China: Shakespeare now welcome

New academic partnership to build on the country’s deeper ‘engagement with world literature’

January 22, 2017
Chinese Shakespeare
Source: Alamy

The University of Birmingham has joined forces with a Chinese institution and a publisher to establish the first centre in the country devoted to Shakespeare.

“The development of Shakespeare studies and Shakespearean performance across China since 1984 (when an official Chinese Shakespeare Society was established) has been very remarkable,” said Michael Dobson, the director of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon.

“In some ways, it has resembled the rapid development of academic and theatrical interest in Shakespeare in Japan in the immediate post-war years, but it has been faster and on a bigger scale. Chinese university administrations have clearly felt that the country’s emergence on to the world stage demands a corresponding engagement with world literature, and at the same time a two-way traffic has developed between anglophone theatre companies taking Shakespearean productions to China and Chinese companies showing off their Shakespeares in the West.” His institute has also found itself “playing host to more and more visiting scholars from China”.

To build on this interest, a partnership was formed between Birmingham, Nanjing University and the Phoenix Publishing & Media Group, a leading publisher of Western literature and criticism in translation, to establish the new Shakespeare Centre in Nanjing.

Professor Dobson described Nanjing as “a great university to work with; it’s an attractive, energetic, civic-minded city, and in 1964 the English department there was the only one in the People’s Republic of China to stage a festival in honour of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

“When the Cultural Revolution began two years later, some of the students involved turned on the professors who had organised it,” he added, pointing out that one of his Chinese counterparts on the Shakespeare project had “written about the whole thing, even interviewing some of the surviving (and unrepentant) zealots who decided that an interest in Shakespeare was bourgeois and unpatriotic”.

The centre was officially opened towards the end of last year, when Professor Dobson gave a lecture on Hamlet, while academics and theatre professionals held a workshop on performing Shakespeare’s Handan Dream, a hybrid production incorporating extracts from Kun opera as well as Shakespeare’s plays.

“Discussions are in progress about how the institute can advise Phoenix on materials worthy of translation into Mandarin,” said Professor Dobson. Also on the agenda are “jointly organised conferences (at both ends of the Nanjing-Stratford commute), visitorships in Nanjing for institute-based scholars keen to investigate Chinese Shakespeare (Birmingham conveniently has a China Institute as well as the Shakespeare Institute), and purpose-built residential courses in Stratford for Nanjing undergraduates and postgraduates”.

As well as these Shakespeare-related initiatives, Birmingham’s agreement with Phoenix has led to the creation of a lecture series that will see Birmingham academics visiting Nanjing to give introductory courses in fields for which the university is well known, such as stem cell biology, energy storage and gravitational wave physics.

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