Along with a number of Japanese and Western canonical poets and writers, Shakespeare and his works have played a significant role in the development of Chinese and Sinophone theatres in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Hundreds of works have emerged in Mandarin and a wide range of Chinese dialects, performing styles, and genres. The encounters between ‘Shakespeare’ and genres and values represented by the icon of ‘China’ have enriched Chinese-language theatrical traditions as well as global Shakespearean performance history. In the following article, I shall focus on the challenges and changes to Chinese-language theatres.

The transmission of Renaissance culture in China began with the arrival of the first Jesuit missionaries in 1582, followed by the Dominicans and Franciscans in the 1630s. Illustrated British travel narratives record British emissaries’ experience attending theatrical productions in Tianjin and Beijing during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), including the mission of Lord George Macartney. One of the emissaries’ diary entries briefly comments on the similarity between an unnamed Chinese play and Shakespeare’s Richard III. With the decline of the Qing empire in the nineteenth century, Chinese interests in Western modes of thinking and political systems intensified. Both Shakespeare and China were “translated”—to use the word to mean transformed or metamorphosed, as Peter Quince does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream–in the late nineteenth century according to clashing ideologies of modernization, westernization, and re-validation of traditional Chinese values. Along with John Milton and other “national” poets, Shakespeare’s name entered the discourse of nationalism. Shakespeare was first mentioned in passing in 1839 in a compendium of world cultures translated by Lin Zexu, a key figure in the first Opium War (1839-1842). By the time Chinese translations became available and substantive critical engagements with Shakespeare were initiated, there was already over half a century of reception history in which Shakespeare was frequently evoked to support or suppress specific agendas.

There are several recurrent themes in Chinese-language adaptations of Shakespeare. Universalization, as opposed to localization, has been a popular strategy among Chinese directors and translators. This strategy has produced plays performed “straight,” with visual and textual citations of what was perceived to be authoritative classical performances (such as Laurence Olivier’s versions). Some early 1920s performances, especially those involving students or drama societies, in Shanghai followed this pattern. If the play seems foreign, according to advocates of this approach, that only guarantees its aesthetics have been preserved in a way that benefits the audience. Adaptations that localize the plays are another popular approach.

A second strategy is to localize the plot and setting of a play and assimilate Shakespeare into the local worldviews. It folds Shakespeare into local performance genres. An example is Huang Zuolin’s Xieshou Ji (The Story Of Bloody Hands, 1986), a kunqu opera adaptation of Macbeth. The complex idioms of Chinese theatrical forms were increasingly seen by the performers and their sponsors not as an obstacle but as an asset in creating an international demand of the traditional theatre form.

The third strategy involves pastiche, dramaturgical collage, and extensive, deconstructive rewritings. It sometimes changes the genre of a play by accessing dormant themes that have been marginalized by centuries of Anglocentric criticism and performance traditions. The emergence of parody is a sign that Shakespeare’s global afterlife has reached a new stage. The stories have become so familiar to the “cross-border” audiences that the plays can be used as a platform for artistic exploration of new genres. For instance, in writing a huaju play called Shamuleite, or Shamlet (1992), Lee Kuo-hsiu, one of the most innovative Taiwanese playwrights and directors to emerge in the 1980s, turned high tragedy, or what was known to Renaissance readers as “tragic history,” into comic parody. He suggests in the program that Shamlet is a revenge comedy that “has nothing to do with Hamlet but something to do with Shakespeare.” This strategy has been used to counter stereotypical construction of local and foreign cultures. It has also been used to as the artists’ personal branding in international markets for intercultural theatre works, such as Wu Hsing-kuo and his solo Beijing opera Li’er Zaici (Lear Is Here, 2000) in which the performer inserts his own life story. Playing ten characters from Shakespeare’s tragedy, Wu extrapolates the themes of domestic conflict, construction of selves and others, and notions of duty to family and duty to the state and mingles these themes with his autobiography.

