Why does China love Shakespeare?

Before beginning his formal programme of meetings in Britain, China’s premier Wen Jiabao visited the MG car factory and Shakespeare’s birthplace. In response to a comment by the British Labour Party’s Peter Mandelson about the selection of these places, Wen thanked the previous Chinese ambassador Fu Ying for her advice, but said that Shakespeare was his own choice. He returned to the subject of his boyhood love of Shakespeare in his speech to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Shakespeare occupies an interesting position in China, where major foreign writers such as Dickens, Conan Doyle, Balzac, Stendhal and the Russians were translated in the early 20th century and soon became household names. Many Chinese, including political leaders, take pride in being well-read. By contrast, how many English people, let alone political leaders, could name China’s foremost 18th-century novelist, or the great poets of the 8th century?

Though Dickens has always been politically correct, there are aspects of Shakespeare that have occasionally caused unease in China. There are his histories, dramas of the death of kings, and the overthrow of tyrannical rulers and even Hamlet contains “political allusions too sensitive for a supreme dictator” and a “hero too tentative for the nation’s militant cause”.

Though the plays were published in Mao’s China, it was not until after his death in 1976 that they were actually performed publicly. In the 1980s and 1990s there were hectic Shakespeare festivals in China. The 1986 festival featured 28 productions of 12 different plays within a fortnight, including the Merchant of Venice performed in English by the Arts Academy of the People’s Liberation Army, Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by the China Coal Miner’s Drama Troupe and Othello by the China Railways Drama Group.

After the appearance of the first translations in the early 20th century, for much of the period from 1949 to the late 1970s, Shakespeare was known only through the text and any literary criticism was rooted firmly in Marxism and Leninism.King Lear was described as “a portrayal of the shaken economic foundations of feudal society” and Romeo and Juliet, “the desire of the bourgeoisie to shake off the yoke of the feudal code of ethics”. However, in 1979, the Old Vic Company performed Hamlet in Shanghai with a simultaneous translation, and in 1983 the famous actor Ying Ruocheng translated and directed The Merchant of Venice at the People’s Art Theatre in Beijing.

Many of Shakespeare’s stories have almost universal appeal and have been adapted to various traditional Chinese forms. I saw a very lively and amusing Peking Opera version of Othello in the mid 1980s, which showed how easily the story could translate, while Shakespeare’s language can be very difficult. In China, the stories came first, with Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare “translated” in 1903. Lin Shu has been described as “the most popular English-Chinese translator of the early 20th century who rewrote in classical Chinese prose a large number of novels by 19th-century writers including Dickens, Scott, Hugo and Balzac.” “Re-wrote” is the key to Lin Shu’s approach for he said “I have no foreign languages” but “several gentlemen who interpret the texts for me.” China’s foremost 20th-century playwright Tian Han translated Romeo and Juliet in 1922, when he was a student in Japan so this, too, was probably a third-hand version.

The two major translators of Shakespeare in China were Zhu Shenghao (1912-1944), who almost managed the complete works before his death from TB, and Liang Shiqiu (1903-1987), about whom more is known. He studied at Harvard and Columbia universities and conceived the idea of translating Shakespeare in 1930, finally finishing the task in 1967. Liang became a professor of English, teaching at Peking University and Tsinghua University and argued bitterly with left-wing writers such as the great scholar, satirist and short-story writer Lu Xun before moving to Taiwan in 1949. He translated Peter Pan, Silas Marner, Wuthering Heights and, unsurprisingly, given his disagreements with the left wing, Animal Farm. His own collected essays were published in English in Hong Kong under the faintly unfortunate title From a Cottager’s Sketchbook.

Liang’s Shakespeare translations were more confident that Zhu’s. His witches in the opening scene of Macbeth speak in regular lines of seven syllables, not in rhyme, but with the cadence of poetry, whilst Zhu’s witches speak in prose. On the other hand, Zhu’s translation of Hamlet‘s “To be or not to be” soliloquy retains the balance and repetition of the verb whilst Liang’s rendering is complex: “To live or to destroy, this is a question which merits thought”. Both have their partisans. It is likely that Wen read Liang’s version of the Complete Works since, despite Liang’s defection to Taiwan, they were published in a good new edition in Beijing in 1954 when the future premier was 14.

A self-confessed Shakespeare lover, Wen is a geologist by training, but he is well known in China for beginning many of his speeches with a poetic reference and the usefulness of Shakespeare in that context has not passed him by. But neither should we ignore the possibility that his stress on Shakespeare during his visit to England is a graceful gesture, a reminder that culture is important, both at home and in international relations and that this visit need not be entirely devoted to economic questions. – guardian.co.uk

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Frances Wood
Frances Wood works from England, United Kingdom. RN. Interested in a safer NHS for pt’s and staff. Always learning. Own views here, for official NHSE/I patient safety tweets follow @ptsafetyNHS Frances Wood has over 129 followers on Twitter.

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