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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare in China

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 86

In 2015, on a state visit to Great Britain, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping called 17th century Chinese playwright  Tang Xianzu the “Shakespeare of the East,” and ever since, the Ministry of Culture for the People’s Republic has made a concerted push to elevate Tang to the status of Shakespeare. 2015 was, of course, the year before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and a worldwide celebration of his work. Coincidentally, it was also the 400th anniversary of Tang’s death. Tang’s promotion to “the Shakespeare of China” could be viewed as a marketing decision by the Chinese government, in an attempt to exert China’s “soft power” in the world. 

This episode explores just who Tang Xianzu was, and – more broadly – to look at what role Shakespeare plays in modern-day China. Our guests, Wei Feng and Alexa Alice Joubin, study the intersection of China and Shakespeare. Wei Feng teaches English and Shakespeare in the School of Foreign Languages and Literature at Shandong University in northeastern China. He’s joined by Alexa Alice Joubin, professor of English at George Washington University, where she teaches globalization and Asian-European cultural exchange. Alexa is director of GW’s “Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare” and she’s co-founder and co-director of the Global Shakespeares Video and Performance Archive at MIT. Alexa and Wei are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, SoundCloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published November 29, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, I See My Reputation is at Stake, was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. Esther French is the web producer. We’d like to thank Dr. Ruru Li, Professor of Chinese Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds in Great Britain; writer and journalist Andrew Dickson; Liz Thompson, Philippa Harland and Shihui Weng at the Royal Shakespeare Company; and Paul Hollman at The Dubroom Studio in West Hollywood, California.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: It’s not a new thing, tagging someone as “The Shakespeare of” whatever. Chuck Berry was the Shakespeare of Rock ‘n Roll, Evelyn Waugh was the Shakespeare of the Semicolon, Vin Scully was the Shakespeare of the Broadcast Booth. But when someone’s tagged this way by the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, right outside Shakespeare’s birthplace, and it’s someone who pretty much no one’s felt this way about before, when that happens, it’s likely to make you think, “Wait, what?” 

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. The person we’re talking about is a 17th century Chinese playwright named Tang Xianzu. In 2015, on a state visit to Great Britain, Chinese premier Xi Jinping called Tang “The Shakespeare of the East.” And ever since, the Ministry of Culture for the People’s Republic has made a concerted push to elevate Tang to the status of Shakespeare. Now, 2015 was, of course, the year before the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and a worldwide celebration of his work. It was also the 400th anniversary of Tang’s death. Tang’s promotion to “Shakespeare of China” could be viewed as a marketing decision by the Chinese government in an attempt to exert China’s soft power in the world. We decided it was worth taking the time to explore just who Tang Xianzu was and, more broadly, to look at what role Shakespeare plays in modern-day China. We brought together two guests who study the intersection of China and Shakespeare. Wei Feng teaches English and Shakespeare at the School of Foreign Languages and Literature at Shandong University in northeastern China. He’s joined by Alexa Alice Joubin, Professor of English at George Washington University, where she teaches globalization and Asian-European cultural exchange. Alexa is director of GW’s Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare, and she’s co-founder and co-director of the Global Shakespeares Video and Performance Archive at MIT. We call this podcast “I See My Reputation Is at Stake.” Alexa and Wei are interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

BARBARA BOGAEV: Wei, I’d like to start with you. President Xi Jinping has called Tang Xianzu the “Shakespeare of the East,” and Tang has also been referred to as China’s greatest playwright. Is there consensus on that in China, though? You know, if there were a Jeopardy quiz show in China, would the answer to “The greatest Chinese playwright” be “Who is Tang Xianzu?” 

WEI FENG: I don’t think so. I mean, Tang Xianzu might not the greatest playwright, and some people call him “Shakespeare in China” or “in the East” just to promote him, I suppose. To promote him, yeah.

BOGAEV: Right!  Exactly. I mean, I don’t mean to sound flippant, but I do get the sense that someone in power somewhere in China just decided, “Look, this guy died the same year as Shakespeare. Why don’t we say he’s the Chinese Shakespeare and we’ll go from there.”

WEI: Yeah, yeah, I think so. Totally, totally.

BOGAEV: But are there actual, genuine commonalities between Tang and Will Shakespeare?

WEI: Humanism, I would say. Humanism.