These three themes coexist throughout the history of Chinese and Sinophone Shakespeares. As in almost all instances of transnational borrowing, a select, locally resonant group of “privileged” plays has held continuous sway in the Chinese-speaking world. The Merchant Of Venice is the first Shakespearean play known to be staged, and it continues to fascinate Chinese audiences today. The reception of the play exemplifies the complex processes of reading between, with, and against the genres of comedy and tragedy. Early modern printers and readers were uncertain about the play’s genre. The 1623 folio placed it under “comedies” as simply The Merchant Of Venice (rendering the titular character ambiguous), but the entry in the Stationers’ Register on July 22, 1598–the first mention of the play–focuses attention on Shylock by calling it “A Book of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice.” The later generic ambiguity carried over when the play came to China, where it has often been staged and received as a romantic comedy rather than a tragedy fuelled by religious tensions (as has mostly been the case since the twentieth century in the democratic West). The play has also been parodied on stage. A travesty by Francis Talfourd entitled Shylock, Or, The Merchant Of Venice Preserved, was staged in Hong Kong in 1867 for British expatriates. The Hong Kong Amateur Dramatic Club revived the production in 1871, as the mercantile-themed play proved relevant to the social milieu of a trade colony. The trial scene from The Merchant Of Venice was performed in 1896 by the graduating class of St. John’s University, a missionary college in Shanghai, followed by another student performance in 1902. In time, Mandarin-language performances began to dominate the stage, and today, the play remains a staple of high school and college curricula and is often chosen for the graduation huaju (spoken drama) productions of Chinese and Taiwanese universities.

He transitions from Lear to himself in the middle of the scene by taking off the opera beard and having a conversation with the beard. The award-winning production has toured widely throughout China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other parts of the world.

In terms of performance style, Shakespeare has figured prominently in the shaping of contemporary Chinese theatre, where the genres of xiqu (stylized theatre with more than 360 regional variations) and huaju (post-1907 Western-influenced spoken drama theatre, including obsolete subgenres) coexist. The earliest-documented xiqu Shakespeare was based on Hamlet and titled Killing The Elder Brother And Snatching The Sister-In-Law and performed in chuanju (Sichuan opera) style. Other artists followed suit. The Yisu She (Custom Renewal Society) staged A Pound Of Flesh in the qinqiang opera style in 1925 in Shaanxi Province in northern China. Although stylized performances of Shakespeare in different genres of Chinese opera have existed since the early twentieth century, the 1980s were a turning point, when Shakespeare became more regularly performed in different forms of stylization in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, and entered the collective cultural memory of Chinese opera performers and audiences. The revived interest in Chinese-opera Shakespeare was encouraged by increased exchanges among performers based in mainland China and in the Chinese diaspora.

Beyond Chinese opera, performances of Shakespeare that involve China at their center of imagination frequently highlight linguistic differences. Languages served as markers of ethnic differences in Yumei And Tianlai, a bilingual Taiwanese-Mandarin Romeo And Juliet at the Shakespeare in Taipei festival in 2003. The Montagues and the Capulets are each assigned a different language, complicating the experience of artists in the Chinese diaspora and the play’s capacity as a national allegory. Key scenes from Romeo And Juliet were staged in two plays-within-a-play in Ning Caishen’s Romeo And Zhu Yingtai, directed by He Nian and produced by the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center (May 2008), in which French, Japanese, English, and Mandarin Chinese were spoken. In what Ning called “a tragedy told in comic manners,” the star-crossed lovers traversed 1937 Shanghai and present-day New York in search of new personal and cultural identities.

The differing situations in other parts of the Chinese-speaking world led to varied histories of reception. Kawakami Otojirō’s (1864-1911) Othello (a shinpa production in Japanese) in 1903 recast Taiwan as the outpost of the colonial Japanese empire, moving Venice to Japan and Cyprus to the Penghu Archipelago west of Taiwan. When Muro Washiro (the Othello figure), a dark-faced Japanese colonial general in Taiwan, commits suicide at the end of the play, he compares himself to an “uncivilized” Taiwanese aboriginal inhabitant (seiban [raw savage]). An island off the southeast coast of mainland China, Taiwan has had complex relationships with the dominant “fatherland” (zuguo) across the strait and with Japan to the north. While not directly responsible for the scarcity of western dramas from the early to the mid-twentieth century, the island’s intense focus upon the essentialized aspects of Japan and China prevented the growth of translated dramas from European languages. In the first half of the twentieth century, tours of Japan’s all-female Takarazuka performances to Taiwan occasionally included Shakespeare. The earliest-documented Chinese-language performance of Shakespeare in Taiwan was Yi Yun (Clouds Of Doubt) staged by the Shiyan Xiao Juchang (Experimental Theatre of Taipei) in February 1949 and based on Othello. A few other performances followed, but until martial law was lifted in 1987, Taiwan’s theatre remained shaped by political censorship in significant ways, first by the Japanese colonial cultural policy and then by the anticommunist cultural policy of the KMT regime.

