Ian McKellen presents a series of movie adaptations of Shakespearean plays at the Shanghai International Film Festival last month.

Why China’s love affair with Shakespeare endures

It’s had its ups and downs but, 400 years after William Shakespeare’s death, China’s affinity with The Bard is as strong as ever.

FEW DEATHS (AND LIVES) can have been more celebrated. William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil 400 years ago in April, and a veritable feast of performances, screenings and festivals have been popping up around the globe to celebrate the life of The Bard and mark the quadricentennial of his passing.

China has been no exception, which is perhaps unsur­pri­sing, given the nation’s predilection for all things British (Chinese companies have in recent times swallowed up everything from British cereal brands to London cabs).

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) performed Henry IV (parts one and two) and Henry V in Shanghai and Beijing before arriving at the Hong Kong Arts Festival in March. Last month, knighted British actor Ian McKellen visited the Shanghai International Film Festival to intro­duce a series of classic film adaptations of Shakespearean plays, including his own Richard III. And this month, the Hallé Orchestra has been performing pieces based on Shakespeare’s songs in Wuhan, Shanghai and Beijing. If that were not enough, the British government has paid for a Chinese translation of the complete works of Shakespeare – and for performances based on the new texts.

The efforts are aimed at promoting British creative industries and finding new market opportunities in China, according to Carma Elliot, director of the British Council in China, whose agency is working with the GREAT Britain campaign – that upper-cased promoter of soft power seemingly unafflicted with the national tendency for understatement – to implement a year-long “Shakespeare Lives” programme in China.

When the play finished, we all remained transfixed. Possibly we had crouched for too long in front of the nine-inch screen … but perhaps we had undergone a spiritual shock, an experience of catharsis that we had never had before
Li Ruru

But Shakespeare doesn’t really need the hard sell in China. Statistically, his works are more popular there than in his home country. Of 1,043 people in China surveyed by the British Council last year, 68 per cent said they liked Shakespeare, compared with 59 per cent in Britain and 55 per cent in Hong Kong. Asked whether Shakespeare was still relevant, 76 per cent said he was, compared with 57 per cent in Britain and 61 per cent in Hong Kong.

It no doubt helps that Shakespeare has his champions, and Ballet Liu Ba, an associate professor of foreign lang­uages at Xiamen University of Technology (XUT), is one of them. Under her guidance, the university’s drama club has grown its repertoire to include a number of Shakespeare’s plays, with students performing excerpts in both Putonghua and English.

“Most of them are studying for technical qualifications, like hotel management, broadcasting or engineering – not languages or literature. But they are very keen,” says Liu. “I think they appreciate the language, the stories, the chance to go beyond their chosen subjects.”

In 2014, the drama group entered the 10th (and sadly, last) Chinese University Shakespeare Festival, performing excerpts from Cymbeline. They were named fourth runner-up and Liu scooped the award for best director.

A 1980 production of Macbeth in China, directed by Xu Xiaozhong

IT IS A BALMY EVENING in May when Liu leads half a dozen drama-group members into Shuangshi, a 97-year-old public high school in downtown Xiamen, where they are set to perform for students. It’s a Sunday, just weeks before the dreaded gaokao (the university entrance examination), and the classrooms are filled with the bowed heads and hunch­ed shoulders of youngsters cramming for the tests that will decide their futures. Yet, at 8pm, more than 100 of their number voluntarily file into the school hall to hear a talk about Shakespeare by Liu and watch perform­ances of scenes from Othello, The Tempest and Romeo and Juliet.

The presentation is part of the school’s extracurricular activities and the audience is, for the most part, as enthral­led as teenagers can be.

“Youth, when you grow up, be grateful and repay your country,” the stern message on the permanent stage back­drop reads, but it fails to silence the giggling prompted by the more intense performances, and some sitting at the back choose to multitask, working on their chemistry notes while they watch. Still, a surprising number of hands obligingly rise when Liu asks simple questions, such as where does the line “To be or not to be” come from. Most nod to show their familiarity with iambic pentameter when she mentions the term. And when she opens the floor to questions, some of the students reveal an impres­sive depth of knowledge.

“Which version of the classical translations of Shakespeare do you prefer, Zhu Shenghao’s or Liang Shih-chiu’s? I prefer Zhu’s because his is more poetic,” says one serious, and seriously bright, young woman from the 10th grade.

“I’ve read several of his plays in Chinese so should I attempt to read him in English?” asks a keen ninth-grader.