BOGAEV: Alexa, why don’t you jump in here? Is Tang the Chinese Shakespeare? I mean, is there a Chinese Shakespeare?

ALEXA ALICE JOUBIN: There’s no Chinese Shakespeare, but Tang has been named multiple times as the Chinese Shakespeare. And his Peony Pavilion has been said to be the Chinese Romeo and Juliet, and so far and so long. And actually, it’s not a recent phenomenon. I think it started in the early 20th century with the effort to establish Chinese drama as a subject of study. But if you look elsewhere, you have Cervantes; in fact, the British Library, in 2016, celebrated Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Tang. I don’t know what these three poets have in common, but probably humanism, as Wei mentioned: the perceived universal values in their plays, as well as their national poet status in their respective countries.

BOGAEV: And what about this idea of there being commonality between Shakespeare and Tang? Are the plays in any way similar or parallel?

JOUBIN: So, Tang has four great plays, while Shakespeare has a few dozen works circulating, whether penned by himself or in collaboration with others. We can’t really say that there are common arcs of narratives in those, but there have been studies. For example, Peony Pavilion, Romeo and Juliet. And people are insisting that the tragic visions are complementary, perhaps the emotive performances are similar.

BOGAEV: Wei, help us out here. What is your impression of Tang’s work? What is it like?

WEI: Full of emotions and refined and elegant. Music and poetry.

BOGAEV: And is there singing as there was in Shakespeare’s performances?

WEI: Yeah, mostly singing, I would say. Most of the time the actors sing.

BOGAEV: And how should we imagine that? Because Western audiences, we’re familiar with maybe Beijing opera. Is it like that?

WEI: Oh, it’s very different from Beijing opera. Because, I mean, Tang Xianzu’s genre is, you can call it, kunqu or even chuanqi or romance. It’s very different from Beijing opera because it’s more refined. The music instrument is more soft. It’s not so noisy, if you want to use that word.

BOGAEV: Or harsh, perhaps. To foreign ears. Yeah.

WEI: Yeah, harsh. Yeah, harsh. Yeah.

JOUBIN: One thing that they have in common, in addition to music, that Wei mentioned, is perhaps that both Shakespeare’s works and Tang’s works could fall under the category of poetic drama, in that there are not only songs and singing involved, but also it’s in verse, which is significant, and it does take an effort to kind of push that to a modern audience, to modern audiences who are native speakers of Chinese and native speakers of English, respectively.

BOGAEV: So, it sounds as if Tang is such a beautiful playwright, but you have to work to make this case of him being kind of a Shakespeare of China, perhaps. So what does lie behind China’s, perhaps, promoting Tang on the global stage as a Shakespeare? And you said this goes way back before, for instance, a more recent push on China’s part, of “soft power,” as it’s called. But is this a kind of political branding move?

JOUBIN: Yes. I think the recent promotion of Tang is very conscious. I see that on the same scale as the establishment of Confucius Institute across the world. And the establishment of Confucius Institute is not really to promote Confucianism, but it’s comparable, in turn, to the establishment of other government-backed initiatives to promote their cultures. There are Goethe-Institut, the British Council, Alliance Francaise, so this is not the first, but it’s interesting to see in terms of the projection of soft power, they would pick a poet like Tang. I think he has enough canonical status within China. There are debates about whether he’s China’s Shakespeare, but there is no debate about his artistic achievements. So no surprise, I think, they would pick this poet.

BOGAEV: And in picking this poet and in introducing the world to Tang, the government has made connections to Shakespeare. And I think I’ve read that there was an adaptation combining Coriolanus and one of Tang Xianzu’s plays, correct? What was that like?

JOUBIN: Yes. I haven’t seen it. It was in London, but it did combine it, in fact, kind of bits and pieces of Coriolanus in Chinese operatic style, combining that with Tang’s arias and scenes from Tang’s own plays.

BOGAEV: Oh, that sounds kind of trippy. A mash-up.

JOUBIN: Yes, it’s very challenging. And they put all of that into, somehow, one play. So it’s all in one evening show. There were mixed reception.

