Zhu Ning*

Abstract: Chinese Xiqu, as a highly stylized and mature theatre form, has its own unique story-telling ways, acting style and vocal techniques. Its aesthetic is completely different from that of Western theatre. From the late nineteenth century, Western plays, with their respective theatre styles, were introduced into China and even raised a wave among Chinese citizens, especially young students. Different from the other Western plays introduced into China—for example, Ibsen’s—Shakespearean plays also attracted many artists of Chinese traditional theatre. Hence, many Shakespeare plays were adapted into Chinese Xiqu. Since then, the adaptation of Shakespearean plays has become an interesting cultural phenomenon. The article gives a panoramic view of the phenomenon and tries to analyze the intercultural and political reasons for it.

Keywords: Xiqu, Shakespeare, adaptation, Huju, types, interculuralism

Xiqu, as traditional Chinese theatre, has millennial history. It is a collective name for more than 300 variations. The most well-known, Jingju (so called Beijing Opera) is often wrongly taken as the sole traditional Chinese theatre. Actually, Jingju has a comparatively short history of no more than 230 years. Besides Xiqu, Jingju, Kunqu, Yueju,[1] Huangmeixi,[2] among others, are all major Xiqu variations. Although they have certain common characteristics in, such as their make-up, costumes and masks, each of them is characterized by a unique singing mode. And each has its own audience.

Video 1

Jingju, Story of Prince’s Revenge, Shanghai, Jingju Company

Shakespeare’s plays were introduced into Chinese Xiqu at the beginning of the twentieth century. The earliest adaptation is Chuanju[3] Kill Brother and Grab His Wife, adapted by Wang Guorenin Ya’an, Sichuan.[4] Later, in 1918, fifteen of Shakespeare’s plays were adapted in different Xiqu variations, such as Awful Couples Turning to Good Ones[5] (adapted from Much Ado about Nothing), The Twins[6] (Twelfth Night), A Dream of Summer Night[7] (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), A Mistake of Twins[8] (Comedy of Errors), The Feeling[9] (Two Gentlemen from Verona), and The Tempest.[10]

In the 1940s, Hamlet was made into the canovaccio (commedia dell’ arte) play Steal the Country and Pilfer Brother’s Wife,[11] starring the famous Huju[12] actor, Xie Hongyuan. In 1942, New Yueju Groupper created The Hatred of Deep Love,[13] which was adapted from Romeo and Juliet. In 1944, Romeo and Juliet was made into the Huju Iron Man and Tender Girl.[14] In 1946, King Lear was made into Yueju The Heart of Filial Daughter[15] by Fu Quan Xiang Group. In 1948, the famous Jingju actor, Jiao Juyin,[16] starred in Jingju The Romance[17] (Romeo and Juliet). After the foundation of New China, Othello was made into Yueju Princess and King.[18] Before 1960, the adaptations of Shakespeare, appearing occasionally on the Xiqu stage, were not highbrow theatre art but lurid commercial shows.

Video 2

Yueju Story of Prince’s Revenge, Shanghai Yueju Company

After Shakespeare was introduced into China, his plays were initially performed by new theatre companies and missionary schools in the Western style—the so-called “spoken drama.” The artists of “spoken drama” and their audiences were mostly young students and intellectuals. To them, Shakespeare and the form of spoken drama represented, in a sense, Western civilization. On the Xiqu stage, during the same period, things were very different. The Xiqu adaptations of Shakespeare were lacking in profound thinking; they were novelty-centered. Therefore, most of Shakespeare’s plays on the Xiqu stage, at that time, were adapted from his early comedies. And plays such as Hamlet, King Lear and Othello were greatly changed from the original ones, so as to conform to traditional Chinese moral tenets, such as loyalty, filial piety and righteousness, and to meet the average audience’s taste.

Compared with Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, who were introduced into China in the same period, Shakespeare was the one whose plays were made into both “spoken dramas” and Xiqu. The plays of Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw were seldom staged in the Xiqu way, as those of Shakespeare were. Why did Shakespeare arouse the interest of Xiqu artists at that time?

