Shen Lin*

This paper provides a few examples to indicate how Chinese artists have put Shakespeare to various uses, from the old country’s semi-colonial and semi-feudal past to its market-oriented present. A century ago, Shakespeare arrived in a China seized by a comprehensive cultural movement against its own heritage. Awakened to an alien culture felt to be so powerful as to threaten the extinction of their own, the Chinese literati had started seeking ways to revitalize the Chinese nation. European drama, which Shakespeare was made to epitomize, was welcomed as a symbol of Western cultural might, a means of enlightening the nation, and a recipe for invigorating native literature. This utilitarian frame of mind determined the way Shakespeare was to be assimilated into modern Chinese culture. The development of modern Chinese drama on European lines was part of a quest for remedies to save the nation, rather than a search for fashionable devices to whet jaded taste. Shakespeare was not received simply as a playwright with exotic dramaturgical models to offer.

The politicisation of Shakespeare in China was predestined from the start. The first Chinese professional Shakespeare production, which used a version of The Merchant of Venice based on the director’s adaptation of Lamb’s Tales, appeared in 1913 and met with immediate success. The far from faithful adaptation owed its popularity not so much to its use of exotic stage gadgetry as to the male lead’s digressions from the rehearsed script into daring topical lampooning of the off-stage abuse of power and perversion of justice.[1] In the same year which also saw Japan’s “Twenty-one Demands” threatening to turn China into a Japanese ward, numerous companies put on productions of an adaptation of Macbeth in protest against the then Chinese state leader, who was widely believed to have capitulated to Japanese militants.

The introduction of Western plays helped to bring forth an indigenous modern drama. The old operatic theatre proved its resilience when it too staged numerous adaptations of Shakespeare. These successful attempts to domesticate the English poet to keep up with the times incurred the purists’ criticism that once adulterated with local fluids, the transfusion of foreign literary blood would lose its efficacious power.[2] Not surprisingly, the thirties began to see serious efforts in the hands of Chinese scholars returned from the West to present “authentic” Shakespeare in Western-style drama societies and drama schools. In view of the fact that Shakespeare had become a symbol of literary revolution and a tool for social amelioration, such efforts would naturally strike left-wing intellectuals as antiquarian escapism, capable of crippling the development of a new socially responsible drama.[3]

These endeavours to present “authentic” Shakespeare seem to have gained impetus after the founding of the People’s Republic. From 1962 onwards, however, the urge to formulate a socialist art for New China frowned on “adulation of the classical, the foreign, and the ancient works,” and led to the virtual disappearance of Shakespeare from the Chinese stage.

After a lapse of almost fifteen years, Shakespeare came back vigorously. In 1984, the first Chinese Shakespeare Festival, held simultaneously in Shanghai and Beijing, featured twenty-five productions of fourteen Shakespeare plays, five of which were operatic adaptations in traditional Chinese mode. Ten years passed before adaptations came to dominate the Shanghai International Shakespeare Festival, where, except for the visiting Salisbury Playhouse’s Twelfth Night, all ten productions, both Chinese and overseas, were revamped versions. The ratio demonstrates the reawakening of an urge among native artists to find in Shakespeare expressions of their own thoughts and feelings.  Among these adaptations, the Liaoning Opera House’s Troilus and Cressida directed by Guo Xiao Nan stood out both for its unprecedented sideswipes at international politics and its audacious record-breaking efforts at adapting Shakespeare in Western instead of traditional Chinese operatic form. While it harked back to the old days when Chinese artists tended to use Shakespeare as their own mouthpiece, it looked out towards a new horizon where Chinese artists would increasingly engage themselves in discussions not only of Chinese but also of international politics.

The Chinese-made Western opera of Troilus and Cressida shifts its stress from the love of Troilus and Cressida to its context, the Trojan War. The librettist turns to Homer’s Iliad besides Shakespeare’s original. He also employs the chorus, the formal element of Attic tragedy, which Shakespeare did not use in Troilus and Cressida. The chorus’s requiem-like singing sets the overall tone, which at times recalls Euripides’ The Trojan Women rather than the romance of Shakespeare’s medieval predecessor. More importantly, through the chorus the Chinese adapter offers a new reading of the original play by looking at the Trojan War from the viewpoint not of the warring generals but of the cannon fodder and victimized civilians.