BOGAEV: I can imagine. Wei, how do you see what lies behind, I guess you could call it branding, maybe that’s too cynical, but this branding of a Chinese Shakespeare? I’m thinking that, of course, going back to Tang’s time, Shakespeare was not known at all in China, and I would imagine that comparing Tang to any foreign writer back then would have been an insult or perceived that way in China. But now it plays as a compliment, at least to the West. So what changed and when? And I understand I’m asking you to condense a century or so of Western imperialism towards China here.

WEI: Well, one way of looking at it is to show China has a similar writer or poet with Shakespeare, to prove China and the West might not be so different. I think that’s one way of looking at it. And Chinese culture could also be very humanistic, very poetic. And, yeah, to try to compare Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare is one. Yeah.

JOUBIN: I would add also that, I think, in Tang’s works, there are generally no perceived ideological controversy.

BOGAEV: Controversy?

JOUBIN: Right. So Tang could be seen as a high-profile, and convenient, and somewhat safe choice. And he does have an international status.

BOGAEV: And it’s interesting, isn’t it, because China can say “Tang is the Shakespeare of China,” and Western ears hear the same thing. Everyone knows what that’s supposed to mean. It does make me wonder, what does that phrase mean to Chinese people? How do the Chinese view Shakespeare?

WEI: Well, Shakespeare is one of the greatest writers in the world, and every Chinese know that. But I’m not sure if every Chinese will call Shakespeare “the greatest writer in the world.” People are familiar with Shakespeare, and educated people love to see Shakespeare staged.

JOUBIN: That is very true, this unofficial genre, sometimes dubbed “white-collar theater.” The kind of theater plays that are usually light, if you will? You know, people go on a date, people go see these after work.

WEI: Yeah, of course. Yeah. By now everybody knows Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: I want to talk about the history of Shakespeare in China, though, because it’s truly unique. And now going back to the founding of the People’s Republic. As I understand it, Shakespeare was re-popularized in China by the Russians, by their big brother in communism, the Soviet Union. And that the Russians inserted Marxist interpretation into Shakespeare. And Alexa, you’ve written a lot about that. How did that come about?

JOUBIN: So, actually it all started with Karl Marx’s own writing. You know how Marx liked to quote literature as examples. And that’s picked up by the Soviet critics and then translated into Chinese. So there has always been a perceived affinity, if you will, between communist critics and writers and the so-called Shakespearean humanism. Shakespeare has been seen under various regimes as the spokesperson for the proletarian masses. But then there are also times when he’s seen as speaking for the landowners, so it’s a really interesting history. As for the Soviets, of course, as you mentioned, they are China’s big brothers, and not just in politics but also in the arts. They brought in a lot of Soviet experts, and one of the highest-profile cases is actually a production of Much Ado About Nothing, before and after the Cultural Revolution. And that was seen as a project to further appreciation of Shakespeare, but, most importantly, this is seen as an apolitical project. The darker aspect of the comedy is completely erased. It’s about the bright future of the socialist state. And that itself parallels Shakespeare’s reception history in the Soviet Union. So Shakespeare has always been there.

BOGAEV: Oh, and I can see how the comedies, of course, work better than the tragedies or the historical plays, obviously, because they fit this apolitical category.

JOUBIN: Of course. Yes. Exactly. Because the history plays, tragedies, they are, perhaps, too close to home. And, in fact, you mentioned Xi Jinping earlier, you know, the Chinese president. In his 2015 state visit to Britain, he quoted, quite casually, The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue,” to British Prime Minister David Cameron, among other instances. So, I think, Shakespeare, for the Chinese leaders, is a gentleman’s calling card.

BOGAEV: And so, both in the Soviet Union and in communist China, there was a knowledge of Shakespeare. I read, in your work, that they also translated biographies of Shakespeare from Russian into Mandarin?

JOUBIN: Yes, they did quite a bit of translation, and we understand Shakespearean biographies as a creative enterprise, right, because there are very few pieces of verifiable historical evidence. So a lot of this is conjectural work. What’s interesting, though, is you can learn a lot about a culture through the kind of biographies they produce: It’s not learning about Shakespeare’s life. It’s learning, you know, the Soviet thought patterns, what they think is important, and so forth and so on. So all of that got translated into Chinese. So you might say, mid-20th century China, they, perhaps, inherited a bit of that from the Soviets, in terms of literary critical traditions and aesthetics.

