Internet Shakespeare Editions

The Early Years

Prior to the twentieth century, Shakespeare was almost unknown in China. [Note 1] However, as the Manchu Empire went into terminal decline and the country lapsed into economic backwardness, Chinese intellectuals became increasingly concerned to transform the people into "new citizens," and one route was through the promotion of Western literature. Lu Xun (1881-1936), a prominent figure in modern Chinese literature, placed Shakespeare with poets like Dante, Milton, Goethe, Byron, Shelley and Pushkin, as "fighters in the spiritual realm" who were needed for the revitalization of China.

From 1904, the storylines of Shakespeare's plays were popularized among Chinese readers and theatrical practitioners by Lin Shu's free translation in semi-classic style of Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb. Interestingly, Lin Shu disagreed with his more radical contemporaries who cited Western culture to criticize the Chinese mentality, since Lin discerned a profound affinity between Shakespeare and traditional Chinese culture. He classified the Tales as "stories of gods and spirits" -- a category very familiar to Chinese readers, and put this on the cover of the Chinese version. In Lin's view: "Shakespeare looked to fairies and monsters for his inspiration, themes and language." Such contrasting images as "a fighter in the spiritual realm" and "a writer of stories about gods and spirits" indicate the complex motives with which Shakespeare was originally welcomed into China. Chinese people either appropriated and assimilated Shakespeare into Chinese culture, or used him to attack Chinese culture, according to their own requirements. For decades, Chinese writers who may never have read Shakespeare's works themselves invoked his name to legitimize their arguments.

In the opinion of many Chinese intellectuals, the traditional music theatre - with its strictly conventionalized modes of acting, singing, recitation, dance and martial arts - was merely ornamental, and scarcely a suitable vehicle for the introduction of radical ideas and new ways of thinking. Accordingly, reformers borrowed from what they could learn of Western practice to found a new type of theatre with a clear ideological commitment: "civilized drama," from which later emerged the modern spoken drama movement. Shakespearean adaptations formed a vital part of the civilized drama repertoire. The first Shakespeare performance by a professional theatre in China was a version of The Merchant of Venice under the title of Rou quan [Contract of the Flesh] in July 1913, and this was followed by more than twenty Shakespearean adaptations over the ensuing decade. However, it might be questioned whether these productions should be regarded as true Shakespeare performances since they were based on Lin Shu's summaries of the storylines and were staged before any translation of a complete Shakespeare play was available. Moreover, they were scripted in the form of mubiao or scenarios where actors were only given an outline of the plot and were expected to expand these scenarios on the stage through improvisation (somewhat similar to commedia dell'arte).

It was not until 1922 that a full translation of a Shakespeare play first appeared. Following Tian Han's translations of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, [Note 2] other scholars who had studied in America and Britain provided direct translations of several of the plays from the original English. Subsequently, as huaju or spoken drama came to maturity, there were a number of significant Shakespeare productions using complete translated texts, such as The Merchant of Venice (1930), Romeo and Juliet (1937), Hamlet (1942), Romeo and Juliet (1944), as well as Huang Zuolin's 1945 adaptation of Macbeth entitled Luanshi yingxiong [The Hero of the Turmoil].

Translation always presents a wide range of difficulties, and Shakespeare's lines pose a notoriously difficult problem. [Note 3] Of more than twenty translators of Shakespeare, Zhu Shenghao (1912-1944) deserves particular mention. Between 1935 and 1944, when life in China was profoundly disrupted by the Japanese invasion, Zhu Shenghao translated thirty-one of Shakespeare's plays, pressing on devotedly with this work despite suffering poverty and ill-health throughout his tragically short life. Until 2000, Zhu's work made up the core of the mainland-Chinese version of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, [Note 4] and his translations have been the texts normally used for stage performances.

By the mid-1920s, Shakespeare's position as a canonical literary figure had been consolidated to the extent that "Shashibiya," the standard Chinese transliteration of "Shakespeare," was no longer considered suitable, and Chinese people started referring to him as "Sha Weng," or "Old Man Sha," to express their great respect. This attitude was reinforced in Communist circles by the doctrine espoused by Engels in the Introduction to the Dialectics of Nature that the Renaissance "was the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants -- giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning." [Note 5] Since 1949 when the literary theory of Marx and Engels became the ruling ideology, Shakespeare, as a "Renaissance giant," gained an unprecedented status honoured universally in the People's Republic.