In the context of war, Cressida as well as Helen is portrayed as a violated woman, a victim of war. The director of the opera argues that it is not women such as Helen who cause wars, but wars that destroy women such as Helen.[4] The same fate that has befallen women in wars both past and present now visits Cressida. Like a trophy, she is carried by four soldiers into the Greek generals’ tent, where her veil is lifted with the point of a spear. “The generals swarm around Cressida covering her with kisses,” while Thersites sneers in an aside: “Contain yourselves, you oxen in heat.”

Troilus and Cressida, directed by Guo Xiao Nan
Troilus and Cressida, directed by Guo Xiao Nan

Here the Chinese adapters’ treatment of the scene recalls Manfred Wekwerth’s 1985 Berliner Ensemble production, where Cressida is virtually gang-raped in the Greek camp. For the Chinese adapters, “betrayal” or “fidelity” is just not the issue. This position, very different from the run-of-the-mill middle-class reading, will come naturally to artists with memories and experiences of both foreign and civil wars (vastly different form Howard Davies’s 1985 Crimean war) in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were slaughtered, mutilated and violated in their homeland.

Before the end, as if to honour the Shakespearean convention of drawing the audience into the play’s conclusion, Cassandra returns to the deathly silent battlefield to utter these vehement words, shaking the comfortably seated spectators at the Shanghai International Shakespeare Festival:

How many curtains of history shall vengeful lances pierce! How many times shall this act of Troy’s piteous fall be acted over in new-fangled adaptations!

Like many of its predecessors, this Chinese thematic reinvention of Shakespeare may indicate that the value of Shakespeare outside the Anglophone world needs to be calculated in terms of its usefulness to, and the degree of its appropriation by, foreign cultures and traditions.

The Chinese premiere of Richard III in 2000, the first Shakespeare production in the country’s capital in the past ten years, stands in sharp contrast to the Liaoning Opera House’s thematic reinvention of Shakespeare cited earlier. This reflects the changed attitude towards Shakespeare and foreign art in general in the present cultural climate.

Produced by the Beijing People’s Art Theatre, Richard III used Beijing Opera performers and modern dancers as well as actors. The narrative structure was maintained in a new prose version, but the text was spoken, almost perversely, in a never-changing monotone. In the wooing scene the director split the role of Anne: the actress stood to the side flatly reading from the script while a modern dancer interacted with Richard. This facetious handling of the dialogue was echoed by playful stage business; from time to time the ensemble chanted lines originally intended for individuals, milling about as if performing group gymnastics. Stage movement, energized by a jovial elegance, did not represent lifelike action of the dramatic scene.

Richard III. Photo by Li Yan
Richard III. Photo by Li Yan

For example, the confrontations between Richard and his victims looked like kindergarten playtime, and the murder of Clarence was played in a cage under a designer chandelier. The two murderers chatted about their assignment and then executed it as if in rehearsal. The crowning of Richard took place at a funfair under coloured light with the grieving characters cursing Richard from a merry-go-round. The meeting of Richard and York was enacted in silhouette, the actors appearing as shadow puppets, standing at different distances from a screen so that the uncle appeared gigantic and his nephew tiny.

Richard III. Photo by Li Yan
Richard III. Photo by Li Yan

The smiling images of the same actors behind the screen were simultaneously projected on the apron walls by a hidden video camera.

Rejecting accusations of frivolity and formalism, the director claimed he was drawing a political moral, that indifference to conspiracies was a greater danger than conspiracies themselves. While Lin did create a general picture of indifference and apathy, he did not manage to warn the audience about their perniciousness. Despite some heavy-handed projected images—gasping fish heads in pools of blood after Clarence’s murder and blindly milling ants at Richard’s coronation, a cliché of the masses under oriental totalitarianism—no interpretative clarity was created. This Richard III seemed unwilling or unable to comment on the nation in which the play was performed. Taste substituted for meaning, art for its own sake substituted for social commentary.

After a break of almost eight years from Shakespeare, Beijing People’s Art Theatre staged Coriolanus in November 2007. White lighting, a bare stage stretching all the way to the back firewall, long, plain wooden tables, anachronistic angelic effigies along the apron and the chords of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony: the director and his fellow avant-gardes felt their “adrenaline rise as if sitting in a theatre somewhere in New York or Berlin.”[5] This time, however, the director’s thoughts were anchored at home, as he appeared to be moving away from a purely aesthetic position. “I wish to use this production only to encourage audiences to reflect upon themselves and their society,” he said.[6]

The director was unusually respectful of the text and refreshingly free from overly formalistic quirks.[7] The intellectual challenge came first from the casting, which brought into play associations of the actors’ previous roles and was designed to comment on contemporary social conditions. The most provocative decision was the employment of a hundred actual migrant workers to play the plebeians, clearly placing Roman history in the context of China today.

