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Chinese Shakespeare?

Our next guest post in Chinese English month comes from Kieran McGovern, author of the Macmillan Reader Love by Design. He blogs here, where you can find his ‘Shakespeare and the English Language’. He also edits this website.


Few will be surprised to discover that William 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. 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 counterrevolutionary’. She promptly banned the Bard, a prohibition that remained in force for ten years.

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.

In the end it comes down to those compelling stories. One of the most famous is summed up in these lines from a song:

Where a ghost and a prince meet.
And everyone ends in mincemeat.

Can you guess the name of the play? And, for a bonus point, the name of the song?

Answers next post…

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About the author


Kieran McGovern


  • It’s from “That’s Entertainment,” and as for the play: it’s the one named after the character who is described, in the chorus of a three-minute musical abridgment of the play, as

    “[NAME], [NAME], actin’ balmy
    [NAME], [NAME], loves his mommy.”

    And from later in the song:

    “And when [NAME] killed Polonius, the concealed corpus delecti
    Was the King’s excuse to send him for an English hempen necktie.”

  • You’ll be pleased to hear that the month of August is going to be dedicated to Indian English so watch this space…

  • Here’s a feature story on “The Old Man Sha in the Middle Kingdom: How Shakespeare Changed Chinese Theater and Vice Versa” which seems to be right up your alley. Check it out:

    There’s a video of highlights from four Chinese films and stage performances of Hamlet, Lear, and Romeo and Juliet.

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