The Bard in Beijing

How Shakespeare Made it in China

At the end of a rollicking production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—directed by Tim Robbins and staged in China in June by the Los Angeles-based Actors’ Gang—the director and actors returned to the stage for a dialogue with the Beijing audience.

The questions ran the normal gamut from accents to costumes to staging, and then one woman asked which Shakespeare the Gang planned to perform next. The affable Robbins turned the question around, asking what she would like to see.

“Macbeth,” came the answer.

Gao Shang

Oberon (played by Pierre Adeli) in a performace of A Midsummer Night's Dream, at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, June 10, 2014.

The actors fell silent. Then, in an instant, one of them jumped down from the stage and whisked the startled woman out of the theater as his colleagues laughed and the audience looked on in bemusement. Alison Friedman—the American Creative Director of Beijing-based Ping Pong Productions, the group that brought the Gang to China—explained that actors consider it bad luck to mention the actual name of “The Scottish Play” in a theater, the only antidote being to remove the miscreant speaker temporarily and wait for the bad luck to abate.

Just as Chinese audiences have long welcomed the works of Shakespeare, the audience accepted this explanation with interest, amusement, and equanimity, and then went back to peppering Robbins with questions about the show. As part of the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) year-long celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, the production included live musical accompaniment, on-stage costume changes, stellar ensemble acting, and a passion for the material so visceral it made Shakespeare feel contemporary. Although the play was performed in English with Chinese supertitles, the audience had no trouble whatsoever grasping it. Indeed, it was the many children in the theater who led the laughter and applause

Having seen at least half a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays in Beijing and Shanghai over the past two decades, I have had ample time to marvel at the extent to which China has absorbed his work. Shakespeare Festivals are held every few years in major cities. The plays have been adapted for numerous traditional Chinese opera forms, including Peking, Cantonese, Shaoxing, Sichuan, Kunju, and Huangmeixi, and a few have been translated into languages like Tibetan and Mongolian. Modern China has produced some of our era’s great Shakespearean actors, notably Pu Cunxin, as well as major fans: former premier Wen Jiabao made a private visit to Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, during a 2011 state visit to England.

This absorption of Shakespeare has occurred on many levels despite great challenges, from the difficulty of translating Shakespearean English into Chinese to the wars and political movements that rocked the country throughout the twentieth century. It is testament not only to the enduring universality of Shakespeare’s work but also to the ever-deepening globalization of China’s culture.

Productions of Shakespeare’s works have been staged in China for roughly 100 years. Some faithful to the original, some based loosely on his plots, most have been performed as spoken drama, with the actors sometimes dressed to look Caucasian; a New York Times review of the 1942 Chongqing production of Hamlet noted with some astonishment the number and variety of prosthetic noses. I observed this preference for traditional productions firsthand when Britain’s Royal National Theatre performed Othello in Shanghai in 1998 and I brought my then octogenarian friend Gui Biqing to see it. It was a wonderful production and a hot ticket. Indeed, scores of Shakespeare lovers who could not get tickets tried to break down the doors of the hall and police had to hold them back. Teacher Gui, as I called her, had a strong connection to Shakespeare: Her brother, the intellectual Wang Yuanhua, had written a number of essays about Shakespearean characters and her sister-in-law, Zhang Ke, had been a Shakespeare translator. But Teacher Gui did not like the production because it was set in contemporary times and she thought that Shakespeare should, well, look like Shakespeare. This conservative attitude endures. At the Midsummer production, audience members asked wonderingly why the actors spoke in their American accents instead of feigning British pronunciation. (Robbins’ answer? “Because we’re American.”)

Nonetheless, Chinese theater directors have long perceived Shakespeare as eminently adaptable to their nation’s own theatrical traditions. One of the first known performances of Hamlet was done as a Sichuan opera in the 1910s and adaptation to Chinese operatic traditions became quite popular again in the 1980s. In recent years, Chinese directors often have merged Chinese and Western traditions or simply approached Shakespeare through their own creativity. A 2007 Coriolanus, re-staged this spring at the NCPA Shakespeare Festival, includes a live soundtrack by two heavy metal bands. Director Tian Qinxin set a 2008 production of King Lear in the Ming Dynasty court and a 2014 Romeo and Juliet in today’s China, replete with hip-hop and mini-skirts.