BOGAEV: And just to get the timeline right, as I see it, at first Mao invested a lot of money in the reconstitution of Chinese culture, and there were a lot of theater companies created that actually did Shakespeare, and then the Cultural Revolution started. Right, so did all of that come to an end at that point?

JOUBIN: Yes. Basically, during the Cultural Revolution, they banned a lot of works. And unfortunately, Shakespeare was mostly banned or ignored, along with other foreign poets.

BOGAEV: And yet, you write that it’s this restaging of the 1957 production of Much Ado About Nothing, that you mentioned, that ended up marking the end of the Cultural Revolution. That sounds like a fascinating turn of events.

JOUBIN: Right, I’m afraid it didn’t really mark the end, but after the Revolution. The cast, everyone got together. They had aged. A lot of them had suffered throughout the Revolution. So, they banded together and revived this play. I think it’s more symbolic than anything. So, for the audiences, a lot of them saw the original production from the cast. It is a nostalgic exercise.

BOGAEV: Well, they also brought in the Soviet artist and the famous theater director who had coached actors in producing Much Ado About Nothing before the Cultural Revolution, right? They completely did the whole thing over again.

JOUBIN: What’s unusual about that is it was identical, yes. It’s like a carbon-copy stage production. Gestures, blocking everything down to every detail. And for them it’s group therapy.

WEI: Yeah, I mean, it’s totally refreshing. Like, Shakespeare’s finally coming back and you can have something really non-revolutionary, I would say, really artistic and really literary. I think, that’s kind of like a dream.

BOGAEV: So, what is the through-line from then to now? And we talked about that just a few moments ago, but how is Shakespeare considered in China now, Wei? Is Shakespeare just part of the pantheon? Or did Chinese scholars debate about whether he is one of the greatest playwrights or one of the great foreign playwrights?

WEI: Well, I’m sure there is no debate, Shakespeare is definitely one of the greatest playwright across the world. Definitely he is part of the pantheon, of course. And people are trying to restage and retranslate Shakespeare works, and he is very popular.

BOGAEV: But there is this division between foreign writers and native writers, Chinese and non-Chinese, still?

WEI: Yeah, there is. There is, yeah.

BOGAEV: So, I would imagine, too, that there is a generational divide? Is that right, in China? I mean, I would think that a lot of older Chinese readers are still very much fans of Russian literature. That’s the literature that they were really grounded in.

WEI: Yeah, exactly, that’s what I was about to say. Like, Russian literature might be more popular among the older generations than Shakespeare.

JOUBIN: Yeah, indeed. I think Russian language has been the first foreign language for a long time, and English came second or third. But, of course, the situation has changed since the 1980s.

BOGAEV: And in the university, you study Shakespeare as part of literature? How is it placed?

WEI: Literature, I would say. Yeah. Because I’m teaching Shakespeare to students of English literature.

BOGAEV: Oh, so it’s not a language issue, it’s in the literature department, as opposed to, say—?

WEI: I think, you can see Shakespeare in many departments. Like, even in departments of politics, teachers teach Shakespeare, and in theater and in literature as well. Many, many people are using Shakespeare as part of their courses.

BOGAEV: Well, how is Shakespeare taught then? In Chinese translation or in English?

WEI: Well, if it’s English department, definitely, it’s in original. But in non-English departments, translations might be used.

BOGAEV: And, when you read Shakespeare, then, are you most often reading Shakespeare in Chinese or in English?

WEI: Both, I would say. Both. I’m teaching Shakespeare in translation, so sometimes you have to refer to many different versions of translation of Shakespeare to teach. And, by reading Shakespeare, I think it’s kind of difficult for non-English speakers, so you have to rely on the translation.

BOGAEV: Now, before we talk about translation, which is such a tricky subject, let me ask you about going to the theater, though. When people in China experience a Shakespeare play, what are they hearing? Are they hearing Shakespeare in English or are they most often hearing Shakespeare in Mandarin?

JOUBIN: Definitely Shakespeare in Mandarin.

BOGAEV: Definitely. Wei, is that true?

WEI: I think both, because there are a lot of touring companies coming to China. Like, last year, I saw TNT’s production of The Taming of the Shrew, and people are hearing it in English. But there are also other Chinese adaptations of Shakespeare. So, both.

BOGAEV: So both.

WEI: Yeah.

BOGAEV: And when they do hear Shakespeare in translation, whose Shakespeare are they experiencing? I mean, who is the most common translator?