One can easily notice the delicate closeness between Xiqu and Shakespeare. Firstly, their stage treatments are very similar. In both Chinese Xiqu theatre and Shakespeare’s original theatre, stages were empty, not intended to create any life-like illusion. The given circumstances were mainly described or told to the audience by the actors’ spoken lines (or singing) and movements. In an empty square or stage, plots were carried out only by the entrances and exits of the actors, and thus time and space shifted in an instant.

Secondly, both Xiqu and Shakespeare’s plays are popular and draw on legendary stories. Therefore, the plots of Shakespeare’s early plays and comedies were most welcome by Chinese Xiqu. For example, Romeo and Juliet could be easily adapted to a bitter love story of a talented scholar and a beauty in a rich family—a very usual subject in Xiqu. King Lear could also become a familiar story about traditional Chinese filial piety. The Xiqu adaptation Steal the Country and Pilfer Brother’s Wife turned Hamlet into a commercial imperial legend, full of fornication and bloody murder.

Thirdly, the basic Xiqu acting techniques are singing and dance. There are many monologues and lyrical passages in Shakespeare’s plays that are appropriate for singing and dancing.

As commercial as Shakespearean Xiqu adaptations were in that period, it was not strange that all the adaptations were presented in major variations, such as Jingju and Yueju. All the performances, most of which were produced as canovaccio plays, were staged in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Although Shakespearean adaptations were fairly common, compared to the large number of Xiqu performances at that time, these adaptations did not cause much reaction among ordinary audiences.

The second wave of Shakespearean Xiqu adaptations came after 1980. The main reason was the “thought liberation” movement brought about by the Opening and Reform policy of 1979. Xiqu artists yearned to break through the cultural boundaries and interact with Western culture. Another reason was the decay of Xiqu. After 1980, the number of Xiqu theatre goers had dropped markedly. Xiqu was confronted with a great challenge of survival. At this moment, the traditional Xiqu turned to Shakespeare again, hoping to rejuvenate itself through the foreign classics.

The earliest attempt in the 1980s was the Jingju Othello, in 1982. It was a very brave adaptation; firstly, Othello was acted by Qi Xiaoyun,[19] a famous Hualian[20] actress. Secondly, in this Jingju Othello, Qi Xiaoyun acted in English. In the following year, Ma Yong’an,[21] another famous Hualian actor, starred in another Jingju Othello. In this version, Ma Yong’an painted his face black, but not in the traditional Jingju way. With a blackened face, Ma wore a semi-European costume, a set of medieval armour and a wig of curly hair (a black one at first, a grey one later),[22] while acting traditionally. Both productions should be remembered as milestones in the history of Xiqu adaptations of Shakespeare.

Although Ma blackened his face in his version of Othello, it meant something differently from what it meant on the Western stage, where white actors blackening their faces on the stage suggested anti-racial discrimination. In the 1980s, the racial difference between Othello and Desdemona did not make any sense to the artists or audiences, since China had just opened her gates a few years earlier. In the lives of ordinary people, there was no such problem. At that time, on the “spoken drama” stage, in order to stay true to the original plays, Chinese actors/actresses used to wear a wig of golden hair and a large false nose when acting Western characters. Ma tried to adopt the same measure on the Xiqu stage. As he once said, if he could localize Othello to a Chinese story, why did he act the Chinese repertory itself? “We often watch foreign movies dubbed into Chinese. Why can’t I dub Shakespeare into Jingju?” Ma said.[23]

Video 3

Yueju General Ma Long, produced by Shaoxing Hundred Flowers Troupe

In 1983, another Shakespearean adaptation was produced: the Cantonese Yueju[24] The Blessed Girl[25] (adapted from The Merchant of Venice). In 1985, Yueju Eternity[26] (from Romeo and Juliet) was created. In 1986, the first Chinese Shakespearean Festival was held both in Beijing and Shanghai. At the Festival, five Xiqu adaptations attracted much attention: The Twelfth Night (Yueju), Blood-stained Hands[27] (Kunqu, from Macbeth), Othello (Jingju), Much Ado About Nothing (Huangmeixi), A Winter’s Tale (Yueju). In 1986, Two Gentlemen of Verona (Chuangju), King of Troubled Times[28] (Jingju, from Macbeth). In the same year, Taiwan Contemporary Legend Theatre produced The Kingdom of Desire[29] (also from Macbeth). According to the statistics in Shakespeare in China by Seto Hirosi, Shakespeare was adapted to 16 different Xiqu variations between 1980 and 2014.