Coriolanus. Photo by Li Yan
Coriolanus. Photo by Li Yan

A well-established Germanist associated with the Beijing theatre scene compared the production to Brecht’s adaptation of the play, concluding that, unlike the Chinese director, Brecht was misled by ideology and class bias. Supporters of this interpretation feel that Shakespeare’s play is a fable that carries a caution about the future of democracy in China, or a critique of “people idolatry” which could lead to “the dictatorial oppression of the intellectual elite by the masses.”[8]

Detractors of the show, however, complained that in the present moment, when ordinary people in China are burdened by the dominance of powerful moneyed groups, this production of Coriolanus was so abusive of the masses, so derogatory about democracy, and so defensive of oligarchy that it was ethically intolerable.

Coriolanus. Photo by Li Yan
Coriolanus. Photo by Li Yan

One highly politicized detractor found in this Coriolanus an anti-socialist and anti-democratic stance against the Chinese Revolution and an “anti-national allegiance towards the world capitalist order,” seeing the masses as gullible rogues in the hands of the tribunes, as clowns not good enough to make anything but good enough to mar everything.[9]

Coriolanus. Photo by Li Yan
Coriolanus. Photo by Li Yan

Such a view of the people in history, according to the critic, runs counter to the reality Chinese people still live with: the successful transformation of a semi-feudal and semi-colonial country into a modern nation state through the efforts of both the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party, both tribunes that mobilized workers, peasants, and the petit bourgeois, and even the national capitalists. The production’s critique of the shortcomings of democratic politics, while doing nothing to improve democratic practices, propagated hierarchism and neo-conservatism.

In China today, when Shakespeare festivals are equated with the marketplace, when artists liberated by market forces may stand in the buffet line with perfumed parvenus instead of sweaty knaves, when the upstart crow from Shoredich is beautified with multinational feathers and fetches a seat price equivalent to a laid-off worker’s monthly dole, artists are hard put to legitimize their efforts. Legitimacy lies in demonstrating that the value of Shakespeare is always local and timely, not universal and timeless. And this value can only be found when the theatre is willing to risk presenting a Shakespeare thematically in tune with contemporary local reality.


[1] “Three Basic Elements of New Drama.” Ju Bu Cong Kan First Part (1919). A Series on Theatre.
[2] Jun, Cao Shu, and Sun Fu Liang. Shakespeare on Chinese Stage. Harbin: Harbin Press, 1989. 79.
[3] “A Refutation of a Vulgarized Theatre Movement.” Guang Ming. 21.12.
[4] Qiang, Meng Xian, ed. “Director’s Notes on the Opera Troilus and Cressida.” Chinese Shakesepeare Yearbook. Northeastern Normal University, 1995. 234-48 (246).
[5] Sen, Mo. “The Hero’s Tragic Pathos and the Carnival of the Masses.” New Beijing Daily, 30 November 2007.
[6] Shen, Yang. “Interview with Lin Zhaohu.” Sina. Web. 16 November 2007. <>.
[7] Lang, Zhang. “Great General Kou Liulan: Popularization of a Classical Tragedy.” Beijing Daily, 10 December 2007.
[8] Jing, Li. “Grand General Coriolanus, or ‘an Anti-Democratic’ Tragedy.” New Beijing Daily, 16 April 2008.
[9] Yunlei, Li. “An Anti-Democratic and Anti-National Sense of Elitism.” Journal of the People’s Art Theatre 1 (2008).

Shen Lin

*Shen Lin has a PhD from Shakespeare Institute, Birmingham University, Britain. He is currently Professor at the Central Academy of Drama, China. His research and lectures include the Folger Library, Salzburg Seminars, University of California, Copenhagen University, Universität Wien, Charles University, Praha, and Freie Universität, Berlin. He wrote the plays Bootleg Faust, Good Person of Beijing, Midnight Candle and General Kouliulan, among others.

Copyright © 2016 Shen Lin
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Aestheticization and Politicization of Shakespeare in a Globalized China