Few will be surprised to discover that Shakespeare (transcribed Shashibiya) 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. But it was the publication of Lin Shu’s Tales from Shakespeare in 1904 that first brought the Bard to a wider Chinese audience.
Shu remarketed Shashibiya for a Chinese readership. He promoted the plays as traditional ‘stories of gods and spirits’. One of these tales was used for the first professional production of Shakespeare in China: a staging of The Merchant of Venice in 1913.
Sha Weng, or Old Man Sha, became an icon of modernity amongst Chinese intellectuals. Universities were a centre of protest against 'old China' and Shakespeare was seen as symbolic of what were perceived as progressive western ideas. He was still a cult figure, however. Full translations of the original plays were not published until the 1920s.
Was Mao a fan?
The Communists, who came to power in 1949, loudly proclaimed their appreciation of Shakespeare. The playwright came with the personal endorsement of Karl Marx. He was also safely dead so unable to protest when his work was corralled into the service of socialist propaganda
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 treat the original text with reverence – you’re unlikely to find a rapping Romeo on a Chinese stage.
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