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Shakespeare in China

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Shakespeare in China

For nearly two centuries, Chinese writers, filmmakers, and theater directors have engaged Shakespeare in their works in a wide range of contexts. Performances range from nineteenth-century travesty in Hong Kong and mid-twentieth-century Soviet-Chinese theater collaboration to a global array of approaches in cinema and postmodern theater. Shakespeare was first translated into Chinese in 1904, by the renowned translator Lin Shu 林紓 (1852–1924), under the title of Strange Stories from across the Seas (澥外奇譚) . Lin knew no English and relied on a bilingual collaborator to summarize Charles and Mary Lamb’s prose adaptations for children in Tales from Shakespeare (1807). And yet because Lin wrote in the highly erudite style of classical Chinese, of which he was a master, his versions inspired a whole generation of Chinese admirers to seek out the originals. The first complete play was translated in 1922, by the prominent dramatist Tian Han 田漢 (1898–1968), who translated Hamlet from Japanese. The first Chinese translation of Shakespeare’s complete works was published in 1967.

Wu Hsing-kuo as King Lear in solo jingju (Beijing opera) production Lear Is Here, 2007.

The first decade of the new millennium has seen a boom of new Asian cinematic Shakespeares. This new wave of filmic creativity reveals how Shakespearean aesthetics and Chinese perspectives are brought together to form locally-inspired but transnationally-produced artworks. Many of Shakespeare’s works have been reimaged by Chinese artists into silent film, period epic film, urban comedy, and martial-arts film. Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are often at the center of these cinematic imaginations.


Anthony Chan’s One Husband Too Many (一妻兩夫 Yiqi liangfu , Hong Kong, 1988) weaves Romeo and Juliet into a contemporary urban comedy, while Cheah Chee Kong’s Chicken Rice War (雞緣巧合 Jiyuan qiaohe , Singapore, 2000), engages such films as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) and John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) from an ironic distance.


Explore the video archive of Shakespeare Performance in Asia

(SPiA) at MIT’s collaborative and interactive website, co-created and edited by Imagining China’s video curator, Alexander Huang.


Coming soon: View stills from these and other Chinese adaptations of Shakespeare.


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