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The bard in Beijing and beyond

2014-04-18 09:16:09

(China Daily) By Raymond Zhou


William Shakespeare's work has graced the Chinese page and stage for more than a century now, but the enormous breadth of his work has dazzled rather than enlightened when it's transplanted ... until now, writes Raymond Zhou.

William Shakespeare was placed on a pedestal when his name first appeared in Chinese publications around 1839. Great scholars and artists have since made numerous attempts to bring the "Swan of Avon" to a Chinese-speaking audience. Although statistics are hard to come by, it's almost certain that he is the most translated foreign author and the most staged foreign dramatist.

William Shakespeare 

Shakespeare (1564-1616) who was born and died on the same date, April 23-now the UNESCO-anointed World Book Day-has been an inspiration for several generations of Chinese readers and theatergoers. (Spain's Miguel de Cervantes died on the same day April 23, 1616; and Tang Xianzu, arguably China's greatest dramatist and author of The Peony Pavilion, died in the same year.)

While the Chinese only spotlight about a dozen of Shakespeare's plays, academic research tends to have a much wider focus. Most of the approaches are oriented toward discovering the social context of his works and recreating them, in text and on the stage, as close to the original as possible. Productions place great emphasis on replicating the "foreignness" of the characters and sets, and translators spend more time trying to figure out how to render the poetic forms, rather than the rich layers of meaning.

In the past two decades, Chinese dramatists have experimented with increasingly liberal treatments of the Bard's plays and texts. The eminent Chinese theater director Lin Zhaohua has said he "does not serve Shakespeare" when he takes on one of his plays. "I use my heart and soul to approach his text, but ultimately it is for myself," he said. "I express what I feel about our world through the dramatic characters and situations in his plays, the parts that speak to me. It doesn't matter whether it's a comedy or a tragedy. The audience can interpret it in their own way."

A Peking Opera version of Hamlet

Stan Lai, who usually writes his own plays but has directed Western classics such as Shakespeare, believes that Chinese idolatry of the Bard has essentially turned him into a brand. "Don't obsess over the plots," he suggested. "We should explore the spirit of his work. And don't forget, Shakespeare was an entertainer of mass appeal in his day."

Still cutting edge

As Tian Qinxin put it, because Shakespeare belongs to the world, there is no need to subvert him. "All you need is to understand and express him with Chinese situations." Tian, who has just produced her own version of Romeo and Juliet, doesn't equate respect and homage of a classic with the reproduction of the exact language or imitating the movements of Western actors.

To be what she calls "a translating machine" for the emotions Shakespeare conveys, Tian has to overcome her own religious restraints: "I'm a Buddhist, and I believe love is about possessing and controlling and fear of loss. So, I have to approach the story from the point of view of a nonbeliever."

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