Shakespeare in China

Written by L.E

Shakespeare, or Sha-Shi-biya 莎士比亞 is having a Renaissance in China. His Stratford-upon-Avon home is being rebuilt in the Jiangxi province in San Weng (‘Three Masters’) alongside those of Cervantes and Tang Xianzu, the government styled ‘Shakespeare of the East’. Xi Jinping, on his 2015 state visit to the United Kingdom received Shakespeare’s sonnets from the Queen and quoted The Tempest in Parliament, promising ‘what’s past’ to be ‘prologue’. Earlier that year, the British government put £1.5million into the Royal Shakespeare Company translating Shakespeare’s Complete Works into Mandarin. What’s behind Shakespeare role in British-Sino relations?

Washington D.C’s Folger Library has tacitly answered that China’s emphasis on its relationship with Shakespeare ‘could be viewed as a marketing decision by the Chinese government, in an attempt to exert China’s ‘soft power’ in the world.’ The Economist has taken the same line, pointing to the events across 2017 celebrating the relationship between Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare– including a themed exhibition that travelled across 20 countries and a debut musical mash-up of Coriolanus and Tang Xianzu’s Du Liniang (on in London, Paris and Frankfurt). However, both articles have taken for granted why China has chosen Shakespeare to exert its own soft power.

Despite Cervantes being part of the development in San Weng, China’s Tang Xianzu is not called the ‘Cervantes of the East’, or, for that matter the Racine. Tang is distinctly placed in the English frame of reference. To put this tool of ‘cultural exchange’ in perspective (to use one major subheading of the China Daily website), we must note that it is not India, Brazil or Russia building a relationship of this scale with Shakespeare, but China – and that China’s relationship with Shakespeare has emerged from a century of Shakespearean translation, staging and criticism that has had a key role in placing China on both a global and a domestic stage.

Shakespeare in Translation

Shakespeare’s first mention in China comes hand in hand with Western imperialism – with the first known reference being in a translated book of British history that came with the colonisers before the Opium Wars began.[1] He is then kept alive by missionaries and diplomats and reaches his first taste of fame in 1907 when writer Lu Xun – the man who Mao would go on to call ‘the sage of modern China’ – argues that it is essential for China to have ‘a Shakespeare-like Chinese writer to give voice to China’s national spirit.’[2]

The first full translation is then funded by the United States. In 1924 they offers China a $12.5million rebate on their war reparations if they agree to spend the shortfall on Chinese education and culture – a political decision that leads to a Harvard-trained Chinese Professor beginning a project to translate Shakespeare’s Complete Works.[3] The translation is published in 1967 and in the meantime Shakespeare’s plays start being staged across China, with Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar and, curiously The Merchant of Venice (or, in its Chinese titles The Woman Attorney, A Pound of Flesh or Securing a Loan by Pledging Flesh-Cutting) becoming the most popular, with Merchant being the first play that is performed.

However, by the end of the twentieth century, Shakespeare has become a cultural product that is distinctly Chinese, eventually being used to bolster a vision of dialectical materialism.

How this happens requires us to look at the intertwined histories of Shakespeare in translation, performance and criticism.

Chinese Staging

It is in the early productions of The Merchant of Venice that we see a distinctly Chinese Shakespeare emerge. Despite the first performances featuring sixteenth and seventeenth century period costumes, scenery in the style of European Renaissance painting and actors in Western wigs and make up – a production style that, by the way, remains strong to this day – the problematic that the play explores is not that of religion and prejudice but one of Confucian ethics. The play is seen as a classic conflict between li (profit motive) and yi (loyalty to friends)[4] – with Jewish and Christian references being axed and Shylock being characterised by his profession not his religious identity.

