Shakespeare is booming in China. But translating the Bard’s greatest works isn’t as clear as a summer’s day.
- By Ross PerlinRoss Perlin writes on language and politics, and serves as assistant director of the Endangered Language Alliance in New York.
“Survive or be destroyed: This is the question worth considering.” That’s one version of how Hamlet — a.k.a. Hamuleite, Hamengleite, or Hanmolaide — sounds in Chinese, a language in which “to be” just doesn’t translate.
“Not having anything can only result in not having anything,” says the Chinese King Lear, instead of “Nothing will come of nothing” — because Chinese, like many languages, hasn’t made a noun out of “nothing.”
And the Hamlet line “Brevity is the soul of wit” may be at its briefest in one Chinese translation: just four syllables long.
Already a phenomenon in China, William Shakespeare — known locally as Shashibiya or even Old Man Sha — is about to get a major boost. In September, the Royal Shakespeare Company announced an initiative to translate the Complete Works, all 37 plays and 154 sonnets, from Elizabethan English into modern standard Mandarin, the world’s most-spoken mother tongue. Backed by $2.4 million from the British government, the initiative is central to a wider effort by the Royal Shakespeare Company to produce a “global folio” of Shakespeare translations in time for the 400th anniversary of the famous First Folio, published in 1623. (Pure literary motives aside, British soft power and booming Chinese tourism to the United Kingdom are surely part of the equation.)
From Arabic to Zulu (not to mention the original Klingon), Shakespeare is thought to be the most widely translated secular author of recent centuries. Exalted by 19th-century German Romantics for the emotional and spontaneous quality of his work, transformed by Soviet artists into a paragon of realism and social consciousness, Shakespeare is also an icon of modernity in East Asia. Words like universality and humanity are usually given as an explanation, but globalization and the spread of English also deserve much of the credit. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, whose films Throne of Blood and Ran transpose Macbeth and King Lear, respectively, to the samurai battlefields of feudal Japan, is probably the Bard’s most famous Asian interpreter. Indeed, Shakespeare has become more than Shakespeare, says scholar Alexa Huang — he has become “a symbol, a signifier, a vessel that you can put a lot of things into.”
In mainland China, Shashibiya (Shakespeare with Chinese characteristics) has emerged as a distinctive national tradition, an East-West cultural encounter that most in the West, at least until recently, barely even knew was taking place.
Yet Shakespeare’s arrival in China initially had everything to do with Western imperialism and the growth of British power in Asia. It was hardly a coincidence that the first known use of Shakespeare’s name in Chinese was by the scholar-official Lin Zexu in 1839, who immediately after played a key role in the First Opium War between China and Britain. Huang notes that it was “thanks to several groups of intermediaries — Anglo-European missionaries, translators, Chinese reformers” that Shakespeare’s reputation grew in China, even when his plays were still virtually unknown. British writers Charles and Mary Lamb’s perennially popular Tales From Shakespeare (1807) was the source of the first actual translations, published in 1903 and 1904 with quasi-Chinese titles like Hamlet Takes Revenge by Slaying His Uncle and Proteus Betrays His Good Friend for the Sake of Gratifying His Lust (Two Gentlemen of Verona).
It was the New Culture Movement, championing science, democracy, and humanism as China’s path to reform and revival, that decisively established Shakespeare on the Chinese intellectual scene in the 1910s and 1920s. Liang Qichao and Lu Xun, major Chinese intellectuals of the period, may never have seen Shakespeare performed but were intrigued by how he represented a certain version of the West, says Huang. As scholar Xiao Yang Zhang writes, Shakespeare’s work was taken up partly as a counterpoint to what was seen as “the failure of traditional Chinese drama to depict a generalized human nature.”
Xiju — known in the West as “Chinese opera” for its stylized mix of singing, acting, and acrobatics — was the dominant form of traditional Chinese drama before the 20th century, flourishing in hundreds of local varieties. Huaju (spoken drama) was still a Western-inspired novelty, newly established, when Chinese playwright Tian Han published his Hamengleite translation in 1922. Not only did this mark the first time an entire Shakespeare play had been rendered into Chinese, but it ushered in two freewheeling decades of Shakespeare experimentation on the Chinese stage. It also helped establish the centrality of Hamlet: There have since been at least a dozen Chinese translations. Portraying a struggle for power among royals and corrupt officials, Hamlet can seem immediately Chinese; as a son conflicted about avenging his father, Hamlet himself has often been understood in explicitly Confucian terms.