Ironically, the image of Shakespeare as the symbol of high culture has tended to deter Chinese practitioners from putting on his plays, insofar as the modern Chinese theatre was created to address the needs of people and society in the prevailing historical context. For instance, although the left-wing director Zhang Min interpreted the theme of the 1937 Romeo and Juliet as "an ethical code destroys the tender shoot that desires for freedom; the flame of youth burns the feudal fetters," [Note 6] some critics thought that it was an inappropriate choice at that time when the Japanese had occupied north-eastern China. For them "a play should be relevant to our country and our time. It should be of some use." It is noteworthy that the highpoint of Chinese Shakespeare productions was in the period after the Cultural Revolution when people had an opportunity to pursue artistic ideals and to escape from the theatre of propaganda. There was a presupposition that, as a great poet and playwright, Shakespeare must be staged in a highly artistic style. Even today, most Chinese practitioners feel that "Old Man Sha's works cannot be done any old way you like."



[1]The first mention of Shakespeare in Chinese was in 1856 when the British missionary William Muirhead, with the help of a Chinese native assistant, published in Shanghai a modified translation of Thomas Milner's The History of England: From the Invasions of Julius Caesar to the Year A.D. 1852. Milner's brief reference to Shakespeare in the chapter on Elizabethan England was the first time the playwright's name had come to the notice of the Chinese reading public. [Back]

[2] It is likely that Tian Han's translations relied on a Japanese version. There is no direct proof for this assumption because, following Chinese conventions, no attribution was given in his work. However, his knowledge of English did not seem adequate to translate Shakespeare's plays from the original and he translated Hamlet while he was a student in Japan. [Back]

[3] It is not impossible to capture some of the power of Shakespeare and the evocative imagery of his poetry in sonorous Chinese prose. However, this may involve much distortion or lengthy presentation. Taking Hamlet's "Let me be cruel, not unnatural" (3.2.395) as an example. "Unnatural" in the Chinese translation becomes "unfilial" (by Zhu Shenghao). The next line "I will speak [daggers] to her" (III ii 396) is spelt out at ponderous length: "My words which are as sharp as a dagger will pierce her heart ..." (again by Zhu Shenghao). Puns and humour present more problems. Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream has differing translations in various versions: "Bodun" as a simple transliteration (by Zhu Shenghao); "zhigong" or weaver that indicates Bottom's occupation (by Liang Shiqiu). The best translation is probably by Fang Ping who calls him "xiantuanr," meaning "a reel of thread". This suggests figuratively both Bottom's occupation and his character of "endlessness," but the most common meaning of bottom in everyday English is lost. Chinese audiences and readers cannot catch the comic range that this name conveys in the original language. [Back]

[4] These translations are mostly in prose form with some rhymed couplets. The recent version of Shakespeare's Complete Works edited by Fang Ping (published on the mainland in 2000 and in Taipei in 2001) aims to convey the poetry in the Chinese rendering. [Back]

[5] In the "Introduction" to Dialectics of Nature Engels wrote:

It was the greatest progressive revolution that mankind has so far experienced, a time which called for giants and produced giants -- giants in power of thought, passion, and character, in universality and learning. The men who founded the modern rule of the bourgeoisie had anything but bourgeois limitations. On the contrary, the adventurous character of the time inspired them to a greater or less degree. There was hardly any man of importance then living who had not travelled extensively, who did not command four or five languages, who did not shine in a number of fields... The heroes of that time had not yet come under the servitude of the division of labour, the restricting effects of which, with its production of one-sidedness, we so often notice in their successors. But what is especially characteristic of them is that they almost all pursue their lives and activities in the midst of the contemporary movements, in the practical struggle; they take sides and join in the fight, one by speaking and writing, another with the sword, many with both. Hence the fullness and force of character that makes them complete men. Men of the study are the exception -- either persons of second or third rank or cautious philistines who do not want to burn their fingers.

(Edited & translated by Clemens Dutt, preface & notes by J.B.S. Haldane, New York: International Publishers 1960), pp 2-3. [Back]

[6] Cited in Ge Yihong, Zhongguo huaju tongshi [The History of Chinese Spoken Drama], (Beijing: Wenhua Chubanshe, 1990), p.169. [Back]