necessary are really quite minimal.  The many thing that has to change to apply it to this case is to change the word indigenous to original.

Looking at the performance with these three things in mind we can quite quickly check off the first 2 principles as being completed.  The performance stays true to the original story, the characters and stories are as would be remembered by people who know Shakespeare.

However, the third step is really what makes this performance succeed.  The play is performed on a single set, meant to look like a slaughterhouse.  Throughout the whole play there is this feeling of horror from the pool of water, make to look like blood with the red lighting, they stand in, to the chains, and slaughtered animals hanging from the ceiling.  They use creepy unclothed dolls to also add the horror feel, and they use western-style music like the kind you would see in any Hollywood horror film to set the mood, Even with all that they still have one more, big trick up their sleeves.  Taking inspiration from many Vegas shows the performances uses saws and massive amounts of sparks to signify the death of both MacDuff and MacBeth.  During this scene the loud cutting of by the metal creates sparks that fill the stage, is accompanied by a western style opera chorus.

The Death of MacBeth
Note the overall Scene meant to resemble a slaughter house.

A link to the full performance if anyone wishes to watch it https://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/macbeth-chen-dalian-2016/

The World Adapts China: Monkey: Journey to the West

While it is important to look at how China has adapted performances of the western world, it is just as important to look at how the west has been impacted by China, and how the western world has adapted Chinese performances.  Journey to the West is a classic Chinese novel written by Wu Cheng’en.  Since it was written in the sixteenth century the novel has been adapted into countless movies, dramas, animations, children’s puppet shows, and other genres, most of which were adapted in China [8, 9].  The original idea for this adaptation for this performance Chen Shi-Zheng.  He worked with British musician Damon Albarn and animator Jamie Hewlett (of the band Gorillaz) to contribute to the music and design for the production [8].  This production commissioned by the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, but was quickly provided other funds by other sources. The casting took place in Beijing and used many members from the Dalian Circus troupe. What is most interesting about this performance is that it was, in fact, performed only in western nations (France, United States, England).  The performance also includes many animated sections, including the opening animation to the “opera.”  The performance was performed in Mandarin [8], however it is not uncommon for opera in Europe to performed in a language that the audience may not understand.  Western opera is performed in various languages from German to Russian to English, so another language really shouldn’t affect its performance.  This “western” performance used many of the performance styles from Chinese opera (such as acrobatic sand martial arts) and is generally considered closer to Chinese opera than western opera.  The use of animation and live action in tandem is a modern approach that would not have been reasonable in previous times. The immense amount of acrobatics and abilities was described by Ashley Thorpe as “astonishing.”

The music in the performance is the most culturally combining of all.  The music combines the “Chinese” 5-note pentatonic style in a way that takes from many Chinese musical genres (including Chinese pop, opera, marches, and fold music), and combines them with Albarn’s popular western approach.  He uses both western and Chinese orchestral instruments, alongside electronic and rock-style guitar music [8].

trailer to Monkey: Journey to the West
More Acrobatics in performance
Curtain Call with Damon Albarn

What it all means

What we see in both performances is an amalgamation of cultures.  The performances are both almost as western as they are Chinese.   The Chinese adaptation of MacBeth has Hollywood style horror elements, alongside Vegas style spark flying entertainment.  The performance of Monkey: Journey to the West was much less of an amalgamation when it came to much of the performance.  It was performed by Chinese actors in Mandarin, and it was written and conceived heavily by a man born in China.  However, the music to this performance uses many western instruments. The influence of the east and west have on each other is clear. 

Civic osmosis has caused both performances to take on aspects of the other region and still be successful.  Monkey: Journey to the West also shows that what is popular in china can be brought to the western world and have success.  This is probably heavily influenced by the decreasing cultural differences between the areas of the world.  Both of the performances take heavy roots from the original and from the cultures that they are originally from.  This cultural amalgamation shows how a monoculture is growing in the world and that both the west and east are influencing each other.  Who is influencing who more is up for debate, but many do believe there is danger in the western, or American monoculture, relegating all other cultures into inferiority [2].  And while I think this is a reasonable worry, I think that the world is more than capable of figuring out its culture in this internet age.  People will adopt things from other cultures that they like, and if that is predominately from 1 culture than that is how the world decided it should be.

Back to the Class

One of the key concepts to the Contemporary Chinese performance class was adaptation.  We looked at the inheritance of indigenous dances into modern times in Dynamic Yunnan, and at a famous play Hedda Gabbler being adapted into the format of a Yue opera. 