Compared to the ones in Republican China, all the adaptations after 1980 were not produced in major variations, but there were some in very small Xiqu variations, such as Dongjiangxi, a new variation only popular in the Cantonese Huiyang area; Er’renzhuan, a song-and-dance duet variation popular in the Northeast of China; Huadengxi, a variation in Yunnan province; and Jiju, a variation popular in Jilin province. The reason for this was related to the development of local economies, as well as the policy to support varied local cultures by the Chinese Central Government after 1980.

The Shakespearean adaptations in this period were conscious artistic trials as well as attempts at self-renewal. Xiqu artists hoped to reinvigorate the ancient Xiqu art by introducing Shakespeare in. Therefore, in this period, there were two different approaches to adaptation: westernized adaptation and “sinicized” adaptation. Westernized adaptation meant staying as faithful as possible to the original texts, except for some rewritten lines, as in Ma’s stage practice. The “sinicized” adaptation was to sinicize all names and customs, replacing times and places with ones in China. About the two different ways of adaptation, there was even a heated discussion into the 1980s.

From the production of Twelfth Night (Yueju), directed by Hu Weimin

Hu Weimin,[30] a director of the Shanghai Yueju Company, was a supporter of the westernized adaptation. His version of Twelfth Night, in 1986, was such an adaptation. Malvolio wore a wig, an Elizabethan ruff and yellow stockings, and Olivia wore a Chinese-European hairstyle and costume. It turned out to be funny that Malvolio expressed his love to Olivia, but not just because of Shakespeare’s plot, but because of Malvolio’s Shanghai accent. When Shanghai Yueju Company planned to produce another Shakespearean play, Twelfth Night was taken as a negative example, “After the first night of Twelfth Night, the audience burst intoan uproar. . . . As a result, old audiences were driven away while few new audiences were attracted.”[31] In Xiqu, a highly formulaic art, all the constituent elements, such as its stylized acting (formulaic movements and gestures), the system of role types, costumes, lyrics and song melodies, are tightly combined. Together, they compose the complete aesthetic of Xiqu. Though the adaptation was “faithful” to Shakespeare, the interference of “unlocalized” texts destroyed the formal beauty of Xiqu.

Blood-stained Hands, in 1986 (adapted from Macbeth and produced by Shanghai Kunju Company) was an example of the sinisized adaptation. Kunqu (or Kunju), one of the most classical Xiqu variations, has a history of more than 600 years. In Blood-stained Hands, the time and place was set in the state of Zheng in the Spring and Autumn Period. Macbeth was given the sinisized name, Ma Pei. All the psychological activities were expressed in Xiqu’s formulaic acting techniques. When Ma Pei came on the stage, he was dressed as a general in Chinese-style armor. With a painted face, Ma Pei wore a fake beard and moustache, waving a decorative riding whip[32] to express his exaltation after victory. In the next scene, the spirit of the dead king expressed his anger to Lady Iron (Lady Macbeth) by spitting fire, a trick usually used by ghosts and witches on the Xiqu stage.

After being invited to the 41st Edinburgh Theatre festival, Blood-stained Hands toured in Europe and received very good comments. Domestically, it was also accepted well by Kunqu fans. However, it still raised a lot of discussion regarding the “authorship” of adaptations of Western classics. Some critics found that the “combination” was neither Shakespearean nor authentic Kunqu-ish.[33] Nowadays, the intercultural transplanting of Shakespeare has become a very usual cultural phenomenon. But in 1980s China, this cautious attitude was very typical. As mentioned before, on the stage of “spoken drama” in China at that time, all the Western plays were performed in westernized adaptations. From this perspective, Blood-stained Hands was a very bold step forward in the development of Shakespearean adaptation.