A combination of images obtained from the National Portrait Gallery in London, 01 March 2006, shows six paintings by different artists from the 16th and 17th centuries purporting to represent William Shakespeare. Picture: AFP
Others say they like Shakespeare because the stories are compelling, the themes are universal and the language is beautiful (when translated into Chinese). None feel that Shakespeare is relevant only to British culture.

Perhaps having been introduced to Shakespeare in their native language explains why the Xiamen students find his works so accessible. In China, The Merchant of Venice is part of the national ninth-grade Chinese-language syllabus. Lessons focus on literary devices common to both English and Chinese, as well as themes such as friendship, anti-Semitism and conflicts arising from the worst in capitalist society. Shylock wants his pound of flesh, and ge rou huan zhai, Chinese for “cutting off flesh to repay a debt”, is a well-known idiom.

Some pupils may retain their enthusiasm for Shakespeare into adulthood, like the XUT students, who spent hours following and rehearsing Liu’s exacting instructions in the run-up to the performance. Hu Lemei, who is studying to become a television script­writer and director, plays Juliet, and delivers a respectable perfor­mance, in English, of the playwright’s “What’s in a name” soliloquy.

“The acting takes me out of myself, and acting in a Shakespeare play makes one study it closely and that raises my cultural level,” she says.

Shi Shushen, from the department of broadcasting, throws himself into the role of Othello, looking thoroughly devastated as he prepares to kill Desdemona. Shi says that, for him, acting is an emotional outlet and he enjoys immersing himself in the words.

“I love the literary quality of the plays, though I don’t think they help my English,” he admits. “His English is not how people speak today, after all.”

Others place Shakespeare firmly within the cultural context of China.

“I think Shakespeare is relevant today because he is about philosophy, and philosophy has a lot to do with real life. Here, we live and breathe Marxist thought, just as Hegel and others influence people in the West,” says Scarlett Lin Je, a civil servant who graduated from XUT a few years ago but has joined the high-school performance as a second Juliet – and who may have overestimated contemporary Western interest in the thinkers of the late Enlightenment.

As for Liu, her love of Shakespeare has its roots in the Cultural Revolution – a decade when all Western culture was banned.

“Growing up, I was mesmerised by Jiang Qing’s modern take on Peking opera. The singing was beautiful and the storylines relevant to ordinary people. I used to sing and dance along in front of the television on my own,” Liu says, before launching into a song from Jiang’s eight “model” plays, the only entertainment that could be screened during the period. It was this fascination that put her on the path of studying drama as an adult.

At first sight, it seems extraordinary that someone who admits to an appreciation for the propaganda of the leader of the Gang of Four – even if it is with the same detachment shown by art house cinema fans of Leni Riefenstahl – is now devoted to promoting Shakespeare. Yet Liu so cherish­es the opportunity to spread the word about The Bard’s work that she insisted on going ahead with this presenta­tion despite having just spent a week in hospital.

A 1904 edition of a Chinese translation of Tales from Shakespeare.
THROUGHOUT CHINA’S modern history, Shakespeare has survived the ebb and flow of ideology, and his work has often been harnessed as a political tool.

Missionaries first introduced Shakespeare to China in the 19th century and, in 1904, Lin Shu translated Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare into Chinese. Until 1921, when Tian Han’s full translation of Hamlet was published, Lin’s was the only version of Shakespeare available in Chinese.

According to Li Ruru, professor of Chinese theatre studies at Britain’s University of Leeds and author of the definitive history of Shakespeare performances in China, Lin used Shakespeare to argue against late-Qing dynasty contemporaries who wanted the Chinese to adopt a more “modern”, Western way of thinking. In his introduction to the translation, Lin wrote that “if Westerners were really civilised, they should have already burnt [Shakespeare’s] works and banned them”, since his plays are full of ghosts and fairies.

During the recent RSC performance in Shanghai, the character Falstaff made the audience laugh so hard they cried. This was an example of Shakespeare’s talent as well as how literature can surpass politics and ideology
Zhang Helong

But later, in the 1910s, his tales became the basis for “civilised” or “modern” drama (wenming xi), Li writes in her book Shashibiya: Staging Shakespeare in China. Produced during the early years of the Republic of China, these wenming xi borrowed Shakespeare’s dramas and presented them in vernacular Chinese – a move away from traditional Chinese theatre that fitted the mood of the times.