The presence of Shakespeare at theatre festivals in Taiwan in the 1980s and ‘90s took a different form from mainland China’s post-revolutionary Shakespeare boom, which was initiated by state-endorsed and government-sponsored Shakespeare festivals in 1986 and 1994. The month-long “Shakespeare in Taipei” festival (May 2003), for instance, focused more on providing a platform for artistically innovative and commercially viable experimental works. As a multilingual society (Mandarin, Taiwanese, Hakka, and aboriginal languages), Taiwan has produced a significant number of mainstream performances either entirely in a dialect or with a mixture of Mandarin and a local dialect or English. Some of these works reflect Taiwan’s multiply determined history, while others question that history and the much-contested “Chineseness” of the island’s identity. These tendencies provide interesting contrasts to the ways in which mainland Chinese artists imagine China. By the same token, while mainland China is certainly multilingual, it is Taiwan and Hong Kong that have established strong traditions of Shakespeare performances in one or more dialects. The few mainland Chinese performances of Shakespeare in local dialects were commissioned and sponsored by the government for festivals or produced by ethnic minority students in actor training programs. The linguistic diversity of Taiwan and Hong Kong theatres fosters distinctive views of “Shakespeare” and what counts as “Chinese.”

With strong dual traditions of English and Cantonese Shakespearean performances in huaju and yueju (Cantonese opera), Hong Kong theatre reflects the tension between southern Chinese culture and the British legacy. After Hong Kong was ceded to Britain for 150 years in the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, Englishness became an important element throughout the social structure. Under the British government, theatre was supported and encouraged as “a wholesome diversion from the tedium of military life.” English literature was established as a subject of study in Hong Kong’s school system and in 1882 students began studying Shakespeare for exams, initiating a form of “domination by consent.” Shakespearean drama became part of the repertoire of the Hong Kong Amateur Dramatic Club that was active in the 1860s and 1870s. The so-called amateur theatre was, in fact, noncommercial theatre rather than nonprofessional. Such performances entertained British expatriates and brought “a touch of the British culture” to Hong Kong residents. As in Japan, nineteenth-century China and Hong Kong saw sporadic performances of “authentic” Shakespeare in English that exposed local residents to the contemporary English culture. What was meant by authentic Shakespeare was a performance style that purported to present Shakespeare as he was conceived to have been played in his lifetime. Shakespeare festivals (April 23, 1954; April 1964; January 24-29, 1984) and experimental Shakespearean performances emerged in the mid-twentieth century. Since the 1980s, a considerable amount of energy has been directed not toward the postcolonial question but toward Hong Kong’s global status and its Chinese heritage, as evidenced by the productions of Hong Kong Repertory Theatre (founded in 1977), the largest professional theatre in Hong Kong, and performances by students of Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts and other universities.

Despite the association of Shakespeare and Englishness, Shakespeare was not resisted as an image of colonization. Political changes have hardly affected him. Some contemporary Hong Kong scholars are surprised to find that “local experimentations with Shakespeare in post-modernist and Chinese styles have continued to flourish [in Hong Kong].” This continued prominence, they argue, shows that “Shakespeare has transcended his British heritage and become part of the Hong Kong Chinese tradition.” While partly true, this view blurs the historical conditions surrounding early performances. One crucial reason why Shakespeare seems to transcend his British heritage is that Britain never colonized Hong Kong the way it did with India. This special historical condition–an indirect colonial structure that Mao Zedong later called semicolonialism–informed Hong Kong’s performance culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If the practitioners of the new theatre were resisting anything, it was the Chinese past. The same is true of other treaty ports, such as Shanghai, that was home to a host of European concessions but had no overarching colonial institution.

The uses of Shakespeare’s plays in spoken drama and Chinese opera are informed by a paradigm shift from seeking authenticity to foregrounding artistic subjectivity. Shakespearean themes and characterization have enriched, challenged, and changed Chinese-language theatres and genres. Chinese and Sinophone Shakespeares have become strangers at home.

Alexa Alice Joubin teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.; she writes about globalization and performance cultures.

This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.

This post was written by Alexa Alice Joubin.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.