The other Chinese favorite, perhaps less expected, has been The Merchant of Venice, which debuted as a silent film in Shanghai in 1927. Called The Woman Lawyer, the film highlighted what has particularly interested Chinese audiences about the play, even up to the present: its proto-feminist heroine Portia, who dresses as a man and brilliantly defends Antonio in a gripping courtroom drama. That scene later became, and still remains, a staple of the Chinese middle school curriculum. The Western focus on Jewish-Christian relations means little to Chinese audiences compared with the way that Shakespeare dramatizes a classic battle of Confucian ethics, between li (profit motive) and yi (loyalty to friends).
In 1935, an unknown 24-year-old editor named Zhu Shenghao began what would become the canonical translation of Shakespeare’s Complete Works in mainland China. With legendary persistence, Zhu rendered three plays a year into clear, direct Chinese prose — Shakespearean blank verse being impossible in Chinese — despite the Japanese invasion and tuberculosis, which finally killed him in 1944. Zhu’s efforts came just in time: The establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 would lead to a massive expansion of Chinese theater, with 160 modern drama companies and 20,000 theater professionals in action by 1966. (The other major Shakespeare translator of the era, Liang Shiqiu, had fled to Taiwan — dooming his work to near oblivion on the mainland.)
In the early People’s Republic, a Stanislavskian realism and the strong influence of Soviet Shakespeare, a distinguished genre unto itself, soon replaced the eclecticism of the 1920s and 1930s. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were known for citing Shakespeare liberally and approvingly; leftists since have had little trouble finding themes of class, corruption, and social injustice in Shakespeare’s plays. A famous 1957 essay on Hamlet by Chinese critic Bian Zhilin identified Shakespeare’s unsentimental realism and popular sympathies as fitting perfectly with dialectical materialist (i.e. Marxist) concepts of theater — these ideas were quickly carried over to the stage. Just a few lines after “To be or not to be,” the tortured prince of Denmark raises his voice against “the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor’s wrong.”
During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, a period of social and political upheaval, only eight “revolutionary model plays” were allowed to be performed — none of them Shakespeare’s. But this was a brief aberration: The Bard made a rapid comeback, with an explosion of activity that continues up to the present. With lavish Chinese opera-style productions, film versions, and bold interpretations, Shakespeare has re-emerged, now more than ever a symbol of modernity and Chinese openness to the West. Such is the enthusiasm that author Sheila Melvin reports witnessing a near riot at a 1998 production of Othello in Shanghai. Western observers are alternately wowed and dismayed by how much Shashibiya can sometimes differ from the original Shakespeare, with scholar Murray Levith complaining: “Perhaps more than any other nation, China has used a great artist to forward its own ideology rather than meet him on his own ground.”
Where early Chinese interpreters were impressed by Shakespearean humanism — the richness and complexity of his characters and plots — communist directors found a man of the people with deep historical awareness. “In literary and artistic circles, he is considered the god of art,” writes scholar Xiao, and a number of major Communist Party leaders have apparently agreed, including fans of the Bard such as Zhou Enlai, Hu Yaobang, and Jiang Zemin. Marxists, humanists, and neo-Confucians have all continued to find things to like in the work of changeable Old Man Sha. (In 2011, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stopped in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, proclaiming his childhood love of the Bard, even as skeptics noted that Wen’s government had only just released persecuted Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.)
Recently, in what can be seen as a sign of China’s relative cultural pluralism and openness, all kinds of Shakespeare interpretations are being showcased. The last few years alone have seen a heavy-metal Coriolanus, a Chinese opera version of Richard III that played in New York, and a kung fu fantasy film adaptation of Hamlet. Last year, the government-run National Center for the Performing Arts, a mammoth complex next to Tiananmen Square, staged an eight-play “Salute to Shakespeare,” with troupes from England, Scotland, the United States, and China all performing in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. For Chinese theater, Shakespeare is a bridge to the outside world, a theatrical lingua franca that allows China to burnish its international credentials.
The Royal Shakespeare Company had better hurry with the new translation — Shashibiya already has a century-long head start on any “authentic” Shakespeare coming out of Stratford. And in August 2014, when famous Chinese translator Xu Yuanchong won the international Aurora Borealis Prize for literary translation, he failed to appear at the awards ceremony. According to the Chinese newspaper the People’s Daily, the 93-year-old translator was “enclosed in a small room at Peking University, busy translating four great tragedies by Shakespeare.” He plans to wrap up his single-handed translation of the Complete Works just before his 100th birthday.