Share this page

Shakespeare in Chinese

On the occasion of the Chinese New Year, library volunteer Lingling Xie sheds light on the Trust's Chinese translations of Shakespeare.

Lingling Xie

As mentioned in Patricia’s blog, Shakespeare’s plays were not known to audiences in China until the first Chinese translation of Hamlet translated by Tian Han was published in the year of 1922. At the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s library, we possess a first edition published in 1978. The frontispiece shows Shakespeare as a young child playing with his mother in the garden. Its translator Tian Han (1898-1968), a Chinese playwright and translator, composed the lyrics of the ‘March of the Volunteers’ in 1934 which were later adopted as the National Anthem of the People’s Republic of China. 

Tian Han’s translation of Hamlet
Tian Han’s translation of Hamlet

Zhu Shenghao (1912-1944) was a Shakespearian scholar in China who was the first to translate Shakespeare’s complete works into modern Chinese. In 1936, Zhu started his translation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the age of 23. The following year, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out; but it didn’t interrupt his ambition to translate Shakespeare’s complete works. Although Zhu’s manuscripts were destroyed twice on his way to escape from Japanese occupied Shanghai, he still had hope. He wrote to his girlfriend Song Qingru who later became his wife, that "I am very poor, but I have everything!" Despite suffering from extreme poverty and constant illness, he retranslated all the lost manuscripts, including The Tempest and other eight plays.

In 1944, Zhu Shenghao died of tuberculosis at the young age of 32. By the time he died, he had translated thirty-one Shakespeare plays into modern Chinese. The SBT library owns two sets of the early copy, which was the first edition published after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. It was published by the Writers Publishing House in 1954. These books are rare and out of print in China. One of these is a set, with a red hardcover, which Mr. Huan Hsiang, the first diplomatic representative in London of the Chinese People's Government in 1955, presented to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. It showed a politically motivated ‘goodwill’ by the PRC government through cultural diplomacy. The other set was presented by the Classical Theatre of China. 

Zhu Shenghao’s translations of Shakespeare's works (1954)
Zhu Shenghao’s translations (1954)

Zhu Shenghao’s translations of Shakespeare’s works are pioneering as well as revolutionary. His translations are close to Shakespeare’s style and form a model for later Chinese translators of Shakespeare’s works. For instance, Liang Shiqiu (1902-87) followed in Zhu Shenghao’s footsteps and translated Shakespeare’s complete works in Taiwan. The SBT library also owns the first edition of Liang’s translations, which is a bilingual Chinese and English edition published in 1968. Based on Zhu Shenghao’s translations, the People's Literature Publishing House edited the revised translations which were published in 1978.

This 1978 edition of Shakespeare’s complete works was donated by the Publishers Association representing the Chinese National Publishing Administration. According to the dedication inside Volume I, a delegation of the Chinese Dramatists' Association presented the whole set of books to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in 1980. On their first visit to Great Britain, representatives signed their names in these books, including Cao Yu, Zhao Xun, Ying Ruocheng and Wu Shiliang. Some of them are regarded as China's most important playwrights of the 20th century. For example, Cao Yu, a paramount playwright and chairman of the Chinese Theatre Association, had a tremendous influence on modern Chinese drama including the ‘spoken theatre’. With his first work Thunderstorm, he was the first Chinese playwright of international popularity and enthroned as China's Shakespeare.

What surprised me most was a set of Zhu Shenghao’s translations presented by Mrs. Zhu Xiaolin. On the 24th of August 2010, the SBT library had a special visit from a group of students and their professor from the Beijing International Studies University. The professor, Zhu Xiaolin, is the grand-daughter of Zhu Shenghao. As the insertion noted, ‘her grandfather was never able to travel to Europe so this was a particularly significant visit, fulfilling his dream’. As Zhu Shenghao devoted himself to translating Shakespeare’s works through trials and tribulations, he never would have imagined that half a century later, his translations now are stored just across the garden from the house where Shakespeare was born and brought up.

Zhu Shenghao’s translation (1994) Volumes two and five donated by Zhu Xiaolin
Zhu Shenghao’s translation (1994) Volumes two and five donated by Zhu Xiaolin

Shakespeare’s Chinese translations changed the way Chinese people perceived western culture and what the various versions of criticisms of Shakespeare’s plays mean. Chinese translations are primary sources for Chinese audiences who have no knowledge at all of English. This legacy not only fostered the popularity of modern Chinese language within China but also laid the foundation for the modern Chinese drama in the 20th century. Shakespeare has influenced Chinese drama far beyond theatre; it ensures that Chinese drama benefits from a global outlook as well as approach. As a win-win cultural exchange, Shakespearian reception in China also shows the openness and inclusiveness of Chinese culture in the process of globalization. 

I am genuinely grateful that Mareike invited me to write this blog and film the video. I was so impressed by the people I met at the Trust, who work with passion and enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Lesley and Margaret helped me with the proofreading. Again thanks Mareike and other colleagues for your support, guidance, and encouragement throughout the entire volunteer experience.

Thank you for your reading!

Lingling Xie is a student at University of Leicester.

Recommended blogs

See all blogs