WEI: Zhu Shenghao.

BOGAEV: Zhu Shenghao. And, please, tell us more about Zhu Shenghao, because I only know very little, and he sounds like an amazing person. I understand, he took it upon himself to translate Shakespeare in the 1920s, because, just, there weren’t any good translations or any at all?

WEI: Ha genius. Like, he died in his 30s, so he had only a few years to translate Shakespeare by relying on just one or two dictionaries. And his language is extremely beautiful. Although, you know, if you try to look him back from a contemporary perspective, some of his translations might not be so accurate. But, definitely you can see his genius in there, and you don’t see that in other translators’ work. Like Liang Shih-chiu’s, I don’t see genius.  

BOGAEV: It’s such a tragic story, though, right? He got started translating right when World War II was happening. And didn’t some of his translations get destroyed during the bombardment of Shanghai?

WEI: Yeah, and then he died, like, in his 30s.

BOGAEV: But he really packed it in. I mean, he translated some 30 plays in two years, didn’t he?

WEI: Yeah.

BOGAEV: How did he die?

WEI: TB, I think.

BOGAEV: So, this issue of Shakespeare in translation. I mean, Shakespeare poses so many translation problems in any language. But are there special issues with Mandarin?

WEI: It’s a little bit complicated because there are Classic Chinese and Modern Chinese. So, most of the writers or translators translate Shakespeare with Modern Chinese, like Zhu Shenghao. But they also combine some Classic Chinese poetry in the translating of Shakespeare’s poetry. For instance, in Macbeth, the witches’ lines were translated into Classic Chinese poetry, and that’s very fascinating. And also, there are other writers in early 20th century trying to translate Shakespeare with Classic Chinese poetry. And I once saw a translation of The Tempest with, you know, the five-character Chinese verse throughout the play, and that’s very awkward.

And now there is a new edition of Shakespeare’s work edited by Gu Zhengkun, and he’s a professor from Peking University. And he translated Shakespeare with a kind of combination of Classic Chinese and Modern Chinese. So that’s very fascinating, because when you are using Classic Chinese, you can preserve the poetry in Shakespeare. If you try to translate that with Modern Chinese, I’m sure most of the poetry would be lost.

BOGAEV: There’s so many pitfalls, too. I know you’ve talked about one example, and this goes back to Zhu Shenghao, in his translation of King Lear, that, in the first act, Cordelia used a lot of words to describe her love for Lear, and Shakespeare used the word love, but Zhu Shenghao translated that as—

WEI: Filial piety. Filial piety. Piety. Yeah, that’s a very traditional Chinese ethical concept. I’m sure it’s not important in Shakespeare, but it’s important to the Chinese. So, when Zhu Shenghao’s translation was used by many adaptors from classic Chinese theater or from Chinese opera, they all replaced love with filial piety. And that caused a lot of confusion.

BOGAEV: Yes, since it can become a central motif in the play.

WEI: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.

BOGAEV: It carries so much meaning there. Alexa.

JOUBIN: I think it’s really interesting here, because even love in Shakespeare, particularly in a play like King Lear, is itself complicated. There’s this assumption that they’re talking about, you know, love as love, perhaps as modern audiences will understand it. Here, we’re talking about something that’s transactional, you know, “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” It’s about loyalty, about so many things, so perhaps it’s not so alien from the concept of filial piety, which emphasizes lineage as well as loyalty and dedication.

BOGAEV: And responsibility and due.

JOUBIN: Precisely. And Lear has two bodies. Right, so Lear is the father but also the king. And it occurred to me that it’s really fascinating, bilingual production, and it’s a bilingual King Lear. Some characters speak Mandarin, others speak English, so it really heightens the idea of kind of miscommunication and noncommunication in the tragedy. And the most fascinating moment is in Cordelia’s response to King Lear’s urging her to try again, lest she would “mar” her fortune, right?

BOGAEV: Oh yes, this is the great failure of communication.

