400 Years On, Rencontre Tang Xianzu And William Shakespeare

2016 is a momentous year for the world literature, since the year marks the 400th anniveraries of the death of two liteary giants, Chinese writer and poet Tang Xianzu (left) and British dramatist William Shakespeare (right).  [Picture: Xinhuanet]





Discovering literature and following stories behind your favorite authors, this is Ink&Quill, I am your host Yang Yong.

In his history play Henry VI, William Shakespeare once remarked:" Glory is like a circle in the water, which never ceaseth to enlarge itself, till by broad spreading it disperses to naught."

Yes, fame is always fleeting and fragile. Yet for Shakespeare, a man who was mocked as an "upstart crow" by fellow playwrights and whose death was hardly acknowledged in London of the 17th century, it is hard to find his equal in terms of posthumous honour.

Today, this Bard of Avon is widely regarded as the greatest writer and dramatist in the English language. More importantly, his influence is far from constrained to the small isle off continental Europe.

In the past century, Shakespeare's words have spread as far as China. But how did the Bard's works enter the Middle Kingdom in the first place? Why does this far-off Oriental country love Shakespeare so much?

Doris Wang finds out as she takes a look at the book, The People's Bard by Nancy Pellegrini.

Chinese theatre group WeAct presented Shakespeare's dark tradegy Titus Andronicus at the Edinburgh's Festivals in 2015. [Photo: liuxue.gmw.cn]

Today, William Shakespeare is a superstar in China. His plays are performed in theatres and read on college campuses. Teenagers know his name and can often be seen attending lecture on his works.

When Shakespeare penned Hamlet and Macbeth over four hundred years ago, it was unimaginable that his verses would travel to a place so far away and a culture so different from his own. Yet, according to author Nancy Pellegrini, Shakespeare came to China more than a century ago via a very unique route.

"Most of the time people talk about Shakespeare being spread around the world primarily through English colonization. But that didn't happen in China. It wasn't in the way in Russia and Germany where there was an identifiable dramatic relationship."

The Cover of Nany Pellegrini's latest book, The People's Bard. [Cover: beijingbookworm.com]

In her book, The People's Bard, Pellegrini details the unusual way in which the name of Shakespeare first appeared on the radar in China.

"Originally, it was Lin Zexu who was the opium war hero. He had wanted to translate some western works so that people would understand the West better and then be able to defend against them."

The Qing dynasty scholar assembled a team to translate Western books and newspaper, and encouraged the Chinese people to amass knowledge in Western geography, history, politics and technology. Lin made no mention of knowing any of the Bard's plays but to him, Shakespeare's value lies in his historic legacy. To Lin, understanding Shakespeare means understanding the British, who he called 'greedy, tough, alcoholic, yet skilled in handicraft.'

At the dawn of the 20th century, Shakespeare emerged from the halls of scholars and school classrooms and made its way into the general public. But Shakespeare would not be accessible in China without the tireless work of translators.

Nancy Pellegrini says that their efforts were indispensable to the popularization of the Bard in the Middle Kingdom.

"To have translated works means you can reach a wider audience. For a long time, Shakespeare only existed in universities. But that wasn't reaching the wide range people. And that's why good stage-translations are so important."

The photo shows famous translator Zhu Shenghao (Right) and his wife. Zhu is commonly regarded as the first who introduced China's first translatiion of "Complete Works of Shakespeare".[Photo: cssn.cn]

Among the translators were Lin Shu, the groundbreaking translator of Tales of Shakespeare and Tian Han, best known for penning China's national anthem "March of the Volunteers" but also translated "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet". Even Lu Xun, the renowned leading figure of modern Chinese literature, dabbled in Shakespeare during his lifetime. But most meticulous of them all is Zhu Shenghao, who provided China with its first translation of "Complete Works of Shakespeare." In fact, he was so dedicated to his work that he literally gave his life to Shakespeare. It was said that he died with a pen in his hand in the middle of translating Henry V.

The photo shows different translations that were published in the Republican Era. [Photo: thepaper.cn]

A poster of Chinese version of Romeo and Juliet in 1937. [Photo: thepaper.cn]

Shakespeare plays didn't just stay on the pages of books. They also came alive on the stage. The Shanghai Association of Drama staged what is considered China's first serious Shakespeare performance in 1930 with The Merchant of Venice, since it used full translation, sumptuous costumes and technically proficient sceneries.

