“The People’s Bard: How China Made Shakespeare its Own” by Nancy Pellegrini

One would think—what with this year being the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare—that a treatment of the playwright in China would be inevitable. And so it has proved: Nancy Pellegrini’s The People’s Bard has just been released as the latest Penguin China Special.

The People’s Bard: How China Made Shakespeare its Own, Nancy Pellegrini (Penguin China, September 2016)
The People’s Bard: How China Made Shakespeare its Own, Nancy Pellegrini (Penguin China, September 2016)

Shakespeare didn’t in fact have much presence in China until the latter part of the 19th century, about the same time as China discovered Beethoven. The first collected works—based on the Charles and Mary Lamb prose retellings!—did not appear until 1903. While this seems late, diffusion of Shakespeare into Europe was also surprising slow. He was, it seems, virtually unknown in France until Harriet Smithson caused a sensation as Ophelia in 1827. France had to wait until 1847 for the new Alexandre Dumas translation (written in alexandrines and with a Hamlet allowed to survive the play). So China was late to the party by a generation or two, but not centuries.

Pellegrini starts with a brisk summary of the history—and, inevitably, politics—of Shakespeare in China, before moving on to issues of translation and performance. One interesting consequence of Shakespeare’s relatively late entry into China meant that in the first part of the 20th century, Shakespeare was competing with Ibsen and Chekhov almost as if they were contemporaries.

Some of Pellegrini’s history can be rather funny:

In reaction to general-turned-president Yuan Shikai, audiences saw a 1916 rendition of Macbeth called The Arch Usurper of the State.


The actor playing the lead was arrested and sentenced to death, but—life imitating art, perhaps—Yuan died before the sentence could be carried out. A newspaper ad for The Merchant of Venice (rendered as The Woman Attorney) read:


The Woman Attorney is one of Shakespeare’s famous plays. It involves cutting off a piece of one’s own flesh [sic] to borrow money while the heroine, while a woman, still becomes a lawyer. Excellent literary style; a wonderful story full of fun.


Shakespeare was, as he often has been, drafted into use for contemporary politics. Two years before Lawrence Olivier’s Henry V, the Nationalist Government had Hamlet performed in Chongqing. It was staged in a Confucian temple:


One striking moment had the curtains closing to leave a half-metre gap. In that moment, audiences saw Hamlet following a dimly lit corridor into the temple’s centre and Confucian shrine. This underscored the connection between the Danish prince and centuries of Chinese scholars, also known for their failure to act.

Pellegrini runs through the various Chinese translators of Shakespeare. For an English-speaker, Shakespeare’s plays—the actual stories—cannot be separated from the language used in them. For any foreign-language version, they must be. Early Chinese translations were, rather like early European translations, adaptations more that what might today be called a translation. It’s to easy to sneer at this, but of course, this sort of thing is done all the time: think West Side Story. Margaret Atwood has just rewritten The Tempest.

One result of translation is that even efforts those striving for accuracy differ. Somewhat confusing for those who are used to the words being the words, there are no canonical versions of Shakespeare in Chinese, just as there are, say, no canonical versions of Racine in English.

A particularly interesting chapter is the one on (relatively recent) adaptations of Shakespeare as xiqu or Chinese opera. And why not? Giuseppe Verdi did the same thing, three times. In a book of this length, it probably was not possible to discuss in detail what comes out the other end. The Western operatic tradition is often more faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of the original. Pellegrini’s sketch of a xiqu Othello sounds fascinating (if not perhaps my cup of tea).


Pellegrini adopts, insofar as it is possible given the sometimes academic material, a colloquial and somewhat journalistic style, with the prologue and epilogue in present tense, and making considerable use of quotations from current Chinese commentators.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.