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Keith Tse


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Reception of Greek tragedy in East Asia

The fact that Western literature has made a global impact is a well-recognised fact. Shakespeare, Vergil, Dante, Cervante, Jane Austen are global literary ‘brands’ and are widely read throughout the world. As such, it should not be surprising that the non-Western audience have taken inspiration from these Western authors and have created literary works of their own. Inter-cultural blending of literary genres and various art forms has given rise to masterpieces like Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’ (乱), which is a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous ‘King Lear’. Thematic parallels and similarities should not take our attention away from the differences between these Asian works and their Western antecedents, which reveal the author’s literary artifice, skill and manipulation as much as the similarities do. It is not straightfoward to incorporate Western plots, stories and atmosphere into an Asian setting, which hence requires some clever literary re-writing and generic reinvention. All this suggests that these East Asian adaptations of Western masterpieces should not be seen as mere derivatives or slavish copies of Western literature but independent genres in their own right (with full recognition of their literary sources, of course). Similar literary and cultural movements have long been seen in the ancient world e.g. Oriental-Graeco movements in late Indo-European times (compare Gilgamesh and Homer’s Iliad), Graeco-Roman literature in classical Latin literature (see Vergil’s literary career: Bucolics/Eclogues (Theocritus), Georgics (Hesiod), Aeneid (Homer)). The East Asian reception and reinvention of Western literary genres form a gapping hole in the current research on the reception of Western literature. Many scholars have recognised and analysed the evolution of classical genres in historical and modern Europe, yet there are as yet very few scholars (to my knowledge) who have crossed the continents and looked for Asian reception of Western literature. This is partly because there is very little cross-cultural scholarly interest i.e. very few Western scholars know East Asian languages, and very few East Asian scholars are familiar with Western literature. In this post, I would like to highlight two relatively recent works which illustrate such cross-cultural literary blending: Park Chan-Wook’s ‘Oldboy’ (2003) and JinYong’s ‘Demi-god and semi-devils’ (天龍八部) (1963-1966).

These are all-time masterpieces. It is a perfect example of how traditional genres of Western literature (in this case, Greek tragedy) are, can be, and have been received in East Asia. Yet not only does it make numerous allusions to Greek tragedy (either explicitly or impressionistically), it is also a blend of its Western antecedents and its own literary roots, namely its status as a martial arts novel set in ancient China. One glaring omission in the current scholarship on the modern reception of classical literature is the adaptation, manipulation and reinvention of Greek tragedy in other parts of the world.

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