The play had many firsts in China. It was the first recorded student play in 1902. It was the first professional production in 1913. It was also the first Shakespeare in Beijing after the reform and opening up began, in 1980. According to Pellegrini, Merchant of Venice seems to be the pioneering play for the advancement of Shakespeare's influence in China.

"It was a very important play for a lot of reasons, particularly in the early part of the 20th century as women began asserting their own independence and their own rights by getting educated and things like that. Merchant of Venice was a great symbol. Whereas, we (in the West) consider the main theme of the play is about the relationship between the Jews and the Christians. This wasn't the important part for the Chinese. The women's role was the important part. In Shakespeare's play in 1927, it was called The Woman Lawyer."

Shakespeare's plays are also adapted into different forms of Chinese Opera, such as Macbeth was made into a Peking Opera and King Lear, a yue opera. The huangmei opera, Looking for Trouble, was an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.

A Peking Opera version of Hamlet [Photo: chinawriter.com]

Wang Xiaoying from the National Theatre of China gives Shakespeare's history drama, Richard III, a Chinese twist. [Photo: chinawriter.com]

But it wasn't until 1980s that China truly made Shakespeare its own with the adaptation of Hamlet by avant-garde theatre director, Lin Zhaohua. Created in 1989 and staged in 1990, the play broke down barriers. Gone are the blonde wigs, prosthetic noses and renaissance costumes. Instead, the play is set in a bleak, foreboding world. Pellegrini says this changed the way in which Shakespeare is staged in the country.

"Before this play, Shakespeare had to be authentic. They were wearing blonde wigs, blue eye shadows to look like they have blue eyes. They were wearing prosthetic noses. The Chinese had to look Western in order to do Shakespeare. I don't think that's true today and part of the reason is because of Lin Zhaohua. He says Chinese can do Shakespeare the way they want to. Shakespeare has to relate to China or it's not going to survive in China."

Lin Zhaohua is one of the most famous avant-garde directors of modern Chinese drama. He has transformed Shakespeare's works into something that are more appeal to local audiences. [Photo: news.sinac.com.cn]

Nowadays, Shakespeare, both in Chinese and English, can be seen in more places than ever before. Touring companies often bring Shakespeare to China: the Globe Theatre productions brought A Midsummer Night's Dream to the Hangzhou Grand Theatre and Britain's TNT Theatre company has been making semi-annual visits to China for over a decade. University students in China regularly put on Shakespeare plays to practice their English and they are studied by academics and interpreted by directors in this country.

However, Nancy Pellegrini says that more could be done to spread the words of Shakespeare.

"I would say that people should not be afraid to do Shakespeare. Shakespeare is so wonderful even a bad version is still good. Don't be intimidated by Shakespeare. Try to direct your own plays. Anyone who loves something this much, something that great this much, should have as much support as they can get."

Paul Stebbings, the artistic director of TNT Theatre Britain, gives a public lecture on Shakespeare and comedy in Beijing on November 23rd, 2016. [Photo provided by British Embassy Beijing]

That was Doris talking with Nancy Pellegrini, the author of the book, The People's Bard. Apparently, William Shakespeare has already become a phenomenon in China.

But how exactly does the Middle Kingdom celebrate the works of this immortal playwright, since this year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard?

Bob Jones has the details.

Chinese theatre practitioners dress up to perform Shakespeare's plays. [Photo provided by British Embassy Beijing]

Blindfolding yourself and listening to your peers' guidance to find a water bottle? Gathering together to mime and let audiences guess what you're trying to imitate...

These activities are something you might normally find being played-out at a primary school, rather than a workshop about Britain's great literary giant William Shakespeare.

But for Tian Li'nan, a member of Chinese improv troupe Horse Tiger, the interactive workshop with TNT Theatre Britain has proven a useful test of his skills.

"First of all, Shakespearean plays are so classic. His works are must-read for comedy writers like me. Taking that blindfold game for example, it showcases a typical dramatic situation. During the workshop, Paul Stebbings also mentioned about the importance of buffoons, such as clowns and witches. These games indeed train our mind. "

Tian is one of the many Chinese actors trying to benefit from the workshop, which is part of a broader campaign this year designed to enlighten more people about "The Bard."

