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As I said in my “Is Shakespeare Being Cancelled?” post, there is a long tradition of using Shakespeare as the epitome of creative arts, especially in England. For centuries, British imperialists have justified their subjugation of other cultures by claiming that English culture is superior, and Shakespeare became an unknowing cog in the machinery of cultural imperialism.
Since it is pretty much impossible to de-throne Shakespeare, one response that other cultures have used is to elevate their own artists to Shakespearean status. People are already calling Lin-Manuel Miranda the American Shakespeare, and there have been many other Shakespeares around the globe (Feng). Thre’s nothing wrong with this; after all, every culture has its own cultural heroes and they help embody what
One other response to cultural imperialism is of course, to reject it, and since its inception, the Communist Party has sought to exclude, belittle, and suppress access to Western imperialist art. Shakespeare was banned during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and even today the Communist Party is quicker to elevate artists likely to praise Chinese artists as being “Shakespearean,” than to praise Shakespeare directly. Just last year, President Xi Xinping officially declared that poet Tang Xianzu was “The Chinese Shakespeare.”
To be fair, Tang XIanzu was Shakespeare’s contemporary and there are some startling similarities between the themes and ideas expressed by the two poets:
China has produced some wonderful ballets, operas, and poetry so it makes sense that even though the government has suppressed Shakespeare in the past, the Chinese people have expressed a love of Shakespeare for over a century. As early as 1903, Chinese intellectuals started reading and translating Shakespeare and the first Chinese adaptation of Shakspeare was a rhymed ballad version of Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene written by Deng Yizhe in 1910 (Sun, 1932). Today productions of Shakespeare are very popular in China and Shakespeare has facilitated a fascinating cultural exchange between east and west.
In addition to Chinese students encountering Shakespeare in the classroom, and the popularity of theater productions of Shakespeare in China, there are some fascinating efforts for English and Chinese speaking audiences to use Shakespeare as a bridge to cultural understanding. Right now, plans are underway to build a replica of Shakespeare’s birthplace in the southern Chinese city of Fuzhou. Meanwhile in Stratford Upon Avon, the government of Fuzhou gave a statue of Tang Xianzu and statue to be featured prominently in the garden of the actual Shakespeare birthplace on Henley Street (Woodings).
In addition, Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Greg Doran, (former husband of the great RSC actor Antony Sher), has spearheaded a number of outreach projects designed to translate Shakespeare’s The Tempest into a format better suited for theater productions in China. The final show, which premiered in 2018, was not only a successful collaboration between east and western artist, but the production, with its themes of freedom and liberty, was likely to ruffle feathers in the Chinese government, according to (Yuan Yang).
In Xi’s closely controlled China, The Tempest’s themes of liberty and identity clearly carry political ideas at odds with the ruling party — “thought is free”, the sprite Ariel sings. The implicit challenge to the status quo extended from the ideas to the production itself at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing. It offered new freedoms to the Chinese actors from the centre’s in-house theatre ensemble. Under the guidance of director Tim Supple, this was the first time they had been invited to experiment with performance and alter the text.Yuang Yang. “The Bard in Beijing: how Shakespeare is subverting China”
To sum up, every culture has been exposed to Shakespeare, and many have found ways to re-interpret him, appropriate him, and use him as a tool of cultural appropriation. This is neither good nor bad, it just is. It is. What is interesting is that China has taken Shakespeare from a tool of imperialism into a tool of both multiculturalism, and occasionally, as a subversion of their government. Studying the way other China and cultures have interpreted Shakespeare is a window into the values of those cultures and thus, helps to further build a global community.
Below is a scene from a Chinese opera version of Hamlet for your viewing pleasure!
Yanna Sun. Shakespeare Reception in China. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, Vol. 2, No. 9, pp. 1931-1938, September 2012 © 2012 ACADEMY PUBLISHER Manufactured in Finland.
Qi-Xin He: China’s Shakespeare.
Shakespeare QuarterlyVol. 37, No. 2 (Summer, 1986), pp. 149-159 (11 pages)Published By: Oxford University Press. Retreived online from jstor.com.
Laurie Chen: China’s replica of Shakespeare’s birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon coming in 2022. South China Morning Post. Originally published October 2nd, 2018. Retrieved online from: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2166635/work-start-soon-chinese-replica-shakespeares-birthplace-literary.
Simon Woodings: Tang Xianzu statue Unveiled at Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Stratford Upon Avon Herald. Originally published April 27th, 2017. Retrieved online from: https://www.stratford-herald.com/news/tang-xianzu-statue-unveiled-at-shakespeare-s-birthplace-9138327/
China’s Love Affair With Shakespeare Retreived 1/29/22 from https://www.barrons.com/articles/chinas-love-affair-with-shakespeare-51585137600
Yuan Yang. The Bard in Beijing: how Shakespeare is subverting China. Financial Times. October 5th, 2018. Retrieved online from https://www.ft.com/content/cd997246-c57b-11e8-bc21-54264d1c4647