The first full play didn’t appear until 1921, when Hamlet was translated from the Japanese by Tian, a renaissance man later renowned for composing the lyrics to March of the Volunteers, which would be adopted as the Chinese national anthem. Then, in the 1930s, two men started to translate the complete works. Liang Shih-chiu, a US-educated critic and academic, succeeded, while Zhu Shenghao, a little-known editor in Shanghai, managed to translate 31 plays before dying, at the age of 32, during the second Sino-Japanese war.

A steady trickle of productions appeared during the decades leading up to the 1950s, when the new Communist government invited Russian experts to present Shakespeare’s plays. The official line, Li writes, was that Shakespeare was in alignment with socialism, since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels considered his plays to be a “realistic” criticism of feudalism, confirming the role of the masses in the political struggle. It was a view that prevailed until December 1963, when Mao Zedong instructed the cultural ministry to abandon “old, foreign corpses” and promote new socialist art.

McKellen presenting Shakespeare on Film, in Shanghai, in June.
During the Cultural Revolution, from 1966-76, no Western or indeed Chinese plays written before 1949 could be staged. Many of those who had been involved with earlier productions were attacked as “rightists” or “anti-revolutionaries”, including Tian, who was tortured and died in jail in 1968.

There is plenty of evidence, though, to suggest that under­ground resources were available to those who wished to learn about banned subjects, such as the works of Shakespeare, says Zhang Helong, the Shanghai International Studies University-based author of English Literature Research in China.

“The use of political means to clamp down on the spread of knowledge wasn’t always effective,” he says. “Zhang Longxi, the well-known scholar, wrote in his autobiography that he sat for the first university entrance exams after the Cultural Revolution for a graduate course on English literature. He recorded that there were questions related to Shakespeare, such as which character appears in two plays and why. He knew the answer, so clearly the infor­mation was available during the preceding decade.”

That would help explain why Shakespeare productions resumed so quickly after the downfall of the Gang of Four, in 1976. And after the trauma of the past decades, those productions carried new resonance.

Fans wearing masks of the Bard of Avon gather in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon earlier this year. Picture: AFP
In 1980, when Xu Xiaozhong directed a performance of Macbeth in Putonghua that was screened on television – the first time the play had been staged since 1949 – few could have missed the parallels between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and Mao and Jiang. In her book, Li recalls watching the performance with fellow students at the Shanghai Theatre Academy: “When the play finished, we all remained transfixed. Possibly we had crouched for too long in front of the nine-inch screen … but perhaps we had undergone a spiritual shock, an experience of catharsis that we had never had before.”

Twenty years later, watching a recording of the same play in Britain, she still felt strongly that it “reminded me of my bitter experiences during the Cultural Revolution and the immediate background when this production was staged”.

In 1989, China was again traumatised after the Tiananmen crackdown, which was followed by a period of heavy censorship while the nation began its conversion to a market economy. Against this setting, director Lin Zhaohua produced an avant-garde staging of Hamlet, in which characters wore ordinary clothing and swapped roles to emphasise the fact that we are all, in our own way, Hamlets – lone, isolated thinkers.

As wealth began to grow post-1978, something of a “Shakespeare craze” took hold in China, according to Qian Jun, chair of Chinese studies at Britain’s Newcastle University. China’s more recent interest in the playwright, he says, reflects a strong desire to reconnect with the rest of the world. The first Shakespeare festival in China was held in Shanghai in 1986 and performances, including those adapted for Chinese opera, have flourished.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, in London.

THE YOUNGSTERS AT Shuangshi High School are growing up in a very different world from the one their parents knew. All they need do is tap into such resources as the Heuristic Shakespeare app – in which McKellen guides users on a journey of discovery through Shakespeare texts – and the bilingual learning materials the British Council has placed online. Many even travel to Stratford-upon-Avon, the playwright’s birthplace. As Zhang points out, Shakespeare is now often appreciated purely as literature.

“During the recent RSC performance in Shanghai, the character Falstaff made the audience laugh so hard they cried,” he says. “This was an example of Shakespeare’s talent as well as how literature can surpass politics and ideology.”

Of course, interest in Shakespeare may wane as producers and directors extend their horizons beyond the classics, says Li, who is organising a series of talks, performances and workshops in Leeds, northern England, to compare Shakespeare with Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, who also died in 1616.

“They tend to do more contemporary translated plays now,” she says.

Judging by the enthusiasm of the Xiamen students as they swarm the stage to speak to Liu and her band of actors, though, the craze for Shakespeare is in no danger of dying down any time soon.