Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Shakespeare with Chinese Characteristics?

Julie Sanders

At the 42nd Hong Kong Arts Festival in March 2014, Beijing director Tian Qinxin presented her National Theatre of China production of Romeo and Juliet in Putonghua with Chinese and English surtitles. Starring television idols Li Guangjie and Yin Tao and with the action located in a fictional mainland town called Verona, CCTV (the Chinese national broadcaster) described the production in the following terms: ‘Bicycles, sunglasses and hip-hop dancing […]. It’s an image of Chinese youth that I recognize all too well from the lively High Street congregations that exist on my own campus, The University of Nottingham Ningbo China, where I am currently Vice-Provost of the first Sino-Foreign university to be founded after new state legislation was passed in China in 2003.

Tian Qinxin’s stated intention is to make Shakespeare relevant to exactly those communities of dynamic and highly creative young people that I work with on a daily basis. She aims to achieve that through a blending of both British and Chinese cultures and via a conscious updating of Shakespeare to ‘talk like one of us’, which is to say to talk in a modern Chinese dialect and idiom. In the process she seeks to challenge a tradition of overly deferential Shakespearean adaptations in the Chinese theatre context. ‘Shakespeare’s plays were introduced to China in the 1940s, but I think we are still at the stage of doing straight interpretations’, she has stated in interview, adding, ‘I hope this time we can break the mould and embed the theme of young love within the Chinese context’.[1] Tian decided to adapt the Shakespearean work while visiting Stratford-upon-Avon last year: ‘If Shakespeare was alive today … I hope he would be delighted to see a Chinese love story this year.’[2]

This is not the first time Tian has adapted the works of Shakespeare. In 2008, she directed a Chinese version of King Lear, relocating the play to the grand imperial court setting of the Ming dynasty. In her Hong Kong production she has opted for a much more modern parallel, retaining the initial ballroom encounter of Romeo and Juliet, but choosing to stage it within the recognisably Chinese architecture of a courtyard dwelling. There are other ways in which she sees the plotline of feuding families and star-crossed young lovers mapping onto very contemporary Chinese concerns about the role of parental expectation in marriage. Tian has suggested that the topic of unconditional love in contemporary China lacks literary precedents, prescribed as this space is with long-practiced traditions of matchmaking, and of matching family backgrounds to dowry requests. In a recent discussion of her production, she observed: ‘Marriages in China are often like a big party for two families. They are the work of matchmakers and the result of parents’ agreements,’ she says.[3]

In a research article in progress I am asking the question to what extent this particular production of Romeo and Juliet ‘with Chinese characteristics’ is evidence of the widespread deployment of Shakespeare to engage with Chinese youth in a politicized way – Romeo in this version is a Red Guard soldier and Juliet is a young propaganda dancer – and how much it actually serves as an indicator that Shakespeare does not on the whole loom large in contemporary sensibilities and social media discussions in China?  Is Shakespeare really the tool for social justice in China that some Western humanist scholarship would like to assume when major platforms for the creative adaptation of his work such as YouTube and Vimeo are unavailable to the mainstream and would a quantitative analysis of quotations on Sina-Weibo reveal that J.K. Rowling is more likely to be referred to than the Bard? How far do Western scholars need to challenge assumptions when thinking about Shakespeare in a contemporary Chinese context? As the critic Sonia Massai has rightly shown us: ‘Theorists of the global dimensions of cultural production agree that the formulation of a “theory of culture at the level of the international” can only be undertaken starting from “different social, spatial or cultural locations in the world”.’[4]

Recent paradigms in the programming of Shakespeare have certainly gestured towards a notion of global cultural production – the Globe to Globe season on London’s Bankside as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad programme and now that same theatre company’s World Hamlet tour;[5] but the narrative of mapping Shakespeare onto a place rather than place changing Shakespeare or the effects of Shakespeare in place remain dominant, at least in the words of Globe Artistic Director Dominic Dromgoole. Under critical fire recently for plans to take the Globe Hamlet production to North Korea, he spoke somewhat uncomfortably about the play’s ‘civilising effects.’[6]

For me, a truly ‘geocritical’[7] approach to Shakespeare has to begin from the place outwards and I am starting therefore to try and think about Shakespeare in 2014 from where I am … living in an ancient Silk Road port city in Eastern China working with one of most amazing student communities in the world. In between the hip-hop dancing and the romantic angst, they have much to teach me.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Sonia Massia, ‘Introduction: Defining Local Shakespeare’, in World-Wide Shakespeares: Local Appropriations in Film and Performance (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 3-11 (p. 10).  Citing Anthony D. King (ed.) Culture, Globalization and the World System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), p. 5.

[5] For an extended discussion of the former, see Susan Bennett and Christie Carson (eds), Shakespeare Beyond English: A Global Experiment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[6] BBC Radio 4, Front Row interview 14.3.2014. The decision had been attacked by Amnesty International earlier that week; see Maev Kennedy, ‘Amnesty criticizes Globe theatre’s North Korea visit on Hamlet world tour’ http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/mar/10/globe-theatre-amnesty-hamlet-tour-north-korea [last accessed 22 March 2014]..

[7] For an introduction to this term, see Bertrand Westphal, Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Space trans. Robert T. Tally Jr (New York: Palgrave, 2011); and Robert T. tally Jr, Spatiality (London: Routledge, 2013), esp. pp. 139-44.


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