This specific Chinese remodelling – getting Shakespeare to ‘give voice to China’s national spirit’ – does not only happen with Merchant. It happens with Hamlet, seen as a Confucian drama between father and son – recall Confucius’: ‘Conduct the funeral of your parents with meticulous care’ (Analects I, 9) – and in regard to Shakespeare’s oeuvre as a whole. In 1936 John C.H. Wu writes an influential piece on Shakespeare and Taoism, arguing that the fundamental idea of Taoism is the interpenetration of opposites and that ‘this is exactly the vision that Shakespeare saw’. Shakespeare is ‘so inebriated with this thoroughly Taoist notion’ that he applies it to every dramatic situation to the extent that, for Wu, ‘the works of Shakespeare can be used as a case-book of Taoism.’[5]

This is a Shakespeare that is enabled through the support of the West but is being made resolutely Chinese. It is from this use of foreign art that Mao can formulate his idea that ‘we must take over all the fine artistic and literary legacy, critically assimilate from it whatever is beneficial to us.’ But how do Shakespeare’s English politics make this Chinese assimilation and transition?

Shakespeare Criticism

We see the Chinese approach to Shakespeare’s politics in their tradition of Shakespeare criticism. In the period before the Cultural Revolution, Shakespeare is read in the Marxist-Leninist tradition. In 1944 Yang Hui sets the methodology for this approach: recognise Marx and Engels’ heavy use of Shakespeare, detail Shakespeare’s biography and intellectual moment and relate its politics to China. His ‘Preface’ to Timon of Athens reads:

Timon of Athens is the tragedy of Gold. It is Shakespeare’s violent attack on his society, his roar of anger. There is a corresponding situation in [contemporary] China: the old moral order was bankrupt and the new moral order had yet to be established.’[6]

Timon of Athens for Yang Hui is a play written in response to a society moving from feudalism to capitalism, from the country to the court, from a land-based aristocracy to a mercantile, bureaucratic state. It is a ‘roar of anger’ because this new world that promises individual emancipation is more destructive than it is progressive.

Yang Hui’s corresponding contemporary situation describes a China that had transitioned political orders at the beginning of the 20th century, but was beginning to feel that this new order promised more that it could give. Timon of Athens becomes a way to explain that in China in 1944 – as it was for Gramsci in 1929 – the old world was dying and the new world was slow to appear.

Here Shakespeare is read to elucidate a contemporary Chinese political situation, is firmly seen from a Marxist-Leninist perspective, and is regarded as material that exposes global trends – which were felt in England in the seventeenth century, and in China in 1944. If those trends point to the end of class struggle, by the mid-20th century, China was inevitably closer to this than England. England’s national poet is propelled far from England’s pastures green and towards cementing China’s place at the forefront of a global revolution.

Shakespeare in the Cultural Revolution

But, by January 1964, Liberation – a government controlled Shanghai paper – proclaimed that Shakespeare should be ashamed of what he had written. ‘Anyone who kneels before the shrine of … Shakespeare or other artists and writers is guilty of favouring moribund capitalism.’[7]

Shakespeare then follows a standard Cultural Revolution trajectory – he is removed from libraries and productions of his plays are banned. Shakespeare was culpable for being – in the words of the ‘Decision Concerning the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’, declared on the 8th of August 1966 – one of the bourgeoisie, who despite being overthrown, was still “trying to use the old ideas, culture, customs and habits of the exploiting classes to corrupt the masses, capture their minds and endeavour to stage a comeback.” He was part of “the so-called ‘Western culture’ [which was] nothing but imperialist culture, which is most reactionary, decadent and vicious.”[8] In his place came eight revolutionary operas with proletarian themes – including ‘Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy’ and ‘the Red Detachment of Women’, both detailing the exploits of the Chinese Red Army.

The 1980s do not so much hail an evolution in Shakespeare role in China but a slight amendment to what existed before. The 1983 ‘Inaugural Observations’ of Shakespeare Studies in China – published in the People’s Daily newspaper – read: ‘We are reading the world giant Shakespeare from the point of view of a modern China involved in its own recent history… We attempt to study Shakespeare from a Marxist perspective… [and] approach Shakespeare’s great soul from many different angles.’[9] Shakespeare is still studied in the Marxist tradition, but this tradition is now declared only to be one of many.