The Shakespeare Lives campaign is collection of year-long programs in China marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

They've included 16 creative workshops, talks and other events in various locations across China.

Martyn Roper is the Deputy Head of Mission from the British Embassy in Beijing, which is sponsoring Shakespeare Lives.

"We have done a lot already. We think we reached 43,000 people face-to-face through those events and two million people have seen this sort of media articles and content about those. For this last month of the campaign, we're going on a road show around China. We are going to nine different cities and there will be more events, more talks, more theatre shows, more films. "

Paul Stebbings is the artistic director of TNT Theatre Britain.

He's been a constant presence on the Chinese stage for over a decade now.

In 2010, he worked with the Shanghai Dramatic Art Centre to produce a Mandarin-language version of Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," and says he'd like a chance to expand on that.

"I'm in constant dialogue with Shanghai Dramatic Art Centre as well as the State Farce Troupe. We'd just have to see. I would like to work on some Chinese materials as well. "

Running through November to mid-December, various events are taking place in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and five other cities.

At the same time, a digital campaign is running in parallel that encourages the public to post their most memorable moments about Shakespeare using the hashtag "All the world's a stage" in Chinese.

Local students and creative communities participate in a Shakespeare-themed interative workshop. [Photo provided by British Embassy Beijing]

That was Bob Jones introducing us to the latest development of 'Shakespeare Lives' campaign in China. As he discovered, an extravagant programme of events and activities have been organized across the country through the shared language of the Bard in 2016.

But the nation is not only paying tribute to this British playwright this year. The works of Tang Xianzu  are also widely celebrated, since this Chinese literary heavyweight, just like the bard, passed away 400 years ago.

But who is Tang Xianzu anyway? And what makes him one of the most distinguished members in the circles of world drama?

Let's seek out the answers after this short break. Please stay tuned.

Featuring the love tragedy of Emperor Ming of the Tang Dynasty and his favorite consort Yang, The Palace of Eternal Life is one of the most classic plays in Kunqu Opera. [Photo: ent.sina.com.cn]

Welcome back, you are listening to Ink&Quill with Yang Yong.

Dear listeners, listen to this music carefully and let me ask you a question, could you tell me what kind of Chinese theatre it is?

Does it sound like the famous Peking Opera ?

Well, the answer is no, but you are pretty close, 'cause what you are hearing is actually an aria of its cousin, Kunqu Opera.

Originated in the 13th century and named after its birthplace Kunshan, a waterside city in east China's Jiangsu Province, Kunqu is said to be the oldest extant Chinese drama. Hailed as the quintessence of ancient Chinese culture, this particular genre has exerted far-reaching influence on Chinese literature, stage performance and traditional art. Thanks to its graceful movements, smooth melodies and lyrics that are always full of sorrow, Kunqu Opera has been listed by UNESCO as one of the intangible heritages of humanity since 2001.

In the past hundreds of years, dramatists, ranging from the founder of Kunqu Wei Liangfu to the Qing Dynasty poet Hong Sheng, many have left us countless masterpieces that stand the test of time.

But probably none of them could achieve the height of Tang Xianzu, a man who is regarded by some as "Shakespeare of the Orient".

But unlike the prolific Bard who left thirty-seven plays to the future generation, Tang Xianzu only gave us four.

Yet in the eyes of Professor Pei-kai Cheng, a researcher of Chinese culture at the City University of Hong Kong, small quantity doesn't equal poor quality.

"Applied phrases that are equally perceptual, literary, imaginative and artistic, both writers searched for the meaning of their time. They wanted to know the conditions of life and the purpose of living under particular time period, let's say, the late 16th century to the early 17th century. A Chinese saying goes that 'life is a bigger stage and the theatre is a smaller world.' I think Tang Xianzu and Shakespeare both applied drama as a literary approach to express something that is fundamentally important. "

A statue of Tang Xianzu in his hometown Linchuan, today's Fuzhou city of east China's Jiangxi Province. [Photo: sina.com]

In 1550, when the Jiajing Emperor  of the Ming Dynasty ruled the nation for 29 years, Tang Xianzu was born in Linchuan of east China's Jiangxi Province. Grew up in a scholarly family, Tang was surely a polymath. According to a biography written by fellow scholar Zou Diguang, Tang not only distinguished himself in literature, but also showed talents in many other subjects, such as astronomy, geography, medicine and even divination. Just like the majority of ancient Chinese intellects, whose sole avenue to climb the social ladder was to attend the imperial examination and join the civil service, Tang excelled at the exams and secured a minor position in the government.