Because the renewed enthusiasm for Shakespearean adaptation in the 1980s aimed at artistic exploration rather than commercial profit, artists tried to express the profundity of Shakespeare’s tragedies on the Xiqu stage. Macbeth attracted the most interest. The narrative structure of Macbeth resembles Chinese Xiqu plays: surrounding the main role, there is only a single plot line, but it is complicated and weird. Apart from Blood-stained Hands, Yueju General Ma Long[34] and Jingju The Kingdom of Desire[35] are also successful adaptations of Macbeth. In General Ma Long, Ma Long was acted by Wu Fenghua.[36] Different from Qi Xiaoyun, Wu Fenghua did not try to hide her femininity in the acting. On the contrary, by dulcet and delicate singing, Wu Fenghua created a handsome general Macbeth (Ma Long). In fact, in Yueju, there are no masculine Hualian characters such as those in Jingju. So, male characters in Yueju are very different. They look gentle and handsome. All the male characters are acted by actresses. Therefore, Yueju theatre companies are usually all-women groups.

Video 4

Jingju The Kingdom of Desire, produced by Taiwan Contemporary Legend Theatre

Chuanju Mrs. Macbeth and Kunqu The Wife (2015)[37] retold the story from Mrs. Macbeth’s perspective. Mrs. Macbeth is a 30-minute monologue. The actress, Tian Manshan, expressed Mrs. Macbeth’s cruelty, remorse and fright by the waving of her long sleeves. The Wife broke through the linear narrative structure of traditional Xiqu, but expressed Mrs. Macbeth’s inner world by using stream of consciousness. On the stage, three actors of different types of roles performed Macbeth together: the Macbeth who needs spiritual support, the ambitious Macbeth and the imaginary, gentle Macbeth. Mrs. Macbeth’s instigation of the murder was interpreted as her love for Macbeth; only by killing the king could Macbeth stay home and not need to go on campaigns by order of the king. After Macbeth became king, he himself turned out to be suspicious and ruthless. Mrs. Macbeth died in despair. The artists tried to analyze and understand Mrs. Macbeth from the perspective of feminism, instead of simply judging her as an ambitious woman.

For hundreds of years, wives in China have been subordinate to their husbands, consciously and unconsciously. The Wife tried to “alienate” this common occurrence in China by deconstructing Macbeth. In a television interview, the playwright said, “Mrs. Macbeth was attached to Macbeth. She is firstly Mrs. Macbeth, then herself.”[38] The artists took the advantage of the system of “role types” in Xiqu to express the complexities of the characters’ inner conflicts.

It was not usual practice to deconstruct characters from a modern or post-modern perspective in the Shakespearean adaptations on the Xiqu stage. The Xiqu adaptations of Shakespeare were not profoundly thoughtful. Most Shakespearean adaptations were filled with traditional Chinese thinking about karmic retribution. For example, all the Hamlet adaptations were about the bloody revenge of a righteous prince. The adaptations of King Lear told a story of filial piety. Even in Blood-stained Hands, the characters and plots were not developed or discussed in depth. And up to now, no Xiqu artists have ever touched Shakespeare’s historical plays.

The simplified adaptations of Shakespeare’s original texts were based on the acting approach of Xiqu. As an art form which integrates singing and a lot of physical movement (dance, martial arts and even magic), Xiqu is apt at emotional expression. Since the lyrics are in the form of poetry and movements are formulaic, the artists have to simplify Shakespeare’s multi-dimensional content. Meanwhile, Xiqu’s system of role types also makes it difficult to develop complicated characters, since every type of role corresponds to a type and a way of singing and moving. When “sinicized” adaptations were widely accepted, Shakespeare’s plays would be reset in ancient China. So, it was just convenient to attach Chinese traditional attitudes to the plays. The profundity and ambiguity of Shakespeare were unconsciously being undermined.

Xiqu adaptations since 1980 have enriched the Shakespearean stage very much. As an outstanding characteristic of Xiqu, the formulaic movements are one of its basic theatrical expressions. Some movements/gestures/magic tricks are extracted from daily life and choreographed. Some are adopted from variety entertainment, such as face-changing, juggling and physical techniques. These formulaic movements must be very clear and imaginative when they are used to describe dramatic scenes and express characters’ emotions. Therefore, the theatricality on the Xiqu stage is not always brought forth by the plots but mostly exists in the exquisite physical techniques and singing.

