William Shakespeare - as first transcribed for a Chinese audience.
Few will be surprised to discover that Shakespeare never visited China. Nor was his work widely known there until comparatively recently. The first confirmed appearance of the name ‘Shashibiya’ in a Chinese language publication was a brief mention in a translation of Milner’s The History of England in 1857.
It was the publication of Lin Shu’s Tales from Shakespeare in 1904 that first brought the Bard to a wider Chinese audience. Shu appealed to his readership by selling the plays as ‘stories of gods and spirits’. One of these tales provided the script for the first professional production of Shakespeare in China: a staging of The Merchant of Venice in 1913.
Full translations of the original plays were not published until the 1920s. By this point, Sha Weng, or Old Man Sha, was already an icon of modernity amongst Chinese intellectuals.
Was Mao a fan?
The Communists, who came to power in 1949, were also Shakespeare fans, as the playwright came with the personal endorsement of Karl Marx.
But poor old Bill suffered a dramatic fall from grace during the Cultural Revolution. The new culture secretary, Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao) had no time for Stratford’s ‘bourgeois counter-revolutionary’. She promptly banned the Bard, a prohibition that remained in force for ten years.
But they like him again now?
Interestingly, the removal of the Shakespeare ban in May 1977 was one of the signals that the Cultural Revolution was over. Shakespeare was once again officially feted as a ‘renaissance giant’ and the plays are now more popular than ever.
Contemporary productions sometimes incorporate elements from traditional theatre, like music and dance. But they usually treat the original text with reverence – you’re unlikely to find a rapping Romeo on a Chinese stage.
More on ‘Shakespeare and the English Language’ (suitable for Eng Lang learners)
Chinese Shakespeares: Two Centuries of Cultural Exchange