JOUBIN: Right, and it’s failure of language, too, because this Cordelia is part of the Chinese diaspora in England, and she no longer speaks her father’s language. But she has a few Chinese words here and there, and one of the few words she has left at her disposal is méiyǒu, which means nothing. That’s quite literally, “Nothing, my lord,” kind of a translation that simultaneously signals the failure of translation and communication, because méiyǒu means nothing, but at the same time, it, of course, infuriates Lear, because how dare you say the few words you have for me is not “love” or “filial piety” but actually “nothing.” It’s literally nothingness. And so that gives Lear’s response an extra layer of significance when Lear says, “Nothing will come of ‘nothing.’”

BOGAEV: Yes!  And I want to pick up, too, on this idea that, Wei, you introduced, that you have a choice in the translations between translating the poetry into Chinese poetry or not. And I know we did a podcast on Shakespeare translation into languages that have no common root with English. And Alexa, you were one of the principal voices in that podcast, and we discussed that, in Korean, there is no effort to translate Shakespeare into poetry. The poetic forms are just too dissimilar. So how does that work in the translations into Mandarin?

JOUBIN: I think translators working with a language such as Chinese, which in general doesn’t have inflection, and tenses are not indicated. I’m just thinking it makes such plays as Macbeth, you know, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” Macbeth is a play about time. The failure, kind of the anxiety about not having an offspring, among many other topics. It just makes it so much richer. There has been an effort to translate back into Modern English, you know, those translations in various languages, you know, to allow people to take a sneak peek through the gap, kind of. You know, it’s like a gap in the wall, where they don’t quite work, but that’s also where it’s most interesting.

BOGAEV: Wei, what are your thoughts on translations that have succeeded and ones that have not?

WEI: Well, I’m going to talk about this from a literary perspective, because Alexa is talking about from the staging perspective. I think there are two kinds of plays in China: one is called the Chinese opera, the other one is called spoken drama. And the languages of the two are very different. And most of the translators translate Shakespeare with the spoken opera in mind, so it’s Modern Chinese, and it’s very vernacular, it’s not very poetic. And I think that’s a problem. It’s kind of misunderstanding of Shakespeare. And now, as I said, Gu Zhengkun and his whole team is trying to retranslate Shakespeare. Or, he has done the work. And he is trying to bridge the gap between spoken drama and classic Chinese theater, because he’s trying to introducing elements of classic Chinese into spoken drama, owing to the translation of Shakespeare. So, if you read his translation of Hamlet, you know, the soliloquy of “To be or not to be,” you will feel the rhythm of classic Chinese theater is there, like from the Yuan zaju, or, you know, the theater in the Yuan dynasty. You can feel that kind of thing in it.

BOGAEV: Because theater at that time was all poetic.

WEI: Yeah, exactly. And the language has to be kind of classic and modern-classic, it can’t be purely modern and it can’t also be purely classic, but it can be between, and that makes sense.

BOGAEV: Do you go to see Shakespeare a lot?

WEI: Yeah, I do. Yeah, yeah, if there is a Shakespeare play staged, I will go. But there’s not a lot in my city.

BOGAEV: What do the performances look like? I mean, are they stylized to look like 16th– or 17th-century England, are they modernized, or they run the gamut? We’ve been talking mostly about what they sound like. But what does the audience see?

WEI: It’s mostly in modern Chinese costume.


WEI: Why. I don’t know. Like, in the 1980s, there was one adaptation of Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, you know, in the costume of the Renaissance, in the form of Yue opera. And that’s very weird to me. And a lot of Chinese Shakespeare directors are trying to contemporize Shakespeare by placing him in a Chinese context, for instance, and to make Shakespeare closer to the Chinese audiences, rather than just, you know, staging Shakespeare word-for-word and with the original setting and the costume and everything.

BOGAEV: So if you’re going to see Shakespeare—the kind of Shakespeare that you’re talking about, that you find interesting, now—to make it relevant to the audiences, do they borrow traditions, then, from Chinese opera? And do they use costumes that are from Chinese opera, and do they change the names of characters into Classic Chinese names?

WEI: If they are trying to adapt Shakespeare in the form of classic Chinese theater or Chinese opera, they will do that. And of course they will contextualize Shakespeare into Chinese culture, historical background, and change the names and costume and everything. Sometimes, people even don’t recognize it’s Shakespeare.