The very first mention of Shakespeare’s name in published Chinese was in an 1856 missionary-sponsored translation of Thomas Milner’s The History of Great Britain. It said: “Shakespeare was a well-known public figure in the Elizabethan age. His brilliant works represent both beauty and virtue. No one has outshone him so far.”1 More mentions followed, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that a succession of dedicated Chinese intellectuals began to undertake the herculean task of rendering Shakespearean English into Chinese.

Lin Shu anthology.

Among the earliest was the redoubtable Lin Shu, who “translated” almost 200 Western literary classics into Chinese—even though he didn’t know a single foreign language. Lin’s unique method was to find someone who did and have him freely interpret into spoken Chinese, while Lin wrote in semi-classical Chinese. As Lin described the process, working with the translator Wei Yi in 1904, “When one free night, Mr. Wei picked up some Shakespeare by chance; I started scribbling away by the night lamp. Twenty days later we have a book of Shakespeare’s poetic tales.”2

Lin and Wei did not “translate” from Shakespeare’s original work, but from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, which told simplified versions of twenty plays. Nonetheless, Lin’s stories became China’s first introduction to Shakespeare; for two decades, all Shakespearean performances were based on Lin’s retellings.

In 1922, the great dramatist Tian Han, then a young student in Tokyo, translated Hamlet followed in 1924 by Romeo and Juliet. Tian’s Hamlet was the first publication of an entire Shakespeare play in Chinese. The Harvard-educated Liang Shiqiu also became involved in Shakespearean translation in 1924, when the United States government forgave $12.5 million of China’s Boxer Rebellion indemnity, with the stipulation that it be used for cultural endeavors. A committee was formed with the goal of translating all Shakespeare’s works into Chinese; Liang was a member, as was the poet Xu Zhimo. Unfortunately, Xu died in a plane crash and the committee never translated anything, so Liang began work on his own. He published five plays in 1936, managed one and a half during the war, and then fled to Taiwan where he ultimately translated the Complete Works of Shakespeare after 30 years.

Zhu Shenghao.

Zhu Shenghao was an equally devoted translator who at the age of 24 set out to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays. Unfortunately, he lost almost all his work when war broke out and he was forced to lead, in his words, “a vagabond’s life for many years, driven from place to place and struggling to survive.” In 1942, with the world situation “more desperate,”3 Zhu shut himself in a room to finish the job. By 1944, at the age of 33, he had translated 31-and-a-half plays, but he was dying from tuberculosis. On his deathbed he told his wife, “Had I known I would not rise again after this illness, I would have exerted all my efforts to complete the translation.”

Shakespeare’s iconic status in the West guaranteed that he would play a role in the social and intellectual debates that fomented in early 20th century China. The renowned writer Lu Xun alluded to Shakespeare in several essays noting, “a society needs … not only Newton but also Shakespeare [because] a writer like Shakespeare can make people have a sound and perfect human nature.” He also hoped “for the emergence of a Shakespeare-like Chinese writer to give voice to China’s national spirit.” Tian Han promoted Shakespeare as an antidote to Henrik Ibsen, whose work was wildly popular among young intellectuals and thus widely imitated. In making his case, Tian compared Shakespeare’s work to oil painting and Ibsen’s to marble sculpture and asked, “Nowadays, there are plenty of sculptures in the museum, and if we can display some oil paintings, wouldn’t it make the display richer?”4

The introduction to China of spoken drama was directly connected to political and social causes. It stood in marked contrast to Chinese opera and other traditional theatrical styles, which were sung. The very first modern spoken drama performed in Chinese was a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by the American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, put on by Chinese students in Tokyo in 1907. (The novel had been re-told in Chinese by Lin and Wei, who explained, “We have translated this … because the approaching shadow of slavery over our race has impelled us to sound a note of warning to the public.”) Given this close link between drama and politics, it was perhaps inevitable that Shakespeare would also be politicized.