Yet like many of his literary predecessors, Tang's political career was quite bumpy.

Professor Ye Changhai from Shanghai Theatre Academy elaborates.

"If we give an outline of Tang Xianzu's 67 years of life, I think there would be three major stages. Before the age of 34, he was already an exceptional poet whose collected works are well-known in the literati. Then, 34-year-old Tang obtained Jinshi, the highest degree in the imperial examination system, which signified the beginning of his career in the state bureaucracy. However, 15 years of predicament and frustration led to self-seclusion. He resigned and went back to his hometown to focus on his writing. During the last eighteen years of his life, Tang was at his peak. "

The Purple Hairpin, or best known in Chinese as Zi Chai Ji, is the first installment of Tang Xianzu's "Four Dreams", the collective name for his major plays. [Photo: blog.163.com]

The four major plays written by Tang are named as followed: The Purple Hairpin, The Peony Pavilion, A Dream under a Southern Bough, and The Handan Dream.

The latter three are constructed around a dream narrative, a device through which Tang unlocks the emotional dimensions of human desires and ambitions, and explores human nature beyond the social and political constraints of the feudal system of the time. The similar dream motif could be also found in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.

The picture shows Shanghai Kunqu Troupe performing The Handan Dream. In this play, the protagonist Lusheng achieves almost everything that a mortal could ever dream of, yet eventually he makes nothing out of it. [Photo:chncpa.org]

According to Pei-kai Cheng, a scholar in traditional Chinese scholar, Tang's plays mirrors the vicissitudes of reality.

"(In his early 50s), Tang's eldest son died. After years of witnessing the corruption and political strife in the court, he had yearned to leave. But the Ming government regarded his application for resignation as irreverence to the authority. So they dismissed him as punishment. Forced to go back home, the wordsmith concentrated his experiences into two plays, A Dream under a Southern Bough and The Handan Dream. The seamy side of the society is particularly evident in the latter one. In The Handan Dream, the protagonist Lusheng obtains high position and enjoys vast fortune. Yet when he wakes up, it is merely a dream. The ending makes audiences wonder the purpose of life and what we live for. So in that case, I think Tang Xianzu shares some similarities with Shakespeare. Both of them look at life in a very unique manner. "

Du Liniang, the heroine in Tang's everlasting classic, The Peony Pavilion. [Photo:duitang.com]

Among all his works, The Peony Pavilion, or best-known as Mu Dan Ting  in Chinese, is Tang's most far-reaching masterpiece. It explores the pursuit for freedom and love of a young ingenue named Du Liniang. One day, the sixteen-years-old wonders into a garden and falls asleep. In the dream, she encounters a young scholar who identifies himself as Liu Mengmei. The two madly fall in love. When she wakes up and realizes her romantic affair is merely a dream, the love-struck girl suddenly falls ill. Gasping last breath, she leaves a self-portrait and a poem with her maid, with orders to hide them under a stone by the plum tree at Taihu Lake.

Three years later, the real Liu Mengmei comes to the lake and pick up the portrait. He recognizes Du is the girl he once dreamt of. Her ghost also visits his dreams. Their profound love helps Liu to revive Du Liniang from her grave and the couple gets married. Yet Du's orthodox father could not accept his daughter's resurrection and he sends Liu to jail for being a grave robber. Liu narrowly escapes from death by topping the imperial exam. In the end, the emperor is amazed by their experience and pardons them all.

In Cao Xueqin's A Dream of Red Mansions, one of China's Four Great Classic Novels, The Peony Pavilion is one of the most popular readings among those teenager protagonists. [Picture:blog.163.com]

For today's younger generation, this kind of love story with a "happily ever after" ending may sound like nothing but cliche.But as professor Ye Changhai points out, Du Liniang's endeavor and courage was truly mind-boggling in ancient times, when women were caged in a society that is dominated by rigorous moral obligations and feudal disciplines.