Despite the country’s new objectives to move further away from Marxist theory, productions of Shakespeare remain embedded in an older Marxist discourse.

Indeed, the first Merchant of Venice performed after the Cultural Revolution was defended by the Shakespeare Society of China for being a play that did not intent to offend common sensibilities with its depiction of on-stage kissing – but to ‘explore and display Shakespeare’s ‘profound critique of feudalism’.[10] Despite being a Cultural Revolution casualty, Shakespeare becomes  a way that  – in a changing China –  an older Marxist revolutionary tradition can reign strong.

What does it then mean to emphasise the role of Shakespeare in China today? This focus on Shakespeare should be seen in tandem with Xi Jinping’s emphasis on where he places himself in Chinese history – a continuity of an early Mao, a rejecter of the years of the Cultural Revolution and a projection of Mao forward into the global 21st century.

The focus on Shakespeare should also be seen in tandem with the 2017 Chinese blockbuster Youth [Fang Hua], subtitled in English and set during the years of the Cultural Revolution. This film reveals a Chinese cultural industry keen to explicitly distance themselves from the Cultural Revolution and do to so in a language readable by the West. Shakespeare presents a key means by which this move can be made as a tool of national and international diplomacy in theatres, bookshops and city construction.

This use of Shakespeare to distance China from its past and project it into a different future was part of the message of Xi’s fuller proclamation at Parliament in 2015, revealing both the desire and the difficulty he faced in trying to get Shakespeare during the Cultural Revolution:

‘When I was just shy of 16, I left Beijing for a small village in northwestern China to become a peasant for seven years. During that time, I was desperately looking for Shakespeare’s works. I read A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Merchant of VeniceTwelfth NightRomeo and JulietHamletOthello, King LearMacbeth.’

In 1943, Mao quoted Lenin’s idea of literature as ‘the screw in the whole machine’ arguing that the screw ‘of course doesn’t compare with other parts in importance, urgency or priority, but…is nevertheless indispensible in the whole machinery.’[11] Shakespeare – which in a Chinese legacy means the assertion of a global position, the use of Western funding for Chinese development, the revealing of Chinese culture through a foreign product and the positioning of China at the centre of a global class struggle – is for Xi Jinping what revolutionary and proletarian literature were for Lenin and for Mao. It is a new screw for a new, global machine


[1] Murray J. Levith, Shakespeare in China, (London: Continuum, 2004), p.3. The sources used in this article are heavily indebted to the sources in Levith’s study. Original referencing has been maintained.

[2] Quoted in Zhang Xiaoyang, Shakespeare in China: A Comparative Study of Two Traditions and Cultures, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996), pp.101-2

[3] Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, New York: Norton, 1990: 284, 790

[4] Zhang Xiaoyang, Shakespeare in China: A Comparative Study of Two Traditions and Cultures, (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1996), pp. 221-2

[5] John C.H. Wu, ‘Shakespeare as a Taoist’, T’ien Hsia Monthly 3 (1936): 116-36

[6] Meng Xianqiang, A Historical Survey of Shakespeare in China, trans. Mason Y.H. Wang and Murray J. Levith, Changchun: Shakespeare Research Centre of Northeast Normal University, 1996: 82-101

[7] Quoted in Robert Guillain, When China Wakes, New York: Wlaker, 1965: 237.

[8] Quoted in Michael Schoenhols, ed., China’s Cultural Revolution, 1966-1969.: Not A Dinner Party, Armonk NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, 269.

[9] Cao Yu, ‘Learn From Shakespeare’ [Xiang Shashibiya xuexi], People’s Daily [Renmin ribao], (5 April 1983)

[10] Quoted in Fan Shen, ‘Shakespeare in China: The Merchant of Venice’. Asian Theatre Journal 5:1 (1988): 23-37.

[11] Mao Zedong, ‘Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art’, trans. Bonnie S. McDougall, Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies, 1980, p. 75.