The anti-naturalistic Shakespeare plays provided an excellent platform for the adoption of Xiqu’s formulaic movements. In Kunqu Macbeth, directed by the renowned director Huang Zuolin, the three witches were one tall and two short spirits, with masks (painted faces) worn on the back of their heads. Two short spirits adopted the“dwarf technique,”[39] which made the scene weird and frightening.

In the Huangmeixi Much Ado about Nothing, the director used the formulaic gesture of “knotting the sight lines” to express the young lover’s first meeting. In the Yueju Story of Prince’s Revenge, in 1994, the actor used the technique of a folding fan while intoning the lines of “to be or not to be” to express the prince’s inside agony. In Blood-stained Hands, Macbeth’s inner struggle was expressed by a series of formulaic gestures such as brushing, flicking and stroking his beard.

Video 5

Kunqu, Blood-Stained Hands—Conspiracy

In some of Shakespeare’s comedies, young women disguised themselves as men. The plots of gender reversal found an appropriate way to be expressed on the Xiqu stage. One of the Xiqu traditions is “Qian Dan Kun Sheng,”[40] that is, male actors acting female characters and vice versa. When the techniques were used on a plot of gender reversal in Shakespeare’s plays, such as A Summer Midnight Dream and As You Like It, they developed another interesting dimension of sex recognition.

As an act of intercultural communication and fusion, the Xiqu adaptations of Shakespeare enriched the Shakespearean stage practice, presenting another way of understanding Shakespeare in a different cultural context. The introduction of Shakespeare to Chinese Xiqu has broken through the solidified system of role types,[41] bringing in new sources and thoughts for creativity, exploring an intercultural direction of the ancient art.


[1] A variation originated in Zhe Jiang Province. Now it is the second major Xiqu variation.
[2] A variation originated in An Hui Province.
[3] A variation that originated from and became very popular in Sichuan Province. Chuanju is famous for its acting technique of “face-changing.”
[10] 李伟民,《中国莎士比亚批判史》,page 395.
[12] A variation that originated from and became popular in Shanghai.
[16] 焦菊隐
[19] 齐啸云
[20] Hualian, or Jing, one of the major role types. It refers to male characters with painted faces (masks). Usually, the colors of the painted faces are related to the characters’ personalities.
[21] 马永安
[22] 黄诗芸,《莎士比亚的中国旅行-从晚清到21世纪》,华东师范大学出版社,2017.
[23] 黄诗芸,《莎士比亚的中国旅行-从晚清到21世纪》,华东师范大学出版社,2017.
[24] Cantonese Yueju is a variation originating from the Cantonese area. It is acted in a Cantonese accent.
[30] 胡伟民
[31] 濑户宏Seto Hirosi《莎士比亚在中国》,page 221,南方出版社,广东人民出版社,2017.
[32] Fake beard and moustache, as well as decorative riding whip are all usual props in Xiqu performances. Fake beard and moustache with formulaic gestures is often used to express the emotions of a role. Riding whips with formulaic movements are used to express riding.
[36] This is a characteristic of Yueju: all the roles are acted by actresses.
[38] 七彩戏剧频道《戏剧大舞台》栏目
[39] Ai zi gong, a special acting technique in Xiqu.
[40] 乾旦坤生
[41] In Xiqu, characters and their lyrics are supposed to be written according to the “type” of the roles: Sheng, Dan, Jin, Mo Chou. Every actor/actress has his/her favorable type. Hence, the greatest challenge for adapting Shakespeare to Xiqu is to reconsider every character’s type of role. In the practical adaptations of Shakespeare in Xiqu, it is usual for a character to belong to two types of roles.

*Zhu Ning has a Ph.D. in Theatre Studies from the Central Academy of Drama. She now teaches in the Department of Dramatic Literature of the Academy. She has been the liaison for the IATC China Section for ten years. As an active critic, ZHU Ning writes regularly for New Theatre (print magazine) and Theatre Jury (Wechat Public Interface). Zhu Ning also writes plays for the theatre.

Copyright © 2018 Zhu Ning
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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The Adaptation of Shakespeare into Chinese Xiqu
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