JOUBIN: That is very true. I think Shakespeare has literally become the contemporary of Chinese playwrights, because even though they have full knowledge that he wrote in early modern England, there’s this shared sense of his contemporaneity. People are so used to seeing, at least on the huaju spoken drama stage, that’s the performance style that is close to Western realist theater, at least in this genre, people are used to hearing contemporary colloquial Chinese. And that is most effectively paired with contemporary costumes. If you see a Shakespeare in kunqu or Beijing opera or Yueju opera, then you typically have elevated speech, and, as we mentioned, therefore it would be quite odd to see contemporary costumes in this setting. So, I think it’s a function of China having these two distinct genres. And there are more productions of Shakespeare in the spoken drama genre, therefore it appears that Shakespeare very often appears on the Chinese stage in contemporary costumes. Which is not a bad thing, it’s just he’s such a contemporary.

BOGAEV: That is fascinating. And how does government censorship, or concern about government censorship, shape the productions?

WEI: I’m not sure there is censorship regarding Shakespeare, because he’s well-known and he’s loved by everybody.

JOUBIN: Yeah, I’m fascinated by the lack of censorship regarding Shakespeare. You can almost do anything, even when things that we expect to be somehow controversial. There was a Tibetan film called Prince of the Himalayas. It’s an adaptation of Hamlet, 2006. And it depicts, obviously, a prince who returns to Tibet, to find a corrupt court in need of reform. You would think that this plotline alone would trigger censorship, but not only did it not trigger censorship, the film had an afterlife onstage.

BOGAEV: So, Shakespeare flies under the radar. Which is interesting in that Shakespeare, back in the day, flew under the radar using historical plays from Roman times or from the somewhat distant past. There’s a real parallel there.

JOUBIN: Right. I think that has to do with the commercialization of Shakespeare these days. This is not to say Shakespeare hasn’t been censored in modern Chinese history. So, there were multiple instances—we talked about Cultural Revolution, among other periods. It’s just that, I think, post-1990s, increasingly, Shakespeare is seen as part of the white-collar theater.

BOGAEV: Well, Wei, it does make me wonder. Just like Much Ado About Nothing in Chinese history, is there one play of Shakespeare’s that is very popular, that seems very accessible to Chinese audiences?

WEI: I’m not quite sure, but I think King Lear is the most adapted by Classic Chinese theater, which means King Lear might be the most popular among traditional Chinese people, because it has a lot to do with what filial piety, for instance.

JOUBIN: I agree. Lear has such a special status in East Asian cultures in general, and not just Chinese. It’s hard to put our fingers on one popular play, but the other play that has been doing really well since its first introduction in 20th century is The Merchant of Venice. And it’s not so much about the Jewish question or questions of conversion, but rather about female agency. As well as… the play has become kind of a staple in communist critiques of capitalism. So, the play has been turned into a cautionary tale of capitalism gone wrong, a pound of flesh. In fact, it was titled A Pound of Flesh. You can see where they’re going when they translate title as A Pound of Flesh.

BOGAEV: Absolutely, I think that would go back to a Marxist reading of that play. But you’re saying now it’s about female agency, so it’s being reinterpreted for modern audiences.

JOUBIN: Yes, so Portia becomes the most interesting, attractive character. Shylock’s still important, but Portia gains special significance, I think, in Chinese renditions of this play. That’s just one example, but I think there are many others. Hamlet, of course, the usual suspects, but The Merchant of Venice seems to be doing quite well. There have been so many versions.

BOGAEV: Well, this has been a really fascinating conversation. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with both of you. Thank you.

JOUPIN: Thank you.

WEI: Thank you.

WITMORE: Wei Feng is a professor in the School of Foreign Languages and Literature at China’s Shandong University. Alexa Alice Joubin is professor of English at George Washington University, director of GW’s Dean’s Scholars in Shakespeare and co-director of the Global Shakespeares Video and Performance Archive at MIT. “I See My Reputation Is at Stake” is produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.

We had a lot of help in making this podcast possible. We’d like to thank Dr. Ruru Li, Professor of Chinese Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds in Great Britain; writer and journalist Andrew Dickson; Liz Thompson, Philippa Harland, and Shihui Weng at the Royal Shakespeare Company; and Paul Hollmon at the Dubroom Studio in West Hollywood, California.

If you’ve been enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, I hope you’ll consider reviewing the podcast on whatever platform you get the podcast from. It helps us get the word out to people who haven’t heard it, people who might enjoy it. We’d really appreciate your help. Thanks.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.