Indeed, one of the most overtly political uses of Shakespeare was also one of the earliest: a 1915 adaptation of Hamlet staged just after Yuan Shikai tried to abolish the young Republic of China and make himself emperor. The name given to the play was Usurping the Throne and Stealing a Sister-in-Law. During the performance, the actor Gu Wuwei adlibbed insulting political commentary and was subsequently arrested and sentenced to death; fortunately for Gu, Yuan was deposed and died before the sentence was carried out. In a pre-performance speech for a 1942 production of Hamlet staged at a Confucian temple in the wartime capital of Chongqing by the distinguished director Jiao Juyin openly explained its political purpose: “The conclusion we can draw from the tragedy of Hamlet is that victory in our Anti-Japanese war will depend on the joint action taken by the people all over the country.”5

Marx and Engels had been big Shakespeare fans, and after 1949 Shakespeare’s work was analyzed through a Marxist ideological framework that emphasized his plays’ realism and humanism. Chinese critics emulated their counterparts in the Soviet Union, the “second motherland of Shakespeare,” by emphasizing examples of social conflict and class struggle in Shakespeare’s work. During this period, the scholar and translator Bian Zhilin wrote that Shakespeare “opposed the feudal system in the early part of his career and exposed the evils of capitalism in the later.” Seen through Marxist lenses, certain Shakespeare plays assume an importance they do not possess elsewhere; Timon of Athens, for example, becomes one of the Bard’s most significant works because it is seen to depict capital as a corrupting force. Former President Jiang Zemin quoted from it “to point out the harm of money worship and the importance of combating it.”6

Performance and study of Shakespeare was labeled “bourgeois” during the Cultural Revolution and came to a halt, but was revived soon after. The Complete Works of Shakespeare were published in 1978 (based mainly on Zhu’s translations) and in 1979 London’s Old Vic Theater Company visited Shanghai and Beijing to perform Hamlet before ecstatic audiences (with simultaneous interpretation by the great actor Ying Ruocheng, and others, provided through headsets). Shakespeare was gradually freed from the grasp of ideology, but not from the prism of politics.

Indeed, when the director Lin Zhaohua staged Hamlet in 1990, the production was widely viewed as commentary on the post-1989 period. Lin opted to have the three actors who played Hamlet, Claudius, and Polonius switch roles, even sharing the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, seeming to emphasize that we are all Hamlet, in that we are all lonely and disillusioned. I watched a revival of the production in the 1990s, seated beneath the red star chandelier at the Beijing People’s Art Theater, and the atmosphere was electric. The spectres of June 4 still haunted the city, Beijing Vice Mayor Wang Baosen had just jumped off a roof, Deng Xiaoping was in his waning years, and rumors of high-level intrigue flew through Beijing like gusts of spring wind. Everyone watching Hamlet seemed to have a current political interpretation for the 400-year-old play. Last year, when Britain’s TNT Theater toured China with Macbeth, it brought comparisons of Shakespeare’s eponymous character and his wife, Lady Macbeth, to the jailed former leader Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai.

There is a scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Tom Snout and Peter Quince, shocked to see that their friend Nick Bottom has turned into a donkey, exclaim, “Bless thee, Bottom, bless thee! Thou art translated.” The same could be said of Shakespeare in China. The result is not a donkey, but a vibrant new tributary in the global stream of Shakespearean performance, study, interpretation, and appreciation. Against remarkable odds, China has successfully absorbed Shakespeare and made the Bard’s works its own, just as it has done with so many other Western imports, from socialism to classical music to World Cup mania. In so thoroughly welcoming these foreign imports, no matter how removed from China’s traditional culture or how challenging to interpret, China vastly deepens its own cultural reservoir and strengthens its links to the global community. As an admiring witness to this process, I can’t help but wonder: When will we in the West do the same with culture from China?

  1. Xiao Yang Zhang, Shakespeare in China: A Comparative Study of Two Traditions and Cultures (Associated University Presses, Inc., 1996)
  2. Murray J. Levith, Shakespeare in China (Continuum, 2004)
  3. Murray J. Levith, Shakespeare in China (Continuum, 2004)
  4. Li Ruru, Shashibya: Staging Shakespeare in China (Hong Kong University Press, 2003).
  5. Li Ruru, Shashibya: Staging Shakespeare in China (Hong Kong University Press, 2003).
  6. Xiao Yang Zhang, Shakespeare in China: A Comparative Study of Two Traditions and Cultures (Associated University Presses, Inc., 1996)