"Once published, The Peony Pavilion has casted a far-reaching impact. Not only many adaptations have been produced, other literary masterpieces have been under its influence as well. For example, Hong Sheng's famous play, The Palace of Eternal Life, mentions it. In A Dream of Red Mansions, one of China's Four Great Classic Novels, The Peony Pavilion is one of the most popular readings among the protagonists. Readers, especially females, resonated with this story emotionally."

To certain extent, the love story between Liu Mengmei and Du Liniang shares similarity with the Bard's love tradegy, Romeo and Juliet.[Picture:jianshu.com]

The struggle for independence, the forbidden yet passionate puppy love, plus the theme of love conquering death and social constrains that appear in Tang's play seem to echo with Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare's everlasting tragedy.

Philippa Rawlinson, director of Operations & Marketing from Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, compares the two.

"When compared to Shakespeare's most famous love story, it has a much happier ending. Because when you see Romeo and Juliet, they both die. But I believe in The Peony Pavilion, they live together. I think when people find love, it brings them alive. We see that in some of Shakespeare plays. Are we that different? Human emotions show it's the same across cultures, we just perhaps show it differently."

However, compared with the Bard, who is commonly regarded as the most widely translated secular writer of recent centuries, Tang Xianzu, a household name that appears in every history book of Chinese literature, is less known.

Professor Pei-kai Cheng explains.

"Regardless of their respective backgrounds, both authors were geniuses. But there is one thing we need to keep in mind that Tang didn't write for common folks. But when Shakespeare produced his works, it was right after the Renaissance, English literature tried to break away from the yoke of Latin literature that used to be solely enjoyed by the elites. The development of modern English started around that time as well. But in China, modern vernacular appeared around early 20th century. In the recent one hundred years, we have already got used to the modern Chinese. In terms of literary achievement, Shakespeare and Tang Xianzu are running neck and neck. However, since Tang Xianzu's work are all written in classical Chinese instead of modern vernacular, there is a historical dislocation. We need to appreciate their works differently."

The poster of Coriolanus and Du Liniang. [Picture: peaceticket.com]

Since 2016 marks the 400th anniversaries of both literary giants, many cross-cultural activities have been put onto the stage.

Mao Weitao is the director of Zhejiang Xiaobaihua Yue Opera Troupe. This year, her company has produced a cross-sector drama named Coriolanus and Du Liniang, that interweaves Shakespeare's tragedy with Tang's love story The Peony Pavilion.

As the leading actor who plays both roles on one stage, Mao thinks her attempt is a brand new approach to rejuvenate both arts.

"It's a dreamy feeling. It feels like you've transcended time and place. One minute, you are the legendary Roman general; then a moment later, you are a wistful scholar scholar in ancient China. It's east meets west in a brilliant and unique way. I hope there will be more attempts like this in the future. "

On the stage of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, young pianist Gu Jieting tries to find the common thread between French composer Debussy and the monodies of Du Liniang. [Photo:mosh.com]

Many like her are also trying to revive Tang's work and breathe new life into Kunqu, one of the oldest forms of Chinese drama. Young pianist Gu Jieting tries to find the common thread between French composer Debussy and Tang Xianzu's timeless classic. Novelist Bai Xianyong , a lifelong fervent Kunqu lover, blends traditional and modern elements together.

It seems that though 400 years pass, the lyrical, poetic and sentimental chants of Du Liniang and Liu Mengmei still echo besides our ears.

As professor Cheng from City University of Hong Kong once said, Tang Xianzu is a literary luminary we could learn something from.

"What makes Tang Xianzu so remarkable is that his ideas still resonate with people of today. He called for independence and individuality. He asked people to have faith in themselves. He thought, if you set the goal, you should pursuit it no matter what. "

Blending elements of both old and new, novelist Bai Xianyong provides a young lover's edtion of The Peony Pavillion. [Poster: news.ifeng.com]

Ok, time to wrap up today's program. Don't forget that there are always more interesting happenings in the literary world. To find out more about us, you are always welcome to follow our facebook account, ChinaPlus.

Thanks for tuning in. I am Yang Yong. See you next week!

Source : http://english.cri.cn/7146/2016/12/05/3601s946576.htm

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