Dynamic Yunnan encapsulates 3 principles for adapting from dance into modern times [7], while Hedda Gabbler exhibits the altered 3 principles that I used to talk about the MacBeth performance and its adaptation for the original Shakespeare play.  Hedda Gabbler uses the main storyline from a well-known story and stays, for the most part, true to that storyline.  They then take that and adapt it into a form that they think will be successful in their market, Yue Opera.  Yue opera is an extremely popular form of opera and China that challenged the normal gender trend in old western by using a fully female cast (rather than a fully male cast as is in the original Shakespearean plays).  They also adapt into a form that adds meaning to the play by using swords, which have a large cultural significance in China, and many eastern nations.

Dynamic Yunnan is an adaptation from traditional to new.  This is a key part of the adaptations of Monkey: Journey to the West and MacBeth.  They are both taking an old traditional piece and bringing into modern times in a way that will make it successful.  Dynamic Yunnan’s big contribution to this is its ability to stay true to the originals while still adding some extra tension, with the lighting and the way the whole performance is constructed.  The lighting is one of the major components when setting a plot and this is especially noticeable in the Macbeth adaptation and in Hollywood Horror films.  To add tension and change the feel of a seen you need the lighting to be right.  There is a reason that almost every horror film is filmed mostly in the dark.  The effects of that darkness add tension and an important mood element.  Rhinoceros in Love uses red lighting towards the end of its show to add the horror/anger emotion into the setting.  This is very similar to how the MacBeth adaptation uses its lighting to add the horror effect.

Conclusion

Bringing everything together we see that the growth of a global monoculture and civic osmosis is indeed having a heavy effect on the performance culture around the world.  I looked at two performances to get a feeling of how this effect could be seen throughout the modern stage.  Monkey: Journey to the West and Macbeth were perfect adaptations to look at for this purpose.  They combined the challenge of adapting from one culture to another with the challenge of adapting a work from the 100s of years ago into a present setting in a way that will be successful.  I altered a set of 3 principles in adaptation of dance [7] could be applied easily to other genres in a way that worked. I showed the use of western styles in MacBeth with the music and the Vegas-esque spark show.

 I also looked at how Monkey: Journey to the West adapted a Chinese story and genre into something that was appreciated by much of the western community.  The main thing I noticed was that music seems to be the medium within a performance that has come the closest to a true global monoculture.  In both performances the music is very heavily mixed between the two forms in a way that makes it sometimes hard to say whether the style is truly western or Chinese.  In the rest of the performances you still see many regional things that are adapted from one form into another.  It shows through with use of the costume in both performances.  Bringing everything together we see that the growth of a global monoculture in the world has certainly had effects on the performance culture around the world.  However, music is the only form where we seem to be very close to a true global monoculture.  In all the other aspects of the performances you see similarities, but we are still a long way off being a true global performance monoculture,

Citations

  1. Fujun, Cai. “Macbeth.” 2016, Chong Qing, Yun Wei Drama Workshop, https://globalshakespeares.mit.edu/macbeth-chen-dalian-2016/
  2. Keniston, Kenneth. “Cultural Diversity or Global Monoculture The Impacts of the Information Age.” Cultural Diversity or Global Monoculture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, web.mit.edu/kken/Public/papers1/Cultural%20Diversity.htm.
  3. Rick Noack, Lazaro Gamio. “The World’s Languages, in 7 Maps and Charts.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 2 May 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/04/23/the-worlds-languages-in-7-maps-and-charts/.
  4. McCombs, Maxwell. “Civic Osmosis: The Social Impact of Media.” Comunicación y Sociedad, vol. 25, no. 1, 2012, pp. 7-14. ProQuest, https://proxy.lib.umich.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/docview/1468773289?accountid=14667.
  5. National Geographic Society. “First Nonstop Flight around the World.” National Geographic Society, 8 Nov. 2013, www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/dec23/first-nonstop-flight-around-world/.
  6. Minton, Eric. “Shakespeare’s Hot 40.” Shakespeareances.com: Shakespeare’s Most Popular Plays in Production, 13 Oct. 2017, www.shakespeareances.com/dialogues/commentary/Bard_Board_Popularity-171012.html.
  7. Wilcox, Emily E. “Dynamic Inheritance: Representative Works and the Authoring of Tradition in Chinese Dance.” Journal of Folklore Research, vol. 55, no. 1, 2018, pp. 77–111., doi:10.2979/jfolkrese.55.1.04.
  8. Thorpe, Ashley. “Postmodern Chinese Opera: Re-Citing China in Monkey: Journey to the West.” Contemporary Theatre Review, vol. 20, no. 1, 2010, pp. 68–86., doi:10.1080/10486800903453046.
  9.  “Monkey: Journey to the West.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Sept. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monkey:_Journey_to_the_West.